Potty Mouth

Last November, one of my favorite cozy mystery authors, Ali Brandon, who writes the Black Cat Bookshop Mysteries series, blogged about her characters’ reluctance to use bathrooms. (Check out her blog here.) If you think about it, you don’t read about characters using the facilities. You don’t see this often on TV either. I mean how many times did Jack Bauer go during the 24 hours he spent saving the world?

Ever wonder why that is? After all, it’s perfectly normal to have to use the restroom. Considering how much coffee, baked goods, dinner, and alcohol are consumed by cozy characters, Ali Brandon points out that there’s no reason why an author can’t include a bathroom trip or two in her story as long as it doesn’t slow down the action.

During our last Deadwood Writers holiday dinner, a very nice lady asked me about my day job. I was happy to answer that I’m a janitor for a professional cleaning company and I currently clean at an institute of higher education. Then she asked me if I had learned anything from my job that I could apply to my writing. Hmm . . . how to answer that question, considering we were at dinner, and the biggest lesson I had learned was how gross people can be. My coworkers and I were constantly picking up half-empty beverage bottles, paper towels, discarded pens, and those little pieces that students tear off the edges of paper that’s been ripped out of spiral bound notebooks.

But the most disgusting thing I learned while doing my job is that a lot of people have absolutely no concept of restroom manners–I mean the basic things we were all taught during potty training. Things like flushing the toilet or urinal, washing your hands, and throwing your trash in the trashcan have literally gone by the wayside.

These activities are social mores we learned at a young age. They are not optional. Have you ever heard a mother tell her child, “You can skip washing your hands. Nothing bad will happen”? No. How about, “Don’t bother flushing the toilet. The next person will get it”? No.

That’s why I don’t understand how people can leave a bathroom stall in such dire straits. If they tried leaving such messes at home, their mothers would knock them into next Tuesday. Wives would turn husbands out of their bedrooms for some of the infractions I’ve seen. Bathrooms across the metro area would ring out with admonitions like: “Were you born in a barn?”; “Didn’t I teach you better than that?”; “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred thousand times. . . .”

So writers, what does this mean for you and me? Pundits advise us to make our characters believable. I’m here to tell you that a believable character not only uses the restroom, but he or she leaves evidence of the visit behind. Either the facilities are just as clean, or cleaner, as they were when the user entered; or sometimes, the floor, seat and/or bowl is covered with biohazardous material. And believe me, you can’t get more graphic or gross than what I’ve seen in real life.

Take the potty break as an opportunity to reveal your character’s true self. After using the restroom and washing up, your character grabs a soap-covered paper towel and cleans the seat, handle, stall door lock, and the faucets. Why? Is he obsessive-compulsive? Is he getting rid of fingerprints–or DNA? Does your character have a disease that’s spread through contact with biological material which he hopes to contain? Is he a twisted bioterrorist spreading infected blood or urine throughout the bathroom instead of cleaning it?

Don’t forget the humorous aspect of bathroom use. A fish-out-of-water character, who is unfamiliar with motion-controlled facilities at an upscale restaurant or hotel, might do battle with the auto-flush toilet, or the self-dispensing hand soap. And if you write for middle grade readers, you can get away with a lot in the name of potty humor. Just ask Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park.

So don’t fear leading your character into the bathroom, just be sure to put the seat down when you’re done.

Paranormal Traits

A trait is a distinguishing characteristic or quality, especially of one’s personal nature, defined by Dictionary.com. When using traits with a paranormal twist you can go with classic takes, such as mind to mind communication that Bram Stoker uses in Dracula and, one of the most common vampire traits, the elongated fangs. Stoker takes Dracula’s desire to speak to Mina enhancing it into a physical experience in mind and body transcending all logic, creating intimacy where there was none.

Taking things a step further, let’s look at the Argeneau Series by Lynsay Sands. The mind to mind communication in Sands vampires (Immortals as she calls them) becomes sexually charged as the heroes and heroines learn they are life mates. They share each other’s pleasure to a point their intimacy boils to such a peak they pass out, anywhere. She’s created a situation where she uses all the five senses, smell, sight, sound, taste, and touch. However, what happens goes beyond the physical and becomes a sharing between the two characters on a mental level. With humans, to the extent she explains, this would not be possible in real life. This adds something to her vampires that no one had ever seen yet in the genre.

