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Books Read in 2015: Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature by Thomas A. Shippey

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature (The Great Courses)Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature by Thomas A. Shippey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great collection of 30-minute lectures on fictional characters that, while not overly analytical on the literary criticism scale, raise interesting questions and lightly explore themes and symbols connected with the selected characters in a way that is at once both entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s nice to be able to skip back and forth between “chapters” to listen to the lectures most interesting at the moment, and then go back to others when time or activity will allow for a more focused listening experience.

My favorites were the lectures on fairy tale heroines, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, and Guinevere.

View all my reviews

Get Ready: Is your SETTING ready? #ReadySetWrite

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Get Ready: Is Your Setting Ready? #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.comSometimes, the geographic location of a story is an integral part of the premise. Other times, we have to figure out where the best setting for our story will be. And this is something you need to know before you get into the planning stage.

Where Is Your Story Set?
Placing your story in the right location is just as vital to its success as choosing the right characters and the right premise.

One of the prime examples I like to give for this when teaching workshops is Stand-In Groom. Because the premise of the story involves a celebrity whose identity must be kept secret, it needed to be set in a location where seeing a celebrity is rare. It also needed to be a city that was big enough for amenities, such as a large event center and a business infrastructure that would support planning a wedding as large as the one Anne is hired to plan. So, while I love Nashville, it was automatically out—it’s a city where celebrity sightings are frequent, and the biggest result is the identification of locals (who don’t approach) and tourists (who want autographs and photos).

Because I’d spent fourteen or fifteen years before coming up with the idea for SIG developing a fictional small city in central Louisiana that includes elements of many other cities where I’ve lived or visited, I decided it would make a perfect backdrop for this story. It gave me the opportunity to create and include any of the types of venues and businesses that I needed for everything that happens in the story, while still incorporating the real-world culture of Louisiana.

Could I have set this story in a fictional city of similar size in, say, New England or the Pacific Northwest? Sure. But since I’ve never lived there, I don’t know the culture. I could have made Anne’s large extended family Italian or Greek instead of Cajun. But, again, I don’t know those cultures. And there are so many fun elements about a large southern family and the Louisiana setting (crawfish boils! Mardi Gras-themed events! unique names! even more of a culture shock for my British hero!) that I was able to incorporate into the story which, I hope, sets it apart from books set elsewhere.

Elements to Consider When Choosing a Setting:

  • Is there a setting that has a unique culture that can play a role in your story? Think of places that have cultures that are unique to them: Santa Fe, Louisiana, Las Vegas, the Deep South, Hawaii, a small fishing town on the coast of Maine, etc. What are the unique elements of a setting that you can incorporate into your characters’ background/mannerisms/behavior and into how your story unfolds?
  • What are the elements of the culture you need to make sure you get absolutely right? If you’ve read my Bonneterre books, you know I don’t have people walking around calling each other cher or babbling in Cajun French. If you live somewhere with a unique culture and watch movies/TV shows set there, what are the things that they get wrong that drive you crazy? How can you make sure you get those elements right?
  • What are some specific locations and/or events you can incorporate into your story? In the Matchmakers series, set in Nashville, I have my girls meet for coffee on Sunday afternoons at The Frothy Monkey in the 12 South neighborhood. In the Bonneterre series, with my fictional setting, I created Beignets S’il Vous Plait, a beignets-and-coffee shop reminiscent of Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans or Coffee Call in Baton Rouge. Use specific locations, but have a reason for using those locations. Don’t just “name drop.”
  • How can your setting affect how your story plays out? For example, if you’re writing suspense and your characters are on the run outdoors, they’re going to run into much different conflicts in a mountainous area than in a desert than in a jungle. Is it cold and snowy? hot and humid? Does your character have environmental allergies that could affect whether or not he’s able to do the physical activities required of him in the plot?
  • What’s the “mood” of your setting? Think about the cliche of the gothic novel being set in a creepy, dark, old castle with a labyrinth of hallways, tunnels, and dungeons. There’s a reason why it’s become cliche—because it works. One of my favorite YA novels from childhood is a gothic, but it’s set in a recently built Victorian mansion in Northern California in the late 1800s. The author uses the house, and the fog that envelops it daily, to great effect. How can the weather, the landscape, the culture of your setting affect and effect the mood of your story?

