Writing Tip

hello-1502386_1280Naming Names

“There was a boy called  Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”            C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

An author can say so much about a character by simply choosing a suitable name.  In the sentence above, readers know all they need to about Eustace.  It is one of my favorite opening lines and character desciptions.

I thoroughly enjoy making up names for characters.  I am interested in names in general and have been since I was a kid.  Back then, I loved making up names for imaginary people — good training for a fiction writer.  I also liked looking up what names meant and from what language they originated.


The name of a character provides an image of him or her as much as the author’s description of the character’s features.  If I created a powerful family with a long history of political connections, I couldn’t use a name like “Yokum”.  That name has been used too much to label a character as rural or rural and poor.  Names like “Arlington”, “Stone’, or “Pierce” makes the family sound powerful.

If I named a character who is a free-spirited young woman, I wouldn’t use anything as common as “Sarah”, or “Jane”, or even “Madison” or “Mackenzie”.  Nature names, by “nature”, sound liberating and original, unless they are well-known ones like “Rose” or “Dawn”.  A name that is hardly used anymore, like “Cassandra” or “Felicity”, might also work.

Sometimes you can choose a name that means the opposite of the qualities your character possesses.  A free-spirit named Sarah might mean that she wants to break free from an ordinary past, signaled by her name, into a less conventional future.  But usually it is better to let the name work with the character’s features or personality than against it.

Next time, I will discuss some of my favorite sources for finding names, both first and last.

Writing Tip

keyboard-453795_1280Guest Blog

For the first time, I am a guest blogger on the site Word Sharpeners, a blog created by two writer friends Tamera Lynn Kraft and Carole Brown.  I hope you enjoy it.   (By the way, I have upgraded to contacts since my senior picture was taken.)

I have another link to another post on Word Sharpeners.  It list the expected word counts for different genres of fiction.  If you are interested in publishing your writing as a novel some day, you must know the acceptable words counts for it.  Agents and editors are only interested in words counts, not page counts.  I wish I has known what as the appropriate word count when I started writing my first novel.  It was already at epic length when I realized I would have to whack it half to make acceptable to publishers.


Writing Tip

download-1013983_1280Be an Expert on Your Own Back Yard

Another area where you can be your own expert is where you live.  It can be impossible to travel to far-flung locations to do research on a setting for story.  You might as well take the cheap route, research your own community, and see if that research spark any ideas.

If you like history, research that aspect of your community.  Local libraries are great place to do local research.  They often have a local history room with sources you can not find anywhere else.  Many communities have their own historical societies.  Check out their resources.  Both libraries and historical societies may offer free programs on local history.  I have learned a lot about my town from attending programs at my library.  Reading through old local newspapers, which a library should have, can also stir interest.

But if history doesn’t spark any ideas, get to know your community as it is now.  Just driving around with your powers of observation turned to full strength will help you discover unique aspects.  Where I live, out in the country, there are a lot of quarries, some abandoned.  I got to visit an abandoned one.  Because of the digging, the landscape in the quarry is very different from the surrounding one.  It’s very stark, even bleak.  It would be a good setting in a mystery or a thriller.  Or, if you are writing about a character who is an outsider in his or her community, the quarry can serve as a symbol of the character’s differences.

My county has a split personality.  It used to be rural with a college town as the county seat.  The county seat still has the college, but the southern part is developing into enormous suburbs.  The north is still rural with farms and tiny towns.  A lot of compelling storytelling can come from creating tension between the two disparate communties.

Even if you live in a big city, like New York or Los Angeles of Chicago, which are often the settings for stories, you can find smaller qualities about it that aren’t well-known.  And since you are unique, you can take even well-known parts of city and write about it with your own personal touch.

For another use of historical research, read this article by my friend Sandra Merville Hart.



Scripture Saturdays

bible-1846174_1280One Last Resolution

I like this article from Almost an Author.  It reminds me why Christian writers write.  I have tried to be diligent about letting God lead me as I started this blog, and this article underlines the importance of that diligence.

