Monthly Archives: March 2015

Writing Thursday: Memorable Supporting Characters

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Quick, what’s the first picture in your mind if I ask about the television show Frasier? Bet it was Niles or Daphne or even Martin’s old green chair. I don’t think it was actually the image of Kelsey Grammer playing Dr. Frasier Crane. Supporting characters. Some are as memorable as the antagonist or protagonist of a book, movie, or television show. Some are even more so. Did you know that Anthony Hopkins was only on the screen for sixteen minutes as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs? The movie itself was 118 minutes, yet Anthony Hopkins won a Best Actor Oscar for his role. Supporting characters. What is it about them that can make or break a book or a movie? Why do some of them linger after we stop watching or reading? So today, let’s look at supporting characters in terms of romance novels and see how some classic movies can help us form more memorable characters.

The Lady Eve. If you’ve never heard of Preston Sturges, do yourself a favor and watch either The Lady Eve or Sullivan’s Travels. Both are comedic gems, untarnished in the decades since they were produced. If you need more convincing to watch The Lady Eve, did I mention this movie stars a young Henry Fonda and a pre-Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck? This is one worth watching.

The story is simple. A card-shark father-and-daughter team is traveling on a cruise ship and sets up the heir of Pike’s Pale, the ale that won for Yale, as a target for their get-rich-quick scheme. When the heir unmasks her to her face, she devises a plan for revenge. The execution of the story is anything but simple. In fact, it is sheer delight.

Especially helping the story are the supporting characters, each of whom could have been one-dimensional, but the screenwriter and actors turned these characters into fully rounded people. For example, the father. In most books or movies, the con artist father is oily and doesn’t care about his daughter. After all, he’s leading her down a path of crime. Yet Charles Coburn as Harry makes us care. He’s charming as he recounts his stories without the greasy charm that could have been employed. He’s also regretful as he hangs up the phone over 2/3 of the way into the movie. Part of the revenge scheme includes a wedding. And he hangs his head over not getting the chance to give his daughter away. It’s little moments like those that make us care for a supporting character.

Romance novels that capture the spirit of a supporting character can be the most memorable. For example, in Piper Huguley’s The Preacher’s Promise, Ms. Huguley does a tremendous job with the supporting character of March. This eight-year-old is particularly memorable as she latches onto Amanda Stewart and doesn’t let go. She marches into Amanda’s life and into the reader’s hearts.

Gold Diggers of 1933. Busby Berkeley was a famous director in his time. Known for his over-the-top musical extravaganzas, he produced this classic movie. It was supposed to be a movie featuring the leads of Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell. Instead it catapulted Ginger Rogers to stardom. In the beginning music number, Ginger Rogers sings “We’re in the Money” in Pig Latin in what amounts to a coin-encrusted costume that predates bikinis but could be mistaken for one. When you watch the movie over eighty years later, the other leads are okay, but Ginger Rogers stands out. Why? Because her dialogue snaps, her delivery is impeccable, and she sparkles, literally and figuratively.

There’s an unwritten rule in romance writing: if your supporting female character is more interesting than the heroine, why isn’t she the heroine? This movie proves it. Ginger Rogers is more interesting than the lead female. Who did they end up teaming with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio? Do we still talk about Fred and Ruby? Nope. Eighty years later and the dancing of Fred and Ginger is still hard to beat.

So make your supporting character strong and vibrant, but don’t give them such juicy lines and actions that your reader is wondering why they aren’t the lead characters.

The Thin Man. Then there’s Asta. I threw this one in at the last minute. Animals can have quite the appeal as supporting characters. Would The Thin Man have been as wonderful with William Powell and Myrna Loy but without Asta? I don’t think so. While I love Nick and Nora Charles, Asta completes the movie.

At present, I’m reading Haywood Smith’s Out of Warranty, and I’ve read the first 120 pages. I love Juliette the miniature pig. She’s a great supporting character.

I’ve read twenty of the 21 Stephanie Plum books. Anyone who has read any of this Janet Evanovich series will probably bring up Rex and Bob in his or her discussion of the books. We care about Rex and we read, among other reasons, to find out if Stephanie throws in a grape or an olive to Rex.

