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Archive for November, 2011

Change.  I’m not a fan of it.  My daughter’s not either.   It used to be that I was the only one who tried to hold on to the way things are with both hands, but now I see that tendency in her, too.  I’d like to save her 40 plus years of stress and tell her to relax, that change is inevitable and she can’t control it, but I’m still working on that lesson myself.

Sometimes, the changes are big and obvious.  The trees I wrote about a few weeks ago, for example, now look like this:

The sad oak stump

Even though we planned it, it’s a shock every time we look out the window.

But sometimes, change just sneaks up on you, so stealthily you don’t even notice, and there’s nothing you can do. Day by day, I tell her, the saplings that we planted to replace the oaks are growing, are stretching and reaching tall.  In a few years, they’ll be big, even though the changes are happening so slowly  it looks as if no change is taking place at all.

Little snowdrift crabapple sapling has a lot of growing to do.

When she asks me how I know, I just shrug.

Trust me, I tell her. I just do.

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It’s time to stock up on wine.  : )

What, you were expecting something else?

I’m lucky.  For the most part, holidays around here are drama-free.  On Thursday, I can honestly say ‘Thanks” for all my family members, extended and otherwise.  But even drama-free holidays can still be stressful.  So over the years, Bill and I have come up with our own rituals.  On Wednesday, after the kids are in bed, we’ll pull out “Home for the Holidays” and watch it.  Imagining Robert Downey Jr. as your relative helps put everything in perspective.

Later, I’ll speed read through a few chapters of Amy Bloom’s A Blind Man Could See How Much I Love You. The beautiful, dysfunctional family celebrating Thanksgiving at the heart of this collection of short stories never ceases to enthrall me.  (True story:  Many years ago, I got to interview Ms. Bloom.  I prepped for a week and she still managed to scare the bejesus out of me.)

What are your pre-holiday rituals?

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For me, one of the most interesting and challenging parts of writing character-driven books is making sure my protagonists stretch and change in a believable way.  Frodo from The Lord of the Rings series is my shining example of this:  He starts off the series as a happy-go-lucky little hobbit with good intentions, and ends it fundamentally changed in spirit and in body.  (I’ve always wondered if he would make the same choices if he could go back to that famous birthday party in the Shire.)

To evoke this kind of change in a novel is one thing.  To sustain it in a believable way across multiple books is another.  That’s why I’m thrilled to have K.A. Stewart here to talk about how she does it.  Stewart is the creator of Jesse James Dawson, a slender, ponytail-wearing demon slayer who wields a samurai sword by day, but moonlights in a funky retail store to pay the bills.  (Apparently demon killing doesn’t come with great dental coverage.) A dad and husband, Jesse consistently faces tough choices that tug him in directions he might not always want to go. How he reacts and changes is what keeps me reading.

Jesse is a wise-cracking slayer worthy of Buffy herself, and I was delighted to discover him in A Devil in the Details.  I’m looking forward to seeing where the next book, A Shot in the Dark, takes him. Please welcome Stewart as she shares her secrets for character development in the first-ever Secrets and Obsessions guest post!

Creating Characters That Grow

K.A. Stewart

It is a fairly well-recognized fact that character development (ie: emotional/spiritual/mental growth on the part of a character) is essential to stories in general, and to series in particular.  Face it, nothing will lose reader interest so fast as a character that does exactly the same thing for books and books and books and books.  Stagnation is never interesting.

Ergo, change = good, yes?  Well, hold your horses.  While an unchanging character can lose reader interest, a character that changes too drastically, or without logical cause, can make a reader run screaming in the opposite direction. After all, the reason that people stick with the same series for multiple books is because they’ve found something in one of the characters that they identify with, and they’ve come to care about them.  If their favorite is suddenly not the same person at all, it’s hard to still care.  It’s like learning to love a total stranger all over again.

So how do you find this happy medium, the narrow trail between stagnation and making your character unrecognizable?

First off, let’s think about our favorite character.  Mine is (and I know yours is too) Jorge, the psychotic zombie marmoset.  (Just play along, ‘kay? I swear this will all make sense.)

We love Jorge.  He has a dark past, but strives to do good.  He has friends around him who remind him all the time why he wants to help others and leave his wicked ways behind.  He might, just might, even be falling in love again, even though that witch Denise broke his heart years ago.  We like his new girl, Penelope.  She’s good for him.

Now, if Jorge hovered at this point forever, eventually we’d get bored.  We’d know that in every book, he’ll have a deep meaningful conversation with his mentor, Harvey the June bug.  He’ll have a charmingly awkward exchange with Penelope, without ever asking her out, and he’ll defeat the bad guy of the week by using some bit of dark knowledge from his past that he’s now put toward the forces of good.  Sure, it’s fun for now, but by book five, you’re thinking, dear gods man!  DO something!

Conversely, let’s say that in book three, Jorge suddenly wakes up and instead of inhaling his first cigarette and black coffee like always, he suddenly opts to have orange juice and start jogging. Wait, what? Healthy foods are anathema to the Jorge we know and love.  Next, he rescues a kitten from a tree and pats the impish-but-mischievous neighbor boy on top of his curly little head with a smile.  Why? Jorge barely tolerates that kid!  Dear lord, the entire world has gone insane!  Now, if this were to lead into a storyline where Jorge had been taken over by the Pod People from Alpha-Gamma 12, that could be cool.  But if he’s just suddenly different, with no explanation… Well… That’s just not Jorge.  It’s some other character, with Jorge’s name slapped on him, and that’s not what we want to read!

