You have a powerful story that needs to be told. Tell it so it captivates your readers.
My first book, Dispossessed, addresses the issue of domestic violence. In addition to scenes that are figments of my imagination, I have fictionalized experiences others have shared with me over the years. Because we live in an abusive world that openly mistreats women and children, as well as seniors, I believe these victims deserve a voice, but how does one go about doing that without compromising the anonymity of anyone who may inspire a scene or story?
Following is the road I journeyed in writing Dispossessed.
If your story is based on others’ experiences,
you need to protect your sources.
Consider how it may impact others.
Avoid legal ramifications by disguising the story. Violating the rights of others can send a writer to court if a “role model” for a character feels exposed or otherwise compromised. No matter how a true story is presented, always protect the innocent with anonymity. If you are writing fiction, follow the suggestions below. If you’re writing a biography or exposé, it’s always a good idea to check with an attorney prior to publication to avoid the possibility of ending up in court.
Change enough details (appearance, location, age, race, ethnic background, etc.) so even those who know the victim (or the perpetrator) cannot identify that person. But tell your story. Why?
Many people are imprisoned by the chains of current or past abuse. Perhaps your book, your short story, your poetry will give them the knowledge, the courage, the hope that they can escape their present situations or break free from the fetters of the past that hold them hostage.
Use powerful voice and compelling scenes.
Your story needs to create mind pictures for your readers. One way to produce mental movies is with vivid language. Use verbs that lift the story off the page.
Another tool is voice. A writer’s voice includes style, content, and word choice, among other qualities. Just like singer exhibit unique sounds, personalized phrasing, song choices, and so forth, writers have ways of expressing themselves that identify their works for many readers, even if their name is absent. Voice, however, doesn’t stop with the author. Every main character and many minor characters in a story also have distinct voices. Dialogue is a great place to individualize characters. Habits are another.
Personal traits create more distinctions. For example, does a character always drink a glass of warm milk at bedtime? How is this relevant to the story? Here are other samples.
- Does he swear under his breath?
- Is she vocal about her favorite foods or the people she hates?
- What attributes does each character reveal that contribute to the progression of the story?
- Which characters are weak? Or strong?
- Who are the power players?
Every scene, every character plays a part in moving the story forward. Stay focused. Disconnected detours and digressions can dilute powerful scenes, cause the reader to lose interest, and may even obscure the point of the story.
What is the point of your story?
Where is your story going? Do you want to help readers identify specific behaviors, such as abuse or narcissism or infidelity? Do you want to give them hope? A hand up? Show them a way out? Is your purpose to simply entertain, or do you want to write a story that may touch your readers’ lives? Knowing the intent of your story creates a path to accomplishing your purpose. That intent, or story map, provides the playing field for your characters, who run with it.
Do you listen to your characters? Why do that? They may show you a different route—their route—to a destination you did not expect. In Dispossessed I anticipated the way the story would end before the writing began. The antagonist would get his just reward in a specific manner, and that was that. While he did reap what he sowed, he reaped it his way, not mine. The story took a distinctly different path than I had originally imagined because his comeuppance needed to be a natural outgrowth of his behavior throughout the story.
This is why you need to know your characters as well as you know yourself, perhaps even better. One of the most effective ways to do this is to create detailed character sketches for the main players. Such sketches should minimally be comprised of the following:
- Parents, grandparents, siblings, children, friends, likes and dislikes, favorite foods, recreation, education, work/job, pet peeves, ethnic background, etc. You may not need all that information for your story, but the knowledge will help you keep each character true to him- or herself throughout the book.
- Personality traits such as selfishness, generosity, short-tempers, good listening, helpfulness, belligerence, neighborliness, behavioral quirks, etc. Similar sketches are also good for minor characters, but they need not be as detailed. Once you do these things and put your characters in a location or situation, you can let them show you how they respond.
- If you’ve fleshed out your characters effectively, all you need to do is type. They will take you (and ultimately your readers) on their journey to their (your) story’s conclusion.
- One piece of advice: Be ready and willing to rein in your characters if they venture too far afield. Allowing them to tell their story does not include giving them the right to change the purpose of your book or the uniqueness of your style. A good editor can guide you if they go overboard.
- The key is balance, and that comes with experience. Embrace the learning process. You, your characters, and your stories will all benefit.
How does your story flow? Stories can be told sequentially, in retrospect, with flashbacks, through dreams and internal dialogue—any combination of these or other styles. Just be sure whatever sequence you choose works seamlessly for the reader. The trick lies in making sure the reader always knows what’s going on and where in the stream of time a scene falls. The biggest challenge in writing Dispossessed, as with many books, came in the form of the beginning.
After trying a variety of approaches, I chose the following scene to begin the book. It logically opens the story, then segues into a brief flashback that provides just enough background to keep the reader engaged. The order of events following the first chapter, although typically sequential, contain occasional flashbacks, surfacing memories, and internal dialogue when needed to maintain the smooth flow of the story.
Here’s how The Accounting begins:
Katherine Kohler frowned. The unscheduled meeting, called half an hour earlier by CEO Dr. Martin Lowry, had caught her by surprise. On the first of next month, the outreach program she had worked so hard to promote would end. She had done her best to convert the hospital’s five-year pilot project into a permanent department, but recent budget cuts had already signaled the demise of two equally promising programs. Fortifying herself for the bad news, she hurried into the conference room across the hall from her office, pulled the door closed behind her, and slipped into the only empty seat at the long mahogany table.
The director of the publicity department sitting next to her tapped her arm. “Do you know what this is about, Katherine?”
