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Thursday, September 27, 2007

How To Introduce Your Main Characters

From my previous post you've learned a few things that will help you create believable, differentiated characters. Now let's learn how to bring them on stage.

(Note that if you use my system, Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist, the last phase of the process is to create a scene for the character that could actually be the scene I describe below.)

Many novelists give little thought to how they bring their protagonist onstage for the first time. But this is very important.

It establishes in the reader's mind who this person is and what s/he is about. These things are important for your hero, your antagonist, and possibly a handful of supporting characters, as well.

Remember the opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark? The bit in the jungle where Indy is going after the golden idol. By the time that series of scenes is completed, when our hero is flying away in the water plane (with a snake in his lap), we know a lot about our main character.

We know that he's an American who goes on international treasure hunts. We know he's tough, savvy, and fearless. We know he uses a whip and is fond of his fedora. We know he knows his way around ancient ruins. We also know his chief adversary. Finally, we learn about his Achilles' heel: snakes.

When that sequence is over we know our hero very well and we've learned what kind of movie this is going to be. It's a masterful introduction of the story's protagonist (and villain).

Now, you don't have to take that much page-space to introduce your hero in your novel. That sequence ran about 20 minutes, or roughly one-sixth of the movie. If you spent one-sixth of your novel introducing your protagonist it would probably be overkill.

But what I do want you to take away from this example is that the storyteller was consciously introducing his protagonist so that all the things we need to know about him are introduced.

What is your protagonist's essential characteristic? Do you know? What is it that makes him heroic and likable? (Because if the reader doesn't like your hero you're doomed before you begin.)

What would be an ideal way to show your hero doing something that reveals this essential characteristic? Think of a scene that introduces your story world, is consistent with the tone of your entire story, and shows us exactly who this character is.

That's how to introduce your protagonist.

Be sure to include in this introductory scene a hint about what's wrong with your protagonist, too. You do have something wrong or unresolved going on with him, right? Your protagonist must have a satisfying inner journey (read Tip #3), which means he must begin in a flawed condition. That flaw ought to come out at some point during the scene in which he first steps onstage.

In summary: the first time we see your protagonist we should see 1) what's likable/heroic about her, 2) what her essential characteristic is, and 3) what weakness or incompleteness your story is going to address in her inner journey.

Be conscious of how you introduce your villain, too. Come up with a scene that reveals his character and perfectly shows us what is villainous about him. What is his essential characteristic? How could you show that? And, if you want to have a more realistic villain, remember to show some redeeming quality in him in this scene, as well.

Your important supporting characters should be brought on stage in a carefully crafted way, too. Your romantic interest. Your sidekick. Etc.

These scenes all still need to advance your story, of course. You can't stop your story just to have a song and dance to bring on a new character. Every scene has to do double- or triple-duty: introducing a character, advancing the plot, and establishing a location that will be important later, for instance.

If you've taken the time to fully know your characters, then coming up with the ideal way to bring each one of them onstage ought to be a breeze for you. (Remember, my character-creation system has as its final step a monologue introducing the character you've just developed, which could be adapted for your introductory scene.)

Craft the opening scene for your main characters with all the care you'd bring if each one were a short story. Keep the example from Raiders of the Lost Ark in mind. And bring those people onstage with careful thought. You'll reap the benefits later on if you have introduced your main characters correctly.


Contest to Win Amy Wallace's Book

Due to busy schedules and a substitute contest and interview person (that would be Candice Speare), the information on our contest page has been a little confusing. Usually Lisa Harris faithfully handles this chore, and she does it very well. She asked me to take over while she was on break. I’m afraid I’ve made a few blunders. Specifically, I did not post a contest announcement for Amy Wallace’s latest book. So, I’m belatedly posting a contest page. Please see her interview below, if you haven’t already, and then go to our contest page and enter a drawing for her latest book, Ransomed Dreams.

Thank you! Candice Speare

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Create Memorable Characters (Who Don't All Sound Like You)

When you think of your favorite novels what do you think of? Is it a climactic moment or a thrill of action or an amazing and strange world? Possibly. But I'll bet that right at the top of the list is a favorite character.

What is Lord of the Flies without Piggy and Jack and Simon and Samneric? What is The Once and Future King without Merlin? What is Lord of the Rings without Gollum?

It's the same for movies. What is Star Wars without Han Solo? What is Minority Report without Agatha? What is O Brother, Where Art Thou without...well, without any of those guys?