Writing Tip

download-1013981_1280Be Your Own Expert

Another way to bring authenticity to your writing is writing about what interests you and educating yourself into becoming an expert.

As I said in an earlier post, I worked in public libraries for years.  Using one as a setting  would be easy for me.  I am also interested in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the 1930’s and 40’s.  If I wanted to set a book in this period, I would happily do more research because it is a subject I am already interested in.

If you choose a subject you aren’t interested in, it will be difficult to write about it with any enthusiasm.  I once created a character, a teenage boy who earned money working on cars.  It was a dumb choice.  I knew nothing about cars (still don’t) and had no interest in them (still don’t as long as they run when I want them to).  It just didn’t work.

I love horses.  So creating a family that runs a business with horses came naturally.  I also made some characters of that family farriers.  Now I know nothing about the blacksmiths who shoe horses.  But I am interested in that skill, so when my library had a program featuring a blacksmith, I was eager to ask him questions.

If you are writing nonfiction, writing about your interest should be easy and your desire to learn more a given.  If you blog about the adventures of your pet, read up on the animal’s history as a pet, how the animal acts in the wild, unusual facts about it, anything to add to your knowledge

Become your own expert and enliven your writing.

Writing Tip

interview-1674583_1280Interviewing Experts

After my post on consulting experts if you can’t get first-hand experience, I thought it might be helpful to provide guidelines on how to conduct a face-to-face interview for anyone, but especially teens, who have never done one before.  If the expert is already a friend, you might not have to be so formal.

1. Research — Do research on your topic to figure out if you need to do an interview, and if so,  with whom.  If the answer to your questions can be found in reliable written sources, use those.  If your questions are more technical and complicated, seek an expert.  I read about the basics rules for police searches and surveillances, but I asked a retired police chief more complicated questions, like how police officers get a judge to issue a search warrant.

2. Write down all your questions.

3. Take notes during the interview.

4. Ask follow up questions — Ask questions to clarify points or get more detailed information.

5. Review your notes — As soon as you can, review your notes.  The interview will still be fresh in your mind, and you can add information you did not have time to put down during the interview.

Here are some additional guidelines, which are true of any kind of interview.interview-1018333_1280

1. Arrive 5-10 minutes early for your appointment.

2. Dress professionally — You don’t have to be formal, but dress like you consider the interview a business appointment.

3. Watch the time — Don’t run over your allotted time.  If you don’t have all your questions answered by the end, ask for a short extension or permission to call back with follow-up questions.

4. Send a thank-you note – A hand-written is especially meaningful.

Writing Tip

white-male-1871367_1280Finding More of the Real

If you can’t get first-hand experience with something, consult an expert on the subject in person  I find such an interview much more informative than just reading a book on a topic.

Because I got to know an alpaca farmer, I learned what a remarkable anaimals alpacas are.  Listening to people talk about their jobs piques my interest in a way that reading about the same jobs may not.

As an introvert, though, I find approaching strangers difficult, and that is made even more so when I want to consult them about something I wish to write about.  I am an  unpublished author.  Why would they want to talk to me?

I faced this dilemma when I realized I needed to talk to someone about police procedures for my book because I was basing my plot points on what I had seen on TV.  A retired police chief was a member of my church.  It seemed natural to ask him, but I did it with a hammering heart and dry mouth.

He couldn’t have been nicer.  He answered my questions for well over an hour.  I wanted to know how a police officer would break up a bar fight involving a large number of people.  I also asked about search warrants and surveillance.  Not only did I gain a ton of useful information for my book, making it much more authentic, but I also gained a huge appreciation for how complicated police work is.

Try to find experts when you need them.  Explain exactly what you need to know from them.  Most people enjoy sharing their expertise.  And if you find an expert who is unwilling, approach another one.  The knowledge you gain is worth the risk.  And you may make a friend in the process.


