Mar 14

YOU’RE TRASH! Sift Through Some Garbage and Find Your Real Character

Something I almost never read about in the cozy mysteries I love so much is trash. Refuse. The detritus of human life. Lots of my favorite series deal with cooking, pets, books, bookstores, libraries, and crafting, but none of the characters spend time throwing stuff out. Most of my favorite authors would probably say that’s because a character doesn’t move a story forward while she’s taking out the trash. Unless she comes across a lifeless body hidden in a dumpster. But writers, think about what a revelation examining someone’s trash can be.

At my house, for example, a trash raider will find many empty potato chip bags in my garbage can and empty sour cream containers in my recycle bin. (I’ve been stress eating.) (Don’t judge me.) The invader will also find about two boxes worth of used facial tissues (I hope he gets my cold), banana peels, beverage cups from McDonald’s, soy milk cartons, an empty jar of peanut butter, a flattened box of chili mix, plastic grocery bags, and wrinkled packages of shredded cheese with crumbs in them. What can the trash connoisseur deduce about me? Well, he can guess that I don’t eat well-rounded meals, I’m probably sick, and I buy food often, rather than stocking up once a week like a lot of other consumers. Is that information useful? Maybe, maybe not, but it shows my character quirks very well.

What’s not in my trash is also revealing. No shredded paper, no bills, no used check registers or cancelled checks, no newspapers, but a few magazines and lots of junk mail. What does that say about me as a character? Am I a hoarder? Do I live off the grid? Do I embrace an electronic lifestyle and get my bills and news via the internet? Perhaps.

If you’re struggling with a character that is important to your story but remains elusive, try touring her trash. It might help you nail down her personality and give her some pizzazz. “Normal” items like cat food cans, chicken bones, egg shells, and empty yogurt containers won’t help you, so it’s OK to bypass those. You’re after more telling garbage . . . like that mailer with a return address from Frederick’s of Hollywood, the empty Ativan prescription bottle that was renewed five days ago, or the used tampon applicator. (Ewww.)

Let your imagination wander through the wastebasket. If your character is shy or bookish, would she order lingerie? Why would she order lingerie if there’s a Victoria’s Secret in town? There’s nothing unusual about taking an antidepressant these days, but why is the bottle empty already? If she’s almost 55 years old, would she still need to use tampons?

Dumpster diving won’t often wind up on the printed page, and that’s as it should be. Just visualizing it is a creative exercise you can do to identify specific traits of a character who isn’t acting the way you want her to. Organizational charts and diagrams only help you so much. You’re looking for telltale clues, like a half-finished confession or a discarded suicide note, that give you a picture of her life and help you get to know her personally. Then it’s easier to make her actions match her personality.

Your hero, your villain, your victim, your recurring characters may be well known friends to you by the time you write them. You may never need to raid their trash to get a good sense of who they are. But the elusive ones can come to life if you look at the things they throw away.

What are your characters putting in their trash this week?

Mar 10

Paranormal a Ghost Story

As I was sitting at Starbucks writing one morning, a man sitting next to me asked what I was writing. I answered Paranormal Romance. He responded, “Oh! You’re writing a ghost story.” I smiled and told him that paranormal these days didn’t necessarily mean a ghost story. I explained I was writing a vampire romance. We went on to discuss a bit more about my manuscript and then I went back to writing.

When I think about that short conversation, it makes me ponder all the ways people might construe the word paranormal; how paranormal romance often is categorized in the fantasy section of the bookstore, so I looked up the definition of paranormal. defines the word.

Paranormal: of or pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation, as psychokinesis, extrasensory perception, or other purportedly supernatural phenomena.

Ghost stories are definitely under the paranormal heading but so are many others. When you look at the second to last word of the definition, supernatural, the manifestation of a paranormal romance can move your imagination in many directions. There are vampire stories, which have saturated the industry (J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, which was developed into HBO’s True Blood, just to name a couple), to zombies, gods, faeries, witches and werewolves. The list could go on and on.

In my blog, Normal Becomes Paranormal, on Feb. 10th, I chose things in everyday life like the tree and the knife and made them something more as I developed my paranormal idea. In Gina Lamm’s Geek Girls series, an antique bureau literally pulls the unsuspecting heroine–or suspecting, depending on which book you read—to another time. This is a prime example of ‘without scientific explanation’. The heroines in the series couldn’t possibly function in the past, losing all their creature comforts, right? They do though, with the help of very sexy alpha males. Voila! The paranormal aspect is a simple time machine but the complications that it causes for the heroes and heroines make for a more dynamic romance as conflicts surmount.

