Yesterday was Women’s Fiction Day. As a woman who reads a wide variety of genres, I hope this ‘day’ is inclusive to all genres not just ‘romance’. It is quite a generalization and one that should be regarded with a pinch of salt.
Of course, we all love to read an idealized narrative with a happy ending but we are more than that. Women have interests that cover a broad spectrum of story lines and types. Gone are the days when the genteel sex was restricted to poetry and light reading. (Thank goodness).
We read thrillers, sci-fi, detective novels and mysteries to name a few. Our reading habits have changed as well as our interests and the scope of our capabilities.
So celebrate our diversity in the written word – no matter the genre.
With ‘time’ on our hands many of us have been reading – which is great. However, have you returned to a favourite book (or even books?)
I have several that I have returned to over the years but one seems to be above the others. It is Ferney by James Long. When I think of the story the characters come back like old friends, which is why many of us love a book. If a character spills into your normal life then the author has done their job.
In such narratives we want the characters and their lives to continue, we imagine what happens next and where they are now. It is the same with these characters as it is with long lost friends.
If you are interested in reincarnation (as I am) then this novel is for you but it is also a lovely love story too.
When Mike and Gally move to a new cottage in Somerset, it’s to make a new start. But the relationship comes under strain when Gally forms an increasingly close attachment to an old countryman, Ferney, who seems to know everything about her.
What is it that draws them together? Reluctantly at first, then with more urgency as he feels time slipping away, Ferney compels Gally to understand their connection – and to face an inexplicable truth about their shared past.
In fact James did write a sequel some 13 years later and although the characters are following on it did not grip me like the first one. However, please don’t be put off by my thoughts. It is still a great story.
It is interesting that the first book was published in 1998 and James didn’t write the sequel until 2011…! That’s some wait for a sequel.
The other book which I reread some 35 years later (yes I know showing my age) was The Stand. I picked it up at the airport prior to flying to Canada for the first time (a long time ago) because it was a nice thick book. We’ve all been there prior to a long haul flight – right? Anyway, once I started reading I was completely hooked. This was my introduction to Stephen King and his storytelling. When I read the special complete & uncut edition all those years later, it was still gripping and sucked me into the narrative.
Just a quick sidebar – I had watched the movie Carrie years before but had no idea it was by Stephen at that time.
Without characters our stories would have no real impact on our readers. We write to engage and intrigue them and hopefully make our protagonist the character our reader cares about. If your experience is anything like mine, there is usually one, or possibly two characters, that make their presence known in no uncertain terms. They want the starring role in our narrative. These characters are usually more defined in our minds and are ‘easier’ to relate to, whether because of a personality trait or that they are more fun to write. When creating the protagonist and antagonist in our stories, we give each opposing views and/or values. This is the basis of the conflict that carries our readers along their journey. Each character, whether major or minor, needs to have flaws and redeeming features, motivations, expectations, loyalties and deterrents.
This leaves us with the problem of developing our supporting characters with as much attention to detail as the main antagonist and protagonist. When creating characters we must remember to ensure that each character acts and responds true to their given personality. Character profiles are a good way of ‘getting to know’ our characters, this can be achieve mainly by utilizing character’s names, personality traits, appearance and their motivations. A name is a vital part of creating a mental image of our character for readers. The right name can give them a quick visualization of our character’s age, ethnicity, gender, and even location, and if we are writing a period piece, even the era. For example if I say the girl was called Britney, you would probably picture a young girl because of the association with Britney Spears. However, if a female character were called Edith or Edna, you would imagine someone born several decades ago. So you see a name is not just a name.
A burly man would be called something like Butch but not Shirley, unless of course you are going to tell the story of his struggle throughout childhood to overcome the name. There are plenty of web sites available, which list the most common names for each decade and locations around the world. These are great resources for writers, who require particular names for period stories or want to stay true to a certain decade.
The use of a nickname will also give your character an identity, be it an unkind one given by a bully or one of respect or fear for the bully. You would expect Big Al to be just that, a large person, however, Little Mikey would be the exact opposite. Nicknames, or sobriquet’s can work very well in defining an ethnicity as well but care must be taken not to offend a person of color. Obviously there are certain words that were in common usage decades ago that are not politically correct now, so we need to be diligent in their use.
We should also consider giving our characters a conscience. Will the hero question his actions if they are extreme to his morals? Does the villain have a deep-seated angst? What motivates them? Some flawed characters can be difficult to write on occasion as they are far removed from our own personality (well I certainly hope so!) but with care we can accomplish a believable character.
