Tag Archive | romance genre

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 2: Characters

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Creating characters can be such fun! I start with a rough idea of who they are and why they are in the story’s setting at the particular moment when the story starts, but the details can be filled in later, or tweaked as things change. First I need to find out what sort of person each one is – outside of the story – and what makes them tick, what pushes their buttons and what keeps them awake at night.

By the time I have decided on the location, I usually have some idea of what the story is going to be about. Often I will add other locations which enable me to introduce new story sparks and plot twists. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that every character needs something, even if it’s only a glass of water. This doesn’t mean that characters have to be needy, but somewhere inside themselves there has to be a desire.

Important digression here: there is a subtle difference between what a character wants and what he or she actually needs. The characters may think they know what they need, but they are usually mistaken.

I like to put plenty of obstacles in the way of my characters, but often I give them what they want by the three-quarter mark, just so that they can be dissatisfied enough to realise that this is not really what they needed. Their outlook changes during the course of the novel, and very often they go into the third act of the drama with a new goal – usually one with a higher or deeper purpose. Having spent the first two acts evolving their goals and motivations, they are now genuinely in search of what their hearts need, instead of some shallow goal they once believed to be important. I like to mentally whisper to my characters: “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it…”

Sometimes an incident in childhood can have a serious bearing on how they behave in a given situation, and perhaps they will be forced to confront that fear and overcome it during the course of the action.

Because I write primarily in the genre of romance, I usually start with a female protagonist. Preferably one who is out of her depth or away from her usual comfort zone.

I enjoy fish-out-of-water stories where the main character finds herself in a situation she is not familiar with. Either she is on holiday, or working temporarily overseas, or has moved to a new environment and is still trying to find her feet there.

Equally important to the story is a male who first opposes, then sides with, the female protagonist. This man is usually a native of the country or city in which the heroine finds herself. He knows the environment better than she does, so she’s forced to rely on him for certain things. Sometimes he doesn’t particularly want to be with her (leastways not at first) but he needs to stick to her, either because she knows something he doesn’t, or because she has access to something he wants.

In The Epidaurus Inheritance Cassie’s desire is to find out the history of an ancient, ornate knife she has inherited from her Greek father. Travelling to the theatre festival at Epidaurus as the designer for a play gives her the opportunity to research that knife, because she has copied its design for one of her stage props.

Unfortunately she gets more than she bargained for when she meets Zander, an investigator of stolen antiquities, who recognises something in her design and begins to badger her, follow her, help her and generally push his way into her life because he too desires something. He wants to know how she managed to design a theatre prop that resembles a drawing he has in his files – the only known drawing of a stolen antique knife that disappeared long before cameras were invented.

Because of my Greek theme, I wanted to introduce other aspects of Greece and Greek life, such as earthquakes. When I was in high school I had a pen friend in Thessaloniki. We had been writing to each other for two or more years when I heard about an earthquake in her city. After the earthquake, my next letter to her was returned to me, address unknown. I never heard from my friend again, and I’ve never been able to find out what happened to her, so the novel is dedicated to her.

I decided to put my character Zander into that 1978 earthquake as a child. I put him and his older brother into one of the apartment blocks which collapsed, and I gave his brother the rather horrid job of sacrificing himself to save his little brother Zander. Of course, this scarred Zander for life – not only physically, but mentally as well. In addition to living with the guilt of his father’s disappointment that “the wrong son” died, Zander also hates earthquakes, and can’t bear being underground or in any kind of confined area.

Consequently he lives in an airy, light-filled apartment on the top floor of a building which has numerous exit routes. But at a certain point in the novel Zander has to face one of his greatest fears – being trapped underground.

The character of Cassie began as a beautiful, slim, dark-haired beauty – also of Greek parentage – but she was too beautiful, too perfect. So I recast her as a buxom, large-boned gal of generous proportions whose only beauty (so her relatives have told her all her life) is her long, dark hair. She doesn’t think she is at all attractive, but Zander falls in love with this statuesque, strong-willed woman who resembles one of the stone Caryatid statues on the Acropolis – the columns carved as women, bearing the weight of the south portico of the Erechtheion. Cassie likewise bears the weight of the legacy of the knife her ancestors left her.

I’m careful about choosing names. One of the best investments I made as a writer was to buy The Oxford Dictionary of First Names. I like to choose a name that sounds right for the character, but it helps to be able to look up the origin of that name and see if it’s a good match historically as well. Cassie is short for Cassandra, who was a Trojan princess whose gift of prophecy was cursed by the fact that no one would believe her.

