Snow White and the Seven Old Fogies

Snow White and the Seven Old Fogies.

Well, sort of.

Mary Stuart, the twenty-five-year-old hero of Daughter Am I, learns that her grandparents have recently been murdered and that she is their sole heir. This comes as rather a shock because her father always claimed they had died before she was born.

Wanting to find out who her grandparents were, why her father had disowned them and why someone wanted them dead, Mary sets out on a journey armed only with her grandfather’s address book. She travels from Colorado to Arizona to Kansas, Omaha, Illinois, searching out people her grandparents knew. Along the way she accumulates a crew of feisty octogenarians:

Kid Rags, a dapper forger, seems to have two interests in life — drinking bourbon and eating copious amounts of food.

Crunchy, an ex-wrestler, threatens to crunch anyone who doesn’t treat Mary well.

Teach, a con man, tells Mary more than she ever wanted to know about gangsters, Wyatt Earp, and life.

Happy, an ex-wheelman for the mob, is ready with his gun though his hands shake too much to aim, let alone shoot.

Iron Sam, a dying hit man just released from prison, has his own, secret agenda.

Spaghetti once owned The Joker, a mob hangout where Mary’s grandparents worked when they were young.

Lila Lorraine, an ex-showgirl, was a friend of Mary’s grandmother and an ex-girlfriend of Iron Sam.

With companions such as these, how can Mary’s journey be anything but fun?

Daughter Am I by Pat Bertram is available from Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, and Smashwords.

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News from the Blogosphere

I’m exaggerating a bit — whatever news I have is from my own private byte of  the blogosphere. 

I just finished reading Jeffery Deaver’s Roadside Crosses, and I sure am missing out on all the excitement of blogging. Hundreds of thousands of people do not read my blog, and I can’t imagine that anything I say could inspire murder, except in a literary way. And perhaps not even that.

I hope I’m not as obsessed about blogging as Deaver’s characters, though I might come close. I wasn’t going to turn on the computer first thing this morning — trying to wean myself away a bit at a time — but it didn’t work. I got up did a couple of overhead presses, a few curls, a couple of bench presses, decided that was all the exercise I needed, and fired up the computer. I didn’t post to this blog, though. I posted to the Second Wind Blog, so perhaps that doesn’t count as obsession. On the offchance that you will have to ever discuss what I meant when I wrote Daughter Am I, you might want to check out the article: Message in a Novel

Tomorrow I will be in South Africa!! Way cool.

I’ve also been invited Over Coffee with Sia McKye at her blog tomorrow. Well, I’ll be there if I write the article, and I will as soon as I finish this one. Sia told me to “talk about the fun you had creating a cast of rogues. In their time, they were men to be reckoned with. Even now, being up in years, their spirit is willing, they have experience and they have taken the main character under their wing, determined to protect her. It cracks me up that you have a character that shakes so bad he probably couldn’t shoot the broadside of a barn.   

I think, what’s lovely about this story is the caring between them all. The determination to protect though they aren’t the men they used to be. It speaks to their heart, their sense of adventure, the enduring quality of what makes people what they are. Even the wicked or “bad” can care about things. I think you show a glimpse of the good in their heart, regardless of what they did in their life.”

Hmmm. Maybe I should get Sia to write the article. She knows the characters in Daughter Am I better than I do!

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I Need a…Gulp…Outline

I’ve been rereading my work-in-progress, trying to get back into the mindset of the story so I can work on it. Usually by the time I’ve written 37,000 words, my characters help develop the story. No, my characters never take over — they always do what I make them do. It’s more that I know who they are, what they want, and who’s going to stop them from getting what they want. Unfortunately, during the first part of my WIP, my hero mostly contended with the ever-changing world, and the people he met were simply passing through his life. So now I have to create a whole cast of characters.

I’m thinking of having a contest — let people suggest characters, and if I use it, they get an acknowledgement in the book along with a copy of the printed book when it’s published next year. Seems a bit of a cheat, but it could be fun.

But I digress. One of the characters I have to create is a group. Sounds odd, but groups have a culture, a dynamic of their own, a character that is different from the sum of the individual members. Groups also develop, just like characters do, and there are several distinct stages:

1. Coming together and finding the individual roles
2. Defining the task.
3. Feeling unrest — disenchantment with the group and each other
4. Cohesion — beginning to feel like a team
5. Interdependence — work as a team, believe in the subculture they have created.

In addition to creating a whole new cast of characters and developing them into a group, I need to figure out how to get my hero to give up the relative security he recently embraced and go back out into the dangerous world and dubious freedom.

When the novel is finished, much of this scaffolding will be invisible to the reader, but I need to be able to see at a glance how all the parts fit together so I can show what’s happening rather than telling it. It sounds to me like a need a . . . gulp . . . outline. I’ve never outlined a novel before. Should be interesting.

