Do You Know Your Novel’s Theme?

Janice Hardy RGB 72By Janice Hardy

Theme is an often misunderstood and underused aspect of a novel. Years of English classes have made us think that theme is something reserved for literary novels or stories with deep, meaningful messages, not for commercial fiction and good old fashioned stories.

Total bunk.

Theme is a highly useful part of any novel, be it a light-hearted romp or a nail-biting adventure. It’s an element that gives greater meaning to the story and turns background fluff into substance. Basically, it gives a story street cred.

That’s because theme can tie individual pieces of a story together so they work on multiple levels. Descriptive details resonate with a character’s mood, or a plot point becomes a mirror to a internal struggle. Theme makes everything in the story matter.

Unsure what your theme is? Ask yourself…

What larger concepts do you want to explore with your novel?

Odds are there’s more to the story you want to tell than a series of plot events, no matter how cool those plot events might be (and if there’s not, that’s okay, too). Perhaps you’re exploring the nature of power, or what it means to be human, or how a good person can do bad things. Whatever it is, there’s something bigger in your story on a conceptual level. If someone asked you what your story was about, you might even use this to describe it.

Try making of list of the concepts in your novel. Are there any common elements developing? Can you see a bigger picture connecting them? If not, think about how you might connect them or how they might work together to create a larger idea.

If you had to pick one cliché or adage to describe your novel, what would it be? How might you adapt that as your theme?

It might sound silly, but clichés are practically theme shorthand. If it sounds like something you’d stitch on a pillow or Grandma has it framed on her wall, there’s a good chance it’s your theme. “Love conquers all” is a great theme for a romance novel that explores the struggles a couple goes through to be happy. “You can’t fight city hall” might work for a dystopian that explores the futility of trying to change the way society works. Or you might tweak it and say “you can fight city hall” to show that a small group of people can indeed change the world for the better.

Try picking the cliché that best fits your novel and see where you can use it to flesh out a scene or element in the story. Look for places where this theme can be illustrated. For example, show moments where “love” makes a difference, even if it’s obliquely. Themes don’t have to bang readers over the head to be effective.

What are common problems in the novel? Do they point to a theme?

If no cliché works, and there are no larger concepts behind the story, trying looking at the problems the characters face. Is there a common element to them? Are there similar obstacles or struggles to be overcome? For example, if you notice a lot of problems that deal with the protagonist trying to prove something about himself, then maybe the theme is about being true to who you are, or standing up to those who lack faith in you.

Try listing the problems in your novel and see if there’s a common thread that could be developed into your theme.

What are common character flaws or dreams?

The theme might apply to more than just the protagonist. Maybe every character is facing a similar problem, either internally or externally. If they all lack generosity in some way, perhaps the theme is related to greed or selfishness. What they hope for can also suggest a theme. If all the major characters wish for a life without fear, then overcoming fear might be your theme.

Try listing the flaws, then the dreams, of your major characters. Look for similarities that could hint at a larger theme.

Once you’ve found your theme, use it to deepen your novel by giving greater meaning to your scenes. While not every scene needs to be dripping with theme, even thinking about the bigger picture as you write could influence how you choose to develop those scenes–what details you use to describe the setting, how someone reacts, what happens overall. When faced with choices on what to use or do, think about how it might show the theme and if that will make the scene richer.

Do you use theme in your novels? Do you plan for it or does it just happen?

PYN_Ideas and Structure Cover.inddLooking for more on planning or revising your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.

Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure takes you step-by-step through finding and developing ideas, brainstorming stories, and crafting a solid plan for your novel—including a one-sentence pitch, summary hook blurb, and working synopsis.

Over 100 different exercises lead you through the novel-planning process, with ten workshops that build upon each other to flesh out your idea as much or as little as you need to do to start writing.

Find Exercises On:

- Creating Characters
- Choosing Point of View
- Determining the Conflict
- Finding Your Process
- Developing Your Plot
- And So Much More!

Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to planning your novel, as well as a handy tool for revising a first draft, or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working.

About Janice

Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy

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When You’re Stuck, Relax

by Orly Konig-Lopez

Last week my husband convinced me to go on a bike ride with him. My road bike has been in the basement on a trainer for well over a year. To say I was a bit nervous is an understatement. After all, in the basement I don’t have to worry about becoming a hood ornament or becoming intimately acquainted with a tree. But it was a gorgeous day, I was stuck with writing and it was time to squash that little negative devil in my head.

So off we went. A few minutes into the ride, hubby dropped back and said, “Don’t fight the bike. If you relax, it’ll be much easier.”

Okay. Relax. Easy. I can relax. Yeah, not so much.

Throughout the next two and a half hours, I’d hear “ReeeeeLaaaaxxxxx” from up ahead. I’d loosen my death grip on the handlebars and let the bike flow. And guess what? It got easier. And fun.

Somewhere around mile eighteen and half way up a steep uphill, I started laughing. Can’t breathe, legs are melting jello, and I’m laughing like a lunatic. Hubby was sure I’d finally snapped. Nope. Well sort of. It was one of those, “how did you not see this answer before” moments.

One word … Relax.

Relax about process. As writers many of us become obsessed over the process of writing. Laura Drake even wrote a post about Process Envy (yes it’s a real thing!). Are you making daily word count? Should you have a daily word count or a weekly goal? Do you write every day? Are you writing at the same time each day? Do you plot first or dive straight into the deep end?

I’ll admit to process envy. I love reading how authors I admire do it. Maybe if I try it their way, I’ll find that elusive secret to writing greatness. This latest WIP has had a lot of starts and stops. I tried plotting. The story refused to be caged. I tried daily word counts. Life refused to cooperate. Guess what happened when I relaxed about the process? Yup, I was able to … are you ready? … write. Really write. The moment I released my death grip on controlling the process, the words flowed. And it was fun.

Relax about finding the words. Do you edit as you write or dump words onto the page without editorial censorship? What do you do when that perfect word is hiding behind some random thought?

This was circulating around Facebook several months ago. I had to print it out and paste it next to my desk. I’m not a clean first drafter. There are times I stare at the computer, cursor mocking me with each passing blink over that one word that will not come out to play. Yesterday when I realized I’d spent counting 23 cursor blinks instead of moving the sentence forward, I wrote “something fresh here” and moved on. The rest of the scene flowed and a few paragraphs later, that “something fresh” showed up.

Relax about the ‘what next’. Do you have an agent “hit list” before you’ve even finished the first draft? Are you thinking about the best submission times before you’ve completed revisions? Do you worry about whether the book you haven’t started writing yet will sell as well as the one you just released? Are you worried about where the next idea will come from?

You can stress yourself into total paralysis. There are a lot of things that are out of your control. There’s no way to know what market demand will be in a few month, a year, two years. There’s no way to know if an agent will connect with your story even if she tweeted that she had a dream about purple flying unicorns and your book has purple flying unicorns.

Think about why you started writing. Let the love for telling stories be your motivation, not signing the agent or selling lots of copies. That doesn’t mean you abandon those goals. Not by any stretch of the imagination. If you give yourself permission to relax about the things you can’t control, the parts you do have control over – writing the best damn book you can – will be so much easier.

Relax. Such a simple word. So hard to do. I’ve found myself repeating hubby’s “ReeeeeLaaaaxxxxx” when the shoulders start to bunch up and slamming my head into the desk sounds less painful. I don’t always succeed. But when I do, it’s so much more fun.

What’s your solution to those “stuck” moments?

About Orly

Orly Konig-LopezAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet.  When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website,


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Performing Your Book

Barbara Claypole WhiteBy Barbara Claypole White

Before the launch of my debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, I lost 5lbs to performance terror. Painfully shy as a teenager, my mother and music teacher once had to conspire to sneak Valium backstage so I could perform a solo in the high school band. (It’s okay, we’re talking about the seventies.) Bottom line? I was never having a career that involved podiums or microphones.