A fresh take on paranormal romance that I’ve enjoyed in recent years is the Charley Davidson series by Darynda Jones. In First Grave on the Right, first in print in 2011, you learn her main character, Charley Davidson, is the grim reaper and her love interest isn’t your typical bad boy. Ooowee! Talk about a complicated relationship (I’m fanning myself just thinking about him). I can’t go into detail because it would spoil the story arc, so if you’re new to the author make sure you find a copy so you can devour all the excitement Darynda Jones packs onto each page. The story is rich with coffee obsession, laced with the not so typical t-shirt quote along with lots of steamy-hot-guy-going-on whenever Charley and her bad boy meet. There are also those pesky complications I mention, making a well rounded story, in a contemporary setting.

When you as the writer think about developing a new paranormal romance your ideas can go any direction you want. I know, I know, how can you possibly write an original vampire novel, you ask? Well the only way to answer that question is to see what’s already in print. What I would recommend is to read as many books as you can with similar characters; vampires, witches, and werewolves, etc. Find out what you like and dislike about the books and make your idea better. It’s not going to be an easy task but you can bring your own unique writing style to your story. Just keep jotting down ideas until you find the one that unfolds into something special.

Happy writing!

Mar 06

Born that way?

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.” – Ernest Hemingway

Some writers seem to be born with a gift for writing with passions that evoke strong emotions, while others soothe you with their serene words. But only you, the writer, knows whether your story took six months or six years to complete or that the finished manuscript was the third, the thirteenth, or the thirtieth revision.

Only you know if you received a graduate degree in English Literature, took classes in creative writing, or attended numerous writers’ conferences. No one needs to know that you scour your thesaurus numerous times for the most dynamic verbs and read the movie credits in search of the perfect antagonists’ monikers.

No one knows that you keep a copy of The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book by Jean Salter Kent and Candace Shelton to find descriptive phrases although you pen thrillers, not romance. The book categorizes evocative phrases for quick reference (i.e.: Physical Characteristics; Facial Expressions; Voices; Colors). You never know when one of those picturesque words will tweak your imagination. Also useful are your copies of Barbara Ann Kipfer’s Roget’s Thesaurus of Phrases which is an alphabetical listing of familiar phrases and your Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms which contains words that can add punch to your story.

Only the final manuscript counts so continue studying, learning, and writing. It’s not the reader’s business that you’re not a natural-born writer. Who is? I won’t tell anyone you were not “born that way”.

Mar 03

The Hobbit – A Story about Us

“Good-bye then, and really good-bye!” said Gandalf, and he turned his horse and rode down into the West. But he could not resist the temptation to have the last word. Before he had passed quite out of hearing he turned and put his hands to his mouth and called to them. They heard his voice come faintly: “Good-bye! Be good, take care of yourselves— and DON’T LEAVE THE PATH!”[i]

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a story that I never seem to tire of re-reading. Written as a children’s story (300 pages) in 1937, with it’s dragon, dwarves, elves, magic, and—of course—it’s hobbit, the novel stands the test of time today, and I suspect will engage future generations of readers well beyond the 22nd century.

It is not the Peter Jackson’s polarizing interpretation, which will conclude with the final installment of The Hobbit on December 17, 2014. As enjoyable is I thought the series thus far, the tone is certainly different. The high octane and visually stunning movies are no G-Rated experience.

HobbitThe Hobbit is light compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (LOTR). But this is for good reason as LOTR is a grim story of sacrifice and fortitude to save the world from eternal darkness. Engaging story in it’s own right, LOTR is filled with history and lore, complex characters fighting for their souls and free will—Boromir, Frodo, and Gollum—just to name a few. Whereas the Hobbit is meant to draw children of all ages—from youth to adult. The experiences are both risky and dangerous, yet reassuring as Tolkien acts as a guide along the way.

How did Tolkien craft a story that has such lasting staying power? What lessons can we learn from him to infuse into your and my craft? That is the path we will follow, laid out by Tolkien by way of three technical craft skills from his writer’s toolkit:

  • The Aside: Author conversation with the reader
  • Humor
  • Protagonist identification with the readers

The Aside: Author conversation with the readerBilbo at home

History and lore is the backdrop of the Hobbit, but it’s not on full display as with LOTR. There is some storytelling about the Misty Mountains in Bilbo’s Hobbit hole, and songs are sung by Dwarves and Elves that reflect their respective cultures. Tolkien deliberately excludes the role of lecturer, keeping the story simple with rich world development that hints at the hidden treasure just beneath the surface.