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On Writing: Looking Up

When your characters look up, what do they see? Sunsets and sunrises are so prevalent in books as to be clichés, yet every day there is a sunrise and every day there is a sunset, even if it’s too cloudy for us to see either. I suppose mentioning the rising or setting sun makes more sense if there is a reason. For example, tonight there was a gorgeous sunset here because of the fires in California. The smoke drifts to Colorado and is trapped by the mountains.

I try to find different things for my characters to look at, because to a certain extent, a character is what he sees. If a character sees a flock of what looks like hawks, and he or she knows that they are vultures, it tells you a bit about the character. Vultures fly in packs, hawks fly alone. Or so I’ve been told. Both hawks and vultures are equally lovely as they coast on the updrafts, but somehow knowing that the regal bird is a vulture and not a hawk takes away some of the beauty of the scene. 

In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the characters see helicopters patrolling the skies above quarantined Colorado. In Light Bringer, which will be published next year, the characters see unnatural lights in the sky, they see strange airplanes, and they see an impossibly brilliant rainbow. In my WIP, the characters see a light in the west on Easter morning, and for just a moment, they think it’s the rising sun.

So what do your characters see when they look up? Does the sight have a bearing on the story? Does it tell you a bit about the character?


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The Apollo Moon Landing, The Dish, and Me

I was taking a walk on earth forty years ago when men were walking on the moon. Unlike everyone else, it seems, I wasn’t sitting in front of a television. For one, we didn’t have a television, for another, the whole thing seemed rather ho-hum to an inveterate reader of science fiction. If we hadn’t been there in truth, we’d been there in stories, in imagination. So, oblivious to the excitement, I went for a walk.

The passing years — and all the movies and the books about the subject — didn’t change my mind. Perhaps it was as great an achievement as people seemed to think. Perhaps we had wasted our money in a moon race instead of solving our problems here on earth as many said. But the matter never caught my attention. Until . . . The Dish.

The Dish, a movie released in 2000, tells the story of the Australian participation in the 1969 moon landing. A dish, placed in the middle of a sheep paddock in Parkes, Australia, was to actually transmit the landing and moonwalk to the world.

Why did this movie about a little known aspect of the mission catch my attention? The characters. The quirky characters, their humor, and their excitement to be a part of this major undertaking made me experience, for the first time, the wonder of the achievement.

Thinking of the Apollo landing (now why would I be thinking about that today? Hmmmm) and subsequently The Dish, I was reminded that if we filter our stories through the eyes of our characters, if we make the characters excited about the events of our story worlds, if we make them want to know the facts of our worlds, then we will allow our readers to experience the excitement for themselves.

(What, you thought I’d pass on the chance for an object lesson about writing? Surely, you know me better than that by now!)

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Did I Really Write a Feel-Good Book?

It will be interesting to see what people say about my books; I’m beginning to think I have no idea what I wrote. For example, A Spark of Heavenly Fire is the story of four ordinary people who become extraordinary while struggling to survive quarantine and martial law in Colorado. It was supposed to be a hard-hitting novel with an edge, but my proofreader told me, “You might do well. I think people are ready for a feel-good book.”

A feel-good book? Where is the edge? The horror? The feeling of doom? According to said proofreader, “Those elements are in the background, but the characters are the story. And they are heartbreakingly real.” Oh.

I thought I couldn’t write good characters. Most books on writing (and many authors) say that a writer has to feel what her characters feel or else the reader won’t feel the characters’ emotions. If you don’t cry, neither will your reader. But I don’t feel what my characters feel. Writing erases emotion, takes me to a place of serenity. And serenity is not generally where you want to take a reader. But I am deliberate in my choice of words and in the details I include. Perhaps those elements combine to help overcome my lack of emotion.

Of course, I generally don’t feel the emotion in the books I read, either. Often, despite the blurbs and reviews that extol the great characters, the characters seem to be only props on which the author hung the story, and a banal story at that.

Perhaps, after all, I won’t mind if I haven’t written a book with an edge. There are plenty of those out there. But I do like my proofreader’s description of my book. He wasn’t the first to use the phrase “heartbreakingly real” about my characters, and with any luck, he won’t be the last.

I can live with that.

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On Writing: Characters and Group Mentality

I’ve been trying to develop the middle part of my current work. I have an idea of how my hero, Chip, will progress and how he will change due to the psychological problems he will be dealing with, but I still have to figure out how he will fit in with the group.

Groups take on a life of their own, with a culture and a group mentality that is different from the sum of the individual members. The group, in effect, becomes a character, so I need to develop this character while I am developing my hero’s character.

There are five stages of group development:

1. Coming together and finding roles
2. Defining the task
3. Disenchantment with the leader, each other
4. Cohesion, feeling like a team
5. Interdependence, acting like a team, becoming more than the sum of the parts.

