Category Archives: Marta Sprout

June Wrap-Up!

Hey Folks,

I’d first like to thank every one who contributed a post to this month, Fictorian and guests alike!

The idea of a month devoted to not just research collection (because we’d like to spend more time writing instead, right?), but also some new concepts and ideas we might not have thought of to apply to our stories, thus making them more believable, realistic, or even helping us think of what might be true in the future.

Overall, I hope that our information was useful.


Some of my favorites (and there were many), in no particular order:

I started us off with a discussion on why realism and accurate information was so important in media.
Mostly because I was chased by a black bear once, and man, was I ever glad I read Little House on the Prairie.

Buuut also you know not everyone in your story is going to know the most accurate information, or maybe the readers are so used to an inaccurate trope that realism would cause them to cry foul. So sometimes perfectly accurate information isn’t the most important thing to the story.

Kristin Luna explored how gender can influence perceptions of risk-taking characters, particularly young women. We take risks! But perhaps not in the same way as young male characters might.

Guy Anthony De Marco gave us a 101 on proper terminology and use of firearms. Particularly, please don’t have your character take the safety off the revolver unless they’re removing their finger from the trigger. Just…why.

Marta Sprout wrote an excellent guest post on how crime scenes should, and shouldn’t, be investigated.

Kim May implored us to do our research on the particular culture of an Asian character instead of writing them into a stereotype. 

If we don’t care enough to get it right then we offend readers of that ethnicity — thus losing them as readers — AND we mislead and misinform the readers who aren’t familiar with that ethnicity. Also, by misrepresenting that group we’re ultimately contributing to the cultural oppression of that group — even though we don’t mean to.

I shared how to look for, and write about, a character drowning. Also please watch out for everyone at the pool. Even if they’re a strong swimmer. But especially watch the little ones because I had to pull a kid out who was panicking and that was so scary for them. Pools are supposed to be fun and safe summer memories.

I also wrote about the moving definition of ‘death’ and that lead to a whole exploration of what exactly cryonics are, how it all works, and what one might do with that sort of technology in their story. 

M. J. Carlson gave us a Top 10 list of the most used (and misused) injuries in fiction in his very informative guest post.

Mary Pletsch talked about how misconceptions about the military and soldiers can not only lead to inaccurate plotlines and failed missions, but contribute to ugly misconceptions around real service members.

Nathan Barra had so much on how one can accurately portray scientists outside of the stereotypical tropes that he had to split it into Science Fact and Fiction Part 1 and Part 2.

In Healing in Science Fiction, Jace Killian emphasized how quickly technology can change, and the importance of doing your research on current issues when anticipating future technology.


That’s what we have for June! Stay tuned for an interview with an amazing person tomorrow and check back in July as we discuss genre!

– Emily Godhand

On Writing Crime Scenes

Guest post by Marta Sprout.

Crime scene

Developing crime scenes that are both intriguing and realistic is a delicate balance. Popular TV shows are notorious for depicting scenes that are dramatic, but anyone in law enforcement would call criminally stupid.

Certainly you know that DNA results don’t come back in an hour or that you can’t snap a picture of a fingerprint, and one minute later have a match and a photo of the perp. NCIS’s Abby Sciuto knows more than a fleet of forensic experts rolled into one. Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami drives a Hummer, which would make a real CSI snort her iced tea. Not only do they not make that kind of dough, they are civilians, who do not carry guns or arrest people.

Here are a few insights I learned from an active crime scene investigator on how to get it right.

Real homicide scenes are messier, smellier, and nastier than anything shown on TV. Decomp is an odor no one ever forgets. Victims often loose more than blood. (I’ll let you use your imagination on that one.) One mistake often seen on TV is that they don’t consider the amount of blood loss that would be normal for each type of injury. They might have a knife wound to the belly and show buckets of blood spatter. Not realistic. Or Hollywood might have a character with a scalp wound and show little or no blood. Scalp wounds bleed profusely.

By the way, spatter is the correct term, not splatter.

The trick for writers is to view every element of the scene from the investigator’s perspective. It helps to draw out your crime scenes in detail so that they are vividly clear in your mind. Then, when you sit down to write, you’ll have all the evidence and elements of the surroundings, which will captivate your readers. It also saves you from discovering ten chapters too late that you had a key piece of evidence in a spot that doesn’t make sense.

So, how does a crime scene investigation work? A patrol officer is normally the first person at the scene. His or her mission is to “show up, call it in, and don’t touch.” Securing the scene is the first vital step. As a writer, this is a great opportunity for conflict. Imagine the possibilities. What if the victim is a superstar? A horde of fans might show up, including thrill-seekers looking to grab evidence that they can sell as murdermobilia online. Now your officers really have their hands full.

