Whenever I do an interview, I’m usually asked if I have any advice or tips for aspiring writers. I sure do! Today, I’m sharing five writing tips. Writers will (hopefully) find them helpful, and readers will get an inside look at some “secrets” that go in to making interesting characters and stories. These writing tips are based on advice I received in my writing classes and discoveries I made as I wrote. I included brief examples from some of my romances to illustrate a few points.
Let’s get started…
- Lights, Camera, Action!: Always start your story with an interesting hook to capture the reader’s attention. Begin either 5 minutes before, during, or 5 minutes after “the big moment” that gives the character a problem and draws the reader into the character’s world. Keep the action going in the first few paragraphs. Don’t waste the first page describing the weather or how a character got dressed in the morning. Jump into the story and take your readers with you.For example, in my paranormal-comedy, Beauty & the Bigfoot, I started the story about 5 minutes before Tara’s father brings home Bigfoot. (Yep, you read that right.) The reader is instantly absorbed into Tara’s experience as she meets (and falls in love with) Bigfoot, and then has to deal with her wacky father’s quest for fame.
My historical/fantasy romance novel The Pauper Prince begins just after Prince Allan learns he’s been banished from the kingdom and must live as a pauper. It sets the stage for what’s to come and gives Allan a big problem from the outset of the book.
- What’s Your Sign?: One of the keys to writing a good story is creating a believable cast of characters. As the author, it’s your job to know your characters better than anyone. (After all, they’re your inventions.) Before you write your story, spend some time with your characters and learn everything you can about them so they come off well-rounded and “real” to readers. Some of the details you should know are:
- Hair and eye color, general build/body shape
- Left- or right-handed (great detail to know if there’s a gun involved in the story!)
- Birthday and astrological sign. (You can develop character traits based on the sign. An astrology reference book is an excellent tool for this.)
- Distinguishing marks (scars, missing limb, tattoos – and the story behind each)
- Family life (have brothers, sisters? Adopted? Parents together or divorced? Raised by uncle, etc.) Have children? Wants children or never even considered it?
- Pets (cat or dog person? reptiles? raises bees? or no pets at all?)
- Foods they like, dislike, any food allergies?
- How much of a dark side does he/she have and how does it show?
- Recreation (likes sports on TV, hates all sports, plays hockey, hikes, swims, surfs)
- Fears and phobias (water, dolls, monkeys, wasps, falling, fire – and why!)
- Wears glasses/contacts/braces, any medical conditions?
- Where and how did they live/grow up? Poor, middle class, member of royal family?
- What kind of car and house do they have? What are the furniture/decorations like?
- Religion and general opinions about social issues/politics
- What secrets do your characters have? What would happen if people found out about them?
- Dreams, aspirations, goals, and regrets. Are they happy with their lives or do they wish they had done things differently?
- Sexual history (straight, gay, experiments, virgin, non-virgin with regrets, loose, never been in love, had heart broken, etc.) Knowing this is VERY important for romances!
The more you know about the characters in your story, the more you can make the reader (and other characters) identify with them through details. You can also build on these details and/or use them to move the plot along, add conflict, build dramatic tension, or liven up a love scene.
In my contemporary romance, Trust with Hearts, Sherrie has recently left her abusive finance. Curtis notices her seemingly odd behavior and immediately identifies with her based on his own experiences with an abusive parent. Knowing these details about the characters helps them bond and adds to the plot. (Curtis is also keeping a whopper of a secret from Sherrie, but I won’t spoil the surprise!)
You don’t have to use everything in the story, but knowing that your character has to overcome her fear of water to save a child trapped during a flood will bring her to life.
- Do Your Homework: I once tossed a book across the room because the author had tulips blooming in October. (Nope, sorry. Didn’t work for me. On my planet, they bloom in spring.) Maybe it’s a small detail that a non-gardener wouldn’t notice (or care about) but a little research could have fixed that problem.
Whatever you’re writing, it pays to do your homework and research a topic. This is especially true if you’re writing historical fiction, and it’s essential if you’re writing non-fiction. Research provides interesting details the reader might need to know for a part of the story, but in the very least, it lends itself to the believability of the setting, characters, and plot.
If you write historical fiction, find out about the time period you’ve set your story. What did people eat, where did they work, and what did money look like? How did they live? What did they have around the house? (Wood-burning stoves, fireplaces, butter churns, cast iron skillets?) What was invented then? If you’re writing about a character living in the 1800s, you have to know everything about the time period and “live” through the character to show the reader what that person’s life was like. (For example, don’t surround your Revolutionary War-era fort with barbed wire – it wasn’t invented until the late 1800s.)
