I mentioned that tomato juice is the official state drink of Ohio. While having a character mention that fact might bring a smile or a raised brow, a writer could milk that tidbit for a whole story—such as a Buckeye living in a famous tomato growing county in Virginia alienating everyone at the annual tomato festival by bad-mouthing the local product, and someone ends up dead.
If your genre includes historical fiction. . .
Then this is the book for you. It includes an alphabetical listing of firsts, covering everything from the first abdominal operation and the first importation of Aberdeen-Angus cattle to the first zoological laboratory to the first zoom lens—thousands of story ideas just waiting to be exploited. For example, the first coeducational medical school in the world was the Boston University School of Medicine, founded in 1873. Imagine that first co-ed class—and the classes they would have had, such as anatomy in the days of grave robbers.
If you are obsessed with money. . .
Then delve into Charles Reichblum’s collection.
Suppose your character is in a bar and another drinker says, “Okay, mate, here’s the deal. I’ve won the lottery, and I want to share the wealth. I’ll give you $1000 a day for a month, or one penny doubled each day for a month.” What would the character choose? Why? And then what happens?
If your genre is magical realism. . .
There’s no better place to look than science.
Genetic mosaics are not so rare, formed by fusing two gametes in utero or a placenta shared between fraternal twins or by the mother’s cells crossing the placental barrier and continuing in her child. Imagine that a woman had children with all of her genetics, so the cell lines were thoroughly mixed.
But it isn’t necessary to turn to hard-core science texts. Bits of science turn up everywhere.
Each newly conceived human has approximately 300 harmful genetic mutations. The life expectancy of professional cyclists is approximately 50. The closest living relative of tyrannosaurus rex is the chicken. And people are genetically one-third daffodil. Create a plot relating any two of these facts and voila, you’re launched.
Whatever your genre, books of little-known information are great sources of ideas.
All sorts of genre’s could generate stories based on which big cats can interbreed, in the wild and in captivity. (Lions with tigers and leopards. Leopards with lions, tigers, jaguars, and pumas. Jaguars with pumas. Servals with caracals.) It could revolve around an animal rights conflict, a new breed going out of control, zoo politics, or love in the workplace—or whatever your brain produces.
This volume includes topics from consumer products to sports. You can read about a boat race in which two-member crews inside bottomless boats grip the gunwales and run a foot race along a dry river bed—which certainly be fodder for humor. And if you want to tie in to current events, base a character on Victoria Woodhull, who endorsed short skirts, an end to capital punishment, legalized prostitution, birth control, free love, and vegetarianism. On April 2, 1870, she became a candidate for president, running on the National Radical Reformers ticket.
Readers like to learn something new, especially when it pertains to the plot.
Takeaway for writers
Whether you start with an idea and look for off-beat information to support it or welcome inspiration for novel ideas, off-beat information is the way to go.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve been on a death kicklately. And given that this is tax season, it seemed a natural segue. As I—and many others—have often said, everything is fodder for writers.
Of course there is the obvious: the frustration of the forms, last minute scramble, missing documents, taxes due and no money to pay them, filing for extensions, and so forth. Being obvious doesn’t preclude rich story possibilities.
Then there are variations of the theme: your character finally wedged a CPA appointment into a jammed schedule only to discover that said CPA has moved, s/he can’t find the office, misses the appointment, etc.
But dig deeper. Virtually every item on the topic index is rife with writing possibilities. These may or may not be directly related to the taxes due, but dealing with them at tax time could well trigger the strong emotions that fuel great stories. Here is a select list:
alimony paid or received (or not)—and associated hostility
business use of home—and the strain it puts on family
casualty or theft loss—and the aftermath of being a victim of crime
child and dependent care expenses—meeting them, but also finding such services in the first place
contributions—a willing tithe to church, or possibly being pressured to support your alma mater
education expenses—and doubts about whether the degree is worth it
foreign assets, expenses, taxes, and income—and what to do about off-shore accounts and tax shelters
gambling winnings (or losses)—and whether to join Gamblers Anonymous
gifts—and why they were given
medical and dental expenses—and the trauma of diagnosis, surgery, recovery (or not)
miscellaneous income and adjustments (They really expect people to report illegal income??)
mortgage or education loan interest paid—and the continuing burden from years ago
moving expenses—whether the move was up or down, willing or forced
sale of home, stock, or other capital assets—and why the sale? Was the market down at the time or up?
unemployment compensation—whether it was enough, whether it ended too soon, whether filing for it was humiliating
TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS
As you do your taxes this year, consider the good and the bad—and then think how you could make it even better or worse in fiction!
