Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Seeing Through a Character’s Eyes

subway station

In my novel about Manhattan-based architect Archer Landis, he travels from New York to Brussels to visit the site of a major design project about to break ground. His firm, Landis + Porter, has the commission to design the reconstruction of a major station in the city’s rail and subway system. The station I chose for his firm to work on was Schuman station, located in the heart of the European Union district. Aside from strictly architectural considerations, it faces two major challenges.

Foremost, Landis is worried about terrorism, and he wants to be sure there’s nothing about his firm’s design that makes it more vulnerable. Would a glass canopy make terrorists think access is simple, or that they are too easily scrutinized?

I selected Schuman station some years ago when I began working on this book and so was shocked when, in the morning of March 22, 2016, suicide bombers attacked Maalbeek metro station, one stop east of Schuman. This attack was coordinated with two others at the Brussels airport. In all, 35 people were killed and more than 300 injured.

The second concern arises from protests at the site, because it will involve the destruction of a building regarded as “Belgium’s Stonewall,” where a young gay activist was killed some years earlier. The protests seem manageable, and Landis doesn’t immediately realize the danger associated with them.

Eventually, of course, as a matter of business and despite the personal issues he’s facing, he must deal with both of these dilemmas.

To write about Brussels, a city where I’ve never been, I used several detailed maps of the city center and the EU district, and walked the streets with the little guy in Google maps. I studied the websites of hotels near Schuman station, restaurant menus, and news outlets, as well as the station itself, which at that time (2011) was undergoing a major renovation, thoroughly described and dissected online. The availability of that information to me, to you, and to anyone, led to a major epiphany for my fictional architect.

Photo: labwebmaster for Pixabay.

Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Who Are These Women?

sangria-colored room, andallshallbewell Tumblr page

Archer Landis, the Manhattan architect at the center of my forthcoming novel, has been married and faithful to his wife Marjorie for thirty-odd years. But Julia Fernández, a new associate in his firm, has unexpectedly stolen his heart. For me as a writer, describing these two women and their worlds didn’t happen all at once. At first, my thoughts were akin to a sketch I kept going back to—adding, subtracting, refining, and shaping details—so that their ultimate descriptions show them to be distinct three-dimensional characters. Writing my first or second draft, I did not understand them well enough to do that.

Where They Live

In the novel’s first chapter, you see Julia’s Chelsea apartment as Archer, with his strong design sensibility, sees it. He’s aware of all the references to her Spanish origins—the sangria-colored walls, the heavy dark curtains, the chaise longues upholstered in deep carmine velvet. “It would require all his French curves and a full palette of rose and violet pigments to reproduce the effect.”

Archer and Marjorie’s penthouse in an Upper East Side high-rise is light-filled, with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the East River. The apartment is all straight lines, its walls are pale gray, the furniture has white leather upholstery, and a painting by Joan Miró provides only “a confetti of color.” A totally different woman lives there.

What They Wear

Archer thinks of Julia as the bright bird in his office. She wears simple silk dresses in shades like watermelon pink, lime, and saffron. She has licorice-colored hair. You get the picture. In Landis’s eyes, she’s delicious.

Marjorie dresses in long knitted skirts, tunics and drapy attached scarves in the palest rose, taupe, beige, and off-white. Colors so faint that, over successive scenes, Archer cannot always identify what they are.

How He Feels about Them

My intent is that these details say much more about the differences between Julia and Marjorie than their taste in interior decorating and clothing. Much later in the book, Landis muses on his love for them both, calling Julia his dazzling sun, and Marjorie his moon, the one who could regulate the tides within him and light the darkness. This analogy (I hope) recalls to the reader the earlier evocative descriptions constructed from specific details.

Avoiding Cliché Traps

Superficial inventories (height, hair, eyes, clothing, voice) when a character is first introduced tend to be flat and uninteresting. They read like the author is ticking the boxes. They’re akin to the first impression of someone, and nothing like the rich descriptions and telling details that reflect the real person.

Trying for an intriguing first draft detail, maybe, have you noticed how often authors give a female character green eyes? I am one of the two percent of people worldwide who actually have green eyes, so I notice this. A green-eyed woman has become a bit of a cliché. (One of my characters has them too!) In any case, eye color is not a significant detail. Rarely does a plot depend on the color of a character’s eyes (or hair). Height, maybe.

