Saturday, December 26, 2015

How I Motivate My Characters

by John Gilstrap
New York Times bestselling author

Someone asked me recently about how I motivate my characters. The person told me that he’d read an article somewhere about writing biographies for your characters, or maybe interviewing them to find out why they do what they do.

I had no idea how to respond. Interview my characters? I can’t imagine doing that. For a moment, I resented how lazy my characters are. They just sit there on their butts until I give them instructions. Then I realized that their lazy silence was actually a comfort. As long as they don’t speak to me on their own, I can assure my friends and family that I don’t share the psychoses that said characters occasionally exhibit.

Kidding aside, character motivation is a key element of storytelling—perhaps the key element. But it’s not something that I think much about. I personally find plot development to be far more daunting than characterization.

For me, plot equals character which equals motivation which equals drama. The various elements of storytelling are so interwoven and interdependent that I don’t know how to break them into their component parts. When a character’s child is stolen, the motivations are inevitably cast. The kidnapped child is motivated to survive and/or get away. The parent is motivated to get him back. The kidnapper is motivated to see his plan through to the end. Maybe it would be more nuanced for me if I wrote love stories; but as a thriller writer the whole motivation thing has never been a problem.

Sometimes I think the best advice we can give to struggling new writers is to think less and imagine more. Given the set of circumstances you’ve conjured, put yourself in your character’s position and start pretending. It was easy when we were kids, after all, before we attended creative writing classes and people started putting labels on the things that came naturally. When I was a boy and I played with my friends, the non-sports games were always of the role play variety, and nearly always involved imagined gunplay. (I cleared the neighborhood of marauding Apaches when I was very young, and then kept the Nazi threat at bay as I approached adolescence.) But here’s the thing: I became the character I was pretending to be. My bike was a motorcycle, and the pine cones were hand grenades.

When I started writing stories in elementary school, that reality transference continued. The reality of the imagined world trumped the reality of my actual surroundings. It still happens to me when I’m really in the zone—it’s the great thrill of writing. I don’t have to think about motivating my characters because all I have to do is report on what I’m seeing, hearing and feeling through their senses.

Being a big fan of Inside the Actor’s Studio, I’ve often thought that the Method, as described by the guests on that show, has a lot in common with my writing process. Once I create a premise that feels real, I don the emotional garb of the character from whose head I’m writing, and I embark on a great pretend.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press, where you can read John Gilstrap's interview and learn more about him.)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Two Heads Are Better Than One

by Lee Lofland

Citizens are rarely allowed to see the private lives of police officers. From the public’s point of view, cops are sometimes seen as uncaring, gruff individuals with little or no sense of humor. Nothing is further from the truth. Many police officers I worked with thought of themselves as the ultimate practical jokers.

After all, what could be funnier than squirting a thick cloud of pepper spray under a locked restroom door, while your partner is in there with his uniform pants around his ankles? Taking and hiding a fellow officer’s patrol car, after he left his keys in the ignition and was in foot-pursuit of a fleeing suspect, was another favorite trick. Watching him frantically search for the missing vehicle, at the same time he was wondering how to explain the loss to his supervisor, was hilarious to the pranksters. There were times, however, when the last laugh was on the comedians.

In the South, winters can be extremely harsh. Bitter winds can pierce the uniforms of cops like rifle-fire. As patrol deputies, we thought of every excuse available to hang around the office on those nights of unforgiving temperatures. Graveyard shifts were the worst for the cold and for boredom. To pass the time, we dreamed up some of the wildest practical jokes imaginable. Our victims were fellow officers, dispatchers, and the jail staff.

One particular night, a couple of the guys borrowed a department-store mannequin and smuggled it upstairs inside the county jail. There they dressed the mannequin as an inmate, in orange, jail-issue coveralls. The plan was for two of the deputies to make their way down the steps, while pretending to fight with the dummy. The scuffle was to end at the office of an elderly graveyard-shift dispatcher. This granny was the queen of all jokesters. Her most famous prank was baking homemade Christmas cookies laced with a very strong laxative. The mannequin idea was supposed to scare her into sending out an officer-needs-assistance call; we all expected a good laugh when she realized the joke was on her.

The officers began the descent down the stairwell, yelling and screaming as they neared the dispatcher’s station. When they rounded the corner and were in full view of the poor woman, the “fight” became more intense. The dispatcher stood to see what was causing the disturbance and, as they expected, she was terrified. Just as she reached for the microphone to call for assistance, the head fell off the mannequin. The dispatcher watched in horror as it tumbled down the steps and rolled to a stop at her feet. Thinking the deputies had decapitated the poor inmate; she promptly fainted and struck her head on the concrete floor. An ambulance had to be called, an accident report had to be completed, and the sheriff had to be notified—at 3:00 a.m. The dispatcher was fine, but when the sheriff arrived, real heads rolled.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Writing Historical Mysteries

by Carola Dunn

I have been writing historical novels for over thirty years. If you count the 1960s as historical--opinions differ!--I have had more than 50 published. Of these, 32 are Regencies. The other eighteen are mysteries, the 17 titles of my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, and Manna from Hades, the first of a new series of Cornish mysteries set in the 1960s.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to setting a mystery in the past. On the one hand, you don't have to worry about the latest advances in forensic science and technology overtaking the publication of your book. However, obviously, it takes more effort to find out the methods used to solve crimes in the past.

Where the 1920s are concerned, it's easy to find countless mysteries written at that time which have more or less accurate information about detective techniques. For information about English police techniques, straight from the horses' mouths, the memoirs of Scotland Yard detectives are available, e.g. G.W. Cornish of Scotland Yard, as well as Mostly Murder by the great forensic pathologist Sir Sidney Smith.

The more distant from the present the time period you choose to write about, the less accurate information is available. Of course, you don't have to go far back to find that the science of forensics didn't exist. Those responsible for detecting criminals were not expected to provide anything we would call real proof. A book well worth hunting out is Clues! (UK: Written in Blood) A History of Forensic Detection by Colin Watson.

In twenty-first century America, guilty verdicts are quite often proved incorrect when genetic evidence is considered. You can imagine how frequent miscarriages of justice were in the past.

Luckily, the less information is available, the more leeway for the fiction writer. Creating an impression of the spirit of the times is, in my opinion, the most important job for any historical fiction writer, mystery or other. If you're writing about Ancient Rome, your characters have to take slavery for granted; in mid-nineteenth century America, they should not. Religion reigned supreme in medieval Europe, even kings seeking the blessing of the papacy. To the upper classes of 18th century England and France, manners and etiquette were of enormous importance, even in dire circumstances. The class system was an unavoidable aspect of 19th century England that can't be ignored however little you like it. America in the 19th century boasted a feeling of boundless opportunity--unless you were a slave. The Depression era depressed not only economic life but people's spirits and expectations. Wherever and whenever until quite recently, and still now in many parts of the globe, women were subservient.

All these aspects of society influenced the way people thought and behaved and have to be a major part of your setting. They will change the motives for and kinds of crimes that are committed. Just consider one example: blackmail. These days, you couldn't blackmail someone for living "in sin." Too many people do it openly!