Diversity in Fiction: Crafting Characters Respectfully

I’m not one to go seeking out hot-button issues, but the truth is when we don’t address underlying, systemic problems of all the ‘isms’ in our culture (from government programs, to housing applications, to writing fiction–) they continue to hold power over and harm other human beings. So, I’m discussing today how we, as writers, can be not only sensitive to the characters we create but the effects of their existence on our world. After all, stereotypes exist because we fail to see them in all the subtle ways they permeate our lives. As ethical and compassionate people, we should work towards burning down those untruths as much as possible, even in our own work.

I’m not going to stand on a soap box and preach without starting with myself. I’ve probably, in my ignorant and un-learned past, created characters that simplified the complexities of a human into certain traits. I’ve tried not to. I tried to craft my characters as strong, independent and powerful, more tuned to their personalities than their physical traits. But there were still subtle things, I wasn’t even aware of at the time, that filtered from my limited white experience. As I look into rewriting this character, I am constantly questioning how I can do better.

We all should. We owe it to the character, to the reader (and to the world) to examine our writing and go forward with an eye to our own hidden (and not so hidden) biases or ideas.

The best advice I can give you is to strip yourself of any cloak of magnanimous “equality”. Start by reading some real, hard to stomach, but necessary soul-exploring books on the complexities of race and gender equality, the reason systemic problems exist, and how we can best eradicate them. Talk to people from every background, attend classes, lectures, and forums, open discussions of others’ experiences. Do it with an open heart, and a willingness to accept your part in the system. Have the dedication to do something about it.

When we are invested in writing characters different from ourselves (race, gender, religion, sexuality, age etc) one of the best things we can do is RESEARCH. In the expansiveness of the Internet, so much good information, written by diverse voices, can be found. The ones most important (and really the only viable ones) are those written in their own voice, about their own experience.

I also encourage you to talk to as many other people of all walks of life as you can. (And not just to research for your work…do it for the benefit of your humanity and compassion.) While I DO NOT advocate for you turning your ‘one black friend’ into your go-to for all questions about a diverse, varied and culturally rich part of our world (it’s not their job or duty to educate you), don’t shy away from respectful and honest conversations that come up, especially when they happen from immersing yourself in different situations and events from a standpoint of open mindedness and learning.

Above all, when you are writing diverse characters DON’T, for the love of god, assume that by describing their skin color/religion/orientation that you’ve described their character in total. DON’T stereotype them. DON’T include diverse characters just for the sake of checking off a box.

DO make them unique to their upbringing, their experience, and their situation. DO describe all of your characters equally and in rich and expansive ways.

I’ve always believed that good storytelling is universal. And in our connected and dynamic world, it would be a shame to only write one kind of person. But care for your characters and the people they may or may not represent. Here are some good resources that may help:

Good luck and don’t be afraid. Just be respectful, compassionate, and educated.

Begin Again

So here we are, at the precipice of a new year and probably, in some part, still reeling from the last two. I recall, vaguely, that at this time last year I was filled with hope that things were about to get better. Then, events in the first week of the year reminded me that the calendar rolling over didn’t wipe the slate clean on the world’s troubles. It’s just a date. Not a miracle.

The only comfort I had, and still have, as we again sit at the top of 2022, is that I have control over at least one thing in the world, and that’s how I live in it. So no matter where you are, in physical or mental space, take an opportunity to day to think about what you would do if you could begin again. The date may be arbitrary, but the idea is sound.

Everything you’ve lived through up to this point has prepared you for the challenges ahead. Everything that you’ve seen, learned, failed at, succeeded at, has built in you a resilience for the journey ahead. So while we shouldn’t dwell on our pasts (whether it be to regret–terrible thing, or to relive glory days–also unhelpful) we should remember the value they have given us. Every experience, hardship, joy, failure, and triumph has added to your soul-resume and will give you what you need for this next year. I believe that whatever it is you set your sights on, whether its finishing a book, starting a new job, getting out of an abusive relationship, or giving yourself more grace, you will find success. But don’t just throw vague intentions out. Make a map.

Now how detailed you want to get depends on your level of focus, your own acknowledgement for order, and what works for you. I like to start with a general goal list, break it down by quarter, month, and week, and hang it up where I can see it. So when I find myself caught up in pitbull puppy videos, its looming over me, reminding me to focus.

That’s a shit-ton of bullets…*sigh*

At the beginning of the year, it looks daunting. So I have to remind myself, even if it’s on paper, it’s still fluid. Just because it’s all there, listed out, doesn’t mean it all gets done today. Like any journey, goals are a series of steps, one after another.

This year, I’ll be trying a few different things, and I only squawk about them here as a measure of accountability.

In the spring (March-ish) I’ll be releasing my Western Romance Series and planning some tour dates in my home state of Wyoming to promote it. This will include book signings, readings, and Q and A sessions. I’m aspiring to submit short stories, poetry, and flash fiction to at least 100 different publications (aiming for 100 rejections but my hope is they aren’t ALL rejected). In May, I’m hoping to finish up a collaboration with a local press for my Sci/Fi novella “Saturn Rising”. The blog will continue with weekly writing advice, poetry, guest blogs, and a special series on local charities, the work they’re doing, and how we can help keep them running. This year’s Anthology is not yet themed but I’m shifting over to include short stories, essays, and excerpts. Stay tuned for more details. This year, winning entries will be published and receive a monetary prize.

