Author: Eli Ring

Joe Biden is a Plot Goldmine

Current events can be a rich source of plot material. Last year I read a story about a decapitated murder victim that had been left on a judge’s front porch. It turned out to be a “fake news” story, but for me, it became the basis for a novel about a corrupt county judge and a small-town detective.

The combination of Covid-19, Portland riots, and wildfires has also been a rich vein of ideas. I used these calamities to revive a novel I wrote a few years ago. It is a dystopian tale set in Oregon after an EMP attack. I am rewriting it now and resetting the time frame to post-2020 Oregon. The addition of a pandemic, anarchist, and the travail of burned out rural communities will help make the tale more plausible. Covid-19 also figures in a short story about a man hospitalized for the virus and emerges three weeks later to find out he is the victim of a crime that threatens to ruin his reputation.

If you want an excellent example of current events that would help develop great plots, look no further than Joe and Hunter Biden. They are generating more drama than Cecil B. DeMille ever dreamed was possible. The advantage of the Biden drama is that most major news organizations are reluctant to print anything about it. This means that the material will be fresh for your readers.

Current events can be a rich source of plot material.

Here are three ideas to try out.

The rich, privileged son of a former Vice-President ruins his own life, scuttles his father’s presidential ambitions, and jeopardizes the future of an entire great nation with his dissolute, corrupt actions.

The US Vice President leads a corruption scheme to enrich himself, his family, the sitting President, and the President’s presumed successor by selling his influence to hostile foreign nations. It all goes south when the wrong person is elected President. A massive coverup effort ensues. It becomes more and more complicated when the Vice President is unexpectedly nominated by his party for President in the following election.

A ruthless and power-hungry California Senator is wisely rejected by voters in the party’s primaries, and an elderly, semi-senile, former Vice President gets the nomination. The Senator colludes with worried party officials to get her chosen as the Vice Presidential nominee. After the election, they plan to elevate her to the President by exposing her running mate’s mental incompetence.

Those are just a few obvious ideas. I personally like number 2. It is too bad Tom Clancy is not around to write it.

In any event, this illustrates how useful it is to look to current events for plot ideas that can form the basis for a story or provide elements to enrich your tale.

My book — Trail to Peril is available on Amazon.

How to Create Characters–Backstory

All stories occur in the context of larger stories. Each character is shuffling along through the larger tale that is their life, and suddenly they are plunged into the situation that forms the premise for the story you are writing. For example, I just finished reading Robert Bailey’s novel, Legacy of Lies. In it, a well-respected Tennessee District Attorney finds herself charged with the murder of her ex-husband. A key question is, how and why did she end up in this challenging situation? The answer is found her backstory–the larger story of her life. It is found in the choices, events, traumas, and triumphs she experienced that form her personality and create the choices and conflicts she faces at the beginning of Bailey’s fine novel. 

When you fashion a story and look for effective and exciting plot lines and compelling drama, one of the places to look is in your characters’ backstory. Try to create a character profile for all your main characters and key minor characters. Start with a physical description of your characters, which I discussed here. Then write up a backstory for your character. It can be as detailed and as long as you like. It can also be short and concise. The key is that it answers how and why the character has ended up in your story. Also, keep in mind that you are not writing this backstory for publication. It doesn’t have to be well written—brainstorm. Spill your ideas on the page, content that no one else will likely read them. 

All stories occur in the context of larger stories.

Here is an example of what I mean. This is the backstory of a minor character, Melody Frei, in a novel I am rewriting and editing now.

BACKGROUND: Grew up in Portland in a lower middle-class family. Went to Lincoln High School. Had sort of a wild life during HS, but still did well and finally went to college at PSU where she met the protagonist. She married him when she was 20 and quit school in her junior year to have their first child. Things went okay until she ran into one of her old HS boyfriends in about year six of her marriage. This chance meeting led to adultery, drug use, and an eventual divorce. She ended up living with a series of boyfriends, doing rehab on multiple occasions, with the financial help of the protagonist, and generally living a hard existence alienated from her former husband and children. 

