Celebrate, Celebrate

holidaycloudsProd any little kid to see what she loves best and you’re likely to hear “Christmas, birthday, Halloween,” though perhaps in a different order. Prod her mommy and you’re likely to hear the same, with the addition of “family.” Prod me and you’ll definitely get family and holidays. I look forward to holidays with the anticipation of fun, feast, friends, family, and food. Calendars include all religious, cultural, and national holidays, the entries growing every year. With such emphasis on celebrations it’s hardly unexpected that we writers would include some kind of holiday in our books, a date to be observed in some momentous way.

All of my books revolve around family and the complex personal relationships that drive individuals to investigate their personal histories in order to pursue their futures. Every book I’ve written employs at least one holiday, including my current WIP. This one is about folks in an assisted living home where the first day of spring is celebrated every single day because it might be the last time an aging resident gets to do so. But Where Did Mama Go? is not the book I want to talk about at the moment.

About 20 years ago I played with the idea of pursuing a multi-generational family over several decades, using the Jewish holiday of Passover as the vehicle. Passover is a holiday of fours, the symbolism of four showing up in its four names, four versions of telling the story, four children (sons, if you’re Orthodox), four questions, four cups of wine (sips, in my house), four promises of redemption, the four mothers who worked like crazy at the back of the tent to make the first Passover meal, and the four billion mothers (and fathers) who cooked all those meals that followed. If you’ve ever prepared a Passover seder, you know what I mean about the food. For one thing, leavened bread is forbidden – try cooking a meal for 20 or so folks without preparing anything that’s leavened. Yeah, you need a grove of fruit to keep things, er, regular, and that’s part of the metaphor as well. With such a trove of meaning, how could I not find a story to write?

The story would follow as families squabbled, kids grew up, marriages failed, and people confessed their secrets and sins until something extraordinarily mindboggling happened, drawing the plot to a close. I could never figure out what extraordinary event it would turn out to be. There’s only so much that can be done with unleavened bread and Manischewitz wine. After a while the concept bored me and I knew it would bore readers.

Still that initial idea provoked me until it metamorphosed into The Inlaid Table, a story of generations separated by an ocean and a war. The book opens with a family celebrating Passover, a holiday branded with the idea of rebirth and freedom. However, the rituals of the holiday take a back seat to the exasperating family quibbles and gripes that end up tainting every diner. The story is here, in the tenuous family dynamic torn asunder. The flight to religious freedom? Not at this Passover.

This newer iteration of my original idea employs Passover as loose webbing, not the steel scaffolding first envisioned. The book’s focus is two women who are emblematic of their time, one an eventual victim of the Holocaust, the other an American indecisive about her future. No one needs to know anything about Passover to understand and enjoy the story, and that’s crucial. Some of my previewers knew a great deal, others nothing at all. Their reviews commented on the strengths and context of the story and noted areas of concern, much of it addressed in re-writes.

A book must first of all entertain, must engage and trigger imagination sufficient to prompt the reader to turn pages. My first idea would have failed because of a propensity toward preaching, the this-is-how-it’s-done approach. Locking any story to a stiff spine of telling someone how to live according to a set of rules, and stitching characters to that spine, won’t create enthusiasm or sympathy. Characters need to be quirky and individual, plodding through their lives with enough klutziness and self-delusion to be endearing. A little nobility helps as well as a tendency to forge a new path no matter how prickly the brambles overhead. Redemption isn’t possible if one has nothing to redeem, and who needs to read a story about a protagonist with nothing to learn? No one likes their heroes perfect. Even Moses had a speech defect.

The more I dropped the focus on the Passover holiday in Table, the more it became a background, messy and believable, and the story richer. That was the lesson for me, to create a story around characters that celebrate and fail rather than a holiday that directs the plot. Passover became a sidebar; the drama ramps up, the characters grow, fall apart, grow some more.

Calendars help us note our holidays but our achievements make us who we are. Whether your characters celebrate Christmas or Chanukah or Mergatroid Crowning Day, let the holidays in your story whisper but not preach, let them reflect your characters but not manipulate them, and let your story find its own truth. It may not be about the holiday at all; failures and disappointments mark our days as well as sublime moments. The story may be about Angetha and Rufert living in a swampy world where hippopotami rule. That’s the tale you may just want to write.

Be sure to include the celebration of their annual Creeping Root Slither Frolic.


Rolling the Dice

imageFor people who know me, it may come as a surprise to learn that I am not a fan of Dungeons & Dragons.  Frankly, I was smack dab in the middle of the D&D demographic and many (most?) of my friends played.  But I never got into it.  Perhaps this was because I simply didn’t have the time to play it consistently, perhaps it was because when I did play it was not with a good Dungeon Master. I really don’t know why I never got into it, but I never did.

