Fundamentals of Writing: Power Words #amwriting

When we put the first words of a story on paper, the images and events we imagine as we write have the power to move us. Because we see each scene fully formed in our minds, we are under the illusion that what we have written conveys to a reader the same power that moved us. Once we’ve written “the end” it requires no further effort, right?

I don’t know about your work, but usually, at that stage my manuscript reads like a laundry list.  

usingpowerwordsLIRF06192021The trick is to understand that, while the first draft has many passages that shine, more of what we have written is only promising. The first draft contains the seeds of what we believe we have written. Like a sculptor, we must work to shave away the detritus and reveal the truth of the narrative.

One way we do this is by injecting subtly descriptive prose into our narrative. Properly deployed, power words can be subtle and serve as descriptors, yet don’t tell the reader what to feel.

Think of them like falling leaves in autumn. On their own, they weigh nothing, feel like nothing. Put those leaves in a pile, and they have weight. When we incorporate subtle descriptors into the narrative, they come together to convey a sense of depth.

These are words that convey an emotional barrage in a succinct packet.

Let’s consider a story where we want to convey a sense of danger, without saying “it was dangerous.” What we must do is find words that shade the atmosphere toward fear.

Power words can be found beginning with every letter of the alphabet. What are some “B” words that convey a hint of danger, but aren’t “telling” words?

Backlash

Blinded

Blood

Blunder

When you incorporate any of the above “B” words into your prose, you are posting a road sign for the reader, a notice that “ahead lies danger.” Mingle them with other power words, and you have an air of danger.

As authors, it is our job to convey a picture of events.

But words sometimes fail us.

oxford_synonym_antonymThe best resource you can have in your personal library is a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms. Your word processing program may offer you some synonyms when you right click on a word. However, to develop a wide vocabulary of commonly understood words, you should try to find a book like the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms.

It’s important to keep your word choices recognizable, not too obscure. When a reader must stop and look up words too frequently, they will feel like you are talking over their head.

Even so, readers like it when you assume they are intelligent and aren’t afraid to use a variety of words. Yes, sometimes one must use technical terms, but I appreciate authors who assume the reader is new to the terminology and offer us a meaning.

Sprinkling your prose with obscure, technical, or pretentious words is not a good idea. As a reader, I find it frustrating to have to stop and look up big words too frequently.

Let’s look at the emotion of discontent. How can it affect the mood of a piece? What words can we incorporate to shape the mood of the narrative to reinforce a character’s growing dissatisfaction? A few words that most people know might be:

Aggression

Awkward

Corrupt

Denigrate

Disparage

Disgust

Irritate

Obnoxious

Pollute

Pompous

Pretentious

Revile

How we incorporate words of all varieties into our prose is up to each of us. We all sound different when we speak aloud, and the same is true for our writing voice. We can tell the story using any mode we choose but the first line of any piece must let the reader know what they are in for.

I meant to run away today.

If that were the opening line of a short story, I would continue reading. Two words, run away, hit hard in this context, feeling a little shocking as an opener. The protagonist is the narrator and is speaking directly to us, which is a bold choice. Right away, you hope you are in for something out of the ordinary.

That line shows intention, implies a situation that is unbearable, and offers us a hint of the personality of the narrator. Who are they, and what is so unbearable?

Here are lines from a different type of story, one told from a third person point of view:

The battered chair creaked as Aengus sat back. “So, what’s your plan then? Are we going to walk up to his front door and say, ‘Hello. We’re here to kill you’?”

This is a conversation, but it shows intention, environment, and personality. Battered is a power word, and so is creaked.

And here is one final scene, one told from a close third person point of view and showing yet another way to incorporate subtle power words into the prose:

Sera saw the vine-covered ruins of Barlow as an allegory of her past. A part of her past had been burned away. She’d been destroyed but was coming back to life in ways she’d never foreseen.

The power words are: ruins, burned away, destroyed. The stories we write come from deep within us. Words sometimes fail us and we lean too heavily on one word that says what we mean. This is hard for us to spot in our own work, but if you set it aside, you may notice repetitious prose.

A friend of mine uses word clouds to show her crutch words. In a word cloud, the larger the word, the more often it appears in the text. Since I am notoriously short on words, let’s see how this post looks as a word cloud.

It came out surprisingly colorful!

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021

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#FineArtFriday: The Spirit of War by Jasper Francis Cropsey 1851

The spirit of war

Title: The Spirit of War by Jasper Francis Cropsey  (1823–1900)

Genre: landscape

Date: 1851

Medium: painting

Dimensions: Height: 110.8 cm (43.6 in); Width: 171.6 cm (67.5 in)

Collection: National Gallery of Art

Place of creation: United States of America [1]

What I love about this painting:

The Spirit of War by Jasper Francis Cropsey is one of a two-part fantasy that Cropsey painted in 1851; the other is the Spirit of Peace. During Cropsey’s lifetime, these two paintings were his most celebrated, but now he is known more for his ethereal paintings depicting autumn scenes, several of which I have featured here.