At different points in the story, Tolkien breaks from 3rd person point of view of the characters to himself talking to the reader. At these times, he shares short details that the characters could not know. His intent seems to give the reader a broader context of the world, or a heightened sense of the desperate situations the 14 adventurers were in because they lack the knowledge that Tolkien, the author, shared with the reader.

Gollum: “What iss he, my preciouss?” whispered Gollum (who always spoke to himself through never having anyone else to speak to).[ii]

Later in the Mirkwood forest, the adventurers kept finding lights and song. But when they drew near, all would go dark, and the lights and song would reappear in the distance. About this, Tolkien tells the reader:

“The feasting people were Wood-elves, of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise.”[iii]


The Hobbit is on the surface a story about dwarven revenge and reclamation of their identity.  Thorin leads 12 dwarves to return to the Misty Mountain where Smaug the dragon sleeps. Long ago, at the height of dwarven power, Smaug swooped in and single-handedly wiped out the Dwarf and Human kingdoms. He ate most of Thorin’ s people and usurped the Misty Mountains as his home. This story could easily have been a dark tale of vengeance, deadly combat, political intrigue, and—Oh wait…it is all of these without the “darkness.”

Tolkien keeps the story light by taking grim events and inserting humor that keeps off the edginess that comes with monsters and life & death situations. In chapter two, Roast Mutton, the 14 adventurers encounter 3 trolls.

These brutes are dangerous, with more hunger than brains, capture the dwarves and Bilbo, and immediately make dinner preparations. The trolls bicker like siblings, and are sucked into a conversation with a hidden Gandalf (unlike the movie part 2, where it’s Bilbo) about how best to cook dwarves for the best flavor.

“Trolls simply detest the very sight of dwarves (uncooked).”[iv]

In “Riddles in the Dark” (Chapter 5), Gollumn—the tragic loner, sociopath—talks to his bad self about how best to cook Bilbo during a riddle contest. Bilbo wins with a questionable riddle, which Gollum should have appealed if only there were decent instant replay.

“What have I got in my pocket?” he said aloud. [Bilbo] was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset. “Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in its nassty little pocketses?” Bilbo seeing what had happened and having nothing better to ask stuck to his question, “What have I got in my pocket?” he said louder.[v]

In Chapter 9, “Barrels out of Bond”, the dwarves are locked in the dungeon of the Wood-Elves, where they can expect to live out their remaining years because their leader is too stubborn to compromise with the elven king. Fortunately, Hobbit with magical ring that turns the wearer invisible + elves partying late into the night with wine = dwarves escape in the empty wine casks. Irony?

“Come give us a taste of your sleeping-draught before we fall to! No need to wake the turnkey yonder. He has had his share by the looks of it.” Then they [Wood-Elves] drank once round and became mighty merry all of a sudden.[vi]

Protagonist identification with the readers

While the surface story is about the adventure, the internal story that is the magical glue that makes the novel worth reading again, and again, is Bilbo. Tolkien crafts a character that the reader can identify with. The title character is someone we look at and say “there but for the grace of God could be me.” Don’t believe me? Consider when Gandalf laments (insincerely one might suspect) that he can’t find anyone to go off on an adventure:

“I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”

If some eccentric old dude that you’ve heard was good at producing fireworks events propositioned you to drop everything and go on a trip with no guarantee of returning alive, would you answer differently?

“I should think so— in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins[vii]

Tolkien creates in Bilbo Baggins someone who lives a normal life, without life and death decisions to make every day. Bilbo thrust himself into a group of dwarves and a wizard for what the possibility of adventure might unfold. He doesn’t know if it’ll be good or bad, but he believes he’ll regret not going for the rest of his life. Bilbo is a civilian among seasoned warriors. He has an unrealistic idea of the travels ahead, but he maintains an endearing personality throughout his experiences on the road. Such as on first seeing Trolls, which Tolkien emphasizes Bilbo’s naiveté with humor:

“But they were trolls. Obviously trolls. Even Bilbo, in spite of his sheltered life, could see that: from the great heavy faces of them, and their size, and the shape of their legs, not to mention their language, which was not drawing-room fashion at all, at all.”[viii]

Bilbo is like us, minus needing size 50 shoes, not that hobbits need shoes. By the end of the story, Thorin, thus far consumed with revenge and regaining the wealth of his home, on his death bed realizes the true value of Bilbo:

“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!”[ix]

How do 13 dwarves + 1 hobbit expect to defeat a dragon where two kingdoms failed? Well, it is a children’s story. Tolkien keeps it light through humor that leads us to believe, “Well, they’ll think of something—providing they survive Orcs (think muscle-bound human with a pig’s head) on wargs (gigantic wolves), giant spiders, 3 armies, and… oh… a fire-breathing dragon who eats kingdoms after a good nap.