Animals can add a touch of support to the main characters in a memorable way. Give them actions that are unique to them, describe them, make the reader care about them.

The African Queen. The supporting character doesn’t have to be a person or an animal. It can be a setting. Who can forget the Ulanga River with its waterfalls and twists and turns? To me, it’s almost as memorable of a character as Humphrey Bogart’s Charlie Allnut and Katharine Hepburn’s Rose Sayer. If you haven’t seen this movie and watch one new-to-you movie this weekend, make this the movie you watch. It’s awesome.

In her Kincaid Bride series, Mary Connealy uses this tactic to her advantage. The cave is a supporting character in all three novels. She uses each character’s POV to show what the cave means to each of them and how it has impacted all of their lives. The cave was as alive to me as any of the characters. Don’t be afraid to use the setting as a supporting character.

These are four classic movies that have helped me think more about supporting characters as I write. Who have been some of your favorite supporting characters in the movies? Let me know.

Reading Monday: Forget Coffee Breaks, I Need a Chapter Break

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This isn’t any ordinary Monday morning. It’s the Monday after spring forward. The Monday after the weekend we all adjust to a different time schedule. For some, it’s a piece of cake adjusting, eager to have more daylight toward the latter part of the day. For the rest of us, it’s a challenge getting our kids and ourselves getting used to the change. In honor of this type of Monday, I thought I’d shake up my reading blog by admitting a secret about my parenting skills: I was all in favor of using bribes to get my kids to use the bathroom. M&Ms and Skittles, not to mention the occasional Mylar balloon, were my best friends during those dreaded months. Yes, I admit it. Although some moms look down their noses at such methods, I was not above rewards and bribes. But the apple doesn’t fall from the tree, does it? I’m not the best housekeeper in the world. I spend quite a few of my waking hours folding laundry, putting away toys, cleaning rooms, etc. It’s nice to have clean clothes hanging in the closet or folded in drawers. (Stay with me, I promise to connect the dots in the next few sentences.) But sometimes, during my housework chores, I find the need to bribe myself to get the work done. And what better bribe for an avid reader than chapter breaks?

After I fold and put away a basket of laundry, I get to reward myself with a chapter of whatever book I’m reading. Actually, it depends on the author. Some books have chapters that are only a couple of pages. In that case, I give myself license to read two or three chapters. But I have to be strict about this. I can’t get caught up with the events of the book. Otherwise I’d never get any housework done! But just the thought of sitting down with my book for a couple of minutes is a great motivator. Some books make this easier than others. I read an anthology called Tiny Treats last December. Each author submitted a story of three to four pages, the perfect length for a chapter break. I’ve discovered I can’t be too close to the end of a mystery during these times; it’s only too tempting to read the rest of the book.

Sometimes it’s not always possible to take my chapter breaks. Cupcake and Chunk seem to know the second I sink down into one of our comfy chairs delighted with the prospect of stealing a few minutes to myself to indulge in a little light reading. Then, Mommy puts her book down until my next break is at last within my grasp.

This always works best when I’m reading really good books. After all, the better the book, the more motivated I am to finish quite a bit of housework in order to return to the world the author has created. I’m lucky in that I’ve read some good books in the past couple of months: The Rancher’s Reunion by Tina Radcliffe, Forever and a Day by Jill Shalvis, Deadly Valentine by Jenna Harte and Mistletoe Mommy by Tanya Michaels. These are just four of the books whose chapters I devoured during chapter breaks. What can I say? Some people have coffee breaks. I have chapter breaks.

I’d write more, but I want to finish another chapter of Belle Calhoune’s The Way Home, the first in her Seven Brides, Seven Brothers series. And then, yes, it’s probably back to folding laundry.

What about you? Do you ever squeeze in chapter breaks instead of coffee breaks? Let me know.