Some interesting research bears out the prevalence of male and female stereotypes in physical description that, thanks to overuse, no longer connect with readers.

Other posts in this series: Why an Architect?

Photo: andallshallbewell Tumblr page

The Woman Is a Spy

Three women who’ve made outstanding careers for themselves in the intelligence community were featured in a Cipher Brief webinar last Friday, moderated by the organization’s founder, Suzanne Kelly, former CNN Intelligence Correspondent. As a writer interested in that world, I was eager to hear the women’s perspectives.

The women were:

Over the course of these women’s careers, the attitude toward women working in intelligence has evolved, just as it has throughout American society. When they started out in the early 80s or so, the intelligence community was an old boys’ club, and most women were relegated to support staff and administrative positions. The diversity of job opportunities for women is much greater now—after all, CIA Director Gina Haspell is a woman—but vestiges of old attitudes remain.

Thus, the era in which a story is set makes a great deal of difference as to how female characters would be treated. Perhaps engineering backgrounds gave two of these women added insight or practice in breaching institutional gender barriers.

The panelists had all worked in a variety of settings—for both government and the private sector. They change jobs and vacuum up new knowledge and skills. So, if your character needs a particular expertise, it certainly would be realistic to create a previous position where she could have gained it, inside government or not. Or, even in her own security services company.

Savvy women in the intelligence community work hard to develop a network of women in their and other intelligence agencies for all the familiar advice-seeking, moral-support reasons we know. From the perspective of these women, a more diverse workforce—in terms of gender, cultural background, type of education, analytic style, and where people have lived —produces better intelligence outcomes, as intelligence community employers have come to appreciate.

Suggested reading:
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
Bloodmoney by David Ignatius
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynn Olson

Where Writers’ Ideas Come from: Why an Architect?

woman writing

The architect who is the protagonist of my novel-in-progress, Archer Landis, has lived in my head so long, I had to scour my brain to remember why he designs buildings rather than runs railroads, manages a department store empire, or fixes teeth.

My parents were Frank Lloyd Wright devotees, read his books (I still have them), and in the 1950s, when they wanted to build a house, they wrote to the great man. The size of their budget undoubtedly stopped that conversation before it got started, but he wrote them a nice letter. So my dad designed our house himself along Wrightean principles. Small by today’s standards. Small then.

In college I lurked around the studios in the architecture school, using an empty drawing board for my own graphics work, fascinated by the students’ model buildings and the smell of sharpened pencils, rubber cement, clay. A scene in the novel has Landis ruminating on that kind of by-hand work versus today’s 3-D printing.

At a more symbolic level, Landis is confronted with people who are his opposites. He wants to build; they want to destroy. Their destructiveness affects him directly, both personally and professionally, and threatens his family, his business, his life.

As this book developed, the things he notices, his relationships, nearly everything he does goes back to the touchstone of his calling. Straightedges and French curves and stone samples. He could no more be a railroad exec, a retailer, or a dentist than he could be an emissary from Alpha Centauri.

Photo of woman writing: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Book Title = Sales?

Maybe you’ve wrestled a fair bit with choosing a title for your new book. Now comes Jim Milliot in Publisher’s Weekly to tell you it actually matters for your book’s marketing.

Milliot describes an online study conducted last fall by the Codex Group, involving nearly 4000 book buyers and more than 50 new and forthcoming titles. The study examined whether a book’s presentation encouraged prospective readers to browse, as measured by the number of clicks the books’ “read more” buttons received.

As valuable as such information should be to authors, the study has a number of features that limit the interpretation of its results. I’d like to know more about those 4000 readers—gender and age breakdown, genre preferences, are they regular online purchasers?, and so on.

All 10 of the most actively browsed books have women protagonists, several involve children, marital relationships, and female friendships. Were the 50 books tested skewed in this direction, or is it that people who like that type of book are more curious about them? It’s worth noting that, even the best-ranked books received no more than one in four “read more” clicks.