I’ve got my first co-authoring project in the works (a fun romp and homage to my love of 80’s pop culture) and will be working on my next series (I’m getting all Urban fantasy this time).

Outside of writing, I’ll be teaching a few more classes, continue advancing towards my next degree (Sensei Sarah has a nice ring to it), reading more, I’ll climb a few more 14ers, and work this old body into more flexibility through yoga. It all feels like a lot, but days are made of minutes and you can do a lot in those minutes….once you choose to begin.

Good luck out there. Come back and visit to keep updated on the anthology submissions and so we can check in with each other on our new starts. Above all, let’s just be better people this year. The best versions of ourselves we can be.

Westbury Falls: Episode #5

Good morning! Welcome to December, I’m not sure what happened to this year, but I do know that after a month of NANOWRIMO, I’m taking this week off and I hope you are too. To soothe your tired brain, here’s the fifth installment of last year’s project for NANOWRIMO. The one where we meet Kitty– a ray of cherry-pink sunshine, who is also capable of burning those who slip away from propriety like a fire-obsessed toddler in a Stephen King novel. Oh–and there’s a little more Doctor. Get cozy, this is a long one. If you find yourself lost, please check out the earlier episodes of this strange little time-traveling jaunt. Enjoy!

Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

“Oh Miss Darlingwood, you have caught me in the midst of my own wanderings, I’m afraid. My head has put strange and sudden thoughts into my being that I can’t always comprehend. The engagement…yes— “ Lilian stalled for a moment by twisting her hands together in what she hoped would look like a virginal nervousness. “It must have been very…nice.”

“Nice? Is that all? Oh please Lily, you do not mean to tell me that is all you can devise? You know I desire much more detail, every last whisper and turn of the leaf. Did he—” she leaned in close and looked around the deserted parlor. “Did he dare kiss you? Is that why you are remiss in telling me details that you not once have held back? Rest assured, Miss Byrne, I wouldn’t tell a soul.”

So much for being coy, Lil thought and tried not to smirk. How scandalous to have kissed a man who proposed to you! Lil rarely kissed anyone in her time. She was usually attracted to the dark, morose skater types, who’s plans included bringing down society by skipping class. Bad boys. Boys that didn’t hunt pheasants or drink scotch.

“I truly do not remember the proposal. I wish I had more romantic detail to give to you, I fear the fall has quite damaged my memory to the extent that even when the young Dr. Blackwell assured me, I had recently become engaged, I assured him that I had not.”

Miss Darlingwood took in a sharp breath and then released it in a whoosh of giggles. “Miss Byrne! I am both saddened at the tragic loss of such a memory and amused by your teasing of Dr. Blackwell by calling him ‘young’. He is quite the aged bachelor!”

“Ah yes, the ripe old age of seven and twenty,” she smirked. “Is not Mr. Sutton much older?” she asked. Miss Darlingwood nodded and looked around to the deserted room.

“Well, yes, but he is of means and acquired those means through several years of investments overseas. ‘Young’ Dr. Blackwell—“she giggled at repeating the name, “appears to be fallen from his father’s graces by practicing medicine in rural bumpkin-filled hovels in the south of England. He is much disgraced and would be most shockingly lucky to find himself a willing bride, unbothered by his recent escapades.”

“Escapades?” That sounded juicy and now it was Lillian who leaned forward. “Whatever do you mean?”

“I mean that he is treating the poor with so much regularity that he has become quite poor himself and has quiet assuredly upset his father’s plans to be the successor of the family’s highly respected hospital and board position in Bath! While we are all very grateful for his continued attention to your care, we were in part shocked that the good Colonel would allow him such access with his reputation.” She responded as if this were all very new information, and shockingly so. “With all his work in the poor houses, one wonders if he could really call himself by the title of “Doctor” at all. He makes barely more than even his stipend and does not seem bothered to live below his means.”

“He administers to the poor? But isn’t that noble and kind?” the last words drifted off softly between her lips and Lillian’s blush returned. Miss Darlingwood watched her face with curiosity before her eyes lit with mischief.

“Nobility and kindness do not mix, dearest Lily. He should have joined the clergy if he was so inclined, at least there is some honor in that. But in treating boils for trades of eggs and shelter in barns does not make for good husband material!” Lillian sat back and frowned. She needed to stay focused and try to learn what she could about her supposed fiancé so she could play along until a solution to take her back home was found.

“We must think up a good story—” Kitty began, “forgotten or not, when your engagement party comes to pass you must have something to tell the circle of women who will no doubt be dying to know how you captured the attention of such a man.”

Lillian felt sick to her stomach. She didn’t want to capture the interest of any man, she just wanted to go home. Kitty went on despite the quiet contemplation of Lillian.

“So, my suggestion is this…He proposed beneath the large willow tree on the edge of his favorite grouse field, rifle in hand and the mist making him all the more impressive of a man. You hesitated, as all good and proper young women do when faced with such a delicate and intimate decision and he snuck a kiss in to persuade—”

“He did not kiss me!” Lillian said it so loudly and adamantly that it startled them both. “Forgive me, I mean to say, I think such an occurrence would not have been lost to any fall or injury to the head.”

“Well, it sounds much more exciting than ‘it was very nice’,” Kitty argued. Lillian sighed.

“I do not wish to lie to you Kitty about the proposal. I simply do not remember it ever taking place. Are we quite sure he actually asked me?” In all of her mother’s study and the journals she’d read, never had her ancestor ever mentioned getting married to Mr. Sutton. She had disappeared before that time and shortly after was found, drown on the banks of Avon.