The day of my first author reading, I attained a catatonic state of anxiety so complete that I believed my heart would stop as I opened my mouth to whisper, “Hello, I’m Barbara.” For someone with high blood pressure and a family history of heart troubles, that’s not an irrational fear.

Three months ago I launched my second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, with an extra 5lbs and a normal case of the jitters. What had changed from one book to the next? Endless exposure to my fear, which is standard treatment for an anxiety disorder? A slew of polished performances? Nope. Acceptance was the key.

I learned to accept that my flaws are part of my performance. Peel back my nerves about author events and you reveal the underlying fear—that instead of projecting the professional author persona, I would crack jokes, loose track of my thoughts, rumble off on tangents, and speak from the heart. Maybe even get a little tearful or start talking about my favorite gin. I routinely do all these things in my author events and they seem to work. As I open myself up to strangers, they open up to me. The comment I hear most often is, “You’re so real.” (And then we have great discussions about my favorite topic: invisible disabilities.)

Does this mean I’m a flake who doesn’t prepare her talks? Au contraire, my friends. I prepare the heck out of every event, but I leave enough wiggle room so that I can be me—so that I can veer off on tangents and go wherever the mood takes me. I like to think of it as prepared spontaneity.

Back to basics, how do I achieve a non-catatonic state of performance being?

(1)  I go to loads of readings and watch A-list authors. I take notes and time their presentations. (I like to figure out how long they spend discussing the book, how long they read for, how long they leave for questions, etc.)

(2) I practice, practice, practice…. (Often I do this in the car, which means I get very strange looks at stoplights.)

(3) When I’ve figure out what I want to say, I give a dummy performance to the toughest critic I know: my husband. I’m cheating a little here, since my beloved is an internationally-renowned academic and a master performer. Really, I couldn’t pick a better coach.

(4) After my husband has told me what works and what doesn’t, I create a crib sheet with bullet points. As long as I cover those bullet points, I can be loosey-goosey. Also, if I get too far off track, I can glance down to see what I haven’t covered and rein myself it.

(5) Then I close my office door and using my crib sheet, I practice with a timer until the presentation works. This gives me a sense of how much I can talk around one particular point (for example, why I write about mental illness).

(6) I prepare several presentations of different length. This is key for book clubs. Some book clubs want a real performance; others want a brief introduction before discussion time. Again, if you’re prepared, you can seem spontaneous (even though you’re really not).

(7) I devote a huge chunk of time to practicing the reading portion of my event, marking words I stumble over or places where I want to pause to give backstory, inject an aside, or simply make use of silence.

(8) When my brain does implode mid-flow, which it did twice in a recent event, I turn it over to the audience and say, “There goes my middle-aged woman’s brain. What was I talking about?” When people shout out answers, you get to play twenty questions. :-)

(9) If the nerves return to haunt me, I remind myself that I AM the leading expert in the world on my novel. Yes, we all make mistakes in research, but nothing you say about your characters or why you wrote the story can ever be wrong. You are performing your book. This is your passion, your creation, your baby. Be yourself and be proud.

What tricks do you have for getting through author events or other speaking engagements?

In-Between HourAbout Barbara

Barbara Claypole White writes and gardens in the forests of North Carolina. English born and educated, she’s married to an internationally-acclaimed academic. Their son, an award-winning poet/musician, attends college in the Midwest. His battles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have inspired her to write love stories about damaged people. THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt, won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. Barbara’s second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, a story of two broken families released on December 31.

Connect with Barbara on her website, Facebook or Twitter

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Hunting Down A Sleuth: Creating a Crime-Solver Readers Will Love

SusanSpann_WITSby Susan Spann

Sherlock Holmes. Jane Marple. Jack Reacher.

Three famous names with something important in common … aside from the fact that each of them solves crimes in mystery or thriller novels.

