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Characters are the life blood of fiction. A good character description can make a piece of writing come alive. The characters I create have to have some basis in reality. I focus on the way they talk, walk, dress or something they like or hate. I create them from people I encounter I the real world. Writers always draw from what they know. The Writing Loft thought it might be worth a look at the process of how writers get this is done, the building of a believable character.

The easiest way to start building a character is by describing his appearance. By using people we know or have met, we can start to construct out character’s look. Do you want a nerdy, skinny bookworm or do you need a rough and tumble football player?

Remember, a character doesn’t have to match your real life model in every way. Sometimes a single aspect of a real person is the first building block you’ll need. Copying the look of a real person is easy. But it’s more fun to tweak that model and ultimately build someone from scratch.

Imagine your main character as a clean slate. First, is the character man or woman? Let’s start with a man. He is a clean slate. What will he look like? Will he be tall or short? Will he be clean-shaven or have a beard? Long hair or short hair? What about a limp? Tattoos? Scars?

Now our character needs to be dressed. Our indistinguishable male from anywhere in the world needs clothes that match the character’s image. Will he wear a business suit or overalls? Will he be shod in sneakers, sandals or wingtips?

Take a look at Sherlock Holmes and his trademark deerstalker cap and curved pipe. By comparison, his sidekick Dr. John Watson is practically nondescript. Remember Superman and his red cape (which never seemed to get in the way while fighting the bad guys). It seems clothes often DO make the man!

Physical description is good, but sometimes we don’t get much in this department from writers. And often there is a reason for that. By downplaying physical attributes the reader’s mind will fill in the blanks if it’s a story worth following. And with everyone filling in the blanks, the characters become more real and more personal to each individual reader. We are not burdened with thinking about the scar the author placed on the top male character for no apparent reason. You have the freedom to see the men and women as you want to see them.

However, the illusion of a character’s appearance is often destroyed when a book is made into a movie or television show.

From here we our steps in building a character can branch out in accents, likes and dislikes in food, climate, and books.

I’ve always found the places where characters live to be intriguing. Consider the American dust bowl described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. Compare that to mystery writer Stuart Woods’ character Stone Barrington who hangs out in the upper New York East Side restaurants. And then there is Batman and his secret cave!

Can you create a believable character from an unshaven man in overalls who chews tobacco and carries a knife with a rusty blade who offers analytical assessments about world affairs? It’s possible, but as a writer, you will have to take time to build that character properly.

After developing the look, we can delve into our character’s mind – what does he think? If your story’s primary character, a hard charging businessman, is modeled after your Wall Street cousin, maybe we could make the character a woman? Think of the changes you can make now in building this character. In this instance, it’s the mindset you want to duplicate.

Climbing into the mind of another person is tough enough. However, when you have to create the mind of another person, things get a little tricky. Do you want your character to be moralistic? That has to be demonstrated. You’ll need to build scenes where he is faced with difficult choices and struggles to follow the right path. Then there is the age-old question, “What is the right path?”

In adventure/mystery stories your character may be called upon to do something heinous, such as kill another human being. Can you justify that in your story? Will the community of your character be satisfied that his action was justified?

All of these questions are part of the character building process. And they can all start with deciding how he will look. Will he be tall or short, wearing sneakers or wingtips!

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As 2011 comes to a close, I feel it is time to review writing goals and make some plans for 2012. First on my list is to revive The Writing Loft. I want to reach out to a wider audience and encourage more commentary. Posting in 2011 fell off a bit while I spent time marketing my novel – Cocaineros Duel – throughout the New England area. While on the road I found some future venues for my novel’s hero, Frank Reardon.

So, what’s the best way to energize your writing for the New Year?

Get involved with a writing group! If you belong to one already, make a bigger commitment. All too often we allow ourselves to fall into the category of being a “lurker,” someone who sits back, offers a few comments on the works of others, and sips the free coffee. Writing groups can be great places to get feedback. But remember, just as with computers, junk in, junk out!