The one thing I really liked about D&D was the creation of characters.  When I was a kid, characters were created by rolling a set of polyhedral dice to determine how strong the character would be, how healthy, how smart, how friendly, etc.  In the newer editions there are point sheets or lists from which these characteristics are assigned (cue the old man in me as I say, “Meh, why’d these whippersnappers have to go and change something as simple and elegant as that, ehh Sonny?”).  I used to enjoy creating characters using the set of D&D dice I got one year for Christmas.  I’d roll the dice and create these characters — naming the toughest characters with the wimpiest names I could come up with or naming the least dexterous characters with names that implied gracefulness. I would build dozens of characters this way for no other reason than to create them.  Their character sheets were quickly tossed aside never to be looked at again.

That is, until I created the character called Swan.

As I said, I was not a big fan of actually playing Dungeons & Dragons.  But I was always writing stories  One day I was lacking a character for the story I was writing. I had no idea who the missing character was, just that I needed one.  So, I grabbed my D&D dice and started rolling.  By the luck of the rolling dice, Swan was unintelligent, sick, unlikable and had what amounted to two left feet. But he was physically stronger than one could ever imagine.  I sat there staring at the scribbled numbers which defined this character and shrugged – clearly this was not going to solve the problem in my story.

But as I started packing up my dice, a story started developing around Swan. I saw entire armies of any and all species attacking him with any and all sorts of weapons and magical spells… and Swan didn’t even break a sweat fending them off.  I saw him standing there humming peacefully, sipping a coffee in one hand while destroying whatever foe came at him.  He avoided crowds in general and refused to be in the company of children because he was embarrassed that children knew more things than he did. He single-handedly protected the land from everything the universe threw at it.  The rest of the soldiers and politicians grew comfortable that Swan would just take care of everything, so they went about their lives an left him alone.

One day the enemy country sent a few young kids over, presumably to show an attempt at making peace. The diplomat who should have greeted them was busy playing video games and so he walked away from them.  The arrival of the kids was suspicious and strange but hey! It was just some scrawny little kids, right?  So, Swan greeted them with an awkward grin and sat down. When the scrawniest of the kids (named Bruiser) shuffled up to Swan and sneezed on him, it was just kind of gross… except that Swan was not a particularly healthy man.  This one sneeze overwhelmed Swan’s immune system and brought him to his knees. Before anyone knew it, the war was lost and it was all because of a kid who was trained by the military to not cover his mouth when he sneezed.

Obviously, that was an abrupt ending for an amazingly strong warrior (and an amazingly awful story).  I didn’t like it, so I went back and started trying to adjust the character to change the outcome. But I failed to make it better—no matter what I changed in this character, the story around him adapted and found another way to defeat him. This endeavor, no matter how frustrating it turned out to be, taught me a few things about writing in general and my own writing in particular:

  1. Characters, no matter how strong or talented or capable they may be, always tend to have some sort of flaw or weakness they struggle to overcome.
    I’m flawed. You’re flawed. My amazing, athletic, intelligent, beautiful, perfect children are flawed.  It’s part of what makes us real and part of what makes it critical that we work together to overcome whatever the world throws at us.  My weakness might be your strength, your weakness might be something I do well.  To be realistic and believable, characters in our stories need to have flaws and strengths just like we do.  In my character, Swan, the less flawed I tried to make him in terms of specific characteristics, the more flawed he – and the story – became as a whole.
  2. If a character does not recognize their area of weakness, then other characters usually do.
    Adversaries try to take advantage of weakness. Allies will attempt to compensate for weaknesses.  This is true in life and will be true in most stories as well.  I always think of things like “opposites attract” and wonder why this seems to be a Universal Truth… but to some extent it just makes sense that I would seek out friends and partners who round out my rough edges.  Swan’s weakness was his health and his lack of intelligence… had he been able to recognize that the kids who came to see him were sick, perhaps he would have refused to grant them an audience.  Alternatively, had his colleague recognized that Swan was unable to manage situations such as this, perhaps he’d have put his video game down and distracted the enemy children. Characters in our stories should know their own abilities in much the same way we know our own. It’s okay to let the characters test their limits, but much like we all have our own strengths and weaknesses, the characters must recognize that about themselves too.  That is, unless their flaw/weakness is that they cannot recognize this about themselves.
  3. No matter how much of a hipster a character might be, without a really good reason they are not any more likely to do unexpected or out-of-character things than a real person is.
    I don’t like heights.  I’m not afraid of heights, I just don’t like them.  It started when I got glasses (I remember this distinctly). Basically, I always fear my glasses will fall off and go crashing to their doom.  As a result of this dislike of heights, I tend to avoid ladders.  I’ll get up on a ladder when needed, but I will keep my feet on the ground as much as I can.  Last year, while on vacation, I decided (read: was convinced by the teenagers vacationing with me) to go on the zip-line.  I found myself tied to a rope, dangling from a platform 40 feet in the air, then hurtling downhill at what felt like faster than the speed of light.  Clearly, I survived the event, but it took me a long time to recover from such an out-of-character activity. The entire time I was waiting for my turn to run off the platform, I felt every cell of my body trying to turn me around to walk the other way. It was out of character for me and I knew it (as did everyone else on the trip with me).