What is this common element?

Readers love them.

The key to writing successful mysteries and thrillers doesn’t lie in careful plotting, clever crimes, or sneaky suspects. The heart of these stories beats in the chest of the sleuth.

Everyone enjoys a puzzle, and a tightly-woven plot is important, but readers return to a mystery (or thriller) series because they want to spend more time with a favorite hero(ine). Solving the puzzle is much more fun when you “ride along” with a friend, and a well-written sleuth is a reader’s friend indeed.

So before you sit down to commit—and solve—the initial crime in your manuscript, hunt down a compelling hero (or heroine) your readers will remember long after they turn the final page.

How do you “find” such a person? Let’s look at a few of the characteristics that most successful sleuths (and thriller-heroes) have in common:

1. Unusual Occupations. Many authors assume a sleuth must be a professional. The mystery and thriller shelves are filled with FBI agents, police, and forensic specialists doing their best to catch the killer and save the world.

But with so many “standard” crime solvers already in circulation, sometimes readers like to see a different kind of sleuth.

Brother Cadfael is a monk. Miss Marple, a widow. My own detective, Hiro Hattori, is a ninja.

Giving your hero a lesser-known occupation opens new worlds for the reader and also allows you a different range of crime-solving skills. Be creative! Your readers will love the change.

2. A Limp, An Eyepatch, and Battle Scars. In his popular screenwriting how-to, SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder recommends giving every character “a limp and an eyepatch” to distinguish him (or her) from the other characters in the scene. The idea applies to novels, too, and a good detective always has an unusual physical characteristic (or “tell”).

The characteristic can either relate your sleuth’s physical appearance—Is he missing an eye or a finger? Does she dye her eyebrows green?—or you can use it to establish a mood or reaction. My detective, Hiro Hattori, has a tendency to raise an eyebrow for ironic effect. His sidekick, Father Mateo, runs a hand through his hair when distressed or upset.

In addition to adding uniqueness and depth of character, physical characteristics can become an effective shorthand for a character’s mood or thought.

3. And Also, a Trunk Full of Baggage. Special Agent Gibbs (of NCIS) lost his wife and daughter (they were murdered by a drug lord). Jack Reacher has a shadowed past, and lives like he’s on the run. Miss Marple never married, and she’s crotchety as the day is long.

Nobody’s perfect, and your sleuth should not be, either. Every person has experienced disappointment, injury, and unresolved issues (or broken dreams). Your hero needs to suffer, too.

Whether the suffering happens onstage (for example, the death of a family member) or off (a tragedy or problem in the past) is up to you. But you must do something. Readers respond to damaged heroes. Watching a character overcome her own problems to help someone else is compelling on many levels.

Take a hammer to your sleuth’s emotional kneecaps. Use your plot or series to help him recover.

Your readers will love you—and your detective—for it.

4. Keep the Skeletons IN the Closet (Mostly). A good detective or thriller hero must feel like a real person, which almost always involves an extensive and detailed backstory.

Readers hate backstory. Flights of memory, or fancy, interrupt the flow of the narrative and distract from the sleuth’s objective: solving the crime.

The answer? Treat your detective’s backstory like a good mystery: drop some clues, but don’t reveal the entire thing. Spread the story across the series. Hide it in the stories like an Easter bunny dropping chocolate eggs. (Don’t spend too long on that metaphor. You don’t want to think about where those “chocolates” come from…)

By keeping your hero’s skeletons IN the closet, except for occasional peeks, you’ll keep your readers engaged, intrigued, and eager for the next reveal.

5. It’s Dangerous to Go Alone … Some sleuths do solve crimes alone, but most of them have a sidekick, a pet, or both. Sidekicks serve an important purpose (which, hopefully, I’ll get to share in more detail next month). Pets do too. They humanize the hero(ine) and draw the reader closer. Incorporating one, or both, allows the writer to bring the reader right into the story, alongside the sleuth, and to see the sleuth behaving like a human being as well as a hero.