This painting was inspired both by the aftermath of the Mexican-American War and the looming threat of the American Civil War. It shows the young artist’s love of Arthurian tales and demonstrates his ability to deliver a story. His signature luminism is still in its infancy here, yet one can see the seeds of what would become a mastery of light and illumination.

Cropsey contrasts light and shadow as if they were good and evil. He paints godlike mountains that reign over deep valleys and strongholds. In the foreground, a strong fortress represents prosperity, her richly attired knights riding out to do battle. In the distance, a citadel burns, the smoke of raging fires billowing toward the darkening sky.

This is a powerful painting, one that tells a story and shows an entire novel.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Jasper Francis Cropsey (February 18, 1823 – June 22, 1900) was an important American landscape artist of the Hudson River School.

Trained as an architect, he set up his own office in 1843. Cropsey studied watercolor and life drawing at the National Academy of Design under the instruction of Edward Maury and first exhibited there in 1844. A year later he was elected an associate member and turned exclusively to landscape painting; shortly after he was featured in an exhibition entitled “Italian Compositions”.

Cropsy traveled in Europe from 1847–1849, visiting England, France, Switzerland, and Italy. He was elected a full member of the Academy in 1851. Cropsey was a personal friend of Henry Tappan, the president of the University of Michigan from 1852 to 1863. At Tappan’s invitation, he traveled to Ann Arbor in 1855 and produced two paintings, one of the Detroit Observatory, and a landscape of the campus. He went abroad again in 1856, and resided seven years in London, sending his pictures to the Royal Academy and to the International exhibition of 1862.

Returning home, he opened a studio in New York and specialized in autumnal landscape paintings of the northeastern United States, often idealized and with vivid colors. Cropsey co-founded, with ten fellow artists, the American Society of Painters in Water Colors in 1866.

Cropsey’s interest in architecture continued throughout his life and was a strong influence in his painting, most evident in his precise arrangement and outline of forms. But Cropsey was best known for his lavish use of color and, as a first-generation member from the Hudson River School, painted autumn landscapes that startled viewers with their boldness and brilliance. As an artist, he believed landscapes were the highest art form and that nature was a direct manifestation of God. He also felt a patriotic affiliation with nature and saw his paintings as depicting the rugged and unspoiled qualities of America. [2]


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The-spirit-of-war.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The-spirit-of-war.jpg&oldid=565046310 (accessed June 17, 2021).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Jasper Francis Cropsey,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jasper_Francis_Cropsey&oldid=1018920537 (accessed June 17, 2021).

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Review of The Slime Mold Murder by Ellen King Rice #amreading

I did receive an advance copy of The Slime Mold Murder. I usually decline to do advance reviews as my blogging and writing schedule means I just don’t have time to write a proper review anymore.

magicAlso, if you have been a reader of mine for a while, you know I rarely write reviews for books I don’t like, no matter how much I like the author because I hate hurting peoples’ feelings.

However, when I was approached about drawing the map that is featured in the front, what I was told about the book intrigued me. I had read and loved other work by this author, most especially Larry’s Post-Rapture Pet Sitting Service.

But first, The Blurb for The Slime Mold Murder :

A Winner of the 2020 IPPY Gold Medal for best regional fiction, Ellen King Rice is back with a fourth biological adventure set in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, this time exploring the fascinating world of the Myxogastria slime molds.

At nineteen, Dylan’s brilliant mind is an asset as he struggles with severe ADHD and deteriorating living conditions. He’s one semester away from completing his college degree in ecology, but he’s out of cash, out of soap, and about to be evicted.

A post-pandemic opportunity to survey a rural property sounds like a lifeline. The owner of a creepy faux-chateau is ready to pay a handsome wage for a list of species found on the property. Dylan can’t believe his good luck. He’s about to be paid to wander in the woods. Sure, there’s some bookkeeping, but how hard can it be to make a plant list?

The neighborhood, however, has other residents, including a metal sculpture artist, nudists, two homeless men, and a conservative county commissioner, each with their own definition of freedom and their own ways of interacting with the land.

When a body is found in the woods Dylan’s work opportunity is threatened. He needs to uncover the reason for the death, but Dylan’s lightning-fast mind is constantly undermined by his poor executive functioning. He can discourse eloquently on the significance of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but he can’t find his wallet. He longs to adopt an orphaned West Highland terrier, but he’s not sure he’d remember to feed a dog. He certainly can’t afford a bag of dog kibble, much less the repairs needed on his vintage Honda.

How can Dylan’s intuitive grasp of ecology and the complex life cycles of the Myxogastria help to expose a killer? And how does he protect his employer, his professor, his friends and a small, confused dog from those who eagerly embrace violence?


