February 11, 2015

The Way You Move

Every scene has something we in the writing world call "balance," and at its essence, scenes are composed of beats, narration, and dialogue. If a scene lacks any one of these things, most readers are left disappointed. Scenes that are purely composed of dialogue are confusing. Scenes that lack dialogue are "introverted." And Scenes that lack beats (action) don't go anywhere.

Some other time, I'll talk about narration and dialogue. But what I really want to get at this moment, is beats.

beat: a sentence before, after, or breaking up dialogue that describes a character's response or action.

Often, action coincides with dialogue. For example, after saying something, or hearing something, a character will have a physical reaction. However, many writers will have their characters move just for the sake of moving. In order to tell a good story, we have to be intentional about everything.

So, as our characters move throughout each scene, we ought to be setting the goal of being believable and purposeful.


1. do a mirror check

Have you just finished writing a scene? Great. Congratulations. Now, do me a favor and go into your bathroom, or even your bedroom (if you have a mirror there). Stand in front of your mirror and act out the scene you just wrote. Close the door if it makes you feel more comfortable. 

I heard about this trick at a writers' conference a year or two ago. Sometimes, we write about our characters doing things like putting their hands to their cheeks and gasping when they're shocked. Or hugging their bellies when they laugh. But honestly, have you ever done either of those actions in your own life? Is is realistic or hyperbolic? Check your characters' actions by trying it out for yourself. 

Perhaps, if your character is nervous, you might give them a twitch, like nail biting, scratching, or adjusting their clothes. What do you do when you're nervous?

2. law of follow-through

It goes without saying that if you pick up an object, you must put it down or use it at some point. Or if someone follows you somewhere, eventually, you will part ways (unless, perhaps, you have been hand-cuffed together, but even then, at some point the lock has to be broken or unlocked). 

Every action must have a follow through. 

I once read a scene where the MC was walked to class by her boyfriend, but then, as far as the text suggested, he never left. The author left him hanging. 

Or, for another example, one author wrote about a character who picked up a cup of tea, but never set it down. Did the character take it with her when she left the room? Did she ever drink from it? I'm not sure. 

Remember what was said before about being purposeful. If you are attempting to show an everyday, normal action, make sure your MC behaves accordingly and doesn't carry their toothbrush with them everywhere. 

3. ask why

Back to that cup of tea. Here's something to think about: does your character even like tea? Maybe your MC is only a social tea-totaler. Or did they spend a summer in Europe where the coffee is terrible and fell in love with Earl Grey somewhere along the way? Is your MC even thirsty? Is he/she tired and needs caffeine? Or maybe you're working on a story set in Victorian England or the American colonies where it was the social custom to accept whatever the host/hostess put before you. 

As writers, often we get a little confused when writing a scene. Sometimes, all we have to offer is dialogue. Two characters really need to talk about something, so one goes to the other's house and they talk in the kitchen. But what on earth is there for them to do besides shout a little bit and maybe kick a chair? Let's just face facts, we run out of ideas on occasion. 

When we run out of ideas, there's a tendency to insert action just for the sake of action so the scene gets a little more interesting. And so, one character will proceed to wash the dishes and the other will eat an apple that is sitting on the countertop. Really? Those actions, in no way, in and of themselves will drive the scene, or the plot for that matter, forward. 


what if a plate gets broken and interrupts their conversation, so they both bend over to pick up the broken pieces. Instead, they bump heads, or one cuts a hand on the glass and it forces them to work together, when they were previously upset about something. 

See how that changes things?

Ask yourself WHY your character is doing something. If the action doesn't serve a purpose, change it. Make it purposeful. 


Consider this...
  • Symbolism: does the action/movement have a bigger part in the story? Does it represent an inner conflict?
  • Mystery/Clues: if the character fiddles with an object, does that object suggest anything? Will it come up again later?

February 8, 2015

10 Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

I remember when I first started writing historical fiction. It's a challenge, a fascination and a journey all wrapped into one. And let's face it - we are the kings and queens of the google bunny trail and we love every second of it. But there is such a thing as GOOD historical fiction and BAD historical fiction.