The choices are limitless, and the options as wide as your imagination.

You don’t have to integrate all of these tips to create a fantastic, compelling sleuth. Select the ones that work for you, and ignore the ones that don’t. Even if you work with only one or two of these options, you’ll find your hero becoming increasingly three-dimensional and intriguing … characteristics that keep your readers coming back for more.

Have you ever thought about writing a mystery? How about a thriller? Do you use some or all of these elements when creating your protagonists? (They work in other genres too, you know!)

9781250027054_p0_v2_s260x420About Susan

Susan Spann is a California publishing and business attorney who also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. Her second novel, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases July 15, 2014. Susan’s legal practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website,, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).


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Sharing the Love at Writers In The Storm

Scan 3We’re excited to announce that Writers In The Storm was named in the 15th Annual Writer’s Digest “101 Top Blogs for Writers” list! And to show our thanks to our amazing guest bloggers and readers, we’re throwing open the comments today for a little “Pimp and Promote.”

How does this work?

To quote Genie in Aladdin, “There are a few provisos, a couple of quid-pro-quos” …

  • Pimp out somebody else’s work – this can be a favorite author, blogger, post or book you’ve read, a wonderful teacher or just someone who had profound influence on you as a writer or a person.
  • Promote one of your projects that you’re excited about – a hobby, a blog, a book, a new direction your writing is taking you. You decide. Just tell us all about it in the comments! The rest of us will jump in and “ooooh and coo” at you, and likely promote your project even further (because we’re just so darn excited today).

Better yet, do one of each! And please peruse the comments. You might find something else you like in the plethora of pimping that’s about to ensue.

Thanks again for making WITS one of the top writer’s blogs! We appreciate you.

~ Fae, Jenny, Laura, Orly and Sharla

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A Synopsis Checklist

by Shannon Donnelly

Years ago I was struggling to try and figure out how to write a synopsis. It took a lot of input from other writers, and some workshops, but I finally became comfortable with syopsis writing—and now it’s one of my favorite tools. I’m now doing my “Sexy Synopsis workshop again for Outreach International Romance Writers, but I wanted to offer up my synopsis checklist.

A synopsis is one of the most useful tools you can have. It keeps you from getting stuck. It starts you thinking about blurb and marketing copy. It can even show up flaws you might have in your plot, as in maybe the conflict really isn’t strong enough.

The checklist I developed came from looking at a bunch of synopses and from taking a lot of classes on synopsis writings. Feel free to take this list and customize for your own use. Your synopsis should ideally be under three pages but one is even better.

1. Does it cover the hero and heroine’s relevant character traits and goals in a fresh way?

2. Does it tell the scenes with the most conflicts–internal and external–for the hero and the heroine, with an emphasis on the main character’s conflict?

3. Does it offer specific dramatic scenes for the main turning points, detailing what happens, where it happens, escalating the risk to the main character’s goal, and offering harder and harder choices for the main character in each of these scenes?

4. Does it have scenes that show a developing relationship, including attraction and hero and heroine compatibility, with mention of the feelings of the characters, and also telling what is keeping a relationship from working between these two?

5. Does the story include scenes with sexual developments between the characters and how those scenes impact character conflicts, compatibilities and emotions?

6. Does it tell all characters’ motivations–including for any villain or antagonist?

7. Are the characters fresh? Are they developed by looking past cliché to what is core and specific to the characters?

8. Do the characters make choices that come from within that specific person, rather than from the writer manipulating the story? Can you say, “Yes, if I were this person, I would make this choice?”

9. Does it raise questions to keep interest going–and then provide answers to all questions raised?

10. Does it include a scene that is the climax or black moment, and make clear the resolution of the story with an ending that wraps up all story elements?

11. Does it include a strong theme that is woven into the scenes and character choices? And which is revealed strongest in the climax of the book and the character’s ultimate choice?

12. Is the voice active, with all extra words cut, and with the best possible word choices with the clearest, most concise writing possible in a tone that matches the tone of the book?

