What makes a character memorable?

If you have ever written fiction, or simply wanted to write fiction, you’ve come up against one of the most important questions in writing; how do you make memorable characters? There is no simple answer to this, but I’ll try anyway.

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Think of memorable characters you’ve encountered in fiction, the one who make you long for their return when they are not in a scene. What makes them memorable? Here are a few possibilities:

Hermione Granger hermioneThe character is insanely competent- Think Sherlock Holmes, Hermione Granger, Atticus Finch


Ignatius Reilly. | Personajes de ficción / Fictional characters | Pi ...

The character is flawed in interesting ways- Think Miss Haversham, Ignatius J. Reilly, Holden Caulfield


sir arthur conan doyle | Girl Meets Sherlock: A Holmesian BlogThe character is strong/wise/infallible- Think Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes, Atticus Finch, Jeeves


Don Quixote Don quixoteThe character is flamboyant/loud/ a force of nature- Think Ignatius J. Reilly, Don Quixote,


Holly Golightly | the Skinny StilettoThe character lives in his/her own world- Think Holly Golightly


captain-ahab | PoliticsPAThe character is obsessed with a mission or an idea- Think Raskolnikov, Captain Ahab, Kurtz


Huck Finn and Jim go floatin' down the 'sippiThe character is independent, but reacts to the world around him- Think Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe



... matter, sweetie? Is one of your book characters having difficulties

So what does this all mean? Can you take the quirks of these characters and create a new one? Probably not. Some authors try to make a character memorable by piling on the quirks. You know; a Lithuanian-Brazilian detective that skydives, collects antique silver, writes best selling novels, brews his own craft beer, sleeps in a hammock, and only dates women whose names begin with a vowel. The problem is that a character can be unique but still not be interesting. We all know unique people that we have no desire to spend time with. So here are a few modest suggestions:

1- A good character does not exist in isolation. You should have a backstory for each character. Where did he come from? What did he do before the story started? How did the character come to be wherever the story starts? Maybe he has a secret that affects what he does.

2- A good character should have flaws. That’s why Batman is more interesting than Superman

3- A good character should be easily distinguishable from the other characters. That can mean quirks, but only a few, and not too outrageous. Maybe he has a weird expression he uses all the time, like Cowabunga, or How cool is that?   One easy way is to distinguish a character is in dress. John Dickson Carr’s famous detective Gideon Fell was a huge man who wore a cape, a monocle on a ribbon, and a “shovel hat” (whatever that is). All these quirks might be borderline irritating, but are relatively minor.Exception: An outrageous, bigger than life character such as Ignatius J Reilly has huge quirks.

4. A good character should act in a way that bounces off the other characters.

5. A good character has yin and yang. He has different moods and different aspects. If he’s a good person, he occasionally falls short, but in minor ways. If he’s  a bad character, he has the occasional outbreak of compassion/mercy, usually when the reader least expects it.

Well, that was simple enough, wasn’t it?

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Yeah…real simple

How to ruin a Facebook presence

I went to a writing conference yesterday and there was a lot of talk about a “Facebook presence” as a means for authors to keep in touch with readers. Of course, this is a good idea, but I’ve noticed there are several things many people feel compelled to do on Facebook that drives people away. Well, at least it drives me away. You might love them.

1- Stream-of-consciousness posts;  You know the type…“Looks like rain today. I hope it hold off until I can take the dog for his walk. My rose bushes are looking pretty good this year. I think I broke a shoelace. Just my luck….”

Arrrgh! Make it stop! I don’t care! No one does!

2- Food porn; Trust me on this one: posting closeups of your breakfast will not make you a fascinating Facebook god. In fact, no one is interested in your food unless it is something unusual. This is especially true for pictures of chili. Chili is wonderful stuff and I consider it one of the basic food groups, but although it tastes great, it is not attractive to look at.

(Full disclosure: We recently posted a picture of a couple of lobsters we got at a new restaurant because our friends had been asking about the place and we wanted to show them what was on offer. I think that was all right. We got some good feedback.)

