Quirky websites for historical fiction writers

Quirky websites for historical fiction writers

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m a genealogy junkie. I admit it. Digging into my past is my favourite procrastination tactic. But in the process, I’ve come across a few quirky sources of historical information, that are useful not only to geni’s but to writers of historical fiction too.  We all know about Google and Worldcat and History.com, but have you ever explored these sites?

David Rumsey Map Collection

This site has over 64,000 maps and cartographic images. His focus is on rare 18th and 19th century North American and South American maps, but you’ll also find materials from Africa, Europe and Asia. Not only can you view maps side by side, but you can also overlay historical maps over modern ones to see how an area has changed over time.

Facebook

Did you know that there is a Genealogy on Facebook list, a 173-page PDF file containing 5,700-plus links, published by Katherine R. Willson. A Canadian version by Gail Dever includes French-speaking groups and pages.

These genealogy groups are great for requesting help with foreign record translations or asking about specific eras and ancestral villages like Ballymena, County Antrim in Northern Ireland during the Irish famine of the 1840s.

HistoryPin  &  WhatWasThere

If you’re looking to compare a modern UK street view with an old one or see if an historical site survives today, try Historypin. This is a free collaborative site with over 400,000 old photo and story submissions plotted on Google Maps.

For North America, try What­WasThere. It works the same way. For instance, a search for Pueblo, Colorado gives images of the late 1800s and early 1900s and then the aftermath of a 1921 flood.

WolframAlpha

Need to know the weather for a specific date? What about calculating a birth date based on a death date from a gravestone? WolframAlpha is a computational knowledge base that accesses more than 10,000 databases to return information based on your calculation requests.

IrelandXO

Ireland Reaching Out website is a treasure trove of all things Irish, from westward Trans- Atlantic crossings records during the great famine to why the names Flan, Florry, Finn and Fitheal are actually all the same name. Similar websites exist for many countries. I have South African ties, so I use the South African sites eGGSA.org and Stamouers .

Cyndi’s List

Cyndi’s List is a cornucopia of useful information arranged by topic on EVERYTHING, not just historical information. In the genealogy category alone, you can find everything from records of Canadian Military casualties to South African gravestones search sites, from information on workhouses in the UK to transcribed diaries.

So there you have it. Hours and hours of procrastination facination. This list is of course, by no means exhaustive, just some of my favourites. Share quirky historical sites that you use in the comments below.

Copyright heads to the Supreme Court

Copyright heads to the Supreme Court

Annual cheques from Access Copyright were distributed this week and so was a news release from the association.

Check out Writescape’s previous blogs about the long struggle that Access Copyright has fought of behalf of creators. Today we continue to keep you updated.

  • April 2018 – background to the legal struggle
  • May 2018 – the Parliamentary Review and Submission to the Industry Committee
  • August 2018 – How writers can get involved and help
  • January 2019 – update as we wait for a decision
  • January 2020 – The courts side with creators and order payment by March 9 2020

Unfortunately, despite a favourable decision from the courts, no payment was forthcoming and the appeal process began. This month, the matter heads to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Here is the complete and unedited release that was emailed to members:


TORONTO [October 15, 2020] – The Supreme Court of Canada announced today that it will hear the appeals of both Access Copyright and York University in the litigation between the two parties that began in 2013.

This decision is another chapter in a decade-long struggle by creators and publishers to be fairly paid for the copying and use of their works by the education sector. As a result of the sector’s self-interpretation of changes made to the fair dealing sections of the Copyright Act in 2012, they adopted and have continued to follow copying guidelines that have resulted in hundreds of millions of pages of copyright-protected works being copied per year without payment. Both the Federal Court at trial and the Federal Court of Appeal determined these self-interpreted guidelines are not fair in either their terms or application. To date, Canada’s creators and publishers have been deprived of over $150 million in royalties owed to them by the education sector under tariffs approved by the Copyright Board of Canada that the sector has overwhelmingly refused to pay.

This protracted legal proceeding is reflective of a copyright system that users have badly broken. This wasn’t always so. Prior to the changes to the Copyright Act in 2012, through collective licensing and a functioning tariff system, educational institutions paid creators and publishers for the works they copied.

At a time when our country is focused on economic recovery from the impact of COVID-19, our creative sector has been hit harder as a result of the education sector’s refusal to pay for the use of creators’ works. The federal government needs to take decisive action to remove any uncertainty surrounding our copyright laws and restore a well-functioning marketplace for copyright-protected works that is predictable and transparent where creators can be paid fairly and promptly.

“Canadian creators and publishers have been deprived of fair payment by the education sector for almost a decade,” said Roanie Levy, President & CEO of Access Copyright. “COVID-19 has made the wound of not being paid even more painful. Our copyright system is not working. It is fraught with uncertainty and the federal government needs to roll up its sleeves and take immediate action.”