“Perhaps it is something we can get him to recall when he visits you again.”

“Again? I have never seen him here at Westbury Manor.” Lillian said distractedly and rubbed at the tight and perfect stitches, placed so carefully by such skilled fingers. Miss Darlingwood looked at her.

“You mean to say your fiancé has not come to see you in your time of need? Not in over a week?”

“Well, no—” Lillian’s eyes and hands fell to her lap. Strange, if a man was engaged to a woman, advantageously or otherwise, would he not come to see her post haste in the event of her injury? Perhaps they did not have that kind of arrangement. Maybe she was more of a convenience.

“He is otherwise occupied,” came the sudden and deep voice from the hall causing both women to turn. Miss Darlingwood rose immediately and bowed to Dr. Blackwell and she looked down at Lillian in horror as she stayed seated and glaring. Kitty nudged Lillian with her knee to remind her. Lillian made an annoyed sound and rolled her eyes at the ritual of rise and curtsy as was used in the era. She moved to stand but he stopped her.

“You needn’t rise, Miss Byrne, if you are feeling faint.” She scowled at him.

“I assure you I am quite fine.”  She stood and bowed but did not lower her eyes. Matthew’s eyes narrowed on hers and the heat seemed to rise in the room. Miss Darlingwood came around the settee to again bow and offer her hand. He did as was custom but as his lips touched Kitty’s hand, his eyes lit on Lillian for a brief moment.

“I have been occupied trying my very best to help Miss Byrne recall the details of her engagement to your cousin, Mr. Blackwell. “

“Doctor,” Lillian croaked in correction.

Doctor Blackwell,” Kitty corrected with a slight scrunch of her nose towards Lillian.

“You needn’t worry with titles, Miss Darlingwood. It is not necessa—” Lillian interrupted.

“It is absolutely necessary! Yours is a title that has been earned through hours of meticulous work, that you’ve accomplished on your own merit. It was not simply given.” Her voice quieted as he stared at her through the speech with a strange look on his face. She blushed at the overflow of startled affection that she’d felt for him after Kitty had unwittingly bestowed in her gossip of his supposed failings towards his family. She knew what it was to fall short in the eyes of those who should love you the most.

“Miss Byrne I—” his blue eyes fell and he clasped his hands behind his back.

“I would not have survived, if it hadn’t been for your calm and assured manner and skill. I have not thanked you nearly enough, and I hope you will not think me remiss or ungrateful. I am so—“she stopped speaking and stumbled, breathless and enchanting, around the settee to stand before him.

“So?” Kitty asked in a hushed voice as she stepped aside and watched the strange interplay between doctor and patient, unmarried and betrothed.

“So very grateful.” Lillian finished and bowed before him. Matthew’s eyes fell to the beautiful coils of raven hair, hiding the neat stitches, to the heaving and full bosom, held in the gray brocade material of her dress. When she looked up, the lavender eyes were stormy and gray.

He ached to pull her up from her submissive position. To have her complain about her stitches, or how rudely he had handled her, or how improper he’d been. Instead her behavior melted away the idea of guilt and replaced it with genuine need, hard and fast in his body and heart. Kitty cleared her throat.

“Doctor Blackwell, as Mr. Sutton is your cousin, perhaps you would like to remind Miss Byrne of the utmost happiest occasion of her life.” Miss Darlingwood said pointedly. Lillian rose and blushed and stepped away.

“I’m sure she’ll remember on her own in time.” He countered, not wanting to think on the matter.

“You might hasten her happiness by telling her now,” Kitty said in a strange smile that seemed almost menacing. Lillian studied her. Kitty was trying to keep the status quo. People in this era were much more astute at reading body language and probably could feel the uncomfortable play of emotion and physical response between Dr. Blackwell and herself. No wonder Matthew looked so angry and uncomfortable around her. She was upsetting his world.  

“Forgive me,” she said softly. “I do not recall the event.”

Dr. Blackwell cleared his throat and paced to the fireplace.

“You must keep in mind that men do not remember events the same as ladies do and we are prone to not fetter over the idealic details of how many flower petals fell on his shoulder or which type of finch sang above you or from which direction the spring breezes blew.”

Kitty giggled. “Oh Dr. Blackwell, you tease us so!” Lillian did not giggle. She did not want him to continue. She did not want to know how she came to be engaged to a stranger. Not even a truncated version.

“He did not kiss you, as I had overheard, forgive me, earlier from the hall. That is not to say he did not want to, for I know not the desires of his heart.” Matthew paused his story and looked back from the fireplace only briefly to gauge Lillian’s reaction and to contain the ideas in his own mind of kissing her. “He only asked with his usual, forthright manner…I imagine much as he would if asking to use someone’s grounds for hunting.” He said the last bit under his breath and with a roll of his eyes at his cousin’s unromantic nature. “If it helps you to imagine, I suppose he held his hands to his back and rocked on his heels in a proper amount of embarrassment and concern for your answer.”

“Perhaps he held them away so that he wouldn’t be tempted to sway you otherwise!” Kitty giggled and covered her mouth to stifle the sound as she looked back at Lillian, who blanched, somehow containing herself with pursed lips. She leaned against the sideboard, along the farthest wall from Dr. Blackwell.

