#writerproblems: #writing awesome #characterdesign in three sentences or less.

Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.

This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)

Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanist is calling for western speculative flash fiction:

Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)

As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.

That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.

So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.

(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)

Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.

Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!

Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.

More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.

Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.

Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.

“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”

Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.

Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.

“Triangle at Rhodes”

Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.

And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.

When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.

The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.

Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.

“The Affair at the Victory Ball”

Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.

Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:

Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.

Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.

“The Cornish Mystery”

It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?

Ah. That is why the reader reads on.

So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Back to The Young and the Restless of Disney’s Star Wars villains!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: #Write #ChristmasTraditions with a #Sinister Flair for some Wickedly Fun #Seasonal #Storytelling

Good morning, my friends! At last I can write to you by the light of a Christmas tree. Many still slumber in this snowless cold of Wisconsin, but thanks to coffee and sweet sounds of soft singing, I’m content to sit and write to you of Christmas traditions…and murder!

Inspired by amazing indie author SJ Higbee, allow me to share some samples of this story’s covers. First, nothing’s so ominous as a skull outline in frosting. 🙂

“It’s dying out, you know,” he said, “the real old-fashioned type of Christmas. People spend it at hotels nowadays. But an English Christmas with all the family gathered round, the children and their stockings, the Christmas tree, the turkey and plum pudding, the crackers. The snowman outside the window…”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

Two years ago I shared with you a few of the traditions Bo and I have passed on to our children. I realize, however, I didn’t stress just how important those Christmas cookies are. Telling Bo to “skip the cookies this year” is akin to telling me to “skip the music this year.” In order words: BLASPHEMY! Bo will spend hours upon hours dying the dough, organizing the cutouts, laying out the sprinkles and ships for the kids to use for decorations. He loves giving these cookies to friends and family because they embody the love his mother shared when she baked cookies in his childhood. Though dead for twenty years, her love sweetly returns every Christmas through Bo, a tradition I love to see him honor.

Traditions, especially Christmas traditions, have this way of calling us back to our childhood. Once more we feel the snap of magic in winter’s air, hear the joy in song, see beauty in the world when the candles are lit and ornaments are hung. And don’t forget the food!

“All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey–two turkeys, one boiled and one roast– and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re not pure silver anymore. But all the old desserts…”

“What does all this have to do with your little murder bit earlier, Jean?” you may ask.

Okay, okay, I’m getting there.

Isn’t this one dreadfully plain? Oh, it’s pretty enough, but there’s absolutely no sense of mystery here whatsoever…unless we’re to presume the snow’s actually arsenic powder or something.

While some reread A Christmas Carol every year, I love to reread the Poirot short “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.” (No, I do NOT like to reread Hercule Poirot’s Christmasthough I’m the first to admit the David Suchet adaptation of this clunker is hilarious because they added a storyline of Inspector Japp dealing with his in-laws.) The premise for “Christmas Pudding” seems straightforward enough: a government official and a princeling ask Poirot to help them recover a jewel stolen by someone they suspect to be staying with the Lacey family at the old manor house King’s Lacey. They manage to bribe Poirot with the promise of the manor’s modern heating system–and, perhaps, some bloodshed.

“You see, it is very famous, this ruby. There is a long trail behind it, a history. Much bloodshed–many deaths!”

Poirot finally agrees to help and goes to the manor house under the guise of wanting to experience a good old-fashioned English Christmas. Though the Laceys do not know of the jewel, they do know they don’t like their granddaughter’s boyfriend, and hope this detective can help them disentangle their granddaughter Sarah from the cad Desmond, who only seems good when he tends to his mysteriously ill sister always hiding away in her guest room.

So, we have the traditional homecoming mixing with the nontraditional guests. This clash promises some engaging storytelling to come–and it does.

Hercule Poirot entered his bedroom. It was a large room well provided with radiators. As he went over towards the big four-poster bed he noticed an envelope lying on his pillow. He opened it and drew out a piece of paper. On it was a shakily printed message in capital letters.

DON’T EAT NONE OF THE PLUM PUDDING. ONE AS WISHES YOU WELL.

Hercule Poirot stared at it. His eyebrows rose. “Cryptic,” he murmured, “and most unexpected.”

A note is no dead body, but there’s a clear warning here of danger to come, and of all things that danger is connected to a Christmas dessert. I can’t imagine Bo’s cookies being dangerous, but then again, we don’t serve his cookies ON FIRE.

On a silver dish the Christmas pudding reposed in its glory. A large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it like a triumphant flag and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it. There was a cheer and cries of “Ooh-ah.”

Folks, it is utterly impossible for this anxious-addled mother of mischief-maker kiddos to imagine serving food on fire and expecting them to EAT IT. I mean, I know you don’t eat the fire, but still.

Rapidly the plates were passed round, flames still licking the portions.

