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I’ve visited a couple of local cemeteries recently, because my siblings and I need to choose a memorial marker for our mother. Some people stay as far from graveyards as possible, but I find them restful, at least in broad daylight. The dates and names give wings to my imagination.

Just as the people buried in the churchyard are more than granite engravings, our fictional characters need to be more than life-size cardboard cutouts. The years that lie between birth and death dates are mysteries, untold stories of real people.

One stone marks the life of a wife/mother who died at the age of 22. Why? An accident or illness? What happened to the child? I feel the grief and lay my hand on the stone as I pass.

A large, flat engraving includes details of birthplace, emigration, moves, farm locations, spouse, children. Few are this informative, but it tells the story of an eventful life, well-lived. These details considered important enough to be carved in stone.

Several small graves lie in the shade of the poplars, babies that died at birth or in their early childhood. Stories of unexpected loss and grief.

Ideas come from everywhere, and a cemetery is a tremendous resource. It can also remind us of the fragility of life, the brevity of the time we have to make our mark between two dates.

If you’re looking for writing ideas, inspiration, or perhaps a quiet and meditative walk, visit a cemetery, and remember that:

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants” Psalm 116:15 NIV.

 

 

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speech balloon image

“He said,” and then “she said,” and then “they said…” The preceding is a good way to lose our readers. How can we, as writers, make our dialogue exciting, compelling and unique to the characters?

Let’s begin by defining the role of dialogue in fiction. There are two main purposes for dialogue:

— to show character development

— to move the plot forward

Dialogue is not an opportunity for the writer to manipulate characters in order to fill in extraneous information. Example: Sherry stared at Bill and said, “You know, of course, that there used to be a well right where we’re standing.

Do not manipulate dialogue to tell the reader about background information, or to repeat things the reader already knows.

This example does not show anything about the character or the plot, only about the author’s inability to properly incorporate necessary (or not) backstory.

Now to the content of dialogue. What do we include and what do we omit? When people speak, they use a lot of filler words that are almost always unnecessary in writing. Alfred Hitchcock said, “Drama is life with the dull parts left out.” So it is with writing dialogue. We must capture the essence and leave out the dull parts. We must be exact and careful. We must give the reader the benefit of the doubt as far as being able to understand our intent. 

“Writing dialogue isn’t about replicating speech. It’s about giving an impression of it and also of improving upon it.”                                                                                                       http://www.novel-writing-help.com/writing-dialogue.html

Each of our characters needs a unique voice. Not necessarily quirky, although sometimes that works, but distinctive. We need to ask ourselves who the character is. What does he do for a living? How much education does she have? What level of society did he grow up in? Does she use certain unique speech patterns?

If the characters are from different language backgrounds, research the juxtaposition of their words. For example, in English we would say, “I can’t speak German very well,” while in German, the order of the words in direct translation would be, “I can’t very well German speak.” We may have to play with the order a bit to make it readable, and not overdo dialect and accent, but if we take all these character details into consideration, each one will speak differently.

Here are a couple of tips: 1. Find a picture of your characters from a magazine or online from a stock photo site and let the person in the photo speak to you. Sounds weird but it works. 2. Read your dialogue aloud to make sure it reads smoothly and easily. 

 Next, let’s look at the technique of writing dialogue.

Just as every scene in a story needs conflict, so every section of dialogue requires conflict to keep the reader’s attention. If it doesn’t have conflict, it should be cut.

It’s important to vary speech patterns in dialogue, but the speeches should always be as brief as possible. If there’s more to say, the character can tell it in bytes, not all at once. Connected to this, there’s the issue of white space. The way the speech is set out on the page will determine how easy it is to read and how appealing it is to the reader. If a speech goes for pages unbroken by paragraphs, many readers won’t bother to read it.

“And then,” she said, “there are speech tags.” We only need enough of them to maintain clarity, and it’s best to stick with said, even though our grade six teachers may have taught us otherwise. The word said becomes invisible and thus easy to read. It doesn’t take us out of the action as would retorted or maligned.

On that same topic, avoid the adverbs. Instead of writing, “…she said sweetly,” let the character show the emotion behind her words: “she said, and winked at him.”

We can often use beats of action to maintain clarity in speech. “Don’t touch that!” Ruby grabbed the doll and held it to her chest.

If we study good dialogue, we can imitate it and will soon be able to write it well ourselves.