“Perhaps,” Matthew said with a smile and turned away before she could read his face. “But, as I’ve known my cousin since I was three and he six, he rarely crosses the boundaries of propriety for the sake of affection.”

“Rightly so, he is a decent and excellent character we can be assured! You see dear Lily?” Kitty said and came to her and took Lil’s cold fingers in her hand. “You’ve nothing to worry about, Mr. Sutton is a proper and sound man.”

“Stoic, unaffectionate, proper…decent—fantastic. What more could a girl hope for in a life partner?” she said lowly to herself and the air around her grew heavy. She felt stifled. She took her hand from Kitty’s and lifted her skirts before bowing.

“If you would please excuse me, Dr. Blackwell, Miss Darlingwood, I think I should like to take some fresh air.” She darted from the room, making a rushed getaway that surprised both Dr. Blackwell and Miss Darlingwood.

“But isn’t it raining dreadfully?” Kitty squeaked behind her. Matthew watched her run out and down the hall before dashing to the left and down the staircase. Her slippered feet made soft and even taps on the tiles of the stairs.

“What if she falls?” Matthew said and moved to follow her but Miss Darlingwood stepped coyly between him and the door.

“I assure you good sir, she shall be safe on the grounds. Perhaps we shall leave her space with which to think. After all, it is nearly her engagement party in three weeks’ time and she may need the solitary moments alone to ruminate over the lovely details.”

Matthew looked down at Miss Darlingwood, petite and in pink cotton that illuminated the flush of both cheeks and breasts. He looked away quickly as she stared up at him through her blond eyelashes with a smile. He knew very well that she was a beautiful woman, one that had no shortage of suitors due in part to her soft and sweet countenance and part due to her father’s good fortune. He also knew that she had captured the heart of Lillian’s brother Fitzwilliam, but had no intention of marrying a boy of so little means even though he stood to inherit Westbury upon the passing of his childless Aunt and Uncle.

“I would love to hear some of your travels to the south. I hear it can be quite barbaric over the border.”

Matthew cringed and his lip drew back in disgust. Such was the prevailing attitudes of the times. When in all reality, he saw very little difference between the two peoples. Though he had observed that the Welsh were exceedingly proud of their hard-work ethic and rugged (in the eyes of the British Empire) existence. Certainly, a woman of Miss Darlingwood’s upbringing and constitution would not be able to survive such a “primitive” lifestyle. A woman would have to be adventurous, physically able bodied, and stubborn. Matthew looked out to the empty hallway.

“Perhaps some other time. I am running quite late for meeting with my father and should not dawdle further.” He politely bowed before rushing from the room.

NANOWRIMO Week Four: The Final Countdown

Good morning!

For those of you who’ve been following me through the month of November, this marks the final installment of surviving NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month). I’ve been flowing with a life-stages theme, and had intended to title this week “Retirement” but the thing with NANO is that only some of us will spend the last week resting and reaping the rewards of a month packed with hours of dedication to your project. A lot of us will find this final week to be the last, desperate attempt to finish.

So this brief post is for those who are struggling through the last four to five days to make up those words, or at least push to do what they can.

I hope, more than anything, and even above the lofty goal of 50,000 words, that you are still trying. That you haven’t given up. That you have built a habit of writing so that you don’t feel complete in your day unless you’ve spent at least some time on your work.

Because, that’s the whole point. This month is more about teaching us to prioritize our lives to include our writing first (or at least at the top of the to-do list) and to know that we CAN accomplish great things when we give it the time and love it needs. It’s more about building the habit of writing than it is about reaching the specific goal.

So often in our lives we self-limit. So often we are told it can’t be done, we can’t, the work is too great, the effort pointless. So often we are told that struggle won’t be worth the outcome. But those voices and those opinions fail to factor in that it is not just the outcome that is rewarding. The end result is not all we are working for. Its the journey in getting there.

When we challenge ourselves, the bigger reward lies in the struggle. New ventures, hard and thankless work, and lofty goals teach us how to plan, how to plot, how to push ahead when we simply don’t feel like it or when others around us question or scoff at the ideas before us. Challenges shine a light on how amazing and resilient we are so that, no matter the outcome, we learn what we are capable of. And once we know what we are capable of, the bonds of doubt weaken and we begin to believe that if we can write a novel in a month, we can edit it, publish it, write another, and another, and another. And if we can write a book we can take a class, or teach a class. We can climb a mountain, we can travel across the world. We can do anything we set our minds to.

We can.

You can.

You’ve only got a few days left in this month and I BELIEVE THAT YOU CAN do anything you’ve set out to do. You are amazing. You are imperfectly perfect and there’s no one in the world who can finish this month the way you will.

Deep breath, writer. Don’t let the home stretch scare you. Let the struggle instead be your gift and one which you are grateful to work through. You can. You will.

NANOWRIMO Week Three: The Midlife Crisis

Hey there writer.

I know I don’t have to thank you for being here with me because if you are akin to me, you’re looking for any excuse to change up the monotony of this novel-writing month and escape that mad-dash. Perhaps you’re feeling like this story you’ve been pouring your heart and soul into for what seems like years is starting to stale. Things are getting drab. The plot line is petering out. The characters have run out of things to say.

This is the dreaded, dead-ended doldrum, (say that one a few times fast) of week 3. And it can often feel like middle age in its sunken sails, stagnant air, and the questioning of the choices that brought you here.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

With only days left in this crazy adventure, you may feel like you just don’t want to go on. That perhaps it would be easier to abandon your project all together and take a hot little novella out for a spin. Maybe start seeing some poetry on the side. Perhaps dabble in a little erotica?