Writing Wednesday: Classic Movies and the Craft of Writing

I love old black and white movies. Some people have comfort foods; I have comfort movies. I’ve probably seen Jimmy Stewart carrying Katharine Hepburn in his arms while singing “Over the Rainbow” more times than I’ve let my dog outside this week. The other day I was watching the beginning of Auntie Mame on the treadmill and I burst out laughing more times than I care to count right in the middle of a crowded fitness center. If you’ve never seen Auntie Mame, give yourself a treat and watch this movie. Auntie Mame and His Girl Friday are just two of the reasons Rosalind Russell is a national treasure. As I was walking along and watching the opening frames, I started thinking about how well the writer and director used just a touch of backstory at the very beginning of the movie to set up the picture. All of a sudden, it clicked to me that classic movies are a hidden trove of information related to the craft of writing. So for the next three weeks, I’m going to weave six tips about the craft of writing with the rich tapestry of classic movies. This week, I’ll cover what classic movies have taught me about the judicious sprinkling of backstory in the first chapter and how the hero’s POV can start a novel. Next week, I’ll talk about supporting characters and a support network. The last week, I’ll talk about voice and chemistry.

Backstory. Auntie Mame is a gem of a movie. Rosalind Russell’s performance alone is a tour de force and makes the movie worth watching. Auntie Mame recounts the story of an independent free spirit who suddenly finds herself bringing up her young nephew after his father dies. It’d be very easy to open the movie with Auntie Mame and show her exotic lifestyle. Instead, the movie opens with someone’s will being read aloud. A man’s voice describes his estate and tells what should happen to his ten-year-old son if anything happens to him but takes great care to explain that nothing will happen to him because he takes such good care of himself with the explicit reason that he never wants his son to fall into the hands of his eccentric sister. The man’s hand reaches out and affixes his signature to the will. The next frame shows a newspaper headline that a financier has died at his health club. The viewer knows, without a doubt, it is the man who doesn’t want his wacky sister raising his son.

What a great beginning! It captures the attention. It begs the question of why does this man find his sister to be so reprehensible that he tries to keep himself in top shape. It hooks the viewer into wanting more. It doesn’t show a montage of Mame’s life to present. Instead just a few well placed sentences create an expectation of something coming to the viewer that is slightly out of the ordinary. And the movie delivers just that.

Other classic movies also tantalize the viewer with just enough information for him or her to know what is going on but not so much as to prevent the action of the movie from starting. For example, The Palm Beach Story shows a hilarious montage of twins tying up their identical twins in order to get to a wedding on time. It gives just enough backstory to set you up for a wild hour and a half of screwball comedy mayhem. In My Favorite Wife, Nick Arden asks the judge to declare his wife legally dead. The judge reads details of the brief aloud to give the viewer enough info for the particulars of the case. No sooner does the judge declare Ellen Wagstaff Arden legally dead as Nick Arden asks the judge to marry him to Bianca.

All of these movies give the right amount of backstory so the viewer knows what is going on, but not so much as to stall the story.

The Beginning. Some romance readers like a romance novel to start with the heroine’s POV, but there are several classic romantic comedies that show that the hero’s POV may be the right place to start.

Bringing Up Baby. One of the funniest classic movies ever. If you haven’t watched this movie, stop reading and go watch this movie. The words Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Asta, and a leopard should be enough of a reason. Unlike other romantic comedies, this movie starts with the hero’s POV. The first shot is of a dinosaur skeleton as the camera zooms into Cary Grant deliberating something. It would be easy to start with Katharine Hepburn’s character Susan Vance asking her aunt for a million dollars, but instead, the viewer’s introduced to David Huxley who loves his work and is engaged to be married to Miss Swallow the next day. We see his disappointment when Miss Swallow informs him that theirs is to be a marriage without children as the museum is their baby. David may love dinosaurs but he also wants a real marriage. We instantly care about who David ends up with, not only because he’s Cary Grant, but also because we care about him being happy for a lifetime with the right woman.

Think about some of your favorite movies. What separates their beginnings from other movies? How do the writer, director and actors draw you into the story? Does the movie sprinkle in enough backstory to make it interesting? Why do you think the writer chose which character to start the movie? Then think about how you can transfer what you thought about to your own writing.

What movies have helped you think about the craft of writing? Let me know.

Family Saturday: But That Costs More Than My Undergraduate Degree

17637780-green-icon-growing-currencyThis isn’t a rant about the cost of living. Okay, maybe it’s partly a rant about the cost of living, but it goes deeper than that. One recent study says that it can cost anywhere between $150,000 and $450,000 to raise a child without factoring the price of college tuition. My WH and I have four kids. You can do the math. My point isn’t so much about how much it costs, but where does the money go? Some of what we spend is necessary. All four need food, clothes, and shelter. Some of what we spend isn’t necessary. Private preschool? Cell phones? Entertainment? So why do we spend money on these items.