When Melody first appears in the story, she is on the street, wandering around with her latest boyfriend, Ricky, in the wake of a terrible disaster. The backstory tells me how and why she ended up there. It provides context for the conflict between her and the protagonist for the rest of the story. 

Finally, think about how much of a character’s backstory should end up in the story itself. If you spend a lot of time on it, the temptation is to use it all. Don’t do it. Nothing is more boring than an information dump. Just use enough to give your reader the information they need to follow the story. Feed the details into the story a bit at a time and don’t use parts of the backstory with no relevance to moving the tale. 

Check out my book–

Trail to Peril.

It’s available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

Creating Characters – Appearance

Take the time to get to know your characters, and it can pay dividends when you starting writing your story. A character sketch can be an excellent tool for doing that. You should definitely do one for each central character and at least a shorter version of minor characters.

The place to start is with the character’s appearance. First, work out the basics–age, race, eye and hair color, height and weight, skin tone. Then go on to how your character dresses. Keep in mind that the character may dress differently in different situations. Lee Child’s character, Jack Reacher, is distinguished by his practice of buying new clothes when he needs clean clothing and throwing away the dirty ones. Finally, consider the unique characteristics and mannerisms of the character.

…distinctive attributes make a character memorable.

It’s here you can conjure distinctive attributes that help make a character memorable. Think of John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport with a thin scar running through his eyebrow to his cheek, and a smile that can be scary. Then there is Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a creation of James Lee Burke, who has ink-black hair and a mustache except for a white patch above one ear, a legacy of malnourishment during his troubled childhood.

Another thing that can be helpful is to look around online and find a picture of someone who matches your vision of the character you are trying to create, and include it in your character sketch. I am a visual person, so if I describe the character in a book or story, the photo helps to do it in a more creative way than just listing vital statistics.

Below is an example of the appearance section of a character sketch for a book I am currently rewriting. The photo is one that I found browsing the internet that fit the bill of what I needed.

Use Your Bitterness

Creating bad guys or gals for your story is usually easier and more interesting than creating good ones. It’s probably because they have built-in conflict, and conflict is what makes a story hum. One source of good material for wicked, evil characters is your own experience.

All of us have encountered people in our lives that have mistreated us, insulted us, or lied about us to others. When you think about them, old emotional wounds open, and thoughts of anger and even hatred flare. Use this bitterness.

Use this bitterness.

The best way to deal with emotions toward such people is forgiveness. Bitterness and revenge are self-destructive. There is an old saying that you should dig two graves if you go seeking revenge. That does not mean you cannot use your enemies, and the strong emotions they trigger, as a rich source of material for creating loathsome characters for your stories.

It can not only help you craft engaging, memorable villains but in a subtle way, you get a measure of payback without the cost of overt revenge by immortalizing the abhorrent character the antagonists in your life in a work of literature.

My book, Trail to Peril is available on Amazon. Just click on the cover ->

Aspiring Novelist–Time to Get Ready for November

Do you have a story bubbling away in your head, struggling to get out? Do you wish you could get it down on paper, but you don’t know where to start?

November is National Novel Writing Month, and the non-profit organization, NaNoWriMo, provides the opportunity, encouragement, and structure to help you realize your literary dream. The task is to produce a 50,000- word first-draft novel in 30 days. It sounds daunting, but according to their website, it has been done nearly 368,000 times.

The task is to produce a 50,000- word novel in 30 days.

I have done it twice. It is challenging, but the key, like most everything in life, is prior preparation. That is why now is the time to start thinking about it. You need a plot, characters, a theme, settings, a compelling event, a beginning, middle and end, and 60 or so scenes to create your novel. Use October to work out all of those details, and writing 1,666 words a day in November is a doable, even enjoyable task.

The best part is that sometime around November 29th or 30th, after bringing your story to life, you get to write the words “The End”, knowing you have done something few have done. You have written a bad novel.

Then the task is to turn it into a good novel, which is a different adventure.

