Monday, May 27, 2013

The Art of Building Characters That Linger

I'm always impressed when a character from a novel stays with me. Surprised and impressed, because I read. A lot. Due to sheer volume, it's rare that a story or character stands out, but there are a few that linger.

One is from Stephen King's novel THE STAND. (An awesome book, in my opinion, one I re-read regularly.) THE STAND is about the end of the world as we know it, owing to a nasty virus under military control that gets out of hand and devastates a continent. Perhaps the world. (This is, after all, Stephen King.)

The uncut version is a book of massive proportions with an impressive cast of characters. Of all these folks, the one who stays with me is the baddie, Randall Flagg, the dark man, the Walkin Dude.

The detail that anchors him in my mind? His cowboy boots. King builds this link beautifully. He locks down Flagg's image by obliquely comparing him to Jim Morrison, the singer from The Doors who died under mysterious circumstances in 1971. Through Flagg's actions and reactions, and the reactions of characters to him, King reveals Flagg's diabolical nature and the depth of his evil. All of this comes home every time King references Flagg's boots:

"...rundown bootheels clocking against the paved surface of the road..."

"...the worn heels of his sharp-toed cowboy boots clocking on the pavement..."

"He rocked along, his feet easy in the boots, which were comfortably sprung in all the right places. His feet and these boots were old lovers."

I see the worn heels. I hear the steady clocking. When King references the boots, I know exactly who and what I'm dealing with, even without reference to a name. I'm hooked.

There is an art to building a character that lingers. It is a balancing act that incorporates description and characteristics, and the revelation of personality over time. I don't believe there's a right or wrong way to go about it. The sketch might be minimal - a hint of appearance here, a peculiar gesture there - or it might be rich and full of physical detail with layers of shading that take us deep into the character's inner life.

In the Cass Elliot crime series, I hope to provide just enough physical description that a reader can form a picture of a character in their minds, and use a single detail to help the reader come back to that character as the story progresses.

The baddie in the series at the moment is the old man. (No name, yet, but sharp readers will figure it out.) Just those two words - old man - conjure an image. Instead of his physical description, I use a pipe to anchor him in reader's minds.

Cherry-scented tobacco, the clack of yellowed teeth against the pipe stem, the ritual of lighting the pipe, the glow of embers in the bowl. Through his use of a violent killer called Hitch and his ruthless treatment of those who displease him, readers come to know that what could be perceived as a grandfatherly appearance is a well-entrenched facade. Kindness or cruelty is always accompanied by the mention of his pipe. Other characters love or hate the sound, smell, and sight of that pipe. Hopefully, readers do, too.

What about you? As a reader, what causes you to grow attached to a character? To remember them long after the pages of a book are closed, or to hunger for the next installment in a series? As a writer, what tools do you use to build characters that linger?

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

In Pursuit of the Perfect Tomato - PVC Tomato Cages with Sex Appeal

If you stopped by for the PVC tomato cages, I think you'll like what you see - regardless, I'd love your ideas in the comments. If you came for the sex appeal, hold up before you click that 'next blog' link. You might find an idea for impressing the object of your affection. Nothing's sexier than a ripe, juicy tomato slice sitting on fresh buffalo mozzarella with slivers of basil, all drizzled with a red wine vinaigrette. Your mouth's watering already, isn't it? Yeah baby. Stop me now.

See what I mean?

I grew up hating tomatoes, but once I tasted a tomato my father-in-law had grown, I was hooked. He's in England. I'm in Texas. There's no popping round to raid the tomato plants. I was forced to grow my own.

Alas, it's not as easy as sticking a plant in the ground, watering, fertilizing, and waiting until that beautiful fruit magically appears. In Texas, our tomato plants grow tall and lanky. Eventually, they want to flop to the ground and sprawl, giving insects and disease a glorious feast.

I've tried tying the plants to bamboo stakes and rigging fence wire between two T-posts and stringing the plants to these for support. Can't make it work. I started to buy wire cages this year, but they look so insubstantial. Checked out the Texas Tomato Cages and they look awesome, but dang they're expensive. So, PVC it is. Also, I wanted something easy to store. Some sites recommend gluing the cages together. I've left mine unglued so I can take them apart and store the individual pieces in buckets or bags. I'll figure that out when I take them down and let you know what I decide.

To give credit where it's due, I got the idea for these cages from Tom Matkey, who provides directions here. They're devastatingly simple to build and it's easy to change the design to meet your needs. If I can do this, anyone can. But I'm a step-by-step and 'show me' kind of gal, so you'll get lots of instructions and plenty of photos.

My cages are 70-inches high (5-feet, 10-inches), in sections of 28-inches, 28-inches, and 24-inches, and they're about 20-inches square. They stand about 60-inches (5-feet) above ground because I plant the lower 'legs' of the cages about 10-inches in the ground for stability. I used Schedule 40, UV resistant pipe. It's gray and came from an electrical wholesaler.