While I encourage some dabbling (especially in erotica) I would argue that all of those exploratory practices can be done right in your own work in progress. So you’re bored, so you don’t know what the characters will say to one another…I urge you to start a new chapter, in the same document, where your characters take a jump off of the tracks and do something completely unexpected. Put them in a different time, put them in a different dynamic…hell, switch their genders and see what happens. Write a poem that serves as a synopsis to the story, first from one character’s perspective, and then from another’s. All of this play might help unlock the paths your novel needs to get going again. Think of it as putting some wind in those sails. A little spice in between the pages.

And all of those words you put down, even if they may be edited out later, still count as words towards your 50,000. Let’s be honest, at this point in the process, any word count is better than none.

It’s normal to feel a bit discouraged and bogged down in week 3, but what you’re building is worth hanging on to. It’s worth the investment of time and thought in this, the darkest, dreaded, dead-ended doldrums.

Hang in there kid. Go get freaky with your WIP and spice things up to see you through to the end.

Next week, look for the final, and highly inspirational installment of my NANOWRIMO survival guide.

NANOWRIMO Week Two: Here Comes a Writer With a Baby Carriage

Hello! Thanks for taking the time to catch up with the blog in the middle of one of your (hopefully) busiest writing months. At this point your mind set is probably so swayed to creating that reading outside of your work in progress is a lot like talking to another adult after being seeped in toddler-speak non-stop all week.

I know that your time is precious so I’ll keep it short and sweet. (Like me, ya’ll)

The second week of NANOWRIMO is all about elaborating on, fleshing out, and developing your baby. Last week we talked about the excitement of new love, the honeymoon stage of writing, if you will. This week is about the baby you’ve made and what that means for not just your writing, but your life for the next seven to ten days.

I know a lot of you are parents, and though it may have been awhile since you’ve spent the midnight hours rocking teary-eyed cherub back to sleep, chances are you remember the sacrifice of time and autonomy for the good of the future. This week is not much different for the NANOWRIMO process. You are starting to see the commitment involved and how the expectations you may have had in the beginning are often dashed by the realities.

Because children don’t always behave the way you think they will. Characters show unexpected traits and say things that throw your dynamic out of whack like dropping the f-bomb at Christmas dinner with Grandma, or asking you for “boob!” loudly in a store.

Settings and plot lines stall with the same debilitating frustration as trying to get a two-year-old into shoes because you’re late for the doctor appointment and you haven’t showered in three days, and you ate cold, leftover mac n cheese for breakfast and you’re not sure if that’s their diaper that smells or the dog…

Keeping on top of the little fires that come up isn’t easy but I encourage you to set a flexible schedule (it works with kids; it works with writing). Give yourself two hours ideally but really whatever you have is fine. Leave half for just writing. Leave the other half to fix plot holes, develop your character’s personalities and backgrounds, build on your story arc, and brainstorm solutions for things that are cropping up as you pour ever more work into the novel. Look at it like doing the groundwork of, feeding, changing, and burping for half of it, and the other half cuddling, coloring, singing, and playing.

A well rounded “story” is equal parts meeting the basic needs and getting to play in the creation of it.

Good luck out there. Nap when it naps, grab a shower while your computer backs up. Drink some coffee and prep for the long nights. Remember the bigger picture. Novels and babies are investments in the future. The work, and love, and committed care you invest now will lead to rewarding results in both your story, your characters, and your craft.

Oh…and get a decent meal. You can’t run on PB&J crusts and half eaten apples forever.

Westbury Falls: Episode #4

Hello! I realize it’s that scary time of year and I could produce a terrifying post to do the holiday justice. Then I thought, what’s scarier than being sent back in time to a place where you can’t wear pants, all of your rights have been stripped away, and your set to marry a murderous psychopath? Not much. Welcome to episode #4 of Westbury Falls.

Photo by Matthew Badsey on Pexels.com

Lillian paced, her legs confounded by the narrow skirt and ridiculous undergarments that seemed to dissuade too much movement and thereby kept the fairer sex, fair. What she’d give for a pair of pants! Or a hot shower. Or an Advil. The bath she’d gotten from Miriam was an influx of boiling water that cooled far too quickly in the drafty room, in a copper tub where the maid scrubbed her down without the gentleness she had grown accustomed to with her brother and the sad, blue-eyed doctor. A shower would have been much preferred.

If she wanted to see or have any of the modern amenities that she desperately craved, she needed to concentrate and ignore the propriety that had been forced upon her both in garments and in expectations.

“Think Lil,” she said and nibbled at her thumb nail. There were only three possible explanations.

One, that she had indeed hit her head and was in her own time, unconscious and in a coma and this was just the wild dream she was stuck in. Yet her body felt pain, touch, annoyance… things too real to be simply a figment. If it were this first option, she could simply play it out until her brain was healed enough to get itself out of this maze.

Two, that she had hit her head, harder than she realized, and was, in fact, dead.