Always remember your synopsis must have the beginning, middle, and end. Never put in “and you have to read the manuscript to find out how this ends.” That’s an instant rejection from any agent or editor submission. And if you’re self-publishing, you want better blurb copy than that (and you better know how your own book ends).

About Shannon

ShannonDonnellyShannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

She’s at work on her next Regency romance, a sequel to Lady Scandal, and will be bringing out the next book in the Mackenzie Solomon Demons & Warders Series, following up on Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire.

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The Things They Carry: Creating a Mobile Sanctuary for your Characters

Photo taken by Jay Blakesberg.

Photo taken by Jay Blakesberg.

by Jessica Topper

She keeps a lock of hair in her pocket
She wears a cross around her neck
Yes, the hair is from a little boy
And the cross is someone she has not met
Not yet

This verse from The Black Crowes’ “She Talks To Angels” always stops me in my tracks. Even though it’s a song, I think it would make a great creative writing prompt for fiction. It begs the questions Who is she? Does she know this little boy? What happened to him? Who gave her the cross? as well as the larger questions like Where is she going? and Where has she been? And come to think of it, why does she insist on carrying these items on her person, as opposed to stashing them in a drawer? What does she believe in?

Every day, we lug stuff around with us. In our purses, in our cars. Every house probably has a “junk drawer” where “stuff” goes. Does each little piece of miscellany have meaning? Probably not. But life is hectic and it’s hard to find the time and energy to tackle those items and keep them at bay.

As writers, we are constantly tossing things in and out of the junk drawer. A cool thought to save for later, a perfect emotion or detail to pull out when the time is right. We pepper our prose with the meaningful and the mundane all in the name of creating realistic, memorable stories. It’s our duty as word-weavers to give our characters “things” to help define them. Sometimes it’s as simple (and as essential) as a name, a profession or a pet. We stick them in houses by the beach, in penthouses near the sky. We give them friendships, relationships, enemies.

But a novel – like a song – has a set number of words, it is self-contained. Because word count is at a precious premium, we have to make those things mean something – to our characters, and hopefully to our readers.

In my first novel, Louder Than Love, I used place as a grounding force for my characters, creating a sanctuary from words and memory. It was easy – I had a widow who couldn’t face staying in Manhattan, where her husband had existed one day and not the next. So I made her flee with her young daughter to the place where she existed before she knew him: her hometown. I created a fictional sleepy suburb of New York City and gave my characters a nearby lake to visit when they were in need of solace or inspiration. This place set the tone and in a way, defined my two main characters, Kat and Adrian. The gentle, constant push-pull of the waves mirrored these two new lovers, as their relationship grew like a ripple in the water.

But my next novel posed an interesting challenge. Dictatorship of the Dress (Berkley, coming 2015) takes place in a span of five days and entirely in transit. The story follows two strangers, thrown together on the road: primarily in airports, planes, cabs and hotels. They’re stripped of most of their creature comforts: no home to cozy up in, no job with a desk to hide behind. How can you take characters out of their elements and still convey who they are and why they are the way they are? Their dialogue, their goals and their motivations move the plot and give us a glimpse. But how can we punch it up and create memorable characters without their usual surroundings?

With things. With stuff.

My heroine is a quirky comic book artist. Obviously she’s carrying her ever-present sketchpad with her. But I needed to give her other “things” to help define her, comfort her, and make her feel at home while she was in flux. I began to cull a motley assortment of items she just happens to have on hand in her carry-on and pulls out with uncanny and comedic timing. (Think Hermoine Granger’s handbag with the Undetectable Extension Charm in Harry Potter, just without the practical magic.)

It started with a Magic Eight Ball. Then a Batman alarm clock. And suddenly, out rolled fuchsia, zebra print Duck Tape. It all seemed random at first. But like rummaging through and inventorying the junk drawer, my writer’s brain began to assign meaning, importance and history to each item. Weaving her acquisition of them into her backstory. And slowly answering the questions Who gave them to her? What do these items mean to her? What has she gone through? Why did she bring them on her trip?

