Writing Tips

Putting Myself In Books

A lot of advice for early writers is write what you know. Obviously we hope authors like Stephen King aren’t writing from personal experience, but I think it’s much deeper than the story that a writer connects to.

For me, there are a lot of characters I’ve written that I felt I had very little in common with the situations they were in. But every character has a little bit of me in them.

I’m not going to list all the ways I’m like my characters, but I will tell you how I came up with some of them.

Names are important to me. I’ve always been fascinated by the origin of a person’s name. Is it a family name, or that of someone important to the parents? Is it a name the person loves or hates? Does the person go by a nickname? Who chose that nickname? All those things fit into defining a character.

For me, I was named after two saints. My family is Catholic and when I was adopted, my parents named me for two saints. It has defined me in some ways, and I know the names of my characters define them.

Appearance is another big one. Most of my women are overweight women. They’re characters I can relate to because I’m not a small woman and never have been. I couldn’t find a lot of stories about women I could relate to, so I started writing them. Now it’s more popular to have characters of different sizes, but these are the women I relate to, so I’ll keep writing about them!

Little things like religion and music tastes and families are all factors I take from my personal life. I’m Catholic, like many of my characters. I listen to country music (hello Kate Maddox). I have a brother and a sister so I understand what it’s like to have both and can relate. I do struggle writing only children, but between friends and other family, I’ve gotten a good picture of what that’s like. But most of my characters are similar to me in more ways than one.

Writing people that I share no similarities with is tough. That’s not to say I’ll never write characters that aren’t like me, just that it’s more of a struggle. Opposites Attract has been more of a challenge than I expected because I’m exclusively in the head of the men. Boy, are they hard to figure out! But I’m enjoying the challenge. I’ve been to Hawaii, but it’s been a long time. So I’m doing a lot of research about the area, the language, and the culture. It’s all new to me, but I’m loving it. It’s definitely making me anxious to go back!

One day I’ll get back there, and then maybe I can write more stories about Hawaii. It’ll feel like it’s a part of me again!

What parts of you would you incorporate into a character?

Getting to the HEA

It’s a rule in romance that every story has to end with an HEA, or happily ever after, or at least a happy for now scenario. I like to break rules a lot of the time, but this is one of those rules I will never break. I can’t tell you how many times I read a Nicholas Sparks book or watched one of his movies and cried. I mean, really, who hasn’t?

Getting to that happy ending isn’t always easy, though. Sometimes the characters have to lose what they want the most. Sometimes they have to give up completely. And they always have to change. If the love story was as simple as two people met and fell in love, it would be a short and boring book.

We want someone to root for. Someone we see ourselves in. Someone who needs people in their corner.

I do my best to make each of my stories believable. I don’t want you walking away thinking this would never happen in real life. We all go through challenges and struggle to figure out our love lives. Love is one of the most difficult, confusing, and rewarding things any person can ever experience. I’m fortunate that I get to make people fall in love every day!

But getting to the happily ever after means going through those challenges, facing the difficulties, and battling the confusion to get the reward. Some of my favorite stories are the ones that don’t feel completely hopeless but make you doubt. The hero overhears something and misunderstands. Or the heroine finds out he’s been hiding something. Or there’s something outside the control of both of them that tears them apart.

Our challenges tell us who we are. It’s in that where we find opportunities to be better. We can always be better people, and novels help us to see that. We find parts of a character that we see ourselves in, and believe we can change the same way the character did. We can find that same love. We can have the things we really want. There’s always hope.

In real life, we don’t have the luxury of turning the page and finding out what happens next. Instead, we have to write our own book. We have to decide if we’re going to give him another chance, or if we’re going to be the first to call after a date, or if we’re going to grovel for forgiveness when we screw up. It isn’t set. It isn’t easy to make these decisions. It’s painful and heartbreaking and so worth the reward when we get it.

Keep pushing toward your reward! It’s worth it!

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Writing Tips: Character Flaws

Last week I talked about liking your characters and how if you care what happens to them, your readers will care also. This week, we need to talk about the things you don’t like about your characters. Their flaws that make them real.

Think of yourself. You have good qualities and qualities you wish you could change. Same with your significant other, your best friend, and your kids. We all have characteristics that make us who we are, good and not so good.

Why do your characters have to have traits that are less than desirable? Why should they have a flaw? Or a few?

None of us are perfect. No matter how much we’d like to be, we have flaws. Giving your characters flaws makes them feel more real. And if they’re real, they’re relatable. The key is finding the right flaw so your characters stay on the right side of the line between relatable and too stupid to live.

So what’s the right flaw?

What do you think about the alpha male who has a soft spot for his mom?

Or the kick-ass tattoo artist with a blind cat at home.

Or you could go with a billionaire who anonymously donates to a children’s center.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

What are the defining elements of your character? Is he a cocky asshole? Or a quiet guy who keeps to himself? Or is she a confident new business owner? Or uneasy about where her life is going because she just got fired?

With each of these characters, balance their strength with a weakness. The cocky asshole had an abusive dad and volunteers at a homeless shelter for women and children to help the kids learn not all men are bad. The guy who keeps to himself is a rock star in private and sings to thousands of people. The new business owner is a disorganized mess. And the woman who just got fired plays roller hockey on the weekends with a name like Punky Bruiser.

The most effective character flaws are not really flaws. They feel like flaws to the main character, but they’re really just new layers to the character that helps make them who they are. Do you see how each of the traits were toned down by the opposite trait? How something that might make them hard to relate to is offset by something that makes them very approachable. Or how someone who seems very down to earth is given a complexity by something they’re hiding.

