Sunday, March 18, 2012

Creating Your Story Universe

I recently read a great post by Larry Brooks, the Storyfix guy. It was an excellent post and it tied in just perfectly with a book I finished and reviewed today. The book was interesting, the story unique, but what grabbed me from the word go was the way the author set his tale firmly in the era, in 1916 when World War 1 was raging in Europe. The hero of the story is a French secret service agent posted to New York on a mission. As the story unfolds the detailed descriptions of the place and the people recreate the same kind of world for the reader, who feels as if he or she is experiencing what the main character does. Amazing what we can get our readers to feel if we really work hard. So, here is my post for today, combining some wonderful stuff from Larry Brooks (please sign up for his newsletter) and my review of The Counterfeit Consul.

Larry says this about a particular magical element—the secret weapon—of storytelling:

I call it vicarious experience, one of the major underlying story forces—essences—that impart power, weight and impact to novels and screenplays. Vicarious experience is delivered through setting, or though social, cultural or relational dynamics... Every story unfolds upon a dramatic stage. What we’re talking about is recognizing the opportunity to make that stage—both in support of your story, and as an independent source of focus and fascination—more compelling. This is the forgotten stepchild of both story planning and story “pantsing,” when in fact it can empower either process. When you add your story to a setting that delivers vicarious experience – when you set your story within this time, place or context that is, when regarded alone, inherently interesting – then you get a sum in excess of the parts...

Take a look at your story and ask yourself what kind of vicarious experience you are delivering to your reader. All stories take us out of our own lives and into another existence, but does your setting—either time, place, contextual or relational—contribute to the reading experience in an exciting, compelling, even frightening way? One that is vicarious? One that readers will be drawn to—drawn into—by virtue of this alone?

Brilliant advice! My enjoyment of The Counterfeit Consul came in a large part from the way the author built up an historic world for me, a reader who has no chance of travelling back in time to experience either the place or the happenings of the historical period for myself.

The Counterfeit Consul
 Book Review: Gerard Le Caillec is the counterfeit consul, just one of many disguises he has held in his career in the French Foreign Intelligence Service. Quiet, unassuming and (to his superiors) utterly expendable, Gerard struggles for promotion. He is handed an excellent opportunity to make or break his career when he is posted to the New York City office of the service. It involves the destruction of armament warehouses on a Hoboken, New Jersey pier. The plot is set in 1916, against a backdrop of a world at war in Europe, and a neutral America supplying arms and munitions to both sides. The French hope that by bombing the warehouses, the American public will become aware of America's duplicity and protest against this hypocritical stance. Either way, the French hope to force America either to join the battle on the side of the allies or cease supplying the Germans. Gerard is brilliant at one particular aspect of his job: recruiting agents. His unassuming personality enables him to tap into the weaknesses and foibles of his targets and lure them into his mode of operations. On the orders of his superiors in Paris, he focuses on Armand Barsoum, a weak, spendthrift playboy, the scion of a prestigious French banking firm, working in their New York division. Armand tends to go for fast women and slow horses, a deadly combination that soon has him bankrupt and susceptible to Gerard's offer of money. However, Gerard wonders if Armand is indeed the right person to set the dynamite and bomb the warehouses. Armand tries wriggle out of their agreement and blurts his involvement to Trudy Gehr, a coarse German-born woman living in Hoboken. She, in turn informs a friend who informs...and when the Military Attaché at the Imperial German Consulate in New York learns of the plot, he makes immediate plans to deal with it.

This is an original spy novel with much to enjoy. The author's style suits the era and the subject matter. The intricacies of the plot unfold carefully, almost too slowly in the beginning as the author sets the scene for what is potentially an international firestorm. I enjoyed the meticulous details bringing the various characters to life. The author also paints an incredibly detailed picture of the New York of the early twentieth century: loud, tawdry, corrupt and filled with clubs, drinkers, bookies, gamblers, and goodtime gals. In this, the author succeeds admirably in taking the reader back to another era. Although some editing could speed up the pace of the action, the unfolding of events brings its own suspense-filled timing. With an interesting final twist to the tale, this is a great read for readers who enjoy historical and spy thrillers.

