Of Characters and Culture (by Katie Morford)

Nobody grows up in a vacuum.

We are each shaped by a dizzying, multi-layer construct of culture and sub-culture. Our culture often determines our occupation, our political leanings, our moral compass, our sense of humor and, to an extent, how our personality manifests. Culture could be defined as the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.

The last one-and–a-half years I’ve spent living and working cross-culturally have made this truth quite clear: Culture shapes characters, not the other way around. I’m a history buff, as well as a fan of speculative fiction, so it’s with great perplexity that I have read the recent rash of novels that are supposedly set in a unique time or culture, yet the central characters react to circumstances from a modern American worldview.

Now, I’m no expert on culture. But I am a learner, and I’ve received a bit of a crash course over the last couple of years. So, hopefully I can shed some light on this complex topic with a few “Dos” and “Don’ts.”

 

Do your research.

Whether you’re looking through yearbooks for a contemporary or historical novel or stirring dust in a library that exists only in your fantastical imagination, find out political histories, ancient feuds, where the ethnic/racial/class lines are drawn, etc. Know what your characters had for breakfast that morning, and where the food came from. Aim to include details from each of the five senses.

For example, from my recent trip to the Middle East I remember the feel of blowing sand on my face, the sound of the 6 a.m. call to prayer, the taste of spicy biryani rice, and the sight of rolling, shifting dunes as far as the eye can see.

 

Don’t show off.

Resist the urge to include details just to show you did your research. Describing every article of clothing just isn’t necessary. It’s a novel not a sewing magazine. Sci-fi writers tend to go overboard on technogadgets. But while futuristic technology may be extraordinary to us, your character won’t really care, because it’s part of their culture. Therefore, they “turn out the light” rather than “gave a voice command to dim the halogenic mood lighting that came into vogue last year, 2034.” If you’re talking about the light fixture, it’d better emit rays of death about to incinerate your hero or heroine.

 

Do know your cultural standards.

It’s great to base your cultures off pre-existing or historical cultures (medieval fantasy is a prime example). But when mixing cultural influences, avoid conflicting value systems that will make your resulting character feel contrived.

For example, on the surface mixing Middle Eastern and Japanese cultures would seem to be a recipe for world-building disaster. However, the shame/honor and family-oriented value system of these cultures has much more in common than, say, the individualistic Americans and the rule-following Germans or Brits. Know the rules so you can break them well.

 

Don’t ignore cultural rules to suit your needs

Throwing out cultural norms for the sake of plot or your own agenda doesn’t work. Not only can readers smell that cheese a mile away, it also undermines the depth of your character. Common offenders are “strong” female heroines in medieval-based cultures who get their way by running around with a sword or saying whatever pops into their heads. I’m sure we can all think of many other examples. Gender roles and social constructs exist for a reason, and shouldn’t be ignored.

Characters should react and make decisions based on their beliefs, values, and worldviews, which the culture they live in affects dramatically.

 

Do be original.

Just because a character is consistent with their culture doesn’t mean they can’t be unique and intriguing. Use the prevailing culture to show how a character is different—or why they respond in a way that surprises the reader. Actions that may come off as chauvinistic in one culture will be interpreted as good manners in another. Use culture to reveal character.

 

Don’t forget to have fun.

Creating a new character in the context of their cultural background is complex and time-consuming but also incredibly rewarding when done well.

Your character will step fully formed from the pages of your manuscript and into your reader’s imagination. And your characters will stay there long after your reader has turned the last page.

Recommended reading list: For characters who behave consistent with their own culture(s), take a look at Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and the Walks the Fire series by Stephanie Whitson.

 

11139585_10153288682364529_1934188503_nAbout the Author:

Katie Morford is a media missionary living in England and traveling the world making documentaries for a Christian non-profit. She is also a founder and editor of Crosshair Press, a small indie publishing company dedicated to high-quality action fiction from a biblical worldview. In her spare time, she writes sci-fi and action-adventure novels and eats way too much Indian take-out.

You can check out here missions blog at www.storyforhisglory.com.

