How I first found The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (2012), I have no idea, but you can see that both the cat and I find it enormously useful, if for slightly different reasons.
The ability to identify and describe body language and facial expressions is critical in conveying emotion on the page. The authors list dozens of emotions, from adoration to worry, briefly define them, then set out physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and other key indicators. They also include a section on avoiding common problems, such as too much telling and cliches, and tips such as finding the root emotion, using the setting, and using visceral or instinctive reactions.
I use the lists as a starting point, thinking about a particular character, their personality, gender, how they use their body, how controlled or demonstrative they are, the intensity of the situation. You are the ultimate authority on your characters, but the authors’ lists will get the ideas moving. I’ve annotated my copy, listing additional emotions, adding observations of my own, and interleafing other resources. The authors have also written books on character traits, setting, and more. I see from their website, Writers Helping Writers, that they’ve put out a new edition of the Emotion Thesaurus. Maybe the cat will get me a copy for Christmas.
We’ve all got a collection of books we pull off the shelves over and over, references we rely on to help us find the right word, get the legal or medical details right, or figure out how to ramp up the emotional content of a scene. (“I said emotional content. Not anger,” as Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon.) Over the next few weeks, I’m going to highlight a few of mine. If you’ve got a favorite to recommend, please chime in in the comments.
Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers by D.P. Lyle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003). A medical doctor who writes thrillers, TV tie-in novels with a medical theme, and books on forensics, Lyle also writes the “Forensic Files” column for the Mystery Writers of America answering questions for writers of both contemporary and historical crime novels. His blog, The Crime Fiction Writer’s Blog, is another terrific resource, often featuring fascinating guest bloggers from the worlds of medicine and science.
My copy of Murder and Mayhem barely fits in its slot on the shelf anymore, stuffed with articles and emails from Doug that I’ve printed out. When you need to know what drugs might cause cardiac arrest or what happens to body and brain when one character pushes another down the stairs or off a cliff, this is THE book.
And columns, book, and author were a big inspiration for me in writing my first book, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011), a book that should be on YOUR shelves!
Sometimes characters have experiences we haven’t had. In my Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, Erin lost her father to a hit & run accident when she was 17. My father died when I was 30. Those are very different experience. I knew some of the emotion she might feel from observing people as a lawyer, in personal injury cases. But I needed to know more. I sat down and wrote by hand about every person I could think of that I knew – well or not well – who’d lost a parent when they were a child. I was drawing on my own observation, some incomplete, some 30 years old, but it turned out that I knew a lot. I wrote about the high school classmate whose father died the year after we graduated, and whose own husband died in his early 40s, leaving her with a small child, giving me a dual perspective. I wrote about my reaction and that of my classmates when a boy in our class was killed in a car accident our junior year, research that triggered a huge swath of the ms. that’s currently out on submission.
Talk to people who’ve had the experience, if you feel you can, or to people involved with it in other ways—your friend who teaches junior high, or your walking buddy who’s a social worker.
I searched online for guides for teachers and school counselors on dealing with students who lost a parent. You could also read memoir, personal accounts, or YA novels involving that situation.
And from all of that, I was able to see how Erin would have responded, the different ways her older brother and sister responded, and how the loss affected her relationship with her mother at the time, and how it affects their relationship Francesca still wants to protect Erin, who’s 32 now, and knows she can’t, any more than she could when Erin went off to college that fall. What does that lead her to do – and say – when she sees her daughter investigating murder?
This all has ripple effects. The loss led Erin to be a bit aloof in college, focused on school. She barely noticed a guy who was really into her. She meets him again, 15 years later. How does that history influence their relationship? And the impact on her relationship with her BFF is a big driver of the story as well, because the woman is now a sheriff’s detective in their hometown.
For Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut written as Alicia Beckman (Crooked Lane, April 2021), I did the emotional research during revision in response to questions from my editor. I thought about people I knew who, from my perspective, were driven by bitterness and resentment. I read articles online in Psychology Today and other sources. All that helped me flesh out my personal observations. It gave me specifics on how such a person views the world, and the language they use, and helped me see what this particular character in this town, in this crisis, might do.
So when you’re checking on the time of sunrise and sunset and what wildflowers might be in bloom during your story time, don’t forget the emotional research, too.
I’m at the stage in the next book, Bitterroot Lake, my suspense debut, written as Alicia Beckman (Crooked Lane Books, April 2021), where I’m reviewing the publisher’s copy edits and I have no idea what’s what. Or what is what.
Most writers think we’re pretty good with grammar and punctuation. And I thought I’d turned in a pretty clean manuscript. I did, in fact; there weren’t a lot of corrections. But some of them are, well, humbling.