My Review:

51v0Z1IolxSDylan Kushner is a 19-year-old genius coping with absentee parents, financial insecurity, looming homelessness, and worry about paying for his last semester of school. He also lives with ADHD and dysgraphia, which impairs his ability to translate his thoughts into handwritten words. Through his college classes, he is befriended by good people who give him the tools to be independent.

Mari is a fellow student, bumbling her way to adulthood. Alyson is the precocious twelve-year-old daughter of Wade Witecki. All the many characters in this mystery are engaging and either likable or unlikeable as they would be in real life. One even empathizes with the characters who fall into the gray area between good and evil.

I enjoyed how Rice framed opening chapters, introducing us to the players. She uses action and interaction to show the lengths some powerful people are willing to go to when their cherished beliefs are threatened. Once we have met everyone, it’s clear that a clash of epic proportions looms.

While the narrative is a little science-heavy at times, it moves along well, with the events occurring as they might in real life. Each character’s reactions and subsequent actions are logical, yet just when you think you have it figured out, you don’t.

The world Rice presents to us is solidly formed. I found it easy to be immersed in the dampness and subtle smells of the forest as the characters worked their way through the mystery. In the process, we see the general unpleasantness some people have a knack for, the kindnesses people are capable of, and the evil that lurks in the soul of others.

If you love learning about the natural world and also love a good mystery that is strong on science, the Slime Mold Murder is the book is for you.


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Ellen King Rice is a wildlife biologist who explores the woods while wearing leg braces. Her slow pace has provided opportunities to learn about the Northwest’s small and cryptic species. Her vivid adventures shine a spotlight on the richness found on the forest floor, augmented by crisp illustrations from Olympia artist, Duncan Sheffels. This award-winning pair have been charming woodland lovers since 2016.

You can find Ellen and her books at www.ellenkingrice.com

Please join her on Instagram at:

https://www.instagram.com/mushroom_thrillers.

And on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/mushroomthriller/

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Submitting to Contests vs. Submitting to Magazines and Anthologies #amwriting

One question I frequently see in various writers’ forums, is “how can an indie get their name out there and gain fans for their work?”

WritingCraft_short-storyMy answer is simple. We write short stories and submit them to magazines, anthologies, and contests.

Every time your short work is published or places well in a contest, you stand the chance of getting your name out there and it’s nice to have a little extra cash in your pocket.

Despite the changes in the publishing industry as a whole, writing short stories is still the way to get your foot in the door and increase your visibility. Anthology calls from traditional large publishing houses and reputable small and mid-size publishers that are willing to pay for your work are sometimes open to new authors.

Also, magazines that are SFWA approved regularly post open calls for submission, so it pays to check each magazine and publisher’s website for opportunities.

Submitting to contests is good too.theRealStoryLIRF01102021 If you have a story that was a contest winner, you may be able to sell it to the right publication.

Writing for anthologies and contests have similar requirements. You must learn how to write to a specific length. Often, you must make use of a specific theme, one that may not be of your choosing.

So, what do editors of anthologies and magazines look for versus how contests are judged? Trust me, editors work hard, and more than anything, they love to read.

And all publisher and editors want to discover brilliant work written by new authors.

I have worked on both sides of the publishing industry. I know the frustrations of the author who waits to hear back regarding their submission, and I’ve seen the publisher’s inbox. I’ve read for many contests and edited several anthologies.

First, your work will receive a far closer inspection from a contest than from a publisher. Contests have readers who are either editors or authors, and who do their best to judge each entry on their merits. This means two people will have read the submission and each reader will have looked at the technical aspects of the piece as well as the overall story and characters.

Contest readers must judge:

  1. Plot: the sequence of events and the overall story arc.
  2. Setting: did the world building include a location, time, hints of the weather, and hints of the environment? Was the world solid to the reader?
  3. Viewpoint/narrative mode: how was the story told? Was the POV consistent or did it inadvertently drift, say between present tense to a few paragraphs in past tense, and then back to present. Was it consistently first-person, (or second, or third, or omniscient, etc.)?
  4. Characters: Were the characters believable, and did they have an arc?
  5. Did the dialogue, both spoken and internal, advance the story? Did each speaker have their own voice and style?
  6. Transitions and hooks: Did the opening lines hook the reader? Did the narrative move from scene to scene smoothly, without jarring the reader out of the story? Did each transition hook the reader, enticing them to keep reading?
  7. Showing versus telling: did the author understand how to show the action?
  8. Mechanics: Did the author have a good grasp of grammar, punctuation, and industry standards? Did they follow word count and length requirements, and obey formatting directions as listed in submission guidelines?

Editors for anthologies will look at each submission with the above guidelines in mind, but they will have two more caveats:

  1. Theme: did the author understand and incorporate the theme into their story?
  2. Appeal: did that story strike a chord, make them want to read more of that author’s work?