TV series have figured this out, too. Think of the incredible characters in shows like Battlestar Galactica and Lost and Grey's Anatomy and Scrubs and Heroes. It's not long before it's not the story or the humor or anything else you're coming back for, but to find out what happens next with these favorite people. And just to hang with them.

After we forget the good feelings a work of fiction produces in us, after we forget the great special effects or the magnificent cinematography or the stirring soundtrack, we are left with the resonance of great characters.

Strong, believable, fully realized characters are the things that are going to make your fiction truly memorable. Even if you have the greatest premise and the best craftsmanship and the most wonderful cover design in the world, what will separate your fiction from the pack will be your characters.

The converse is also true. Without characters of that caliber, a great premise, high craftsmanship, and a terrific cover will not save your book from the fate of being just pretty good.

There are some novels that have been huge hits though they have very shallow characters (I won't name names). This would seem to invalidate what I'm saying here. But it doesn't. Those books are a flash in the pan. They will not remain perennial favorites among readers. They tend to get hot because of some scandal or fad or timeliness. But this will not last.

The only thing that will make your fiction endure will be excellent characters.

Me Not Do Characters Too Good

Okay, I think you're with me. Before you read any of this you were probably already convinced that you needed great characters for your fiction.

But here's where you may be stymied. You know you need to create these immortals to prance about your stage, but you don't know how. You realize, perhaps, that you can come up with story ideas or cool plot elements all day long but you couldn't write a decent character to save your life.

Oh, but I see this all the time in the unpublished fiction manuscripts I work with.

How often I see manuscripts in which the author apparently thinks that a set of interesting characters consists of five people who all seem and sound the same (i.e., just like the author) but just have different moods or agendas.

Like Jenny who sounds like the author but is a widow and Frida who sounds like the author but is a gold digger and Laura who sounds like the author but is an adulteress or is depressed or is a haggard soccer mom.

Blech. That's not creating memorable characters.

To me, that's either laziness or ignorance coming out. Either the author doesn't realize that his or her characters all sound that way (and that that's a bad thing) or he or she doesn't want to do the hard work of making the characters realistic and differentiated.

It's hard to do that work. I know. I'm a plot writer. I get great ideas for story events all the time. But if left to what comes onto the page naturally, I will create the most shallow, awful, two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that have ever borne the name "characters."

Still, I hear the call of the road less difficult. How much easier it would be to skip over that dumb character work and just get to the explosions. But I know I must buckle down and do it.

Before I let you know the solution to this conundrum let me talk a moment about how this is a good thing. If you're a plot-first (or even a setting-first) novelist, rejoice! Your counterparts over there, the novelists who create the most amazing characters since Adam and Eve but couldn't create a plot if their lives depended on it, would give their right arms for the ability to come up with a decent story.

You have a superpower, O plot writer. Revel in it.

But don't be content with your strengths. Realize that you are incomplete as a craftsman and storyteller. A book with great story elements but lousy characters will end up like, well, like Star Wars Episode II or Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Flashy and well-made, but ultimately forgettable.

Realize that until you develop the ability to create interesting and believable characters to populate your novels your fiction will always be poorer than it could be.

Some plot-first novelists try to solve this by pairing up with a character-first novelist. One person sets about fashioning terrifically interesting story people and the other person decides what to have them do. If you know someone like this, maybe give it a try.

The best approach, in my opinion, is to learn to do the thing you're weak at. Character-first novelists need to learn how to construct interesting plots, and plot-first novelists must learn how to create interesting characters.

Being a plot-first novelist myself I tend to think that it would be easier for a character-first novelist to learn how to create good plots. All they'd have to do (he says, knowing how naive he sounds) is get that book called 20 Master Plots and How To Use Them and get busy. Or follow Tip #3 to come up with a great inner journey for that character, and voila: instant plot.

But I think it's more difficult for the plot-first novelist to learn how to create interesting characters. (Do I hear the groans of character-first novelists out there?)

There are a ton of craft books out there on how to create great characters for fiction. I own a bunch of them. I've linked to several of them here. I recommend you try those and others to see if they do the trick for you.

In my own journey I ultimately found these books to be useless for me. I studied them and tried their approaches, but they never really hit it for me. Part of it may be because such books are usually written by people who come up with great characters effortlessly. It makes sense: ask the guy who creates great characters to write a book on creating great characters. But it's as if I wasn't speaking their language.