For each cage, you'll need:

For the uprights (legs):

4 lengths of 3/4-inch 10-foot PVC pipe (for the record, it's not really ten feet long - I learned that the hard way, as usual)
A portion of a 5th 3/4-inch 10-foot PVC pipe to make extra horizontal supports (see below for what you'll get out of each 10-foot length) 

For the horizontal supports (arms): 

24 8-inch lengths of 3/4-inch PVC pipe (you'll get these from off-cuts from the 4 lengths of 10-foot PVC pipe, plus extras from a 5th piece of pipe)

To hold it all together:

3/4-inch PVC tees - 4 pieces
3/4-inch PVC crosses - 8 pieces
3/4-inch PVC elbows - 12 pieces

One piece of 10-foot pipe will give you:

28-inch upright - 2 pieces
24-inch upright - 1 piece
8-inch horizontal support - 4 pieces (if the 10-foot pieces were really 10-feet long, you'd get five horizontal supports. It turns out that you get 4 supports, plus one that's about 7 1/2-inch long depending on the width of the blade you used - I used the shorter cuts to make a tighter tomato cage for determinate plants)

I made ten cages in one go, and used 43 10-foot lengths of PVC pipe, 120 elbows, 80 crosses, and 40 tees. Total cost was about $30 per cage. You might be able to reduce this cost by reusing old materials or ordering supplies in bulk online.

  • Tape measure and pen, pencil, or Sharpie.
  • PVC pipe cutting tool - I used a miter saw, but a chop saw, table saw, hack saw, or PVC saw will do.
  • A length of metal pipe marked at 10-inches from the bottom - I used this to hollow holes in the ground for my uprights, rather than banging the bottom upright into the ground with a hammer, but the hammer method will work. Just bang gently. As tough as it is, PVC pipe isn't indestructible. Another lesson hard learned. (If you don't have metal pipe, anything that's roughly the diameter of the PVC pipe will do. Failing that, try loosening the soil before you pound your PVC pipe in.)
  • Lump hammer for knocking the metal pipe in the ground.
  • Level - to ensure the cages are, well, level.
  • I wear gloves because some of the wood chips we use for mulch were exposed to poison ivy at some point. Yep, you guessed it. I learned this the hard way, too. I also wear eye protection because plastic sawdust flying through the air targets my eyes in high percentages.

We'll make one cage together and you can decide whether you want more. Exercise caution and use good safety practices if you're operating power tools or handling sharp objects. Tomato eating is easier with all your parts attached. And here we go:

  1. Measure and mark 4 10-foot lengths of PVC pipe at the height of your first upright. Mine was at 28-inches. 
  2. Make those cuts.
  3. Measure and mark the shorter lengths of 10-foot pipe at the height of your second upright. Mine was at 28-inches.
  4. Make those cuts.
  5. Measure and mark the even shorter lengths of 10-foot pipe at the height of your third upright. Mine was at 24-inches.
  6. Then measure and mark the very short lengths of 10-foot pipe at 8-inches. Make those cuts and repeat until you end up with a short piece remaining. It'll be around 7 1/2-inches. From the four pieces of very short 10-foot long PVC pipe, you should end up with 16 8-inch pieces.
  7. Measure, mark, and cut a 5th piece of 10-foot PVC pipe until you have an additional 8 pieces of 8-inch pipe. This will give you a total of 24 8-inch pieces to use for your horizontal supports.

Load your freshly cut PVC uprights and horizontals into a wheelbarrow, along with 12 elbows, 8 crosses, and 4 tees and head out to the garden.

1.  Put one horizontal section together (4 elbows, 4 crosses, and 8 8-inch PVC pieces).

2.  Lay it on the ground where you plan to 'plant' your tomato cage, and use the crosses to mark the spot where the uprights will go. (If you're smarter than me, you'll start this process before you plant the tomatoes.)

3.  Use the lump hammer and the metal pipe to knock four holes in the ground for the uprights. (We marked the pipe at 10-inches from the bottom with a piece of tape or a Sharpie, remember? Stop banging when the tape or Sharpie mark hits the soil.)

4.  Put the bottom section of the cage together (four uprights attached to one horizontal section), and drop the 'legs' in the holes. Tamp earth around them to hold them firm.

5.  Use the level to ensure the horizontal section is level. Gently bang any 'legs' into the ground with the lump hammer, if needed.

6.  Stick four more uprights in the crosses, and top them off with another horizontal section. Add the last four uprights, and top them off with a final horizontal section, using tees instead of crosses.

You're done! See? Ridiculously easy. You can now plant your tomato plant in the middle of your tomato cage, or if you're getting a late start like I did, wait for the already planted tomato plant to grow!

Is this the perfect tomato cage? Time will tell. What are your experiences with tomato cages? Have you tried the PVC route? How did it go?

**UPDATE: The tomato cages survived the season with sex appeal intact! for a full report, check out this post.**

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Get 5-Star #Crime Novel THE DEVIL OF LIGHT #Free thru Sat May 18!

To celebrate the release of the second Cass Elliot crime novel, AVENGERS OF BLOOD, I'm setting the price of the first novel in the series, THE DEVIL OF LIGHT, to $0.00 from Thursday May 16 through Saturday May 18!

