Friday, June 18, 2010

Character Development Tip – Reading Your Character (And some book recommendations.)

Here’s another sideways, oblique way to get to know your character. Try reading your character – that’s right, reading. As in read the books your character would love. (Or for that matter books your character loathes.) Make a list of books your character would read and then read them, through your character’s eyes. You may never actually use this in your novel, except maybe in passing, but it will flesh out your character to you in a way that will come through in your writing. The more you know about your character, the more convincingly you can portray those subtle details that make your character seem real.

When I first started to plark with my latest Dilly novel (tentatively titled DILLY THE GREAT), I realized that I had to read books that Dilly might read, books that would have inspired her to be a detective. Yes, there’s a mystery in the new Dilly book.

So to start off, I re-read Sherlock Holmes – through Dilly’s eyes, of course – and I knew she’d get the gist but also find some of the language "weird and fussy and old fashioned" to quote her.

Next, I read some of Shane Peacock’s wonderful books about Sherlock as a young boy: Eye of the Crow and Death in the Air. I’d heard of them but hadn’t yet read them.

Well, I loved these books and I highly recommend them. What I found especially captivating about them is that London, where I lived years ago (no, not in Victorian times!) almost becomes a character. The details of gritty Victorian London are palpable. What is also wonderful about these books is the skillful way in which Peacock has extrapolated backwards from the adult Sherlock to create the young boy who will be that man. The boy is completely convincing, the character nuanced, and the events that shape him into the man he will be are poignant and fitting. I found the characterization more delicate and convincing than that of the adult Holmes, which is no small feat. Dilly, of course, loved the books too, and devoured them eagerly.

Next, I discovered other books related to Sherlock Holmes, ones I hadn’t heard of until I contacted some local librarians. Praise be to librarians! I so appreciate having a source to contact for information. I e-mailed several local Ottawa librarians to ask them if an eleven year old girl, a precocious reader, might read the original Sherlock Holmes books. They all said yes it was likely, depending on the skill of the reader.

Well, Dilly isn’t always particularly modest (sorry Dilly!) but she is a keen reader.

All the librarians mentioned Shane Peacock’s books, but one also mentioned books by Nancy Springer about Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister Enola. I’d never heard of these books but promptly got them from the library. (By the way, Nancy Springer's website is a bit rudimentary, but check it out anyway.)

What a find. What delightful books. Again, I unequivocally recommend them. There are several, the first two being The Case of the Missing Marquess An Enola Holmes Mystery and The Case of the Left-Handed LadyAn Enola Holmes Mystery. What is wonderful about these books is that, as in Peacock’s books, London comes alive both physically and socially. In Springer’s books, as well, there are striking details of what it was like to be a girl/woman in that era. Telling details about the clothes women wore, their social conditions, and attitudes towards them -- women were considered to be irrational and hysterical and unlikely to be intelligent -- are woven seamlessly into the stories.

Enola is a thoroughly credible character, keen and clever and resourceful – but also vulnerable. Yes, Enola is Alone spelled backwards. I completely related to her intelligent struggle against the constraints and stereotypes of women in that era. Springer does an extraordinary job of weaving together mystery with character development, and showcases the lives of women seamlessly by using information that only women might know, such as knowledge of flowers, of fans, to have Enola unravel mysteries that her older brother Sherlock cannot. These books, as well as the others I found in the series, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets; The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan; The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline are great as mysteries – clever without being too obvious, and filled with the kind of details of Victorian life that are integral to the plot.

Dilly, I might add, absolutely LOVED these books. She got the first book from Mrs. Springer’s second hand bookstore called Old Friends. Mrs. Springer firmly believes in letting Dilly read the books first because how else will she know if the book is a keeper? Dilly definitely considered the book a keeper.

So thanks, Dilly, for being the conduit for me to discover wonderful books I hadn’t yet read.

Oh, and I also found out more about Dilly as I read them but the bonus was reading books that delighted me as well as Dilly.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Character Development Tip -- Shopping with your character

Sometimes your characters arrive full blown, and other times it's a circuitous journey of discovery to flesh out your character, so she/he feels fully nuanced and human. There's the obvious biographical stuff you write down or think about when trying to create characters, but that's a head on/from the head way of going about it. Sometimes you have to find your character sideways, through odd little activities, slip into strange crevices. One such way is to go shopping with your character. Yup, go shopping with your character.

I wish I'd come up with this idea, but I didn't. I first stumbled across this years ago when browsing the websites of other writers and I found this on Diana Wieler's website. She's the author of several YA novels including the wonderful BAD BOY, winner of the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature in 1989. I'd provide a link to the site, but it doesn't seem to exist any more and try as I might I can't locate it. Anyway, Diana Wieler's tip was to go shopping with your character, to buy something that your character would buy, then keep it beside your computer as you write.

I've done this several times and it's been a great way to really think about my character and to discover subtle aspects of him/her I wouldn't have thought of before, but most of all, to inspire me and keep me focused. For instance, for The Trouble With Dilly, I went shopping for Christmas decorations as Dilly does. I went to the dollar store -- great research to see what was available, and specific Christmas decorations I saw there worked into the story -- and I went hunting for the biggest box of shining Christmas glass decorations. When I located one, I bought it and kept it beside my computer as I wrote the novel.

Dilly was an engaging if distracting character to shop with, easily diverted by bargains and quick to lose focus. For the current Dilly novel I'm working on, tentatively titled DILLY THE GREAT, the dollar store came in handy again. Dilly fancies herself a detective so I went there and hunted down a plain black notebook, (not pink, oh no, or rainbow coloured -- that is something her best friend Olivia would go for, but Dilly is serious about this) and a magnifying glass, and I kept these beside my computer as I wrote the novel. The magnifying glass is a great distraction to play with, and oh, it's in the novel too, and plays a pivotal role.

Thanks Dilly, for the shopping trip, even if you stiffed me for the bill.

You don't always need a traditional shopping trip to find that inspiring item to keep beside you as you write. I have a novel coming out next spring, THAT BOY RED, with HarperCollins Canada. It's inspired by my father in law's stories about growing up in rural PEI during the Depression. It's fiction -- and oh, the first time I write from the point of view of a boy. So I went to the Cumberland Heritage Village Museum, which is a fascinating place to wander around, with many buildings, activities and houses showcasing rural life in the 1920s and 1930s. During one of my visits, there was a fair on, and I brought home a shingle with my initials burned on it, as well as a strip of braided rags for making a rug. Both kept me company while I wrote that story.

For the Sower of Tales I didn't go shopping because it's a fantasy novel set in a fantasy world. But during one of my local walks (I always walk to dream and pound out stories) -- which is a gorgeous one partway through woods, then out into an open field which, during the late summer and Fall, has masses of milkweed -- I picked a few stalks of opening milkweed because they remind me of the story pods in the novel. They're not exactly alike, because the story pods have five petals that open, whereas milkweed two, but the silky seeds are very like the seeds of my imagined story pods. So, during the writing of that novel, through the umpteen drafts, I kept the milkweed in a mug beside my computer, the milky seeds a tangible link to the world I was writing about. When the novel was done and published, I took that milkweed with me back to the field and released the seeds. Yeah, I know, a metaphor for letting go and releasing that tale to the world.

So if you're struggling with your character and want to know her/him better, go on -- go shopping with your character. Or find something your character would love and cherish. And thank you Diana Wieler, for that fabulous tip.