So, being the DIYer I am, I created my own system. Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist is the system I use when creating my own characters.

Now, I've just admitted that I'm a plot-first novelist who has a hard time coming up with interesting characters who aren't stereotypes and don't all sound like me. So why should you use a character-creation system by a guy like that?

Because I speaka you language.

Anyway, don't take my word for it; check out my Operation: Firebrand series of novels. With that series I set myself a challenge: though characters do not come easily to me, can I write a series driven by an ensemble cast?

I didn't want to write Steel Magnolias, for crying out loud, but I wanted to create something that was more of a balance between plot-driven and character-driven fiction.

If you read one of those novels and you find yourself thinking fondly of the characters, then maybe consider checking out my character creation system. Because if I, a hard-wired plot writer, can create interesting characters, you can, too.

Okay, this whole tip was not meant to be a long promo for my character creation system. I don't care if you use mine or not (well, I do, but I'm trying to sound altruistic [grin]). Just so long as you commit yourself to creating interesting, believable characters, I (and publishers and readers) will be happy.

For the sake of creating a posterity for your fiction, do whatever you must do to create interesting, believable, captivating, and differentiated characters who don't all sound like you.

Come see this and other writing help at my Fiction Writing Tip of the Week column.

Jeff Gerke
a.k.a. Jefferson Scott

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How An Attorney Becomes an Attorney (Part 2)

Here's part 2 of Cara Putman's article. Check out her blog at http://carasmusings.blogspot.com/

Receiving a diploma from an accredited law school isn’t enough.

Then we have to take the dreaded, feared bar exam. Huge intake of breath.

The bar exam is HORRIBLE. I am licensed in two states: Virginia and Indiana. At the time I took the Virginia exam there were 20-some topics that could be on the one-day state portion of the exam. Only six essays, but you had to know 20-some topics. Can we all say gamble? Fortunately, my study group guessed right.
In Indiana there was a more manageable 12 or 14 topics for the one-day state portion of the exam. And fortunately much of it wasn’t that different from the Virginia exam.

Then there’s the one-day multi-state. Could you see me shudder? It is a full-day, multiple-choice test that covers 6 (!) topics. I had to take that sucker twice in 18 months. There should be a special award somewhere for doing that. Ugh! I want to say it’s 100 questions. However many it is, it’s horrible.

Do you get the sense attorneys don’t like the bar exam? It has nothing to do with real life. Nothing. Since when does an attorney not take the time to grab the code or do research when presented with a client question?

But every state has a bar exam. And if an attorney moves, they will either have to be waived in or take the new state’s bar exam. Can you sense the plot twist here?

In the legal thriller I’m working on, I had to deal with this very issue, because my heroine flees from one state to another. To make it real, I can’t have her practice in Indiana on her Virginia license.

So if your attorney character is recently out of law school, likely the words "bar exam" will send them into all manner of twitches. And it is an experience common to all attorneys. We’ve all had to take it at some time. We can all trade war stories about it--part of that common experience.

Sidenote: A handful of states do allow you to sit for the bar exam without going to law school. These folks read the law like Abraham Lincoln and others did. Those states include Vermont and Virginia. Still not the safest way to do it, since other states may not recognize that if you try to take their bar.


Thank, Cara, for being our guest once again.

Next time? I'll try to post some mystery/suspense updates. I'll be attending the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in Dallas, and I plan to pay special attention to what editors and agents are saying about the genre.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Interview with Amy Wallace

AMY: Write what you love and love God more than your writing. Simple to say and hard to do when you’re anxiously awaiting THE CALL, I know. But if you can do those two things, you’ll find the dream God has for you and live it well.

LISA: Any writer’s resources you could recommend?
AMY: My favorite writer’s book is Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life. ;-) It’s really very good and makes me laugh. Others on my desk for reference are: Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, and The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them by Jack Bickham.

For writing about the FBI, my favorite book is Cold Zero by Christopher Whitcomb. He’s an FBI agent who writes like a novelist. Great read and a great insight into an FBI agent’s psyche.

LISA: What is the process you use when writing a mystery/suspense?

AMY: I do a lot of reading FBI biographies, FBI bulletins, and researching possibilities as I start to fashion a story. I also do extensive character charts. Then, God and I spend a large chunk of hours creating a chapter by chapter outline. That process requires a lot of sweat and tears, but in the end I have a strong plot outline which gives me the confidence I need to jump into the story and take off. As I’m doing the chapter by chapter, I see if my timeline works and if I’ve given my characters enough time and space for their growth process. I also catch plot holes and get a feel for the pacing of the story. In addition, I add information to my character charts as scene ideas and snippets of dialogue come to mind.

