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 Dispossessed begins:
The woman sitting at the desk reached for the ringing phone without looking up from the architect’s drawings of the new clinic for low- and no-income women and children.
“This is Katherine Kohler.” Her eyes widened as the caller spoke. “Oh, no! Thank you for calling me. I’ll be right there.” Blinking back persistent tears, she reached for her coat and scarf and hurried toward the elevator.
Moments later, she paced back and forth outside the emergency entrance, stopping to look at her watch for the fourth time in that many minutes. How long had it been since the call had come? Why isn’t the ambulance here? It’s taking too long.
Icy, wind-whipped snow invaded the covered disembarking area and stung her cheeks. Turning toward the wall, she pulled her long scarf closer around her head and chin. The distant whine of a siren rode in on the frigid air. Its high-pitched wail intensified to a scream and faded as the vehicle slowed to a halt.
Two paramedics rushed a gurney toward the double doors. Her breath caught in her throat. The swollen face of its occupant defied recognition, but her husband’s bloody winter coat lay over the feet and legs.
“Kohler!” one of the paramedics hollered as they passed the triage desk. “Trauma One.”
Forcing her feet to move, Katherine started to follow. A security guard stopped her.
“You can’t go in there yet, Mrs. Kohler.”
“That’s…that’s my—” Her voice failed her.
He nodded. “I’ll let Dr. Keene know you’re here.”
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.