Digging up Archives Part 2

Digging up Archives Part 2

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Digging up Archives explored how to find archive repositories that might hold the material that is key to your research. But then what? What if the record exists on another continent? How do you know if the photos or maps they hold are the ones you need?

Since every archive is different in terms of size, staffing, regulations and collections, the first step is to find out what exactly what they hold. If they have a website, start there:

Catalogues and Databases

Do a topic search and find the relevant collections the repository holds. With luck the list of collections will have links to catalogues or databases similar to those in a library. Here you can search by subject, keyword, title, author, etc.  At Toronto University Archives I put in “Baffin Island.” The result showed 9 collections (3 of them digital). One that caught my eye was:

  • Al Purdy Papers: 28 tapes of Purdy reading his poetry (Cariboo horses; Pressed on sand). Typescripts and drafts of poems. Typescripts and mimeographs of articles and plays for television and radio.

Finding Aids:

Many catalogues and databases will then link you to finding aids. A finding aid (sometimes called inventory, collection listing, register, or calendar) provides a description of the contents of a collection just like a table of contents outlines the contents of a book. Finding aids sometimes also give background information on the collection, like when and from where it was acquired as well as how the archival staff have ordered the materials in the collection, and their physical nature.

With luck, the finding aids will be viewable at the website, but if not, some archives have paper copies on site, or will provide copies on request.

The finding aid for the Al Purdy Papers was 5 pages long. Here’s a sample of page 1.

Digital Collections:

More and more, archives are digitizing materials (photographs, meeting minutes, reports, letters, audiovisual recordings, etc.) making them more easily accessible, but beware. Often digital documents represent only a fraction of the total repository. You will have to ask the archival staff for assistance in accessing non-digitized content.

Archival Staff

Which brings me to probably the most precious asset in any archive, the archival staff who curate the collections. After you have examined the catalogues, finding aids, and website of an archive, archival staff can point you toward resources you may have missed. Write down the titles, call numbers, or other identifications from the materials you have sourced before you call or email. If an archive does not have a website, contacting the staff will be your only option.

In either case, if you are able to visit in person, set up an appointment time first. This will give the archival staff time to access the records you need, as they may be in another building or shelved in the basement stacks. Letting them know the background and scope of your project will help them better find appropriate materials.

If you can’t visit

Policies differ archive to archive, but here are possibilities for access if you can’t visit in person.

  • interlibrary loan – some archives lend printed materials or microfilm, but seldom primary or original documents like letters or diaries
  • scans or photocopies – be prepared for fees and limits
  • retain a research assistant – archives may recommend assistants or even provide paid research services
  • ask the archival staff – archivists routinely answer reference questions for researchers. Obviously it cannot be a great volume of material and you need to have specific questions.

 For many of us, the research part of the writing process is the most fun, and a visit in person to your chosen archive can be a highlight in that process. In Ruth’s previous blog, Holding history in my hands, she tells of her trip to the National Library and Archives to find her great-great-great-grandfather’s book. Published in 1790, it was a tell-all about The Hudson’s Bay Company, and a bestseller in its day. Ruth shares some of the protocols she encountered at the archives. It was a visit she will always remember.

 

10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

10 Tips for Writing Dialogue

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

As an editor and writing coach, I’m always surprised by some of the dialogue mistakes some fiction writers make. This list should help eliminate those punctuation and style errors and keep your manuscript in the “clean” status editors and publishers value.

1. Quotation marks cradle the words spoken out loud by a character. They don’t go around any narrative that isn’t spoken out loud, like the attributive (dialogue tag) Manuela advised in the example below:

“Think of quotation marks like a blanket, containing a character’s words,” Manuela advised.

2. Punctuation that belongs to the words spoken out loud are also contained inside quotation marks, and not tacked onto the attributive or dialogue tag in the examples below:

“That’s incredible advice!” Jerry replied.

“Why are you surprised?” she asked.

3. Attributives or dialogue tags help readers know who’s speaking. But once those speakers are established, there’s little value in constantly using them. In fact, they can get in the way of the conversation and bore the reader, so drop them whenever you can.

“I guess I’m always surprised by how much I still have to learn.”

“All of us writers are always learning, Jerry. It’s part of developing our skills.”

4. Adverbs in dialogue tags are rarely needed.

“Skill development? It’s why I’m here. Make way for Super Skill Development Man,” Jerry shouted excitedly.