If you haven’t done so already, we encourage you to get informed. Visit
Access Copyright’s website or take the time to read the posts we’ve shared
here with the timeline of this long and difficult road to prove our work is
valuable and worth protecting.

The Changing World of a Freelance Writer

The Changing World of a Freelance Writer

Dorothea Helms, Guest Blogger

Picture it … 1994. I drove my Geo Metro to the downtown Toronto Reference Library to conduct research for an article I was writing about the evolution of downtowns across North America. I read through what seemed like miles of microfiche reels and spent several dollars making photocopies of pertinent documents.

I live in Sunderland, Ontario, so that process took the better part of a day. The following day, I drove to Oshawa to interview people who agreed to be quoted in the piece. During the next couple of days, I wrote the article, saved it onto a diskette and drove to Oshawa again to deliver it in person. (That was before I got a fax machine.)

To research that same article today, I’d hop online, read through websites while still in my jammies and eating Miss Vickie’s original chips, email people for quotes, write the piece and email it to the editor. That’s one way that freelance writing nowadays is a lot easier than it was 26 years ago.

It is also possible to take writing courses and workshops online to advance your craft. It’s not as much fun as in-person gatherings, but it is convenient. Writers can market services online, conduct surveys, even attend distant in-person writing events virtually. And yes, today we have Zoom, but remember that people SEE you during those sessions. I can look like the bride of Frankenstein when I wake up, so check in the mirror before you choose to open your video option.

As the cliché goes, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. Google and other search engines are breeding grounds for excellent information and for “facts” that are about as reliable as me answering the question “How much do you weigh?” And speaking of the Internet, with so many writers providing blogs, the amount of reading material online makes the necessity to pay for writing less necessary. Why do writers do it? They want to reach out to readers and see their names and words in print. It is their prerogative, and for some writers, blogging is a form of marketing.

Earning a living is not shameful

The idea that somehow a byline is payment is one of the basic reasons why so many publications have received writing for free or hardly any money for decades … that, and the pervasive attitude that writing for money is “selling out.”

What a handy misconception for the higher-ups in for-profit publishing who are too cheap to do a proper business plan that covers the cost of doing business—namely, writing. Having said that, the virtual reality of the Internet has contributed to the death of a lot of print publications. I have lost clients for this reason and had to add other sources of income. When I participated in an entrepreneurship program in 1994, I learned that having “multiple sources of income” is one pathway to success.

On average, writers in Canada are paid pitifully, and statistics have validated this. In 2006, the Professional Writers of Canada conducted a survey showing how earnings for freelancers in Canada went DOWN between 1995 and 2005—from $26,500 to $24,035 (https://bit.ly/3iyhv6S). In 2018, a Writers’ Union of Canada survey reported that incomes from writing dropped 78 percent from 2014, from $12,879 to $9,380 per year (https://bit.ly/32DKzVE).

Other sources vary. These quoted figures are average, so imagine what writers on the lower part of the scale are making.

Price for profit and stick with it

In the face of all of that, until I semi-retired a couple years ago, I pulled in revenues of six-digit figures yearly. Here are a few practices that can help you succeed.

  • Learn about business and how to price to make money—and remember that you are worth it!
  • Say NO to for-profit publications that pay nothing or little.
  • Claim everything you can legitimately on your income tax forms.
  • Expand the scope of the services you offer. Perhaps you can edit or teach.
  • Keep an open mind to accepting writing jobs in the business, advertising and public relations fields.
  • Advance your craft through professional workshops and courses.
  • Respect word counts and deadlines. Editors prefer to work with reliable writers.
  • Pay attention to rejections, but not too much. Usually, ideas and pieces are rejected because of timing or poor fits for upcoming editorial calendars—something you’d have to have ESP to predict.
  • Persevere in the face of naysayers.
  • Help other writers when you can.

If writing is more of a calling than a career for you, remember that you can earn money using your gift without shame. Things change, and we can adapt to thrive during all conditions. There are many ways to make money writing. I encourage you to be curious, ask questions and think outside the book. N

From a college creative writing course to a freelance writer earning six-digit figures yearly, Dorothea Helms has come a long way, baby. Now semi-retired, she is still in demand for her writing/editing services and teaching. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications including Chatelaine, CBC.ca/Parenting, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Architecture & Design magazine, LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview, Stitches the Journal of Medical Humour, and Homemakers, to name a few. Yes, four of those publications are no longer in existence, but Dorothea accepts no responsibility for their demise. Wherever Dorothea goes, humour follows.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

In a few weeks, writers around the globe will commit to writing 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel in 30 days. Will you be one of them? National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo begins on November 1, and if you don’t know much about NaNoWriMo, check out our previous blog post NaNoWriMo 101.