Contest readers/judges read every word in each submission and base their opinions on how well the first eight conditions were met.

Anthologies and magazines have a slightly different style of judging what they will accept.

The main difference between publishers of anthologies and those of magazines is the sheer volume of work that is submitted, and the number of people/editors available to read it.

51AvRGmiMQLAnthologies will close on a specific date, or after a certain number of submissions have been received.

The inbox of a large publisher fills up every day. Larger publishers may have a gatekeeper reading submissions, but most editors do their own work. For this reason, the editor will look at the first page of the story and based on what she sees there, she will decide whether to continue reading or reject it.

If all ten of the above criteria are clearly shown in the first paragraphs, the editor will read further. If the work continues to be engaging and professional, they will read it to the end.

At that point, criteria number ten is most important condition to be met—your story must have wowed the editor.

Once you have written a short story  with the intention of submitting it to a specific publisher or contest, you must edit it. Then you must format the manuscript to make it submission-ready, by reading and following the guidelines published on their website.

I’ve said this before, but it bears mentioning again: if you don’t follow your prospective contest or publisher’s submission guidelines, you have wasted your time submitting it.

AFF_MarApr2018_400x570These steps demonstrate your level of professionalism. Editors at magazines, contests, and publishing houses have no time to deal with unedited, poorly formatted manuscripts. Their inboxes are full of well-written and properly formatted work, so they will reject the amateurs without further consideration.

I hope knowing the requirements your work will be judged by will help you find good homes for your work.

If you have any doubts about the quality of your work, consider running it past your critique group to hear their opinions on characterization, story arc, and other features of your work.

It’s hard to hear a bad verdict, but sometimes you should completely rethink certain aspects of a piece before you submit it, and this is where the external eye can help you.

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#FineArtFriday: Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris by Frits Thaulow ca 1897

Frits_Thaulow_-_Boulevard_de_la_Madeleine_à_Paris_(1890s)Title: Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris by Frits Thaulow

Date: circa 1896-1897

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 88.2 cm (34.7 in); Width: 66.3 cm (26.1 in)

Collection: Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Inscriptions: Signature and date bottom right: Frits Thaulow (date is unclear)

What I like about this painting:

This is a street scene viewed from an angle we rarely see in paintings. The people and vehicles are small, insignificant in comparison with the size and grandeur of the buildings.

While Thaulow didn’t enjoy painting cityscapes, I think Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris is one of the best of that era.

The soot from the chimneys in the distance, the wet street, the muted, watery colors of a rainy spring day, and the God’s-eye view of the busy street—it all comes together to present a powerful statement.

About the Artist, Via Wikipedia:

Thaulow was one of the earliest artists to paint in Skagen in the north of Jutland, soon to become famous for its Skagen Painters. He arrived there in 1879 with his friend Christian Krohg, who persuaded him to spend the summer and autumn there. They arrived from Norway in Thaulow’s little boat. Thaulow, who had specialized in marine painting, turned to Skagen’s favourite subjects, the fishermen and the boats on the shore.

Thaulow moved to France in 1892, living there until his death in 1906. He soon discovered that the cityscapes of Paris did not suit him. His best paintings were made in small towns such as Montreuil-sur-Mer (1892–94), Dieppe and surrounding villages (1894–98), Quimperle in Brittany (1901) and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne in the Corrèze département (1903). One of his most famous works once he moved to france was A village street in France. In Dieppe Thaulow and his wife Alexandra made themselves popular: they were friends with artist Charles Conder, and they met Aubrey Beardsley. [1]


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Frits Thaulow,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Frits_Thaulow&oldid=1026282924 (accessed June 10, 2021).

Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris, ca 1896-97 by  Frits Thaulow, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Frits Thaulow – Boulevard de la Madeleine à Paris (1890s).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Frits_Thaulow_-_Boulevard_de_la_Madeleine_%C3%A0_Paris_(1890s).jpg&oldid=566337323 (accessed June 10, 2021).

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Fundamentals of Writing: The Strong Antagonist #amwriting

I gravitate to narratives featuring a strong antagonist, someone who could have been a brilliant hero if only they had made different choices.

depth-of-characterAuthors work hard to create a strong, credible hero. In genre fiction, the hero’s story evolves in a setting of our devising and is defined by their struggle against an antagonist.

Strong emotions characterize what and who we perceive as good or evil. Emotion is a constant force in our lives. When we write, the emotions we show must be credible, shown as real, or they will fail to move the reader.

Consider the forces of antagonism in the story. The antagonist can take many forms. In some stories, it will be a person or people who stand in the way. In other stories, an internal conflict and self-deceptions thwart the hero. When you think about it, we are usually our own worst enemy, constantly telling ourselves negative things that undermine our self-confidence.

When we create an antagonist, we take what is negative about a character and take it one step further: we hide it behind a lie.

