Posted in books, characters, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Enriching characters through backstory

What is the most unusual profession a character has had from a book you’ve read?

Death_to_stock_kinckerbocker_photography_2I asked this question to a group of writers I work with and got some interesting answers, from a magical beast researcher to professional occult consultant to uprooting human babies grown in soil.

It was the start of a discussion on how backstory influences a character and how a well-developed backstory makes a stronger and more interesting character.

There are several important areas of backstory to consider:

  • Convictions/Beliefs: political, social, economic views; theories on life; HOW did they acquire these?
  • Education: formal/non-formal, location, type of school
  • Family/Friends: be detailed, include those not active in story (may be later)
  • Geography: detail environment that helped shape character (climate, socio-economic, culture, history)
  • Key Past Events: events that shaped personality, fears, beliefs, etc.
  • Past Success/Failures: track record, worst memories, reasons behind fears, etc.
  • Phobias: reason behind avoidance or push to succeed, big or small
  • Profession: $$, love it/hate it?, biding time, stepping stone, dream job, etc.
  • Quirks: what makes them unique physically, psychologically, socially (Forest Gump, A Beautiful Mind)
  • Value System: define their version of right and wrong; what do they value in themselves/others, etc.
  • Talents/Skills: are they used/abandoned, many/few, etc.
  • Time Period: make it accurate, have a good reason for choosing it

Any backstory elements you choose to use should add something to the character and story. Superfluous details aren’t needed.

writing-1209121_1920If you find you’re struggling with developing a strong backstory or aren’t sure how to incorporate the backstory elements you’ve chosen in a meaningful way, here’s a great exercise to help you delve a little deeper:

  • Pick ONE element of backstory to develop: Moved constantly due to financial instability, as adult hoards money, intends to live in same house forever
  • Choose THREE ways that element manifested in the PAST: Craves stability in every aspect of life, won’t change despite bad situation, has witnessed crimes in neighborhood
  • Choose THREE ways this manifests in the PRESENT: House needs constant repair, poor job leaves no money for repairs, hides from neighbors

One last bit of advice on backstory is to DO THE RESEARCH

Whatever professional or educational background you choose should be realistic.

It takes 20 years of service to retire from the military. There are no 25-year-old retired ex-Navy SEALs, and it’s highly unlikely that they’re billionaires from their service alone. Electing not to re-enlist isn’t the same as retiring.

Becoming a psychiatrist takes 12 years on average (and includes going to medical school), and it takes about 10 years to become a licensed clinical psychologist, and doctor patient relationships would ruin a career.

Of course, lines can be pushed and crossed in fiction at times, but it’s important to be as realistic as possible or readers won’t be able to suspend their belief enough to enjoy the story.

Posted in writing, writing advice, writing tips

3 Tips for Researching #Paranormal (for your writing) #research #podcast

For Halloween, I decided a paranormal themed podcast was in order! Read the transcript or listen to the podcast for tips on researching paranormal for your writing and incorporating what you learn into your story.

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The blending of fiction genres has led to a variety of paranormal subgenres, from paranormal romance to paranormal military fiction. Readers love paranormal fiction, but they expect it to be either factual or wholly unique. Now, when talking about factual paranormal fiction, what do I mean? I mean researching the common theories, terms, mythos, and culture. Writing paranormal may sound as easy as throwing in a few ghosts or vampires. Writing paranormal that truly draws in readers takes a little more than that. Today I’ll discuss how to research paranormal and incorporate what you learn into a convincing story that will capture reader’s attention.

Research

How do you find reliable information on your chosen paranormal topic? That’s a tough question, because when you type “ghosts” into a search bar, you’ll get anything and everything. There are two important aspects of researching the paranormal for a work of fiction.

First:  You’re not looking for a scientifically proven set of facts. You’re looking for the general consensus among a community of believers. What are the hallmarks of belief in ghosts? What do most accept as standard and what are the outlier theories? What is dismissed outright? Talk to people who actually believe and participate in the culture. It’s important to understand the core beliefs of a paranormal topic in order to ground your story in the basics. Then you can take it where you will.

Second: Learn the culture. Given that I’ve been working of The Ghost Host: Episode 2 lately, I’ve been researching ghosts, ghost hunting, and concepts of the soul and afterlife. Even though Echo doesn’t need as many physical tools as the average ghost hunter who can’t see ghosts, it’s important that she knows what others are using to confirm her talents and explore their own paranormal experiences. I need to know about EMF, EVP, protocol for séances, what herbs are involved in ritual cleansings, and more. Know the terminology, tools, and implements of your topic so your character can convincingly belong to that world.