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3- Politics; Why in the name of all that’s holy would you post something that will instantly alienate half of your readers? There is nothing you can tell them that they haven’t heard before and heard better. I find political posts on Facebook annoying even when I agree with them. And for those readers who don’t agree, what do you think is going to happen with your political post? Do you think someone is going to look at your cartoon or oh-so-clever repost and say “Oh my God! Yes, of course! This changes everything. I’ve been so wrong. It’s a good thing they posted this; I’m changing my vote!”

Not a chance; just say no.

Well, there are a lot of other Facebook turn offs, but these seem to be the biggest offenders. Oh, wait; there’s one more….

4- Posting lists of Facebook turnoffs- O.K. So nobody’s perfect.

What’s in a (new) name?

From the beginning, my blog has been called Words of History, and from the beginning, it has been a bit schizophrenic. Some posts were about writing and some were about unusual historical oddities. Since I write books based on real events, this seemed a natural combination, but the readers didn’t seem to agree. The posts on writing always seemed to get more page views and more response and likes than the ones about history. Obviously, more people have dreams of becoming writers than becoming historians.

So, as of today, I have renamed the blog John Reisinger’s Readers and Writing Blog, and will emphasize the writing posts a bit more in the future. Hope you like it!

In praise of price gouging

There’s an old vaudeville gag where a man asks a butcher for pork chops. The butcher says they’re $2.50/pound. (It’s a very old joke.)

“That’s outrageous!,” the  man exclaims. “The butcher down the street only charges $2.00”

“So why don’t you buy from him?” the butcher asks.

“He’s out of pork chops,” the man admits.

“Well,” says the butcher, “when I’m out of pork chops I sell them for $1.00”

This is why price gouging is a good thing.

During Hurricane Matthew, officials sometimes seemed more concerned with  “price gouging” than with the storm. Florida set up a price gouging hotline and so far has thousands of complaints. Thirteen states already have some sort of anti-price gouging law on the books. So it looks like the citizens are really being protected from those greedy merchants, right?

Not really. Fear of being accused, and maybe prosecuted for price gouging guarantees there will be a shortage of critical supplies when they are most needed. Here’s why;

Let’s take gasoline, but this applies to almost any product. When you pay for a product, the merchant doesn’t get to keep much of the money. Most of the price a merchant charges gets spent on ordering replenishment stocks of what was sold. This enables a steady restocking of the products that are sold so the gas tanks, or the shelves in a store are always full. This works fine so long as the demand stays more or less constant. But what happens when there is a sudden big jump in demand? What happens if instead of selling 1000 gallons of gas a day there’s a hurricane and the merchant suddenly encounters a demand for 3,000 gallons ? So he just orders more, right? Sure but with what? At 1,000 gallons he has the money to reorder another 1,000 gallons or so to replenish, but not enough to suddenly have three times that much. The result is that once the thousand gallons are gone, nobody gets gas until the regular gas truck shows up at the end of the week. Then that 1,000 gallons/day gets quickly bought up and the people who got there late are up the creek.

But hey, nobody got price gouged, so it’s all good.

Don't Be A Victim Of Price Gouging - South Florida Reporter

Now let’s say the merchant is allowed to “Price gouge”. He raises the price of a gallon from around $2/gallon to say $5/gallon. Outrageous, right?  Not so fast. That price gouging makes some very good things happen.

First, higher prices increase supplies. The merchant can now order greatly increased supplies of gas to satisfy the new demand. It is unlikely his normal supplier can come up with three times as much gas on short notice, so this will probably mean ordering the extra supplies from other suppliers who are more expensive because they are farther away, or less efficient. They would never be able to supply the needed extra gas the customers suddenly need at the “ungouged” price, but would at a higher price. They might even be willing to divert stockpiled gas to the station to take advantage of the higher price.

Second, high prices serve to ration demand. The higher price will cause people to conserve. They will purchase only what they need. We’ve all seen people pull up to a pump during a shortage and fill the tank, then break out several five gallon cans and fill them as well, “just in case”, leaving less for the next guy. That would happen far less with price gouging and would ease the demand, because people would buy only what they really need.