Next your lead detective arrives. Mistakes aren’t limited to the TV scripts. Every police department has had someone who did something stupid, even though they knew better.

Let’s imagine a scenario where we have a patrol officer responding to a call about gunfire in the apartment next door to the caller. On scene, the officer finds a deceased male on the bed, calls it in, and guards the door. Perfect, until the detective shows up. He goes straight to the body, checks for an ID, and wanders through the room, searching for clues.

What’s wrong with that? Enough to give a CSI nightmares!

  • He didn’t wait for CSI, who would’ve set down access tarps that would allow for visual inspection of the body without disrupting trace evidence.
  • He didn’t see a casing on the carpet and kicked it out of place. Remember: you only get one shot at a crime scene. Once something is moved, you can’t go back. Location is just as important as the piece of evidence itself. In our scenario (taken from a real scene) the victim had been shot by an intruder standing by the closet, but because the detective kicked the casing, that vital bit of evidence’s value is now greatly diminished. That could throw-off the court case, but for writers it’s an opportunity. What if your detective is the killer? His footprints are expected to be at the scene and he can “accidentally” disrupt evidence to protect himself.
  • When touching the victim, he could have left trace evidence from his own body and clothing behind and he would’ve left fingerprints on the wallet. Gloves, booties, and Tyvek suits are used to prevent scene contamination.
  • Everyone rushes in to view the victim, but many seasoned investigators don’t because it’s too easy to be distracted by the body and miss important details. The investigator I know starts at the outer perimeter and ends at the body. In one case, she found a critical bit of evidence along the side of a house. The victim was in the kitchen.
  • Before anything is touched the entire scene is videotaped, photographed, measured, sketched, and documented in detail.

Investigators are real pros at preserving evidence and knowing which items will give them the most information. Did you know that they almost never test pubic hair? They collect it, but in reality hair that falls out usually doesn’t have the root ball needed for DNA testing.

Have you seen TV detectives using a pen to pick up a pistol by the barrel? Wouldn’t happen, folks. Not only is it an exceptionally dangerous method of holding a firearm, you risk disrupting evidence.

Now to the victim. In most cases, the medical examiner takes charge of the body. Once it’s back in the ME’s autopsy room, the full examination begins.

By the way, dental records are only good for confirming a victim’s ID. Think about it. How are you going to find the dentist, who has the records, if you aren’t fairly sure of the victim’s identity? I saw a show where they used a database to ID a victim through dental records. Nope. I promise that the dental x-rays from your last cleaning didn’t automatically go into a national database.

Research is a lot of work. Why not just make it up as you go along? Two reasons: you want your writing to be credible throughout; and you don’t want to reinforce the “CSI effect” and teach jurors at trial to have unrealistic expectations of seeing a Hollywood style show, where everything is tied up neatly. Real crimes and evidence are rarely so tidy.

I hope you find this helpful. For more information, http://www.crime-scene-investigator.net is a great resource. I went through the Citizen Police Academy and have a hands-on approach to research. If you’re interested in doing the same, check with your local police department for this program.

Best of luck with your writing. Maybe next time we can talk about Killers, Cops, and Fire Power.

 

Version 2MARTA SPROUT is an award-winning author. The Saturday Evening Post published her short story, The Latte Alliance, in their anthology “Best Short Stories of 2014 from The Great American Fiction Contest.” Her essays and articles have been published in newspapers and major magazines such as Antiques Magazine. Known for her thrillers, Marta writes full-time, assists the Corpus Christi Police Department with crime-scene, training scenarios, and enjoys kiteboarding, scuba diving, and snow skiing.

A Character You Can’t Refuse

A guest post by Marta Sprout.

Godfather-Novel-CoverWho could forget the severed horse head in the movie The Godfather? That wasn’t the only memorable punch.

Mike Corleone from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is one of my all-time favorite characters. The movie, released in 1972, grossed a whopping $134,000,000, over one billion dollars in today’s terms. The book sold over 30 million copies.

This story starts with the depiction of the powerful and mysterious Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather. When asked how he would make the seemingly impossible happen, he said, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Al Zuckerman from The Writer’s House has a great section in his book Writing the Blockbuster Novel about this character. I had the opportunity talk with Mr. Zuckerman about his book and what makes characters memorable. His insights and Puzo’s book are both excellent tutorials in top-level character development.

The Don’s son, Michael Corleone, does some terrible things and yet we like him. We are drawn to him as he is slowly pulled away from his own honorable world and into his family’s mob dealings.