That means that October, affectionately known as “Preptober” is a month for getting all your ducks in a row, so you’re ready to actually write on November 1. Below are 10 ways to get ready to write, for NaNoWriMo or indeed for any new novel project.

  1. Create a project hold-all to keep all research, writing, notes and ideas for your new novel. This could be a new folder in your computer, or a “new project” in Scrivener. Try a three-ring binder scrapbook, with sections for research notes, character sketches, random ideas, checklists lists etc. Handy for quick reference, for validating research used, for trying out rough writing, for reference as you write. More than that, though, it is a tangible way to make the project real and a good way to stay focused and organized.
  1. Decide what you are going to write. Easier said than done. We all have stacks of ideas of what we could write about, but choose something that interests you. If you’re not passionate about your project you will find it hard to live with it daily and write productively. Choose a story you are spilling over to get out, or write a story that involves something you really want to spend time with. If you love Russian history, set a story in Russia during the revolution. If you’ve always wanted to know about perfume making, write a story where the protagonist is a perfumer. To help make it more real, choose a working title.
  1. Start with sketching interesting characters. If you’re a character-driven writer, begin with writing profiles of your protagonist and antagonist. Then as you work through your plot ideas (step 5) and new characters emerge, do character sketches of them too. If you’re a plot-driven writer, you may want to do step 5 first and return to this step afterwards. Remember these profiles are not just physical, but include your character’s history, flaws, emotional baggage, hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. You might find yourself returning repeatedly to these sketches to add details as you get to know them better.
  1. Ask yourself whose story you are telling and how it would best be told. Whose POV will best tell that story? One POV or multiple? What tense and person? Who is the reader you are aiming at? What genre? As you start to write, you may change these decisions, but start with a plan.
  1. Write your book jacket blurb. This may seem like it’s putting the cart before the horse, but it’s not. The book jacket blurb answers the all-important question “What is this book about?” The answer to that question helps to distill the thrust of the story: the conflict, the stakes and the character arc. It also helps define what age group and genre it is, because it focuses on the main thread of the story.
  1. Brainstorm story ideas. Outline potential plots. Ask yourself the simple but effective “What if?”, or use the base of all ancient myths and tales: the three act structure. If you know how you want your story to end, consider working backwards too. You might want to check out these tried and true variants of the three act structure too.
  1. Define your story world: place and time. This could be as simple as “Russia pre 1917 revolution” or “Haliburton 1956”, or as complex as a new fantasy world or imagined planet. Or it might be a mix, say a fictitious town called Halbury based on Haliburton. Setting is important to ground your story and your readers. The more complex your setting, the more up-front “world-building” you need to do: Government? Religion? Rules of magic? Climate? Etc. Prep work can include maps and floorplans.
  1. Outline potential subplots. Make sure they serve the thrust of the main story, that they have their own story arc and that there are no dropped threads.
  1. Sketch important secondary characters. Make sure they exist as a counterpoint or foil or supporter of your main characters. Like main characters, they too should have their own wants and needs and motivations. Ask yourself if one secondary character can do the work of two to keep the number of characters to a minimum, and to make each one stronger.
  1. Work on character arcs for all characters, primary and secondary. Each character must have their own motivations for doing what they do.

And one thing more

Get support. We all have lives to live and people in those lives. Talk to them about what you want to do and get them to realize you are serious. Enlist their help, whether it is to honour the time you set aside as uninterrupted writing time, or whether it is practical help like supervising a session of the kids’ online learning, cooking dinner or creating a separate writing space for you during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

Characters Can Stick Like Glue

Characters Can Stick Like Glue

Ruth E. Walker

Recently, I filled out a Query Manager form as part of my search for an agent for my YA sci-fi manuscript. Query Manager is an online form that writers complete with samples, query letter, synopsis – whatever the agent’s submission guidelines state.

Most agents’ Query Manager forms are similar, with generic questions designed to get information on the book, the writer, etc. This particular agent had some interesting additional questions, such as: Are you a Marvel or DC fan? That was a no-brainer: Marvel all the way. Except, I added, I still had room in my heart for Superman and Batman. (Call me old-fashioned but classic DC had a steadiness that served as a nice counterpoint to Marvel’s edge.)

Back to the agent. For me, that question was an intriguing insight to the agent’s personality. A response time of 8 to 10 weeks means it will be a while before I can ask her why she uses that particular question. But I’d like to thank her for another couple of questions on her online form. It’s a question that reminded me of the power a character or storyline can have, even if it’s been abandoned for some time.

What inspired you to write this book?

Character, I answered. (It’s always been my entry to almost all of my writing.) But then I went on to explain how my protagonist Garnet was a character rattling around in my brain while I worked on literary manuscripts. Some years before, I imagined this young feisty female in a warrior role she’s born for despite the odds. She’s a battlewipe – a job loosely combined with field medic, battlefield scavenger and skilled assassin. Don’t ask me how. She just was—and still is. I wrote a single paragraph to get her out of my system and filed it.