    Similarly, I’ve had characters in my stories get to a point where they refuse to cooperate with me.  The character afraid of flying who is suddenly about to sky dive just for fun?  Nope. He won’t do it. The character who is afraid of swimming because her parents, grandparents, sister, brother, best friend and favorite puppy all drowned?  She’s not likely to suddenly decide to participate in a synchronized swimming event. Clearly, characters can grow and change and can overcome their fears or weaknesses, but if the skill is not part of their original characterization the story has to be written so that they change and grow into that new behavior or are forced into it by circumstances within the story.  In my example here, Swan would never have sat with the children because he hated children. Had he stuck to that bit of his character, he’d have avoided the sneeze which lost them the war. Every attempt I made to make him like children or avoid this interaction weakened not only the character but also the story itself as each change required other changes elsewhere in the story to make it all fit. You can’t change someone into something they are not.  This is true in life and in writing (at least my writing).

  4. Every character you imagine is worthy of being remembered.
    In any creative writing class, you will hear that you should never discard anything you create.  Story passages, plot ideas, character sheets – these are all important bits of creativity that may not be useful right now but may become useful down the road.  I find this especially true with characters.  I write by the seat of my pants, so ideas float in and out of my mind all the time.  Characters show up, say hello, and then stand there waiting for me to do something.  I don’t always know their backstory or their purpose in my creative universe, but I take note of them and file them away until such time as they are ready to share their story with me. Sometimes the characters refuse to share those stories and I just start inventing them.  It’s a good exercise to take a character and just write for a bit, throwing everything you’ve got at the character to see how they react.  Doing so can tease out the little character flaws and strengths within them and may even turn that random character into something quite special.


The bottom line for me is that characters in our stories are just like us in many ways.  They have hopes and fears, dreams and desires, strengths and weaknesses. As writers, it is our job to figure those pieces out and help these characters be true to themselves.  Swan is a useless character to me today, but every once in a while it is a good exercise to trot him out of my little Cavern of Characters and send him off on some wacky adventure.  The resulting story may not be literary gold, but the benefits of flexing those writing muscles, exploring new ways of characterization and helping a character to grow and change are enormous.

So what do you say?  Why not roll the dice, create a few new characters and send them off on an adventure?  You may be surprised at what they will help you discover. I could lend you my Dungeons and Dragons dice if it helps.

Worlds Defining Characters

I find it almost ironic that my first post on Today’s Author is on a subject near and dear to my heart: Building believable worlds.

However, it isn’t just the world I want to discuss, but the characters who live on them. The cultures of the world, the scope and expanse of a world are all important. How does a world define our characters? Earth has gone a long way to define us as a race. We are defined by the locations we live. Those of us who live near oceans or rivers have learned to fish. Those of us who live in the desert have adapted to the heat and the dry winds. Those of us who live where snow falls eight months out of the year have adapted to the cold. Our cultures are defined by the world we live in, whether we like it or not.

Imaginary Places, Imaginary Friends…

I’m not going to talk about the real world. I’m going to talk about Alskoran, a world of my own creation, the world depicted in the map at the top of this post*. (Yes, I drew it. More on that later.)

Alskorans is a continent divided by conflicting cultures and people. It doesn’t look that way from this view. It just looks like a bunch of lines defining where people live. Surely that can’t make that much of a difference, can it?

It can, and it does. I’d like to call your attention to three places on the map. You can’t see it from this angle, but take a look at the Rift. If you were to consider the real world compared to mine, the Rift is like the big brother of the Grand Canyon. The really big brother of the Grand Canyon. So big, it takes the best horses in the world more than two weeks to navigate the canyon trails to go from the top to the bottom. It is a dry, hostile place, with a great river cutting through the depths of the ravines. Danar, to its north, is a desert wasteland. He who controls water controls life.