Plowing on, here’s the bad news—or good news if you’re published by Amazon. Eight of the top 10 books receiving clicks were from Amazon Publishing—a data point that would be more impressive if we knew what proportion of the 50 were published by Amazon. Still, five of these highly-rated Amazon titles were among last year’s 11 top-selling ebooks. An attractive cover meant more than taking a deeper look, it meant readers clicked the “buy now” button too.

This suggests Amazon is doing something right, and that may by particularly important for you if you’re a new author, as were some of the authors among the top 10, if you don’t have a pre-existing fan-base, if you’re experimenting with a new genre, or if you write in the genre (women’s fiction) whose readers responded most strongly in this research.

So, how does Amazon do it? For two of the three most popular books in this test, participants said it was the book’s title, not the graphics, that drew them in. Hunh. I’d find this more persuasive if they tested titles alone, on a blank cover, and Milliot’s article doesn’t suggest they did that. It’s hard to separate the effect of a title from the overall—and often more memorable—artwork behind it. Reading the list of titles of the top 10 books makes this finding even more surprising. The most frequently browsed book, for example, was After, pictured (though I can’t be sure this is the version people in the test saw). Without the photograph, the title wouldn’t carry much meaning.

Maybe After succeeded because Amazon tries hard to ensure that title and cover art reinforce each other. (To illustrate, see “Together, they signal readers about the book’s contents and help them know whether they’d like it.

There’s a lot riding on these choices. Everything—art, title, cover copy—is part of your story’s package. Make good choices!

Yesterday’s post provided a few things to think about when choosing the book title that will make an interesting and lasting impression.

Photo (top): Annette G for Pixabay

Will People Pick Up My Book?

We writers are ever in search of a search of a formula that will make our books leap into prospective readers’ hands, rather than languish untouched on the long, slow slide to the remainder bin. If only readers gave it a chance, they’d love it! Right? Would some of the magic leap out when they picked it up?

Watch book store patrons browse the tables a while and the old saying, “you can’t judge a book by its cover” appears definitely wrong. Certain books attract. And they aren’t necessarily books with a lot of publicity or a best-selling author’s name. Something about them draws people in.

Quite a bit has been written about the importance of cover art and how it’s not something amateurs can attempt at home. We’ve all seen the covers of self-pubbed books that look like misguided collage projects or more likely ones that are just . . . not . . . right. While we recognize covers we like from an artistic perspective, does the art lead to further perusal of the book and—ahem—buying it? Publishers assume so. (Here’s Tim Kreider’s amusing take on the author-publisher dynamic in book cover design from the New Yorker.)

Two recent blog posts talk about another important aspect of your book’s exterior—the very first words of yours that readers will see: your book’s title.

In Writer Unboxed, Nancy Johnson riffs entertainingly on this subject. In coming up for a title for her own debut book, she heard the advice to “keep it short.” One-word titles can convey a lot; Michelle Obama’s Becoming is a perfect summation of her best-seller. Ditto Tara Westover’s Educated, which, in addition, vividly illustrates the importance of the interplay of title and art. What at first looks like a pencil-shaving is a lone girl standing on a mountain, the heroine of the piece.  

Short, punchy titles are presumably easy to remember. Tell that to Delia Owens. One of Johnson’s favorite titles is Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Unforgettable. And, much better than a too-short title that doesn’t convey any extra substrate of meaning. Look up some one-word titles (Guardian, Broken, Alien) on Amazon and see how many competitors there are. As a result, what Johnson concludes about title length is, like so many other rules for writers,“it depends.”

As you know, titles of creative works can’t be copyrighted, so it can be hard to come up with something unique. Appropriating The Talented Mr. Ripley would raise eyebrows. If several other books already share your planned title, you want to think about the company you’ll be keeping (and how far down your book may appear in Amazon’s listing of similar titles). Unwary buyers will be annoyed if they intend to order your romantic suspense and get a slasher story instead.

Tomorrow: A study of the link between title and sales.

Yearning, Desire, and Fiction

In an interview with author Kevin Canty I recently ran across (Part 1 here), he made the point that story characters must want something worth writing about. While that might at first sound like a point that hardly needs to be made, Canty is talking about the need for fiction to include what Robert Olen Butler calls “yearning,” or “the phenomenon of desire.” This, Butler says, is the essential ingredient most often missing from beginning writers’ work. (And any number of New Yorker short stories I abandon half-read.) Unsatisfying, in the way a crime without a motive is.