First, we assign them a noun that says who the antagonist thinks they are. Good.

Then we assign them the noun that says who the protagonist believes they are. Evil.

So, in an overly simplistic example, the antagonist gets two nouns: Good/Evil. We hide that perception of evil behind a lie, a falsehood. This lie is the antagonist’s belief that they are the hero.

One of my antagonists in a current work in progress is Kellan. He and his younger sister were born into an abusive family. When their parents were murdered, they were adopted by a family who raised them with kindness and understanding. At the age of ten, Kellan’s basic character and gut reactions were already formed.

protagonist-antagonist-06082021LIRFKellan is a complicated character who believes he is the hero. His story begins as a member of the protagonist’s inner circle and ends tragically.

The people who love him describe him this way: Ivan saw Kellan as two people. One lashed out at the people he trusted and loved most, was filled with jealous anger, and the other was sweet, gentle, and mesmerizing. Rage sometimes owned him, a flaw the earth-mage might never overcome.

Life is complicated, and the relationships in a good novel should also be complex. Often, a protagonist faces a second antagonist: themselves. In real life, who is usually our worst enemy?

We are.

It is us, our own fears, the little voice whispering doubt, indecision, and impulsiveness into our subconsciousness.

So, to further complicate life for our hero, we can go two routes when creating the antagonist. One way is to allow one of the characters to make choices that ultimately harm them, which is how I went with Kellan, turning him into the visible antagonist.

Another way is to take the negative that is directed outward and turn it into self-hate, which I have done with Ivan. He has two enemies to fight, one is someone he loves but must reject, and the other is himself.

nebulousIn other stories, there is the nebulous antagonist—the faceless giant of corporate greed, characterized by one or two representatives, who may be portrayed as caricatures. In some cyberpunk tales, the antagonists tend to be thugs-in-suits, and in hard sci-fi, they might be members of the military or scientists. In fantasy, the nebulous antagonist might be a powerful queen/king or sorcerer, or both.

In that case, how the protagonist reacts internally to the threat these formless antagonists pose is the story. Emotion makes the risk feel genuine to the reader, gives it life.

To show great evil in genre fiction, we take the negative to the limit of human experience. And while I do write some dark scenes, I don’t write horror, so I can’t speak to that, exactly.

What I can speak to is the perception of corruption, which sometimes horrifies us.

Perception and imagination are everything. As children, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark room after mother and father have turned out the lights can be terrifying.

We are frightened of the formless monster that we perceive as lurking in the corner until we discover the truth—it is only something that was piled there and was never put away.

As adults, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark story can be equally terrifying. Thus, you can write dark scenes but don’t have to be utterly graphic.

War is an evil that is difficult to make sympathetic, and shouldn’t be. Sometimes a faceless blob of evil is the right villain.

However, I seek out stories that delve into the characters as people and show their motivations. Word choices are the key to success in showing the darkness a character embodies without going over the top. Think about the word perversion, a word with many meanings and uses. Its synonyms are: corruption, corruptness, debasement, debauchery, decadence, decadency, degeneracy, distortion.

Coloring an antagonist with a perception of perversion (distortion, corruption) drives home the evil they represent.

Someone—and I don’t remember who—said in a seminar a few years ago that the author is the character’s attorney, not their judge.

approval-f-scott-fitzgerald-quote-LIRF05312021This is an important distinction. Credible villains become evil for sympathetic reasons. They care intensely, obsessively about something, or someone. It is our job to make those deeply held justifications the driving force behind their story.

Therefore, a true villain is motivated, logical in their reasoning. They are creatures of emotion and have a backstory. You as the author and their lawyer, must know what that narrative is if you want to increase the risk for the protagonist. The reader doesn’t need to wade through an info dump, but you, the author, need to know those details.

You need to know why they feel justified in doing the sometimes-heinous things they do.

The greater the risk for the hero, the more interesting the story is. A strong protagonist requires a stronger antagonist if the risk is to be believable.

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Author Interview: Ellen King Rice on characters #amwriting

51v0Z1IolxSOne of the best ways to learn about the craft of writing is to talk with other authors. We all have different ways of creating our work, so hearing how another author works always gives me new ideas.

Ellen King Rice writes mysteries set in the South Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest. She is a wildlife biologist and is happiest when out in the woods on a fungi hunt with her camera.

Ellen has a new book out, The Slime Mold Murder, and as one the advance readers, I found it witty and the series of events are well-plotted. The characters are engaging, and their stories emerge as the plot unfolds. She has agreed to talk about her characters in this book, and how she came to know them.


CJJ: Tell us about Dylan. When did he first come into your mind as a protagonist?

EKR: Dylan was in my first book, The EvoAngel, as a precocious eleven-year-old with impulse-control challenges. He channels my own life as someone who speaks boldly and often irritates others.