5. Beats or business placed before dialogue can set up the tone of the spoken words.

Manuela took a deep breath before answering. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Jerry, please take your seat and get ready for today’s class.”

6. Beats or business placed after dialogue can set up the next speaker’s tone.

Manuela took a deep breath before answering. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, Jerry, please take your seat and get ready for today’s class.” She took a step back just as Jerry punched the wall, his knuckles now scraped and bleeding.

“I hate myself. I’ll never be a writer.”

7. Start a new paragraph with each different speaker. This clues in the reader to switch characters, like watching a tennis match.

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Can’t help it. I never wanted anything so bad.”

“Even so, you need to learn to channel that passion onto the page. Here’s a couple of bandages. Head to the washroom and clean that up. Then, if you’re serious about writing, come back, take your seat and get ready to write.”

8. Let your reader know when someone else joins the conversation.

A quiet voice from the back of the room piped up. “I guess he used to take drama, so he’s using Method Acting to develop his characters.”

Manuela searched the room for the speaker and found Angelique’s grinning face next to the back door. “Thanks for your input but next time keep it to yourself.”

9. Interior thoughts are not dialogue, not spoken aloud, so they are not placed inside quotation marks.

A quiet voice from the back of the room piped up. “I guess he used to take drama, so he’s using Method Acting to develop his characters.”

Manuela searched the room for the speaker and found Angelique’s grinning face next to the back door. “Thanks for your input but next time keep it to yourself.” Oh great. Class clown in the making.

10a. Some writers use single quotes for interior thoughts but they shouldn’t. Single quotes are only used for dialogue that is quoted inside spoken words.

Manuela faced the rest of the class. “The next one who offers up a comment like ‘I guess he used to take drama’ is going to find themselves out of my Writers Craft class. Understand?” Now that, she thought, should shut down the nonsense.

10b.Some writers use italics for interior thoughts but italics makes words and phrases stand out, like attention-seeking banners. Hi there. I’m an interior thought. It’s also more difficult to read and downright deadly when you write whole paragraphs of interior thought. Consider creating interior thoughts without any italics. Think about ways for you to craft thoughts in a way that doesn’t need to draw attention to itself.

And that, we think, is a valuable skill for all writers.

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Ruth E. Walker

Some writers are plotters. They develop outlines and character sketches. Spend time in archives researching long before putting words on the page. When they sit to write, they are prepared. They have a plot in mind.

Some writers are pantsers. The follow the shiny object of an idea, a snippet of overheard conversation, the allure of an intriguing character. When they sit to write, they are happily adventuring into the unknown.

Which one is right?

Pantsing

If you had asked me earlier in my writing career, I’d be all for pansters. Write by the seat of my pants, that was my motto. I’ve done some fine work that way, writing I’m quite proud of. And it is my way of getting to the page, of discovering the story, the layers of personalities in emotions, actions and reactions. I’m excited to follow their journey. If I had it all mapped out, it would deflate some of the energy that feeds me in the writing.

 

Plotting

After a retreat weekend with author Andrew Pyper, I’m thinking maybe my pantser approach led me to too many half-baked novels that languish in my drawers. Sure they are full of wonderful, quirky characters and great beginnings and even some exciting endings. Yet the middles are not so clear. In fact, that early excitement that led me to the page seems to have led to some deadends. And maybe if I’d had some plot in mind, the story of each might have been different.

But I’m not ready to declare an all-out allegiance to plotting my novels. Instead, I’ve come up with a kind of hybrid. A Frankenstein-ish patchwork that continues to serve my artistic needs as a writer. This method also offers satisfaction to my less-confident left brain approach to writing a novel. I end up with a plot that gives a solid foundation to my characters and themes.

How plotting marries pantsing

It starts with the midpoint of a novel. As the author of 10 successful novels, Andrew knows a thing or two about plotting a novel. He’s clear that the midpoint comes pretty much in the middle of the novel and that getting it right is crucial to the rest of the work. In fact, if the midpoint isn’t smack dab in the middle of the book, well, you’ve likely either not correctly identified your midpoint or put it in the wrong place.

The midpoint needs to do important work with your characters, especially your main character. It’s the place in which you need to deepen your characters or change them. A place of revelation or challenge. A spot where threat rises, opportunities present themselves or choices have to be made.

It also needs to be where the story moves forward or, at least sets up the forward movement. The midpoint can also be the starting point for a writer, with the beginning and end to come to the writer later on.

