Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My author guest: Shannon Baker


As promised yesterday, Colorado thriller author Shannon Baker is visiting my blog today. Her book, Ashes of the Red Heifer, was released in January. The tale includes an ancient prophecy, a terrible secret, and a deadly conspiracy. From the prairies of Nebraska to holy ground in Israel, a deadly battle is underway to force God’s hand. Is a young veterinarian God’s chosen to fulfill the ancient prophecy of the red heifer? Only she can choose. Her own life. Or an apocalyptic war. The future of the world. Or the ashes of the red heifer.

Boy, this thriller sounds pretty darn thrilling to me! Here's Shannon's guest post:

What Comes First, the Characters or Plot?

While I’m a firm believer that characters make the story, it seems I usually start with a situation or premise--some circumstance that captures my imagination--and I create people to work in that setting. It’s a messy process because the story never comes to life until the characters become real people. And as soon as they take on their own histories, desires and needs, they necessarily move the story in directions I hadn’t imagined. If this sounds like crazy talk, well, welcome to my world.

Ashes of the Red Heifer started with an article I read in the New Yorker in 1997. A rancher in Mississippi made some enormous leaps of faith or craziness (I haven’t made up my mind on this one) and decided he was called by God to create a rare and sacred red heifer to allow Jews to perform a ceremony they haven’t been able to accomplish for over 2000 years.

Stick with me here, because all these links form an ancient chain that keeps building. The really tricky part is that when the heifer is raised and sacrificed, and Jews can rebuild their Temple, they will have to destroy The Dome of the Rock, Islam’s third holiest site which sits on the hill top where the Holy Temple belongs in Jerusalem.

Since the 7th century, when Islam was founded by Mohammed, the Jews and Muslims haven’t been very good friends. For Muslims, to die defending the Dome of the Rock sends a believer directly to Paradise without passing Go. But Jews are directed by God to worship in this very spot. When a person believes God has singled him out for sainthood or martyrdom, it can be pretty compelling. Pair all this conflict with ancient Biblical lore and this is a real life, breathless story unfolding today. I mean today, April 14th, 2010.

But to make readers dive into the story and forget they are supposed to make their family dinner or fold the laundry, we need to care deeply about the characters. So Lott went away and Annie Grant invaded my life. She’s a driven veterinarian from the Nebraska Sandhills with a love of place and cattle and an ethical barometer that never breaks. She’s been hurt and is trying to find her place and love in the world. Ultimately, Ashes of the Red Heifer is Annie’s story. I just found this fascinating circumstance to hang it on and put her in so much danger she needs to be more brave and clever than she ever thought she could be.

I’m working on a new thriller now. This one involves man-made snow on Flagstaff’s sacred peaks, uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, murder, kachinas, and one woman trying to make sense of it all. Nora Abbott is busy rearranging all my initial ideas of plot, but I’m finding her a really fun person to hang out with.

Crazy and messy. But never easy. What about you—do you start with character, plot, setting or strange voices in your head that wake you up at 4 A.M.?

15 comments:

Beth Groundwater said...

I write two mystery series, so the character of the protagonist sleuth is always set. However, each book starts developing in my mind with the victim, with some interesting way she or he died and some thoughts about who might have wanted to kill that person. I develop the victim's character and backstory first, which leads to "the rest of the story." So, blog readers who are writers, how do you start? And those who are readers, which is more important to you, character or plot?

Rod Summitt said...

When I wrote 'When Pasts Collide" the setting actually came first. I knew I wanted to build a story around my absolute dream bookstore that I have always wanted to own. The character came next and the plot developed as I wrote. When I wrote 'The Nurse and the Deputy", the character came first, then the setting (which I continue to use in at least three more novels) and again the plot developed as I wrote.

Rod Summitt

Shannon said...

I love books by writers like Anne Tyler, who can put readers in the most ordinary circumstances and delve so deeply into character that the book rolls along. But take those characters and put them in, say, the Congo, like Barbara Kingsolver did with Poisonwood Bible, and wow!!! makes the book one of my favorites. There are so many ways to write good books.

Pauline B Jones said...

I also bounce back and forth between starting with plot and starting with character. But THE KEY definitely started with a character. The next book in the connected series. GIRL GONE NOVA, started with a problem and the main character evolved from there.

There sure are a lot of ways to write books! I wonder how people keep a plot going without shooting and blowing things up. LOL! I've written some short romance fiction where no one dies, but the key word is SHORT. lol

Cricket McRae said...

Shannon, your book sounds downright fascinating! I'm ordering it today.

Like Beth, I write a series so the main characters are established. I introduce new ones as the plot demands, and they often show up in later books. However, when I first started my home crafting mysteries, the character of Sophie Mae Reynolds developed fully in my mind before I even thought about plot.

Hearth Cricket

Shannon said...

I like the idea of a series. Once you invest so much time and emotion into a character you sort of miss them when you move on. Unfortunately, I have too short of an attention span. I have read excerpts from Girl Gone Nove and they are so funny. I am really looking forward to reading that! Thanks a bunch, Cricket, for buying Red Heifer. I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Pauline B Jones said...

thanks, Shannon. I write connected stories, rather than a traditional series, like Beth writes, for instance and you do miss your characters when you go. I guess that's the fun side of connected. I get to let them pop in the new books and say hi. lol

I have your book on my kindle and plan to do a lot of reading when i have a rough draft of a new book!

jenny milchman said...

I love hearing how differently different writers do it. For me too--as reader and writer--situation and premise are what start things rolling, just as Shannon says. Then it's a matter of making sure this great premise has a set of characters who can make it truly believable...

M Pax said...

I usually start with a scene that plays in my head like a movie. I go from there. :)

Shannon said...

We can all start in different places but we all end up in the same one--rewriting. And rewriting. And...
What's great and weird (perhaps even disturbing), is that writers see all these worlds and characters in our heads.

J D Webb said...

I do both. I have a series with a PI so he 'plots' along.
I also do stand-alones where the character compels me to tell his/her story. When I get an idea for a story I determine where it will best fit. If it deserves a place all its own, it usually tells me.
Moon Over Chicago started with two characters and I like them so much I'll be doing a sequel.
As has been said, sometimes you just can't let those created entities live in peace.

Susan Whitfield said...

Great question, Beth and Shannon. Since my Logan Hunter series has place titles ( NC), I began them with setting, then plot and finally characters. The settings are characters as well. I am now working on a stand-alone which started with the chacters, two ladies who go on an array of misadventures. I plan to write an historical fiction about an ancestor of mine and that, too, will begin with character. Guess it depends.

Beth Groundwater said...

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments on this topic. You all made the discussion an interesting one!

Shannon said...

JD-I don't want to call you crazy or anything but if you talk to non-writers (others) about stories and characters "telling" you stuff, THEY might call you nuts. Susan-I love historical fiction. I've writen one and a half and have an idea for another. I just back away from it because it seems impossible to sell. Do you have some encouraging marketing news with historicals?

Beth Groundwater said...

Here's a comment from Anna Hammer that she made on Facebook:

Thanks for the recommendation. It sounds like something I would like to read. So many books, so little time!