Focusing Your Ideas

Any “born” writer knows that it’s pretty hard to shut off your brain when practically everything you read, see and hear becomes a possible story idea. The news is packed with them – crimes of every sort – governmental espionage – historical events – major auto accidents – and even (too rarely) GOOD NEWS stories that give you an idea for a sweet, romantic tale.

Then, of course, we are always researching facts for different stories, and if you are like me, as you explore the facts for one idea, you come across other subjects that would also make a good story. I have been “saving” ideas for years. I have file drawers full of ideas – all labeled. I save magazine articles, (in my case, of course, historical magazines like TRUE WEST), I type up notes when a plot “hits” me and I put them into the filed subject matter that fits them – like “women of the west” – “ranching and range wars” – “gold discoveries” – “the transcontinental railroad” – “lawmen” – “outlaws” – “revolutionary war” – “civil war” – “the Alamo” – the list is endless. All my hundreds of research books are underlined and dog-eared and have notes in the corners of some pages that say “story idea.”

My purpose here is helping writers, especially new writers, learn how to focus and decide on your next project. There are times when you will wish you could clone yourself about 5 times, so that you could work on all your great ideas at once and turn out 5 different books a year. (Believe it or not, I did that a couple of times. I used to write no fewer than 3 books a year and one year I wrote 4 and one year 5 – all big 400-500 pages books and while raising two boys and working full time!) Believe me, that can affect your health. It all finally caught up with me and it’s hard for me to sit at the computer for that many hours any more. However, the ideas do keep coming, and my head spins with which book to write next.

A problem brand new writers often have is that they have several story ideas but never get around to sitting down and writing a book because they can’t decide which story they should write. My advice is to pick the idea that haunts you the most – the one that keeps coming to the forefront when you can’t sleep at night because of all the ideas swimming around in your head. What hero or heroine keeps revisiting you? Or what genre/idea jabs at you the most – the one you absolutely love and feel you have to write about before all others? Go with your gut. Which idea says you will never die happy if you don’t get that story onto paper and sell it first?

Of course, some of us are committed to certain books that we have already sold to a publisher. Those books have due dates, and those due dates must be met or the publisher will be upset and might not buy another book from you. I like to keep my foot in the door with publishers, so if I am going to commit a book to them, I try to only push those books I know I truly love and need to write. However, publishers don’t always CARE about what YOU want to write. Sometimes they are simply looking for something else, and if you want to keep selling to them, you try to oblige them. In that case, I go with what they are looking for, but I try to stick to one of the ideas I feel I would enjoy writing, even if it’s not my top pick. I want to do a fifth “Outlaw” book – BADLY. The whole thing is already written “in my head.” However, Sourcebooks wants me to get away from a series for a while and try a single title, which they can more easily do a big push on and bring attention to as a “brand new” book from Rosanne Bittner.

So, I came up with LOGAN’S LADY, which I am writing now. The idea for the book was completely spur of the moment at an RT convention, where I was talking with another writer about Old England – Regencies – Victorian England, etc. Now that is something that doesn’t interest me at all as far as what I like to read (other than some of the Victorian practices that were brought to America by the English, mainly in the bigger eastern cities). But that short conversation led me to a plot involving a “proper” English “Lady” coming to America and ending up needing the help of a western bounty hunter, a man so completely removed from what she would want in a man that the contrast in their cultures would be food for a great story and some humorous moments. I knew I would be meeting with my Sourcebooks publisher that same day and I’d better be ready with a new idea. I presented her with my idea, and SHE LOVED IT!