I'd like to hope that what I write is straight from heaven and written in gold dust, but truthfully, there's a lot of editorial. I've been at this for about six or seven years now and so, I'm hoping, with this blog post, I can pass on some of the tips and tricks to crafting a story grounded in the past.

First off: what is the goal? Well, I'd like to think that we're all aiming for something that's historically accurate AND interesting to read. It's a tough balance, but here we go...

1. Google is your best friend

Sort of. I'd say that about seventy-five percent of my research comes from things I've googled. Blog posts, state historic park websites, articles, images, and my personal favorite, google books. But that other twenty-five percent is those glorious, hard-copy non-fiction books. Images of America books are fantastic. I have one for the county I've set my current manuscript in and I've found all kinds of neat pictures and fun facts on local history. I use those books to do a lot of my world-building. Another favorite of mine, are local paperback history books and pamphlets. 

Things to search: period clothing, common food, common names, etiquette, transportation, city maps, languages and accents, cultural traditions, etc. 

Things to be wary of: realize that anyone can post anything on the internet. The links that pop up in your google search are not the absolute authority on everything. Be sure to check your facts or else those history buffs will come knocking down your door. I once heard author Sarah Sundin (she writes some fantastic WWII romance) say that an actual WWII pilot contacted her after reading one of her books to correct some of her facts. On the upside, he helped her fact-check her next book. But the point remains, CHECK YOUR SOURCES.

2. Beware of Bunny Trails

If we're honest, most of us are total history buffs and we can get completely lost in our research, venturing so far down the bunny trail that what is currently in your search bar has nothing to do with what you actually needed to learn for the scene you're writing. So remember to stay on task. 

SOMETIMES bunny trails can be great resources for new plot lines. I've definitely used something I never even thought about until I stumbled onto it during a google search. But nevertheless, bunny trails can be dangerous time consumers. Stay focused.

3. Different Time, Different Taste

One thing that drives readers nuts is when a historical novel feels contemporary. Never forget that time=change and the social customs of then are not the social customs of now. Even language changes. The phrase, "OK" (also spelled "okay") is not historically accurate for anything set prior to the world wars. "OK" as an acronym referring to the military term "Zero Killed." So it doesn't make any sense whatsoever for a victorian character to say, "I'm okay." Rather, they would be far more likely to say, "I'm all right," or "I'm fine." 

And food. This drives me nuts. In the Little House on the Prairie TV show, the children are fed PB&J sandwiches. Now, PB&J didn't become popular until the turn of the century. The show takes place predominantly in the 1870's and 1880's when Laura was a child and a teenager. She and Almanzo had up and left for the Ozarks around the time someone even thought to put peanuts in a coffee grinder to make a spread. 

And don't forget - men and women's dating/courting habits change too. 

Emotions and feelings are timeless, but social customs are not. So don't forget to change your mindset when you start writing. Only contemporary writers have that luxury. We're a bit more like fantasy writers in that we have to put ourselves in another world and live by that world's rules.

4. Your Novel is NOT a History Textbook

Now, in the middle of all of your research, don't forget that it's supposed to read like a story, not be the perfect place to geek out over the painstaking process women went through in order to sew a dress prior to sewing machines. 

If it's not relevant to the story - leave it out. 

I know this is hard. We put hours of time and research into our manuscripts. It seems logical that all those details we scrounged up should find a home, but sometimes, those little tidbits are better left on the back burner for another story - one where they will be relevant. 

So do a read though of your manuscript and check for information dumps. You're telling a story, not writing a history book. Make sure your historical details weave in naturally and aren't overwhelming.

5. You Have Options

One of the fun little facts about historical fiction, is much of your character's world is already set in place - if you want it to be. You as the author have the option of choosing your setting. Certainly, unless you are writing contrafactual history, based on your year and country of choice, there are fashion and social customs set in stone. BUT, you can choose a particular town to work with that does exist, OR your can create your own town. 

There are many historical authors that create their own hometowns for their characters. This gives them the freedom to craft their own city streets, restaurants, stores, neighborhoods and local people. It's a perfectly acceptable custom within the genre. Lauraine Snelling did this in her Red River Valley series set in Blessing, ND. Blessing is not a real place, but a fictional one. Still, it works for her series. 