No write or wrong about it

Working with a midpoint is not prescriptive and this is where the pantser in me gets excited. I can write as a pantser with an awareness of the midpoint. I don’t need to have a detailed outline or even a firm sense of where the story/character is going. I just need to know that at some point in the process, I have to stop to consider where my midpoint is. And then consider if it is strong enough, if it carries the weight the novel needs to pull the reader along as well as pull me along.

You know those half-baked novels in the drawer? Well, I think I have an idea about how I might get them out of the drawer for a second chance. Maybe they will get sent back to the Island of Unwanted Manuscripts. And maybe not. But it won’t be because I didn’t know what to look for.

 

Fall writing reflections

Fall writing reflections

Gwynn Scheltema

Fall. I love fall for the harvest, for the colour, for the diffused light and a sky that’s a different blue. I’ve harvested my veggies, and put away the summer furniture, put up pickles and raked leaves. Fall is a time to reap what you’ve sown, to reflect, to clean up and set up stores for the winter. I think writing has a “fall” period too.

Reap what you sow

What good is writing a wonderful poem, a brilliant short story, an entire novel manuscript, only to leave them forgotten in the digital drawer? A big part of being a writer is submitting your work. Agreed, not everything you write should see the light of day, but you know in your heart which pieces should be sent out into the world. It’s hard, yes. It takes courage to expose yourself to possible rejection, but you can only enjoy success if you take this important step. So, this fall, dig out those finished pieces, brush them off, pretty them up and decide where they can find a home. Then—the important bit—actually send them out!

Reflect

As we near the end of the year, reflect on what you achieved in your writing life. Was it more or less than you hoped for? If, like me, you didn’t get as much done as you planned, don’t beat yourself up about it. Take action instead.

Reflect on what stopped you or got in your way: Did you give your writing what it needs to grow? Enough time? Enough discipline? Enough freedom from the internal editor? Permission to write a shitty draft?

Reflect on what you are writing. Does it excite you? Are you afraid to finish it? Should you be writing something else? Are you afraid to try something new? Do you need help from a workshop or mentor?

Clean up

I am terrible for starting projects and not finishing them. Are you? Is there even one project you could finish up and clean off your list before the end of the year? What about your writing space and daily habits? Are they “cleaned up” enough for you to feel creative, to have the time you need? Should you be throwing some habits out and replacing them with new?

 

Set up stores for the winter

Now is the time to plan a winter schedule for your writing. What project/s do you want to tackle? Are there courses you need to sign up for in 2019? Conferences or retreats you want to attend next year that you must register for or save for now. A writing residency? A grant application? A submission schedule?

 

As winter approaches, take advantage of fall. Curl up in front of the fire with a hot beverage and make those plans. Be specific; make them attainable. Plan on a reward for when you reach your goal.

Something Wicked is Coming

Something Wicked is Coming

Ruth E. Walker

It’s October, Hallowe’en is coming and as two of my writing idols once wrote: Something Wicked this Way Comes. William Shakespeare gave the line to Macbeth’s witches. Ray Bradbury wrote a novel about an ill wind that blew in devilish characters.

But in today’s parlance, wicked has come to also mean GREAT!

When the universe sends you signals, the wise writer pays attention. I had something totally wicked happen to me and it has fired up my pen once more. I’m about to dive back into an old manuscript and I feel great!

There’s lots of ways a writer can lose the muse with a story. Usually, it’s just a short-lived, middle-of-the-book depression that a chat with a supportive colleague can fix. Sometimes, it’s a bit tougher to get past and a workshop or two can help shed light on the lack of inspiration. Occasionally, it’s much more serious and can lead to an abandoned manuscript.

Not all manuscripts can or should be resurrected. I have a couple in the drawer that I consider to be “training wheels.” But I also had a novel in progress that was a contemporary retelling of an old Breton fairy tale. It was a risky business, taking the magic of the tale and reworking it. But I disliked the so-called happy ending and I knew the main character deserved a much better happy ending.

It was great fun and a huge challenge. I had to make the magic real and the reality, magical…yet grounded. I re-read Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales, Grimm’s deviously delightful fairy tales and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. I dived back into my cultural studies oral narrative course work, spending time with The Mabinogion and Alice Kane’s The Dreamer Awakes. I let the rhythms fill my bones and added layers of story to the novel. I was on a creative roll.

How I lost my way

I signed up for a week-long writing retreat and symposium. I felt that being far from home with experienced authors, attending workshops and most importantly, one-on-one sessions with a well-published writer, would offer me insights and inspiration.