Of course, Canty says, characters in fiction may not choose the most effective or direct or logical ways of getting what they want, but they have to want something. They may even take actions that are counterproductive to their goal. Othello wants Desdemona, yet he murders her. These characters are like the people whom we would describe as “their own worst enemies.”

Or, what characters end up getting can be vastly different than what they thought they wanted. The outcome can be just as emotionally satisfying but far from the original plan. Think Jane Austen. In such cases, the author leaves enough clues to the character’s true desire that the reader sees it, even if the character has a blind spot.

Doesn’t it make a story feel too pat when characters want a particular outcome, and that’s exactly what they get? It’s too easy. Real life’s more complicated, which is why writers struggle with plot. Characters—much less the reader—don’t learn much from easy wins.

Putting himself in the role of a fictional protagonist, Canty says, “There’s a constant incompleteness and irony and all the rest of it that keeps getting between what I want, what I think I want, and what I get.” It’s what makes characters interesting. It’s what keeps us reading.

Canty’s most recent book is The Underworld: A Novel, about the aftermath of a disastrous fire in a small Western mining town.

Photo: eluj for Pixabay

Characters Who Do Bad Things

Handwriting, boredom

Ran across an old interview with Kevin Canty, a novelist and short story writer who teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula. At the time of the interview, he had some observations that seem particularly germane to writers of crime fiction.

To start off, he observed that people—readers, and maybe, sometimes, writers too—typically think “people who do bad things are a different class of people,” separate from the rest of us. Part of the writer’s job is to establish common ground between character and reader, no matter how alien—figuratively or literally—the character is, so that when the character does that bad thing, the reader believes in it and feels the pain of it.

The example that comes right to mind is the loss I felt when I realized Michael Corleone was beyond redemption. I had my hopes until then. Another is the character with the doomed-to-fail love affair (Carey Mulligan in An Education). Or the character who’s struggled to get clean who is again tempted by drugs (practically every musician biopic you’ve ever seen). Noooooo, we say.

These bad choices can’t just be dismissed, because, as Canty maintains and every war has proved, there are a lot of capacities in each of us. As a writer, what he tries to do “is reduce the distance between the reader and the character,” so that capacity remains viable and their choices and desires retain meaning.

At the same time, he makes sure the story actions “somehow reflect the characters, the people that are in them.” Whether bad or good. I recently read a thriller in which the main character joins the French Resistance. There were many excellent reasons for a Frenchman to do so, but most did not. So what was it about this character that propelled him to that choice? The author didn’t convincingly say. The important insights revolved not around the fact that he joined, but why he did.

“Love your bad guys,” writing coaches say.

Photo: Florian Pircher for Pixabay

Writing Tips: Strong Openings

Jane Friedman’s writing advice is always welcome, and a recent column, “Five Common Story Openings to Avoid,” has that irresistible (“If I only do THAT . . .”) specificity. Skipping ahead to the bottom line, she confirms that almost any story opening can work if it’s done well enough, but she cautions against assuming your story will be the exception. You may be handing some overwhelmed agent/editor/publisher an excuse to say “no.” In general, then, here’s my take on her examples of weak openings:

  1. A waking up scene – These don’t make for very compelling reading, Jane says, even if the character is awakening on an important day. The reader doesn’t know that yet. There’s a lot readers don’t know at the beginning of a book, of course, but the opener probably needs to provide more than the quotidian to keep their interest. Gregor Samsa’s waking up to find he’s turned into a bug is compelling, but Kafka snagged that one.
  2. A transit scene – Scenes that describe a character moving from one place to another typically lack engaging drama, Jane says. Regular commuting hassles don’t cut it, but a strong voice or compelling situation may. The wonderful novel The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson is hardly anything but transit, the 100-mile trip a local delivery man makes, back and forth, back and forth, along a single road in rural Utah and the indelible characters that people his route. Deon Meyer’s thriller Fever, set in a post-apocalyptic Africa, starts with a dangerous trip to a highly uncertain future.
  3. A “rocking chair scene” – This is where a character is alone, mulling over their life or recent events. If this is necessary backstory, there are more dynamic ways to introduce it, she suggests. And preferably in manageable bites. I have a tendency to write a couple of paragraphs to rev my engines before the action of the story begins. The fix is easy. When I edit, I chop off those paragraphs and get going.
  4. A crisis scene – Jane says opening a story in the middle of a crisis may seem dramatic, but often doesn’t raise interesting questions. Readers have too little information to appreciate the stakes. She calls this “false suspense.” Similarly, I’m not engaged by openings that use ostensibly dramatic dialog, such as “Oh, no!” Katie cried, “This is the worst day of my life!” As a reader, I don’t know anything about Katie yet, so her “worst day” assessment carries no weight. I’d call this “false excitement.”
  5. A dream sequence – “A common trope and a tired one,” she says. The problem with this opener is that, in a dream, anything can happen, whereas, to be interesting, characters need to be responding to their situation, making decisions, and coping with the consequences. A dream doesn’t offer true choices or raise valid story questions.

