You have a powerful story that needs to be told. Tell it so that it captivates your readers.
Does it contain names and details you don’t want to reveal in order to protect the innocent?
Here are three key principles you need to know to maintain the integrity of your story.
My first book, A Brother Betrayed, addresses the issue of domestic violence. In addition to scenes that are figments of my imagination, I have fictionalized a few 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 grew more and more certain that these victims should not have suffered in vain. Their stories needed to be told. But how does one go about doing that without compromising the anonymity of those who inspired the story?
These are the steps I followed in writing A Brother Betrayed.
First, consider how it may impact others.
1. 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 the story is presented, always protect the innocent. Or perhaps it is your own story you want to tell. Again, protect the innocent—including yourself. If you put it into a fictional setting, follow the above suggestions. If you’re writing a biography or exposé, you should check with an attorney prior to publication to be sure you won’t end up in court.
2. If you’ve chosen a fictional setting, 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 do share your story. Many people are bound by the chains of current or past abuse. It may be that 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.
3. Maintain a powerful 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 a way of expressing themselves that identifies their works for many readers, even if the 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. For instance:
- Does a character always drink a glass of warm milk at bedtime? How is this relevant to the story?
- 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 characters dominate the story?
- Which ones are weak?
- Who are the power players?
- Every scene, every character plays a part in moving the story forward. 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 the story?
1. Where is your story going now that you have made necessary changes to protect the innocent? Do you want to help readers identify specific behaviors, such as abuse? Do you want to show them what happens to people who remain in abusive situations? Do you want to give them hope? A hand up? Show them the way out? Is your purpose to entertain? Do you want to write a story of substance that may touch your readers’ lives? Knowing the intent of your story is the first step toward making sure your words and direction accomplish your purpose. That intent, or story map, is picked up by your characters, who run with it toward your desired destination, aka, conclusion. At least that’s the plan.
Do you listen to your characters? If you do, they may show you a different route—their route—to a destination you did not expect. In A Brother Betrayed 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. In other words, the story took a different path than I had imagined; still, his comeuppance was a natural outgrowth of his behavior and far more appropriate than the one I had so carefully planned. This is why you need to know your characters very well—as well as you know yourself, or perhaps even better. One of the most effective ways to do this is to create detailed character sketches for the main players. Such a sketch 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 listeners, willing helpers, 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 your characters out effectively, all you need to do is type. They will take you (and ultimately your readers) on their journey to your (their) story’s conclusion.
- One piece of advice: Be ready and willing to rein your characters in 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 your writing 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.
2. What is the sequence of your story? Stories can be told sequentially, in retrospect, with flashbacks, through dreams and internal dialogue—the possibilities are numerous. 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 A Brother Betrayed came in the form of setting the stage for upcoming events, introducing the protagonist, showing the relationship between her and her deceased husband, addressing the depth of her loss, and relating her emotional state at the story’s outset. After a variety of beginnings, I chose the following scene to open the book. The order of events following the the first chapter are typically sequential with occasional flashbacks, surfacing memories, and internal dialogue. Note that the opening scene starts out in the present—just a few weeks after the death of Katherine’s husband—but the short dream sequence takes her back to the beginning of their relationship and creates the foundation on which the story is built. When she’s jolted awake by the clock radio, she’s hit with the reality that he died, and she has no idea how to go on without him.
Sleep came fitfully in the wee hours of the morning. Wandering in and out of wakefulness, Katherine tossed and turned until blurred images began to emerge in her mind. The scene sharpened. Calmness settled over her as the dream took shape.
Smiling at her good fortune, she swung into a parking space just vacated near her destination and stepped into the crisp fall morning. Briny air wafting off Puget Sound mingled with aromas from vendor stands, shops, and eateries that made up Pike Place Market, her favorite spot in downtown Seattle. She stopped to listen to a singer who had come to perform for patrons while they shopped.
“He’s quite good, isn’t he?” a voice behind her said in a loud whisper near her ear when the song ended.
Startled out of the trance into which the music had lulled her, she whirled around to glare into the clearest blue eyes she had ever seen.
“Please be quiet.” She turned back to face the singer.
The musician adjusted one of the guitar strings before strumming the introduction to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” His powerful tenor voice lent an ethereal poignancy to the Simon and Garfunkel ballad.
The voice whispered again. “He has a great voice.”
The last note ended. She applauded along with the rest of the small crowd. The group dispersed after tossing coins and paper money into the open guitar case.
“He’s quite extraordinary.” Blue Eyes hadn’t left.
“If you’re talking to me again, yes, he is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have shopping to do.”