Third, the extra money might make it possible for the merchant to purchase a generator as an additional emergency measure to keep the gas flowing during power failures. This was a big problem after Hurricane Matthew. Cars were running out of gas in traffic jams because no gas stations had electricity to run the pumps. But at least they didn’t price gouge.

The bottom line is that the higher price means that everyone will get gas at $5/ gallon instead of only a third getting it at $2/gallon and everyone else getting nothing.

So three cheers for price gouging. I would rather pay $5/gallon to get gas I desperately need than to have no gas available but know that it would be cheaper if it was. If I can’t get those $2 pork chops, I’ll take the ones for $2.50 rather than go hungry.

(BTW, most so-called price gouging is far less than the magnitude shown in the example, and whatever it is, the prices will come back down with demand after the crisis is passed.)

Roaring 20s Mysteries brought up to date

People constantly ask…..

Well, people sometimes ask….

Well, somebody asked me once...I think;  what’s the deal with your mysteries? How many books are there and are they a serial? Do they feature the same detective? Do they all take place on Maryland’s Eastern Shore? Where do the plots come from?

Well, in response to the  overwhelming demand, here is everything you ever wanted to know (and a lot you didn’t) about the Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mysteries…

Here are the books in order. Each story is a stand alone and can be read in isolation, but they are sequential and some references to previous cases pop up. All the stories are based on real-life cases of the era. The details of these real cases are discussed in the end notes. I also have real life famous people pop up here and there. Max and Allison Hurlock appear throughout each book. Max is the Eastern Shore born engineer, amateur pilot, and reluctant detective; Allison is his Roland Park-born, Goucher graduate, magazine-writer wife. In each story, she is researching a new article on some aspect of 1920s culture and turns up clues about the case that Max can use t o solve the crime..
 Here are the books in order….
Death of a Flapper– Their first case. An old Navy buddy of Max’s draws him into the case of a double murder in a locked room in Moorestown, NJ. Allison researches flappers. Appearance by Ozzie Nelson
(Note: Because the original publisher of Death of a Flapper temporarily suspended operations, Death of a Flapper was published second, but is still the first book in the series. It just adds to the mystery!)
Death on a Golden Isle– A letter from a suspect brings Max to investigate a poisoning at the Jekyll Island Club in Georgia. Allison researches the Jekyll Island Club.
Death at the Lighthouse– Max discovers a Lighthouse keeper murdered in Chesapeake Bay lighthouse. Allison researches Spiritualism. Appearances by Gaston Means, H.L. Mencken, J. Millard Tawes, and Houdini
Death and the Blind Tiger– New York City’s most wealthy bachelor is shot, and the chief suspect asks Max to investigate and clear him. Allison researches speakeasies. Appearances by Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Duke Ellington, Robert Benchley, Texas Guinan, and Harold Ross.
Death in Unlikely Places– A serial killer is murdering Florida real estate developers in impossible ways, and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss contacts Max to stop him.. Allison researches Florida land boom. Appearances by Glenn Curtiss, and developer D.P. Davis.
Death across the Chesapeake– The mayor of Easton asks Max to investigate the murder of a stockbroker in a locked Easton office building owned by a wealthy and mysterious couple, and asks Allison to help handle the press. Allison researches proposed bay bridge.  Appearance by H.L. Menken.
They’re available in a few Eastern Shore bookstores, as well as Amazon.com.
That’s it so far. For non mysteries, check out www.johnreisinger.com

Kindle free book duplicity: Beware of the stealth series

For a writer, selling books with Amazon’s Kindle book platform is a great deal, and makes it easy to get a book online and out there quickly.

But then what? That sound you hear is crickets chirping and a coyote howling in the distance. How do you get noticed when every sentient being with a laptop and a nimble set of fingers is writing also? There is one method I have noticed seems a bit underhanded and, though it is widespread, I wonder if it even works. I’m talking about the stealth series.