Conflict develops when the no-fangers, vampires without fangs come on the scene. Let’s just say, they’re a tad bit crazy. To make it even more fun she adds a third type without fangs called edentates, another generation not touched by the crazies. She goes into detail about the three distinctions adding history to the series and to her characters. These are some of the steamiest, funniest, and scariest scenes I’ve ever read. Lynsay Sands uses the physical trait to drive the plot arc in several of her books, motivating good and evil in a race to meet their goals.

My favorite character trait is smell. With most predators, smell is a basic tool in their repertoire. J.R. Ward uses the trait brilliantly in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series. Introduced first in Dark Lover, Wrath and Beth meet, and at first, Wrath is lead to her by duty. However, when he gets near her, her scent is so intoxicating he has to have her. Eventually Beth can’t resist him either. His scent is headier than a spicy merlot laden with pheromones. He’s like a drug and she’s drawn to him in every way. As intimacy grows, the musky scent cloaks the chosen mate of the vampire, warning any other males or females to back off. With this one trait, J.R. Ward creates some sexy heart pounding moments in and out of the bedroom.

Werewolves, another classic paranormal creature, can also compel readers with the use of unique traits. For example, take a snap shot of the wolf in its normal habitat and find traits that translate into the human hero or heroine. Nalini Singh does this in her Psy/Changeling series. Ask yourself, how does a male wolf act/react to a female wolf? Outside forces threaten the female, how would the alpha wolf handle the threat? Immerse yourself in the five senses of a wolf. What would he do around a female to show his interest? Would he rub, lick, or bite the female to mark her with his scent? Even the words rub, lick, and bite spice up a scene, heating up the romance between human characters. How would it enhance a paranormal romance? Would he use sound, his howl to attract a female or scare away an enemy, let someone know he was hurt? How do these questions translate from wolf to human characters? Does the alpha male fight other males to stake his claim of the female? Is the human hearing extra sensitive alongside sight, smell, taste, and touch?

My examples above of vampires and werewolves are not the only human traits to translate into paranormal characters; the two are just more widely recognized. You decide what traits work best for your characters helping create intensity, intimacy, and excitement that ramp up your plot, compelling readers to turn pages. Use the five senses and physical traits to open doors in your mind. But be careful. The traits you decide on have to have purpose that drive the story forward, twisting the normal into paranormal.

Happy Writing!

Have No Fear

“Don’t be afraid to fail, be afraid not to try.” Randy Rubin

How many times have you thought about writing a story, poem, essay, or memoir and failed to even try. How many times have you questioned your desire to write and thought, “What’s the use? No one will want to read my work.”

Do you want to write the great American novel or at least a manuscript that you want published? Did you start writing the murder mystery that has kept you intrigued for a couple of years or the steamy romance that makes you need a cold shower? Did you finish your story including the revisions, and then decide that it wasn’t good enough? And then did you put your project away without sending it to an agent? Why? Afraid of failure? If you don’t try, you’ve already failed.

You must learn to ignore those negative thoughts filling your head. Also avoid the naysayers in your life who think your writing is a hobby. Listen to honest critics, not cloying friends and relatives who think everything you write is perfect. Connect with people who can give you helpful feedback on your work. Listen to the suggestions of your critique group, but remember to stay true to your own voice.

If you really want to be a writer, understand that sometimes you may fail to find an agent, fail to sell your work, or fail to win the writing contest. Continue to write your stories because you will improve with practice. But if you do not try, you have failed yourself.

Nathan Hawke: Fantasy lost, Fantasy found

In the United States, if you visit a bookstore’s Fantasy section, urban and contemporary genres are dominant. Kelly Armstrong, Jim Butcher, Simon Green, and Patricia Briggs are some of the authors you’ll find that define fantasy literature. Magic and paranormal races exist in worlds that are familiar to us in interesting and personal ways. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series is based in Chicago where I grew up. Although Butcher does not live in Chicago (as of this post) he does a great job using the city as a base for great storytelling.