The escape to a distant location was amazing. Expansive horizons in a rural setting. My own private room and writing space. Far-off coyotes howling and yipping every night. We even had a gorgeous full moon. And somebody else cooked for me. Heaven.

Surrounded by writers at all levels of the writing journey, I enjoyed listening to the enthusiastic and generous teaching faculty. Except for one thing: my mentor writer was less-than-positive about my story.

Not all mentors are meant to be

I arrived at our one-on-one session and when handed back my submission, I saw my retreat mentor had read the 10- or 15-page excerpt. There were plenty of notes scribbled in tiny script on those pages. But I was tough. I figured I could take it.

I left that one-on-one session a total mess.

I was asked if I were writing a story for children. Oh my God, I thought, I’ve been writing a children’s story all along? I was told to read other fairy tale re-workings and learn from those authors. I should have said “I have,” and then named them. I should have asked what the mentor knew about writing for children because I sure knew the difference. I should have asked why my mentor’s tone was so condescending.

I should have asked a lot more questions. Instead, I simply took it all in. My mentor had published books in book stores. My mentor had an agent. My mentor seemed to be “in” with all the other faculty.

I arrived at that retreat excited and enthused. And while I benefitted from the other opportunities the retreat offered, I left feeling confused and that I’d made a mistake.

My mistake was not my mentor’s fault

I didn’t challenge my mentor. I didn’t ask questions. I let the whole thing simmer instead of addressing it on the spot. And I may have missed an opportunity to take in valuable insights from my mentor because I was so distressed.

My mentor did not abandon my story. I did.

It’s been eight years but the universe has conspired to bring me back to Yvon’s tale. This past summer, I needed something to read for a maximum of 7 minutes at a public event. Something “light or humorous and crowd pleasing” the invitation suggested.

Trying to find a short passage was a challenge, and a lot of my work is serious, sometimes edgy stuff. And then I remembered the opening of Yvon’s story. Ironic and satirical and just a little bit magical. So I dusted it off, tweaked it here and there, and read 7 minutes to an appreciative crowd this past summer.

But the clincher of the universe nudging the muse along was a post a colleague writer put on my Facebook page two weeks ago. She was part of a novel-writing group we were in together when I first developed Yvon and his story. She posted a cartoon of Baba Yaga — a witch character who shows up in my manuscript.

Bingo! How could I turn my back on Yvon a second time?

Baba Yaga cartoon credit: cranberrytime

Some mentors are exactly what you need

Two weeks ago, I met with another mentor, author Frances Itani. She is the 2018 Writer in Residence for the Arts Council of Haliburton Highlands where my cottage is located. Frances read a brief excerpt of Yvon’s story and offered excellent advice: practical, encouraging and insightful. She pointed out strengths in the style and areas to tighten. And most importantly, she asked me questions related to the theme and heart of the story. Questions that helped me plan the revision to come.

I’m just finishing the edits on my YA sci/fi novel, getting it ready to go out to agents once more. This time, it won’t be a challenge to let go of The Last Battlewipe because The Perfect Beauty of Yvon Torville is waiting for me to get started again. I’m a lucky writer to have such a busy muse these days. It’s totally wicked what this way comes.

 

 

Digging up archives for research

Digging up archives for research

Gwynn Scheltema

My recent blog Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers got me thinking more about research, and in particular about how to locate archive materials.

Of course, you can always start with Google, but beyond that, you might try:

Bibliographies

Look in the bibliographies at the back of books that you are already consulting for research. Where did those authors go to get information? Even if you don’t read all the books they consulted, you can still check out what sources they used. Likewise with any essays you read. Even websites dedicated to your topic may list archives they used. Sometimes the dedications at the beginning of books also thank people who helped with research.

Experts

While I’m not suggesting you stalk big names in your field of interest, we often meet experts (and other novelists) at book readings, symposiums, conferences or casually at other events. Asking about their research and the collections they may have used is a good conversation opener, and you might just learn something. If you are interviewing them, make it one of your questions.

Libraries

Your local reference librarian is bound to be a treasure house of information, especially about local archives.

But beyond that, ask your local library about accessing the WorldCat database or Archive Grid, with close to a million listings for archival materials stored in libraries, archives and museums all over the world. Many of the libraries within that network offer inter-library loans. Your library may also have access to the subscription site Archive Finder which has over 22000 listings of historical collections of primary source material in American and British archives. For American publications, the Library of Congress  is America’s national library, and the world’s largest.