A common thread among several of these openings is that characters are alone, and when they are, the lack of interaction with others doesn’t give the reader a useful second perspective, or a view of how characters relate to others. Sometimes that’s on purpose, as when you gradually realize the narrator you’ve come to trust is unreliable. Editor Ray Rhamey has a nine-point checklist for the first page of a novel, which  is a useful way to make sure your first page does everything it needs to.

Related content:
First Line Mondays, getting off to a good start
“Come in, Sit down . . .”, how Stephen King opens his books

Photo: Free-Photos from Pixabay

How Authors Get Police Procedures Right

Guest Post: Author John Schembra

Are you writing police mystery-thrillers? Want to get the policing details right? I do too, though I may have an advantage, having been a police officer for 30 years in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco.

The home setting for my books is the San Francisco Police Department, but sometimes my characters must seek the help of or coordinate with other departments or federal agencies. Cross-jurisdictional situations present a challenge for writers, as not all law enforcement agencies conduct investigations the same way. General investigative protocols are roughly the same, but every department will have its own set of procedures. These differences may affect evidence collection, interrogations, interviews, use-of-force policies, and so on. The list is long.

Meanwhile, your readers have diverse backgrounds, which means there is always that person out there who will know if you make a mistake—and probably tell you so. Research is critical. Knowing how a particular agency conducts investigations, along with its personnel’s everyday duties, adds realism and actually makes the writing simpler, helping you manage the possibilities.

Getting police procedures right has other benefits too. It can make a difference in whether readers believe your story, which has a big impact on whether they like your work overall. If they do, your book could show up in a favorable review, and your fans can give it good marks in discussions with other potential readers. Unfortunately, if you get those details wrong, it could mean a less than sterling review, and none of us want that.

But how do you conduct the research you need? The best way is to talk to a police officer from the agency you are writing about. In my books, set in the SFPD, I was lucky that my best friend’s son and daughter-in-law were SFPD officers, and the wife was a forensics and crime scene technician. They were a big help whenever I needed answers to a procedural question.

In addition, I’m a member of the Public Safety Writers’ Association, whose membership is made up of people from around the country with police, fire, emergency medical service, and military backgrounds and the people who write about them. That network is unfailingly helpful to writers.

If the agency in your book is fictitious, model its procedures after an agency that resembles it. Look for one of similar size, serving a community with similar demographics, and use its procedures.

Very likely the agency you’re using as a setting will have a website, and you can contact (via email) the public information officer. I have found them to be very accommodating and willing to help. They want policing information to be correct too!

Bottom line: getting it right is satisfying and enjoyable for readers and, I believe, makes the story easier to write. It enables you to cover the all-important details that will make your readers feel they were there.

John Schembra spent a year with the 557th MP Company at Long Binh, South Vietnam, in 1970. His experiences as a combat MP contributed to his first book, M.P., A Novel of Vietnam. Upon completing his military service, John joined the Pleasant Hill (California) Police Department in Contra Costa County. In 2001, he retired from there as a Sergeant, after 30 years of service. His second novel, Retribution (2007), describes homicide detective Vince Torelli’s hunt for a serial killer. Since then, he’s published two more novels featuring Torelli—Diplomatic Immunity (2012)and Blood Debt (2019)—as well as the stand-alone, Sin Eater (2016).