Most groups unconsciously assign roles to the members, and once these roles have been assigned, tacit agreement maintains them. The most common group roles are: leader, seducer (wants to bewitch others), silent member, taskmaster, clown, victim, oppressor, conciliator, combatant, nurse, young Turk (wants to take over the leadership), the naïf, and the scapegoat.

In the first part of my WIP, where Chip deals with the loss of everything he loved, he meets three mentors, but he is mostly alone. Even his cat deserts him. In the second part, he has to become a part of a group that will escape the place of refuge, choosing freedom over safety, but he is still a loner. I know readers like forceful main characters, the go-to guys and gals (for those of you who hate the word “gals,” sorry, but I couldn’t resist), but I prefer the quieter types, the ones don’t take charge until they are pressed into it out of necessity. So, in the group hierarchy, Chip will not be the leader. He will be the silent member and he will be the scapegoat.

Groups tend to isolate one person as the source of any conflict, whether warranted or not, and they deposit their negative feelings on that person. Because Chip keeps to himself, and because the others think he’s “teacher’s pet,” he becomes the scapegoat. I don’t think he cares, though, so if you don’t care, are you still the scapegoat? Either way, that’s the role the group has assigned him.

Chip’s eventual love interest will fulfill the roles of nurse and taskmaster. A serial killer will fulfill the role of clown. A woman who never quite fit into her other life will find a fit as the leader. The combatant and perhaps oppressor will be a soldier. A lawyer, an erstwhile ambulance chaser, will be the conciliator. But I don’t yet have characters to fill the other roles. So that’s what I need to work on — creating those characters.

This was supposed to be a silly book, a story just for fun, but in the development, it’s becoming something different, something I have to learn how to write as I go along. I keep promising myself that my next book will be one I know how to write. It would make it a heck of a lot easier. But then, where’s the challenge in that?


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

On Writing: Characters and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When writing a novel, there are so many different elements to think about, that the only way I can get them in my head in order to concentrate on the story and not the underpinnings, is to write them down. My story problem today is whether Chip, my hero, goes through some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He probably has to — everyone he knows has disappeared along with most of Colorado. That’s enough to give anyone stress. And, of course, I kept him in constant peril in order to force him to choose safety over freedom. Now that he is safe, he has time to relax and reflect. The horrors of what he endured would have to haunt him and torment him. Just because he’s safe, it doesn’t mean the poor guy gets an easy time of it.

I already established in On Writing: Characters and Grief that Chip will be going through a spot of depression, and depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder share many of the same traits. In both cases, people can feel helpless and hopeless, isolated and detached, fatigued and drained. They can lose interest in daily activities, and they can have trouble sleeping.

But Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not simply depression under another name. A person who suffers PTSD can also experience flashbacks, terrible dreams, loss of memory around the specifics of the event, diminished feelings, impaired personal relationships. The company of others can be painful. They might become hypervigilant, always watchful and alert. In addition, sights, sounds, or smells can trigger reactions or jog a memory of the trauma.

Chip is already becoming vigilant, but he needs to become hypervigilant; not only is it one of the symptoms of PTSD, it will become a survival necessity.

Until now, Chip has responded to all his problems by sleeping; he seemed to sleep all time. Of course, part of that was because of me — whenever I couldn’t figure out a way for time to pass, I’d put the poor guy to sleep. But I do think that’s a realistic reaction — too much happened too fast, that it wore him out. So, to show the change in him, he should have trouble sleeping — I like the idea of his roaming around at night while others are asleep. And when he does sleep, he should have appalling dreams.

His feelings of isolation, his inability to connect to others and the pain of being around them, will all help me keep him and his love interest apart. They have to hate each other until they fall in love toward the end of the book, though they will be thrown together much of the time. (One purpose for their hatred is that she will need to choose his way over the crowd’s way, and to make it more forceful, she has to do it despite her dislike for him rather than because of love.)

Thank you for bearing with me. I think I have a better grasp of where Chip needs to go in the story, and I know where I need to go — to write it.

See you later.

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Wahoo! My Hero is in the Zoo.

Whew. A year and a half after beginning to write my fifth novel, I have the first of three parts finished.

The book is a whimsically humorous apocalyptic novel with a heavy theme: how much freedom we are willing to give up for safety and how much safety we are willing to give up for freedom. When the world goes through a time of re-creation, most human survivors opt to go to a place of refuge, which turns out to be a human zoo, but my hero, Chip, wants to preserve his freedom at all costs. Or almost all costs. He deals with killer toads, giant bugs, growing volcanoes, and a multitude of other traumas, but he cannot deal with the end of his stash of hard candy.