CJJ: This book has number of credible characters. Which character was most difficult to write, and why?

5EKR06042021LIRFEKR: Mitchell and Mark are a gay couple, but I didn’t want to write them as caricatures. I spent a great deal of time trying out descriptions to come up with two men who are individuals in their own right but collectively a pair who would rattle the conservative county commissioner.

CJJ: Which character do you identify with on a personal level. Why?

EKR: Mari reminds me of myself at eighteen. I was keen to explore romance but terribly inept.

CJJ: Do you create an outline for structuring a character arc, or do you wing it?

EKR: Authors are often divided into the pantser or plotter groups. Some of us are plontsers – a lovely hybrid who think they have a plan but are really making it up as they go along. No kidding. I do start with a plan and then I get distracted with new ideas.

CoralRootEKR06042021LIRFjpgCJJ: Do you think your characters or events drive the plot? How are your characters shaped by the events they live through?

EKR: For me it is the events that drive the plot and the characters respond, hopefully growing as they take action.

CJJ: Are there any final words you would like to say regarding the characters and events of The Slime Mold Murder?

EKR:  The inclusion of the sclerotia in the story is meant to be inspirational. Slime molds can enter a dry phase where they do not grow. This phase can last for years, but when conditions improve, there can be a vibrant response. I so hope that we humans can move past months of a global pandemic to build a better world where more of us thrive.


Ellen, thank you for taking the time to talk about how you approach the craft of writing and creating your wonderful characters.

If you are curious about this book, The Slime Mold Murder is available at Amazon as a paperback, and will be released for the Kindle on June 24th, 2021: The Slime Mold Murder.


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About Ellen King Rice:

I am a wildlife biologist who suffered a spinal cord injury many years ago. Although my days of field work are over, biology continues to intrigue me.

I am fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes. I also like the predictability of animal behavior, once it is understood.

A fast-paced story filled with twists is a fun way to stimulate laughs, gasps and understanding. I work to heighten ecological awareness. I want the details and your new insights to remain in your thoughts forever.

You can find me and my books at www.ellenkingrice.com

Please join me on Instagram at:

https://www.instagram.com/mushroom_thrillers.

And on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/mushroomthriller/


Credits and Attributions:

All photos copyright 2021 Ellen King Rice. All images used in this post are the work and intellectual property of Ellen King Rice. She has kindly given me permission to use them in this post.

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#FineArtFriday: A London Garden by Edith Corbet 1911

Edith_Corbet_A_London_gardenTitle: A London Garden

Artist: Edith Corbet (1846-1920)

Description: oil on canvas; 62 x 45 cm

Date: 1911

Signed and dated ‘Edith Corbet/1911’ (lower left).

What I love about this painting:

I love the serenity of older, slightly overgrown gardens. This garden is peaceful, with irises blooming, and beyond the gate, a path winds toward a pool ringed by hyacinths. Further beyond, steps lead to a home. Whoever lives here is lucky to have such a garden out their front door.

Birds find mature shrubbery attractive and make their homes there. Several birds are enjoying the birdbath, secure and safe from predators.

About the artist, via Wikipedia:

Edith Corbet née Edenborough (28 December 1846 – 1920) was a Victorian landscape painter, having close associations with the Macchiaioli group (also known as the Tuscans or Etruscans), who, in a break with tradition, painted outdoors in order to capture natural light effects and favoured a panoramic format for their paintings

She married the Victorian painter and illustrator Arthur Murch and moved to Rome, where she painted with Giovanni Costa, leader of the Macchiaioli group. In 1876 they both stayed in Venice. Olivia Rossetti Agresti wrote: Costa had a very high opinion of this artist’s gifts and used to remember with pleasure how on that occasion they used to go out together to paint from nature at Fusino (Agresti, 1904).

She frequently exhibited from 1880 to 1890 at the Grosvenor Gallery and the New Gallery. In 1891, after the death of her first husband, she married Matthew Ridley Corbet, one of the Macchiaioli group’s leading members, after which she exhibited mainly at the Royal Academy, visiting Italy and living in London for the remainder of her life. Corbet exhibited her work at the Palace of Fine Arts at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. She died in Hampstead, north London, in 1920. [1]


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Edith Corbet A London garden.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Edith_Corbet_A_London_garden.jpg&oldid=555317886 (accessed June 3, 2021).

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Edith Corbet,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Edith_Corbet&oldid=936468065 (accessed June 3, 2021).

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Fundamentals of Writing: Conveying Depth and Revealing Character through Conversations #amwriting

As I mentioned in my previous post, depth is a vast word, a sea of information created of layers. It is complex, intense, and profound. We use the arc of the opening scene to lure the reader, to hint at what lies hidden below. The scene opens, the first character(s) step onto the stage, the action rises and ebbs, and the reader wants to know more.