My first reaction was (gulp!) – now I have to write this book and I have no idea what I’ll do with it. I had no plot, other than that basic idea of a Lady and a bounty hunter. My editor bought it because she intends to push the “Lady comes to America” theme and tie it in with another Sourcebooks author who writes “Cowboy goes to England.” She felt it would go a long way towards building my numbers even higher with distributors, and what writer doesn’t want that? Thus, I am now “focusing” on LOGAN’S LADY and setting all other ideas aside. BUT … those ideas still brew in my head, and sometimes I have to fight them and tell those other characters they will just have to wait their turn. It was hard, because I have written nothing but Jake Harkner’s “Outlaw” books for three years now. I had a very hard time setting Jake aside and telling him to sit there while I get involved with a different hero. 😊 I am now also writing new books for Amazon, so that gives me more freedom to “choose” what book I will write next. I started with CAPTURE MY HEART (a book I simply started for the fun of it because I thought it was time for a Bittner Native American romance). I had no idea what would happen in the story. I just sat down and wrote it. It did so well for Amazon that they wanted a sequel, so I wrote A WARRIOR’S PROMISE. It’s scheduled for March 2018, and Amazon will do a special 30-day “push” on the book, including e-mail “blasts.” Again, I had to set other ideas aside simply because, career-wise, I thought I should mix it up a little and get away from the outlaw/lawman idea. Trouble is, as soon as LOGAN’S LADY is finished for Sourcebooks, I will again be in that situation of deciding which “haunting” book I should write next. “Outlaw” #5? Plus a sixth “Outlaw” book that involves Jake’s grown-up grandson? The contemporary Native American romance that has haunted me for 25 years? (I haven’t written that one because I am intimidated by contemporary stories, (I’ve never written one except for a short story years ago). And this story has so much in it that I’m not sure where to “place” it. Big women’s fiction? Contemporary romance? Contemporary suspense? Inspirational? Native American romance? It would fit any of those categories.

Other ideas I have involve my World War II story (already written but not truly ready yet for publication) – more on the Mexican War – a return to another book about the French & Indian Wars (think LAST OF THE MOHICANS, something I covered in my “Wilderness” books but want to write more about) – another book involving the Civil War, most likely about the aftermath of that war? –My brain absolutely will not stop spinning with new ideas.

So, it’s a matter of FOCUS. I never want to work on a book someone else “tells”me to write, but I had to for the Sourcebooks Christmas anthology, CHRISTMAS IN A COWBOY’S ARMS. So, how did I write that short story they’d requested? I merely added to my fourth “Outlaw” book, THE LAST OUTLAW, and took Jake and his family into the Christmas that came right after that fourth book ended. I dreamed up something sweet for Christmas – a story involving Jake and one of his little granddaughters, spinning it around the concept of how much Jake had changed over the years. Thus, even though I “had” to write the story, I made it about characters I already loved, so that it wouldn’t feel like hard work or something I had to force out of me.With any project, consider what’s in your heart first, then consider your career and which idea might benefit you the most as far as sales and what publishers are looking for. My publisher wanted a Christmas story, so I gave them one. With each book you simply set all your other ideas aside. File them away in your brain (and sometimes on paper) and focus on the one book that fills the bill all the way around, yet is a book you know you will ENJOY writing. If you don’t enjoy it and can’t fall in love with the characters, the book will be pure “work.” You don’t want that. Writing should NEVER feel like work. It should be liberating and fun and enjoyable. You should love your characters and your idea so much that you can’t wait to get back to your writing!

I have been “in love” with Jake Harkner since I first I wrote about him in OUTLAW HEARTS back in 1993. It took me 20 years to sell the second book (DO NOT FORSAKE ME) but that book was in my head all those 20 years, and although it was over 500 pages long, it poured out of me in about six weeks!! That’s because I’d filed it away while working on many, many other books in between. And I’ve recently learned that DO NOT FORSAKE ME has been reprinted! And so was CHRISTMAS IN A COWBOY’S ARMS, which included the short story I didn’t want to write! Good news! So now, I guess I can manage to set Jake aside again while I work on other stories – but he’s always there, waiting for me to bring him to life again. Right now I’ve managed to give my heart to my bounty hunter, Logan Best, in LOGAN’S LADY. Sometimes I feel like a harlot for having so many different lovers!!

If you manage to focus on one story at a time and get it written, you will be able to finish a lot more books than if you sit around trying to decide which story to write and never start (or finish) any of them. Writing takes a lot of discipline, but it’s all easier when you are writing what you love and enjoying every minute of it!

Stick to Your Guns

“Stick to your guns” is not just fitting for my theme, which is to write from your heart and write what you believe in, but also fitting because “guns” are most certainly a big part of what I write! 

It’s been a long time since I blogged, mainly because of some emotional family problems that have been going on, but also because of the holidays, finishing a new book for Amazon (A WARRIOR’S PROMISE), then packing and driving out here to Las Vegas to get away from Michigan’s snowy winter. It takes a while to get resettled, and I’ve also been working on my new book for Sourcebooks (LOGAN’S LADY), so blogging has been low on my list of “things to do.”