Offer up something to be critiqued, a new chapter of your book or a piece of flash fiction – 500 to 750 words that tell a short story. Offer something, anything to get your juices flowing. Even if the person next to you isn’t your target reader and hates your genre, that person still may have some good suggestions about structure, dialog or pacing.

Finding a good writing group can be challenging. Not everyone in the group has to share your genre. Start off by asking yourself if the other group members are the kind of people you would like to call friends. I’ve visited a few different groups for several sessions only to discover I simply didn’t mesh with the other people.

I remember one group that rotated meeting among the homes of members. The group would arrive and immediately give the host’s home the white glove treatment. There were snickers and quiet comments on the home decorating, quality of the refreshments being offered and, of course, comments about the poor member who couldn’t show up that day. That wasn’t a group for me. I left before my home came up in the rotation to be host. My advice: find a group that meets on neutral turf. Consider a library, social club or church hall . . . all good alternatives!

Writers should attend writing groups fully expecting to be critiqued. But members should recognize the difference between honest, constructive criticism and hurtful remarks. After all, the ultimate goal is to improve and polish the piece, not tear it down. A “friend” recognizes this concept.

What do you bring to read at a writing group? Should your contribution be something short or long? The answer to that question depends on the frequency with which the group meets, the size of the group and the length of time for the gathering. Generally, groups meet one to two hours a couple of times a month. Share the critique time.

Generally, I find it difficult to bring book chapters. It’s tough for members to maintain continuity with the numerous projects other members have in the works. But if the group is open-minded and they have enough context of the full work, book chapters can be an option. Just plan accordingly.

A short story is a good choice for discussion within a group. A piece 1,500 to 2,500 words is doable. It can demonstrate your skills within a set structure and later can be expanded, maybe even into a book.

Diary entries can be interesting, too. For example, I’ve written more than 100 vignettes about my days as a reporter and editor for newspapers. I often share them with my writing group.

All in all, you need to bring something to the table and let a fresh set of eyes have a look at it! And then, listen . . . and learn!

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Herman Melville's tombstone in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx portrays a blank page, supposedly representing the blank page at the end of life.

When I get overwhelmed I dream about getting on a ship and sailing away. The wide open seas call to me on from the land and I wish I could spend my times riding the waves.

I like to believe the writer Herman Melville must have felt that way. He gave us the adventure novel Moby Dick, a tale that has excited people for generations. The book is believed to be based on an 18-month voyage he took on a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts, around Cape Horn to the South Pacific.

Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819 and died in New York City in 1891. Buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, the front of Melville’s tombstone displays a sculpted blank page. Legend says the single blank pages represents the blank page at the end of life. That’s a pretty gutsy way for a writer to make a final statement. Or maybe he just wanted us to finish the story.

Or maybe that blank “statement” was his way of getting back at some people. It was said that around the time of his death he was so forgotten that there were probably more people who believed he had died years earlier than knew he was still alive.

I find it amusing, however, that Melville, so identified with the sea, was buried in the only borough of New York on Continental United States and not on one of the island boroughs!

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Once Again, Jeannine C. Stauder has stepped up and provided The Writing Loft with a book review. This offering is The Leaf Peeper Murders by the writing team of Loni Emmert and P. I. Barrington.

Button Hollow Chronicles No. 1
The Leaf Peeper Murders
by Loni Emmert and P. I. Barrington
Published by Mainly Murder Press

Available at:
http://www.mainlymurderpress.com
http://www.bn.com
http://www.amazon.com

Review by Jeannine C. Stauder

Two suicides within days of each other, each by a self-inflected gun shot, has rattled the residents of Button Hollow, especially Sheriff Jeff Ramsey. While neither victim was a sterling citizen, no friend or foe of either would believe they would end their own lives. Sheriff Ramsey has a deep feeling that these two people were murdered and begins to investigate, going against the wishes of Mayor Tom Rutledge who prefers the verdict to be suicide. The shooting death of a third person, a true homicide, convinces the sheriff the deaths are related.