Zander is short for Alexander, who in this case is modelled not on Alexander the Great, but on the Trojan prince Alexander, who was better known as Paris – the one who fell in love with the wrong woman, Helen, kidnapped her and started the Trojan War. Just to annoy Cassie, I gave Zander an ex-girlfriend called Eleni (which is a Greek version of Helen), and I made her beautiful, of course…

In all my novels, I put my characters through the Myers-Briggs personality tests. I imagine each of them answering the questionnaire that will reveal which personality type they are. I like to match the couples with their ideal opposites so that some sparks will fly during the course of the novel, but ultimately they are assured of a Happily Ever After once they have sailed off into the sunset and the final page has been turned.

Free Novel for 5 Days on Amazon

My romantic mystery novel Benicio’s Bequest is currently free on Amazon for five days. So if you haven’t read it before, now’s your chance. And if you don’t have a Kindle on which to read it, you can download the free Kindle app on the same page at Amazon.

I do understand that if you’re not into romantic mysteries you’ll probably want to give it a miss. However, it is free so it won’t cost you anything other than time, so why not find out whether you might enjoy a romance with a bit of historical mystery thrown in? It’s free until midnight on Friday 18th March. Midnight on Pacific time, that is, so readers in the UK, South Africa, Australia and various other parts of the world have until sometime on Saturday to download it before it goes back to its original price of $2.99.

I don’t write to a specific formula and my style is not that of most books which fall into the popular genre of romance. Obviously I like to give romance readers the ending they expect (hint – I love happy endings), but I also like to give readers of mysteries and lovers of history a little bit of what they enjoy too. Those of us who write mixed genres will tell you that our books are formally categorised into the genre which ticks the most boxes, but there is always room in those pages for a little extra entertainment.

I don’t write erotica, so you won’t find Fifty Shades of Anything Like That between the covers of my books, but if you enjoy good old fashioned romance in the style made famous by Mary Stewart, then you’ll enjoy my feisty heroines and the puzzled chaps they take up with while trying to solve a mystery that involves something historical, in an exotic place.

My heroines always find themselves in what’s known as a fish-out-of-water situation, usually while on holiday overseas or in a new place they have moved to but haven’t yet settled down in. In that place there is a man who might be willing to help, or who needs help himself, and their paths cross.

There is always something historical involved – an artefact, a painting, a box of letters – and the two characters are thrown together and forced to tolerate each other while they navigate unfamiliar waters on their mutual quest.

Inevitably, this leads to conflict, doubt, betrayal, and just a little bit of chemical sparkery along the way. They fall into an adventure with enough danger for them to realise they don’t want to die, or to live without each other, but they have to solve the mystery and vanquish the Bad Guy before they can find their happy ending. There is a climactic confrontation with said Bad Guy, after which our hero and heroine emerge changed, older and much more in love than when they first started.

Benicio’s Bequest is set in Italy and follows the adventures of holidaying art teacher Lisa, who witnesses the murder of a man who has been trying to chat her up in the courtyard of Juliet’s house in Verona. Minutes before he is gunned down, he slips a notebook addressed to his brother into her handbag. Lisa delivers the notebook to the brother, Matteo, a wood artist who lives in Venice. Thus begins an adventure in which Lisa and Matteo have to uncover the art forgery scam that killed Matteo’s painter brother, Benicio.

As I always say – if you enjoy it, please write a review on Amazon or Goodreads (or both!) and if you don’t enjoy it, rather send me a private email via my Contact Me page, telling me why you didn’t like it. I am always open to constructive criticism, and will take valid points on board, in order to improve the next novel.

You can download Benicio’s Bequest here from Amazon.com, or here from the Amazon store nearest to you. Happy reading…!

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Just a Dash of Serious…

One of the reviews I received on Amazon for my first novel The Epidaurus Inheritance ended with the line: “This might be to the taste of those who like their adventures more Hallmark channel than cable, which is perfectly fine, but this just didn’t ring true to me.” At first I was hurt by this, until I realised that the reviewer had a good point. I had obviously categorised my book in the wrong genre.

My novels are not serious. I write ditzy heroines who step in a bit too deep and have to sink or swim. There is always a macho flawed hero who reluctantly helps out the heroine against his better judgement, or against hers. And yes, as I have said on my website: I do like happy endings. I enjoy writing something that is far-fetched but I’m not the next Dan Brown. I don’t like violence – neither in real life nor on my screen (be it Kindle or TV), so I suppose I am a Hallmark kind of a gal.