The age of sword and sorcery, middle age and ancient world time periods, are not passed, but just explored by a smaller group of authors. Just look at a store’s bookshelves to see what’s present on the real estate. Jennifer Roberson, Tamora Pierce, Brandon Sanderson, George Martin, and R.A. Salvatore offer worlds of wonder, magic, and swordplay that entertains with strong characters and in-depth culture and/or politics.

The fantasy writers that may be on the endangered species list represent the gritty underbelly of the ancient worlds as told by Robert Howard, David Gemmell, and Mary Gentle. Battles are unsanitized, the heroes are not clean spirited individuals who’s actions can go mostly unquestioned as the “right” and “fair” choice. Authors like George Martin have such elements—although his stories fill the need for taking a balcony view of intrigue and governance from mostly the leadership perspective.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 8.45.06 PMNathan Hawke represents the next cohort of authors who picked up the banner from David Gemmell and others to continue to tell the gritty tale of complex heroes whose choices leave the reader unsettled even while accepting the choices made. Nathan Hawke’s Gallow—a 3 book series—uses the motif of the loner warrior who reluctantly takes on the cause of others.

Character Complexity

“Beside him Sarvic turned to run. A Vathan spear reached for him. Gallow chopped it away; and then he was slipping back and the whole line was falling apart and the Vathen were pressing forward, pushed by the ranks behind them, stumbling over the bodies of the fallen. For a moment the dead slowed them. Gallow turned and threw himself away from the Vathan shields. The earth under his feet was slick, ground to mud by the press of boots and watered with blood and sweat. A spear point hit him in the back like a kick from a horse. He staggered and slipped but kept on running as fast as he could. If the blow had pierced his mail he’d find out soon enough. The rest of the Marroc were scattering, fleeing down the back of the hill with the roars of the Vathen right behind. Javelots and stones rained around him but he didn’t look back. Didn’t dare, not yet.”[i]

With this opening in the first book, Nathan Hawke takes readers on a grand and gritty journey with Gallow, a warrior gifted at killing in a shield wall or alone against many. All he wants is to be left alone as a family man and a blacksmith for a community that despises him. Yet his sense of honor drives him along a path that takes him far from home, risking his life and those of others, and making deadly enemies of those he once called friends.

Hawke’s writing style is spare, reminiscent of Hemmingway. If a camera represented his writing craft, it would be tight focus images of people and places, exposing the imperfections and failings—so that no character that moves the stories forward is static or stock. And none are completely good or evil. Cruel men are capable of random acts of kindness, and good characters may commit heinous acts in the name of what they hold dear. Such character complexity effectively engages readers to follow each story line, and wonder at the potential unpredictability. For example, after a battle where Prince Medrin orchestrates the death of one of his generals, Screambreaker, he attends his funeral and speaks genuine words of honor to the dead:

“…the Lhosir stopped what they were doing and honoured the Screambreaker and the dead who’d fallen beside him. [Medrin] let the old ones do that, Tolvis Loudmouth and the rest. Let them start the pyre and, when the pyre was built, put the bodies of those they most wanted to honour on top and set it alight. [Medrin] said a few words himself, because he was their prince after all, then let the old ones who’d fought with the Screambreaker against the Marroc finish speaking him out. The pyre was huge and there probably wasn’t a single Lhosir who hadn’t put a piece of something on it.”[ii]

Prince Medrin enjoys torturing common people and then mutilating their bodies on stakes along roadways for all to see and fear. Yet, he pays honor to a fallen champion who he perceived as a rival. This is Hawke’s gift for character development that also moves the story forward.