“Which makes this what? Heaven?” she snorked and looked down at the cinched waist and scratchy undercoats of her dress. “Not likely! Purgatory, at best.” In that case, she couldn’t very well do anything about it. Being dead meant she’d never be able to see her family again. But if she were dead, why could she feel so clearly? Why could she move from place to place? Why hadn’t someone or something come to explain the rules? Did heaven have rules? What would that make Matthew Blackwell then? Some fallen angel? An agent of the dark but still beautiful? Lil sighed. This wasn’t some fantasy, tween action series. She already checked most of the nooks and crannies of the place for cameras, in the case of it being an epic prank. She hadn’t even found outlets; no electrical switches. Only candles and lamps. And the fireplace in her room that cast such a beautiful glow over Matthew’s long straight nose and high cheek bones.

“Focus Lil, he’s the least of our worries.”

If it was not a coma, and she was not dead—what were the chances she’d stumbled across some sort of anomaly in the universe?

“Three, I fell down a magical staircase and ended up in a different time.”

She stopped in front of the windows in the parlor and her heart rate steadily climbed. The pulsing in her body amplified in the wounded temple and ribs, bringing about another horrendous head ache. The other options fell away from her rational brain as she faltered and sagged against a settee. Was such a thing even possible? Her mother had always been a sucker for a good fairy tale, and often made them make wishes in faerie rings as children and believe in the strange energies of places like Stonehenge and Newgrange, even though science would have greatly disagreed with such nonsense. Yet, here she was in the 1800’s somehow and no rational explanation could be found.

It was clear, be it dream or a hole in the space time continuum, she was Lillian Byrne, her ancestorial aunt. The one who had drowned, shortly after being married. She was yet to be married, as the good doctor repeatedly reminded her of her betrothal.

Maybe she had to solve this mystery…the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance soon after the date of her wedding and subsequent discovery of her body in the lake, ruled a horrible accident due, in part, the journal entries of her brother had said, for her love of nature and of daily walking.

Maybe her brain really needed to know the answer and was simply conjuring up the story as a means to keep itself busy while the coma ran its course. She knew now that she was, or thought she was, her own great-several-times-over aunt, Lillian Louisa Byrne.

The time period, place, and characters were all the same from the family journals her mother had poured over for years. She never recalled hearing about the good doctor. But perhaps he wasn’t part of the story so much as an extra playing piece her libido had conjured up. Lillian blushed with the idea that if she created him, she could do whatever she liked with and to him. The temperature in the room rose and she cleared her throat.

“My! What wandering thoughts have possessed your injured mind, I wonder?” came the cherry-pink voice of Kitty Darlingwood from the doorway. “I’ve rarely seen such a blush but for the roses in spring, dew kissed and new.” She giggled and came to sit beside Lillian tiny hands clasped demurely in her lap. Lillian had only met her once, in her room after she had first gotten dressed and was called upon.

She supposed in her life Kitty was what her mom would call a bosom buddy. The best of friends. Lillian plastered on her best smile and tried to conjure up some warmth for the stranger. In Lil’s time, she didn’t have many friends. She worked in soup kitchens and low-income restaurants in her neighborhood in Payton Indiana, while her mom, a stock broker, kept the family fed and clothed on her own. She didn’t have leisure time for friends. She didn’t get along with many of the girls in her class. Even at the end of her senior year, she was practically alone.

“Tell me,” Kitty whispered conspiratorially and her blond corkscrew curls seemed to vibrate in anticipation. “Are you reliving the moment of your engagement to Mr. Sutton. I’ve never heard told the story. It must have been quite romantic!” she twittered like a school girl.

Are you fucking kidding me, right now? was the phrase on Lil’s mind but she dare not speak in such a manner or they might bundle her up and send her to a looney bin for profanity. She gently smiled at the younger, spritely charge. What had her ‘brother’ said? Fredrick Sutton was a good man. A strong a sturdy gentleman of 40 who enjoyed parlor games and pheasant hunting. Good judge of scotch and not yet interested in marriage. What kind of proposal would such a man make that could be spun into a believable tale? Lillian sighed.

NANOWRIMO Week One: The Honeymoon

Ah, yes, the glorious stage of excitement and foreplay. The thrill of fleshing out your characters, and having them say clever things to one another, and building beautiful worlds with soft hues and brilliant sunsets. It’s champagne and butterflies, it’s rainbows and 3 hour love-making sessions with your laptop (please, God, not literally…the keys are hard enough to keep clean with just my coffee and pastry habit).

The words come easy, the beginning is new and exciting, the chemistry is just right. Possibly you’ve been planning this novel for awhile, maybe you even used October to plan it out and things are running smoothly and in great gushes of inspiration and excitement. (I think ‘gushes’ might be just as bad as ‘moist’ for cringe-worthy words).

OR

You’re stuck in front of your blank page and wondering why in God’s name you agreed to this. The stress of completing such a herculean task is causing every neuron to march around your addled brain with tiny little picket signs protesting the ridiculous workload before they even endure it.

You’re thinking of giving up. It feels as though you agreed to do this on a brash weekend in Vegas and you might have done so under the influence of alcohol and you really don’t know this book that well and what will your parents say and… is it too late for an annulment?

In the first case: Congratulations, keep going! If you have the stamina and inspiration to do so, front load these first couple of weeks so you can have a few days to ride if you need to recover. (I can’t help but hear Sheriff Bart’s voice in my head “Man, them schnitzengrubens will wipe you out!” Come on, people…Blazing Saddles)

In the second case: Don’t give up just yet. So she/he’s a gamble and you may have rushed into things. It’s normal to be nervous. It’s normal to feel like there’s nowhere to go. But you’re a writer. And writer’s do best when they stop questioning the end product and just write. See where that impromptu spouse will lead you, let it play out for a few days and enjoy the crazy weird ride that you’re on.