Is Your SETTING Ready?

Get Ready: Are Your CHARACTERS Ready? #ReadySetWrite

Monday, January 19, 2015

Get Ready: Are Your CHARACTERS Ready? #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.comNow that you have your PREMISE nailed down, it’s time to start thinking about characters. Since we’re not actually writing yet—or really even in deep preparation for writing—now is the time to really just concentrate on who’s going to be in the story, not on deep character development.

Who are your characters?
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to know who your viewpoint characters are. This just means you need to know whom your story is about. Who will be taking part in the conflicts that the premise will create.

Now would be a great time for character casting.

This is one of the times when you can have the most fun with coming up with characters. What types of characters do you find most fun to work with?

If you aren’t sure what kinds of characters are right for your story, start by playing with some archetypes:

  • the seductress
  • the Amazon/woman warrior
  • the dapper businessman
  • the cutthroat salesman
  • the dreamy artist
  • the grungy musician
  • the angsty teen

You can get even more ideas for this by Googling “character archetypes” and seeing what comes up.

What are your characters’ names?
Your premise may have come from your character’s name. But in case it didn’t, before you do anything else, you need to name your characters. This sounds simple, but, really, it’s not.

Way back in 2008, I went through a bookstore catalog and started tallying the names appearing in fiction, the results of which can be seen here. Out of curiosity, I decided to do it again, this time using the bestsellers lists on Amazon for Historical Fiction, Christian Historical Fiction, and Contemporary Christian Romance. I ended up with a total of 611 entries (from approximately 300 books).

The most commonly repeated women’s names were:
Anna/Anne/Annabelle/etc.—15 times
Charlotte/Charlie—6 times
Elizabeth/derivations—11 times
Emilia/Emily/Emma—9 times
Jane—6 times
C~Katherine/Kate/etc.—13 times
Meg/Maggie/Margaret—7 times
Mary/Maria/Marianne/etc.—14 times
Sofie/Sophy/Sophie—6 times

And the men:
Alec/Alex/Alexander—7 times
Charles/Charlie—9 times
Christopher/Christian/Chris—5 times
Daniel—6 times
Eric—4 times
Henry—5 times
Jack-ish names—5 times
James/Jamie—9 times
John—8 times
Michael—5 times
Robert/Robbie/Bobby—8 times
Tom/Thomas—6 times
Will/William—6 times

You can see the full list here (clicking the link will download an Excel file).

I purposely avoided Amish fiction, or else there would have been A LOT MORE repeated names on these lists.

Granted, the names in both of these lists are relatively common names, so they’re going to appear more without seeming overused. But this is one area in which market research can be to your advantage to make sure that you’re not using the same names that just got used in a book that someone else just pitched to the editor you’re about to meet with at a conference.

This is a very important exercise. It’s easy to go with the first name that comes to mind, but if you don’t put a whole lot of thought into finding names that are original (while still accessible to your target audience) while also suitable for your characters, story, and setting/era, you may find yourself in a sticky situation halfway through a manuscript when I had to rename a main and a secondary character in a book that was on a tight deadline.

Got to the second page of Julie Klassen’s MAID OF FAIRBOURNE HALL and discovered that not only did we pick the same name for our heroines (Margaret—though mine goes by Meg), we picked the same name for their maids—Joan! Thank goodness I haven’t finished/turned in FOLLOW THE HEART yet, so I can re-name my Margaret’s maid and no one will think I stole these names from the inimitable Julie!

(You can read more about it and how I ended up renaming my character—and how it changed the character—here.)

