As a writer or a reader, the types of stories we love reflect something about us: the kind of people we are (or would like to be), eras and places – real or imaginary – that we want to visit, characters we wish we could hang out with. (Book boyfriends, anyone?)
Whether they’re labeled ‘Heist’, ‘Road Trip’, or ‘Redemption’, we all have cherished books and movies that push our personal Like button. Sometimes they’re guilty pleasures, sometimes they’re best sellers, but reading or watching our favorite stories touches a special place in our hearts. They make our world better, even if only for a little while. They inspire us.
Screenwriter/novelist Alexandra Sokoloff believes writers especially should make their own list of story types that resonate with them. Making up our own labels gives each of us a private mental shorthand that tells our brains what to expect from the tale. Also, it’s way more fun.
Here’s a sample of her personal list, cribbed from her extremely helpful book on plotting, Writing Love. (Check out the link below!)
Caper/Heist/Con: Ocean’s 11, Inception (caper structure in a sci fi film)
Mentor Story: Karate Kid, The King’s Speech
Soul Journey: The Razor’s Edge, Eat Pray Love
Mysterious Stranger: High Plains Drifter, Mary Poppins
Note that these types of story cross genres, but they all have recognizable elements, such as ‘assembling the team’ in caper stories or ‘setting out for the special destination’ in road trip stories. Often a book or movie will fall into more than one category. ‘Thelma and Louise’ is a road trip story, but it’s also an ‘On the Run from the Law’ story.
Here are some of my favorite story structures. Naturally, you will find several historical romances. 🙂 :
The Big Makeover: Princess Diaries, Pretty Woman, My Big Fat Greek Wedding I
Master/Mistress of the Game: The Grand Sophy, These Old Shades, Second Season
Rescue/Mission: The Magnificent Seven, The Blues Brothers
Road Trip: The Lady Risks All, It Happened One Night, Angel Rogue
Noble Rogue: The Traitor, All the Ways to Ruin a Rogue
So what kind of stories talk to you?
…or the manor, castle or house. I live in suburbia, but I learned my love of old houses early thanks to aunts who lived in homes built in the early part of the 20th century. My aunts’ houses had features like huge screened in porches, high ceilings, socket doors and sleeping porches, all terribly exotic to my youthful mind. The kleenex-box sized bathroom on Aunt Bert’s first floor that had no insulation and was always freezing cold in winter and the old fittings in Aunt Helen’s kitchen struck me as insignificant. Mind you, Aunt Bert and Aunt Helen, and their families, probably felt differently since they actually had to live with these inconveniences. But I loved those houses. I can still recall the layout of each of them.
One of the most important parts of my process is figuring out where my characters live. I could never be an architect, as my math skills stop at basic geometry; nor do I have a great eye for interior decoration, but I study floor plans and hunt down drawings and descriptions of historic houses, furniture and textiles. Here is a Jacobean interior, similar to some you’ll find in To be Seduced.
When a house was built influences its exterior, but how it’s furnished and decorated inside is a matter of the owner’s taste. I had great fun in Her Scottish Groom comparing the tastes of Diantha’s family with their new money and Kieran’s much older house. I used photos from visits to England, Scotland, and France to get ideas for details of the Rossburn seat. To emphasize the ‘old money vs. new’, I also looked for ways to make the Scottish house sound older than the book’s 1875 setting. Their antiques, for example, would date from 1775 to 1825. And they did not, to the heroine’s dismay, have indoor plumbing. (I don’t have plans for a sequel to HSG, but if I ever do, I will find a way to mention that one of the first improvements made with Quinn money was the addition of bathrooms. Lack of modern bathrooms would be a huge drawback to time travel.)
For the Quinns, I studied mansions in Newport to see how ultra-rich Americans of an earlier era spent their money. Opulent, dripping with gold leaf or frivolous fake oriental details, they provided an idea of the mind-set of people who could buy whatever they wanted, including an aristocratic bloodline for their descendants.
