Writing Wednesday — evoking emotion on the page

Leslie’s desk

I’ve read a couple of books lately that were totally solid — interesting premise, fun characters, solid plot, a good use of setting. But I didn’t always feel like the characters were responding emotionally to the events on the page. And because they weren’t, neither did I.

Techer and literary agent Don Maass writes a lot about the importance of giving a reader an emotional experience, in both The Fire in Fiction and The Emotional Craft of Fiction, as well as in his posts on Writer UnBoxed and the in-person and online workshops he gives through Free Expressions. He stresses that the trick is not describing emotion on the page—telling a reader what to feel—but evoking it in the reader.

It’s a big subject, and there are a lot of ways to do it, but I want to share with you a post I wrote a little over a year ago for The Kill Zone blog, on emotional research — on how to better understand experiences we haven’t had, or go deeper into experiences we have had. Emotional research goes a long way toward helping us identify those gestures, thoughts, actions and reactions that truly show a reader what a character is feeling, and evoking her own emotional experience and empathy in the process.

I hope it’s helpful.

The Saturday Creativity Quote

“[Maggie’s] hand closed around the library card. She had placed it under her pillow, as if it were a love token, or a guarantor of pleasant dreams. What else did you use a library card for, if not to borrow stories? Some of which might have a happy ending.”

Mick Herron, This Is What Happened (2018)

Herron was the International Guest of Honor at Left Coast Crime 2022. I hadn’t known his work, though his series that begins with Slow Horses is the basis for the new Apple TV series starring Gary Oldman. I picked up this book, a standalone, and read it in two settings. In context, the quote isn’t purely a ponder on the glory of libraries, but doesn’t mean quite what you think, i

Writing Wednesday – Voice

Leslie’s desk

“I could hear your voice throughout,” a friend told me after reading Blind Faith, my standalone coming this fall (written as Alicia Beckman).

That reminded me of a different friend, who read Death al Dente, my first Food Lovers’ Village mystery, when it was newly published and said “it sounds just like you talk.”

And of course, other friends have said Pepper in my Spice Shop mysteries sounds just like me.

I’ve taken great pains to make the books different. To give Lindsay and Erin and Pepper different ways of speaking, of swearing, of talking to themselves. They have different lives, in different places. I’ve been careful to give them different experiences, to write some in first person and some in third.

Did I blow it? Do my main characters really all sound the same? Do they all sound like me? (Lindsay, the main character in Blind Faith, probably shares more of my upbringing and my personal views, even though her life experiences are very different from mine.)

No, not literally. But that’s not what we mean by voice, is it? Yes, it’s in the characteristic phrases, the pet words, the rhythm of the sentences. But it’s also in what the characters care about. How they think of the world.

My characters are concerned about community. About their relationship to their physical surroundings, whether it’s their home, the windswept prairie, or the historic building they work in. If an issue arises in my life, it might show up in one of their lives, because I want to explore it more deeply, and I figure if it snares my attention, it might matter to my readers, too. My main characters are interested in the world around them, even though they don’t all read or watch movies or garden. They do all love food and art! They’re interested in friendships, especially between women. In starting over. In healing the wounds injustice causes.

They sound like me because there’s a little bit of me in each of them. And that’s a good thing, because that’s one of the ways we make our characters come alive.

Tell me, friends. What does voice in a novel mean to you? Do you think about it as you write? Do you try to cultivate it, to change it from one type of story to another? Can it even be changed? Could we pick up any book of yours and hear you, regardless of the genre or subject matter?

Books so good, it’s criminal — the mystery award winners

It’s award season in the mystery and crime fiction world, with the Leftys and Agathas given at the Left Coast Crime and Malice Domestic fan conventions earlier this month, and Thursday evening, the Edgars, awarded by the Mystery Writers of America. All events were held in person, for the first time since LCC was shut down in March 2020, just a few hours in. MWA also live-streamed its ceremony, and you can catch it on YouTube.

Copying the lists of nominees and winners would make this post way too long, but I do want to share the links: Lefties, Agathas, and Edgars. The first two are voted on by fans attending the convention; the Edgars are judged by panels of MWA members. Each is a genuine honor. Congratulations to all the nominees and winners — and a huge thanks to the judges.

Check out the lists. I’m sure that, like me, you’ll find books and authors that are new to you, even if you’re an avid reader who tries to stay current. It’s the nature of lists to differ, though some appear on multiple lists, a particularly good sign.

A sign of good reading ahead!

The Saturday Creativity Quote

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing tidbits of wisdom that caught my ears and attention at Left Coast Crime 2022, the mystery and crime fiction convention held this year in early April in Albuquerque.

“A good story isn’t about what happens. It’s about who it happens to.”

— William Kent Krueger, talking specifically about This Tender Land (2019). Kent’s novel, Lightning Strike, won the 2022 Lefty Award for Best Novel.

Pre-order sale at Barnes & Noble

Friends, Barnes & Noble is running a pre-order special — 25% off — Wednesday through Friday, April 20-22. Both Leslie’s PEPPERMINT BARKED (coming July 19) and Alicia’s BLIND FAITH (coming October 11) are eligible. Just click the link on the title to go directly to that book’s page on B&N.com and use the checkout code PREORDER25.

And get ready to give your future self the gift of a good book!