One of the tricks Amazon offers authors is the chance to have book promotions by making their book available for a deep discount or even for free for a limited time. The idea is that people who wouldn’t spend money on an author they don’t know will download the free book and be so impressed they will buy anything else the author has written. (Needless to say, this probably is not a good strategy if you only have one book to offer.)

The problem is that the field is so crowded now that people who plow through the free Kindle offerings often find little that proves to be worth reading, or are not sufficiently impressed to spend actual money on the author. Possibly in response to this problem, some authors have resorted to what I call the stealth series.

Series have a long and respectable history in writing. Some are simply more stand-alone adventures of the same characters, and some are like parts of a serial, where each part is not complete without the rest. Romance authors such as Nora Roberts are known for writing series, and why not? Why sell one book when you can sell four or more?

So how does this tie into free Kindle books and the stealth series? Funny you should ask.

Some lesser known authors try to jump start their sales by giving away the first book in a series, hoping people will get hooked and buy the rest. It can be an effective ploy; drug dealers have been using the same methods for years. The sneaky part is that these authors often aren’t honest with their readers and don’t identify the free book as being one of the series. Readers invest the time to read the book, only to come to the last page and find that the story is not finished, only the free part is. (A variation of this method is to give away a book containing only a few chapters of the complete book without disclosing this up front.) Readers are conned into investing their time reading an incomplete work.

Why We Adore Book Series | Quirk Books : Publishers & Seekers of All ...

Even well known authors are guilty of the stealth series trick.The book covers or descriptions of these stealth series do not mention that the book is part of a series, and the other books in the series often have non-related titles that give no clue where they fit into the scheme. Stealth series are often so well disguised that it is hard to tell…

a) That it’s a series at all, or

b) How many books are in the series, or

c) The names of the remaining books

By the time you figure it out, it is too late. You’ve spent hours reading and investing in the story that you will have to pay to conclude.

So is this ploy successful? I don’t know, but most people resent being conned, and I wonder how many potential readers vow never to buy a book from the sneaky author again.

Grammar fads for writers

One trap that some fiction writers fall into is writing with present day slang or expressions in a story set elsewhere. I don’t mean something obvious such as a Roman centurion talking about social media, or somebody, talking about a traffic jam during the Civil War, I mean things that are more subtle. Take everyday expressions. They change constantly, so something that sounds all right today, may not tomorrow. For instance, did people say “Give me a break” in the 1930s? They certainly needed one, but the expression wasn’t in fashion at the time. I once had a 1920s flapper saying “Boop boop be doop.” It sounded right to me, but a little research revealed that the expression didn’t surface until the 1930s, so I had to change it to “Ain’t we got fun?”. Of course, this works the other way as well. Just as you wouldn’t have someone say “cell phone” in the 1950s, you wouldn’t have someone refer to someone as “daddy-o” in 2016. (Well, maybe your great grandfather might.)

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In addition to expressions, there are what I call grammar fads; little phrases or constructions that people don’t really think about, but that become widespread for a while, such as saying “whatever”. If these creep into your writing, it could be embarrassing if readers notice, even though it is likely they won’t. For instance, you may have noticed that in old movies set in the 1930s and 1940s, many people start sentences with “Say,”. “Say, are you that guy I saw last night?”, or “Say, what’s the big idea, anyway?” Come to think of it, what’s the big idea is an expression you don’t hear much any more, either.

Ancient Paths: Is Christianity an Anachronism?

As a writer, you are probably in more danger of letting 2016 talk creep in to a 1980s story than the other way round. Here is a grammar fad I’ll bet you never thought about.; answering a yes or no question by repeating the subject and verb of the question itself.

“Are you going to the movies?”…….. “I am.”

“Was that your husband I saw being led away in handcuffs?”……..  “It was.”

“I heard you split the atom yesterday.”……. “I did.”

Admittedly, this is a very fine point, and most would never notice, but if one of your characters talks this way in the 1960s, it can sound like an anachronism.

Oh, and that goes for something currently popular being referred to as “a thing” also.