Think of your favorite characters. What about them did you love? What made you connect with them? Share in the comments below!

If you have a question, about writing or anything else, send me an email (mary (at) maryethompson (dot) com) with Q&A in the subject, or post it in the comments below, and I’ll answer your question right here on the blog!

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Writing Tips: Crafting Characters

I haven’t gotten any new questions in my mailbox, so I’m back with some more advice for aspiring writers.

Today let’s talk about crafting characters. In romance, characters drive the story. If readers don’t care about your characters, the story is no good, no matter how good it is.

What you have to do is figure out how to make readers care about your characters. Want to know how I do it?

I care about my characters!

It’s simple, right? But how much I love my characters comes through. Every single one I’ve written has had a piece of me. Maybe not a similarity to me, but definitely a piece of my heart. I spend months, years, with these people. They live inside my head. I’m the only one they talk to. It’s up to me to tell their stories.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but you have to care about your characters to make your readers care. Which means you have to find characters, stories, people you want to write about.

Do you have a friend that you wish could find The One? Does your kid have a teacher you think is sweet? Maybe one of your grandkids has a coach that you think would be a great hero.

Find someone who inspires you. Yeah, someone in your world. No, I’m not telling you to write the story of a person you actually know, but to get yourself started, use someone you know to inspire you.

Puffy & PreciousI’ve written characters based on men I saw in church (Davoli brothers Matt, Mark, and John from Paradise Park), a guy at the gym (Graham from Puffy & Precious), and even my best friend (Charlie from Fluffy & Fabulous).

Once I get a feel for who they might be, who my inspiration is, I go looking for a picture. Pinterest is a great resource because it’s free, and I use the photos for my use only so it’s legal.

With my picture and my inspiration in hand, I start to figure out who my characters are. What they want, what they’re looking for, who they’d fit well with. I go through a character interview to learn more about them. I ask about their background, how they grew up, who their family is, what they studied in school, what they drive, where they live, what scares them, what inspires them, what they’re proud of, what they’re embarrassed by. I dig deep and get into who each character really is. I need to know what makes them tick, and what ticks them off.

Because at the end of the day, a book will be boring without some kind of conflict.

By the time I’m done with my interview, we’re good friends!

Which makes it a whole lot easier for me to care what happens to them.

If you’re writing a book that has a character driven story, make sure you know your characters better than you know yourself. They can’t have any secrets from you, and you have to want them to find their happily ever after. Otherwise, your readers won’t want them to find it either.

If you have a question, about writing or anything else, send me an email (mary (at) maryethompson (dot) com) with Q&A in the subject, or post it in the comments below, and I’ll answer your question right here on the blog!

Writing Tips: Finding Time

Time is such a valuable commodity. We all have the same amount. None of us gets more hours in the day, unless you have one of those cool necklaces Hermione had. If you do, can you send me one?

So assuming you’re an ordinary person without magical powers, you have the same 24 hours I do. Most days it doesn’t feel like enough. Especially when I’m on a deadline and anxious to get a few more things done before the school bus gets home. Or before the kids wake up. Or before my favorite show comes on.

We have to have priorities, right?

If you’re adding writing in as one more thing to do in your day, you’re probably wondering where you can find the time to write.

Here’s the secret… you don’t need much!

Yes, a book is not something you can finish in a day. It’s going to take you a while. But you don’t have to kill yourself to make it happen.

Personally, I like to write in thirty minute blocks, or longer. But this is my full time job, so I have all day. If you’re looking for some time, you can find it in small places.

Can you get up thirty minutes earlier? Trust me, I hate this suggestion. It’s one I balked at for years and years and years. I’m not a morning person. At all. But I decided over the summer that I was going to do it because I wanted to. Because I wanted more time to dedicate to my work. I’m not as tired as I thought I would be, and I’m getting more done.

What about at night? Can you stay up a little later? Again, same rules apply. You don’t need much time, and if you think this could work for you, turn off the TV (my big issue with it because I never did) and write.

What about, you’re going to laugh, in the bathroom? Let’s face it, we all have longer breaks in the bathroom at one time or another through the day. Can you write on your phone? Not a whole book, but for five minutes? You won’t get much done, and you’ll take a really long time to finish a book if you only do this, but it’ll add up. Just make sure you don’t lose track of time!

Waiting, for anything. Just like above, there are going to be times in your day when you’re just waiting. Doctor’s offices, grocery lines, carpool, commute, anything. Can you, again, pull out your phone for a few minutes and write a hundred words or so?

Can you write on your lunch break? Some people can’t, but if you have access to a computer during your lunch break and your company will allow you to do something non-work related, write for thirty minutes. You’ll be shocked how much you can get done in that amount of time.

Try it!

I think the best thing is to give yourself a week or two and try a few different options. Try getting up early or staying up later for a week. Try sitting in your car on your lunch break with a notebook or a tablet and writing. Try five minute bathroom breaks. See what works for you, then keep doing it.

For me, I have to have a schedule. When I first get up, I check my email so I know there isn’t anything sitting there waiting for me to answer it. After the kids are on the bus, I start writing. I write until lunch, and then get back to it afterward. But if I need to do something during the day, like a doctor’s appointment, I like to schedule it in the morning so I don’t mess up my flow. Figure out what works for you and start writing!

What tips do you have for finding time to write?

If you have a question, about writing or anything else, send me an email (mary (at) maryethompson (dot) com) with Q&A in the subject, or post it in the comments below, and I’ll answer your question right here on the blog!

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