But you want to be careful that you don’t go so far afield in naming your characters that they’re so weird and unusual that your readers either can’t pronounce them or they get pulled out of your story every time they see them. Good rule of thumb in a real-world setting (not talking fantasy or sci-fi here, obviously) is that if you’re going to give one of your characters an unusual name, make sure you give other characters more common names (e.g., Zarah and Bobby, Caylor and Dylan, Flannery and Jamie).

Also, if you are writing SFF or set somewhere like Wales or another country with tongue-twister names, keep in mind that stopping to try to sound out names will pull your reader out of your story. I’ve given up on a book that I might otherwise have enjoyed simply because I could not get my brain wrapped around the names (Welsh, in this case). This is something I tried to keep in mind with my Louisiana-set books, in which I tried to pick the easiest to read (if not pronounce) Cajun names. People don’t have to be able to pronounce them correctly—just recognize and remember them so they don’t trip (visually) over them whenever the names appear on the page. Varying the length of the names, as well as the first and last letters helps: Guidry, Landry, Boudreaux, Delacroix; mixed in with names like Hawthorne, O’Hara, Laurence, and Huntoon.

For some fun exercises to come up with character names, here are a couple of posts:
Fun Friday–What’s in a Name?
Creating Characters—What’s in a Name?

What do your characters wear?
How a person dresses says a lot about them. So before you get bogged down in details like plot and conflict and backstory and goals and motivations, go ahead and play virtual paperdolls with your characters.

One of the things I love, and probably get into too much, in writing historical-set fiction is costume research and dressing my characters. In fact, in my last two books, I loved it so much, I wrote a seamstress as the heroine of the last book, which gave me that many more excuses to delve more deeply into researching the fashions of the 1840s–50s.

Pinterest wasn’t around when I was writing my last contemporary series, and right now, the contemporary heroine I’m writing hasn’t done anything which required her wearing anything other than uber-casual outfits (jeans and a T-shirt or sweatshirt) or her chef’s coat. So I haven’t really had a reason to dress her. But maybe I could get inside her head a little bit better if I did take a few minutes to create a virtual wardrobe for her. (That linked image is my own personal dream wardrobe, done in PowerPoint—but I think I’ll do one for Jenn this week.)

Are your CHARACTERS ready?

Writing-Prompt Wednesday: Oh, No–You’re Stranded!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Writing-Prompt Wednesday

Oh, no! You’ve survived a plan crash, but find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere. Aside from the clothes you’re wearing, you have only TWO items from the following list. What two items are they and what are you going to do with them?

  • Bottle of shampoo
  • Pack of coffee filters
  • A piece of cargo netting
  • A set of 6 keys
  • A hairdryer
  • Eyeglasses
  • A Necktie
  • A teddy bear
  • A hardback copy of Frankenstein
  • A 3-foot by 6-foot tarp
  • Scissors
  • A flask of whiskey
  • A cowboy hat
  • A can of hairspray
  • .

    Feel free to write this from your point of view or use a character from your work in progress.

    Set your timer for 10 minutes and . . . go!

    Get Ready: Is Your PREMISE Ready? #ReadySetWrite

    Tuesday, January 13, 2015

    Get Ready: Is Your PREMISE Ready? #ReadySetWrite | KayeDacus.comIt sounds like the stupidest thing to start with, but if you’re going to write a book, you need to know what you’re telling a story about. In other words, you need a premise.

    I have a story idea, thanks.

    Well . . . story premise is a bit more complex than a story idea. Conversely, premise is not nearly as complex as plot.

    Obviously, you’re going to start with an idea. Whether that idea comes from a character or a what if…? scenario running through your head, your mind starts building a story around that idea. Now it’s time to take your story idea to the next level and develop it into a premise.

    According to Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel:

    The key ingredients that I look for in a fully formed breakout premise are (1) plausibility, (2) inherent conflict, (3) originality and (4) gut emotional appeal.

    (p. 40)

    Let’s explore Maass’s elements a bit so that you can determine if you have an idea or if you have a premise that will sustain your manuscript through to the end.