These two places have drastically different cultures. The people of the Rift live and die by the quality of their sturdy horses and their skills riding them. The river offers them life, and it may as well be a God to them, because they don’t believe in Gods. Life and death are constantly at battle with one another, and the people have evolved to handle this fight very well. The Danarites, on the other hand, have a very strong belief system. Their Goddess provides water, and water means life or death to them.

The people of these two locations, although very close to each other in geographic terms, are drastically different. Horses are rare to the Danarites. The Rifters are the premier horsemen of the continent. The Danarites live in a place similar to Death Valley on the west coast. Horses can’t really survive there. The ones that do survive belong only to the elite, because they’re the only ones who can afford to water them. Without horses, their trade is limited. In Danar, they are a self-sufficient people, suspicious of anyone who isn’t them. The Rifters live in an equally harsh terrain, but in the depths of their canyons, there are grasslands and fodder for their beloved horses.

All of these things are due to where they live.

Then there is Kelsh, which is to the east of the Rift and south and east to Danar. Unlike Danar, it is a fertile land, with forests and lush farmlands.

Resources are at the root of the ongoing conflicts between Danar and Kelsh. No one remembers what triggered the ongoing feud between the peoples of the two regions, but the conflicts have developed to a point it is almost genetic in nature.

Their cultures have evolved to account for this ongoing dispute.

Location, Location, Location…

Location plays a huge part in defining culture. Whether you’re building a fantasy or science fiction world, understand how the location of your people changes the culture of your people. If you want a people to behave in a certain way, you need to account for that in their lifestyle. Cultures are formed because of necessity. Cultures evolve for many reasons, including an easing of lifestyle, luxuries, and religion. Trade can change cultures, as the people learn about how other people do things. Immigration really changes things. There is a reason America and Canada are referred to as mixing posts and salads in the cultural community. When you put a bunch of different cultural groups together, the lines separating the cultures will eventually blur.

So, how do you build a realistic world, a realistic people, and a realistic culture?

Start with understanding the world your characters live in. Your setting shouldn’t just be a place your characters stand on as they do the things they need to do. The best stories include the world as a character. Sure, the world doesn’t (often) have lines, but it’s always there. It’s a huge factor in the behavior of your real characters. Yet, time and time again, I read books where the world is nothing more than a cardboard cut out. It’s left with no depth, no realism, and no vibrancy.

Understanding Your World

If you want to build strong characters, start by building a strong, vibrant world. Even if your story takes place on Earth.

What? That doesn’t make sense! I can almost hear the questions now: Why do I need to develop Earth? We all live here! We know what living on Earth is like! That’s a waste of my time.

It’s not. Seriously. It’s not. Unless every story you ever write takes place in your home town featuring people you know, you need to research. If you live in Manhattan and want to write about someone living in Boston, you better do your research. New Yorkers are used to streets that make sense. Bostonites? They can navigate their way through a rubberband ball. They have to. Their streets are more convoluted than the typical mirror maze. I’ve been there once as a driver, and the idea of going back scares the liver out of me.

Boston’s confusing roads have become a part of their culture. The people have adapted to them. If you’re writing about Boston, and you’re from New York, you may forget this tiny little detail that impacts the life of a person from Boston on a daily basis.

Boston grew in a different way than New York. That history has stuck with the people of Boston. It has defined a different culture than its southern neighbor. Boston and New York, while both American Cities, are nothing like each other. I’ve had the pleasure of being guests of both cities, and how much they differ is absolutely amazing to me.

If you want to write about Earth, you need to know what you’re writing. You don’t just need to know the modern setting, but the history of the setting as well. It really makes a big difference on making the city feel alive. To making your setting feel real.

To skip across the ocean for a moment, this is one thing JK Rowling got right with her Harry Potter series: She made England feel real. She gave it a history. She gave it a culture. Then, she changed it up on us. She made it a place easy to imagine, easy to relate to, and then she gave it a feel of England.

That takes a great deal of skill. To write in such a way where a setting feels nature, a writer has to understand the location and its impact on the people living there.

Your setting is a character, and it’s one of the most important characters you have. You develop your living, breathing human characters (or non-human, as the case may be) but many don’t take the time to really understand the world their characters are from.

Sure, you may have an idea for the type of character you want to create, but how did that person become the type of person they are? A person born and raised as a slave isn’t going to take to independent thought easily. It’s nurtured for them to be anything but independent, self-reliant, and bold. Someone who was taken to be a slave in the middle of their lives is a different story. Understand how your culture and world will develop your characters.