Next Author: Nathan Hawke of Gallow: The Crimson Shield

[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 1994-1997). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 1069-1070). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 2386-2388). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 597-598). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[v] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 1165-1169). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[vi] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 2572-2574). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[vii] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 100-102). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[viii] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 547-549). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

[ix] Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-11-08). The Hobbit (Kindle Locations 3999-4000). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Mar 01

Chicken Coop and Dale Carnegie Course

Kwang was in middle school just before the Korean War in 1950.  His school was built by Queen Min, second to last queen in the Rhee dynasty in Korea.  She recognized the imminent problem in Korea was the education of the men and women in the middle class.  The school building is a small two-story red brick.  In the summer green Ivy vines crawled to the top and transformed the building to green.  In the small field the clay ground basketball and tennis courts were in the east corner.  Soft rubber balls were used as tennis balls.

After World War II Korea had an extremely urgent situation to get or develop new technology.  The industries had to produce fertilizer, cement, petroleum, chemical products and more.  In 1950 Korean industries had just started to sprout with joint venture companies in America and Europe.  Science and engineering fields were more important, encouraging and demanding subjects in college.  Also, because of the extremely high demand for engineers and scientists in the marketplace, the crème de la crème of the top students went into the areas of scientific fields over literature, history or political science.

Of course, Kwang’s main interest was science.  For years he was the pet among the science teachers, especially the biology teacher, Mr. Shin, who was very short and nicknamed “curly” because of his curly hair.  He loved Kwang as his own son.  His pants were almost down to his butt and he always wore second hand army boots.  He carried another nicknames as “Ein”, because in appearance he resembled Albert Einstein with his bushy hair, he did not know he wore different colored socks on each foot and was always absent minded.  Mr. Shin seemed almost not enough called “Einstein”.  The students just called him “curly or Ein”.  He did not even know that he had nicknames, or he pretended not to know.  One day Mr. Shin assigned Kwang to take care of the chicken coop that had 25-30 chickens, including two roosters.  This involved daily clean-up, collection of eggs, feeding them and monitoring the physical condition of the chickens.  This job took about two hours on weekdays.

It was a simple coop, with a dirt floor, with a very small space for each chicken.  The three nests were over racks with small “drop” ramps for the eggs to pass through to be collected below.  There was a hatchway door that was hinged at the bottom in order to form a ramp with grip strips and a nine inch perch for each chicken and 24 ft. by 12 ft. dirt ground serving as the “run”.  The entire area was enclosed by a wire fence.

The chicken coop was located on a hill toward the south side 50 yards away from the main campus with a nearby vegetable garden which had green onions, eggplant, Chinese cabbage, corn and cucumber for student’s experiments.

Since in Korea there are classes Monday through Saturday, he took care of the chicken coop every day, except Sunday.  On Sunday it was the janitor, Mr. Kim’s turn to sprinkle the seeds on the ground inside of the coop and pour water into the bowls to the brim.  Of course, he did not forget to collect the fresh eggs that had been laid.

10 – 15 eggs that were collected daily were sold to the market to help biology students take trips to the beach for collection of sea animals and seaweed, or going to the hills to catch different species of butterflies.

After finishing his job, Kwang lay down on the ground with his two hands behind his head and looked down on the vegetable garden and looked up at the sky to imagine his dreams for his future destiny with floating fluffy clouds.  He closed his eyes and wanted to take a nap under the warm sunbeams of early summer.  He saw the activities of the chickens in his mind’s eye.  Two roosters were chasing hens around the edge of the coop and occasionally they lifted their heads and scanned the perimeters of the coop.  The smallest chick was always following number 11 chicken with brown feathers and number 13 chicken with white feathers pushed the dirt away and tried to dig a hole to look for worms.  The first thing Kwang did after he got the job was putting tags with numbers around the chickens’ necks.  Before drawing pictures of all the 27 chickens in his mind, Kwang fell asleep.

One week later he looked up at the sky, as was his habit, and watched the chickens as they chased each other and pecked at their feed of seeds and corn.  Usually two roosters  roamed around the chicken coop or were busy pecking at seeds.  Suddenly one of the roosters ran to a hen and over her back.  Other hens walked away from the scene and looked for hiding places and flocked to the northeast side of the coop.