For my current WIP, I’ve gone online to explore English Heritage houses, London townhouses and the homes of the working poor. As always, I am fascinated by the different designs and styles, each lovely in its own way. I am quite happy in my suburban house, since it contains my family, but the pleasure of creating dream houses for my characters never fades.
What about your dream home? Is it a modern loft or an 1800s Queen Anne mansion or a 16th century farmhouse? If you need inspiration, visit http://www.english-heritage.org.uk to find more house like Apethorpe Hall, pictured at the top of this post.
I can’t speak for other writers, but I’ve found that placing exposition into my stories is either a pleasure or a giant pain. ‘Exposition’ is related to ‘expose’, and thus refers to unveiling information the reader must know in order to make sense of the story. One must have exposition, just not too much of it at one time.
The most common example of this kind of information is back story, or past events which influence the characters or plot of a book, but which do not take place during the length of time the book covers. In Nicole Jordan’s To Desire a Wicked Duke, the heroine’s loss of her fiancé in battle occurred well before the book opens, but it affects her decisions and her relationship with the hero. Her fiancé’s death is part of the back story.
Most new writers, including yours truly, often open their first manuscript with pages and pages explaining the hero or heroine’s home, or family of twelve, or college days, or…it really doesn’t matter, because your reader wants to know about the main characters, not their 500-year-old family pedigree, no matter how distinguished it is. These reams of exposition are the dreaded ‘info-dump’, guaranteed to put off agents, editors and readers alike.
For film it’s said that for every foot of film used in the final cut, there are two feet on the cutting room floor. I’ve come to think of exposition the same way. Yes, it is necessary to come up with detailed character biographies that do include birth year, birth place, family history (and probably their dates as well), education, favorite colors, the character’s particular talents and his or her greatest flaws, etc., etc. — even though this information may never appear in the actual book.
Some of you are probably throwing up your hands and asking, “Then why go to so much trouble?” Considering the research and effort that goes into creating this kind of detail, that is an excellent question!
The answer is that when we writers set down that much information about a character, it nails him or her down in our heads. This kind of detail helps us understand how characters respond to each other as well as to challenges, failures or successes. The writer knows how their hero or heroine will go about reaching their goals. And on a purely practical level, if all of this is written down beforehand, the writer has a reference any time a question about a character’s past comes up. That saves a lot of time all by itself.
As a historical romance writer, I also use exposition to explain aspects of life in past eras that modern readers wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with. For example, in Her Scottish Groom I used it to include details about life in Scotland during the late Victorian era. Trains, cruise ships, and telegrams had been around for years by then. The heroine is accustomed to indoor plumbing.
My debut, To be Seduced, presented even more of a challenge because it takes place during the Restoration. Even something as straightforward as attending the theater needed a little explanation. The experience differed significantly from seeing plays during the nineteenth century, which is heavily represented in historical romances. The trick in both cases was to create vivid scenes for readers to enjoy, not give them a history lesson!
Clues to characters and period or universe (in the case of fantasy or paranormal romance) are imperative to an authentic, well-rounded story. But exposition, like everything else in a well-written book, should be layered in carefully, and nothing should appear on the page that does not advance or enhance the story.
What are some of the most interesting or unexpected bits of information revealed about a character in a book you’ve read?
This isn’t breaking news, but I’m especially excited about this year’s RITA nominations. This award recognizes outstanding romance books and novellas from the previous year, and the awards are given out at the annual Romance Writers of America convention.
This year, I actually know two of the finalists! Cheryl St. John is nominated in the Romantic Novella category for ‘Mountain Rose’, from the anthology To be a Mother. And Mary Connealy’s Doctor in Petticoats is nominated for Inspirational Romance.
Second, some of my favorite books of last year are in the running. Below are the categories I’ll be watching most closely. Check out this link to the Romance Writers of America website for the complete list of 2011 finalists. Which books would you like to win?