I just finished chapter nine of LOGAN’S LADY, and as I write, I always sit and listen to theme songs from famous westerns. My favorite is always THE BIG COUNTRY, closely followed by Do Not Forsake Me from HIGH NOON, and the theme songs from NEVADA SMITH, OLD GRINGO and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. That one, which starts with a lonesome sounding harmonica, immediately takes me to my own novel DO NOT FORSAKE ME, the second – and my all-time favorite along with its gorgeous cover – in my “Outlaw” series. Everybody who has read those books and who know me understand that I am hopelessly in love with my hero, Jake Harkner. He is a real “man of men” – the ultimate “bad man with a good heart.”

At any rate, when I hear that harmonica from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, I see Jake the U. S. Marshal, riding into Guthrie, Oklahoma with four horses behind him, a dead man draped over one, and three badly-wounded outlaws on the other three. That is my favorite scene from all the books I’ve written, and it’s the first chapter of DO NOT FORSAKE ME. What I love about it is that Jake is the ultimate, dark, moody, “don’t mess with me” U.S. Marshal in that scene, and people back away as he approaches … but … then comes his wife, running down the street toward him, glad to see he’s come back from another dangerous mission alive and unhurt.

I think that is one of the most powerfully romantic scenes I’ve ever written. Jake Harkner instantly changes from a ruthless, mean outlaw/lawman/gunman to a doting husband who is putty in the hands of his beautiful, forgiving, understanding, patient wife, Miranda. You can just “feel” how glad they are to see each other and that they can’t wait to get each other alone.

Listening to my favorite western theme music, and having that lead me to my favorite hero, just reminds me why I write, and why I “stick to my guns” in my belief that a writer should write only what he or she LOVES and not write for the most popular genre of the time. I have very likely hurt my numbers by insisting on sticking with a genre that has not always been terribly popular, certainly not in today’s times. When I started writing in the early 80’s, western and Indian romance was HUGE. But even then, I didn’t get into it for the genre. I was so ignorant of “genre” and what readers wanted that it wouldn’t have mattered. I have always had a passion for American history, mostly the “Old West,” for the western hero and for the magnificent, glorious, unmatched beauty of America’s West, the Rockies, the Bighorns, the Sierras, the high plains, the prairies, the wild rivers … all of it.

For all the hoopla that continues for Regencies, for my part you cannot beat the attraction of the American cowboy, the lawmen, the bounty hunters, the soldiers – (all of which remain hero-types even today) – or the strength and romance of our stalwart pioneer women. Women today talk of independence and “doing their own thing.” It’s true that a lot of pioneer women only went west because they had to follow their husbands there, but those women were so strong and resilient, and many of them lost their husbands along the way and had to survive on their own. But aside from following husbands west, many women went west on their own just to BE independent, many to settle under the Homestead Act. Female independence didn’t start in settled, civilized places. It started in the American West, where Utah and Wyoming were the first states to allow women to vote. Men there recognized the intelligence and integrity and strength of the female species. 

All of that is just part of what makes it so much fun to write about life in America’s Old West, as well as being able to tell the TRUTH about the history of our Native Americans, which bears little resemblance to those old westerns we watched, or to what we were taught in school. My mission has always been to bring forth the gritty reality of life in the West and in historical America.

Right now, I am listening to THEE I LOVE from the movie FRIENDLY PERSUASION. OMG, that beautiful song just takes me again to Jake and Randy. In fact, if I get to write that fifth “Outlaw” book, I think that’s the title I will give it. THE I LOVE. Perfect! And I can’t leave out Zeke Monroe (Lone Eagle) and his beloved Abbie, from my SAVAGE DESTINY 7-book series. Zeke and Jake run neck-and-neck as my most beloved heroes.

I’m sure some think that because I talk about my writing and my genre so much that maybe I’m just somehow bragging or something. It’s not that way at all. It’s just that I love what I write so much that I want to share with other writers how important that is. It might cost you at times because you’re writing something that isn’t terribly popular at the time, but by-God the story will absolutely pour out of you with no effort at all! Why struggle to come up with a good story that fits today's popular genres if it isn’t in your heart to write it? I tried that once – and I went almost ten years without selling a book! It was ONLY WHEN I RETURNED TO THE GOOD-OLD AMERICAN WEST, with my book PARADISE VALLEY, that I sold again and have been selling steadily ever since. I didn’t even know what I was going to do with that story. I just started out with a woman burying her husband somewhere on the western plains and let her character take me on an adventure of finding the men who’d killed him – aided, of course, by a handsome, wealthy outlaw-turned-rancher who became a great hero! I still want to write a sequel to that book, because it ends with the heroine pregnant with the hero’s baby.