Despite the intervening manuscripts, Garnet wouldn’t leave me alone. And finally, I had a chance to dust off her one-paragraph character study and see if she could sustain a longer work. I signed up for the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a 72-hour writing marathon to fundraise for literacy in the Muskoka Region.

Garnet could – and did – sustain the longer work: 27,000 words approximately. By the time I’d worked and reworked her over the years, she now fills 98,000 words and is clearly part of a duology. (and yes, I’ve started the sequel.)

Why are you the author to write this book?

My fingers quivered at this one. My published poetry, stories and novels are in the literary stream. I have no stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Strange Horizons. And I’ve published nothing in the Young Adult genre up to now. Was I kidding myself?

I hope not.

I’d loved science fiction as a young reader, and continued to selectively read sci-fi over the years. Ray Bradbury’s R is for Rocket (which I stole from the school library–and still have) and The Martian Chronicles kick-started my interest. And then Star Trek and James T. Kirk, et al, captured my idealistic heart. The stories told in science fiction are stories about the human condition, even those termed “hard science” novels. From Asimov’s Foundation series to Andy Weir’s The Martian, science is the brain but characters form the heart.

And I had a character who happened to exist on a planet with two suns. This feral teen had hopes and dreams that she kept whispering in my ear until I had the chance to breathe more life into her. That early draft I wrote at the marathon won the YA category, high praise from the editor judge and, later on, a Works-in-Progress grant from the Ontario Arts Council.

When characters insist

Notice I used the relative pronoun “who” in the paragraph above instead of “that” which is what you are supposed to use for non-human things. My character is quite real to me and I won’t be able to let her go until she has a home inside a book.

So she’s a who.

And that’s what I mean about a character who sticks like glue. I’ve got a few more rattling around in my brain but Garnet is one insistent voice. She even shows up when I’m focusing on other things. And that’s a good thing because one other question this agent asks in her Query Manager form: If your book was a movie, who would play your main character? That one was easy: Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) or Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things.) Fierce and vulnerable.

I may only get a “no” from this query. But that’s okay because it let me dive even deeper into the who of my character and firm up my confidence on being the one to tell this story. The heck with all the rest. As my friend Sue Reynolds says: follow the energy. So I did. Do you?

Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles

Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m an organized person. I set big-picture goals and break the big plan down into small achievable pieces. I’ve always made a daily to-do list and I get great satisfaction from ticking them off – done!

But I also put my obligations to others waaaay ahead of my own wants and needs, especially creatively. Even when I “schedule” creative time, or add “finish chapter 5” to my to-do list, you can be sure that it’s the one item on that list that doesn’t get done.

Sound familiar?

New strategy needed

The pandemic gave me a gift this year. Unused commuting time. So, I gave myself another gift: I cleared the deck of a number of outside obligations, told people “no” for a change and decided to make my own health and creativity more important in my life.

At first, predictably, my creativity intentions became the same undone items on the daily to-do list. I needed a new approach, a whole new rethink. It took time, some trial and error, but I found a new strategy for giving creativity a more meaningful—and attainable—place in my life. I developed what I call my “Butterflies, frogs and tadpoles” approach.

Ditch the daily to-do list

I’ve stopped making a daily to-do list!

Yes, that’s right. No more daily chances to feel like I’ve failed. No more only crossing off the obligations and neglecting the things I want to do. No more setting myself up for guilt, and disappointment at myself and the world. No more dwelling on the negative.

My new approach involves a master list each for butterflies, frogs and tadpoles – in that order!

Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles?              

BUTTERFLIES are the things I WANT to do: creative things, personal things, social things, family things, hobbies, relationships and anything else that will feed my soul, make my life pleasant or feed into the achieving of my chosen personal goals. And while it may not be intuitive to goal setting in any way, I include things that are not necessarily “good for me” like eating a chocolate bar, or a third cup of coffee or a Netflix binge.

Okay okay! I hear you. That’s all very well, but what about all the stuff that HAS to get done. Be patient Young Grasshopper. I’m coming to that.

A FROG is something that MUST be done because it has a time restraint on it. The term comes from the “eat that frog” concept originated by Mark Twain who once said that if you start the day by eating a frog (your biggest and most important task) you will have the satisfaction of knowing that this was probably the worst thing you had to do that day.

But for me, there is a difference. My frogs are not necessarily my biggest or most important tasks. They are not necessarily things I don’t want to do. They are simply tasks governed by time deadlines. A frog can be as simple as reordering my prescription or calling Aunt Mable about the food for next weekend or as big and complicated as filing my taxes or meeting a client deadline.