WritingCraftSeries_depth-through-conversationSome scenes have no dialogue, are comprised of the actions that propel the plot forward. But often, conversations are the core of the passage, propelling the story onward to the launching point for the next act.

Dialogue is an opportunity to reveal who your characters are and hint at what lies beneath the surface they present to the world. Conversations must have a purpose and follow an arc: they open, disseminate information, and move toward a conclusion of some sort.

Dialogue that doesn’t reveal character and advance the story in some vital way is a waste of the reader’s time.

  • We use dialogue to show the personalities of our characters.
  • We use it to reveal secrets and create empathy.
  • We use conversation to convey knowledge when the characters and the reader need it and reveal motivations.

First, we must identify what should be conveyed in our conversation. Who needs to know what? Why must they know it? How many words do you intend to devote to it? Be wary—conversations can get out of hand and become an info dump.

Info dumps don’t add depth. They add fluff.

Depth consists of many layers. It is a combination of story/plot information and character revelations. It is the underlying theme and the atmosphere of the world the characters inhabit. It is the mood created by the words you habitually use.

If you look in a thesaurus, you can see that most words in the English language have more than one shade of meaning depending on the context in which we use them. Your word choices are essential in showing a world of many shades of color.

Each word adds to or detracts from the feeling of atmosphere. Those choices are critical in conveying personality and creating a sense of empathy for our characters.

Conversations are opportunities to show depth as well as convey information. Your habits, how you form your phrases, and your choice of words establishes the tone.

approval-f-scott-fitzgerald-quote-LIRF05312021This pertains to the thoughts of your characters too.

We have mental conversations with ourselves in real life. Sometimes we even speak our thoughts aloud.

Researchers say that most of the time, our inner monologue concerns how we see ourselves. These thoughts are often in whole sentences and phrased negatively. And most telling of all, we aren’t usually aware of our inner thoughts when we have them.

However, an interior monologue is useful for revealing motives. What they think but don’t speak aloud tells the reader a lot about the character.

It shows who they think they are as well as how they perceive others.

Conflict keeps the protagonists from achieving their goals. In real life, our internal conflicts create greater roadblocks to success than any antagonist might present.

These tiny inner voices of self-destruction are crucial to creating relatable characters. They reveal the inner layers that make the character who they really are beneath the surface they show the world.

Sometimes, revealing a critical bit of backstory can only be accomplished through the protagonist’s thought processes or those of a companion.

A loud contingent at any gathering of authors will say thoughts should not be italicized. While I disagree with that stance, I do see their point.

As a reader, I dislike it when long strings of private thoughts are italicized. This is an accepted practice in the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy, and YA novels, so readers of those genres expect to see thoughts presented in italics. However, we need to be aware of how overwhelming it is for a reader to be faced with a wall of words written in a leaning font.

If the author makes it clear that the character is having the conversation with themselves, italics aren’t needed.

It was, he thought, one of those rare days, where the sun shone benevolently upon mankind, a day when the constant wind was gentle, benign. Aloud he said, “Enjoy the sun while you can, my friend. The rain is eternal here.”

Dialogue, both spoken and interior, sets the scene and unveils the theme. Your word choices reveal characters and their secrets, their personalities.

Your word choices reveal you, the author. Through those words, we hear your voice.

So, let’s consider that voice. Voice is a combination of word choices and grammar. It is distinct to each author.

From the reader’s perspective, grammar/punctuation is to writing what gravity is to the universe. It holds everything together.

We obey traffic signals when driving to avoid getting into wrecks. In the same way, our written work must abide by specific fundamental rules, or it will be unreadable—a wreck.

This is especially important when it comes to dialogue. What is spoken must be easily distinguished from the ordinary narrative.

Overall, most readers don’t see minor grammar glitches in the narrative, which is good because we all make them. Even editors write crap and need editors. But readers do notice unprofessional writing, especially when it comes to how dialogue is punctuated.

Readers notice amateurish writing.

If you are new to writing and are unsure of how to punctuate conversations so that readers can understand your work, see my post from July 29, 2020: Four Rules for Writing Conversations. The post details four simple, easy-to-remember rules of punctuation, rules for keeping the conversations flowing and understandable.

Epic Fails meme2I have said this before, but it bears mentioning again: Never resort to writing foreign languages using Google Translate (or any other translation app). Also, please don’t go nuts writing out foreign accents. It’s frustrating for readers to try to untangle garbled dialogue. A word or two, used consistently, is all that is needed to convey foreignness.

Information dispensed gradually reveals the plot, unveils hidden layers. What your characters think and say are the reader’s window into them and their world.

Conversations pull the curtain back, revealing the characters’ innermost secrets and their story.

With every sentence, a prism of information illuminates who the characters believe they are and is passed from the author to the reader. It is a light, filtered through the characters, that colors the narrative with the shades and moods of the words you habitually choose.