The secret to NANOWRIMO is to not overthink it. Because that’s when you start looking for all the imperfections and plot holes that send you into editing mode and canceling out any forward movement you have.

If you’re having trouble with getting your word count every day here’s some tips that have helped me:

  1. Break it up into smaller sections. A little in the morning, a little at lunch, some at night. Carry the laptop or notebook with you and write a few lines whenever you have a chance
  2. Keep your characters in your head with you at all times. How would they react to what you’re doing? What would they say to each other in the grocery store line? Let them talk to each other while you’re doing the dishes or in that third useless meeting of the day (come on, we all know at least 2/3rds of all meetings are just wastes of time that allow one person to hear themselves talk).
  3. Strike when the fire is hot. If you are on a roll, do everything in your power to keep writing…then in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence–stop. Yeah, you read that right. Stop. It will frustrate you and keep your mind on what will happen next until you pick it back up. Foreplay people…there’s nothing like a little flirtatious teasing to make the next interlude all the more passionate.
  4. DO NOT be discouraged if you have a short day. Every word counts and a 400 word day is still 400 words. Like running or training, or anything really–great things are accomplished not always in leaps and bounds but by small progressive steps forward.
  5. Rest your fingers and your brain. Take breaks, sleep well, eat well, exercise, and get away from it throughout the day. Burnout probably happens most in the first couple of weeks when our inspiration gets ahead of our ability to keep at it with the same frantic pace.

Okay. That’s all I’ve got for this week.

Remember, comment below with how it’s going or send me quick email with any frustrations or elations you have and I’ll enter you to win a goodie basket with some books and writer self-care stuff that will help keep you going into this crazy month.

Good skill, Writer.

Writing to Frighten: The Art of Suspense and Tension

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Good morning, writer. As we approach Samhain and the dark, twisty corners of the season I thought it would be a great time to bring up suspense in your writing. I’m not a horror writer and I’m not going to pretend to be just to fit in to the theme of the month but I do believe that being able to create suspense in any genre is key to keeping your readers engaged and turning the pages.

Suspense can help build emotion in your reader up to your critical moments of change (the top of your acts–the big doors–crisis of faith moments—etc.) And that helps them become more invested in your character and the outcome of the scene. Because it’s been awhile, I’m going to give you a good-ol’ bullet list. Everybody likes a bullet list. Here are some top tips to factor in while working the element of suspense into your novel/Work-In-Progress. Keep in mind, these are general so they can be applied to most genres, but within each tip, there are a hundred different directions you can go–from the benign to the macabre.

  • Tap Into Universal Fears: We all have some pretty basic fears that drive us. They are usually based in survival. Fear of death, loss of child/loved one, fear of physical pain, starvation, exposure–anything that can take away the basic needs for survival. Fear of the unknown–can mean anything from not knowing what’s making that bumping noise in the closet, to not have existential knowledge of where you’ll end up after death. Fear of emotional pain, fear of social stigma. We’re scared little apes, so there’s an endless well to tap into here.
  • Create the Right Atmosphere: Depending on your genre and the style you like to write in, you could use your scenes to strike psychological terror (inner thoughts, rampant and illogical emotions, mind-games, gaslighting, etc) physical/gross terror (think limbs stripped of their muscle fibers, blood spurting, eyeballs popped out, or any other gory, pain-inducing action), or subtle/unseen terror (the ever present feeling of dread–small sounds getting closer, lights flickering down long hallways, those two notes on the piano when Jaws was nearby)
  • Make The Stakes High: It’s not going to ruffle your readers feathers if your character meets the friendly neighborhood cat at night if they love cats and brought yum-yums to share. Make it ten mange-riddled cats with broken, sharp teeth, stalking down a feline-hater, from all directions on a deserted city street and then you have a show. Losing a job sucks–but make it the job with the benefits that her sick daughter needs the insurance for, and its a different game (let us pause for a moment when discussing terror and how the American medical system has actually become something that induces terror…think about that for a moment)
  • Consider Your Point of View: There isn’t a wrong POV for horror, it just depends on how you want the reader to feel. Are you aiming to put them in a shed with the axe murderer outside, holding their dying cell phone? (FIRST PERSON)Or are you sitting beside them in the shed with eyes on how close the bloodied axe is to the door, yelling out in the middle of the library “Make the call, you idiot!!! He’s coming for you!!” (THIRD PERSON)
  • Don’t Forget the Character: Listen, it all comes down to the basics, if the reader isn’t invested in your character, they aren’t going to feel the empathy needed to induce terror no matter what horrifying situation you put them into. Make your character someone worth following into the dark and twisted. If your character is the dark and twisted, give it/them the solid justification that makes the reader question who the bad guy really is.

OK! Well, that’s all you get today. Good luck out there creating some suspense. Use it as you need to in your own work and if you feel the Hallow’s Eve vibe, try your hand at a little horror. I always encourage dabbling outside your genre to help make your work stronger.

Happy Writing!

Westbury Falls: Episode #3

Good morning! Here’s the next installment for your reading pleasure. If you feel a little lost, please see the links to the first two episodes here: https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/2021/08/26/a-little-excerpt-westbury-falls/ and here: https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/?s=westbury+falls

Enjoy a little head-hop into the good doctor’s thoughts on his difficult patient, and have a brilliant day!