Or if not fun, at least rich material for writers.
My most recent blog, Embracing Death, touched on this topic tangentially, but really, given all they can do for a story, funerals need their own focus. So, how can writers use funerals?
Burial rituals reflect culture, socio-economic class, and time period—without having to specify such things in the narrative.
Within those broad parameters, many decisions need to be made. What if the relevant relatives disagree on things? Music, prayers, cost of the casket, who speaks at the service, what happens at the graveside. . . What if there is no grave? (The same could apply to memorial services.) Where will the body be buried or the ashes scattered? And so we have the possibilities of coalitions forming. Maybe these reflect already existing ties or loyalties.
What if the deceased person’s wishes to donate organs—or the whole body to a medical school—horrify the survivors? Who will have the final word? Will s/he just announce, or work for cooperation and consensus? And will that succeed?
Often a funeral will bring together people who haven’t seen and/or talked to each other in years. This makes possible happy reunions, but also the resurgence of past rivalries, jealousies, and grievances.
Heirs may start squabbling over their inheritances before the funeral even happens! And it doesn’t have to be millions at stake. In my novel Nettie’s Books (forthcoming), the hostilities erupt over quilts, stoneware pitchers, and a cake plate!
I often find the fun in funerals. My story “The Red Glove” features a drive-through funeral home in Maine. “Wanted” also features a father lying in state at Herschel Southern Drive-Thru Mortuary, resting peacefully behind plate glass.
What about you? If you’re a writer, have you looked on the light side of funerals, or do you write about their inherent tensions?
TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS
As with other aspects of good writing, the stakes need to be high. What’s to be won or lost? And after you write the scene, ramp it up, push it to the extreme.
What is at stake for your character(s)? If nothing important is at risk, why should the reader care what happens? Why read on?
Virtually everything has a dark side. Finding it is well worth a writer’s time. One of the maxims for writing tension and conflict is to make a situation bad and then make it worse.If you can do this in an unexpected way, so much the better.
For example, a single strand of hair can tell scientists not only a person’s gender and ethnicity but also where s/he lives, what’s been eaten, and whether the person has been taking drugs or ingesting arsenic. Hair grows up to .02 inches (.5 mm) every day, so the record can extend over several months and tell not only what but when!
For another example, consider deadly diamonds. Commercial services are available to extract carbon from cremated human remains and turn it into a diamond using intense pressure and high heat. Up to 100 diamonds can be made from a single dead body. Consider the possibilities! Is it love? Or is it a way of flaunting the fact that she got away with murder? What if the dead body was the murderer and someone decides to present a diamond to the family of each of the victims?
If you think about it, you could find a dark side to the Air Guitar World Championships (September in Oulu, Finland) or the Woolly Worm Festival (October in Banner Elk, North Carolina).
What? You say your character is already starving? So, have him stumble into a potato field and eat green potatoes, sprouts, stems and leaves—which contain poisons that can be lethal. (Potatoes, like tomatoes, are members of the deadly nightshade family.) Bottom line: find the darkest side and make it even darker.
If you have evidence—or opinions to the contrary, I want to hear from you!
Yes, there are offbeat animal detectives. In Three Bags Full: a sheep detective story by Leonie Swann, the shepherd is murdered and the sheep, led by the ewe Miss Marple, set out to discover the murderer. In Anonymous Rex, by Eric Garcia, dinosaurs continue to live among us, disguised in latex masks and tail girdles. Otherwise, Rubio is the classic hard-boiled detective. Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks features a pig detective. Bernd Heinrich writes ravens, by far the smartest of birds. And Elmore Leonard, in his first children’s novel, created Antwan, a hip-talking coyote living in the Hollywood Hills, for A Coyote’s in the House.