I also often take big frogs and break them into smaller frogs. For instance, “filing my taxes” could be broken down into finding my paperwork, sorting receipts, compiling my mileage log; printing off my online charitable receipts etc etc. I prefer this approach, because it makes the frogs less intimidating, and I get to “complete” more things along the way. I can see and feel the progress.

A TADPOLE is an item that SHOULD be tackled soon because it will become a frog in the near future. Like frogs, tadpoles can be obligations or not, big or small. Tadpoles might be things like cleaning out my clothes closet, buying new boots or Christmas shopping, updating my website, getting the propane tanks refilled, filling out that grant application, finishing chapter 5, or submitting to a contest.

Some tadpoles can remain tadpoles for a very long time, but I know in my heart of hearts that if I don’t turn them into frogs at some point, I will regret it. So, yes, I may miss moving the writing contest entry to the frog list, but I know that if I don’t do it and the deadline passes, I will be upset with myself. And that if I continue to let those tadpoles die, my chosen goals will not be realized. I also recognize that many psychological reasons probably exist for my resistance, and so I cut myself some slack on tadpoles.

The process

As I said earlier, I run a master list each for butterflies, frogs (with deadlines) and tadpoles – in that order!

I add to those lists whenever I think of something I want, must or should do. Remember these are master lists, not “to-do” lists, so I no longer get overwhelmed by how long they are.

When I started this, my Frogs list ran to several pages, my tadpoles were plentiful, but I could only come up with a scant list of butterflies.

I realized that I was so used to gearing my actions to what I “should” do that I was out of touch with what I really wanted to do. Over time, I’ve asked myself questions like: What makes me happy? What would a perfect day look like? If I died tomorrow, what would I regret not having done?

Monthly

Each month, I pick from the master lists for my monthly tasks and activities. Note, I work by month, not by day. I have 3 sections in my day book for each of the categories: Butterflies, Frogs and Tadpoles.

I begin with a Butterfly choice. That’s right, put what’s important to you first! That goes on my monthly list of Butterflies. Then I pick a Frog or Tadpole and put them on my monthly Frog and Tadpole lists. I repeat the process until I have three lists that will fill my month with time left over for unexpected happenings that always arise.

Admittedly, the number of Frogs on the Frog list is often governed by deadlines. If it is a formidable list, I consider the old Ditch, Delegate or Defer approach to make it more manageable. But whatever I do, I make sure to have as many butterflies on my list as I have frogs and tadpoles combined.

Weekly

Once a week I grab a highlighter and decide which Frogs need to be done by the end of the week.  With the same colour highlighter, I highlight an equal number of Butterflies. Those are the ones I concentrate on that week. I forget about the others on the list. The next week I use a different colour highlighter and do the same thing.  Spreading my expectations of myself over a week instead of a day means six less opportunities to feel like I failed, time to make up for a slow day and a better sense of achievement over time.

Daily

I always start my day with a Butterfly. This sounds counter-productive if there are Frog deadlines looming, but it isn’t. I’ve found that I procrastinate far less and I don’t fill my time with pointless activity because I’m getting my wants up front and not feeling overwhelmed by musts. Today for example, I had this blog to write, a report to finish and email around to colleagues and an editing assignment due tomorrow. Those three things I knew would eat up a big piece of my day, so I chose butterflies that would not take a big time grab but would leave me feeling fulfilled: A 20 minute yoga session at the lake; a video call to my brother overseas and time to read a poetry collection I have just bought. Tomorrow I have only one Frog deadline, so I will choose a large butterfly, like working for a full morning on my poetry, before I tackle that one frog.

Successes

While this may not work for everyone, it’s working for me. Slowly my mind is learning to put what’s important to me at the forefront of what I do. I feel less frustrated with tasks I have to do because I’m balancing them with things I want to do rather than trying to fit my wants in or neglecting them altogether.

Foreshadow the Future

Foreshadow the Future

Ruth E. Walker

I enjoy the outdoors. I get pleasure in working in the garden, especially at my cottage. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty or derive pleasure when my plants flower or produce fruit. Nighttime calls of spring peepers in the far-off swamp or critters hopping under the shade of the hosta remind me of renewal. Even the cold hand of winter offers pleasures, albeit frigid and at times, deadly.

I tell you this – my affection for the natural world and my respect for it — to set the stage for what is to follow. In fiction, this is referred to as foreshadowing.

Humane Humans

Nature has a way of reminding cottagers that flora and fauna were here first. Anyone who has struggled with fallen trees, poison ivy infestations or rodent incursions can confirm that. As much as is possible, we avoid herbicides for irritant flora. We use live traps for the rodents, my kind husband trekking over to the swamp to release the pesky mice.

It’s not to say we don’t target poison ivy with Round Up when the hillside is awash in the stuff and there’s been no deer around to help control it. And yes, snapping traps and even Warfarin has been pulled out when humane methods can’t keep up. But it’s never the first choice. And we hate the result.