LISA: What is your system to keep the story/clues organized?

AMY: Some days I’m not sure I keep things organized at all. LOL My chapter by chapter outline is my best tool for keeping me pointed in the right direction at the right pace. I tend to jot notes on my hard copy outline as I get into the actual writing, so I keep track of the important clues and where they land in the story. That way, at a glance, I see the clue progression and can tweak things here and there as I’m editing. Above that, I have an awesome group of pray-ers praying for me on my writing days. At the risk of sounding cliché, I honestly believe the only way I stay on track is by praying continually and asking the Lord what He wants to do with each story.

LISA Tell us a bit about the research you had to do for this story?

AMY: God and my husband teamed up to have me meet a wonderful Christian Secret Service agent who was a huge help in writing my first novel. He continues to provide on the spot guidance which is an amazing gift from God. In addition to his input, I read a huge stack of FBI biographies and books about the FBI. Those were gold in terms of figuring out who my characters were professionally and learning interesting tidbits about federal life that found their way into my writing. I also spent a huge number of hours simply reading online at forensic sites or other websites related to main topics covered in each book.

One of the most outlandish things I did for research was to go through a citizen’s police academy where I received an inside look at the police force and all the fascinating things that go on behind the scenes. My favorite part was the CSI class where I dusted for fingerprints and had an incredible instructor who walked us through a dozen crime scenes from information gathering to conviction via very graphic photos and case specifics. I also really enjoyed riding a full shift with an officer and being part of a homicide scene. The best part of that night, though, was sharing a time of prayer with the victim’s brother and getting to see God work in very unique ways.

LISA: Thanks so much for joining us, Amy!

AMY: Thanks for having me here today! I pray my answers are helpful and encouraging for other writers. Dream big you all! God has more in store for us than we can ask or imagine as we trust Him and walk in step with our heavenly Daddy.

Don’t forget to visit our contest page and leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Amy’s book! To find out more about Amy and her writing, visit her website at http://www.amywallace.com/

Thursday, September 13, 2007

How an Attorney Becomes an Attorney (Part 1)

Once again, we are featuring a law article by Cara Putman. Check out her blog at http://carasmusings.blogspot.com/

Your character did not wave a magic want and become an attorney. She didn’t sing abracadabra either.

Instead, your character spent at least four years in an undergraduate program and then went to law school. If she went to law school as a day student, then three years of hard work later she’s got her diploma. If she went to law school at night, like I did, then she worked and went to school for four years to earn that diploma.

During law school your character competed for grades. The best jobs and plum assignments go to those with top grades. She competed for positions on Law Review, other scholarly journals, moot court, inn of court, and on it goes. Then there are the summer clerk positions. The brightest minds go to the best firms. And last there are the all powerful judicial clerkships.

One of my best friends from law school basically graduated at the top of the class. She clerked for a circuit court of appeals judge. I graduated with honors, but not at the top, and clerked for a federal special court judge – think district court level. Others behind me clerked for state judges, and those too much further back didn’t get the opportunity to clerk at all.

That’s why so many people come out of law school with competition bred into them. Let’s face it, you probably don’t go to law school unless you want to be or think you are one of the best. Then the process of law school burns that into your psyche.

The school you go to also makes a huge difference. I went to George Mason University School of Law, a young program. It produced its first US Supreme Court Clerk in the last couple years. Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown have been producing US Supreme Court Clerks for centuries.

So, if one of your characters is an attorney, you’ll need to know some of their back story. Did they go to a top school, earn top grades, and get their pick of jobs? Or did they go to a midline school, barely graduate, and have to scrape for every court appointment they got?

The answer to those questions will dramatically impact who your character is and how they behave.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

We Have a Winner! When the Nile Runs Red

Claudia Blanton, you won a copy of of DiAnn's book, When the Nile Runs Red. Please contact us with your snail mail address: keepmeinsuspense@gmail.com .

Don't forget to leave a comment under DiAnn Mill's recent interview for a chance to win a free copy of her book.

Coming next. . .another law article from Cara Putman.