At the same time, there are plenty of authors out there who chose a real-life location for their story. The Love Finds You collection is a great example of this. Authors pick a real life town and use the geography, people, stores, streets and general features of that town to build their world. Mona Hodgson did this with her Sinclair Sisters of Cripple Creek series. As you can tell from her series title, her books are set in Cripple Creek, Colorado. And she did something amazing with her real-life location. After some research on local history, she wove in the 1896 Cripple Creek fire into her plot as well as real-life businesswoman Mollie O'Bryan into her second book.

So don't forget, while many details are set in stone, there is definitely some wiggle room to have fun. But are the same time, details can add to the realistic feel of the story.

6. Music

I LOVE historical music. It really puts me in the mindset of the time. And since the invention of sheet music in the middle ages, you can actually find recordings of period music. Personally, I write books set in the victorian era, so something I did was actually look up popular music from the 1800s. I kept in mind what communication looks like, so I dated my music based on the twenty years prior to my current time, and didn't use any songs written and published to close to my setting so that the music would have time to circulate. With the invention of the radio, you can have a bit more fun. But with the victorian era, I have to be careful. But anyways... after I found a good list, I searched youtube and itunes for recordings and created a playlist from it. I listen to that playlist anytime I'm writing. 

And don't be afraid to incorporate those songs into your work. Laura Ingalls did and (I'm going to use an afore mentioned author again) Sarah Sundin mentions several popular hits from the 1940s in her books. "Green Eyes" came up several time in her first book.

7. Museums & Living History

Something you may or may not know... there are a TON of history buffs out there. If you do use a real life location, go visit and check out the local museum. Talk to the curator, ask questions about grocery stores, clothing stores, milk and paper routes, local disasters etc. These are some great factoids that you can use. 

But even if you're manufacturing your own setting, visit some locations that inspire your made-up setting. Some places like Sutter's Mill in Coloma, CA even put on Living History days. Volunteers put on period clothing and go through the motions of a normal day in that time period. It's a great way to get a grip on real life. If there's a blacksmith on duty, making horseshoes and courting candles, walk inside, open your ears and inhale deeply. What does his shop smell like? What do the furnace and the hammers sound like? Sensory details are great fuel for writing.

8. Get Over Your Introversion

A common trait among writers is shyness (I know, introversion and shyness are not the same, nevertheless, as a rule of thumb, they seem to go hand in hand). But to be blunt, shyness doesn't serve very well when researching. And if you have an aversion to old people, get over that right now. They are the ultimate authority on what life in the past was like. Find your grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. and ask them about what growing up was like for them. 

I has a conversation like this with my great-grandmother, who grew up in dairy-country in the 1920s, and learned a TON from her. She wrote down a short synopsis of what a typical week looked like for her family. I treasure that research. Primary sources are fantastic.


Everything aforementioned is great, it's what I always keep at the back of my mind, but most of all, never forget to keep track of your sources. If you don't, you'll have to go back and find it all over again the next time you need that little tidbit for your story. 

I keep a folder in my bookmarks bar with my favorite links. I also have a notebook where I write down anything someone told me personally (primary sources). And for factoids I've found online, I like to copy and paste the important details and photos into a word document that I save on my computer desktop (don't forget to back that up to a flashdrive or your email. 

Feel free to create your own system. But please... save everything.

10. Don't Forget to Have Fun.

Always remember that first and foremost, fiction is meant to be enjoyed. So enjoy yourself while you write. All of these things are important, but they don't mean a thing if you're not getting some kind of joy out of the process. God has created us with certain hobbies and loves that give us joy. To be sure, push through the low spots to get to the next moment of joy, but don't bring low spots upon yourself by loosing the fun in the process. 

February 2, 2015

Falling in Love with Fiction

I'm always amazed at the kind of emotions a book can jerk from me - like Francine River's "Redeeming Love." I cry every time I read the ending to that book. And Gail Carson Levine's "Ella Enchanted." My heart breaks when Ella dances with Char and he doesn't recognize her (not a spoiler, I promise!). But anyways, books have the power to do that to us. Why?

Let's explore that idea just a little bit. What makes us fall in love with a book?

I think it's the characters.