Writing Tip

Placeholder ImageFinding the Real in the Routine

In my last post, I wrote that writers should seek real experiences when it’s relatively safe and practical.  But if you have a job, or a family, or school, or a tight budget, or all of the above, you may think you can’t break out of your daily routine.

First, don’t dismiss your daily routine.  You may have a rich source of inspriation there if you look at it objectively, as if you were studying someone else’s life

I worked in public libraries for over ten years.  That first-hand experience will give my writing authenticity if I use a public library as a setting.  It gave me an idea for the set-up for a mystery.  A regular patron of a public library commits suicide.  A librarian who served this patron is suspicious because she knows the man came in the day before his suicide and checked out books he had specially ordered from another library.  If he was planning to kill himself, why would he bother to check out library books?Placeholder Image

Second, you can make small changes to your routine that may lead to big inspirations. On your way home from work or school, take a different route.  I went to visit my parents over the holidays and drove around my hometown, looking at Christmas lights.  I deliberately took roads I didn’t remember ever driving on before.  And I found some very creepy settings I didn’t even know existed in my little hometown.

It can be very hard to break from your routine.  I discovered that when I took an unknown route home from a store.  I had a lot do to and I didn’t know how long this new route might take.  I had to fight against a very strong instinct to get home NOW.  I was so programmed to get my work done quickly and efficiently that I felt uncomfortable taking extra time to do something different.

Take the time to make small changes.  You can’t tell what you might discover.

Writing Tip

img_6759The Risk of the Real

I had some very interesting conversations with the elementary kids I teach in a reading group.  We were discussing The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen.

Even thought it is a drab little bird, the nightingale is considered the most marvelous thing in the Chinese empire.  When the Emperor finally hears the nigthingale sing, he is moved to tears and orders the bird to live in the palace and be available to sing whenever he wants it to.

Then the Emperor is given a gift of a mechanical nightingale, covered in jewels and singing from a cylinder in its chest.  The Emperor tries to get the birds to sing a duet, but the fake bird can’t work with the real bird because it only knows one song.  While the mechanical bird sings alone, the real one leaves.  But everyone at the court agreees that the mechanical bird is better and better to look at.

Eventually the fake bird wears out, and no one can fix it.  And it takes the real bird to save the Emperor from Death.nypl-digitalcollections-510d47d9-708e-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99-001-w

I asked the kids, before the real nightingale saves the Emperor, which bird was better. All the kids, over twenty of them, said the real bird was better but had a difficult time describing how.  They almost all agreed that a living thing is better than a fake copy.  One girl gave the best explanation when she said the real bird could do more, invent new songs, do things on its own.

But with the ability to do more on its own, the real bird is more risky.  It might not want to perform when the Emperor wants it to.  It might not sing the song he wants.  And it left when it felt like it.

In this age when we can have any number of experiences from the safety of our digital devices, we writers must risk the real.  Of course, some experiences can only and should only be researched — such as describing a running gun battle through dark city streets.  But I should at least venture out into a city at night, preferably the city where my gun battle is set.  If I am going to write about a character who loves horses, I need to learn how to ride and care for them.  If I am writing about a knitting group, I need to join one.  If I am writing historical fiction, I need to visit the locations I am writing about.

Risking the real means giving up the control that the digital experience offers.  I may look foolish as I try to learn a new skill.  Or I may sound like a clueless novice when learning from experts. Or I may actually get hurt. But I owe it to my readers and myself to experience what I write about as thoroughly as is practically possible, so I can convey that experience honestly and accurately, especially to those readers who will never have a chance at the same experience.

I learned things about horses and the people who work with them the two years I took riding lessons that I never could have learned from reading about the subject.  I also learned what it takes to heal from a fall from a galloping horse.

The risk is worth the real.

To learn more about the version of The Nightingale shown above, click here.

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