First Reviewed by Fiona I. for Readers Favorite

Monday, March 12, 2012

More Writing Tips From Downton Abbey

I confess I am a Downton Abbey junkie. I love the series and I've watched Seasons 1 and 2 several times already on DVD. I can't wait for Seasons 3 and 4 and 5...  I never really thought about why the characters captivated me so much until I read an article by Randy Ingermanson that hits the nail right on the head. And that nail is something every writer should seek to achieve. By giving your characters a goal, a desire, or a burning ambition, something they will strive to achieve, through thick and thin, come hell or high water, you'll create the type of conflict and depth of character that will keep your readers glued to the page (or in this case, the screen!). Randy says it so much better so here is his article. NB: this article may contain spoilers for people who have been living in a cave and have not yet heard of Downton Abbey!

Why Downton Abbey Rocks

Downton Abbey is the outrageously popular TV series set in the home of an aristocratic British family during the years 1912 through 1920. On the face of it, the show's popularity makes no sense. 1912? What was happening in 1912? Oh yeah, the Titanic, but what else? Why is Downton Abbey getting such incredible reviews? Why has it won six Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe? Why has it become the best-selling DVD box set on Amazon?

In a word, it's story. Downton Abbey is packed full of story. And what does "story" mean, precisely? Story is characters in conflict. Characters with impossible dreams. Characters willing to do anything to reach their dreams. Let's look at the characters of Downton Abbey and their impossible dreams.

Edith, Mary and Sybil.
Lady Mary Crawley is young and beautiful, the eldest daughter of the Earl of Grantham. As the story begins, her fiancé has just died on the Titanic. Mary's problem is that she doesn't have a problem with that. She didn't much love the guy, even though she was engaged to him. Why would any girl agree to marry a guy she didn't love? Simple. She was pushed into it. Mary is the oldest of three daughters, but there aren't any sons in the Crawley family. Unfortunately, the estate and the title and most of the family money have been "entailed," meaning that they will be inherited by the nearest male relative, not by Mary.

This is massively unfair, but the family has hoped to make it less unfair by pushing Mary into marrying the heir. Mary has gone along with this, until now. Not happily, but she's gone along. Now the heir is dead and Mary doesn't feel sad about him. The only thing she feels sad about is that she doesn't feel sad. Something is deeply wrong with Mary. She knows what it is. She has no purpose in life. As the story begins, her main purpose is to find her purpose. Mary wants to make her own decisions in life. And that's impossible. Women in her position don't make decisions. They have their decisions made for them. With the loss of her unwanted fiancé, something snaps in Mary. From now on, she isn't going to have decisions foisted upon her. She's going to make her own decisions. If the only decisions Mary has power to make are bad ones, then by heavens, she'll make horrible, wretched, idiotic decisions. But she will choose her own way in life. She will. Starting now.

The news of the Titanic arrives on the same day that the new valet, John Bates, arrives to begin his duties. Bates is an old Army friend of Lord Grantham, and lately some shrapnel has shifted in his knee, giving him a serious limp. But nobody knows about his injury until he arrives to begin work. Unfortunately, Downton Abbey has zillions of stairs and no elevators. How can Bates manage his duties when he can't carry things even on level ground? Will Lord Grantham have to get rid of his new valet? Bates is one of the show's most likable characters. He never complains. Never feels sorry for himself. Never tells anyone about the failings of the other servants. He's honest and kind and decent. All he wants is to have a job, and that is apparently the one thing he's going to be denied.

Bates has a rival. The head footman, Thomas, is young, strong, and handsome, and he wants the job of valet. Thomas has a massive chip on his shoulder because he's "different" -- which is his term for the fact that he's gay. In 1912, that's a serious problem. Thomas will do whatever it takes to get the job of valet, and if he has to lie and cheat to get Bates removed, no problem. But whether he gets the job or not, Thomas will never be happy. Because he's "different."

Lady Cora
 Mary's mother is Cora, originally from an American family, now a middle-aged English aristocrat. Cora desperately wants to get her three daughters married off well to nice men. Now that the heir is dead, it's time to reopen the question of that wretched entail. Why can't it be broken? Cora repeatedly asks her husband to get the family lawyer to break the entail. And he repeatedly refuses, claiming that it can't be done. Cora strikes up an alliance with her mother-in-law, Violet, who also thinks that the best course is to break the entail.