    Plausibility
    How many times have you sat watching a movie or TV show or reading a book and all of a sudden snorted in derision and grumbled, “Yeah, right. Like that would ever happen!”

    Whether it’s too many coincidences happening at just the right time to make things work out well for the main characters or a deus ex machina element—something/someone swooping in at the last moment to solve the unsolvable crisis—what you’ve just experienced is a lack or loss of plausibility. If a writer needs to resort to coincidences and/or deus ex machina machinations in order to get through to the end of the story, it’s likely the premise wasn’t a strong one to begin with.

    According to Maass, not only do we need to make sure our premises are realistic—“…most readers, me included, need to feel that the story we are being presented has some basis in reality” (40)—we also don’t want them to be so realistic, so ordinary, that they become predictable. One of the reasons we turn to fiction for entertainment is to escape from normal everyday life. We don’t want that in our fiction. We want something to catch our attention by triggering our imaginations and leading us to try to imagine where a story is going. We want to explore “what if…?”

    We don’t want a story premise that makes readers say,
    “Yeah, I saw that coming.”
    We want a story premise that makes readers say,
    “Wow! I wish I’d written that!”

    Inherent Conflict
    Conflict is the driving force of fiction. Without conflict, there is no story.

    It’s so tempting, especially for beginning writers, to shy away from conflict, to not want to put our beloved characters in difficult situations. But if you never get beyond that, if you never learn how to torture your characters, you’ll never be more than just a wannabe writer.

    When you’re testing your premise to see if it’s worth committing months, perhaps even years, to developing, you need to know if it creates enough opportunities for conflict to actually sustain the length of story you intend to write. This is why I said above that premise is more complex than just having a story idea.

    At this point, you don’t need to know every single conflict that will happen in your story—that’s for another stage of development when you’re actively working out your plot. Right now, all you need to do is be able to list two or three major conflicts that could happen in a story based on this premise.

    The next question to ask yourself is this: Does the world of my story have conflict built into it? Opposing forces, both strong, perhaps both in the right? If the milieu of the story is not only multifaceted but also involves opposing factions or points of view, then you have a basis for strong, difficult-to-resolve conflict. To put it another way, if problems already exist in your “place,” that is a good thing.

    (Maass, 41)

    Originality
    When we pitch our manuscripts to editors and agents, one of the things we’re told to do is include a list of similar titles in the proposal. Where will our story fit into the market? What already-published stories is it similar to in setting, tone, character, theme, content?

    And then once that’s established, it’s our job to point out how our story is unique, how it’s not like all of those already-published books. This is where I think newbies attending writing conferences for the first time get really confused, because this is a somewhat oxymoronic situation: tell us how your novel is just like everything else we publish but different. The nuance of it, that usually gets lost, is that publishers want to know that they can market a book the same way they market everything else they publish—but that readers are going to want to read it because it has an original and unique slant to it that no one else has ever done before.

    Remember the adage to write what you know? You know what? No one else has ever had the same thoughts and experiences that you have. Even if you’re an identical twin. No one else thinks about or feels the exact same way you do about things. So tap into what makes you unique and bring that to your premise.

    What about your premise? Is it truly a fresh look at your subject, a perspective that no one else but you can bring to it? Is it the opposite of what we expect or a mix of elements such as we’ve never seen before? If not, you have some work to do. If so, you may have something there.

    (Maass, 47)

    Gut Emotional Appeal
    The fiction we enjoy the most—no matter if it’s romance, sci-fi, true crime, sweeping family sagas, or fantasy epics—is enjoyable to us because it hits us in that sweet-spot emotionally. Perhaps you like reading tear-jerkers. Or maybe you eschew those for books that make you laugh out loud. Or maybe the type of book you pick up depends on the mood you’re in that day.

    As writers, one of our primary jobs is to grab our readers by the emotions and not let go, whether it’s creating sigh-worthy heroes or horrifying scenes of death and mayhem.

