How Television Can Help Your Writing (Part 3)

Television is more about than great characters. It can also transport you to places around the world: the outback of Australia, the islands of the Caribbean, the peak of Mount Everest. While cameras, technology, and budgets sometimes allow for on location shooting of some shows (think Downton Abbey or Death in Paradise among others), many television shows are still shot on a set in a different part of the world. Yet a good show gives a sense of the setting, and the setting enriches the show’s atmosphere, tone, and mood. Writers too can use the setting of their book to provide a rich layer, almost to the point of creating a character.

Atmosphere. I didn’t watch every episode of Downton Abbey, but from the time the dog appears on the screen and a rolling list of actors’ names flickers on the screen, the viewer gets the sense this is not a sitcom. The lack of bright colors, the staid splendor of the upstairs, the stark contrast of the kitchen all point to high drama. Writers of historical romance can evoke a similar tone with details of a world long gone. Writers of women’s fiction can evoke the setting and use the weather and time of day to layer in more sensory details. Mystery writers especially can use setting for atmosphere. A cozy mystery heroine is far more likely to inhale the smell of old books or coffeehouse coffee whereas a hardboiled detective may note the smell of a police precinct or inky coffee from an ancient coffeemaker. Don’t lose a chance to evoke atmosphere with sensory details such as the smell of the setting, the weather surrounding the characters, or the feel of objects around them.

Tone. Theme songs can often tell a lot about a television show. For decades, catchy theme songs often set the tone for the show. Who could forget that Gilligan was on a three-hour tour? Or not laugh at petite Lurch, neat Uncle Fester, or sweet Grandmamma Addams? Books, however, don’t have theme songs, but a writer’s voice and pacing can add to the tone. Fast, action scene? Your theme song then has punchy, short sentences. Other times you might want long, lyrical paragraphs when it’s a longer piece of exposition with description.

Mood. I’m not a huge fan of overbearing laugh tracks, but when someone else laughs, it’s easier to laugh along with them. When Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) picked himself off the floor after falling over the ottoman, all while having a smile on his face, we knew we could laugh with him at whatever happened to Laura or Ritchie or Sally or Buddy. When a character laughs at himself or shows his or her sense of humor, we can laugh along, and in romantic comedies, that’s a plus. By setting the mood through the characters’ actions and by their surroundings, a writer can help the reader bond to those characters and relate all the more. When Penny and Leonard and Sheldon all share takeout with Bernadette and Raj and Howard, the viewer knows it’s okay to laugh. When Beckett was called to a crime scene with Castle on her heels, the viewer knows she’s not going to rest until the real killer is apprehended and justice is served. As writers, establishing the mood and the tone can set the stage for the reader and hook the reader into the story all the faster.

Watch your favorite television show and notice how the writers incorporate the setting to create atmosphere. Whether it’s the Addams’ museum of a house or Central Perk or the Caribbean shore, the setting will help tune the viewer in to what type of show and add layers to the show, making us appreciate the show all the more.

Welcome, Spring

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In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first day of spring. In my area, that means colorful daffodils, Bradford pear blooms, and lots of pollen. Spring, though, also represents a rebirth and what better way to give birth to your dreams than to do something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done before. For people who dream of adventure, it might mean booking that skydiving trip, which isn’t quite my cup of tea. For some who want to do something creative, it might mean dusting off that dream and making it into a reality. Perhaps it’s time to sign up for that pottery class you’ve wanted to take since you saw the movie, Ghost, although pottery also isn’t my cup of tea either. In my last blog, I discussed five steps a beginning writer might take to begin writing the novel they’ve always plotted in their minds. Here are some more tips which might help change that dream into reality.