“Wish, M. Poirot,” cried Bridget. “Wish before the flame goes….”

…. In front of everyone was a helping with flames still licking it. There was a momentary silence all round the table as everyone wished hard.

There was nobody to notice the rather curious expression on the face of M. Poirot as he surveyed the portion of pudding on his plate. “Don’t eat none of the plum pudding.” What on earth did that sinister warning mean? There could be nothing different about his portion of plum pudding from that of everyone else! Sighing as he admitted himself baffled–and Hercule Poirot never liked to admit himself baffled–he picked up his spoon and fork.

At a glance, this cover doesn’t look like much effort’s gone into it: just text in frosting with the pudding for a backdrop. But I do like how the frosting drips from the letters…like BLOOD, mwa ha ha!

If the great Belgian detective admits he’s baffled, then readers know there’s a real mystery afoot. We know there’s a precious ruby somewhere in this manor. We know the the manor’s heir is dating a ne’er-do-well that is surely the ruby’s thief. But what has any of that to do with this age-old Christmas tradition?

We soon find out.

Something tinkled on [Poirot’s] plate. He investigated with a fork. Bridget, on his left, came to his aid.

“You’ve got something, M. Poirot,” she said. “I wonder what it is.”

Poirot detached a little silver object from the surrounding raisins that clung to it.

“Ooooh,” said Bridget, “it’s the bachelor’s button! M. Poirot’s got the bachelor’s button!”

Every portion of the pudding contains a little token: wedding rings, a thimble, a pig, a coin, etc. For my lovely friends across the Pond, you’ll have to enlighten me about what tokens are or are not traditional, for my two-second search on Google only alluded to coins, thimble, bachelor’s button, and a wishbone. (And again, Panic-Mom-Me would be crying “THEY’RE GOING TO CHOKE!” throughout all this. Prrrrobably for the best we don’t have the Christmas Pudding Tradition in the Lee house.) I especially wish I knew more about the traditional tokens because of what happens when the lord of the manor digs into his portion.

While not too colorful, I do love the menace of this cover. You’ve got the ruby that starts the story, an old illustration of making the pudding, and blood dropping onto a snow-like surface. I dig it!

“God bless my soul,” [Mr. Lacey] ejaculated. “It’s a red stone out of one of the cracker brooches.” He held it aloft.

…. “But what I can’t understand,” said Mrs. Lacey, “is how it got into the pudding.”

Mr. and Mrs. Lacey are both baffled about this particular “token.” Poirot isn’t–nor are we readers–but the reaction of the Laceys makes it clear that of all the tokens Tradition dictates be put into the Christmas pudding, a red stone isn’t one of them. It’s a peculiar twist on the tradition to them, but to Poirot, the pudding provides the answer to the mystery of the ruby’s hiding place.

Of course, now he has to figure out how it got there in the first place. The answer comes in yet another Christmas tradition learned when Poirot compliments the cook Mrs. Ross on her pudding and asks how she makes it.

“…As it was, that pudding was only made three days ago, the day before you arrived, sir. However, I kept to the old custom. Everyone in the house had to come out into the kitchen and have a stir and make a wish. That’s an old custom, sir, and I’ve always held to it.”

When the cook says “everyone in the house,” she means it: not only did the family members come and have a stir, but the staff and all guests–including the suspected thief Desmond and his supposed sister. This tradition provides the nontraditional guests the opportunity to hide their criminal activity in an unlikely place.

Yet why would they hide the ruby inside something everyone was going to eat? It turns out the Christmas pudding wasn’t meant to be the Christmas pudding, as the cook explains.

This is the cover of my copy. I love the balance of festive color against that vicious knife. If only the author text weren’t so huge!

“As a matter of fact, sir,” said Mrs. Ross, “it was the wrong pudding you had for lunch today…This morning, when Annie was getting [the Christmas Day pudding] down from the shelf in the larder, she slipped and dropped it and it broke…. So we had to use the other one–the New Year’s Day one.”

Thanks to the tradition of multiple puddings for the holidays, the Christmas dinner had been saved–and the ruby exposed.

Of course, then, there comes a wee spot of murder, but I’ll let you read about that on your own. Honestly, “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is a quick’n’fun read for your lunch break or before dawn creeps to your window.

As you embark on your own writing adventures this December, consider the holiday traditions you’ve known since childhood. What villainy could hide under the plate of cookies, or in the shadows beyond the carolers outside? A festive promise of mystery and adventure awaits!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’m lining up author interview for 2020! Some have already reached out to me, and I’m in the process of reaching out to others. It promises to be a smashing year of sharing authors we love! I’ve also got some brilliant music to share with you both seasonal and magical. Plus, let’s not forget an update from Blondie and her own storytelling as well as the importance of giving the gift of literacy to others. Here’s hoping I can get Bash back on his Transformer Christmas story, too. 😉

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!