I can’t talk enough about how much I love my genre of historical western romance. It has led me to be named by Romantic Times the “Queen of Western Romance” and to be called an “emotional powerhouse” of a writer. And one more reason to “stick to your guns” is that you will end up BUILDING YOUR NAME. You will be “known” for writing a particular genre, and you will grow in that genre because your readers love your writing and know what to expect from you. If you jump around genres, you will never build your name for one particular subject. Most readers have a “favorite” genre, and you will lose those you attracted to, perhaps, contemporary suspense, because that’s what they will be looking for, without knowing your next book was a Regency or a vampire story. My point is, for LONGEVITY in this business, you want to build your name, and sticking with one genre that you’re really good at will help you do that. I’ve been writing for 35 years, with 66 books published to date. I really don’t think that would have happened if I’d had to struggle for months to write books that weren’t really in my heart to write.

Just my opinion, and I’m “sticking to my guns!” 

(Music referred to in this blog comes from the album WAY OUT WEST – The Essential Western Film Music Collection – by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra)

Turning Your Great Idea Into a Book

I can’t count the number of times an aspiring writer has told me, “I have a great idea, but I don’t know how to make it into a whole book.” Or, “I started this book with a great idea, but I’ve reached a wall that I can’t get over. I don’t know where to go from here.” I’ve been in that same situation more than once myself, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you’re a born story-teller, you can write your way through almost anything.

With all the preaching we get about “pantsters” vs “plotters” and “goal-motivation-conflict” – and that we must obey all the rules of writing and that we always need a solid outline, I worry that new writers are the ones who fret too much about the “rules” of writing. They end up making statements like those above and they want answers. My answer to that is … FORGET ALL THE RULES! One thing that seems to be ignored in all the talks we listen to and all the workshops we go to is you just plain have to SIT DOWN AND WRITE! I can’t imagine how many valuable writing hours have been lost to newer writers who spend too much time and drip too much sweat over whether or not their story idea will follow all the writing rules – trying to plan ahead for goal, motivation and conflict – plotting and plotting, not sure if the story will really work out the way they want – writing and re-writing the synopsis rather than working on the book itself.

When my numbers went down a few years ago over the fall of the western romance genre, I went a few years without selling anything, even though by then I had over 50 books published and those were still selling. I was told by my “then” agent that I had to change genres and try to write something different. Not only that, but she wanted me to submit the “old fashioned” way – a synopsis and the first three chapters. Not only did I hate the idea of changing genres (my heart lies in the Old West), but I TRIPLE-hated writing synopses and deciding what to include in those first three chapters.

I WASTED A GOOD FIVE YEARS fretting over what to write and struggling with these synopses and first chapters. I am a total pantster, and I truly HATE KNOWING WHAT WILL HAPPEN IN MY STORIES BEFORE I WRITE THEM! By the time I am done with the synopsis for a story and have written those first three chapters, I feel like I’ve already written the book. The excitement and enthusiasm for my story is gone. Even if the book were to follow the genre I love, I would have trouble with writing that synopsis and those first three chapters. Inevitably, when I do finish a book, the original synopsis has been thrown out the window, and because by then I truly know what happens and know my characters deeply, those first three chapters almost always go out the window along with the synopsis.

It wasn’t until I sat down and WROTE A WHOLE BOOK FIRST that I finally SOLD AGAIN! And do you know why? I simply sat down and started a story (PARADISE VALLEY) and I let the story-line, the basic time-line and situation, my “idea,”and ESPECIALLY the CHARACTERS play out the story all on their own. And always, always, when I have finished a book – guess what? Goal, motivation and conflict fall right into place without me planning and plotting and worrying if I’m fulfilling those rules. Only when I FINISHED my book did I THEN go back and write the synopsis (because I thoroughly knew my story) and I used those first three chapters for my submission. And BECAUSE THE BOOK WAS FINISHED, that was a huge selling point in approaching the publisher (Sourcebooks). Editors/publishers love it when a book is already finished. It saves them bundles of time – and the author in turn is paid her ENTIRE advance all at once, rather than half of it to buy the “idea” and the other half up to six months or more later after the finished book is turned in and accepted.