    When examining your premise, ask yourself what the emotional stakes are. How do you want readers to react to it—do you want to make them laugh? cry? cringe in horror? sit on the edge of their seats?

    If a premise has gut emotional appeal, the novel will start to write itself in my mind. The very idea invites me to imagine characters, complications and dramatic climaxes. It gets me. It feels personal. That, I believe, is because it touches emotions that are deep, real and common to us all.

    (Maass,pp. 47–48)

    Get Ready: Is Your PREMISE Ready?
    It’s time to put what you just read into action. Either in the comments or on your own blog with a link to it in the comments here, take your premise and examine it for these four elements. What’s your premise? Is it plausible? What’s the inherent conflict? What makes it original? And what’s the emotional impact you want it to have?

    __________________________________________
    Works Cited:

    Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.

    Ready. Set. Write.: Planning, Preparing, and Writing Your Novel This Year

    Monday, January 12, 2015

    Ready, Set, Write! Planning, Preparing, and Writing Your Novel This Year | KayeDacus.com

    It’s the beginning of another year, which means people have set New Year’s Resolutions (I set measurable, personally achievable goals instead). And this is the year you’ve promised yourself that you’re finally going to get around to writing that novel. The one that you’ve always dreamed of writing but have never actually sat down to do.

    Or this is the year that you’ve resolved to finish your manuscript. Or this is the year that you’re going to write two, three, or more manuscripts—but you just aren’t sure how to do it since it takes you a year or longer to get one story down on paper just right.

    Hopefully this new series, Ready. Set. Write., will help you in achieving the goal of a complete manuscript this year. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or if you’ve completed multiple manuscripts. My hope is that there will be something for all of us to learn together in this process.

    Obviously, there will be lots of parts to this series—each of the three components contains enough information to keep me blogging about it for over a year. So, when I can’t be comprehensive due to time/word-count constraints, I’ll try my best to give you lists of resources for further study.

    In order to make sure that I’m covering questions that are most pressing:

    What are your biggest problems with getting started with a new story idea?

    Fun Friday: Classic Literature as Contemporary Video Blogs

    Friday, January 9, 2015

    Fun Friday 2013

    Two years ago, I got caught up in the internet/YouTube sensation known as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. Not only did I love watching it, I was also a Kickstarter contributor for the DVD set. And I preordered the novelization audiobook the minute the link went live on Audible.

    What started with LBD has now become the latest trend in web-based episodic entertainment. So I thought I’d compile a brief list of the few I’ve found, some of which I’ve watched, some of which I haven’t had a chance to get into yet.

    But let’s start with the one that (for me) started it all . . . The Lizzie Bennet Diaries:

    .
    Out of this was born the Pemberly Digital channel (named after Darcy’s fictional company in LBD). Pemberly Digital followed up on the success with LBD and created Emma Approved (based on Jane Austen’s Emma) and then, in partnership with PBS, Frankenstein, MD (you guessed right, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Neither of these ended up keeping my attention, but now they’ve started a new series, and one that I’m more than willing to give a chance:

    .

    Because of the success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, we’re now starting to see a proliferation of Classic Literature Adaptation Webseries from all over the world. As I mentioned above, here are the ones that have caught my attention. I’m already hooked on East and West (Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South), and I’m going to give From Mansfield with Love a couple more episodes to see if it gets better than the first two—because I’m one of the few people in the world who likes Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

    Nothing Much to Do is a teen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing from New Zealand. I’ve watched the first episode and am interested in seeing where it goes. The others below that, I haven’t actually watched but I’m really interested in: In Earnest (The Importance of Being Earnest), Green Gables Fables/AnneWithAnE (Anne of Green Gables—and apparently Gilbert Blythe, Josie Pye, and Ruby Gillis have their own side vlogs), The Autobiography of Jane Eyre (can’t put my finger on what book this one is based on), and Classic Alice, which apparently explores a whole bunch of works of classic literature. So here are the kickoff episodes of each:
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    So which ones have I missed that you’ve been watching?

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