At the same time, the sleepy town has become home to a couple of nefarious characters who have the misfortune to tangle with Citizens’ Brigade leader, Anne Jolie Watson. She is on her own mission to prove that drug activity is taking place in the town. She is a constant thorn in Sheriff Ramsey’s side and it doesn’t help that the sheriff’s deputy, Rod Hargesty is Anne Jolie’s nephew and a good source of insider information for his aunt.

Anne Jolie convinces Bert Fussberger, another member of the Citizens’ Brigade to join her on a stake-out of a neighbor’s barn where Anne Jolie suspects drugs are being made. The stake-out fizzles when the two are knocked out, tied-up and driven to the edge of a cliff with the purpose of being pushed over. They are saved, but Anne Jolie, who knows everything and is always right, continues to keep a watchful eye on her neighbors.

Sheriff Ramsey’s beautiful and educated wife, Sharon, suddenly decides to pursue the career she forewent to move to Button Hollow as the wife of the town sheriff. Her interest in leaving Button Hollow for Boston hurts and confuses her husband. He has relied on Sharon’s support and comfort and now when his plate is overflowing with crime, he’s alone and worried for the future of his marriage.

Deputy Rod Hargesty, not known for his dedication to his job, takes on a new persona and works diligently with Sheriff Ramsey to discover the criminals behind the drug manufacturing and the killer of Button Hollow’s citizens. Anne Jolie is thrilled to finally be taken seriously by the sheriff and involved in the solution of the case.

This seemingly gentle story is filled with twists and turns that keep the reader engrossed. The authors have fully developed the personalities of the characters so the reader cares about them. They’ve arranged and rearranged the suspects during the story so interest is held to the end.

And all ends well in Button Hollow. The fact that The Leaf Peeper Murders is titled Chronicle No. 1 means more will follow. Will we have another Jessica Fletcher, albeit noisier, and will Button Hollow become another Cabot Cove? Stay tuned

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Jeannine C. Stauder
Jeannine Stauder divides her time between sea-level Connecticut and the mountains of Colorado, where she is a member of the Steamboat Springs Writers. She wrote the stories of people’s lives for many years in her professional capacity as an adoption coordinator and family therapist. Insight into the emotional workings of adults and youths provided the groundwork for her writing career.

She has written short stories for middle- school-age and teenagers as well as adult short stories. She received first place in a Pen Works contest for creative non-fiction and third place for short fiction and poetry. Her poems are published in Voices of The Valley. A retired Marriage and Family Therapist, she is a book reviewer for The Writing Loft and a member of Mystery Writers of America. Her first Young Adult novel is Saturday’s Child.

P. I. Barrington and Loni Emmert

California sisters P.I. Barrington and Loni Emmert fell in love with New England during fall vacations in Maine and New Hampshire. Loni has spent the past twenty-five years working in the music industry and writing press releases and magazine articles. P.I.’s experience includes work as a newspaper journalist, radio air talent, and at a major record company. P.I.’s first suspense novel, Crucifying Angel, was released in 2009. They are members of Sisters in Crime and Romance Writers of America.

As basic as putting pen to paper (boy, that’s archaic!), I mean fingers to the keyboard, writers must understand the fundamentals of “The Interview.” Without that understanding, our writing can become a blathering stream of consciousness relying on the expertise of no one in particular. The Writing Loft decided to explore this topic and share some tales from the past.

Reporters interview people all the time to gather facts for their stories. Historians interview people to learn the back story of a period of time. Fiction writers should be interviewing people to help build their characters. It’s all information gathering and every interview should have a goal, be it a story, a lively quote or a deeper understanding of an issue.

Asking the obvious

I once interviewed a jet pilot from the Vietnam War. As an officer with nerves of steel, he flew many, many missions and always came home safely. I asked him if he was ever, even once during any of those missions, just a little frightened.

The pilot stopped speaking and finally he said “yes.”

“When?” I quickly followed up.