Preschool. All four of my kids have attended private preschool. My WH did the math. It costs more to send our twins to private preschool than it cost for him to go through pharmacy school. Why do we do it? A little bit revolves around my new career. I’m a writer, and in the past week, my home state has been hit with a flurry of bad weather, bad enough to cancel school for my two oldest for four days and my youngest two for two days. On Wednesday, I attempted to work in the basement. Kath kept asking me if I wanted to play with Gandalf, our bunny who lives in our finished basement. MJ came down several times to escape the twins. Cupcake and Chunk came downstairs to play with the bunny and stayed downstairs to “help” me. Yep. Lots of warm fuzzies, not a lot of editing.

A little bit of why we send them to private preschool revolves around socializing. With five of us being introverts (sorry, Cupcake, you’re the lone extrovert), getting acclimated to being around other kids before preschool has been a good thing. Before Kath started her pre-K class in her private preschool, the dayschool director pulled me aside. She wanted to know if I wanted to keep Kath in this particular class because there was a child with Down’s Syndrome in the same class. My answer was swift and without hesitation. Yes, I wanted to keep Kath in this class. Beyond any doubt, I want all of my kids to love people and embrace life.

Cell phones. I’m pretty old fashioned. Kath, our teenager, has a cell phone. MJ, our tween, does not. Wherever MJ goes, there should be an adult and that adult will either have a cell phone or access to a landline. There may be some people shaking their heads at my line of reasoning, but as of now, MJ doesn’t need a cell phone. Kath does not have a smartphone. She has a perfectly good, serviceable cell phone. And with it come stipulations. If we go out to dinner, she eats with us and doesn’t text or talk on her phone. If we go to her grandparents’ house, she talks to them rather than her friends on the phone. At Disney World, I gave her some time to use her phone, but most of the time, she couldn’t. It was a family vacation, and she’s family. We do know, however, that she has an active life and a cell phone is a necessity. There are often times she has to text me saying practice is done early or an event is going to be on time or not. For her safety and my peace of mind, the cell phone has become a line item in our budget with the understanding that there are times she can use it but there are times, like the dinner table, that the cell phone is not welcome.

Entertainment. Being a family of six means that we don’t go out to movie theaters a lot. But that’s not an excuse for not doing family activities together. When I arrived home last night, the five of them were playing Settlers of Catan. They are already talking about playing the Seafarers expansion pack tonight. We try to have movie nights. Bringing Up Baby was a mixed success. Cupcake had the line of the night: “When are they going to switch to color?” So every so often we splurge a little. Last year, we all went miniature golfing on vacation. Chunk so wants to go golfing again. He wouldn’t mind if we went bowling either. The twins are getting older and once again, some entertainment options, like bowling and miniature golfing, are becoming viable. Splurging? Yes. Memories? Priceless.

That’s not to say I don’t try to look out for free entertainment options. Cupcake and Chunk already prefer one local library branch to the one closest to us. Books and DVDs are available for free rentals. Free, of course, being one of my favorite words. A world of music, fictional venues, and movies is at our disposal whenever we go to the library. We go often.

Today would have been my grandmother’s eighty-sixth birthday. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about Gram. From the name everyone knew her by-Jinx-to her generosity, she was one of a kind, and I’m not just fortunate to have had her as a grandmother, I’m also fortunate to have known her. I’m getting tears in my eyes just thinking about her. When I think about raising her great-grandchildren, I realize there are times I think about what things cost and then I let it go. Gram was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. The memories I have of her are priceless. So sometimes I do need to drop everything and take all of them to the zoo. When Kath called me from Boston, I was thankful for her cell phone. And on Monday, when all four of them are in school, I’ll be editing my latest book, remembering how proud Gram was of me and my cousin and how much she loved her family. So yes, it costs a lot to raise children. But now, I’m going to wrap this up and go home early and give them a hug for Gram.

I always end by trying to think of some interactive question for those who take the time to read my blog (and a huge thank you to those who read this very long blog). What’s been the biggest splurge in your life lately? Let me know.