College and university archives
An 1864 photo from the collection

Apart from theses archiving, educational institutions often have “special collections”. University of Toronto, for instance, has a collection called “The Barren Lands: J.B. Tyrrell’s Expeditions for the Geological Survey of Canada, 1892-1894” which includes over 5,000 images from original field notebooks, correspondence, photographs, maps and published reports covering two exploratory surveys of the Barren Lands region west of Hudson Bay, in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the area now known as Nunavut.

Corporate archives
1936 Parade of Progress

Large corporations often have archives, like the General Motors Heritage Centre, that preserve the history of their corporations and industries. Collections of videos, photographs, and corporate records have varying degrees of public access depending on the company’s policies and archival staff availability.

Canadian archives

Our National Archives known as Library and Archives Canada (LAC) are housed in Ottawa. (read about Ruth’s research visit there). Among their collections are:

The Canadian Council of Archives (CCA), in partnership with LAC, maintains ArchivesCanada.ca which lists over 800 repositories across Canada and has links to databases by province.

Other web sites to check

Explore the Smithsonian Institution Archives , the record keeper of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.

The American Historical Association sponsors Archives Wiki which gives information on (and links to) archives around the world from a researcher’s perspective.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)  looks after US Federal government materials, regional archives, and presidential libraries.

And then what????

Of course, locating the archive that holds the documents or other materials you need is only the beginning. Accessing that information and dealing with archival staff is the subject of another blog. Stay tuned.

Last Word

This twitter quote comes from this year’s author guest at Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2018 retreat in November, Andrew Pyper (@andrewpayper). And it’s so true!

The thing with research is you only know you’ve done enough research after having done way too much research.

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

10 ways to Nano-prep for writing your novel

It’s Writescape’s 10th anniversary and we have lots of excitement planned for writers in 2018. This installment of 10 on the 10th is the latest in the series of monthly writing tips, advice and inspiration. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along. Share with your writing colleagues and encourage them to sign up for more.

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 carpools or cooking dinners during November. Prepare them for your plan and then……START WRITING!

 

 

 

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Flesh Out Characters with a Sketch

Ruth E. Walker

As a character-driven writer, I love discovering the deeper layers of the people I create. Usually, I already have a strong sense of what makes my characters tick—it’s what draws me to the page to explore their lives. But not always. Sometimes, even a “character-driven writer” needs to develop a character sketch to have a better understanding or handle on one or more of the people in a story.

A sketch can be like a quick line drawing or caricature that fleshes character out when you fill in some blanks:

  1. the basics: age, gender, height, weight, hair colour, shoe size…
  2. add a sense of place, both physical and social: home location, job, education…
  3. toss in a bit of “flavour” with likes/dislikes, idiosyncrasies…
  4. go even deeper: fears, longings, secrets (shhhhh!)…
  5. get a clue to motivations: what happened to them before the story starts?

It can be far more detailed, using shadow and light to reveal facets of personality (key for reaction and interaction), motivation (key for tension-building) and subconscious desires (key for thematic development.)

For example, starting with an idea of a character, a person for a story:

Bob is a 47-year-old truck driver for a long distance hauling company. He’s overweight but not obese and his hairline is receding. He drinks Gatorade to stay awake when he drives overnight. Bob likes old movies, baseball and wine gums.

Bob’s name, age, gender, appearance are sketched in. I tossed in a bit about Bob and his likes. A just-the-facts-ma’am approach is fine to start. If you want more than “good enough”, dive deeper. Everyone has a story. Even our imaginary “Bob” has more than one reason for what he does…or doesn’t…do.

A character sketch can offer a writer more than just an outline of the people in a story. In fact, the act of developing a sketch of a character might serve as a springboard of ideas for plot, setting or themes:

Bob, a 47-year-old truck driver has been hauling long distance rigs across the country for over twenty years. These days, even climbing up into the cab is chore; he knows he should drop a few pounds but it’s hard when he keeps getting the inter-province routes and shorter and shorter deadlines. Some guys pop pills to stay away on night runs but he keeps to power drinks, even if it means he has to piss in a bottle to avoid stopping. Besides, even when he does stop these days, sleep won’t come or at least not for long. Even pulling out the tablet and firing up a few old movies doesn’t do it for him anymore. Two Turner Classics and his eyes are still wide open, and then he’s chewing on wine gums for breakfast and pulling on his Blue Jays cap to get back on the road. His cap doesn’t really hide his thinning hair but still, it’s the Jays so that’s gotta count for something. That’s what his dad always said to him. Life, Bob—it’s gotta count for something. That is, until the day his dad hung himself from the barn rafters.