Dogs are poorly represented in the mystery genre. In Hank the Cowdog, Hank is the inept “Head of Security” for a ranch, and setting out to find who’s stealing the corn, he sets clever traps that consistently trap him. Play Dead by Leslie O’Kane features a dog behaviorist/therapist and an “ugly collie” rescue dog.
Cats, on the other hand, are everywhere. There are whole series featuring cats. Think the Mrs. Murphy series by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown, or The Cat Who… series by Lilian Jackson Braun. Perhaps less well known is the Joe Grey Cat Mystery series by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, in which Joe is a cat from the Catswold that can speak and understand English, among other talents. And then there is the series in which the point of view shifts between a big black cat named Midnight Louie and his person, Temple Barr.
Why cats? Well, for one thing, they are notoriously independent and sneaky. They were domesticated tens of thousands of years after dogs—or maybe not yet, even. Cats are confounding creatures, for centuries associated with death cults, witches, Satan, black magic, and so forth. So creating fictional cats with paranormal abilities—talking, shape shifting, psychic reasoning or implausible acts of physical derring-do, invisibility, tele-transportation—is much less jarring than similar traits in a dog—or sheep, goat, pig. A monkey, now . . .
The basis of conflict and tension are obvious when two (or more) characters are competing for the same goal, such as a promotion, or when a character is beset by physical danger such as a life-threatening cancer or an approaching hurricane. A threat of any sort to the character or to someone (or something) the character cares about is an excellent source of conflict and tension. But using internal conflicts can add just as much power to your plot.
You can’t have your cake and eat it, too = approach-approach conflict
The character has multiple appealing options but can take only one—e.g., two marriage proposals, only one dessert from a tray of twelve, only one new car, etc. This type of conflict creates the least tension because there is no real downside. It’s all good.
Between a rock and a hard place = between the devil and the deep blue sea = an avoidance-avoidance conflict
Will the character get back surgery or live with the pain? Wash the car or rake leaves? Stay in an unhappy marriage or get a divorce? The reader may feel more sympathy than tension. The level of tension depends partly on the pain the character suffers while weighing the alternatives, and partly on how bad the options are. For example, Sophie’s Choice: to save herself and one child at the price of choosing to send one child to the gas chamber, or refuse to choose and sentence all three of them to death.
Take the bitter with the sweet = an approach-avoidance conflict: one goal with both positive and negative aspects, ultimately resolved in favor of the stronger
Virtually all relationships as well as many other aspects of life fall into this category. One factor affecting the amount of conflict or tension is how nearly the positive and negative aspects are matched (the closer they are in strength, the greater the tension). If an otherwise perfect spouse has one annoying habit, probably no big deal, the marriage is solid; if a buyer is drawn to a white picket fence but the house is practically falling down and overpriced, no-sale is a pretty safe bet. But if a deeply flawed spouse has nearly as many annoying habits as good ones—if the house is in a perfect location with a great school district and enough yard for the seven dogs—it could be a game changer. Comparable positives and negatives will create lots of tension.
A second factor is how important the ultimate outcome is. If I want a Ph.D. to qualify for a college professorship but don’t want to spend the time, effort, and money to go for it—not to mention the risk of failure—big decision, lots of tension potential. If I want a bag of chips from the vending machine but think $2 is an outrageous price—not much tension.
The positive (which pulls the character to approach) and the negative (which pushes the character to avoid) are what psychologists call “valences.” Both diminish with distance—time, physical distance, space. Something far away will affect the character’s immediate behavior and feelings less than something that is imminent.
Love and approach-avoidance conflicts
Love is always a high-voltage relationship, so let’s consider the special instances of approach-avoidance conflicts reflected in absence makes the heart grow fonder; out of sight, out of mind; and can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.