How do you set about building a character?
Do you write out a full description of your characters?
Have you based a character on someone you know, a famous personality or mixed up several people’s traits to make a new one?
In 2017, soon after Firstborn released, I met with my publisher in New York to talk about what was next. I had a short list of favorite story concepts—the idea of a cult escapee starting over and a pandemic rising from the permafrost (an idea straight from the headlines) among six or seven others. My publisher said, “I like both of those. I think you should put them together!”
It worked out very well! I wish I could take credit for the combination, but it was my publisher’s idea.
How did you come up with the title?
There is this theme through the book about crossing lines from one life, or one realm, into another. It’s also about the thin line between so many things including sanity and madness, faith and apostasy, safety and danger.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
There are certainly themes built into each of my books—in this case, climate change, sexual harassment, and leaps of faith. But what I hope readers will take from my books is always first and foremost a great experience and engrossing journey—the escape we turn to fiction for.
How much of the book is realistic?
I’ve been told it’s frighteningly realistic, due mostly to the fact that it’s inspired by real events—a disease re-emerging from the permafrost, and a cyber attack on the electrical grid. I left details about these events in my author’s note at the end for those interested.
Are your characters based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Except for a couple small cameos I gave my dad, sister, and I in my first novel, DEMON, they’re all fictional. I name characters after people I know, fans, and family sometimes, though. The main character in THE LINE BETWEEN, Wynter, is named after my step-daughter.
Where can readers find you on social media and do you have a blog?
Yes! I’ve got a blog on my website at toscalee.com, which is also where you can find links to my social media and my newsletter, including my newsletter just for writers.
Do you have plans or ideas for your next book? Is it a sequel or a stand alone?
The sequel, A SINGLE LIGHT releases this September and picks up right where THE LINE BETWEEN ends. It comes out September 17, and is up for pre-order now!
Of the characters you have created or envisioned, which is your favorite & why?
There’s a character in A SINGLE LIGHT who is one of my favourite characters I’ve ever written. He’s sweet, quirky, and often hilarious. I can’t wait to introduce him to the world!
Do you favor one type of genre or do you dabble in more than one?
I write thrillers, some of which are slightly supernatural, some dystopian books, and historical novels.
Do you plan your stories, or are you a seat of the pants style writer?
I have to have at least a loose outline. I learned that the hard way.
What is your best marketing tip?
Do the parts that are most interesting to you and keep it fun.
Do you find social media a great tool or a hindrance?
Both. It’s great for staying in touch with readers and sharing updates. But it’s very time-consuming!
What do you enjoy most about writing?
Being able to set my own schedule and write in my pajamas!
What age did you start writing stories/poems?
What genre are you currently reading?
Do you read for pleasure or research or both?
Who is your best supporter/mentor/encourager?
Do you see writing as a career?
I write full-time. When people ask me about how I stay motivated the answer is easy: I like to eat. 😀
Do you nibble as you write? If so what’s your favorite snack food?
Cheetos and buttered popcorn! Neither one is good for keyboards.
What reward do you give yourself for making a deadline?
I clean closets. That probably doesn’t sound like a reward, but I find it very therapeutic.
Tosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of ten novels including THE LINE BETWEEN, THE PROGENY, FIRSTBORN, THE LEGEND OF SHEBA, ISCARIOT, and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times bestseller Ted Dekker. Her work has been translated into seventeen languages and been optioned for TV and film. A notorious night-owl, she loves movies, playing football with her kids, and sending cheesy texts to her husband.
You can find Tosca at ToscaLee.com, on social media, or hanging around the snack table. A SINGLE LIGHT, Tosca’s highly-anticipated sequel to THE LINE BETWEEN, releases September 2019 and is available for preorder now.
About THE LINE BETWEEN:
In this frighteningly believable thriller from New York Times bestselling author Tosca Lee, an extinct disease re-emerges from the melting Alaskan permafrost to cause madness in its victims. For recent apocalyptic cult escapee Wynter Roth, it’s the end she’d always been told was coming.
When Wynter Roth is turned out of New Earth, a self-contained doomsday cult on the American prairie, she emerges into a world poised on the brink of madness as a mysterious outbreak of rapid early onset dementia spreads across the nation.
As Wynter struggles to start over in a world she’s been taught to regard as evil, she finds herself face-to-face with the apocalypse she’s feared all her life—until the night her sister shows up at her doorstep with a set of medical samples. That night, Wynter learns there’s something far more sinister at play and that these samples are key to understanding the disease.