2011 RITA Finalists for Historical Romance
- Countess of Scandal by Laurel McKee (Forever; Alex Logan, editor)
- The Forbidden Rose by Joanne Bourne (Berkley Trade; Wendy McCurdy, editor)
- His at Night by Sherry Thomas (Bantam Books; Caitlin Alexander, editor)
- A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James (Avon Books; Carrie Feron, editor)
- Last Night’s Scandal by Loretta Chase (Avon; May Chen, editor)
- A Little Bit Wild by Victoria Dahl (Zebra Books; John Scognamiglio, editor)
- One Wicked Sin by Nicola Cornick (HQN Books; Kimberley Young, editor)
- Open Country by Kaki Warner (Berkley Trade; Wendy McCurdy, editor)
2011 Finalists for Inspirational Romance
- A Convenient Wife by Anna Schmidt (Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historical; Tina James, editor)
- Doctor in Petticoats by Mary Connealy (Barbour Publishing; Rebecca Germany, editor)
- Finding Her Way Home by Linda Goodnight (Steeple Hill Love Inspired; Allison Lyons, editor)
- In Harm’s Way by Irene Hannon (Revell; Jennifer Leep, editor)
- Maid to Match by Deeanne Gist (Bethany House Publishers; David Long and Julie Klassen, editors)
- Shades of Morning by Marlo M. Schalesky (WaterBrook Multnomah; Shannon Marchese, editor)
- The Wedding Garden by Linda Goodnight (Steeple Hill Love Inspired; Allison Lyons, editor)
- Whisper on the Wind by Maureen Lang (Tyndale House Publishers; Stephanie Broene, editor)
- Within My Heart by Tamera Alexander (Bethany House Publishers; Karen Schurrer and Charlene Patterson, editors)
2011 Finalists for Historical Regency Romance
- His Christmas Pleasure by Cathy Maxwell (Avon Books; Lucia Macro, editor)
- The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig (Dutton; Erika Imranyi, editor)
- Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean (Avon Books; Carrie Feron, editor)
- Provocative in Pearls by Madeline Hunter (Jove; Wendy McCurdy, editor)
- To Surrender to a Rogue by Cara Elliott (Forever; Frances Jalet-Miller, editor)
- Twice Tempted by a Rogue by Tessa Dare (Ballantine Books; Kate Collins, editor)
- When Harry Met Molly by Kieran Kramer (St. Martin’s Press; Jennifer Enderlin, editor)
- The Wicked Wyckerly by Patricia Rice (NAL/Signet; Ellen Edwards, editor)
2011 Finalists for Romance Novella
- “Blame It on the Blizzard” by Jennifer Greene in Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Harlequin; Marsha Zinberg, editor)
- “A Dundee Christmas” by Brenda Novak in That Christmas Feeling (Harlequin Superromance; Paula Eykelhof, editor)
- “Friendly Fire” by Jill Shalvis in Born on the 4th of July (Harlequin Blaze; Brenda Chin, editor)
- “Love Me to Death” by Maggie Shayne in Heart of Darkness (HQN Books; Leslie Wainger, editor)
- “Mistletoe Magic” by Sandra Hyatt in Under the Millionaire’s Mistletoe (Silhouette Desire; Krista Stroever, editor)
- “Mountain Rose” by Cheryl St. John in To Be a Mother (Steeple Hill Love Inspired Historical; Patience Smith, editor)
- “Shifting Sea” by Virginia Kantra in Burning Up (Berkley Sensation; Cindy Hwang, editor)
- “The Wrong Brother” by Maureen Child in Under the Millionaire’s Mistletoe (Silhouette Desire; Krista Stroever, editor)
- The RITA Reading Challenge 2011 (smartbitchestrashybooks.com)
Today I’m guest blogging at My Book Addiction and More! The subject is book covers and what makes them work — or an Epic Fail. I’m also giving away a signed copy of Her Scottish Groom, so come on by.
Monica Burns is blogging today at Authors by Moonlight! She’s got a great post about coping with one of a writer’s greatest fears: a silent muse. We all have days when we’re low on energy — follow the link and let us Moonlighters know how you cope when your candle has burnt out at both ends.