Michael enters the film when he returns home as a war hero to attend his sister’s wedding. Even his uniform declares the different path he has taken from that of his Sicilian family. He knows bringing home an American girlfriend, Kay Adams, rubs against the family’s tradition of marrying an Italian girl. He disapproves of his brothers, Sonny and Fredo, and his family’s involvement in organized crime. Michael begins as a good man with a family that embarrasses him. Who of us couldn’t relate to being embarrassed by at least one family member? Michael’s situation is extreme and yet he is loyal, which is something we admire.

As the Don flexes his enormous power, he also demonstrates deep love for his family and we begin to understand this family’s extraordinary bond of loyalty. When the Don is shot and gravely wounded, Michael is the good son. He goes to the hospital to visit his critically injured father only to find him unprotected and helpless. At this pivotal point, Michael recognizes the danger and takes action. He uses a very clever and gutsy strategy to ward off an imminent attack thereby saving his father’s life. We can’t help but admire Michael’s nerve and quick thinking. And who could fault a son for protecting his helpless father?

However, Michael pays a price. He is beaten by a corrupt cop. We see a good man in a crime-infested world, but now the assault makes this a direct affront to him personally.

The story becomes even more riveting when the body count rises and Michael’s efforts to protect his father and his family gradually suck him deeper and deeper into the family business. We can’t fault him for striking back at a dirty cop. The Don returns home to recover under Michael’s watchful eye and we understand when Michael seeks to stop the hits on his family.

Michael becomes bigger than life as his impressive skills change how others view him. At first he is seen by his brothers as a kid and an outsider to the family business. Puzo uses the brothers shortcomings to boost Michael’s stature in our eyes. When Sonny is a hot-headed womanizer, Michael is patient, calculating, and faithful. Where Fredo is weak and foolish, Michael is unyielding and insightful. The Don, who is grief stricken about Michael having to take over in his absence, tells him, “I never wanted this life for you.” We feel the father’s pain and ache for Michael, knowing he is the only one who can save his family.

The critical element here is that Michael is above all competent. He gets the job done, decisively.

In time, he steps in to lead the family business, but he won’t discuss the details with his wife, Kay. In the end Michael is transformed from the law-abiding war hero to filling his father’s shoes as the new Don Corleone. Michael becomes godfather to his sister’s baby. Soon after Michael orders a hit on her abusive husband.

In the final scenes visitors pay their respects to Michael as others had done to his now deceased father. We hear him say, “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

The story doesn’t stop there.

There is a stunning moment when Michael allows his wife to ask him one question about the business. Kay demands to know if he ordered the killing of his sister’s husband. Without flinching he hugs her and says, “No.” It’s a lie and thereby the story has come full cycle. Michael is now the Godfather.

When a character changes so profoundly it’s engrossing and it was done one reasonable step at a time. Once the Don was shot, each step along Michael’s journey pulled him and us in deeper. His actions were understandable under the extreme circumstances. This is paramount: at each moment Michael is held tightly into his role where he can’t back out.

Eventually, he doesn’t want to.

The three things we learn from this: It’s often easier to make a compelling villain than a protagonist because we feel freer to show the villain’s complex dark side. In trying to build a protagonist a common mistake is to create a character who is so nice and thoughtful that he or she is bland and boring.

Another takeaway is that Michael’s desire to protect his frail father and his family is something that resonates with us. The beating he took and losing his first wife in Italy to a car bomb intended for him gives us empathy for him.

And most important: Michael has special skills. He gets the job done.

When we write characters, we balance two seemingly oppositional things: the character must have qualities that resonate with the reader and he or she must venture into areas the reader would never go and take actions that the reader could not do.

Therein lies the grounds for spellbinding characters.

 
MartaMARTA SPROUT is an award-winning author. The Saturday Evening Post published her short story, The Latte Alliance, in their 2014 anthology Best Short Stories from The Great American Fiction Contest. Known for her hands on research with the FBI, CSI, Profilers, and SWAT, Marta is currently working on a major new series. Her hobbies of kiteboarding, scuba diving, and snow skiing are as much of an adrenaline rush as her thrillers.

Fiction Faux Pas

A guest post by Marta Sprout.

You know the feeling. You, the writer of a magnificent novel, stare at yet another rejection notice, which you promptly shred into confetti and promise to use as tinder in your fireplace the next time the wind-chill sags below freezing.

So what’s wrong? Why can’t editors and agents see the brilliance of your story? The simple answer might be fiction faux pas. Here are a few of the red flags that make editors roll their eyes and grab for that nasty form letter faster than you type nope:

  • The overuse of names in dialog.
  • Dialog tags that go beyond said or asked.
  • Too many modifying adverbs.
  • Holy Moly! There be too many exclamation points here!!!!!!