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Fundamentals of Writing: Character Depth – who do they think they are? #amwriting

Depth is a vast word, a sea of information created of layers. It is complex, intense, and profound. Characters with depth feel solid, alive, as real as your best friend.

depth-of-characterTo achieve a sense of depth, we begin with simplicity. Each character’s sub-story must be built upon who these characters think they are.

One of the most useful seminars I’ve ever attended was given by a Romance writer. He is a strong proponent of assigning verbs and nouns to each character at the outset as a way to get inside their heads.

If there is one thing Romance authors understand, it is how to create a strong impression of character.

When I plan a character, I make a simple word picture of them. The word picture is made of a verb and a noun, the two words that best describe each person. We want to know the good things about these characters, so we assign nouns that tell us how they see themselves at the story’s outset.

We also look at sub-nouns and synonyms, so put your thesaurus to work. In my book, Julian Lackland, I had four characters with significant roles, so I assigned them nouns that describe their principal defining quality.

This noun is the core characteristic thread that stays with them, is challenged by events, and either wins in the end or is their downfall.

Julian’s Noun is: Chivalry (Gallantry, Bravery, Daring, Courtliness, Valor, Love.) He sees himself as a good knight, a defender of innocence.

Beau’s Noun is: Bravery (Courage, Loyalty, Daring, Gallantry, Passion.) He aspires to chivalry but has a pragmatic side. He sees himself as a good knight but knows that good doesn’t always win.

Lady Mags’s Noun is: Audacity (Daring, Courage.) She is a good knight but is under no illusions about the people she defends. She is chivalrous but practical.

Bold Lora’s Noun is: Bravado (Boldness, Brashness.) She desires fame, is convinced that knights are defined by the celebrity their deeds bring them.

In real life, the way we see ourselves is the face we present to the world. Self-conceptions color how we react to events. We are gradually altered by events as life goes on. Our view of ourselves evolves, and our reactions are changed.

By the end of the story, the way our characters see themselves should have evolved. The circumstances you put them through must affect and remake them.

Once I know their nouns, I assign my characters a verb that describes their gut reactions. This word will shape the way they react to every situation that arises.

unreliable-narratorThey might think one thing about themselves, but this verb is the truth.

Julian has 2 Verbs. They are: Defend, Fight. Again, we also look at sub-verbs and synonyms: (Preserve, Uphold, Protect.)

Beau’s 2 Verbs are: Protect, Fight (Defend, Shield, Combat, Dare.)

Lady Mags’s 2 Verbs are: Fight, Defy (Compete, Combat, Resist.)

Bold Lora’s 2 Verbs are: Desire, Acquire (Own, Control, Imprison.)

When I wrote these characters, I knew how they believed they would react in a given situation and that knowledge drove the plot. Why was it so clear to me? Because I had drawn their portraits in a few descriptive words.

Julian must Fight for and Defend Chivalry. Julian’s commitment to defending innocents against inhumanity breaks his mind.

Beau must Fight for and Protect Bravery. Beau’s commitment to protecting Julian and concealing his madness breaks his health.

Lady Mags must Fight for and Defy Audacity. She’s at war with herself regarding her desire for a life with Julian and Beau. That war ruins her chance at happiness.

Bold Lora must Acquire Fame and Control Chivalry. Her thirst for notoriety destroys her.

When we uncover the nouns and verbs that describe who our characters think they are, we have a grip on creating characters who are alive to the reader.

How we phrase this when describing them in our outline is essential. Placing the verb before the noun describes a character’s core conflict. It lays bare their flaws and opens the way to building new strengths.

Knowing who our characters are before we meet them is important. Go ahead and make that personnel file detailing their backstory if you need to. Set that infodump aside because the real story will be built upon who they think they are on page one of this story.

Our characters’ preconceptions color their experience of events, which colors the readers’ view.

The characters we write are unreliable witnesses to the events that shape them. Their self-perception shades their reactions when they fail to live up to their own standards.

These are the watershed moments when our characters must examine their motives, and either face them or gloss over their failings.

Depth is instilled into to a scene where the characters prevail despite their flaws, succeeding against the odds. Or conversely, depth can be added when character flaws cause them to fail miserably at a point where they could have triumphed.

What two words describe the primary weaknesses of your characters, the factor that could be their ultimate ruin?

Julian Lackland: Obsession and Honor.

Beau Baker: Steadfast Loyalty.

Lady Mags De Leon: Stubbornness and Fear (of Entrapment).

Who are youKnowing the verb (action word) and the noun (object of the action) that best represented my characters made writing Julian Lackland easier. Their actions and reactions unfolded, and it was as if the story wrote itself.

So how do we get to know our characters and how they see themselves? Just as in real life, we meet and come to know them through conversations.

Conversations give shape to the story, turning what could be a wall of words into something personal.

Our next installment in this series will focus on revealing character through conversations.

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