Copyright Kristy Tasca Photography

Copyright Kristy Tasca Photography

And perhaps a larger question: Can she let go of any of them?

Last month, Sharla Rae did an excellent post here on Tips for Writing Children, which got me thinking. Children and “stuff” naturally go hand in hand – we’ve all seen the magic of what a kid can do with a refrigerator box, right? What looks like fodder for our recycling bin becomes a time machine/beauty salon/race car/you get the picture.

Kids covet different things than adults do, and they covet differently. They can assign meaning to an item well beyond the scope of their current age and maturity level. Or maybe there’s no reasoning behind the item at all except the knee-jerk reaction of IT’S MINE. Like the iconic image of Linus with his blanket, what kids carry can be powerful, unquestionable and utterly necessary on their journey.

While writing a scene in Louder Than Love that involved five-year old Abbey bringing up the difficult subject of her deceased father to her mother Kat, I gave her items to help her and define her.

Abbey began pulling items out of her purse and placing them neatly across her lap. I glanced in the rearview mirror as she brought out a Pez dispenser of a kitty cat and a sparkly green guitar pick Adrian had given her. Next came a pair of glow-in-the-dark vampire fangs waiting for her mouth to grow into. She carefully stuffed them between her lips and did a chomp-test; no, still too big. She placed them on her lap as well.

“Then Jake said, ‘My dad says your dad is six feet under.’”

I jerked my head up in the mirror, but she wasn’t watching me. She had pulled a photograph of Pete out of her bag. It had wrinkles from over-handling but was still a great shot of him. We had gone to a Marathon Party at a friend’s apartment that overlooked First Avenue. Pete was in need of a haircut and shave, but looked positively radiant in the picture, wolfy teeth and all.

“And what did you tell him?”

“I told him my dad is in the stars and had two feet, not six! Then I said, ‘your dad must be crazy.’” The way she drawled out her last word made me long to leap over the seat and hug her.

“Good answer, Abb. You know . . . Dad was smiling right at you in that picture.”

She was holding the photo with both hands, quite close to her face. I leaned my chest on the steering wheel as we coasted down our street, trying to hold my heart together in one piece. “Yep,” I managed. “Everyone at the party was looking out the window watching the marathon runners race up the street, but you began cooing . . . you weren’t even two months old, riding in the pouch carrier on my chest. And he turned and smiled at you and I snapped the picture.”

“Hi,” Abbey said, as if she was cooing at a baby herself. “Hi Dad.” She neatly tucked the photo into her pocketbook, replaced her other treasures, and smiled.


Abbey and Kat could have had their discussion in the rearview mirror about the schoolyard bully without the aid of props, but I don’t think it would have been as memorable, or as meaningful. The kitty cat Pez dispenser and sparkly guitar pick reinforce the special bond Abbey has with her mother’s new suitor, Adrian. Because she was just a baby when her father died, Abbey needs that photo of Pete for her world to make sense. She’s had to deal with so much at such a young age, yet it’s important to remember she’s still a child. She’s been waiting to grow into those plastic vampire teeth, and she’ll still have to wait a little more.

These are her treasurers, for the moment.

So what is the state of your junk drawer? As a writer, you are the custodian of your characters’ items, the “stuff” their dreams – and your fiction – are made of. Choose wisely, choose with abandon, choose often. Make the things they carry count.

Comment below for a chance to win an e-book of Louder Than Love. Winner will be chosen and announced on Monday!

About Jessica

9781101634790_large_Louder_Than_LoveJessica Topper is an ex-librarian turned rock n roll number cruncher. By day, she does bookkeeping for touring rock bands. By night, she creates books of her own.
She is the author of two novels from Berkley: Louder Than Love, and the forthcoming Dictatorship of the Dress (January 2015).

Find her online at and

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