Finally, we must learn how to properly use punctuation in dialogue. It’s not difficult, although it feels cumbersome at first. With practice it can become second nature. There are online sites if we’re unsure, as well as lots of good resource books. I’ve recently read a couple e-books that were poorly punctuated, and it’s distracting and frustrating. We want our work to be as polished as possible.

Online dialogue punctuation sites:                           http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue
http://litreactor.com/columns/talk-it-out-how-to-punctuate-dialogue-in-your-prose
http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/punctuate-dialogue.html
Handy resources:
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (includes differences between Canadian, British and American usage)
Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Connor (a wonderfully light-hearted grammar book)
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (the famous old standby)

All the best as you practice and perfect your dialogue. See you next time to talk about Setting.

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blog-hop-for-writers imageOur assignment for the third post of our Blog Hop is to write a character sketch of “My Hero.” If I were to write about my real life hero, it would be my dad, who modeled for me a life well-lived. However, I’ve chosen to stay with the writing theme, so I will introduce to you one of my favorite story characters, who plays an active role in my fourth historical novel, Other Side of the River. (Character sketch template from Scrivener.)

Character Name:  Tante Manya

Role in Story:  Manya is the great aunt of my main character, Luise. She is my pacing character in this story, allowing for a break in tension when it’s needed. She is known by Luise and her father, Abram, as Tante Manya.   

Occupation:  Manya is an elderly woman who lives alone but helps out in her nephew’s home when needed.    

Physical Description & Personality: This is how Luise thinks of Tante Manya: “She was old, Tante Manya, had been old as long as Luise could remember. Papa said she had been old when he was a boy, but when his own mother passed away, her sister Manya had become a second mother to him, and he loved her fiercely and forever. To Luise, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. The kerchief tied beneath her chin cradled a toothless smile between weathered-apple cheeks, and framed frost-blue eyes that sparkled with wit and warmth.”

Photo Credit Gerald Hildebrand. Appeared in Witness Magazine July 2004.

Photo Credit Gerald Hildebrand. Appeared in Witness Magazine July 2004.

Habits/Mannerisms:  Tante Manya moves slowly because of her age and arthritis, but her mind is quick. She picks up on the finer nuances between the people around her, and although she speaks her mind, she does so in love. An example of her directness is found here:  “Luise sighed and kept her eyes closed. ‘Tante Manya, I don’t wish to talk of it now.’ /  ‘Of course you don’t. Move over so I can sit down. I am too old to stand here while you feel sorry for yourself.’

Background:  Manya’s father died young, so she and her mother (and a sister) developed a deep love and understanding for each other as they carried on together. However, when Manya’s mother decided to remarry, Manya was angry with her. Almost for spite, she also married, although she and her husband loved each other very much. After a six-month marriage, her husband was killed in an accident and she was left to mourn. She refused comfort until her stepfather brought her home again, and he and her mother nursed her back to physical and emotional health. When her sister died leaving a young son, Abram, Manya took him in as her own. He would eventually marry and become the father of Luise. (Some of Manya’s backstory comes out in Volume 4 of Other Side of the River.)

Internal Conflicts:  Manya faces many internal conflicts, including well-hidden fears of the swiftly changing political situation. At her age, she knows she cannot bear too many physical challenges, yet she chooses to be thankful for what she has and to trust God with her fears. In her wisdom, she has learned to be less judgmental and more accepting of other people, so she allows them to be who they are. Manya puts the good of others before herself, thus making sacrifices that reflect a deep love of her family and commitment to God.

External Conflicts:  As she ages, Manya feels her body giving out on her. Her arthritic hands can no longer knead and shape bread, she cannot carry babies or withstand physical strain as she once did. However, she does what she can, mostly giving moral and spiritual support to her family and friends, and often easing an otherwise tense situation with wry humor. Considering the situations she has faced and continues to face in her life, she has proven to be very resilient. She needs this resilience to withstand the extreme circumstances in which she finds herself in the story set in Soviet Russia circa 1930.

Notes:  Shortly after beginning The Other Side of the River, I came across a photo in my denominational magazine of an elderly woman standing under a cherry tree. Her clothing consists of a grey and white flowered skirt, a purple sweater, a blue apron, black stockings covered by heavy grey socks, men’s slippers and a white kerchief tied beneath her chin. She is leaning on a crooked walking stick, her hands large and work-worn, but the smile on her face captured me from the first moment I saw her. The woman in the picture, whom I named Tante Manya, became my picture of the character in my novel. I believe the woman is from Molochansk, Ukraine, from the title of the accompanying article, “The Last Mennonite Widow of Molochansk.” (Mennonite Brethren Herald, July 2004.)

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