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Friday, September 30, 2011

My Gratitude Journal: Pirate

As I write, my sweet old dog is sitting at my feet. Pirate is 12 or 13 years old. We don't exactly know since she was a throw-away. Some unworthy soul dumped her at a crossroads in the country near Butte College. When a much kinder soul rescued her but couldn't keep her, Pirate came into our lives.

That was 10 1/2 years ago. She arrived as a half-starved, terrified, abused and bedraggled mutt -- fearful of everyone, but especially large men, and we had seven of them. Still, despite the obvious problems, she grew on us.

We brought her into our homee and she climbed immediately to the top of the couch -- a definite no-no, but it was the high ground for an abused creature who feared for her life. Within a couple of hours, our three-year-old grandson awoke crying. I picked him up and carried him to the couch, rocking and comforting him. The dog climbed down from her perch, leaned into Tanis and me, and took a defensive position between us and my husband. This taught us quite a bit about the kind of home she must have come from.

My husband declared the dog confused, since she obviously assumed he was the source of the tears, but said that any dog who would overcome her own fear to protect his wife and grandson was worth an investment of time and energy. I agreed.

It took days to begin to break into Pirate's protective space and weeks to get her used to the men in our family, but she quickly adopted me as her person. For more than ten years now, she has followed me everywhere I go. If I get up from the computer to get a drink of water, she follows me to the kitchen. If I'm cooking, she sits on a rug nearby. I'm I sit down to read, she is at my feet. She is the most single-mindedly devoted fan I will ever have.

I once saw a bumper sticker that read, "My goal in life: To become as good a person as my dog thinks I am." If only I can!

Thanks, Pirate, for all the joy you've brought to my life. May your days be long and happy.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Idolizing the Teacher

Today's excerpt from a work-in-progress comes from A SECRET FAMILY RECIPE, recently accepted as my second novel for Covenant, to be published in 2013. In this section, sixteen-year-old Emily Burnett is discussing her choir teacher, Ms. Wendy Nguyen, and demonstrating more than a little hero worship.

Ms. Nguyen, our choir teacher at the high school, is awesome. She loves to sing as much as I do – and she’s SO smart! She’s pretty, too, which is why we have more boys in the choir this year. When they saw the new choir teacher, guys started transferring in – even the ones who used to say choir was for losers.

She’s had us singing some complicated songs for this special three-week summer choir gig; she calls them “pieces.” My favorite is a five-part madrigal. Five parts! Mr. Peavey, the cross-country coach who directed the choir last year, was lucky if he could get us to do two-part harmonies, usually just soprano and alto with three or four guys singing the melody an octave lower. But Ms. Nguyen knows how to present things and she found this really super awesome five-part madrigal that used to be sung by traveling minstrels in Europe… Finally we get to sing some decent music!

I enjoyed writing this novel, and I very much enjoyed getting to know Emily. Like her, I've had teachers and leaders that I looked up to, admired, and emulated. And you?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Quirky Look at Supporting Cast

We've been looking at secondary characters lately. For an off-beat look at supporting cast members, take a peak at this odd web page. "Top 10 Friends Secondary Characters" is exactly that, a pictorial countdown of the back-up characters who helped the six friends along, season after season.

It's frankly silly, and yet it can be instructive when we look at the ways in which these ten quirky occasional characters helped to illuminate, enliven and flesh out the stories for the six "Friends" we all came to know and love.

Have a look. If you get a moment, tell me what you think.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Embracing Abundance

When I want to embrace abundance, all I have to do is put out my arms to take in my family. Not only are they all wonderful people, but there are a great many of them.

I started as the oldest of five siblings. Then I married and bore seven children. My sibs were having children too, and the numbers began to multiply. During a particular period in the middle 1980s, my sister and brothers all had sons within 14 months, including a set of twins. All this begins to explain why I live in California, but have been in Utah for every odd-numbered month of this year.

January was a visit to see my parents, now in their later 80s, who left California for Utah when all my married siblings did. March brought the wedding of nephew Stephen. In May I traveled for a writers' conference. The trip in July was for the wedding of nephew Sean and September brought the wedding of Doug, one of the twins.

I plan to return in November, this time to the St. George area, for a family reunion. That makes six trips this year.

Don is still unmarried and Stephen has a younger brother -- not even counting the two teenaged nieces, so who knows how many trips the next year may bring?

All this travel has its up side. There is joy in seeing our family grow and my nephews have all married darling girls who bring talents, skills and beauty with them. The down side has to do with the mileage on the car, not to mention the wear-and-tear on my body, which just keeps getting older.