BUT, I’m willing to bet every one of you would like to find out what would happen if Jorge asked Penelope out, only to have her kidnapped by his arch nemesis (long thought dead, of course).  What lengths might Jorge go to, to get her back?  Not just because she might be the new love of his life, but because she is the one truly good thing that keeps him walking the straight and narrow.  How far into his dark side is he willing to go, to preserve that light?  And let’s say he has to kill a few innocent bystanders to get there…  That kind of thing leaves a mark, mentally, emotionally…grammatically…  Let’s say he saves the girl, defeats the bad guy, but he’s also learned just how bad a guy he is himself.  We the reader are intrigued!  Will Jorge truly slip back to the dark side?  Will Penelope leave him if she finds out?  And OMG, he picked up the Cursed Sword of Nathmazaaaaaaar!  We ALL know what THAT does!

Now, what if in the next book, Harvey was also killed, and Jorge had no one left to be his conscience?  Left to his own devices, can Jorge still cling to the path he’s chosen?  And in the book after that, Jorge is betrayed by the one guy he thought he could trust.  His faith in the goodness of humanity is forever shattered.  In the face of that, will Jorge continue to fight his own demons, or will he slip back down into the shadows where he came from?

These are the questions that keep us coming back to series.  We love these characters, yes, but we also want to see what happens when they are stretched to their mental and emotional limits.  And in the end, though the road may be long and twisty and dark and possibly paved with the skulls of a thousand sacrificed pygmy shrews, we are satisfied to see that Jorge fights through and comes out the other end, perhaps scarred and battered, but whole.  We get to see that Penelope loves him just for what he is, dark corners and all.  And we get to finally see him kiss her, so that’s just a bonus.

For this, we would tune in again.  Put a character through their own personal hell, and the reader will certainly come back to see just who walks out on the other side.  Because deep down, we can’t say that we would have done differently in his place.  We lived through it with him, walked that road, fought that fight at his side.  It gives us that connection to him, that desire to see if he (and therefore we) could conquer such adversity.

Character development is one of those things that must be handled carefully, yes, but it is also something that can develop quite naturally, organically even.   It’s all about how your character reacts to situations, both good and bad.  Your character should never live in a vacuum.  There is STUFF around them, and that stuff shapes who they were, who they are, and who they could become. If you just let it.

Want more?  Learn more about Stewart, Jesse, and the books  at Stewart’s blog, On Literary Intent.

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Before we moved to the suburbs, we lived on a run down horse farm in a town with a population of maybe 3,000 people.  I do not joke when I tell you that the cows often outnumbered the human residents.  My husband probably deserves sainthood for staying there with me for that long, but I loved it.  Everywhere you looked, there were trees. You could stand on the back deck and look out and literally not see another house anywhere.

When we moved to our current residence, there was a stand of scrub oaks in the front of the yard.  My husband suggested we take them down — they’re not particularly attractive and they shed leaves in fall like crazy — but I was adamant that they stay.  If you look carefully — if you squint and blur your vision a tiny bit — those trees block out the neighborhood from the front of the house.  When we first moved here, I did that quite often. Later, when I’d adjusted to being back in civilization, I’d put a baby monitor, sealed in a plastic bag, under those trees, and fill the feeders that hung in front of them.  My children would come down for breakfast, sleepy-eyed, and listen to the chatter of the birds, the fat flickers and the cheerful chickadees, as they ate their oatmeal.  If I couldn’t give them a forest in their backyard, I could at least let them hear what one sounded like.

Later still, I found out that the land on which my neighborhood is built used to be a sawmill.  The man who sited our house grew up riding his bike here through the trees.  His grandfather owned the land, and every now and then, he’d talk about how it used to be, and he’d sound just a tiny bit wistful.  He’d used the last boards harvested here for beams in his barn, which is where I kept my horse when we moved.  I liked the idea that although Centurio was no longer in my back yard, a part of my yard was in his stable.

During last week’s storm, we lost big branches from our scrub oaks.  A few more dangle precariously from their tops.  The oaks are no longer just unattractive nuisances — they’re dangerous, and they must come down.  We went out this weekend and marked the ones slated for execution with duct tape, which turned out to be almost all of them.  My husband, good sport that he is, promised me we’d replace them with  dogwoods, with japanese maples and weeping cherries and white spruce, all the trees that I love.  It will be much prettier, and I find I’m okay with it.  But a tiny part of me will miss those scrub oaks, and the forest they contained.

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Peace and Quiet

Like many New Englanders, we lost power over the weekend. I’d heard we might be getting a storm, but hadn’t taken it seriously. After all, how much snow could we possibly get before Halloween? But I’d forgotten where I live. The weather in New England is nothing if not a continual surprise.

At 8 p.m., the movie we were watching flickered, then faded to black. The lights went out. And suddenly, it was quiet. (Aside from the shrieking of two small children, that is.) No rumble of the heat, no hissing from the hot water tank. We lit candles, handed out flashlights, and walked around the house, seeing it differently because of the shadows.

We’re fortunate to have a generator, a hold-over from when we lived in the country and lost power frequently. After an hour or so we started it up to keep the house warm, but we shut it off before bed, and once again were surrounded by silence. The phone lines were down, too, so it was as if we were marooned. The streetlights were off, and only a few houses on the street had their own generators running, so the road was swathed in darkness. It was lovely, at least for a little bit, and reminded me again of how connected we often are to the world outside, with the pinging of e-mail and the ringing of the phone, and how rare it is to be able to have full minutes of peace and quiet. We went to sleep hearing only the howl of the wind.

Of course, hot showers have their place too, and so in the morning we started up the generator again. : )

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MP900432828

MP900432828

How it felt during the storm

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