A Serial Short Story on Your Blog? (by Gillian Bronte Adams)

For kids, summer tends to mean watermelon seed spitting contests in the back yard, followed by cannonball challenges in the swimming pool. For adults, summer means high AC bills (in Texas, at least), beautiful sunsets, and a seat belt buckle hot enough to serve as a branding iron. Or a frying pan. (I’ve heard it both ways.)

For me, working at a youth camp as I do, summer is go, go, go time, which means both my writing and my blog tend to slacken off a bit from May to August. So last summer, as I was gearing up to dive into an awesome three and a half months of long days, short nights, and endless weeks, I decided I had to come up with something to keep my blog from becoming a ghost town in my absence.

My solution?

Run a serial story with a “choose your own adventure” flair where the readers get to vote on how to begin the next installment. Posting once a week meant it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to keep up with, and if I missed a week or two here and there, it wasn’t the end of the world. It struck me as a unique way to keep the conversation going and keep people coming back when there wasn’t much else going on.

So I launched into a fantasy story set in a late 1600’s-early 1700’s like time period in which a young man–by the unfortunate name of Alexander Mitus Scott Beauford III–discovers that his legendary family curse is actually real and is forced to forsake his military dreams and follow the path of a mysterious woman named Destiny. Each installment follows the adventures of Alexander and Destiny (and a few new companions they meet along the way) and typically ends with a cliffhanger or intriguing statement of some sort, followed by three options for the beginning of the next scene.

Though I failed my rather ambitious “once a week” posting plan, running a serial story has been loads of fun. So I decided to share some of the things I learned along the way for any of you who might be interested in trying something similar.

Hold Your Story Loosely

When I started When Destiny Comes Calling, I took the faintest spark of an idea and ran with it. After establishing a few main plot points that we still may or may not hit, I didn’t try to plan out the rest of the story or guide it in a specific direction. I wanted it to have that feel of wild spontaneity that first drafts generally have, to help include the readers in the whole process.

As the author, you can occasionally steer the voting process through the options you present your readers. But all too often, I’ve discovered that the readers will choose an option I didn’t anticipate … and it makes the story that much more fun and exciting for me, as well as for them.

Don’t Discard Your Other Ideas

At the end of each installment, I try to present the readers with three very different beginnings to the next, each of which could swing the story in a wildly different direction. Coming up with three different plot points each time can be a bit tough. So (shhh!) I’ve learned to save my discarded ideas and bring them back in new ways later. The readers are none the wiser, and you make sure to use every ounce of the brilliance you dreamed up.

Waste not, want not, right?

Tell Your Readers Up Front That This Is Rough Draft Material

One of my biggest worries when I published that first post was that my readers were going to expect all the spit and polish of a published book, which simply wasn’t possible with my schedule. Rather than agonize over every word like I normally do, I decided to tell my readers up front that this was first draft material that had never seen a red pen and was written tongue in cheek purely for their enjoyment and mine.

Change up the Voting Process Now and Then

Coming up with three very different options each time can be a bit of a drain on the imagination, so every now and then I like to change up the voting process. Some other ideas I’ve used have been presenting the readers with several new character or setting options and asking them to vote or allowing them to come up with and vote on suggestions for the next dialogue exchange. Changing things up both keeps me from falling into a rut and is fun for the readers.

Keep the Installments Short

As with anything online, shorter tends to be better. Readers tend to gloss over long sections of text. So keeping your installments shorter allows you to stretch the storyline over a longer period of time and also ensures that your readers are more likely to read all the way to the end. Unfortunately, brevity is not my strong suit …

Something Needs to Happen in Each Installment

Have you ever watched one of those TV shows where nothing ever seems to happen? The characters hit road block after road block that keep them from achieving their main goal and never seem to get anywhere? Don’t fall into the same trap with your serial short story. Something noteworthy should happen in each installment to keep your readers clamoring for the next.

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned along the way. Have you ever run (or considered running) a serial story on your blog? If so, I would love to hear what you have learned as well!