A Brief Review of “The God Whistle”

The God Whistle by Ralph Nelson Willett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is not in any of my usual reading genres, but I decided to read it anyway because I follow the author, Ralph Nelson Willett, on Twitter (@northerovation) and enjoy and often steal the Dad jokes he posts there. It turns out he is not just a great punster, but he can spin a tale into an engaging and edifying novel as well. He creates some fascinating mysteries that keep you reading along, such as a strange train whistle, an old blind guy who seems to know more than he should, and the question of whether the protagonist, Mary, will reconcile with her husband. It all gets resolved in a surprising and intriguing ending. The book is worth the read, and I will likely check out some of his other works.

View all my reviews

Next Project

I have spent the last couple of months prepping, publishing, and trying to promote my novel, Trail to Peril. Most of that has been learning the details of social media advertising, creating a website, setting up author pages on Amazon and Good Reads, and frittering away a few bucks on promotion services that didn’t work very well. It feels like I am starting to get a little traction, so I will jump on the next project.

During the 2015 NaNoWriMo, I wrote the first draft of a dystopian novel, tentatively called “Pulse”, set in Western Oregon in the aftermath of a North Korean EMP attack. The protagonist, Mackey, is faced with surviving and protecting his family in the the chaos that results. Finishing the rewrites and editing is my next project.

…2020 has delivered a treasure trove of calamity

The story’s premise is based on something I read about a government study on the effects of an EMP attack. It was a worst-case assessment that pointed to widespread chaos, a devastating death toll, and years of recovery. There are a lot of varying opinions about how severe the effects would be. For the purpose of the story, I, of course, went with the worst-case.

One thing that will help create a richer story as I rewrite and revise is the horrible year of 2020. In the first draft, the EMP comes on the heels of a pandemic that swept Oregon. The year 2020 has delivered a treasure trove of calamity to the Beaver State that can be incorporated into the rewrites including, Antifa riots, Covid-19, and the catastrophic wildfires. The use of these events in the narrative should provide something to which readers can connect, helping them put skepticism on pause so they can enjoy the story.

The goal is to rewrite and polish it up for publishing by year-end.

Judge Learned Hand on Paying Taxes

Judge Learned Hand, (b. January 27, 1872, d. August 18, 1961) was a Federal District Court Judge in the Southern District of New York and later served on the Federal Appeals Court for the Second Circuit. One of his most famous quotes and one with which most good tax attorneys and CPA’s are familiar, is this one.

“Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury. There is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes. Over and over again the Courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everyone does it, rich and poor alike and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands.” –Judge Learned Hand

False Positives

One of the astounding things during this whole Covid-19 pandemic is just how misleading the statistics are, that are being reported. The worst metric and the one used to drive public policy in Oregon at least is reported cases. There are several reasons why you should be skeptical.

Reported cases are not based on random samples and therefore do not tell you anything about the population. The number of reported cases is a function of the number of people tested. The people that are tested are self-selected, not randomly selected. This means that sick people are oversampled, and the actual infection rate in the population is probably lower than reported.

Testing is pretty reliable but not perfect. If you assume a 10% rate for false positives and a 15% rate for false negatives and then plug in an infection rate of 4.5% into a Bayesian model, it shows that about 78% of positive test results are false positives. In other words, if you test positive, there is a 78% probability that you do not have Covid-19. The New York Times published similar information here. It makes one wonder if the concept of “asymptomatic cases” isn’t being used to cover up a very low infection rate. 

Finally, because the number of reported cases closely correlates to testing, the number of cases can be manipulated by testing policies. If a Governor wants it to look like her policies are working to stem the tide of infections, all she would need to do is test fewer people. 

The use and reporting of bad statistics and wrong and conflicting information indicates the need for reform in managing pandemics. That should probably be done at the Federal level. 

Link: NY TIMES: Up to 90% Who’ve Tested COVID-Positive Wrongly Diagnosed! TRUTH: A Whole Lot Worse!