“I haven’t a clue, but—”
The door swung open. Dr. Lowry dashed in. “Sorry for my tardiness, folks, and for the short notice. I know you’re all busy, so I promise not to keep you long.” He took a deep breath and smiled. “I’ve asked you to meet with me because I want to share something very exciting before it hits the news at noon.”
Curiosity washed over Katherine. Normal hospital business did not warrant a spot on the news.
Dr. Lowry continued. “Thanks in large part to the extensive work of Katherine Kohler, head of our community outreach program; her husband, who owns Kohler Long Printers; and our director of publicity, Melissa Daniels, the city this morning approved our plan to build a new functional medicine clinic and parking lot on the six-acre plot behind our main building. Ground-breaking is scheduled for the first of April.”
Katherine’s breath caught in her throat as spontaneous applause broke out around the room.
“I wanted all of you to be the first to know.” He glanced at his watch. “I have a business lunch in five minutes, so I must go. Katherine and Melissa, please stop by my office at four-thirty. I need to speak with you. Katherine, see if Ed can get away from the print shop to join us.” The doctor stood. “One more thing, Katherine, the first of next month, El Paso County Community Hospital’s Outreach Program will become El Paso County Community Hospital’s Outreach Department. We’ll discuss that in-depth when we meet this afternoon.”
“I’ll give my husband a call right away. I know he’ll want to be here.” Unsure whether to giggle with giddiness or dissolve in tears of joy, she tried to wrap her head around the unexpected good news as the CEO rushed from the room. We won! We finally won! I can’t wait to tell Ed.”
Slipping out the door before she could be drawn into a conversation with her coworkers, she hurried to the open elevator, punched the basement button, then headed to the commissary for a premade submarine sandwich from the vending machine. Rather than wait for the elevator to return, she dashed up the three flights to her floor and reached for the cell phone on her desk. Surprised to see a missed call from Ed, she listened to his voicemail.
“Sorry I missed you, Kate. I’m heading out to run by the house and pick up a couple things, then come to get you. We need to go to Denver right away. I also want to update you on a potentially serious situation brewing at Kohler Long. No time now for details. Will fill you in while we’re on the road.”
Looking out her office window, she frowned. A wall of falling snow blotted out the nearby mountains. Her phone beeped twice. A severe weather advisory popped up on the screen. Her frown deepened as she read that I-25 had been closed at Monument until further notice. I don’t think we’ll be heading for Denver any time today. After typing a quick text in response to Ed’s voicemail, she reached for the architect’s drawings of the new facility and spread them out on her worktable.
Viewing the detailed depiction of the clinic’s finished exterior and floor plan, she let her mind wander as she perused the drawings and nibbled on her sandwich. From the beginning, Ed had supported her dream of full-service functional medicine offices on the hospital campus. When obstacles threatened to undermine her pursuit of the project, he revived her deflated spirit with a pep talk over dinner at her favorite Japanese restaurant. Then he included a new flyer supporting the proposed facility in every job that went out from Kohler Long Printers and posted a large copy of it on the front window of Kohler Long for all passersby to see. Momentarily closing her eyes, she smiled. Ed was a huge impetus for the public’s growing support of my project. I don’t think it wouldn’t have happened without him.
The jangle of her office phone interrupted her thoughts. She glanced at the clock over her door. Nearly an hour had passed since she listened to her husband’s voicemail Where is he? She reached across her desk to answer it.
Her eyes widened as the caller spoke. The sandwich that had tasted so good when she ate it rose in her throat. She swallowed repeatedly to keep it from coming the rest of the way up and struggled to take a breath. Clearing her throat, she whispered a shaky response.
“I’ll be right there.”
Research. So your book’s fiction. You can avoid all that time-consuming research, right? Uh, no. Stories may be fictional, but they must be believable. What occurs must be possible in the novel’s era/setting. Descriptions of existing locations must be accurate. If, for example, your book contains detailed medical or police procedures in New York City, research those processes in that city at the time your story takes place—unless, of course, you are from there and an expert in the field. You don’t want to lose potential fans because your scene or information doesn’t ring true.
Interviews. In Dispossessed I have scenes of premature labor and delivery, as well as the care of preemies. To make each scene real, I interviewed an obstetrician and a neonatologist. Their information led to true-to-life fictional events.
Personal Experience. Some scenes of domestic violence would not be nearly so effective had it not been for the people who, throughout my life, have shared their traumatic experiences with me. Those recollections flooded my mind when I began to outline my book. I knew I had to tell this story for them.
The Internet is another go-to place for information, but it’s wise to check a variety of sources. The World Wide Web isn’t known for its infallible accuracy. Another source may be old newspaper files. Many newspapers have “morgues” that can provide a wealth of information from the past. These are stored on microfiche and can be read (and possibly printed out) on machines at their offices. In addition to news stories, old obituaries can be especially helpful because they are filled with details about the lives and times of the deceased that are seldom included in today’s obits. For example, I learned a lot about my great-great grandfather from his obit when I was doing research for a family history book.
One Last Thought . . .
Hopefully, these suggestions will help you get started on the journey of a lifetime—the road to publication. Anyone who says that writing a book is easy or that you should get off your backside and do something productive has obviously never done it. Creating a cohesive, well-written, compelling story requires hard work, long hours, and emotional endurance. The finished product comes only after much research and seemingly endless days, weeks, months, perhaps even years of writing, rewriting, editing, and rewriting again. But when you hold your finished book in your hand for the first time, you know it was worth all the effort. You may even want to do it again.