Today Tina Gray (A. G. Howard) has graciously accepted my invitation to be a guest blogger! I'm so excited. This is a really nice lady that I met through reading an agent's blog. You can check out her website and read an excerpt of her novel. It's wonderful!
So . . . here she is!
When Jessica asked me to do a guest blog, I was so excited … and flattered! Then I realized, Oh, that means I have to come up with something to write about. Hmmm. I have a hard enough time doing that on my own blog. Pretty sad, considering that I am a writer. But for me, it’s a lot easier to conjure up new characters in unique settings than it is to write about the everyday mundane world I live in.
That’s why I write, to escape the ordinary. Interesting, as that’s the same reason most readers read. In fact, honestly, I think we’re all in this to be entertained. But from an author’s perspective, the writing side of entertainment—although fun and rewarding—doesn’t come without its share of work.
Which leads me to the subject of my blog. Authors have to come up with a fresh story idea, research it, plot it out, then take that final leap and keep their muse alive while they write that sucker (not to mention the grueling revisions that follow). Just for kicks, I’m going to lay out how I get started with a new book, from the idea’s conception to choosing the characters.
First, how do I come up with an idea? Well, I’m a very visual person. So naturally, my spark is most likely going to be lit by something I see. I’ll use my ghost novel for an example.
The idea came to me a couple of years ago while I was on vacation in Kansas. My husband and I four-wheeled from the lake house over to an old graveyard surrounded by a forest—one of those lushly macabre numbers with crumbling tombstones and intricately carved statues dating back to the 16 and 1700’s—and while walking among the debris we stumbled upon a locked fence. An isolated headstone sat inside the enclosure in the far right corner, covered with ivy to the point the epitaph couldn’t be read aside from two words: beloved son.
Maybe it’s the writer in me, or maybe it’s human nature, but seeing something like that … a tomb set off by itself in an enclosure that’s now overrun with weeds and vines … already the questions are stirring my imagination. Why the fence? Who was this person, this beloved son? And why did he merit such isolation?
Then, as I’m scanning the scene trying to memorize every delicious detail, I see something that spurs even deeper introspections. What is the significance of the other gate in back? The overgrown path that opens into the woods … where does it lead? Who once kept a vigil here, and why are they no longer keeping it?
And therein, my idea: A young lady (let’s say a grieving hat-maker in the Victorian era, because naturally, the setting lends itself to something gothic), comes upon a wrought iron enclosure in a cemetery and sees not only a tomb, but a lone flower unfurling it’s immaculate petals, proud and thriving in the midst of the decomposing wilderness. The young lady cannot resist the unusual blossom, having a love for colors and textures due to her hat-making skills. So, being resourceful and impetuous as all good heroines must be, she breaks off the padlock, digs up the flower, and takes it home, little realizing that within the petals resides a man’s spirit—a ghost that happens to have no memory of ever dying. To help solve this dashing (this is a romance, so of course he HAS to be a hottie) ghost’s death, my young heroine must return to the cemetery and follow the trail that leads into the woods to meet the keeper of the grave, her first step in unraveling the mystery.
Voila! From a scene rich with a history that I will never know is born a story that I can mold and shape into something of my very own.
I so love being a writer.
So there’s my skeleton plot, no pun intended. Now, before I can move onto the research which is where I get most of my scene ideas and where the story beefs up to a full meaty plot, I have to motivate and get to know my characters.
Remember, I’m a visual person. So when I first start fleshing out my characters, I want to have a sense of what they look like. I go online, look at sketches or headshots of people, be they models, actors/actresses, or just regular Joes like me. I look for faces that hold some sort of aura, some expression or aspect that brings to mind characteristics of my character. Then I print them off and tack them to a corkboard in my office to help me visualize these people in the beginning when I’m first getting to know their voice. I know, weird. But that’s what works for me. It makes them come alive.
Okay, now I have to give them personality and motivation. First we have a ghost. And he’s already an interesting fellow, considering:
A. Duh … he’s a ghost. *snort*
B. He sings beautiful arias in a foreign language yet speaks in English.
C. He has amnesia; not only is he unaware of his death, but he has no memory at all of his life. So naturally, he’s going to want to remember = his motivation to reach out to this woman.
So, I need to give my heroine something unique to her. Something that will be a challenge to her everyday life, but will bond her instantaneously to this spectral stranger. What say we make her deaf? She lost her hearing at age eight and hasn’t heard a sound for eleven years. Now suddenly, she can hear this ghostly man. And ONLY him. No doubt, they are going to become fast friends, despite the fact that they can’t touch (sexual tension—it’s a great tool—USE IT). Her affection for him will motivate her to act against her usual cautious nature and try to find answers to his past.
Now for a twist. How about having two heroes in this tale? Or, two anti-heroes? Hmmm. Any gothic novel worth its salt has a beautiful, dark, sensuous stranger with secrets, who will either be the heroine’s redemption or her downfall. Yeah. Let’s give our ghost a rival. But this fellow needs to be flesh and blood. He needs to have some advantage to put him on equal ground with the man’s spirit who can sing and speak to the deaf heroine. So, the living man can touch her and communicate through romantic gestures. To up the stakes, I give him a link to the ghost’s life … and allude that he’s harboring a secret that might tie him to the ghost’s death.
From here, I begin my research—online, in books, in old articles if applicable. I’ve taken care of the main characters. The others will come to life as I begin to work out the plot’s details. Research, for me, is like fanning the flames of my muse. This is where my scene ideas and the story’s subplots take wing.
So that’s how I start a story and give birth to characters. I want to point out that this is merely what works for me. There are no set guidelines for writers to follow that will guarantee success. Learn not to get hung up on techniques. I plot to an extent, but some writers don’t and that’s fine. Some "writing" books tell you that you MUST outline every facet of your story, all the way down to the subplots. Not true. Some best-selling writers don’t plot at all. Instead, they are like excavators—story archeologists. They dig until they hit something then dig some more. And bit by bit, they brush off the individual bones then fit them together until they form something cohesive.
Stephen King is a prime example of the success of such a technique; he admits to using very little plotting in his biography "On writing." His is one of the best "writing" books in my opinion. He doesn’t try to tell you how to write, simply gives you the tools you need to hone your own skills. I like that approach. Find what works for you, then learn how best to incorporate it and make it your own.
Because above being authors in the making, we are individuals. And individuality is the key to unlocking your "voice". Which, ultimately, is what will one day capture the eye of an agent or publisher and get your books on the shelves of our reading public.
So how about you . . . what lights your muse's fire? And are there any tricks you use to make your characters real to you, the writer?
Tina Gray (A.G. Howard)