Violet is an acid-tongued old woman who gets most of the funniest lines of dialogue in the series. Violet wants the same thing Cora wants—to get the daughters married off, and most especially to see Mary keep the family fortune. But neither Violet nor Cora can persuade Lord Grantham to try to break the entail. Why won't Lord Grantham at least try? He certainly loves his daughter Mary, and wants to see her married well and prosperous. But breaking the entail would probably not succeed, he's convinced. Mary might get the money, but never the estate. Lord Grantham has poured his entire life into maintaining the estate. He married Cora for her money because it would enable him to keep the estate. Now how can he separate the estate from the money? The estate would die, and he can't tolerate that.

Lord Grantham
 For Lord Grantham, the solution is simple. Let Mary marry the new heir. That would be young Matthew Crawley, a third cousin once removed. He's a handsome guy, although (gack) he's a lawyer. But even lawyers can often be trained. Lord Grantham's plan is to train young Matthew to be the new Earl. And to convince Mary to marry him. Why won't Mary do what she's told? It's the obviously right thing. Lord Grantham loves Mary, but she can be so infuriating sometimes. Matthew's certainly a nice guy, handsome, kind, honest. If Mary didn't feel forced to marry him, she'd probably be interested. But Mary's a stubborn cuss, and she won't be pushed. So Matthew has no chance, even before she meets him. Matthew has no chance, even though he falls in love with her on sight. Matthew would do anything to convince her to marry him. But nothing is enough. He can't have her, plain and simple.

There's enough so far to make a movie, but not a TV series. There has to be more, much more. And there is. Practically every other character has something they desperately want—and can't have. Edith, the homely second daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham, would love to have a husband. But every time she sets her cap for a man, her beautiful older sister Mary steps in and flirts with him. Edith has no chance for a man and she hates Mary. She'd do anything to ruin Mary's life. Anything.

Sybil, the youngest daughter, is interested in politics and women's rights. But what chance does she have to do anything that matters? She's been educated by a governess, which means she's learned nothing. She can't do anything, because it's not ALLOWED, and that drives her crazy.

Anna, the head housemaid, is a thirty-something woman, not quite pretty, not quite plain. She's sweet and kind and she's naturally attracted to the new valet, Mr. Bates. But Bates has some dark secrets in his past, things he can't talk about. Anna knows instinctively that Bates is protecting somebody. But Mr. Bates won't talk about it, and until he does, Anna's love is going unrequited.

Cora's maid, Sarah O'Brien, is a bitter woman who secretly despises her employers but adopts a fawning attitude when they're around. She's in league with Thomas to make life miserable for Mr. Bates, and incidentally Anna. For no good reason. It's not clear what drives O'Brien, but her goal is clear -- to make everyone else miserable. She's extremely good at that.

The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, is a quiet soul, but she secretly wonders what her life would have been like if she'd married the farmer who asked her many years ago. But she'll never know, will she? Unless. she gets a second chance at love. Will she get that chance? Would she take it?

Mr. Carson
The butler, Mr. Carson, runs the household and supervises all the other servants. It's a constant challenge. Mr. Bates can't carry. Thomas is a conniving SOB, but you can't pin anything on him. O'Brien is cruel and arrogant to the servants, but she's always sweetness and light around her employers, so there's no getting rid of her. Mr. Carson feels that the honour of Downton Abbey rests on his shoulders. It's a heavy responsibility. Carson desperately wants to maintain tradition, but that's impossible. The world is changing and soon it's going to be unrecognizable. Butlers should have no favorites, but Carson loves Mary like his own daughter and he'd do anything to see her happily married. Mr. Carson has a secret from his past, and it would kill him if anyone knew. But the only person who knows his secret lives far away. For the moment.

There's more, of course. I've left out a few major characters and all the minor characters. But I've covered enough to make it clear what drives Downton Abbey. Here is the secret that will drive your own fiction to success, if you let it: Every character in Downton Abbey behaves as if he or she were the hero of the story. Each one desperately wants something. Something he can't have. Something she will do almost anything to get. When you write your novel, it's tempting to bring in characters solely to serve the story of your protagonist. Characters who are there merely to play the role of Sidekick or Villain or Love Interest or Humorous Relief or whatever. Characters without their own hopes and dreams. That is the road to second-rate fiction.

Give each character a dream. Preferably an impossible dream. Something your character will do anything to get. When a person will do anything to get what they want, then anything can happen. That's why Downton Abbey rocks. That's what will make your story rock too.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author. Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 30,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.