Kwang watched for a few minutes and suddenly stood up and ran to the coop and without any thought or hesitation, kicked the rooster with all his might and energy.  The rooster lay down, his body shivering, with a squawking noise, and the hen ran away flapping its wings and its feathers were flying in the air.

Kwang found out the rooster’s stomach had burst and it was dead.  He did not have any intention of killing the rooster, only wanted to separate it from the hen.  Why he even attempted to separate them while they were having a good time, why he did it, he did not understand it himself.

Anyway, it was too huge a problem to handle himself.  Kwang went to tell the incident to the biology teacher, but he had already gone home and his office was closed.  He did not have any solution of how to tell the teacher the next morning.  During his forty-five minutes to an hour walk from school to home he tried to get an explanation in order to avoid the possibility of a week long suspension from school.  Usually on the way home he got grilled corn on the street and ate it as a snack.  That day he did not even look at the corn wagon that was equipped with a charcoal stove along with piles of the yellow corn.

“Hey, student, get some corn.  Why don’t you buy today?  You are just passing me by.”  Kwang did not answer, just continued walking with his head down a little, looking at the road.  “Hey, student, if you do not have any money today, you can bring it tomorrow,” the old man continued to talk.  Kwang did not answer, and continued to walk by hearing the noise from the small children around the corn wagon.

As soon as he arrived home, he passed the first big squeaky wooden door, and then passed through the second door and then in the middle of the yard.  His mother was pumping water from the ground with a hand pump.  In order to avoid her attention he did not look at her, and went to his room and threw his backpack of books on the floor and lay down on the mattress and covered his head with the sheet.  A few minutes later his mother came in with popcorn for his snack before dinner.  “What is wrong?  Are you sick or do you have a fever?  Or fight with the fat boy?”  His mother asked him non-stop questions.  Kwang did not answer her and kept silent.  Instead of leaving his room, she approached him and put her hand on his forehead.  “Just a little temperature, not bad.”  She continued, “I hope you did not make any trouble with a teacher?”

“Mom, please leave me alone”, he almost yelled at her with an expression that if she did not leave that very minute, he might become violent.  His mother left his room quietly, shaking her head.  She could not understand her son’s behavior.  It had never happened before.  She just viewed Kwang as quiet, diligent and a good student.  The only complaint or concern she had was that he swallowed his food without chewing it.

Her concern about the happenings in her son’s school day did not go away.  It seemed she was just walking blindly through a labyrinth.

The next morning Kwang left home as if nothing had happened yesterday.  After breakfast he said “goodbye” to his mother and went to school a little earlier than his normal time in order to see his biology teacher.

Mr. Shin was busy with paperwork at his desk.  “Good morning, teacher.”  He did not look at Kwang, and Kwang continued,  “Yesterday one of the roosters died in the coop”, Kwang informed the teacher without mumbling or intimidation.  “What?  Let’s go see.”  Mr. Shin stood up abruptly from his desk and held two hands on it.  Because of his zeal to observe the death scene, the teacher only asked Kwang a few questions, instead of millions.  Kwang followed his biology teacher to the coop.  The teacher saw the rooster’s exposed intestines.  “This is a chicken’s disease”, he made a hasty conclusion.  “Very contagious disease.  Let’s order the janitor to take all the other chickens and kill them before all the other chickens get this disease.”  “Hoo, Hoo”, Kwang sighed deeply and the teacher left without asking him any more questions.  The teacher didn’t give Kwang a chance to say a word of explanation.  He was convinced the rooster had died from a highly contagious disease that endangered the whole coop.  For a long time Kwang looked at the coop and the dead rooster.  He saw that baby chick number 7 was still following number 11.  And number 13 was busy drinking water.  The other chickens happily ate their seeds.  He picked up his notebook and recorded “all will be dead” with a big question mark.

After Kwang graduated from engineering school at the University of Iowa and got a job with an oil company in Houston, Texas, in order to improve his self-confidence and assertive speech pattern, he took a Dale Carnegie course in Houston, Texas.

For many years he kept it as a secret and felt guilty that he did not or could not tell the truth to Mr. Shin.  Now he removed this heavy burden from his heart.  Kwang chose to share this story from his past with other students as an impromptu speech.  It was an extremely humorous and interesting story.  He got the highest score among twenty students in the class.  Later he was made an assistant instructor for the course, which was a great honor.