The subject of this blog is “turning your idea into a book.” My advice, if you are having trouble fleshing out your idea for a story, is to stop trying to zero in on your idea/subject. Make it a more subtle, underlying theme. LET THE CHARACTERS write your story FOR you. Let your idea/theme be a PART of their lives, and don’t sweat over constantly keeping that idea the highlight of your book. Readers want to get involved in the CHARACTERS - not in your idea or your theme. I promise you, if you stop wasting time re-writing your synopsis and those first three chapters and just SIT DOWN AND WRITE THE STORY, everything you were fretting over will work out.

WRITING is the key to finishing a book.

WRITING is the key to getting through your sagging middle.

WRITING is the key to getting over the walls that rise in front of you and the problem of not being sure what should happen next and of wondering if you even have enough going on in your plot to build your story into a whole book.

WRITING is the key to actually having something to submit to an editor. When you are brand new, that editor can’t be sure that you are actually capable of finishing a book, so start out with a finished book as proof that yes, you CAN write a whole book. When I first started writing, I finished each book before I submitted the ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT to various publishers, rather than a synopsis and chapters. I wrote and submitted nine books that way, and it was the ninth book I finally sold (SWEET PRAIRIE PASSION). And because it was finished, and because the editor liked the story and characters so much, she asked if I could continue the hero and heroine’s story – thus I immediately sold FOUR BOOKS rather than just the one I submitted. The editor could see that I was capable of finishing a book and was pretty sure I could write another and another. The fun part was that I had NO idea what would happen in ANY of the books and I was not even asked to first submit a synopsis. My editor saw right away that I was a total pantster and story-teller. And as I wrote each book, the characters took care of each story as they grew and progressed, and new characters just walked into the stories that helped me expand the series.

Ideas are great. I have drawers full of notes and articles on which I scribbled, “Story Idea.” The same note probably shows up hundreds of times in all my research books. I would highlight a certain sentence or paragraph and write, “story idea”next to it. But never once have I sat for hours or days or weeks playing with that idea and trying to figure out how I could make it work. I simply sat down and started my story with that “idea” in mind. I almost never even know the background of my hero and heroine. I work on that as I write the book. I don’t fret over their goals and motivations, and usually the conflict takes care of itself, especially if the story is set around an historical event that would naturally create conflict (culture conflict - Indian wars/Mexican war) – (political conflict – Civil War/Revolutionary War) – (family conflict in a family saga) – (financial conflict – wealthy hero or heroine meets destitute hero or heroine) – (personal relations conflict over unrequited love or a love triangle) – (emotional conflict over a woman having to leave her family to follow her husband west, or where they should settle, or the man wanting to leave to search for gold or to join a war, or a heroine blaming the hero for the loss of a child) and the myriad of other types of conflict we all know about and many of us have experienced in our own lives.

Setting, situation, location, event, time line – all play a part in goal, motivation and conflict. You don’t necessarily need to have it all down pat when you start your story. Time and again, when I have struggled with something like this, if I keep writing, or sometimes do just a bit more research, the answers come flowing in and the story takes off. In fact, it just happened to me in the book I am currently writing. I was worried it would be far shorter than I wanted, and also worried about the conflict. Just a tad more research as well as bringing in a man who challenges the hero for his wife’s love broke everything open for me. Now I know the story will be big and dramatic and realistic and will fit right into my basic “idea,” which is to set a story around the infamous Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864. It’s a sequel to CAPTURE MY HEART (which I call A WARRIOR’S PROMISE), so the challenge for me regarding hero and heroine was that they are already married and very much in love, so to create conflict, I had to find a way to drive a wedge between them without ruining the love they share. My basic “idea” to use the Sand Creek Massacre mushroomed into a fresh love story about challenges that face any marriage, as well as a great historical saga that will dramatize a real historical event and HOW THAT EVENT AFFECTS HERO AND HEROINE. The way it affects them creates the conflict – and both of them have the goal of getting through their cultural differences. (The hero is half Cheyenne and very “Indian”at heart – the heroine is white and very independent.) Their motivation to make things work is their deep love for each other in SPITE of their differences.

This is how you develop a simple idea into a full-fledged novel without sitting for weeks trying to figure out how to do that. Everything in this book happened through me SITTING DOWN AND WRITING rather than staring at historical facts and trying to figure out how to get my characters involved.

It all comes down to the most BASIC, most IMPORTANT tool to writing and finishing a good book. SIT DOWN AND WRITE! This past summer I’ve had some huge emotional (family) challenges of my own to get over. It really put a halt to my writing, but I have discovered that the only way to get over that was to listen to my own advice and to SIT DOWN AND WRITE in spite of my heartache. The deeper I get into my story and characters, the more involved I get in both, which all helps me forget my personal troubles and helps me pay attention to my story instead.