Happy writing!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Not only was DiAnn my first writing mentor, she also has a deep love for Africa and it's people, something we both share. Since I could never pass up the opportunity to interview her, and I'm excited for the chance to not only read her latest release, When the Nile Runs Red, but to gain some valuable insight from her as a best-selling author. (As a bonus, read on to find out how you could win a free copy of her book!)

DiAnn Mills launched her career in 1998 with the publication of her first book. Currently she has over forty books in print and has sold more than a million copies. She believes her readers should “Expect an Adventure.” Her desire is to show characters solving real problems of today from a Christian perspective through a compelling story. Six of her anthologies have appeared on the CBA Best Seller List. Three of her books have won the distinction of Best Historical of the Year by Heartsong Presents. Five of her books have won placements through American Christian Fiction Writer’s Book of the Year Awards 2003 – 2006. She is the recipient of the Inspirational Reader’s Choice award for 2005 and 2007.

DiAnn is a founding board member for American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Inspirational Writers Alive, Romance Writers of America’s Faith, Hope and Love, and Advanced Writers and Speakers Association. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. DiAnn is also a mentor for Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writer’s Guild.

She lives in sunny Houston, Texas, the home of heat, humidity, and Harleys. In fact she’d own a Harley, but her legs are too short. DiAnn and her husband have four adult sons and are active members of Metropolitan Baptist Church.

LISA: Tell us some of the background behind the idea for this series and give us a blurb for your latest release, When the Nile Turns Red.

DIANN: First of all, I have a passion for the Sudanese’s plight and a deep love for Africa. This began in 2002 when I was asked to write a nonfiction book Lost Boy No More. It continued into When the Lion Roars, and the characters would not let me go.
I do want the reader to know that the proceeds for all three books are given to nonprofit organizations to aid the Sudanese.

My mind works in a “What-if” mode when I’m considering a story idea. The characters in this new novel are unlikely friends, more likely to be enemies. I wanted the crucible of their friendship to be something bigger than any of them.

Paul Farid was once a member of the royal family who openly persecuted any Sudanese who failed to practice Islam. Now he’s a Christian who puts his life on the line to aid the persecuted Sudanese. His wife, Larson, is a doctor committed to giving her life for peace.

Colonel Ben Alier has fought for twenty-one years against the government’s mandates to control the oil, religion, slavery, and politics of Sudan. He neither trusts nor rests any hope in the newly formed government.
Ben’s health deteriorates while Larson finds out she is going to have a baby. Their worlds collide, and as the relational tensions escalate so does the physical danger.

LISA: Could you tell us a bit about the research you had to do for this story, and what you learned in going to Sudan?

DIANN: I knew what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, touched, and intuitively sensed would place the reader in the heart of Sudan - right where I wanted the reader to be.

On this research/mission trip, I took pages of notes, snapped photos, and conducted personal interviews with the people I met. More importantly, I wanted the Sudanese to know that Jesus loved them, and I would take their plight back to the States so others would know firsthand about their critical needs. The burden of the job settled like a heavy yoke on my shoulders.

The sights moved me, sometimes to almost tears. I saw poverty that I will never forget: women drawing water from the Nile and using it without the benefit of boiling it, a lack of sanitation, and thin bodies. I saw a mixture of hope and pain in the eyes of the Sudanese, children at play, and colorful African clothing. A weathered sign indicated an Islamic children’s hospital where before the war ended, boy babies never left the building alive. I saw more goats than I ever wanted to see again.

I heard children laughing and the pop of a gun firing at night. I heard praise and worship to God and witnessed frustration in the voices of those who wanted more for their country. I heard government officials talk of their commitment to southern Sudan and their faith in God. I asked questions and listened to stories of survival and dedication.

I smelled a city with little sanitation, and I longed for them to embrace fragrant flowers and the sweet scent of true freedom. I witnessed men and women pounding goat dung into the ground of their “church” so they could hold services.

I tasted the dust and dirt and noted the Sudanese diet of ugali (cornmeal), vegetables, goat, and fish. Malaria was a part of life, and cholera broke out in the more poverty stricken areas.

People touched me with their joy and their sorrow. I once heard someone say: talk to me and I will get to know you; touch me and I am forever changed. For me, this meant brushing my finger across the vegetation, petting an animal, or embracing someone different from myself. The power of touch pulled me outside of my comfort zone and into the world of the Sudanese. Sometimes it was difficult, but it was never without reward. Instead of my ministering to them, I was blessed beyond imagination.

True research meant giving of myself to benefit others. Sudan will always be a part of my heart, and I look forward to a return trip.