Applying what you’ve learned

The tough part of research is that you learn thousand things when you only needed to know about one. A mistake writers sometimes make is trying to cram everything they learned into their book. Just because a reader is interested in ghosts doesn’t mean they want a chemical breakdown of why salt disrupts spiritual energy.

When incorporating your research into your stories there are two questions to ask:

Is this integral to the plot? If it is, blend your research into the story as needed. Don’t info dump. Give the reader only what they need to know in each scene in order for them to suspend disbelief and stay involved in the story. Add research as you would leave pieces of a breadcrumb trail: Just enough to follow along.

The next question you want to ask is: Will this help create a believable setting or world? In The Ghost Host, I mention that one of the characters sleeps with a hex bag under his bed. Other than a brief mention of what “might” be included in a hex bag, I don’t go into any more detail. The story itself doesn’t deal with hex bags. I used it only to add to Kyran’s character and illustrate that he comes from a family who believes in the occult and doesn’t think twice about what others would consider odd.

If a bit of research doesn’t enhance the story or help with world building, save it for something else.

Suspend your own disbelief

Writing paranormal fiction, by its very nature, requires authors to write in a way that convinces readers to put aside typical logic and science and accept the unexplainable as fact. You can’t convincingly do that unless you as the writer can do the same thing. Now, just because you write about vampires doesn’t mean you have to believe in them. You do, however, need to believe they could exist in the world you’ve created in order to convince a reader to believe.

This requires the paranormal aspects of your story to hold equal weight with the plot and characters. A brief mention of one character believing in something paranormal during the course of plot and character development doesn’t constitute a complex blending of story and paranormal. If the main resolution of the story hinges on the paranormal, it can’t come as a surprise to the reader. No one likes to get involved in a coming of age story only to have a horde of ghosts jump out at the end to resolve some critical plot point. Trust me, it happens.

Even in “The Sixth Sense” where the twist is that Bruce Willis is in fact a ghost, the entire storyline revolved around the viewer believing that ghosts are real and involve themselves in the world of the living. Had there been absolutely no mention of the paranormal and the story focused only on a young boy receiving counseling for behavior issues, only to have Willis suddenly figure out he’s a ghost with unresolved issues and the boy knew it the whole time, would have been confusing at the least.

Just as when an author researches another culture, specific location, scientific breakthrough, or historical event, due diligence is required in order to fully capture what they are researching. There are many people around the world who believe in the paranormal. If you intend to write an authentic account of someone experiencing paranormal phenomena, treat it the same way you would write about anything else. Your fiction may be someone else’s real beliefs, and they’ll spot lazy or halfhearted work a mile away.

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Posted in writing, writing thoughts

Reading as a Writer: Looking for the Good

Whatever you do for a living, if you’ve ever watched a show that portrays someone in your profession and they get it all wrong, or half wrong, or even just a tiny bit wrong, don’t you find yourself rolling your eyes or commenting to the person next to you on how it really works?

This is why my hubby and I couldn’t watch that TV show Numb3rs together. Or that lousy movie with Jenna Fischer as a dental hygienist.

beautiful burnSometimes, reading is like this for me. It’s not always easy to turn off the writer part of my brain and just read to enjoy. All my writing pet peeves poke at me while I read, and make the experience less fun. Then I have to remind myself that some other writer is reading my books having the same thoughts!

So, instead of critiquing as I read, I try to learn from it instead. I just finished reading “Beautiful Burn” by Jamie McGuire and loved all the work she put into researching how the Hotshot firefighting teams in Colorado live and work. Having lived near or in Colorado for most of my life, I appreciated the level of detail she put into her writing, and it pushed me to dig a little deeper into some of the research I’ve been working on for “Wicked Revenge.”

jm barrieI’ve also been reading JM Barrie’s “Peter Pan” (the original book) which, let me tell you, is far removed from the Disney version, or any other version I’ve ever seen. It’s bizarre and really not something a kid would understand or probably be interested by. I have a pretty good vocabulary and love British fiction, but I’m still looking up words and trying to figure out what Barrie is trying to get at half the time.