So quit wasting time trying to figure out where to go with your story. Just SIT DOWN AND WRITE and let plain old human nature take over when it comes to your characters. People are people, and your characters should behave and react to the situation in which you get them involved just like any humans react. Throw in their particular conflict and set it all against your basic idea, and you have a story!

What Makes Your Hero and Heroine Real and Memorable?

I have written articles and blogs on creating “real” characters for years, but I’ve never been able to pinpoint the answer to an often-asked question: “What is the secret to creating characters that to you and your readers are so real and memorable that you and they both feel these people really lived?” 

I generally get so deeply involved with my characters that when I am writing them, the hero truly feels like my husband and I walk right into the heroine’s shoes. I’ve often commented that I feel Jake Harkner from my Outlaw series standing or sitting right beside me. Certain of my characters are so real to me that I sometimes think I will meet some of them when I die. I feel them with me all the time. Readers and other writers ask me how I reach that point. Soon after I start a book I don’t feel like the author “creating” a story any more. I feel like the spirits of people from the past are telling their stories through me. I don’t see them as author and character. I see them as me and some people I used to know.

And no matter all the ways I’ve tried to explain how I manage to create such characters, I’ve never been able to pinpoint it.

Well … of all things … recently I found the answer in SOAP OPERA DIGEST. I was reading the August 21 edition and came across an article on Eric Braeden, who plays the legendary and very rich Victor Newman (I’ve watched this soap whenever I can for a good 35 years, maybe longer). The article is about a book Mr. Braeden wrote about his life, called I’LL BE DAMNED (which I intend to buy because I really like and respect this man’s personal life and his acting). As the article continues, Mr. Braeden and the interviewer start talking about soaps and what it takes to create iconic soap characters that become “super couples” or in some other way long-term, memorable characters that the show can hardly do without. Victor Newman is one of them, and although he can be ruthless and mean, he has had a long, long relationship with his lovely wife Nikki (a stripper when he met her!) and they became a super couple. Even as they have aged over the years, they remain a favorite couple on the show and even still share romance (much like my Jake and Randy in my Outlaw books). And in spite of Victor’s ruthlessness (again, Jake Harkner can be an extremely ruthless man when someone harms someone he loves), there is something about Victor that fans love – and that Nikki loves – and in return something about Nikki that fans love – and that Victor loves.

Well, after all my searching for the right word that describes WHY these characters are so loveable and memorable and why viewers can’t quite let go of them is … VULNERABILITY. Thank you, Mr. Braeden, for your description of what makes fans empathize and fall in love with certain characters over others. For some reason, I never nailed that word as the one primary necessity in creating memorable characters. The answer came from Mr. Braeden himself. In his words, “Essentially what people react to, I think, is vulnerability in the characters they watch. I don’t care how mean they are, how ruthless they can be or whatever, but there is a vulnerability, and there’s a vulnerability in Victor’s relationship to Nikki and vice versa. I think that is what people respond to. Some actors protect their vulnerability enormously and don’t allow you to get in, and others do.” (I think here Mr. Braeden is saying it’s those actors who expose their characters’ vulnerabilities in a real, empathetic way, who make memorable characters the viewers fall in love with. Thus, some become soap icons, and some don’t.)

As most people know, it’s the actors who seem to BE the character they play who create the biggest icons. Some soap actors get hate mail because the character they play is so mean and devious, while other actors are loved because fans love the character they play. Fans identify the actors with the character they play, forgetting that it’s just acting. And most people empathize with the vulnerability of the characters they love or don’t love. They will put up with and even root for a mean and nasty character if they understand what happened to make that person the way he or she is. In the case of Victor Newman, he was abandoned at an orphanage at a young age and never knew real love growing up. He soon learned he could depend only on himself if he wanted to survive and succeed, and becoming rich helps him feel safe and protected from that world that hurts so much. When you’re rich, no one can get to you.