This is the stage when a professional copy editor, a man or woman who sleeps with the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, close to one hand and the latest Merriam-Webster near the other hand, who knows the house style (the publisher’s own practices) like they know their own name, and can spot an italicized comma at a hundred yards, reviews the ms. with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. They won’t comment on the comb as a cliché; instead, they’ll insert that hyphen if you didn’t.
I’m deeply grateful to copyeditors (CE, in Word’s Track Changes function) for saving me from myself.
In reviewing their edits, I do some research of my own. I discovered for the first time that according to the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Wildflowers, a volume that lives on our library shelves when it’s not in a daypack for a hike, my favorite wildflower (which is one word, not two) is capitalized as Arrowleaf Balsamroot, not arrowleaf balsamroot, as I’d always thought. Let’s hope I remember.
It’s humbling, to discover that something that sounds right to me, Garner’s Modern American Usage views as “either a typo or a serious grammatical error.” (Neither … or instead of neither … nor. And Garner also considers the pronunciation I grew up with, nyether instead of neether “slightly pretentious.” Ouch.)
The explanation for other errors is less painful. I wrote “ordinary time,” not “ordinary times,” revealing my Catholic upbringing. I was so pleased with myself, with this ms., for finally learning where to use en dashes vs. em dashes. Oops! (Hide—and—seek; claw—foot tub.) Turns out that mistake is probably a function of the software: I write my drafts in Word Perfect and convert to Word for submissions; the conversion is usually seemless—oops, seamless—but only if created properly, not using a shortcut. Oops!
I made plenty of dumb mistakes I’d have recognized in anyone else’s work. Nick-nack? Doorjam? Please. (Knick-knack and doorjamb.) And how many times I typed breath instead of breathe and never noticed. Eek! Who knew methinks is one word, not two? (Put your hands down. I’m embarrassing myself plenty without your help.)
Publishers’ preferences vary. One drinks chardonnay, another Chardonnay. I had to rework a line referring to cab(ernet) so readers didn’t suddenly think Sarah had called a taxi.
In rejecting a proposed change, it’s important to not just “stet,” meaning leave as is, but to recognize that an underlying glitch triggered CS’s change and rephrase to correct it. Copy-editors understand that dialogue is often ungrammatical, but that narrative should generally be grammatical. But when the third person perspective is particularly close, as mine often is, it too can follow casual usage, not correct usage. (I want to put commas before and after “too” but that was, correctly, corrected.)
Raise your glass—of chardonnay or Chardonnay—to copyeditors everywhere, who dedicate their working lives to making our reading lives a little easier.
I’ve been thinking a lot about brainstorming lately, about how to move forward when your conscious mind has no idea what happens next.
And one answer is to mine your setting. Think about where your characters live and work. Does that location give them an opportunity to question a witness or suspect, or to dig into a box of neglected files? Who does your protagonist run into when she stops for gas, where another character can threaten her and drive off, or when she pops into the grocery store, where options for conversation are limited by the presence of others? Move your characters around—what or who will they see while in transit? What idea will occur to them because of something they spy out the window of a car or bus>
What’s their favorite place, and what might happen there? Who will they run into? Where do they seek refuge and solace? Where do they hide?
Haul out the maps. What does Google Earth show that gives you more options? In writing Killing Thyme, my third Spice Shop mystery, I looked at photos of the Seattle Police Department headquarters to better describe the building, and discovered a parking garage I hadn’t remembered. That led to my protagonist, Pepper Reece, traipsing after the cold case detective and confronting the man as he got into his car, where she demands information and gets more than she bargained for.
Spend an hour—set a timer!—reading the newspaper for your story city, browsing the police department website, reading neighborhood blogs. Pore over real estate ads. Look at pictures of landmarks. Ask what a city is known for, what’s its politics, its burning issues. What happens there that happens nowhere else? How does that influence your long-time resident and surprise your newcomers? Why do people move here? Why do they live?
Think about your relationship to the place where you live, or where you’ve lived in the past. What would your protagonist say if asked the same questions? Your antagonist? What are the tensions inherent in the community, and how do they influence your story people, even if they aren’t front and center in the plot?
Yesterday I drove to our valley’s “big town” to pick up books I’d consigned to a locally-owned and -operated gift shop. They’re closing because of the pandemic and the anticipated drop in tourism, the mainstay of many businesses in Montana but especially gift shops. I’m heartbroken for the owners, who have worked hard for years to build a business that has become a real asset to a downtown only recently become interesting. I’m sad for the hundred–plus artists and creators who sold work there, and I’m angry for the town and region, and over the loss of vitality the closure represents. Maybe you own or work for a business that’s threatened, and I’m sad and angry for you, too.