Take advantage of this freebie and grab a copy for yourself, and gift a copy to friends and family members who love a good mystery! To gift an ebook, all you need is an email address. Click on the cover below or to the left to go to Amazon.

What Amazon readers are saying about THE DEVIL OF LIGHT:

★★★★★ A Crackling Good Read! 
"This debut effort is further proof that there are undiscovered novelists out there who can more than keep up with the big names. I expect we'll be hearing more of Gae-Lynn Woods in the future."
Russell Blake, bestselling author of the Jet and King of Swords thriller series

★★★★★ A Devilishly Wicked Thriller!

"All I can say is WOW! Mrs. Woods really know how to scare a person. This is an extremely well crafted novel that can stand next to any book on your shelf with no loss of respect."

Deep Reader

★★★★★ A Terrific Debut

"Gae-Lynn Woods has written a dark thriller that plumbs the depths of evil in a small Texas town. ... Fans of James Lee Burke will enjoy The Devil of Light for the way Ms. Woods exposes human depravity. This looks like the beginning of a compelling series."

Bob Sanchez, author of the hilarious When Pigs Fly 

Thanks in advance for downloading a free copy of THE DEVIL OF LIGHT. Enjoy escaping into Forney County with Cass Elliot and crew!


Monday, May 6, 2013

Chasing the Dragon - Or Why I Write

There are two reasons I write, and the first is purely selfish.

Life is hard. I gained first-hand experience of this little nugget when my twin brothers grew so big in my mother's belly that her lap disappeared. Shortly after taking my lap, they popped into the world and from that moment on, life changed. It got noisy and messy and stinky and the center of the universe tilted.

Away from me.

I needed an escape.

I am fortunate to have parents who taught me to love reading. We read about castles and talking dogs and good people and different people and hurtful people and monsters. (Oh yes, the monsters. *delightful shiver*) I was transported. I might've been sitting on a lap but I was inside that page.

This one gift has given me a lifetime of pleasure and escape. An ability to step out of this noisy, messy, stinky place we call life and into an imaginary world. And when I say step into, I mean literally step into. Books do this for me in a way that a movie or television show cannot. I still disappear into a book and leave this world behind (and have done so to my detriment and the amusement of strangers on the London Underground many times).

I said that the first reason I write is selfish. When I put fingers to keyboard, I'm chasing the dragon - the pure intoxication - of that escape. The kind of absolute absorption into another world that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls 'flow' in his books "Flow" and "Good Business". He describes the basic elements of flow like this:

The task at hand draws one in with its complexity to such an extent that one becomes completely involved in it. There is no distinction between thought and action, between self and environment.

Mihaly also says that "...the most widely reported flow activity the world over is reading a good book, during which one becomes immersed in the characters and their vicissitudes to the point of forgetting oneself."

This is the second reason that I write.

A selfless reason, if you will. To give others an opportunity to forget themselves and the day-to-dayness of life.

I want to create good books with characters and experiences that are so absorbing that a reader steps into my imaginary world, bonds with those imaginary people, and cares deeply about what happens to them. I want that reader to come back to reality with a jolt, a sharp intake of breath, and feel elation that they escaped our noisy, messy, stinky world for a time.

I believe in the power of a story to enchant and transport. I believe the writing of such a story is a gift to the reader. Yes, I write to satisfy my selfish need for the dragon, but also to feed those whose hunger for escape is as great as my own.

I write crime novels, and at their heart these stories are about imperfect people facing hard decisions that define who they are and who they want to become. Life is noisy, messy, and stinky, and so are some of my characters and their problems. But still they struggle on.

Like we do.

Can I write a good book that transports readers? Time and reader feedback will tell. But in the meantime, I'll keep chasing my personal dragon and feeding that hunger for escape for myself, and hopefully for others.

What about you? Why do you read, or write, or both?

(For the record, I adore my brothers, but it's over four decades later and they're still noisy, messy, and stinky. Some things never change.)

* Shameless bit of self-promotion: Readers say they can't put the Cass Elliot crime series down! Click on the book covers to escape with Cass and the good (and bad) folks of Forney County, then let me know what the trip was like for you. *


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Thursday, May 2, 2013

That Clucking Book Club in Pittsburgh (yep, Texas) Takes on THE DEVIL OF LIGHT

Many thanks to That Clucking Book Club in Pittsburgh, Texas for having me over to discuss THE DEVIL OF LIGHT! They're a fabulous group of book lovers and we had a great time talking local politics and books. (The wine and food were excellent, too.)


THE DEVIL OF LIGHT is a gritty mystery set in East Texas, and the ladies were a little surprised to find that the twisted personality who wrote the book (yours truly) doesn't have two heads or carry around a blood tipped drill (read the book for more on the drill)! We talked idea generation, plot, writing habits, writer's block, and touched on how to self-publish. Feedback about the story was positive, and Cass Elliot was everybody's favorite character.

Thanks again to the book club for their welcome and a great evening!

* Shameless bit of self-promotion - Looking for your book club's next read? Visit Amazon to see if THE DEVIL OF LIGHT is the right fit for your group! *