Sometimes you have to do research for contemporary stories. If you live in the Northeast and set your story in the springtime in Arizona, you should find out what the weather is like during that time of year, what flowers are blooming, etc. (It’ll be different from where you are.) Ditto if you’ve set a story in another country – find out all you can about the food, culture, housing, what time the sun sets, what kind of trees, flowers, they have, etc. The Internet’s a great place to do some quick detail-related research. Personally, I like to wander through the library and check out books on the different states, or read some travel books/brochures to give me a good idea of setting and culture.
When I wrote my historical romance, Dangerous Indenture, I researched what life was like in Colonial times. I needed to know what chores my indentured servant heroine would perform each day, how servants were treated, and why anyone would sign up for indenture. These details deepened Shauna’s character and added to the overall story.
- Gotta Have a Goal: No matter how grand or simple, everyone has a goal. When you’re writing a story, you have to know what your characters want most – at least for right now. Different characters should have different goals, and along the course of your story, goals will change and characters will develop secondary goals.
Goals can, will, and should, vary depending on the type of story you’re writing, but they generally fall into two categories: emotional, or internal goals, and physical, or external goals. An internal goal is something the character needs or wants. (This can be meeting a soul mate and falling in love or healing grief after the loss of a loved one.)
An external goal is something the main character physically must do, such as steal a magic ring from a dragon or climb down into a cave to rescue his beloved. Sometimes goals start out simple (like getting to a wedding on time), and your job as a writer is to make it hard for your character to achieve his/her goal by throwing in conflicts and obstacles that force your heroine or hero to work harder.
Vinnie Valentine’s goal in A Perfect Match was pretty simple – hide his knee injury from everyone and make it through the most grueling wrestling match of his career. He had a lot at stake both personally and professionally, and needed to stay focused despite all the distractions around him. When he learns that Danni is involved in his match, his secondary goal of protecting her adds to his burden. (Remember, the worse you make things for your characters, the more they have to grow and that adds drama and tension to your story!)
But writers don’t just give their characters goals; they also have to motivate them to reach those goals. Ask yourself “what’s at stake?” for the character. What if he/she doesn’t reach the goal, then what happens? If the answer is “nothing, he just moves on” then you need to up the stakes and get your character motivated. It will increase the action and keep the plot moving.
In the opening scene of The Viking’s Witch, Odaria is about to be burned at the stake. Her goal (obviously) is to avoid that by any means necessary. Once she does, she realizes that the village has been overtaken by violent Norsemen. Now she has a new goal – to avoid being captured. Over the course of the book the stakes get higher for all the characters. This builds tension and keeps the reader hooked.
- Sex is personal – for your characters!: Readers always ask me love scene-related questions. Some people want to know how to keep the sex fresh from story to story, wonder how much graphic detail is the “right” amount, and others want to know how hard it is to write a love scene.
My romances run the gamut from mild to scorching hot. I let the characters in each story determine the sexual content, graphic details, and overall heat level. Every story is different, and so are the sexual lives of the characters.
Writing in different romance genres also influences the sexual content. In my historical, The Dark Lord, Katarina is innocent, so I approached her character as curious, yet eager to learn. Lauren in The Sexy Stranger is a modern, sexually experienced woman. Writing for the different characters and their individual situations helps keep things interesting and fresh.
When I write love scenes, I stand back and let the characters do what comes natural. I generally know how far the scene will go ahead of time, but I let the characters take over and enjoy themselves. (After all, it’s their story, they deserve to have fun.) When I edit/revise the story, I go back and cut anything that doesn’t work with the scene.
As for “how much to show” within a book or a scene, I think it depends on the book and the characters. Sometimes it’s nice to give the characters some “privacy” and imply what goes on; and yet, other times, readers want to see the passionate side of the relationship. I blend a little of each into my books.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these writing tips. No matter what genre you write (romance, horror, mystery, or something else) creating an interesting, believable story that keeps readers hooked is our goal.
Happy Reading & Writing!
ABOUT KELLI A. WILKINS
Kelli A. Wilkins is an award-winning author who has published more than 90 short stories, 19 romance novels, and 4 non-fiction books. Her romances span many genres and heat levels and yet she’s also been known to scare readers with a horror story.
In 2014 Kelli published three romances: Dangerous Indenture (a spicy historical/mystery), Wilderness Bride (a tender historical/Western/adventure), and A Secret Match (a gay contemporary set in the world of professional wrestling.)
Kelli posts on her Facebook author page https://www.facebook.com/AuthorKelliWilkins and Twitter www.Twitter.com/@KWilkinsauthor. She invites readers to sign up for her monthly newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/HVQqb
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