The pilot told me he was most frightened on the day Peace was to take place after all the treaties were signed. Peace was to be declared by both sides at noon on a specific day. All activities of war were to end. But on that day, at noon, this pilot and his squadron were 200 miles north of the DMZ, having just completed one last early morning bombing run.

“We were all racing through the sky to get back over the DMZ and into South Vietnam’s airspace.” He said he was frightened and knew everyone else in his squadron shared the same fear. “None of us wanted to be the last guy shot down by someone below who hadn’t gotten the word about the Peace Accords or didn’t know the time.”

It was an emotional story prompted by a single question. It was the best question of the interview because it got my subject to tell a story in his own words and express a deep personal emotion.

Questions from outside the box

Interviewers should also explore asking the unusual question. This tactic often gets the memories flowing from deep within the interviewee. Another time during my newspaper career I interviewed a former CIA agent who spent 20 years in a Chinese prison. The agent was recruited right out of college to do spy flights over China. On his first mission he was shot down and captured. He was a prisoner for most of his young adulthood. For two decades he was denied news reports of things happening in the United States.

I knew it had to be an unimaginable hell. So I tried to turn things around a bit.

“What was the best day of your captivity?” I asked.

He looked at me and said “That’s easy. It was the day the Chinese admitted they held me captive.”

I was puzzled.

“You see, for the first seven years of my captivity the Chinese denied having me. Once they admitted I was their prisoner they could no longer walk in and put a bullet in my head. They had to account for me after that point,” he explained.

That was his life for his twenties and thirties and part of his forties, a prisoner. And for most of his twenties, he lived in fear of being shot on a whim.

For writers, the lesson here is to ask the unusual. Try and get your subject thinking.

Planning questions in advance

I learned the hard way to plan my questions in advance. However, the second part of this lesson is to never ever ask a question that can be answered with a one word answer.

I once attended a national press conference featuring then-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush (soon to be Bush 41) to my area. I was determined to push forward and get a question asked and answered at the event and not be intimidated by the national media. I had researched an issue, read all the national publications I could find for days in advance and crafted a clear concise original question.

I elbowed my way to the front, hollered “Mr. Bush, Mr. Bush,” with the best of them and was finally recognized. I stood, clearly enunciated my question and Mr. Bush looked me square in the eye and said, “No, next.”

That was it. I had a two letter, one word answer of “No” to build my story upon. Lesson learned (as stated earlier), no matter how sharp your elbows are, never allow an interview subject the opportunity to answer a question with a single word!

Technology is only a tool

Finally, every writer who has ever used a recoding device has run into a problem. Expect dead batteries, bungled tapes, damaged chips or flash drives. Electronic tools are great . . . when they work! Check power lines and batteries in advance. Familiarize yourself with every operation of you device. You may not get a chance to correct a problem. In short, be prepared for the worst! Enough said on this topic!

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William Barclay (a.k.a. Bat) Masterson gave up the life of a western gunfighter to become a New York sportswriter. He who wrote primarily about boxing in New York. people still visit his grave at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. As pictured here, some people leave mementoes, small whiskey bottles they drank from to toast him (see bottom of tombstone) and bullets (see top of tombstone).

Some people are lucky enough to spend their entire working life as a writer. Others transition into writing from other worlds. The Writing Loft decided to explore the one person who came to writing from another unusual career path. William Barclay “Bat” Masterson was originally a western gunfighter and lawman who ended up as a New York newspaper sports writer! It seemed appropriate to look at Bat Masterson in the aftermath of the World Series and the start of the football season.

Bat Masterson’s place of birth (about 1854) is a matter of debate. Some sources list Illinois while others list Canada. He had several law enforcement jobs out west that involved gunfighting, including a stint as a deputy to Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, Kansas. He drifted up to Trinidad, Colorado, where he was Marshall.

Ultimately, he made his way to Denver where he began promoting prize fights. He soon started writing a weekly sports column for a Denver newspaper. Taking to the road he ended up in New York City where he again joined a newspaper staff, The New York Morning Telegraph, as a sportswriter, then columnist and finally sports editor.