I have a close friend who, after reading that first novel of mine, introduced me to the works of Mary Stewart. I was delighted to find a writer who not only wrote the kind of stuff that I love to read, but the kind of stuff that I love to write as well. Bearing in mind the negative review I had received on Amazon I went back to my book’s product page and re-worded my blurb so as to leave a prospective reader in no doubt that my book is “a light holiday read with a mixture of adventure, mystery and romance, written in the genre pioneered by Mary Stewart – Romantic Suspense.”

A year or so later, the same friend who had introduced me to the Mary Stewart books (let’s call her L) lent me an Amelia Peabody book, written by the wonderful Elizabeth Peters. I have since worked my way through almost the entire series – some of them twice. I just love that family of Edwardian Egyptologists! They get into scrapes between the pyramids, discovering both ancient mummies and fresh corpses, all against the backdrop of the First World War and the days before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb.

My own novels always feature a South African woman travelling in exotic places, and stumbling across some crime or mystery to solve; a sort of fish-out-of-water story in which she has to rely on her South African wits to stay ahead of the Bad Guy. The latest of these is slightly different in that this protagonist has already settled in Australia but discovers some unfinished family history and has to return to South Africa to solve it, bringing with her an Australian who is now the fish out of water. I have been getting good feedback from beta readers on this WIP, but one of those came as a bit of a shock.

My friend L didn’t finish reading it because the South African situation depressed her too much. I was disappointed at first, and then I realised that I was actually disappointed in me, not in her. At first she avoided telling me until finally we thrashed it out last week. (Okay, maybe I bullied her just a little bit. Sorry, L!) The main reason for L’s dislike of my novel was a lot more useful to me than the nice things she had said about my characters.

I have realised three things from this:

One: I am a bad friend and shouldn’t bully people. I had strayed from the straight and narrow path!

Two: I had strayed from my writing path too. I don’t like serious writing. I never have, never will, and I should probably not have tried to bring more depth to my novel than the bare essential backstory I usually include. L, besides getting me onto reading both Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters, is herself a writer of fantasy and sci-fi which is the ultimate in escapist reading. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying that L’s stuff is light and fluffy. Far from it. It’s a lot more complicated than anything I write.

Personally I don’t read sci-fi because I struggle to understand the technological bits, and my version of fantasy seems to be a genre or two removed from the accepted definition of that word. The Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters books that I have read so far are neither fantasy nor sci-fi, but both writers have penned far-fetched adventures; escapist stuff which is definitely my cup of tea.

Heavy South African literature is not. There are plenty of excellent South African writers who are brilliant at that type of stuff, but I am clearly not in their bracket and nor do I want to be.

Three: I should just stick to what I’m good at: light-hearted, frivolous romantic stuff with a bit of a mystery to solve and some interesting places to explore along the way. I need to return to my MS with a keen critical eye and examine just how heavy and depressing the text is. It’s good to have a bit of gravitas, but how much is too much? So far, my readers seem to enjoy the light-hearted adventures of The Epidaurus Inheritance and Benicio’s Bequest and so do I. That’s why they read them and that’s why I write them. However, the light-hearted stuff often needs to contrast against a darker background. So that’s what I’m going to be looking at in my eighth draft. I don’t want to lose the South African flavour, but perhaps it needs to be added with a lighter touch. After all, to my overseas readers, South Africa is a foreign, exotic place.

Like many South Africans, I find myself bogged down in our day-to-day struggle against crime, corruption, unemployment and poverty. My friend L isn’t the only one who wants her reading to take her away from it. All my life I have enjoyed reading books that take me elsewhere.

I guess the word “elsewhere” is the key. I don’t want to go to other planets or battle scientific things I don’t understand. Neither do I want to meet supernatural, paranormal beings whose worlds I don’t believe in, but I do want to go somewhere slightly exotic on this planet and have adventures that I wouldn’t normally have in my own life, but which could be believable if the world was a kinder, more romantic place.

I’m not averse to killing off a character or two along the way of course, but most of the time they have been written in purely for that purpose and the odd shocking death moves the story along, cranks up the tension and helps to increase the reader’s belief in the serious evil of the Bad Guy.

What I’m saying is that I like far-fetched stuff, with just a dash of serious. The question is: how much is a dash?

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