where the writers are
Keeping Time

Posted on January 2, 2014 I hope every­one had a great kick­off to 2014. Did you make Hop­pin’ John, or fol­low another tra­di­tion for good luck? If so, I hope you’ve signed up for my newslet­ter, because I’m giv­ing away a Nook Sim­ple Touch, and some author friends who have been sup­port­ive and help­ful in my writ­ing endeav­ors are offer­ing their books as prizes as well. If you haven’t, click here. Don’t wait; the newslet­ter will be going out soon. And, no luck needed to get 50% off on Dan­ger­ous Con­nec­tions and Deadly Secrets at Kobo. You need to enter the code 50COUPON at check­out. Good through Jan­u­ary 5th.  Also, I found some more audio book coupons for all of my live titles: What’s in a Name?; Find­ing Sarah; and Hid­den Fire. Just ask.

StopwatchAs for today’s topic: Timing.

I’m not talk­ing about pac­ing, but rather about how read­ers get the feel for elapsed time in books. When I started writ­ing I was afraid to leave any­thing out, and had to learn that stick­ing with my char­ac­ters every minute of every day wasn’t nec­es­sary. What hap­pens on the page has to be there for a rea­son, and although it took a lot of effort on my part, I learned that the skies wouldn’t open up if I typed, “three days later.”

Some authors even use head­ers at the start of chap­ters to estab­lish time and place. I’ve never been fond of that through­out a book—probably because I skim over head­ers, or I’ve already for­got­ten where/when we were in the last chapter.

Other ways to clue your reader in might be char­ac­ters check­ing the time (fairly obvi­ous), inter­nal thoughts (Wow, had it only been three days ago when…?), visual cues (notic­ing the sun­light fil­ter­ing through cur­tains, or need­ing to turn on the lights).

I know one of my cri­tique part­ners (the com­puter pro­gram­mer) will call me out when I have a short scene with three lines of dia­logue and say a half hour has passed. While I doubt he takes out a stop­watch to time how long it takes to deliver those lines, if you’re try­ing to fill a spe­cific amount of time, make sure you’ve given enough hints to the reader to show it. Of course, this presents new prob­lems. Is what you’re show­ing merely ‘filler?’ It needs to advance the plot, or show char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, or add depth.

In a scene I was work­ing on recently, my char­ac­ter was recon­struct­ing a time­line as it related to a crime. I needed to show enough action to fill that time­frame. When I re-read the scene lead­ing up to that one, I real­ized that I’d been with the char­ac­ters, so things were play­ing out in ‘real time’ on the page, and there was no way it could have taken as long as it needed to. Per­haps I’d been in too much of a hurry to get to the “excite­ment” at the end of the chap­ter. The scene showed Gor­don going to Angie’s apart­ment, where she’d said she had some­thing to show him. In the first draft, it was some scented can­dles. Rather than have my cri­tique part­ner jump on me, I went back and filled in some of that time. I’ve noted those changes in italics.

Spicy Herbed Quinoa SaladWhat made me use this par­tic­u­lar sce­nario? I’d been see­ing a lot of repins on Pin­ter­est for one of the recipes I’d posted on my Wednes­day fea­ture, and thought, since Angie’s a cook, and since read­ers like recipes, I could include them with the book, or for mar­ket­ing pro­mo­tions. Whether they actu­ally advance the plot or show any­thing about the characters—well, that remains to be seen. What do you think? Filler, or interesting?

Angie opened her apart­ment door before Gor­don had a chance to knock. The first thing that hit him was the aroma. Not cook­ing, though. Not even cin­na­mon. He saw half a dozen can­dles, which he assumed were the source of the smell, flick­er­ing on the cof­fee table. Not flow­ery, not spicy. Noth­ing he could attach a name to. Other than the can­dles, there were no lights in the room.

“Smells nice,” he said and hoped there wasn’t going to be a quiz about the fragrance.

“I thought so. Megan and I have been sam­pling dif­fer­ent scents. Sub­tle, but they lend an atmos­phere to events. These are moun­tain spring.”

“A lit­tle early, wouldn’t you say? Spring up here is months away.”

She laughed. “We’re not going for real­ism, just a mood. I’d say they smell fresh.”

“Fresh it is, then. What did you want to show me? Or is it the can­dles.” His hand rested on the box in his jacket pocket.

“No, there’s more,” Angie said. “Some things I’ve been work­ing on for the party busi­ness. I need a guinea pig. In the kitchen.”

Gor­don shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on one of the pegs by the door. He trailed Angie to her tiny but effi­cient kitchen and sat at the counter. “I’m game. Feed me.”

She giggled—damn, he loved it when she did—and went to the fridge. “Try to stop being all manly-macho and have an open mind. We’ve booked a lot of ‘ladies who lunch’ events, and we thought we’d try some less-predictable offer­ings than chicken Cae­sar salad, or bor­ing pasta salads.”

She placed two small bowls in front of him. “What do you think?”

“What am I eat­ing?” he asked, choos­ing one dish and pok­ing through what looked like tiny, shiny white discs. He rec­og­nized toma­toes and cucum­bers, red and green onions, but wasn’t sure what the rest was.

“Just taste it,” she said. “Giv­ing it a name shouldn’t matter.”

He took a ten­ta­tive sam­ple. Lemony. Herby. And then an follow-up kick of some­thing spicy. “Okay, this is good. Now will you tell me what it is?”

“It’s a quinoa salad. With basil and jalapeno.”

That explained the kick. He lis­tened as she explained what quinoa was, about how she wished she could expand the menu at Daily Bread, and all sorts of other recipes she wanted to try. He knew enough to nod and agree at appro­pri­ate moments.

He sam­pled the sec­ond offer­ing, which Angie explained was cous­cous. “It is a pasta salad, but not your every­day mac­a­roni. This one’s got pine nuts and currants.”

“I got the pine nuts, but I thought the other stuff was raisins,” Gor­don said. “And it’s good, too.”

“We could add a pro­tein to any of these depend­ing on what the client wants. Or change the spices, or dif­fer­ent dried fruits—lots of possibilities.”

“I’m sure they’ll love it no mat­ter what you do.” He forked up the last bites of his sam­ples. “So, can­dles and food-tasting. Any­thing else you need of me?” He thought of the box in his pocket, won­der­ing if this was the right time to give it to her.

She gave a sug­ges­tive grin. “Not every­thing. I wanted to give you your Valen­tine.” She swirled around and dis­ap­peared into the bedroom.

Was he sup­posed to fol­low? Visions of a negligee-clad Angie on a bed cov­ered with rose petals danced through his head. Sec­onds later, she emerged, still wear­ing her jeans and Daily Bread polo, car­ry­ing a flat box wrapped in red and white polka-dot paper. She grinned, her eyes sparkling as she prof­fered it. “Happy early Valentine’s Day.”

He reached for it. From down­stairs the shrill whoop whoop of a smoke alarm pierced the air.