Absence makes the heart go fonder when, with distance, the negative qualities or aspects of the date/lover/spouse exert less influence and the push-away diminishes; the person doesn’t seem so bad. If you aren’t actually hearing the obnoxious laugh, smelling the bad breath, or arguing about politics, the heart grows fonder—though maybe not fond enough to renew the relationship.
Out of sight, out of mind is the opposite: positive value diminishes with distance until the original attraction may have no more pull at all. The sweet kisses don’t mean so much when you aren’t getting any! Ditto sense of humor, help with chores, being a good listener. This is often the source of the “Dear John” letters received by people in the military, in prison, in college far away, etc.
In terms of conflict and tension, can’t live with ’em and can’t live without ’em is the best. One brief detour into psychology: negative valence declines more sharply than positive valence. Soooo, when both valences are significant, the case sometimes evolves in which the sharp decline in the negative crosses the slower decline in the positive valence.
The point where the valences cross is the point of vacillation: closer, and the relationship is so negative that one or both parties withdraw. With greater distance, the positive stays strong longer than the negative and the couple gets back together. These yo-yo relationships can go on for years. This could happen with any type of relationship—playmates to spouses. Whole books have been written by and about couples who marry, divorce, and remarry.
Takeaway for writers
Good writers need to be good psychologists whether or not they ever studied the discipline or use the lingo, just be sure the positives and the negatives are believable for the character and appropriate to the conflict.
Characters in conflict within themselves can provide plenty of page-turner tension!
In my blog about writers on writing, I gave you Elmore Leonard’s first rule: Never start a book with the weather. His expansion on this said that unless you are writing about a character’s reaction to the weaker, keep any weather mentions minimal.
Advice to writers: any time you write about weather, ask yourself why. What is it contributing to the plot, tension, conflict, threat?
Combining this with insights touted at the recent James River Writers Conference, I offer this additional advice: whenever and whyever you write about weather, make it as extreme as is reasonable for the scene. Sometimes this can be done with word choice. For example, a cold wind vs. an icy wind, wet roads vs. roads awash. You get the idea.
Consider truly extreme weather. I have two favorite books about this. (Of course I do!) Both are by Barbara Tuffy and include info on natural disasters other than weather.
Of course, you can also research extreme weather online. Advice: if you are writing about something you haven’t actually experienced—say a hurricane or a flash flood—searching online for videos of actual events is extremely helpful (pun intended).
Last but not least: consider weird weather. I just ordered a book by Joanne O’Sullivan titled Bizarre Weather. It purports to present true stories of such freakish events as showers of worms, watermelon snow, gory storms. Should be fun, could be inspirational!
. . .than the devil you don’t. Perhaps you’ve heard this bit of folk wisdom. It reflects the common understanding that people abhor uncertainty. Predictability is a desired state, even if what is being predicted is negative—to the point of being disastrous, dangerous to the point of being life-threatening. Think prisoners/captives: one powerful way to break down their resistance, to garner compliance, is to increase their uncertainty. This can be done handily by having no natural daylight, and artificial light that cycles on randomly, along with an unpredictable eating schedule, unannounced questioning sessions that sometimes include physical abuse and sometimes don’t—anything that is disorienting. Whole books have been written on uncertainty and its management. (For example, see Psychology of Uncertainty by JD Smith, WE Shields, DP Britzman, D Brothers, and K Gordon; or The Social Psychology of Uncertainty management and System Justification by K VandenBos.)
The takeaway for writers is that to increase tension, increase uncertainty, decrease predictability.
Given the examples above, the application to action/adventure plots is obvious, but this writing rule applies across genres. Will he/won’t he call? Does she love me or not? Will this disease kill my child? Will my boss understand if I miss another staff meeting? Will I miss my plane? Does the murder suspect that I know he did it? If your story unfolds in a predictable pattern, your reader will lose interest. Why bother to read what you know is going to happen? Perhaps truly fabulous prose will keep some readers going, but why depend only on that?