BUT, I love the honesty of his characters. Peter has this moment of intense jealousy as Wendy decides to go home to her mother and the Lost Boys say they’ll go with her because they want a mother too, and Peter mentions a saying in The Neverland that every time you breathe, a grownup dies, so he starts breathing really hard and fast. It’s dark, but completely honest for a young boy who’s losing his only family and is too proud to admit he wants them to stay. I want to be able to write that sort of frank honesty in my characters, even if I’ll leave the archaic words and style to Barrie.

So, whether you’re watching a TV show that’s totally misrepresenting what you do every day at work, or reading about cars driving 55 miles per hour down a windy, two-lane mountain pass in a blizzard (which, trust me, would NEVER happen), there’s almost definitely something else that’s going to be wonderfully inspiring. Don’t forget to look for it.

Posted in free book, marketing, writing

The Freebie Debate

Have you ever been perusing Amazon or B&N and saw a book that piqued your interest, but you weren’t sure whether or not to get it?

Large Stack of BooksHow does price affect your decision making?

If it’s free, do you think, “Awesome! I’ll give it a try. If I hate it, I’m out nothing and can move on to something else.”

OR…

Do you think, “I wonder why this book is free? Is it not very good? Can they not sell it? Does the author not think it’s very good either?”

Basically, do readers in today’s market see free ebooks as opportunities to explore new authors, or a statement about how the author/publisher values that particular book?

Whether or not to offer free books has been debated among indie authors for quite a few years. I recently read a blog post about a group of authors who have banded together to vow never to offer free ebooks because they believe it devalues their work and the effort it took to produce it.

Now, I have used free book promotions from the moment I figured out how to get Amazon to price match. Yes, it’s effectiveness has decreased over the last few years because there are so many free ebooks now, but to me, the benefits of having a free ebook available to readers hasn’t disappeared.

Price doesn’t determine the value of a book. I could price all my ebooks and $19.99. That doesn’t mean my ebooks are worth that amount, or that I value the work I put into creating them as more than a book I price at $1.99. Price does not equal value in this case. As an indie author, price is something you can manipulate and learn from. Try one price, watch sales. Try another, watch again. Eventually you find, either through trial and error and/or research, what a good price point is for your genre and book length.

For me, that includes free ebooks.

Why?

For one, I am a reader myself, and I’m timid about trying out new authors. I’ve picked up some pretty awful books over the years, and I’ve randomly chosen amazing ones, too! It’s a gamble every time. Taking away the barrier of price makes it that much easier to entice readers to give one of my books a try. If they enjoy it, I usually get 2-3 consecutive sales on that series, potentially more if they enjoy my writing and pick up another series.

All from one free book.

Did that one free book make readers think I didn’t value my own work? No. It introduced them to my writing.

Creating a Marketing PlanAnother reason I choose to offer free books is because many of my books are Young Adult titles. Teens don’t have a lot of purchasing power in many cases, especially in non-US markets. They can download free books at the click of a button, or read on Wattpad with no restrictions. Many teens need permission and a credit card number to purchase ebooks. That means convincing their parents the purchase is worth the money. That gets easier when they can say they’ve already read the first book and loved it.

Now, I know I’m on my soap box a little, but I think the debate over free books is a frustrating one when argued simply on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the tactic. Every author has to figure out what works for them and their genre. I’m not telling anyone else how they should run their business or career. This is what works for me, at this time. I’ll change when and if I need to. I don’t need to join a group for or against a particular marketing tactic. I do my own research, including talking to other authors about what works for them, and make my decisions based on that research.

If other authors don’t want to offer free books because it goes against their views, that’s totally fine. Other people won’t agree, and that’s fine too. Just do your research and make a decision based on that and not simply on what someone else tells you is the right thing to do.

Posted in agents

Publishing Primer: Agents Part 2

Read Part One: Benefits and Drawbacks of Agents HERE.

iStock_000024086772LargeDo you need an agent?

Whether or not to pursue a literary agent is a personal decision based on what you need and what direction you want to take your book.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

QUESTION #1

What type of publisher do you want?
Small and indie publishers DO NOT require an agent.
Agent + “Big 5” publishers MAY = more positive response

QUESTION #2

How knowledgeable are you of the book industry?
Be willing to RESEARCH
Learn about CONTRACTS or get HELP
Put in the TIME

QUESTION #3

Are you willing to give up 10-15% of your royalties in exchange for the services an agent can provide?
The cost may or may not be worth the help.
There is no right or wrong answer.
Some authors do very well without an agent, and others have become successful thanks in part to the work their agents have done.

Stop back by soon for more discussion on Publishers, Agents, and Publishing in this new Publishing Primer series.