The trick to having an amazing book, in my opinion, is creating characters that seem real. Who have real problems and real lives. Not to suggest we should all start writing non-fiction, but when you tell a story, you want the reader to believe that what is happening in the book, for at least a few hours, is real.

Let's all agree that if Lucy didn't get picked on by her brother Edmund, we wouldn't root for her in quite the same way in C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." She is every bit the baby of the family and the four Pevensie children seem like a real family with a real family dynamic.

So what does this say about our own stories?

As storytellers, we want our readers to love our characters every bit as much as we do. In our minds, they are vivid people who interact with us, express opinions and make choices (and I know it sounds schizophrenic, and we just might be). And who wouldn't sympathize with that type of character?

Writing a book is the art of expressing what is already in the mind on paper. Somehow, we have to translate those people in our heads onto paper so the rest of the world can get to know them. This means giving them a real world to live in. One where they have childhood memories, favorite foods, allergies, mistakes, scars, and friends.

So think about your MC for a moment and ask yourself, what do they want in life? Then ask, why do they want it so badly? This could be tied to something they didn't receive as a child. Or maybe, they were recently robbed of something and they want it back - does that thing have sentimental value or monetary value? Is someone in danger? If so, why do they want to rescue them?

Now think about the scenes your character partakes in. Who do they meet? How to they get along with other characters? Are they stubborn and opinionated? Or meek and passive? Maybe your character is loud and boisterous. If so, how to others respond to them? Is their laughter contagious, or is everyone annoyed?

This is real life we're talking about here. Of course we, as humans, don't get along with everyone we meet. We have a favorite jacket that only gets washed once a month because it's worn daily. We want things: family, friends, a dream house... If that's normal to human life, then your character should share those qualities. If you can't answer these type of questions, they likely, no one will be able to find common ground with your character, and your story will wash out with no impact.

Let me finish my saying I wish you all the very best in your character development.

Comment with any questions you have.



February 1, 2015

Pet Words

I see it all the time... Writers have pet words. Those little phrases or words we like to use all the time. A common one is, "suddenly." But then you might have a pet word all your own. Some will say things like, "she got a feeling in the pit of her stomach," and use that phrase over and over again. After a time, it starts sounding odd, though it is a very descriptive comment. Avoid Cliches too. Those are no bueno!

"Was" and "had" are horrible ones. When many first begin writing, they are very easy words to slide into almost every sentence, but same as before... they SOUND ODD when used AGAIN and AGAIN.

My new favorite trick is this little thing called, "right-click." If you right-click a word and select synonyms, your Word program will give you a whole list of words that mean the same thing. "Was" and "had" are just as simple to get rid of. They often appear just before words with an "ed" or an "ing" on the end. 

for example:
"She [was working] for that company" becomes "worked"
"She [had worked] for that company" becomes "worked" 

It all means the same thing. Get rid of the excesses!

"Ly" adverbs can be your downfall too. Use them sparingly... get it? And please don't put more than two adjectives in a row.

Well, there's your editing tip for the day. Get rid of pet words!

Love and Hugs

Easy Edits

Let me start out by saying that it's important to weed out words like "was," "had" and ly adverbs in your manuscript. But just do a word search in your manuscript and you'll quickly find that the task isn't as simple as it may seem. There are two different instances in which we find "was" and "had," one of which is easy to fix, the other, not so much.

the first is like we've mentioned before:

"He was singing in the choir until September of last year." becomes, "He sang"

Easy right? Well, what about that other instance where you can't simply conjugate the word? Well, that is where we all learn to become better writers...

"The sky was grey and overcast."

Hmm... can't just conjugate that one. But let's think about this sentence for a moment. It's just fine grammatically, but for a work of fiction, it's just not very descriptive. It's shallow. So let's dig in a little deep and watch that "was" disappear.

"Alisa looked up into the clouds and noted the way they sagged with the weight of rain. The blue sky all but disappeared as the clouds moved into place, preparing to drench the parched ground."

Well! How about that? We just took a simple sentence and created something beautiful and descriptive with feeling! Our characters only comment on things that are of some importance to them, or effect them in some way. FEELING and description is a crucial part of setting the scene. So don't be so scared of rewriting. It takes work... but your story will come alive.

WAS, HAD and LY ADVERBS are crippling to your descriptions! They cut the picture off at short, sweet and simple. We don't want that! So delve in a little deeper and give your reader a better picture.