Each stop I made was necessary, each was safe, and each presented its own physical and emotional challenges. Even if you can’t imagine ever writing a novel even hinting at a pandemic, notice what you’re experiencing and feeling when you go to the bank, the grocery store, the gift shop that’s closing. You will never again go through anything like this, and the details will be lost at a distance of time. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a writer; you process by writing. So write it down. Doesn’t matter if it’s in your regular journal or a special Journal of the Plague Year. Write how you felt when you realized you automatically stepped back to make sure you kept six feet between you and a woman you’ve known for 30 years. The slight bit of anxiety when you saw a car with out-of-state plates outside the liquor store and wondered if the driver had quarantined himself. That moment when you washed your hands after pumping gas to get the sanitizer off so you could eat the chips you’d bought at the grocery store for the drive home—and realized the woman smiling at you from her car thought you were washing off germs, not getting ready to stress-eat!
Notice how you feel when you have to tell your customers, your employees, your vendors, your landlord, that you can’t keep the business going. Your kids, your parents, yourself late at night.
Notice the exhaustion and fear, the tensions. Notice the generosity and the kindness.
Once you write it down, it will be available to you forever. The next time a character feels anxious, or fearful, or guilty, or even amused, you can call on your own emotional research to deepen your portrayal of your character’s experience.
Notice the fun stuff, too. The way the gnome you bought on impulse when you were picking up your consignment books makes you smile. Because, I don’t know, Gnome Sweet Gnome. All Roads Lead to Gnome. Gnome is Where the Heart Is.
Since early last fall, I’ve been serving on a federal grand jury. (I’ll write about the experience later, without case specifics, when my term ends.) This week, jurors were asked to voluntarily appear for an emergency session, because our last regularly scheduled session had been vacated (legal-speak for “cancelled”) and crime does not stop for pandemics. (With some laughter-evoking exceptions I can’t tell you about—trust me.) For me, that meant a two-hour drive to get to the courthouse by 9 a.m., with a return trip late afternoon.
We were told we were likely the first federal grand jury in the country to convene since the pandemic hit; Montana is actually the ideal place, as we have a low number of infections per capita and meet federal metrics for a slow reopening. This, of course, was an emergency situation, and I can report that safe distances were kept, protocols met, and all went smoothly.
But that’s not what this piece is about.
A few times a year, I go to a mystery convention or writers’ conference, or take a vacation with my hunny. That often means walking away from a ms. in progress, sometimes at a critical juncture. I’ve developed what I call “the three things” exercise to keep me connected to the work in progress, aka the WIP: What three things can I take from the day and give to my characters? Is it the way a particular person dresses, a habitual phrase someone uses, an emotion I felt? An incident observed, a conversation overheard?
I’m well into the revisions of Bitterroot Lake, my stand-alone novel set for publication in May 2021. It wasn’t an easy time to take a day off. Twenty miles into the drive home, I started to play my audio book and realized I hadn’t done my three things. So I hit pause and started to think back to the day. It wasn’t long before I had three, and they just kept coming. Here are a few:
– M’s hair. I had realized the day before that I didn’t have strong visuals for a couple of characters. Another juror has striking hair, and I decided to give it to a character. I’ve done that, and it’s helped to give her another dimension.
– Bitterroot Lake involves four friends, all in their mid-40s, brought together by tragedy. I’d spent quite a bit of time considering how women that age dress, including geographic and socio-economic differences. I thought back to women I’d seen that day, and found several useful details.
– The story is set in a fictional town on a made-up lake in NW Montana, but by luck, it takes place in early to mid May. My drive took me through several valleys and towns and around a very real lake—in early May. What luck! Turns out the cattails have not begun to green but the cherry orchards are in bloom, both details I’d messed up. I knew the red-wing blackbirds would be about—I’d seen them close to home—but was delighted to see the yellow-headed blackbirds, too.
– Like the real lake, the fictional one is surrounded by old homesteads and new trophy houses. But what about those small bungalows and cabins now being expanded, by new owners or new generations? Perfect for my story.
– My main character rode as a young girl and thinks about riding again. She’d notice the horses grazing in the fields, and feel a deep connection to them. Put that on the page!
– And how could I not have realized that east-facing slopes would be dotted with one of my favorite wildflowers, the arrowleaf balsamroot?
That’s more than three, and not my full list—I’d primed the pump, and had to pull over a few times to jot down notes.
Next time you’re away from your WIP for any reason, even if it’s just for a few hours, look for ways to draw on your experience to deepen your characters’ lives.