You work hard to tell a ripping good tale and to present exciting dialog. Knowing what not to do is only part of the equation. What we need is to understand why something doesn’t work and how to fix it. Let’s take a look at what works and what doesn’t:

What would you think if you read a line of dialog that went something like this…

“Enough, Rebecca!!!” he yelled, angrily.

Oh good grief…Referee flags are flying like a brawl on the goal line. Let’s look closer.

There is nothing wrong with using names in dialog, unless you go overboard and make your characters sound stilted and awkward.

“Ben, I can’t stay here any longer.”

“Well, why not, Sarah?”

“Because, Ben, this is where it happened.” (Bum, bum, bum…bum)

The overuse of names can easily sound like newbie theater students trying to be uber-dramatic or like characters telling each other what they already know for the sake of the reader’s enlightenment.

“Well, Elizabeth. We’ve been married for twenty years and have three fine sons.”

(I’m thinking Lizzy already knows this.)

Another reason too many names don’t work is because they act like speed bumps and interrupt the flow of the conversation. Never interrupt dialog unless three guys with machine guns show up.

What about those modifying adverbs? On page 673 of Under the Dome Stephen King wrote: “Glinda,” the girl said faintly. If he can do it, why can’t you? Beyond the fact that he has sold over 350 million copies, even he uses modifying adverbs very sparingly. Verbal exchanges pop NOT when you tell the reader that she spoke angrily, boldly, emphatically, hesitantly, sadly, or joyously, but when you put the full force of those EMOTIONS into her words. Compare these lines:

  1. “You don’t listen,” she said angrily.
  2. “What is wrong with you? You never listen to me,” she said.
  3. Sarah smacked the silverware drawer shut. “What’s wrong with you? You never listen to me.”

In the first line, can you see how the character’s voice is so flat that the author has to tell us the character’s emotional state? The second line is better. We don’t need to be told that she’s hacked off because we can hear the anger rippling in her voice. In the third version, we are getting the emotion in her voice and we see and hear the snap of her gestures when she slams the drawer shut. The point here is that great dialog oozes action, emotions, and your characters’ own distinctive voices. Remember that in any conversation there are two expressions happening simultaneously: the verbal exchange and the body language, which can be even more telling. For example:

Richard launched out of his seat, towering over Sarah. “Do you love me?”

She stared at her lap and continued picking at her red nail polish.

“Answer the damned question.”

Sarah slouched in her seat and yawned. “Yeah,” she said without looking up.

Is Richard going to believe her? Not likely with that body language.

What about alternative dialog tags such as: he screamed, yelled, offered, replied, commented, snorted, bellowed, whimpered, etc? Here’s where the problem lies. Remember that some conventions in writing are done purely for the sake of clarification:

I love eating my dog and my grandmother (yuck) vs. I love eating, my dog, and my grandmother.

Like punctuation, dialog tags are purely for clarity and are meant to be invisible. They aren’t part of the dialog nor are they prose. To avoid repetition it makes sense that we’d be tempted to use something other than said. But trust me on this one, a reader’s eye will glide right over said and asked and remain focused right where you want it–on the conversation.

So, does that mean you will never see “he screamed” in the work of a bestselling author? Nope.

On page 180 of Tripwire, Lee Child wrote: “Get down,” Reacher shouted. If Lee Child can use these type of tags, why can’t you? You can, just do it in moderation and only when nothing else will do. Hint: they work best when showing a voice’s volume.

Speaking of punctuation. Exclamation points work only in extreme situations of utter desperation. Not so much when they crop up in every other line of dialog! Sometimes in multiples!!!!! Unless you write wonderful comic books, use them like hot Sriracha sauce–only when the situation requires a fierce punch. Remember those editors, whom you are trying to impress? They see the liberal use of exclamation points as sure signs of an amateur, which you’re not.

Writing is much more than a list of rules. It’s an art form. You can write anything–if it works. Language is fluid. Ever-changing. There was a time when we didn’t use punctuation or standardized spelling. Word usage evolves. If I had called you nice in 1285, you would have slapped me for calling you stupid. Back in the day of movies such as The Sound of Music, gay meant light-hearted or carefree. Lite is commonly used for the word light. Any form of written language from novels to nonfiction, blurbs to bumper stickers will BTW continue to change. The trick for a novelist is to tell a story that people will remember.

Good luck and keep writing.

 

About Marta Sprout:martasprout

Marta Sprout is an award-winning author. The Saturday Evening Post published her short story, The Latte Alliance, in their anthology “Best Short Stories of 2014 from The Great American Fiction Contest.” Her essays and articles have been published in newspapers and major magazines such as Antiques Magazine. Known for her thrillers, Marta writes full time, assists the Corpus Christi Police Department on crime-scene scenarios, and enjoys kiteboarding, scuba diving, and snow skiing.