Context & Hinting

Characters are funny things. In many ways they are completely open. In other ways, they are very closed off. Knowing when they are supposed to be one or the other to the reader, is a difficult lesson to learn. Primarily because everything depends on circumstance.

Most writers botch this art thoroughly in the form of thoughts: when the writer goes into detail about a character's thought process during a scene. It's the one time we really get into the character's head and see exactly what they are thinking. But often, what most writer's get wrong, is that few stories are told from the prospective of a character looking back on their life. Most characters are living in the moment.

One of my biggest pet peeves is "information dumps." Most characters understand themselves and should not feel the need to explain themselves to themselves. In Shakespearean dramas, such things are called an "aside." If you need to say something that helps the reader to make more sense of the character's life, then you have done something horribly wrong in previous scenes.

The ultimate tool for a writer is CONTEXT and HINTING. Nothing is ever stated bluntly in a novel because most characters are too engrossed in their dilemma to be thinking clearly. Aside from that, most of them don't constantly feel the need to reiterate their backstory as they go through life. This would be a little weird if someone in real life went about thinking such things like:

As Marty walked through the halls of Lincoln High School, he considered his upbringing at the family cabin by the lake. He had two sisters, Lizzy and Beth, twins actually. His dad was a pastor at the local church.

NO NO NO. It's not relevant to what the character is experiencing and it just sounds awkward. It's the author creating an information dump. It's especially easy to do when working on a series where the lives of the same characters are followed. When this happens, it's tempting to practically summarize what happened in the previous book at the beginning of the new book. Like I said... Most characters live in the moment and do not have their life story rolling through their mind 24/7.

Now... how do we fix this?

I told you before that Context and Hinting are powerful tools. Let's look at Marty once again. If we NEED to know that he grew up in a lake cabin, we can use things in his life to help the reader catch on to that bit of information instead of blatantly stating it.

To do this, we can start a new scene with Marty sitting at home and interacting with his family. His dad might ask how he likes his new school, to which Marty might answer that he misses being home schooled back at the lake house. Then, his sisters might pipe in. Marty might smile at the way they always speak at the same time, a twin trait, he guesses. The twins might say they don't miss the lake house at all and that they like their new teacher. 

Same information gets across, but it sounds less awkward and it's not an information dump. The reader still understands the same ideas about his past. It's all about CONTEXT and HINTING. Never just dump information into a story. Characters should think and process things the same way anyone in real life does.

Being a CHRISTIAN Writer

Are we writers who are Christians? Or are we Christian writers? I suppose I'll leave that one up to you. Not all of us want to write for the Christian market. Some of us are called to write for the secular market because that is where we can give God the most glory. That's what important. Where has God called you into His ministry?

Ever thought about it that way before? That writing is your ministry? It took me years to wrap my head around that. I just knew I liked writing. I didn't quite understand God's role in my writing. The two seemed separate, yet inexplicably bound together in a jumbled mess. I'm sure many of you can sympathize.

But this is what I discovered.

God created us. He knows our inmost being. In fact, He even gave us our gifts and talents, he designated them to us. Think back for a moment of the parable of the talents that Jesus told. Each servant was given gifts so that they could take them and make use of them for the benefit of the master, and eventually, themselves. Can't you just imagine God saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant"?

We were gifted with the talent of writing - the joy of writing! So why shouldn't we expect that God wants us to put that talent to use and profit from it? It's the whole point of having the talent! What use would it be... what purpose would it have if we just hid it under and rock? God intended for us to use our talent.

But here's the real question... how do we use it? And what is profit?

Those answers will vary from person to person. But when I say profit (this answer will be universally true) I do NOT mean money. It is inevitable that you will reap some financial benefits, BUT IF YOU ARE WRITING, shouldn't your writing serve some purpose? We were created to give glory to God and declare His Holy and Precious Name. This does not necessarily mean you have to write Christian works, but I do think that your works should reflect the values of our Creator and should focus on having an identity founded in Him. What this means will vary depending on your subject matter. Profit will first and foremost mean directing people to look upwards for answers. Use? Well... what story has God laid on your heart to write? Only He can tell you.