He was a friend of writer Damon Runyon and President Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed him Deputy U.S. Marshall for the Southern District of New York.

Masterson lived in New York at a time when the city was full of scalawags of all stripes. And rumor has it, Masterson fit right in. When he was broke, he allegedly went to pawn shops and bought old pistols which he sold to rubes in the city. He claimed the old guns were the weapons he used during his time in the west.

Masterson died at the age of 67 in 1921 sitting at his typewriter composing a newspaper column. His age alone distinguished him from other gunfighters from the wild west. Upon his death, his body was taken to Campbell’s, the famous New York funeral parlor, where a simple service was held in its chapel. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York. Several bullets were found atop his tombstone on the day The Writing Loft visited his grave, a unique tribute to a different kind of man and writer who lived in New York.

His large upright marker is emblazoned with the simple epitaph: “Loved by Everyone.”

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The Writing Loft has encountered writers from all walks of life, including a retired teacher who travels the country in an RV to a member of the Alaska legislature. Recently, Judy Campbell, an author in the stable of writers from Mainly Murder Press popped up. Judy is a member of the clergy . . . and she kills people, with kindness and on paper!

I thought it was unusual to be both a murder mystery writer and an ordained minister. It’s a combo that opens up a world a sacrilegious jokes I won’t engage in here. Immediately, I offered her an opportunity to be a guest blogger here to explain how her two work lives – on and off the pages of her novels and in the pulpit – blend together.

Take it away, Judy!

Ministry and murder—most unlikely bedfellows

Good Day, John. And murky blessings to all.

Ministry and murder are most unlikely bedfellows, but put them together and they make for a good story and a good teaching tool.

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister. For years I served a church on Martha’s Vineyard before returning to community ministry. Now I travel across the country and to England leading religious and spiritual retreats, writing workshops and in my spare time writing (unholy) mysteries. My books are about people who do bad things in the name of, or in the guise of religion. If you pick up any newspaper or watch the news on TV, you know there is plenty of grist for my literary mill.

My protagonist, Olympia Brown, is a lady minister. Her partner in sleuthing is a gay Roman Catholic priest. Why that combination? Because it raises eyebrows; it gets your attention. We write what we know. I’m a minister. I know how ministers think and act and the problems they confront. Why a gay priest? My sub-agenda in writing these stories is challenging cultural stereotypes.

Fr. Jim Sawicki is one of the finest most dedicated human beings you’ll ever meet—even if he is fictional. He’s also not a pedophile. He and Olympia are an owl and pussy cat combination, best friends forever, each with a secret tragedy which shapes them as characters and helps to drive the action of the plot.

The first in the series, A Deadly Mission, is about a college student who becomes entangled in a nasty and manipulative religious cult. Olympia and Father Jim risk their lives and challenge the academic and religious establishment to save her life. It’s fast moving and my readers tell me they can’t put it down.

The second, due out in June 2011, An Unspeakable Mission, is about date rape, incest, and domestic violence. Olympia Brown and Fr. Jim Sawicki must prove a suspicious death is accidental and not murder. But evidence to the contrary is mounting and the off-beat clerical twosome have little time to learn the truth and prevent the daughter that the dead man abused for years, from ending her own life.

And woven into this are several continuing sub-plots. Olympia is restoring an antique home in Southeastern Massachusetts. In that house there is a nosy and outspoken house-ghost who has a story of her own. Olympia is trying to locate a daughter she gave up for adoption over 30 years ago. And Olympia’s gentleman friend from England wants to ask her an important question, but she’s not listening.

If you think about it, all of life is a mystery and I am not the first person to have that idea. What I can do is take chapters of those human dramas I have witnessed over the years, fictionalize them, and weave them into stories that entertain as well as inform. That’s what I want when I read a book, and that’s what I give to my readers.
Welcome to my world.

Rev. Judith Campbell, a.k.a. The Sinister Minister!
http://www.judithcampbell-holymysteries.com

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