LISA: What advice could you share with fellow authors on doing research?

DIANN: To be immersed in it. To use every fiber of their being to develop an understanding of their book, it’s theme, and the goals to be accomplished in writing the story. As I stated above, use all of your senses.

LISA: What do you see as the essentials elements in a suspense story?

DIANN: Anticipation. Courage. Breathless action. Choices that affect lives and people. A stretching of the character to go beyond what the reader would dare.

LISA: What is the process you use when writing a mystery/suspense?

DIANN: I mentioned this before, but my mind spins in a “what-if” mode. For example, I’m driving down the street, and I see a neighbor has a roll of old carpet by the curb for trash pick-up. Most people would remark that someone just had new carpet installed. My thoughts go directly to a body buried deep inside that roll or blood or etc – what-if? I don’t believe in stories in which a protagonist saves the world single handedly. The story must come from the heart of the character who on his/her way to reach a goal finds him/herself in the middle of a challenge that can’t be forsaken.

LISA: What is your system to keep the story, clues, and characters organized?

DIANN: My “vitals” are kept on computer files. But honestly, most of the clues and outcomes are in my head.

LISA: In developing your characters, are there any key elements you see as essential in the process?

DIANN: Motivation by establishing wants and needs. Internal and external struggles with problems to solve on the way to reach their goals.

LISA: I find in my own writing that I often grow alongside my characters, especially spiritually. Is there a character who you relate to and who made an input on your life?

DIANN: Absolutely! I’m a firm believer that the writer must grow spiritually while writing a book. A writer will discover an awareness about themselves, which is essential not only in his/her personal life but also in how the story will impact the reader.

LISA: Any writer’s resources you could recommend?

DIANN: Always Donald Maass – Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook
Sol Stein – Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel
Jim Scott Bell – Plot and Structure

Thank you so much for being a part of our blog, DiAnn! DiAnn is also offering to give away a copy of When the Nile Runs Red. This will be a bonus giveaway, not a part of our regular contest. For a chance to win a copy of her book, leave a comment on this blog. We will hold the drawing on September 12th.

Be sure and visit DiAnn's website for more information about her books!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Interview with Susan Page Davis

Susan Page Davis, one of our hosts here at Keep Me In Suspense, is back again with another book you won't want to miss, Finding Marie. Susan is an award-winning author, and a double finalist in ACFW's Book of the Year contest with Feather and The Prisoner’s Wife!!!

Tell us some of the background behind the idea for this series and about Finding Marie.

I’m very excited about this book. The idea came partly from my editor at Harvest House, Kim Moore. She had gone through the initial stages of publishing Frasier Island with me, and the publisher was ready to buy a second book as a sequel. I suggested one scenario, but Kim wasn’t too keen on it. When we talked, I tried to listen and discern what she most loved about Frasier Island and wanted to see again. And she loved Pierre.

Now, Pierre Belanger was a main character in that first book, but he wasn’t the hero. He was a happy-go-lucky small-town boy of French Canadian descent who came from a family of eight children and was engaged to a 19-year-old beauty back home in Maine. Everybody loved Pierre. He’s the only guy in Frasier Island that no one got mad at. And I had him get married off stage. After he left Frasier Island, he called his friends George and Rachel there by radio to tell them that he and his longtime sweetheart Marie were married at last and would be going to Japan soon, courtesy of the Navy. Okay, I thought, how am I going to put Pierre in book 2, make it suspenseful, and bring him back to the U.S. Because (confession time) I really don’t know enough about Japan to set a book there and couldn’t afford to do on-location research.

Enter Pierre’s wife, Marie, and fast forward two years. Pierre’s duties in Japan are now ended. It’s time for him and Marie to leave the U.S. Navy base at Yokosuka. I thought about just how cruel I could be to this charming young couple. I sent Marie off to San Francisco alone. Pierre would follow in a few weeks via aircraft carrier, or so they thought. And then I let naïve, trusting Marie get into life-threatening, heart-stopping, chase-you-til-you-drop danger.

I find in my own writing that I often grow alongside my characters, especially spiritually. Is there a character who you relate to and who made an input on your life?

Marie is a character who stretches and grows before your very eyes. She becomes stronger and more independent out of necessity. Although she is much younger than me, I empathize with her. I’ve never been good at thinking on my feet, and neither has she. She must make multiple rapid-fire choices that determine her fate, and yet, even though she is a young Christian, she trusts that God is ultimately in control.