“Did you like the song?”
She turned and gave him a cold look.
“I want to talk to you—about the singer.” He hesitated. She didn’t respond. “He had my full attention when he sang one of my all-time favorites.”
Surprised that they loved the same music, she allowed his disarming smile to soften her response. “You’re pushing.” She forced herself not to grin back at him.
He ignored her gentle dismissal and extended his hand. “I’m Edmund Kent Kohler, apprentice pressman at a Seattle print shop.”
Amused at the formality of his words and slight bow at the end of them, she allowed herself to smile and reached out to shake it. “Katherine Margaret Ames, University of Washington senior who hopes to earn a degree in marketing and management in the spring.”
“Very nice to meet you, Katherine Margaret Ames of the University of Washington. Would you care to join me for a latte at a coffee shop in this establishment?”
“It’s not my habit to drink with strangers.”
“I’m not a stranger.” The captivating smile came her way again. “I’m Edmund Kohler, apprentice pressman at—”
“A local print shop,” she finished. “Latte it is, Apprentice Edmund Kohler. I don’t have a lot of time. This afternoon is reserved for studying.”
After lingering longer over coffee than she had intended, they meandered through a nearby art gallery. She stopped and stared at a painting of the old West. A lone Indian on a pony looked down from a high vantage point into a large valley. Moving toward the left, a herd of bison traveled the valley’s width below the sentinel’s perch. A breathtaking mountain range rose in the distance. She marveled at the artist’s ability to depict the magnificence of the great beasts and the dignity of the rider intent on their movement. Then she saw the discreet signature in the lower left corner. B. Kohler.
“A relative of yours?”
“She’s very good. Has she done many paintings?”
“Five or six. I can’t find the others, so I’m guessing she sold them. This is the last one. She died a few years ago.”
“I’m so sorry. You must miss her.”
“Yes.” He blinked and looked up at the clock on the wall above them. “My brother is expecting me to take him to lunch.” Edmund hesitated. “Will I see you again?”
“I’m here almost every Saturday morning.”
“In that case I’ll make a point to be here, too.” He started to walk away, then turned back to face her. “My friends call me Ed.”
“Mine call me Kate.”
“See you on Saturday, Kate.”
The images faded.
She woke to the second verse of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Her clock radio, set on the golden oldies station her husband always listened to, had turned on.
Pulled to her feet by the lilting melody, she moved around the room in a graceful waltz, her arms outstretched toward a partner who wasn’t there. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“I miss you, Ed. How will I ever get along without you?”
The last refrain began. She wrapped her arms around herself.
“We always danced this song together, no matter where we were when it played.”
Her steps slowed, then stopped as the music faded. Her voice lowered to a whisper.
“Who will I dance with now?”
3. Research. So your book’s fiction. You get to avoid all that time-consuming research, right? Uh, no. Stories may be fictional, but they must be realistic. What occurs must be possible. Descriptions of existing locations must be accurate. If, for example, your book contains medical or police procedures, research those processes—unless, of course, you are an expert in the field. Some of your readers may be experts, and you don’t want to lose potential fans because your scene or information doesn’t ring true. Even if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, your readers will want to relate to your characters and events. They want to suspend disbelief and imagine that, sometime and someplace, what they’re reading could actually be so.
In A Brother Betrayed I have scenes of premature labor and delivery, as well as the care of preemies. To make the scene real, I interviewed an obstetrician and a neonatologist. Their information added hugely to the story’s authenticity. Some scenes of domestic violence would not be nearly so effective had it not been for the people who shared their traumatic experiences with me. Also, a worker at a metropolitan women’s shelter, provided a particularly interesting interview because she met me in a public place, told me just her first name, and let me know that only a few in the police department knew the shelter’s location. Why the secrecy? She didn’t know me, and she had no idea whether I might be an abuser’s sister, girlfriend, or mother, who was pretending to be an author seeking information that could lead a perpetrator to his escaped victim.
The Internet is another go-to place, 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. I know newspapers in some towns and cities have “morgues” that can provide a wealth of information from the past. These are stored on microfiche and can be read (and perhaps printed out) on machines at their offices. Old obituaries are especially helpful because they are filled with details about the deceased that are seldom if ever included these days. I learned a lot about my great-great grandfather from his obit when I was doing research for a family history book.
Anyone who suggests to you that writing a book is easy or that you should get off your backside and get a real job has obviously never done it. Creating a cohesive, well-written, compelling story requires hard work, long hours, and emotional endurance. The 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 in your hand your finished book, hot off the press, you know it was worth all the effort. You may even want to do it again.