I have sometimes mentioned that deep down inside my character, Jake Harkner, desperately wants to be loved, and needing that love is his vulnerability. Miranda loves him beyond measure, in spite of his ruthless past and mean nature – because she understands the deep-seeded reasons for his behavior. He experienced a terribly brutal childhood, to the extent that he ended up killing his own father. Seeing his mother and little brother murdered by the man (when Jake was too little to stop him) left Jake with a desperate need to protect those he loves later in life – the family that his beloved Miranda has given him. In return, Miranda’s vulnerability is needing the wonderful feeling of safety she realizes when Jake is by her side. She was afraid and alone when she met him and he helped her go west to find a brother. On the way, Miranda grew to depend on Jake’s strength and his ability with fists in guns to protect her. Jake in turn found a woman with a big heart who was willing to forgive his past and love him in spite of it … and the longer he helped her on her journey, the more that need to protect grew in his soul, as did Miranda’s need to FEEL that safety and protection.

So yes, I have referred to vulnerability as a necessary tool to memorable characters, but something about the way Mr. Braeden put it seemed to make it even more clear. I never thought of vulnerability as possibly the one and only characteristic that brings our characters to life to the point of falling in love with them, caring about them, and in the long run hating to ever leave them (which is why I’ve written several series stories and trilogies).

When I think about it, some of my characters are far more vulnerable to loving and needing to be loved than others; and it’s those who were the most vulnerable and with the most tragic (and believably so) pasts that became the most real to me and to my readers – and the ones of whom I had the hardest time letting go.

The biggest clue to creating genuine empathy on the part of your readers is to make whatever tragedy your characters have experienced real and believable; and the characters’ words and actions and decisions throughout the story should relate to whatever it is that happened to them. And think about what that character’s vulnerability would be due to his or her past.

We are talking psychology here, and I don’t think you need a PhD to understand natural human nature and what makes our characters tick. Ask yourself what YOU would do and think and say if you’d experienced something like what your character(s) experienced. Human nature is human nature, so don’t be intimidated by not having a college degree in psychology. Most people have a pretty basic understanding of tragedy and disappointment and what that can do to a person.

This takes me to my own additional clue to creating real characters. Besides vulnerability, you need (as the author) to BE THAT CHARACTER in your heart. You are not TELLING the story. You are letting it happen through the CHARACTERS and they are using you to reveal their story. You must REMOVE YOURSELF from the story as the omniscient author. Readers should not “see” the author telling the story. They should see and hear only the characters, much like you would in a movie. You must tell your story totally through your characters’ words and actions and thoughts. The story belongs to the CHARACTERS, not to you, the author. You are simply the vessel through which your characters open themselves to your readers.

I try for total reality in my books, and in doing so, in my first 7-book series I ended up deciding the hero had to die toward the end. By then I and my readers were so attached, that the hero’s death was incredibly traumatic and tragic. I almost chickened out, but I knew this was the only way a man like Zeke Monroe should die – in battle. He had crippling arthritis by the last book and I was not going to let him die that way. I sobbed when I wrote his death, and balled for the next couple of chapters when Abbie learned about his death. I felt like I’d lost my own husband. I still cry every time I re-read that part of the series. But in the end, I have a beautiful, dreamy scene wherein the heroine also dies and she walks through the light to find Zeke, young and strong and handsome again, as she is young and beautiful again. It’s a lovely ending that helped me and my readers accept what had to be.

Still, I now have readers so attached to outlaw/lawman Jake Harkner in my Outlaw books that they are begging me not to kill the man off. He has become as real to them as someone living next door – or perhaps their own husband – and they can’t stand the thought of losing him to death. That’s when you know you have created a memorable character who has become totally real to your readers. I can’t promise Jake won’t die, because he ages with each book and he, too, is a man who definitely cannot be allowed to just die in bed from old age. No way. Jake Harkner needs to go down with guns blazing! I want to write a fifth book, and I know what will happen, but I haven’t decided if it will go as far as a final gunfight. I will make up my mind as I write the story. I never plan that far ahead.

At any rate, that comment from Eric Braeden about what makes a memorable character just nailed it for me. As I said, I have used the word vulnerability, but always with other explanations for memorable characters. I never thought of it as the one, primary necessity for memorable characters. For some reason, the way he put it just made it so clear to me.

So in my estimation, if you want to create a character or characters your readers will attach to and remember for years after they finish your book, think about that character’s vulnerability … and come up with a strong, believable reason for it. Human kind understands that and will empathize with it.

Happy writing!

The Long Journey

I have been writing books since 1979, when I penned my first novel - a 3,000 page disaster called WINDS FROM OREGON! I took a couple west on a wagon train, and anything and everything that could happen to people heading west in the 1850’s happened in that book. Those two should never have survived! And I didn’t know how to skip time, so it was practically a day-by-day blow all the way to Oregon. Hence, 3,000 pages! I never sold it, but it was a real learning experience, and I know now that I’ve used bits and pieces from that story in my later books.