What is the number one thing you’ve learned from your writing journey?

Probably how little I know about writing. I’m still learning things every day. It’s my hope that my stories will get better and better as I go along.

Any future plans for your writing you’d like to share? Any specific dreams you’d like to accomplish in the area of writing?

Immediate plans include a third book in this series, about Marie’s sister, Claudia, a high profile journalist who treks halfway around the globe to interview a special Navy unit and lands in a red hot situation. I’m also working on a set of three cozy mysteries with my daughter Megan (the Blue Heron Lake series from Heartsong Presents: Mysteries) and a trilogy set in colonial New Hampshire for Heartsong Presents.

For farther down the road, I’d like to do more suspense—lots more suspense. I’m in the proposal stage with an equestrian-related series and one about a Maine police detective.

Because I know there are many aspiring writers out there, can you share any tidbits of wisdom on getting published?

Write every day, read a lot, and network every chance you get.

What is the process you use when writing a mystery/suspense?

I like to think through the mystery/danger first. Without the basic plot, a suspense book falls apart. You can have wonderful characters and a frantic pace, but put them in an unbelievable situation and you lose the reader. So I always make sure my story and especially the solution will work.

Then I develop my characters, though in the plotting process I’ve usually thought about what kind of person I need to execute it to the best effect. For example, does the heroine need to be a strong go-getter who will persevere no matter what opposition she encounters? Or does she need to be insecure and unsure of her ability to face evil?

What is your system to keep the story/clues organized?

I like to use a calendar. Most of my suspense books take place within a year, some within less than a week. The average is a couple of months. I save extra calendars, especially ones with large squares. After I block out my synopsis by chapters, I write each chapter number on the calendar on the day where it occurs. For instance, if the story starts in early May, on a Thursday I would write a large 1 in the corner of the square for the first Thursday in May. (The year of the calendar doesn’t matter unless your story takes place in a particular year or the plot requires certain days or holidays to fall on a particular day of the week. As my son once pointed out to me, there are only 14 possible calendars. I take whatever people give me.)

Then I write a capsule of the chapter’s major events on that day’s square. For example, for my novel Witness (coming in April 2008 from Love Inspired Suspense), on the day for chapter 1 I would write, “Petra sees a murder. Police find no evidence of a crime.” Below it I write a large 2 for chapter 2, and “Joe has a bad day.” On the next day, Friday, I write another 2, because chapter 2 spans more than one day, and “Petra hears night noises. Joe meets Petra’s sisters. On Saturday, a 3 and “Petra helps sisters and meets Joe. And so on. This method especially helps me not to forget to send characters to church on Sunday or to take a holiday off from work.

Finding Marie had a different timetable, with most of the book happening in a week’s time, then skipping six weeks at the finale. I found myself getting confused about what time it was in different places as characters in several locations talked on the phone, agreed to meet each other, etc.

Instead of a calendar, I made a chart listing the four major locations of the book across the top: Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco and Michigan/Maine. (The last two were in the same time zone, so counted as one location for my purposes even though they are more than 1,000 miles apart.) Down the left side of the sheet I put the chapter numbers, followed by thumbnail summaries of the chapter’s main events, one scene per line. Each chapter might take several lines. Under each of the four locations, I typed in the time in that zone when that scene began. A website that helped tremendously with this was www.timeanddate.com, where I made my own personal “world clock.” The final step was to highlight the times of the major characters in each scene. If George in Hawaii was talking to Pierre in Yokosuka, I’d highlight the times of Hawaii and Japan. Later in the book, when all the main characters moved into the eastern U.S. time zone, I didn’t bother to list times for the other zones.

This method was tedious to set up, but it saved me many headaches in the long run and helped me catch an untold number of glitches. It also helped me to keep the scenes in correct chronological order.

That's great insight. Tell us a bit about the research you had to do for this story?

A lot of research went into Finding Marie. I did more Navy research (on top of all I’d done for the first book in the series, Frasier Island) and many times visited the websites for the Narita International Airport and San Francisco Airport. I read up on Chinese tongs, TSA baggage rules, and the park at Old Orchard Beach. I nearly wore out my World and U.S. atlases. The whole family got into the act with a pre-Thanksgiving trip to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. A gorgeous photo of Mystic is featured on the cover of Finding Marie. And I had a French teacher and a native French speaker edit my dialogue for the French-speaking characters.

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