I am a slow writer, but this first part progressed slowly even by my standards. The circumstances of the book caused part of the problem — poor Chip had to traverse most of the 100 pages by himself, which is a hard task for any writer. Characters — and writers — need other characters to bounce off to bring interest, conflicts, and twists to the story. And personal circumstances caused the rest of the problem: life and death (not mine) got in the way, as did learning how to use a computer, learning the internet, editing my books for publication, proofing them, learning how to promote. (Though I wonder about the last — does anyone ever learn how to promote, or do we just paddle around until our books finally sink or swim?)

But, word by word, sentence by sentence, I got those pages written, and my hero is finally safe. Now I have to start over with a new set of problems for Chip — and me. Somehow I have to get him to the point where he wants to give up safety for freedom, but after all his trauma, I’m not sure how to goad him. I thought of making the place of refuge ultimately an unsafe place, but while it would get him out of there, it would not serve the theme.

Sorry to cut this short, but I have to go introduce Chip to some of his fellow inmates. Should be interesting. In the first part Chip had too few people to deal with, now he has too many.

I can hardly wait to see what happens.

Building a Story from the Inside Out

Jordan Dane, national bestselling and award-winning thriller writer, is guesting my blog today. I know guesting isn’t a word, but I’m still pleased that she consented to be my guest blogger. She is also hosting a discussion on my Suspense/Thriller Writers  group on Facebook, so stop by and add your bit to the onion, or leave a comment for her here. Jordan writes:

Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out? (Come on. Humor me!!)

This little exercise of writing the dialogue first came from having to split my time between my day job and writing. On my special writing days, I’d grab lunch by myself and take a notepad with me. (I wasn’t really alone. Like Sybil, writers never are. Oh, I just scared myself.)

People would always comment that my scenes jumped right into the action with pace, sharp concise narratives and to-the-point dialogue. In trying to explain to another writer how I do this, I had to understand it myself. That’s when I realized how much my little lunchtime exercise had trained my brain to think this way-in terms of breaking down elements to any scene.

I had broken apart the dialogue from the rest of the narrative as a more efficient use of my time before I got home that night to finish the scene. Consequently, the dialogue got my full attention. And I usually tend to visualize the scene in my head as a TV program or movie. Visualizing it like a movie stirred my thoughts on the scene and helped orient me into the characters’ motivation too.

I later learned aspects of this method are called LAYERING. You can use it to build that onion as I describe below or use it to add more emotion or tension or atmosphere to your scenes-whatever you want more of-even after you think that scene or book is finished. Layering is one of the last steps I use when I’m doing my final edits on a novel. I read through the book and punch up the various scenes until I’ve come to the last page.

1. FIRST-Use dialogue as the framework for the scene (like a screen writer)

Consider writing the dialogue first so you can concentrate on it (Use this as an exercise only. Once you get this down, you won’t need to do this time and time again.)

Make the dialogue important-There’s nothing like witty banter or a clever verbal skirmish between two adversaries

If your character confronts someone at a high school reunion that they haven’t seen in twenty years when they buried a body after Prom, you better have them say more than, “Gee, nice sweater.” Chitchat would never happen in real life, given this situation, unless these two people are guiltless serial killers. Too much introspection can kill the impact of their first meeting. Personally, I like a challenge like this. And don’t get me started on the whimsical world of the serial killer. But think about it-what WOULD they say to each other?

2. SECOND-Body Language/Action

Body language can be fun, especially if it contradicts what the character is saying in dialogue-Use it! Manipulate it!

Be concise and not too wordy with action, but keep it REAL. If guns are blasting, remember your characters are dodging bullets, not witty banter. Bullets stop for no man…or woman!!!

3. THIRD-Mood & Setting-Use it to accentuate what’s happening.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the mood created with a great setting. It can embellish the emotion in a scene or add an underlying tension (ie an escalating storm or a well-placed gust of wind against a silk blouse or skirt). The beauty is in the details.

4. LAST-Emotional layering-Introspection

Give your character a journey through the scene. Don’t just repeat the same old thoughts over and over in different ways no matter how clever you are. Have their introspection grow or change.

Too much introspection, for me as a reader, slows the pace. But if an editor wants it, read my first point over again and build upon the emotional layers with new material. Insights into a character can be a wonderful gift to your reader.

5. THEN STAND BACK AND TAKE A LOOK-What’s there? Do you have a whole ONION or a lemon?

Make every scene into a tight mini-story with a hook beginning and a memorable page-turning end. Or end it with a beautiful image a reader will remember and feel long after they’ve put the book down.

Or stop in the middle of the action and continue it on the top of the next chapter.

You are in control of your story’s layout. Make it interesting.

NOTE: For more writer resources, please check out my website FOR WRITERS page for craft tips, promotion ideas, and other articles like my “First Sale” story or “How to Make a Book Trailer FOR FREE”.