You have a powerful story that needs to be told. Tell it so it captivates your readers.
My first book, Disinherited!, 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 Disinherited.
If your story is based on others’ experiences,
you might want 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 if the victim desires anonymity. If you put it into a fictional setting, 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 story, 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 as each singer exhibits a unique sound, 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 most minor characters in a story also have distinct voices. Dialogue is a great place to individualize characters. Habits are another.
Still another is character 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. Feel free to create
- Does he swear under his breath?
- Is she vocal about her favorite foods or the people she hates?
- What traits does each character reveal that contribute to the progression of the story?
- Which ones are weak?
- 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 the 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 Disinherited! 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 somewhat 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.
What is the sequence of your story? Stories can be told sequentially, in retrospect, with flashbacks, through dreams and internal dialogue—or any combination of these. 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 challenge in writing Disinherited! came in the form of introducing a protagonist who will appear in several books and thus must be a character who draws readers to her, setting the stage for upcoming events, incorporating pertinent past events, and interspersing occasional flashbacks without confusing the reader.
After a variety of beginnings, I chose the following two paragraphs to open the book. The order of events following the first chapter are typically sequential with occasional flashbacks, surfacing memories, and internal dialogue. Note that this opening scene starts out in the present, but a flashback occurs within a few pages.
Here’s how it begins:
Emilie Hart answered the insistent ringing of her desk phone. Her eyes filled with tears when the voice at the other end delivered its brief message.
Returning the receiver to its base, she took a deep breath and turned for a moment to gaze out the window at the mountains. Usually, they brought her strength and peace. Not today. Her heart ached for the dear friend who would hear the words she had to deliver. Picking up the hand set, she dialed the extension she knew by heart.
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 Disinherited! 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.