A Murder Most Foul

Despite knowing that death is part of nature, I get upset when I find a dragonfly crushed on the sidewalk or drive past roadkill on the highways. Poor things, I think.

Nonetheless, I became the dealer of death at the cottage. Those gardens I like to tend? They’re all edged with a variety of rocks. Attractive to look at until the grass grows up around them. The lawnmower can’t trim that. So I get up close and personal with my garden shears.

Last month, I crouched down by the rocks, snipping away at the green growth. Until my shears cut through something else. Something that felt like bunched fabric. Or worse. And it was. I decapitated an adult frog. A split second before, it was crouched in the shadow of a rock overhang, unseen. Then it sprang out at the precise moment the two sharp edges of my shears met and severed its head and life in an instant.

Man, I was sick at heart. Still am, in fact.

I’ve spent weeks trying to blot that image out of my head. Today, while once more trimming the rocks, I was so careful. I made a lot of noise, knocking my shears against the rocks. I called out: “Foreshadowing. Here I am. Pay attention, critters.” And weirdly, that got me thinking about how important foreshadowing can be in writing.

Why Foreshadow

Dropping clues into fiction arouses the interest of readers and that’s a primary benefit for any writer. Laying a foundation of foreshadowing creates anticipation that pulls readers through the story. Writers have a full set of tools to inject foreshadowing: images, character action/reaction, dialogue and setting elements, for example. From concrete objects to shadows and colours, the important part is choosing the right tool in the right place.

When you foreshadow, you tickle readers’ curiosity. When you deliver the on that foreshadow, you evoke emotions in readers. You can build internal tension by doling out that delivery bit by bit.

  • Opening scene: Shadowy figure in distance at funeral of POV character’s mother
  • Mid-point: Shadowy figure shows up trying to attack the POV character but evades capture
  • Final scene: Shadowy figure reveals she is POV character’s birth mother & wasn’t trying to attack but longed just to hold him again

That’s a powerful writing tool. But there are a few DOs and DON’Ts of foreshadowing all writers should keep in mind. Here’s three to get you started.

Don’t use a hammer when a feather is enough. An obvious foreshadow is a hammer: As she watched the overloaded pleasure boat pull away from the dock with her husband and children waving jauntily to her, she thought that she should have insisted they all wear lifejackets. Be subtle instead.

Do try to be strategic. Not all foreshadowing leads the reader to the conclusion they expected. Sometimes it is useful to have readers think they know what will happen but then you surprise them. But be careful: the foreshadow still needs to lead to the unexpected result. Be logical.

Don’t worry about foreshadow in the first draft. A bit like reverse engineering, subtle hints and deliberately placed objects or elements are part of editing that first draft. That’s not to say that you didn’t already have foreshadowing in the early writing, but often it is of the hammer variety. Your job is to refine that into the subtle variety. Edit with purpose.

Back to the Beginning

Part of working in foreshadow is returning to the beginning to find places where it can be added. But foreshadow is not restricted to the beginning of a story or novel. It can be an effective tool at the start of a new scene or to create suspense at the end of a scene or chapter.

It is, however, most effective at the start. It sets up expectations. So, what about going back to the beginning of this piece and checking it for elements of foreshadowing? In the comments, share anything you noticed.

Dialogue helpers

Dialogue helpers

Gwynn Scheltema

One of my grandchildren texted me: “School starts in 2 days” followed by no less than 6 emojis, all different. Smiley, sad, angry, astonished, upside down and shrugging.

By themselves, her text words could have been interpreted several ways: Yikes! I can’t believe school starts in 2 days after so long. Or I’m so excited that school is starting in 2 days. Or OMG I’m dreading the fact that school starts in 2 days.

What was this child trying to tell me? Or was she just trigger happy on the emoji screen? What was she expecting from me? A thumbs up, or something more? I opted for the “something more”, and we ended up having a lengthier discussion about what was bothering her. All good.

But the incident reminded me that in the absence of sound volume and intonation, words in messages have to be specific enough to convey the right message.

Fiction dialogue

The same applies to fiction dialogue.  And if the words can’t do it, the author needs to use one of several “dialogue helpers” to clarify.

I remember in a critique group years ago, a writer read aloud a small excerpt from his chapter where we follow the protagonist (a male teacher at a private boarding school) up to the principal’s office. Then a line of dialogue: “Sit down,” said the principal. “We must talk about young Jonas.”

Had I been reading the words myself from the page, I would have assumed that this was to be a cordial conversation between teacher colleagues, but unexpectedly, the author delivered the dialogue in a loud angry voice. Where was that emotion in the text? The dialogue needed help so readers could imagine the tone.