There’s also the fact that when I’m traveling every other month to Utah, it’s difficult to go much of anywhere else, a detail my family has noticed. Though I do have one son in Utah, I also have kids and grandkids in California, Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma and Georgia, and they are beginning to agitate for more of my travel time.

For now I’m putting the unmarried nephews and teenaged nieces on notice that Aunt Susan loves you all, but is getting tired of the scenery across northern Nevada.

Still there are babies coming and graduations pending and a new generation getting old enough to think about marriage. Who knows where I may be going within the coming years? It’s all about embracing the abundance I call my family.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Some Roles for Minor Characters

For a couple of weeks we've been looking at the place of minor characters in our novels. Here are a few of the roles minor characters can serve in good fiction:

Someone to talk to: Yes, you’re a novelist, not a playwright, so you can delve into a character’s mind. At the same time, you may have restrictions (publishers’ guidelines are one example) that keep you from being present in the minds of all major characters. Thus a major character can let the reader know what he or she is thinking by speaking it aloud to a minor character. The minor character will have another role in the story (faithful footman, best friend, next-door neighbor, secretary), but in fact, will exist primarily to illuminate the major character to whom he or she is close.

Picture the contemporary hero who reveals his thoughts primarily by speaking to his best buddy. We can hear him tell Buddy, “She’s great. I can’t stop thinking about her,” but we can also hear the buddy say to him, “Dude, she’s not your usual type. You go for the brainless blonde bimbos.” Both lines add depth to your hero.

Local color: Suppose your heroine’s duties involve walking daily to the post office and every day, when she arrives there, she sees a mohawked, spiked, pink-haired dude in black who sits on a bench opposite the post office in a blissed-out state. The character doesn’t need to do anything but be in order to serve this purpose. Such characters may not need names or any further description. They exist to add color.

You can make them even more worthy of their place in your story by giving them a small role at some critical point. Here my example from film comes from “Groundhog Day.” Bill Murray’s character daily passes the old, homeless man who is begging on the street. The man never has a name or any life history that we see, yet he is great local color.

He also serves the role of illuminating Murray’s main character, Phil Connors. Phil’s reaction changes from impatiently brushing by him to handing him some loose bills to even trying to save his life when the old man succumbs to the cold. Thus the old, homeless man goes from being merely local color to becoming one way the viewer can see how Phil is becoming less beastly.

The Foil: A foil, while filling the role of best buddy, or local color, or illuminator for your hero/heroine, can also hold a mirror up to your character. The foil has similar life events and yet handles them in different ways, showing your reader an alternative path that is open to, but generally rejected by, the protagonist.

A famous example from novels is found in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett’s foil is her mother, Ellen. Scarlett marries first Charles, then Frank, then Rhett, but always pines for Ashley, even creating scandal. As we read about Ellen, we realize that she too had a first love, an affair of the heart that ended when her family married her to Gerald O’Hara. Instead of pining, Ellen has learned to love her husband and has been a faithful wife and a loving mother. Both women go through the war and its horrible loss, but instead of turning hard and cold as Scarlett does, Ellen becomes a near Saint, offering free midwifery to anyone who needs her, feeding hungry people and treating everyone with caring compassion. Scarlett could have been what Ellen is; hence, Ellen becomes the mirror through which we better understand Scarlett.

The competition: When two men both show interest in the same woman at the same time (or two women show interest in the same man), there’s going to be rivalry. A rival can be both a foil (showing traits similar to those of your hero or heroine, but taking different directions) and a device for illuminating your protagonist.

In RIDE THE RAINBOW HOME, the second book in my Rainbow Rock series, Alexa arrives in town injured and immediately catches the interest of Kurt McAllister, but Kurt, being gentlemanly, moves Alexa into his mother’s home instead of his own. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Chris, who is also attracted, still lives at home with his mother. Chris makes the rivalry evident right away by telling Alexa that Kurt is useful to have around, “but I’m the cute one.”

Chris wins a few rounds while Kurt becomes steadily more frustrated. Then there is a moment of truth when all three are threatened and Kurt puts Alexa’s life before his own. Chris turns to his brother and says, “You’re serious about her, aren’t you?” From then on, Chris, who has been having a great time but is not serious, backs away and becomes his brother’s wing man, encouraging Alexa in Kurt’s direction. It was a fun dynamic to work with.

As you are writing your minor characters, assess what roles they are filling. Be sure to make them worth their space on your page.