If you think writers don’t suffer from stage fright, guess again. True, we don’t expose ourselves directly to an audience, like an actor does. But good writers write from their heart, and that always involves an element of risk. My next book comes out one week from today, and I’m not jaded enough to be anything but thrilled about that! Getting published is a writer’s dream come true. On the other hand, I’m having a recurring nightmare where I’m in a bookstore, holding a copy of the book. When I open it, I discover that I sent my editor the wrong file. Instead of the story I wrote, the book is filled with incomplete chapters, notes and even a couple of emails! My story doesn’t exist!
Obviously, no editor would accept anything but the completed, polished story they accepted in the first place. (Besides, I was so unnerved when I woke up that I double checked the copies of Her Scottish Groom currently in my possession. To my immense relief, the story in there is, for better or worse, the final, edited, version.) And my dream could have been worse. For one thing, I wasn’t naked. For another, no green jello monsters or giant bugs chased me through the bookstore aisles.
I think the horror I experienced in my dream came holding a bound, finished book that was clearly anything but completed. It was the public exposure of this error that got to me. I have sure opened up my laptop to find passages in a WIP that certainly did come out the way I intended! (And I bet I’m not the only writer this has happened to.) The purpose of a first draft is to get the story out of your head and into some vaguely structured form recognizable as a plot. Only then can a writer read her work over and say “Wow. This stinks.” That’s when she takes a closer look and fixes it.
Believe me, it is way, WAY better to find glaring errors in the early stages of a book than in a published volume. Like when you use the word ‘wrist’ five times in two paragraphs. Or you have a dinner scene that devolves into a description of the meal that sounds like something from a food magazine. Delicious, but does it move the plot along, or show something about the characters involved? Or wait, maybe we need the description here to give the readers a chance to catch their breaths. What happened in the previous scene? Whether a writer plots or pantses (sorry, Merriam-Webster) our goal is to write stories that won’t give us (or anyone else) nightmares.
I can’t be the only one who has nightmares about things that are important to them. What are some of your scary dreams?
The announcement that Borders is going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy saddens me, even though it was not a surprise. The company has had financial problems and a revolving door leadership for years. To the employees of the 200 stores that are closing, I am so sorry. I’ve been in your shoes and it’s awful. To the customers who are losing what may the only bookstore in their area, I am sorry too. I noticed a post about it at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and read it, cause they’re awesome. Then I started reading through the comments, cause those of us who read SBTB are smart too, right? Right!
Despite speculation that the Borders closures will give independent neighborhood booksellers a chance to break into new markets that the Evil Big Box Store choked off, Borders’ 200 store closings and bankruptcy are not good news. I sympathize with indies and want to support them, but the nearest one that sells brand-spanking new books requires a 45-minute round trip.
And forgive my bluntness, but a large number of comments following that article on SBTB mentioned that a lot of indies have lousy romance selections — that is, when they have them at all. Every Borders, Barnes & Noble or Books A Million I’ve visited had romance sections, while some indies consider themselves above selling such an ‘inferior’ genre. I have personally run into this attitude, despite the fact that romance sales have increased every year, remaining unaffected by hard economic times.
Granted, independent booksellers don’t have the buying power of a large chain, and thus cannot get bulk discounts on my mass market paperbacks. And since my books are at the lower end of the print market price scale, an indie store won’t make as much money on my books as they do on hardcover and trade paperbacks that have a longer shelf life. I get that. Paying bills and having something left at the end of the month is important to me too.
This makes me appreciate all the more those indies who do buy a large percentage of romance, who host romance reading clubs, who handsell their favorite romance authors. I know you’re out there and each and every one of you rocks!
Then there’s the bookstore representative who told me on the phone “Oh, our owner doesn’t stock romance”, in a tone that suggested that romance lovers sully the atmosphere of any establishment we enter.