 

Gillian Bronte AdamsAuthor Bio: GILLIAN BRONTE ADAMS is a sword-wielding, horse-riding, coffee-loving speculative fiction author from the great state of Texas. During the day, she manages the equestrian program at a youth camp. But at night, she kicks off her boots and spurs, pulls out her trusty laptop, and transforms into a novelist. She is the author of Orphan’s Song, book one of the Songkeeper Chronicles, and Out of Darkness Rising. Visit Gillian online at her blog, Twitter, or Facebook page.

 

The Fan Girl Voice (by Meg Ebba)

FlamesThe beginning of Isaiah 64 is a prayer of longing, the kind of eloquent pleading found in the Psalms or the Song of Solomon.  It’s the kind of epic language that we spec-fic lovers understand:

“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Isaiah 64:1-2, ESV

I’ll straight up cry through all the Christmas carols, but I don’t usually tear up in the middle of Isaiah for no reason.  However, when these verses were read aloud at church a couple weeks ago, they sounded comforting and exciting.  These are my kind of words! The passage goes on to describe how when the Lord did awesome things they did not look for, the mountains quaked at His presence.  He made the Israelites melt in the hand of their iniquities.

I tried to explain to a friend how I would rather melt in the hand of my iniquities than “feel a little backslidden,” and how the God I love is the kind who made Israel fade like a leaf and then orchestrated a heavenly plan to restore them and then grafted us into that salvation, and wasn’t it amazing …

Basically, I rambled. And because this was a patient friend, a nice friend, a friend who is used to me getting a little more emotional than New Englanders usually get about a random bit of scripture spoken aloud at church, she let me exult until I was all out of words.  And then she smiled and said,  “That was your fangirl voice.”

Oops.

Apparently, I use the same voice to preach the deep, abiding wonderfulness of Isaiah 64 as I do describing the new trailer for the season finale of “Arrow.”  But I can’t help it! I don’t want to help it.  I mean, maybe it would be better to try and modulate my passions, but I’m pushing forty and I have accepted my lack of chill.

The language that describes God, His purposes and His ways is rich, evocative, and should not only fill us with awe but leave us almost breathless as we try to praise Him. The best part about being a fan of any kind is that when we find bits like Isaiah 64 that thrill us to our dry, weary bones, we can stand up among the people and say, “Yes! This is my God!”  And yes, we’ll be loud about it because what if the person sitting next to us is completely lost?  What if he or she can’t begin to imagine fire kindling a brushpile on a cold, trembling night?  I’m not saying it’s us versus them, I’m saying how fortunate we are to have each other. In verse 9, there is another plea.  This time it is less eloquent, but more heartfelt:

Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, we are all your people.

See? It’s okay. Blessed are the specfans. For behold, we are all His people.

 

MegEbbaAuthor Bio:

Megan Ebba was a staffworker with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a librarian before becoming a writer. In 2014, she won the ACFW’s Genesis contest in the speculative fiction category. Megan lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.

When Good People do Nothing (by A.C. Williams)

batmanbegins_RachelIt’s one of the most memorable scenes in Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman Begins (2005)—fiery assistant DA Rachel Dawes slaps college-age Bruce Wayne repeatedly after he admits to conspiring to kill his parents’ murderer. But her actions, to me, are less poignant than the chilling question that led to them: “What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?”

It’s a good question, regardless if it’s directed at a fictional billionaire playboy or you as you stare your screen reading this post. If the good people do nothing, what chance does anyone have?

Blog posts, book reviews, and social media comment threads have become the tool of choice for bullies. Spend any amount of time online and you’ll be flabbergasted at what one person will say to someone they don’t even know. There’s no accountability with online commenting. In many instances, people can remain anonymous, so they feel like they can say whatever they want, whether it’s relevant or not, whether it’s even true or not. It seems that the concept of kindness has very little place on the Internet.

I recently experienced this troubling phenomenon with a blog post I wrote about having a Christ-like response to my state’s governor. I’ve operated AlwaysPeachy.com for about four years, and I’ve never had more than 1,200 views on a single post in a day. In two days, this one post generated more than 20,000 views from unique IP addresses. And if the hit count stunned me, the comments left me speechless.