Dialogue helpers

  • Using someone’s full name, title or nickname

Did your mother ever add your middle name when she was angry: “Alison Elizabeth Martin! Get in here this minute.” Or a pet name when she was trying to console? “Oh Snooks, tell me all about it.”

If this principal usually calls the protagonist Bill, then using his full name William will signal that something is wrong. He might go further by removing any personal connection and using his title, or calling him Mr.

“Coach Simons, sit down…..”

  • Sentence construction

Match the length and type of sentence to the emotion being expressed. In an angry situation, short commands are more likely. “Get in here.” Friendly conversations will begin with greetings and perhaps questions about the other’s situation or feelings. “What have you been doing lately?” “How’s your Mum?” “What’s the matter?”

“Coach Simons. Close the door.”

The command to close the door signals that what is to follow is private. Issued as a command suggests that the person entering is in trouble. Short clipped sentences support tension.

  • Word choice

Think about how many words people use in different emotional states and what kind of words. The angry mother commands in simple words what she wants done. “Get in here this minute.” She doesn’t acknowledge what the recipient wants or feels, nor is she concerned with politeness. She is not likely to say, “When you’ve finished playing with Julie, please come inside.”

The principal would need to be professional but show his anger in some way.

“Coach Simons. Close the door. Sit there… please.”

Allotting a specific chair signals control in the hands of the principal. Adding a hesitant “please” at the end preserves civility but diminishes cordiality.

  • Voice description

A word of caution here. Describing the actual sounds in the scene is different from “labelling” them using attributives like “he said angrily”.

NOT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal said angrily.

BUT: “Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth

  • Body language

The unspoken vocabulary of body language is a gold mine for conveying emotions. Use it.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.”

  • Beats

Beats are physical actions a character makes while speaking. The pointed finger in the last example is both a gesture and a beat. But beats are not just gestures. They are all actions your character might make that help to animate your dialogue scene. Think of it as the difference between listening to a stage play where everyone stands in a line and recites their words versus the acting that happens on stage as characters speak.

“Coach Simons. Close the door,” the principal hissed between clenched teeth. He indicated a chair to his right, stabbed at the air with a pointed finger. “Sit there… please.” The principal walked to the window, and stared out to the courtyard below for a full minute before he turned to face Simons.

Obviously, you don’t need every helper in every dialogue situation, but add these to your writers toolkit to use whenever you need them.

10 things poets can teach us

10 things poets can teach us

Brevity — economy of words — to say so much with so few words is far more powerful than filling a scene with tonnes of description. It works the same way that bulleted, step-by-step directions work better than long paragraphs of first set out all your tools and triple check that you have everything you need and then open the box and take out the hoozits and then you put the hoozits into the whatzits, turning all the way and making sure you haven’t…etc., etc

Sound – rhyme, near-rhyme, alliteration – our ears are engaged with words that share similar sounds when placed close together or in patterns. Amidst…pussy-willow pads of labs, a sudden set of deer tracks – Barry Dempster 

Repetition — always with a specific purpose to underscore a meaning or idea — your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers,  e.e.cummings

Ideas have power — taking us to places in unexpected ways excites our imaginations — To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower… Wm Blake

Imagery — picture words are effective to convey far more Who made the grasshopper…who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down… Mary Oliver

Structure — the scaffolding on which a poet hangs their words — just as any genre of prose has expectations and writers work with and, often, challenge those expectations, poets take familiar forms and upend them. 

Risk — poets, like all artists, take risks with more than just structure. Cowboy Poetry is a venerable form, evoking images of the Old West, cattle drives and breaking wild horses.  But modern Cowboy Poetry can be a different story: …the bridge abutment already signed
with 4 white crosses for those who did not
quite
       make
             this
                curve
because of booze, because of snooze…Paul Zarzyski

Symbolism — it’s like holding a flash card designed to evoke meaning, a symbol instantly takes us places. Consider a flag — now make it a white flag — now a Confederate flag — now a nation’s flag upside down — it is still a flag but each time, symbolizes something different. Where the flag is placed can change the symbol it represents. Is it tattered and falling from dying hands? Is it held high during an attack? Is it being consumed by flames on a roadway?

Pacing  – Use long languid lugubrious multisyllables with loads of vowels to slow the reader or short sharp words with hard consonants to pick up the pace. Somnolent through landscapes and by trees / nondescript, almost anonymous, …P. K. Page

Breaks – line breaks, stanzas, dashes all signal to the reader to notice, to pause and let what has just been said sink in and prepare for a new thought. Writers have similar signals at their disposal: white space when changing POV, time or location; paragraphs, chapters or a statement all on its own line.

Formatting With Calibre

Formatting With Calibre

 

Guest Blogger, Marie Gage

Creating Your Own Ebook

Last week, guest blogger Marie Gage, walked us through the process of creating an ebook for sale on the Amazon platform. Today, she shares how to create ebooks that you can freely share on your own. And she explains why, after publishing through Amazon, she chose this additional step.