If you need a real-life example of this, consider North America versus China. The way Americans and Chinese view the world is completely different. A good first step is to study real cultures, real people, and identify why the stereotypes of these cultural groups exists. Then, use it to your advantage.

Bringing a World to Life

The hardest part is bringing a world to life. Ironically, you do this through your characters and their interaction with the world. Just as the world defines the characters, the characters in turn define the world. For example, a culture with high water needs may build a dam. This changes the nature of the world around them, while the changes to the world also change how the characters react to each other, trade, and so on.

We can argue about the chicken vs egg situation all day long, but one simple fact remains: A great book has both characters and setting.

After all, we don’t just call Tolkien’s work “The Lord of the Rings.” No, we imagine ourselves as revisiting Middle Earth.

And Middle Earth is more than just the people. It’s about the places. What would The Lord of the Rings be without Mount Doom? Without Mordor? Without The Shire? Each of these places has culture unique to them, and that’s a huge part of why so many of us love Tolkien’s novels. We’re not just told about places, we’re taken there.

When you start writing your book, or even as you continue it, don’t just think of your setting as a cardboard cut out. Instead, view it as your most important character: The character who defines the lives, the motivations, the traits, and the customs of all of your key players.

Your world may not have lines, but it plays one of the leading roles.

* A Side Note about Maps: I draw maps, including cultural boundaries, kingdom lines, and terrain types as a way to help me define my world. This exercise is important to my process, though I don’t expect many people take it to quite the extremes I do. It does help me make my cultures feel a little more authentic, however. And it helps me see what characters see when they look at a map.

How to Tell if Someone is Lying: Body Language

658925_lil_pinoccioOver half of our communication is done with body language, not words. I study it so I can characterize the people in my books–their actions, hand gestures, facial expressions–and it has taught me a lot about reading people’s interior monologue–those ideas they don’t want to share, but inadvertently do. Even the best speakers have a difficult time preventing twitches, unconscious hesitations or muscle movements from giving away what they truly feel.

Here are some of the ‘tells’ (movements the person doesn’t realize they are doing) that someone is lying:

Verbal Context and Content

  • A liar will use your words to answer a question. When asked, “Did you eat the last cookie?” The liar answers, “No, I did not eat the last cookie.”
  • A statement with a contraction is more likely to be truthful: “I didn’t do it” instead of “I did not do it.”
  • Liars sometimes avoid “lying” by not making direct statements. They imply answers instead of denying something directly.
  • The guilty person may say too much, adding unnecessary details to convince you. They are uncomfortable with silence or pauses in the conversation.
  • A liar may leave out pronouns and speak in a monotonous tone. When a truthful statement is made, the pronoun is emphasized as much or more than the rest of the words in a statement.
  • Words may be garbled and spoken softly, and syntax and grammar may be off. In other words, his sentences will likely be muddled rather than emphasized.
  • Listen for a subtle delay in responses to questions. An honest answer comes quickly from memory. Lies require a quick mental review of what they have told others to avoid inconsistency.
  • Lowered heads indicate a reason to hide something. If it is after an explanation, s/he may be lying, unsure if what they said was correct.
  • Look into their eyes. Liars will consecutively look at you and look away a number of times.
  • Avoiding direct statements or answers
  • Leaving out pronouns (he, she, it, etc.)

Other signs of a lie:

  • Watch their throat. A person may be either trying to lubricate their throat when he/she lies OR swallowing to avoid the tension built up.
  • Watch hands, arms and legs, which tend to be limited, stiff, and self-directed when the person is lying. The hands may touch or scratch their face, nose or behind an ear, but are not likely to touch their chest or heart.
  • If you believe someone is lying, change subject quickly. A liar follows along willingly and becomes more relaxed. They want the subject changed. An innocent person may be confused by the sudden change in topics and will want to go back to the previous subject.
  • Or, if you believe someone is lying, allow silence to enter the conversation. Observe how uncomfortable and restless the person becomes.
  • Liars more often use humor or sarcasm to avoid a subject.
  • Under the eyes, small pockets of flesh pop up when someone smiles, but only if the smile is genuine.

Deception–maybe they aren’t lying, but they’re hiding something

  • covering the mouth with the hands
  • rubbing the side of the nose
  • leaning away from you
  • micro shrug
  • voice pitch increases
  • Liars, he says, use more “negative emotion” words (hurt, ugly, nasty) and fewer first-person singulars.

Sound complicated? It isn’t, but it requires listening with all of your senses, not just your ears.

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blogger, Technology in Education featured blogger, and IMS tech expert. She is the editor of a K-6 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-6 Digital Citizenship curriculum, creator of technology training books for middle school and ebooks on technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

Follow me.