I didn’t know these people, and they didn’t know me. But somehow because they read (or skimmed) my blog post, that gave them the right to comment on my spiritual worth or my intelligence level.

But here’s my question: If one blog post got 20,000 hits in two days, why are there fewer than 100 comments? Sure a few of them are kind. A few more are actually even relevant to the blog post itself. But where are the Christ-followers who actually read the post and had something useful to say? Did everyone just want to stir up trouble and hurt feelings, or was there somebody who actually wanted to have a conversation?

Where are the good people who read the post and agreed with it? In 20,000 people, there had to be someone. Were they silent because they didn’t want to rock the boat? Were they keeping their mouths shut because they didn’t want to draw the wrath of the others?

I don’t want a defender. That blog is me sharing what God’s teaching me on a daily basis. But I would appreciate someone reading what I’ve written and posting something that demonstrates they thought about what’s there, whether they agree with me or not.

You know what I’m talking about if you’re published. People read your book (or you assume they read your book), and that means they’re an expert on you. So they post horrible, vicious things—untrue things—designed to hurt and tear you down because they disagree. And I don’t care how much you say other people’s opinions don’t matter, it’s discouraging if all you see are mean reviews and comments.

So where are the readers who are willing to read and comment with kindness? Where are the good people?

Just because you didn’t like a book doesn’t mean you can attack an author’s motivation or intelligence level. Just because you would have written it differently doesn’t give you the right to tear someone else down. Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean there has to be conflict. We are free to disagree with each other, but God will never condone hurting someone else, especially if you’re only doing it to make yourself feel better.

I’ve learned the hard way that debate and harsh discussions never convince someone to change his or her mind. You can’t make someone see your point of view by being cruel or forceful. A change of heart and mind is something only God can do.

So keep that in mind the next time you comment on a blog or post a book review. Be honest, yes, but don’t just lash out. There’s a real person on the other side of your screen, and, if you’re a Christ-follower, your job is never to tear other people down. Your job is to speak truth in love.

Maybe the truth is hard, but you don’t have to be.

Was there a time when you received a cruel book review or blog comment? How did you respond?

 

 

acwilliamsAbout the Author:

A.C. Williams, a founder of Crosshair Press, started writing at age 11 and has completed around 40 novels. When she isn’t writing, she hangs out at her family’s 100-year-old farm on the Kansas prairie. She loves sharing what Jesus is doing in her life and believes there’s a Doctor Who quote for every life situation. Her debut novel, Nameless, hit the shelves December 2014, and her second novel, the romantic comedy Finding Fireflies, followed in February 2015. You can connect with her on her website, on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

The Christian Author vs. the Christian Book (by Katie Clark)

I was once asked for a blog Q & A, “Do you consider yourself a Christian author or a writer of Christian books?”

Honestly, I was confused. Was there a difference? I had to do a little digging, but I learned there was.

Writer of Christian Books: an author who writes books specifically geared for the Christian market, whose characters are Christians by the end of the book.

Christian Author: an author who professes Christ but focuses on writing a good story in general, without necessarily putting any Christian message into the book.

In the blog post, I responded that I consider myself both. I write novels for the Christian market, but I also write children’s books for the general market. Through this I realized there was more to the debate than meets the eye. There are certain stigmas, expectations, and dilemmas that come with whichever category you fall into. However, it’s important to know which category you’re in. How else will you know how to market your books?

The Stigma:

No matter which category you find yourself in, there is a stigma from the other side that says you’re wrong. Are you a Christian writer who writes for the secular market? Some Christian writers might comment on how you’re not spreading Christ’s message, being too worldly, or promoting ungodliness.

Are you a Christian writer who writes for the Christian market? Some who write for the general market could accuse you of writing fluff with fake characters. After all, who doesn’t smoke, cuss, drink, or get divorced?

The Expectations:

No matter which category you find yourself in, there are expectations from fellow Christians to put a salvation message into your book. If it’s not a salvation message, it should be another overt Christian moral or value. One author I know recently expressed frustration because Christian readers were complaining she hadn’t given a salvation message in her book. Fellow Christians just expected she’d do it.