No strings attached

I recently started working with Prolific Works, a company that brings authors together to distribute free copies or previews of their books in group offers. To participate, I needed to produce an ebook file of the first three chapters of my novel, plus appropriate front and back matter. I couldn’t simply modify the file created through Amazon.

After searching with the wizardry of Google, I found my answer: Calibre makes it incredibly easy. Downloaded for free, Calibre is an open-source program. (They do appreciate it when you choose to support them through a voluntary donation.) Unlike Amazon’s program, Calibre does not offer the .drm (digital rights management protection) but does everything else with minimal effort. If you decide you need .drm, you can purchase it from any one of a number of vendors. But be prepared for the monthly fees.

NOTE: Calibre works best for files that do not have “fixed” elements. A fixed element is one that should not be moved around when readers change the size of text or the orientation of their ebook reader or app. All of my children’s books have fixed elements in the layout. So, I had to first turn each page into a JPG image before using Calibre. As a result, readers can’t adjust the text size on any of these ebooks.

Calibre screen shot: Opening screen

The process is easier for a book that is predominantly text. Follow along on the screen shots of the Calibre software.

After downloading the Calibre program:

  • press the Add Book button, find the Word file for your book and load it
  • press the Edit Metadata button and fill in the fields with appropriate information about the book
  • change the cover picture by uploading the cover file for your ebook

NOTE: Once you press the Edit Metadata button, add your key words in the box titled Tags (more about the importance of key words in last week’s post.) Separate each key word with a comma. Next. select Convert Books from the Calibre header.

Your screen will now look like this:

In the top right corner select the ebook format from the many listed formats to choose from. The most popular is .epub but you might want .mobi or .pdf.

  • EPUB is compatible with most ebook readers and analogue apps
  • MOBI is the format used exclusively by Amazon and is compatible with Kindle readers and apps
  • PDF is compatible with any PDF reader and is easily clicked and uploaded on most computers NOTE: without the ability to change text size and spacing on ereaders, PDF may not be ideal for a long book

Suffice it to say that readers will have their preferred reading device and you might consider offering your ebook in more than one format.

Trouble shooting tips

Take note of the options on the left-hand side of the screen if you experience problems with your first conversion attempt. You may find your text is not converting the way you want it to. The most likely additional choice to make would be to press the EPUB output button and choose either EPUB2 or EPUB3.  EPUB2 is still Calibre’s default so you must make a conscious choice if you want the upgraded format. EPUB3 is essentially an update to the sophistication of EPUB2. EPUB3 allows for easier navigation and some fancier elements such as embedded video.

Older ereaders don’t support the EPUB3 format. However, EPUB3 has been around since May 2010 and most readers will have upgraded their devices by now. For my novel, I didn’t require the EPUB3 so I used the default setting.

When you have made your output selection, press OK near the bottom right of the screen and you will see a circle begin to move around. Don’t worry, you can’t miss it as a big arrow comes up and bounces to show you where it is. When it stops, you can select a second format and press OK again and repeat until you have all the formats you want.

Press the click to open button and review your ebook file(s).

NOTE: You will need a program on your computer that is compatible with the file output chosen. For EPUB this is Adobe digital editions. For MOBI, this is the Kindle App on whatever device you use.

Picture this

One final, yet critical, cautionary note: Diagrams or pictures in your Word document must be downsized outside of the Word document. You can’t simply click and drag to change the size of an image; it won’t translate well into an ebook. Instead, use Photoshop or another photo editor program to change the actual size of the file to the appropriate dimensions for an ebook. All images must be no more than 800 pixels (px) tall by 550 px wide, which is the actual size of an ebook reader screen.  

I cannot tell you how many professionally created ebooks I have read, and I do mean from mainstream publishers, with images that cannot be seen on my ebook screen.

I used to believe the issue was the ebook format and there was nothing I could do about it. For my novel, I had two maps I wanted to include. Once more using the magic of Google, I found and followed the advice to resize images outside the Word file before converting the file to an ebook.

I couldn’t believe how clearly the maps showed.

If you wish to see how clear an image can be on an ebook reader, I invite you to read my novel.

Marie Gage lives and writes in beautiful Haliburton County, Ontario. Creative writing became a part of her life a during genealogical research that unearthed some tantalizing tidbits in her family history. She joined a memoir writing group, expecting to finish that one project and be on to the next interest.  Instead, she began to see everything as a story. In the past five years, she’s self-published numerous photo books, four children’s picture books and her debut novel, A Ring of Promises. Capturing her paternal grandparents’ transition as they immigrated to Canada from England and Scotland, her novel weaves the facts of their intriguing lives into a compelling story.