Now, as the power grid fails and the nation descends into chaos, Wynter must find a way to get the samples to a lab in Colorado. Uncertain who to trust, she takes up with former military man Chase Miller, who has his own reasons for wanting to get close to the samples in her possession, and to Wynter herself.
Filled with action, conspiracy, romance, and questions of whom—and what—to believe, The Line Between is a high-octane story of survival and love in a world on the brink of madness.
Yes. Both. It exhausts me in the short term – I can’t really hammer out more than 2,500 words in a day, even if I have the time.
But it energizes me in the long term. Without writing, the world becomes kind of grey and flavorless. I guess writing is like sex that way – exhausting while you’re doing it, but not something you’d want to give up.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Oh, wow. Interior monologue. And lots of it. In my first novel, I had a full chapter of a character walking and doing an interior – and somewhat whiny – monologue about how put-on he was. Until my beloved beta readers berated me harshly. I rewrote that fully, and I can still hear them in the back of my brain when I slip into interior monologue again.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I have. I wanted to reinvent myself and renaming is a great way to do that. When I started writing again after too long a break, I wanted to separate myself from who I’d become without writing.
I was talked out of it. And good thing. With my name, I bring a much bigger platform than with a new one.
(Though, really, everything I do is under a pseudonym anyway! Sh!)
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
From my close group of writer friends? Rob Bose – he’s a pulp, crime and fantasy writer (check out Fishing with the Devil) – he keeps me honest. Often, I can get a little tongue in cheek. Rob’s writing keeps me connected to that honesty that’s easy to lose touch with, especially when writing genre.
From Laurie Zottmann (and her imaginary raccoon friend – check out her blog, Dark Little Critter) I stay in touch with my first love – making people laugh. I truly believe the best way to effect real change is to wrap it in laughs and good feelings. I’ve learned more about who I am from dumb comedies than from however many dark, brooding indie flicks. Laurie keeps me remembering funny first.
And from Sarah L Johnson (a truly fine writer – check out the short story collection Suicide Stitch and the novel Infractus) – where do I start? There are so many ways Sarah makes me into a better writer. And into the writer I am now. First, she challenges just about every single instance of me being complacent. She recently read my manuscript for Kiss of the Cockroach Queen, and said something like, “Yeah, it’s good enough. I’d read it and probably get the next one. But you can make it great. You’ve got the chops.”
So now I guess I have to make it great.
When I’ve had the privilege of introducing Sarah at events, I like to misquote my favorite poet, Kenneth Koch, and say that, as a writer, you need to have someone around who’s better than you’ll ever be at some aspect of writing. That keeps you striving up an impossible hill. For me, that person is Sarah L. Johnson.
There are others – so many others! – that I can’t list here, but, if they’re reading this, I appreciate all of them, too. I’m very lucky to have found a strong, talented community of writers. And not even across town!
Do you want each book to stand alone, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Well, there are definitely connections, but not necessarily physical or world or character connections.
No matter what fictional world I’m writing in, or no matter what how-to thing I’m discussing, all my work tends to deal with the stories that we tell ourselves. The stories that define us as humans. That’s the connection between each book.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Engaging a publicist. Hands down. I love working with Creative Edge, my publicist agency. Wish I would have started earlier. If you’re serious about being a writer – if you’re ready to turn pro – I’d really recommend a publicist.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
A few weeks before I turned 15, I found a brand-new, 3-cassette boxed set of Bob Dylan. I’d been listening to his greatest hits record from my father’s collection, and something compelled me to lay out the $50 or whatever – pretty much the only money I had – for this thing. I took it home and listened to every side that day, and something old and good at the center of who I was responded to the ability to use words in that way. Not for conscious thought, not for getting a point across or explain something, but to slip around the brain into the amygdala or whatever and change the way I looked at myself.
I started writing songs that year. I’ve been writing in some way or other since, though only really turned pro a little while ago.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I don’t know about under-appreciated – Harold Bloom puts it on his Western canon list – but no other writer I’ve talked to has read it. John Crowley’s Little, Big. The idea of it is that it gets bigger the farther in you go. If I were a better writer, I’d be able to explain exactly how Crowley does this. But, no.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Ha! I’ve never thought about that. I want to say something cool like a dragon. But probably not. I should be so lucky. Maybe a lemur? Yeah, my spirit animal when it comes to writing is a lemur. Me and my writing style tend to leap around, be playful. It’s a good thing I have a keen-eyed, Taurus editor (who’s also my wife – sorry, ladies).