Lighten up, Mr. Owner! Yeah, I write popular fiction that requires a happy ending as part of its definition. Maybe it is a little Disney-esque in some people’s eyes, but on the other hand, I’m not shooting Bambi’s mom. And nobody dies of cancer. In my books, the mother can BE the heroine. Or if I wrote medical romance, the heroine could be an oncologist. Romance writers these days give heroines guts and a backbone and a brain and a gorgeous man who thinks she’s all that and a bag of chips. Sadly, this is still considered escapism instead of what strong, smart women deserve. Of course, I could give one of my characters cancer, but there are already people fighting that disease in real life. Maybe they’d like to read something where both halves of the couple are still alive at the end. As a reader, a good romance leaves me with a little glow inside that brightens my day. As a writer, I can only hope to do that for others.
What would you like to see replace those 200 Borders stores that are closing? Other chain bookstores? Independent booksellers? What kind of amenities or services would you like to have in a neighborhood bookstore, whatever the size?
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you—trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines…use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, the whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.” — Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2
I studied a lot of drama in college, and later used what I had learned in several community theater productions. I’m lucky to live in a good ‘theatre’ town, with several non-profit companies that cover everything from Euripides to musicals to original works. Although the acting bug stopped biting me awhile ago, I loved nearly every moment of rehearsal and performance, not least because I had the chance to appear in some wonderful productions.
Plays differ from movies in a lot of ways, but one of the biggest contrasts is, as one of my favorite directors used to say, “Movies move, plays talk.” Film, based on photography, depends on images to tell a story. Theater, defined by the presence of actors and audience in the same space at the same time, depends on dialogue.
While I write books, not plays, and have an array of writing devices to use in story-telling, I still love good verbal interplay between characters. Whether as a writer or a reader, I demand a lot of a character’s speech (and since narrative can go inside someone’s head, their thoughts).
A character’s vocabulary and grammar can inform the reader of his or her background, social or educational level, and relationship with other people in the room in the space of a few words. Our speech is influenced by our gender, our mood at the moment, and our basic natures. So is a believable fictional character’s.
One of my favorite series is the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt mysteries by Anne Perry. Thomas, although the son of a gamekeeper, speaks like a member of the upper class. This works because Perry explains that as a boy, he was permitted to share lessons with the son of his father’s employer. That’s only one example. A cowboy from Texas won’t have the same accent or slang as a Boston-raised lawyer, even if they both went to Harvard.
Suppose a character alters her accent to fit into her current workplace or social circle. She may still use expressions she learned in childhood, like Eliza Doolittle at tea with Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady — or my old acting professor. Bill is a New Orleans native who needed to tame his accent in order to increase the range of roles he could get. It always cracked us up when he would say, with perfect standard pronunciation, “I am fixing to go down to the store. Do you all want something?”
One of the biggest aspects of a character’s speech and thought is gender. Men aren’t as verbal as woman, and unless it’s in an area they are trained to observe, they often don’t notice details. A hero who identifies the designer and exact color of the heroine’s dress is not going to come off as realistic. Yes, some heterosexual men can identify colors like puce or burnt sienna, if they’re artists like my stepmother’s brother. But most men will say “purple” or “brown”, like my hubby.
Male or female, a believable character will mirror real life in how they address others. We don’t speak to our supervisors the same way we do our toddlers (tempting as that may be on occasion). Depending on the time and place, it can be inappropriate for a man to swear at, or in the presence of, ladies — and ladies might be prohibited from using anything stronger than ‘lud’ or ‘darn’. Of course, even a proper gentleman and lady involved in certain intimate activities might use crude language with their partners, to their mutual enjoyment. Context and motivation are key reasons behind a writer’s word choice. 😉
Do you have any favorite conversations between characters in your books? I’d love to hear about them.
And as an extra bonus, I’ll send out a wee little prize related to Her Scottish Groom to the first person who identifies the actors pictured at the top if this post, along with their best-known science fiction roles. Hint: the photo is from a British production of Hamlet.