The Benefits of Blogging, Social Media and Facebook Parties!

I remember when, probably at least fifteen or twenty years ago, a former agent told me I should create a blog.

BLOG? What a weird word. I wonder who invented it. I had no idea what she was talking about and I never did anything with the idea – was still new to just using a computer and the programs for writing books. I had just registered an e-mail account, knew nothing about web sites and blogging, and things like Facebook weren’t even born yet. I knew nothing about the internet and figured e-mail was handy but I’d never go any farther than that.

400 Years Of Publishing and Hardly Anything has Changed for Authors!

We live in a world of progress, from the Pony Express to Skype; from covered wagons to planes and drones; from long hand-written scrolls to today’s instant messaging through texts and e-mails. I’m sure our ancestors would faint from shock at traveling down the highway at 80 MPH, or being able to talk to a loved one through cell-phone face time, or share pictures and news through Facebook.

Are You a “Writer-Holic?”

I’ve always had a somewhat addictive personality, which is part of the reason I don’t drink. I quit smoking about 50 years ago (boy, that’s a hard one!). If I have surgery or some other reason for pain pills, I stop taking them as soon as I can. I once took pills for depression but didn’t like what they did to me (no feelings at all!), so I weaned myself off of those too. I’ve never EVER tried street drugs because I’m terrified what they would do to me. I’ve never even smoked pot, and I come from the 60’s generation. I also tend to be a “shop-a-holic,” and I actually turned to shopping once when life handed me a big blow that was hard to deal with. Shopping helped me forget my troubles and new clothes and jewelry made me feel good … but the shopping got me into credit card trouble, so I’ve stopped that too … well … at least not the big stuff. It’s still hard for me to turn down a great deal!

When life hands us some unexpected events that are hard to deal with, it’s so easy to turn to whatever makes us feel great and forget our troubles. I can most certainly attest to that. But there is one habit that comforts me that I’ll never give up, and that’s WRITING! I recently posted a blog about how writing can be a catharsis, a form of meditation and medication. I guess this blog runs along those same lines, but it’s because writing is something I could NEVER give up, I’ve realized that it’s another one of my “addictions.”

And what a wonderful, pleasant, soothing addiction it is!! Something recently gave me another blow to my emotions – such a blow that for the last two months I haven’t written a word. But things are better, and time is a BIG healer. I am treading lightly as far as feeling confident our troubles are over and taking one day at a time, rejoicing in each good day. For a while I thought I might never write again … but how can I stay away from the most wonderfully healing habit I have? WRITING!

I’ve been posting weekly excerpts from THE LAST OUTLAW, my fourth Outlaw book coming in September, and that has been a big help in making me want to get back into writing. I’m having fun reading through the MS and looking for some good excerpts to share with my readers. As I do so, I find that revisiting one of my stories has reawakened that need to write. I am planning the first chapter to a new book I proposed to my publisher (still waiting to hear from them) and I’m ready to work on some books I want to write strictly for Amazon. My Amazon book CAPTURE MY HEART sold in really great numbers, so now I’m excited to write more books strictly through Amazon rather than a publisher. I hope to continue with Sourcebooks and that eventually they will take a fifth Outlaw book, but whatever happens, I will KEEP WRITING as long as my body and brain allow it. Of all the addictions a person can have, I can’t imagine any as wonderful and fulfilling and comforting as WRITING.

Are you addicted to writing? More power to you! Don’t break the habit!

Writing Can Be Your Meditation

At first I was going to call this blog Writing Can Be Your Medication, but I realized that meditation is a better word. I can’t count the number of letters and e-mails I have received from grateful readers who have told me that reading my books helped them through bad times, whether emotional upheaval or surgery or an illness. I am always grateful in return to hear their comments. It makes sitting for hours at a time in front of the computer and pulling ideas and plots from my often-tired brain worth the effort.

The Dangers of Writing a Series

Anyone who has been reading Rosanne Bittner for the past 30 (+) years knows how much I like to write series-type stories … family sagas that take you through 30-45 years with the same hero and heroine and their family. My first series was SAVAGE DESTINY, seven books about the settling of Colorado and how white settlement affected the Southern Cheyenne. Through writing those books I fell in love with the hero, Zeke Monroe, and he has lived in my heart ever since.