Sword and Sorcery

In Nathan Hawke’s world there are ancient artifacts of power such as a red sword that cuts through steel like butter, which can only be effectively blocked by a special shield. There are ghoul dogs that hunt tirelessly in swamps and forests for human flesh. All of these pale to the much feared Shadewalkers:

“When Oribas walked toward the end of the arc of salt, the shadewalker moved with him. It kept moving, stepping gingerly along the line until it found its end and looked up. Its dead face didn’t change but perhaps its eyes gleamed a little brighter as it sensed its victory. It advanced quickly. Addic cried out, turned and ran while Oribas simply stepped over the line of salt to be on the other side. The shadewalker came at him, stopped abruptly at the salt and began to walk along the line again, looking for a way past.”[iii]

Shadewalkers are undying or undead warriors, who are nearly impossible to destroy, unless you have knowledge of the ancients and unshaking courage. The magic does not dominate the story. Hawke uses it judiciously in parts of the story for the greatest impact.

Some would point out that authors like Robert Jordan, George Martin, R.A. Salvatore, Steven Erikson, and Glen Cook also carry the mantel for Sword and Sorcery. All deserve credit for skillful craft in their own right. Of these authors, only Glen Cook comes closest to the grainy side of fantasy in ancient settings that brings alive the starkness of humanity through complex characters. David Gemmell was the leader in this area in recent decades, until his passing.

Last November I visited several bookstores in Sydney Australia. I was immediately struck by the volume of authors who wrote in this genre of Fantasy. Many have yet to land on American shores, but can be found via e-books and places like Abebooks. Perhaps on my personal journey to find more like Nathan Hawke, I will find that the lands to explore are across oceans.[iv] Until then, check out Nathan Hawke’s stories for engaging and powerful author’s craft.

nathan_hawkeUS(As of this posting, Nathan Hawke comes to U.S. Bookstores: BN in Ann Arbor MI)

Next Month: Lead with a Story by Paul Smith

[i] Hawke, Nathan (2013-07-11). Gallow: The Crimson Shield (p. 7). Orion. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Hawke, Nathan (2013-07-11). Gallow: The Crimson Shield (pp. 265-266). Orion. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Hawke, Nathan (2013-08-08). Gallow: Cold Redemption (Kindle Locations 709-713). Orion. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Fantasy listing of books by sub genres: http://bestfantasybooks.com/

Turn the Page

I have a 12 year old daughter, Cherice, who is a voracious reader. She can go into a library without having any idea what story to pick, and five minutes later she comes out with a book. Once she starts reading the book, she goes on and on about how good it is. I have wondered to myself how this is possible when I can spend an hour in the library reading the vignettes of potential books only to find the book I end up taking home doesn’t hold my interest beyond the first chapter.

So, I decided that I would interview my daughter and find out exactly what it was that she found interesting about a story. Then I thought why not share this information with others so that they may be able to incorporate some of these ideas into their own writing.

We eventually talked about what she liked concerning:

• Storyline
• Characters
• Action

In this blog, I’m going to focus on storyline.

Cherice likes a story line that has an issue come up early in the story, and at the time, the significance of the issue is not clear. Only later does the issue play a significant part in the story. For example, in the book Divergent (Veronica Roth, 2011), early in the story the protagonist admits that there is only one mirror in her house and that she is only allowed to look in the mirror for a few minutes per day. This idea grabbed my daughter’s attention and she was willing to read on and sacrifice her time to find out why this was so. There may be a technical term for this, but for the purpose of this blog entry I’m going to call it “anticipation,” because that’s what it does for my daughter. She begins to wonder how this event will tie into the story later, and, therefore, it keeps her turning the pages.

It’s my opinion that a lot of good stories seem to be written in reverse. This process allows the author to plant items of anticipation early in the story knowing that he/she will resolve them later.

In another example from the book Fablehaven (Brandon Mull, 2006), early in the story a brother and his sister are told by their Grandfather that they cannot go into the woods. Of course my daughter, like so many other readers, had to find out what was in the woods, so it kept her turning the pages.

Cherice is only 12, so the anticipation that keeps her turning the pages of a book might be different for an older or younger reader. Regardless of the age of the reader, he/she has to be given a reason to turn the page. What better reason than to continually raise the reader’s curiosity with good anticipation.

Keep Writing.