The Dilemma:Enslaved banenr

Christians writing for other Christians typically face the dilemma of finding readers outside their own Christian circles. At a recent library book signing event, I dealt with the uncomfortable situation of getting snubbed for writing Christian speculative fiction. The library was hosting one hundred authors, and the place was packed. Tables lined every available space, with authors happily hawking their wares. Many of them were Christian authors. Many of them were speculative fiction authors. I was the only one whose book fit both categories.

One of the customers walked through, browsing books. He stopped at my table and picked up Vanquished, book one in my dystopian trilogy. “This looks really good,” he said. We talked for a few minutes before his eye caught my publisher’s logo at the bottom of the back cover. His face fell. “Oh,” he said. “This is Christian fiction?”

I smiled and confirmed it, and he quickly returned the book to the stack and went on his way.

As Christians, we recognize that not everyone out in the world wants to hear a Christian message. This man’s behavior wasn’t shocking—it was typical. However, even within the realm of writing for other Christians, speculative fiction writers can feel ostracized. Compared to other genres in Christian fiction, a spec fic author might feel there are less opportunities to excel in the business.

The Plan:

If you’re wondering how knowing your category can help you, you’ve come to the right place. How can you give yourself an edge in the business?

  • Identify your intended audience. If you’re writing a book without any overt Christian message or characters you are probably writing for the general market. If you’re writing Christian books with Christian characters and a definite Christ-centered message you are probably writing for the Christian market.
  • Choose the appropriate publisher for your manuscript based on your intended audience. If you’ve determined you’re writing for the general market should you be subbing to Christian publishers? If you’ve determined you’re writing Christian fiction should you be subbing to publishers within the general market?

 

Knowing your category can show you which publishers to study, which books to emulate, and which editors to sub to. You wouldn’t send a fantasy to Love Inspired. You wouldn’t send a romance manuscript to a children’s publisher. Don’t worry about the stigmas, expectations, or dilemmas of being in one category or another. Figure out which category you’re in, learn what those readers like, and write it. Keep in mind! These guideline are just as relevant for the self-publishing author. Knowing which readers you’re going after allows you to identify the readership for your work and narrow down your marketing efforts.

 

Now it’s your turn!

Which category do you see yourself in?

 

DSC_8889About the Author:

KATIE CLARK writes young adult speculative fiction, including her dystopian Enslaved Series, made up of Vanquished, Deliverance, and Redeemer. Her other works include multiple children’s books with Capstone Press, Bearport Publishing, and more. You can connect with her at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

Enter for Your Chance to Be in a Short Story Anthology

Announcing the ESCAPE Short Story Contest

In Partnership with Brimstone Fiction, the Speculative imprint for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas

Call us crazy, but yes, there’s another scholarship contest coming up for the 2015 Realm Makers conference. Thanks to our friends at Brimstone Fiction, we will be offering an amazing opportunity for you short story writers. The purpose of this contest is to fundraise for the Realm Makers scholarship fund.

The theme of this short story contest is ESCAPE

What we’re looking for:Brimstone anthology graphic

  • Your short story can be about anything as long as it is Speculative Fiction and contains the theme Escape (make it obvious).
  • An original, previously unpublished (in any form) 500-5000 word short story. Stories should be complete with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Stories should be unique, thought-provoking, and reflective of a Christian worldview without being preachy or overbearing. They should have complex characters and a compelling author’s voice. Appeal to both the general and Christian markets is a plus.
  • No graphic violence or sex.

Continue reading

“The First 500″ Scholarship Contest

Tosca Lee at Realm Makers 2014Thanks to the generous contribution of Tosca Lee, the keynote speaker for the 2014 Realm makers conference, we are excited to announce the first of several scholarship opportunities available to prospective Realm Makers:2015 attendees. Are you dying to come to the conference in August, but sure financial circumstances in your life will prevent you from affording registration and housing? Then this scholarship opportunity might just be your chance. Continue reading