  1. The setting is an important character in your novel. What would Star Wars be without Tatooine with its two suns and its expansive deserts? What would Psycho be without the Bates Motel with its grim exterior and its infamous bathroom? What would be Casablanca be without Rick’s with its smoky ambience and piano? A setting can be an integral part of a book. For romance writers, a small town can instantly clue a reader into a sweet contemporary, Paris or New York might mean a contemporary with an alpha hero or billionaire, another world can clue the reader into urban fantasy. Give some thought about how your POV character thinks about the setting, from the houses to the buildings to the outdoor features such as a beach or a cave or mountain cabin.
  2. Backgrounds of your characters. Your characters have pasts, fears, wants, and needs. If you’re writing a romance, think about what your character needs the most and then make it impossible to achieve. If you’re writing a cozy mystery, think about why a character would want to get embroiled in solving a murder rather than leaving it to the hands of the local police.
  3. Time Period of the Novel. If you want to write a historical, think about the time period and how a character would be different without modern conveniences. Someone in Regency England wouldn’t be able to pop two Advil when he has a headache.
  4. Motivations of a Character. Why does a character do what he or she does? Is the character motivated by justice, by profit, by a need to be alone? What does your character need to be okay? Family, money, prestige?
  5. Finally once you’ve decided on your world, your characters, their needs and wants, and why they want them, as well as what is standing in their way of getting what they need to be happy, then you need to actually sit down with your writing instrument, whether it’s a pen and paper or a laptop or an Alphasmart, and write. BICHOK means Bottom In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. When all is said and done, actually putting words on a screen or paper is the only way to get that novel written.

Now that it’s spring, make your dream a reality.

Welcome to spring. Dust off those dreams, and make them a reality.

The Secret Handshake

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I hope the title caught your attention, but the sad truth is there is no secret handshake in writing. When all is said and done, a writer has to sit down and write the words whether through a computer and keyboard or pen and paper. However, there are lessons I’ve learned since I’ve started writing, and I wish I’d known some of these five hints when I first sat down with a laptop and typed in the words, Chapter One.

  1. Literary or genre. There are English majors who could debate the definitions of these two categories until the cows come home. To oversimplify it, genre fiction tends to gravitate toward happy endings and can be broken down into different categories, such as romance, mystery, science fiction, and more. Literary fiction tends to be character driven with vague or unhappy endings that delve more into truth and thematic purposes. Both defy exact definitions, but I found my niche when I discovered I like reading romances with happy endings and cozy mysteries with the search for justice complete. That meant I’d be happiest writing genre fiction.
  2. Writers’ Associations. If you know off the bat you want to write a romance or a mystery, there are writing organizations that can help you learn some of the tricks of the trade. While there may not be a secret handshake, there are certain expectations from readers of the romance and mystery genre. For example, a romance needs a happy ending, and a cozy mystery needs justice. Romance Writers of America (RWA) and Sisters in Crime are wonderful places for you to meet other writers and start your writing journey. Within RWA, there are local chapters and online chapters. If you live close to a local chapter, that’s a great way to meet other writers and ask for tips or find someone to critique your work.
  3. When you open a craft book, there might be initials on the page. This is one place where I can do a little fist bump with you and help you learn some common writing acronyms.
  • POV=point of view. See number 5.
  • RUE=Resist the Urge to Explain.
  • TSTL=Too Stupid to Live
  • WIP=Work in Progress
  • HEA=Happily Ever After
  • HFN=Happily For Now
  • GMC=Goal, Motivation, Conflict
  • ARC=Advance Reader’s Copy
  1. Genre categories. Within the world of genre writing, there are also sub-genres. In romance, writers are often asked, “What type of romance do you write?” When I was asked this at my first local writing program, my eyes widened and my pulse accelerated. There were different genres within the genre? I listened to other people and figured out I wrote contemporary. In terms of romance, there are a number of subgenres: Contemporary Short, Contemporary Single Title, Historical, Paranormal, Urban Fantasy, Romantic Suspense, Inspirational, Erotic, Erotica, Mainstream with Romantic Elements, Women’s Fiction, and more depending on who you talk to. Mysteries are often broken down into thrillers, suspense, and cozies.
  2. Point of View. Books can be written from either an omniscient POV, where there’s no specific narrator (think Harry Potter) or from deep POV, where the story is told from the perspective of a certain narrator. There are also different viewpoints. There is first person, where the story’s narrator uses I or me. Second person isn’t seen much in genre fiction, but this person uses the word “you.” Third person is when the narrator uses he or she. In romance, deep POV allows the reader to view the scene from one person’s point of view as if you are in the shoes of that character. Head-hopping refers to scenes which alternate back and forth between different characters’ POVs.

These are five of the tips I wish I’d had when I first started writing. I’ll be writing five more next week. Happy writing.