Photo by Connor Danylenko on Pexels.com

Matthew paced in thoughtful contemplation in front of the parlor windows, pausing to gently touch the top of the piano forte. His cousin had spoken of her beauty. Matthew snorted and turned to pace the opposite way. Beautiful was not nearly a sufficient nor apt description. Lillian Byrne was a statuesque angel, though muddled in her manners and strange in her speech. He could hardly blame her after the fall she’d taken. Her mind was still trying to sort itself out after the contusion.

His cousin, his bumbling dolt of a cousin…far too old to rightly marry such an innocent young lady, had not warned him well enough. He stopped again at the instrument. Frederick Blackwell Sutton had said Lillian was also an accomplished pianist, that her long and delicate fingers were like graceful swallows, deft and quick. They had indeed been long and entrancing, holding so strongly to his shoulder and chest. Stronger than he’d thought a woman could be.

Then again, Lillian Byrne was a lot of things he didn’t think a woman could be. Definitely a few things she shouldn’t be. He thought of her direct and improper English, the way she’d come in and out of consciousness all morning, the strange things she’d called for, asked for. What was Advil? Morphine? Could that be the opium derivative he’d heard whispered about in the medical wings of Oxford?

He knew that the effects could be quite addictive and that he had a dear second cousin nearly ruined by its affects. Where he could have asked his father for a dosing to assuage her pain, he thought better of it. She was well enough to argue and to stand, what she needed most was time. He’d seen patients come out of such contusions and not be affected too greatly. Perhaps that was what was responsible for her impropriety? As she healed, he hoped that she would remember her station, her manners, and that she was indeed, his cousin’s fiancé. For if she were a single young lady… the line of suitors, himself included, would be a bane to endure.

He flushed beneath his high collar and stopped to adjust it, wishing he was on call in the country as he had been all week, in the east of England and southern Wales, interning with the poor, much against his father’s wishes. There he could loosen the buttons of his collar. There he could be more himself, practice medicine and have the community respect and revere him instead of always living in the cold shadow of his father’s profound reputation.

There, in the rural hamlets, where he stayed in sublimely unfettered accommodations and even at times, cozy and warm barns, his smile was easy and he breathed freer out from under the tight thumb of his father and the expectations of his station. He’d been set upon by several of the young farm girls and had enjoyed their attentions but would never consider besmirching their innocence, nor would he ruin his own reputation with ill behavior towards the fairer sex. Some of them clearly made it much harder to accomplish such feat of will. He touched his lips without thinking of anything but the gentle pads of Lillian’s cool fingers on his skin. A sparrow dived outside in the garden and broke the spell.

When he’d been riding past the Byrne estate, a parcel of land just down the road from his cousin’s and on his way home from nearly a year away, he’d seen a flurry of activity at the gate and the housemaid calling in severe tones to the old butler, nearly shambling off his horse as he was in such a hurried frenzy to seek help.

Was it serendipitous to cross paths with Miss Byrne in her time of medical need? Or was it just a test of his will power, he thought with a sigh as he replayed every aching moment of carrying her to the bed, inspecting and cleaning the deep gash as well as the bruising along her ivory perfect skin. He had kept the maids within the room as each part in turn was inspected, and kept his cool aloofness even as his heart hammered at the sight of her slender ankles, long legs bruised but not broken, and scraped and scuffed arms and shoulders. The maids had shooed him out as they inspected her more…delicate areas and declared that, besides a few bruised ribs, everything was ‘as it should be’.

He’d been entirely over careful as he’d draped her to inspect the ribs which had been struck rather hard. He remembered the slightness of them as he ran his thumbs over each in turn with great care. She’d moaned and shifted away and he declared two of the ribs indeed broken. Together he and the staff carefully wrapped her tightly in order to immobilize the area. The bleeding on her forehead, from a cut that stretched into the hairline of her raven tresses, was staunched as he carefully washed and stitched the delicate skin together.

She had affected him without words and in ways he wasn’t prepared to deal with, and that was before she’d even opened those lovely violet eyes. He’d never seen such a shade of soft and heather blue. Never seen such a wide and full mouth on a woman. Never a delicate and pert nose. The small beauty spot below the corner of her right eye, long and thick black lashes that fluttered down over her cheeks as she fell in and out of fevered sleep. First, he had placed his fingers alongside her beautifully long and graceful neck to find the flutter of pulse until the maid had cleared her throat from the improper touch. In the country, he could use the most efficient and accurate means necessary and was not questioned. Perhaps it was the way he’d inadvertently graced his fingers over her statuesque collarbones or the pleased gasp she’d let out at his touch.

To the Almighty above, he was nothing more than a cad! He surely would burn in eternal damnation for the thoughts and desires that had plagued him since first laying hands and eyes on Lillian Byrne. He leaned against the windowsill and stared out at the modest grounds. He must do his best to remember that his cousin’s fiancé was not a woman. She was a patient.

And an angel fallen from the heavens. Or at least from the second-floor landing.

The sooner he could visit his father, acquire his blessing to move to the Southern peninsula of Wales to begin his own practice, the better for him. Perhaps he would find a quiet and humble wife whose eyes weren’t the dusky hue of starry nights, one that knew her place and appreciated the strength of a man to compliment her softness. Matthew’s brow gathered in a scowl. Such a woman may have suited him an afternoon ago. Now… he thought and stared up to the ceiling where she lay resting three floors above, now he wasn’t sure any woman would affect him the same way again.