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Right now? I’ve got a couple scheduled to come out in the next year. I’ve also got the novel that brought me back into writing – but I’m waiting until I’m a better writer to finish that.
I also have a little piece of fluff about a World War II superhero that no will ever see. Ever.
And then I have a drawerful of ideas. The best books are always the one I haven’t written yet.
What does literary success look like to you?
Oh, you know, much like anybody – yachts, bathing beauties, bottles of Cristal in the VIP room. What? No? Not everyone became a writer for the fabulous wealth?
Seriously, though. Literary success? I’d like to supplement my income, and, through the non-fiction writing I do, spin that into a day job with talks, special projects and consulting. That’s success to me.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Oh, wow. The stuff I could tell you. Wikipedia and I are living in sin. I tend to need facts as I’m feverishly typing out an idea, so I research on the fly. I’ve learned more things about cockroaches than I care to know. That’s for the next novel. I also know what the three different types of erections are (yep, 3). That’s for the novel after that. I’ve had really odd looks from my wife in conversation. I have to explain I know these things from book research. Not from my checkered past.
How many hours a day/week do you write?
I spend a minimum of 30 minutes a day writing, first thing in the morning, before I get muddled with the day-to-day. That often spins into an hour if things are going well.
Of course, I write a lot more come deadline times, and there always seem to be deadline times!
How do you select the names of your characters?
I’m not sure I’ve thought about it much. I usually start off with a pun, then realize I don’t even find it that clever, so just go with what sounds right. It’s all about the overtones and connotations. Naming Wood Sweeney, the protagonist in Stones in My Passway, took on the natural sense of wood, and the demon barber or T.S. Eliot flavor of Sweeney.
And with King Wong, the world’s only exoterric consultant who deals with Otherkind case in Hong Kong in Kiss of the Cockroach Queen, “Wong” is a Chinese surname that means “king,” so it’s a play on that.
What was your hardest scene to write?
Sex that isn’t funny I find it hard to write. I find sex essentially comical (except when I’m doing it … well, most of the time, at least.)
The vast majority of sex scenes in Dispatches from an Accidental Sex Tourist are funny. But there was a point in the story where I needed to write a sex scene that was tender, unfunny and at least a bit erotic. I’ll let you know how well that worked when I get the manuscript back from beta readers.
Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them?
It’s probably just impatience that makes me write in different genres. I want to do it all, man! Limiting myself feels, well … limiting. I should probably stick to one thing and do it really well, but I’m not one to listen to should. I once met a dragon that had the words you should etched onto every scale. I didn’t care for him.
Balancing is hard. I try to be writing in two different genres at the same time, but that isn’t always an option with the schedule I’ve put on myself. I guess I compartmentalize. And maybe have multiple personalities – that helps!
What inspires you?
Oh, I really wish I could say something like walking in nature or meditating at dawn on the deck, but the honest answer is I don’t know. The ideas come. Sometimes. When they do, I write them down. When they don’t, I write something down. Then the ideas usually come after that, and I write those ones down.
Not very helpful, I know. But that’s how it is. I don’t want to crack open the process too much for fear of breaking of it!
18. What projects are you working on at the present?
Right now, I’m working on co-writing the soulful sex comedy Dispatches from an Accidental Sex Tourist. Also, come next fall, there will be the sequel to Stones in My Passway – called Devil Got My Woman. That’s a multi-perspective look at the fallout of a devil’s deal – with some laughs and even scarier hellhounds. And more to come!
19. What do your plans for future projects include?
There’s an idea that I’ve … what? Struggled with? Flirted with? Anyway, this idea had been haunting me for years. A couple years ago while traveling, I was having a glass of wine in the Library Room bar (fitting!) of the Royal York hotel in Toronto, and the idea showed itself to me in all its glory. I started writing that, but I want to wait until I’m a better writer until I finish. The idea deserves that. (I still go back to that bar every time I’m in Toronto as a kind of pilgrimage to thank the idea for being there).
Jim Jackson is a Calgary Herald bestselling author and vintage leather jacket enthusiast whose books look at blues-steeped devil-deals, old-time pulp mixed with Chinese mythology and the art of storytelling. Jim’s mission is to show how the stories we all grew up with – the heroes, the monsters, the adventures – are still solid, muscular realities that shape our lives.
He’s the author of How to Tell a Really Good Story about Absolutely Anything in 4 Easy Steps, Stones in My Passway: A Novel in Blues, and Kiss of the Cockroach Queen. Find out more at www.reallygoodstory.com.