With genre fiction, there are certain types of characters we expect to show up. A cozy mystery needs an amateur, or even reluctant, sleuth. A fantasy should have supernatural or magical characters. A horror works best with a terrifying and evil villain. Etcetera. Of course, a wise writer takes those expectations and plays with them so that the reader gets some surprises. Like villains who turn into heroes or heroes with murderous hearts. And it’s those character surprises that open up tired plots and overused themes and can take your story on a whole new track.

Drawing out personality

There’s another kind of sketch that may prove helpful in understanding your character. In my workshops, I’ve used photos of people to inspire writers to discover new, unexpected characters for their stories. But I have also scoured magazines and photo books looking for faces or expressions that can help me solidify a character in my mind. A couple of years ago, I was a bit lost working on my science fiction novel. My main character had some “wobbly bits” to the person I thought she should be; in other words, she was a bit fuzzy. Never good for a writer.

I turned to a police sketch program online. After several attempts, I finally came up with her face and that helped me firm her up as I continued to write the latter half of the novel.

The free program I used is no longer available but there are several online services that can do similar work. You need to pay for and then download the program, for example, Flash Face and Portrait Pad. I haven’t tried either one but if you have, let us know in the comment section.

For those of you who use Scrivener for organizing and drafting your work, you probably already know the many uses of this program for sketching out characters, from visual aids to templates to file folders. The Write Practice blog shares some of the Scrivener character sketch features. For those of you not using Scrivener, The Write Practice reminds writers that most of these tools can be adapted for use without any specialized software.

And check out the five links to character worksheets in this All Freelance Writing blog. Writers are offered a range of approaches to finding and developing characters: questionnaires, checklists, guides and charts.

A character sketch is useful at any point in writing. From inspiring a new story to adding extra character touches to a third, or fourth or fifth or…later (!) draft, diving deeper into a character’s life is a tool all writers need in their creativity kit. So go ahead. Get sketching.

 

 

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Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Computer Hacks for Writers and Researchers

Gwynn Scheltema

If there’s a faster, easier way to do something I’m in. I love life hacks. Here are a few computer hacks I’ve collected  to make writing and researching easier. Try them. And if you have other hacks to share, tell us about them in the comments.

When writing or editing

  • Want to find an opposite, a rhyming word, a word for a phrase? Head to Wordhippo.com. They also have translations and pronunciation help.
  • Paste your finished prose into “Google Translate” and listen to it. Sometimes hearing sentences uncovers clunky bits and mistakes you might not notice by simply looking at it.
  • If you don’t have a grammar program, try Grammerly or Hemmingwayapp.com to help uncover passive voice, identify adverbs (so you can decide if you have overused them) and give you an overall reading level. (especially useful for non-fiction article writers).
  • Looking for a special font? Google.com/fonts is a collection of open source fonts, all optimized for the web.
  • When reviewing, change your font to something you don’t like. It will force you to slow down and read more critically.
Research hacks
  • Is your research article “Too Long Didn’t Read” or TLDR? Add Chrome’s TLDR free plugin to your browser screen to be one-click away from getting a condensed synopsis/summary view of news, blog posts, and other articles online. The plugin analyzes content and creates four different-length summaries.
  • Simple.wikipedia.org will condense the main points of any Wikipedia article
  • Does your Google search turn up too many options? Not sure which are most reliable? Search with scholar.google.com instead for more relevant choices.
  • When you copy from the net, use crtl + shift + V to paste it. This will prevent the text from formatting.
  • If you accidentally close a tab while researching, hit ctrl +shift+ t to reopen it.
  • Use the space bar to scroll down a webpage. Use shift + spacebar to scroll back up.
Keyboard magic
  • Instead of hitting the backspace key multiple times to erase a word., hit crtl + backspace to erase the whole word at once. It works the same for deleting a whole word with crtl + delete.
  • Although you can add symbols (like the copyright symbol ©) to your text using the insert tab, it is worth learning the shortcut keyboard codes for the ones you use most often. Note that these codes work only with a numeric keyboard, but on some laptops adding in the fn key allows them to work too. (e.g. alt + fn + 0169 = ©) You can look up the keyboard codes on the character map (insert tab; symbol; more symbols).
    Here are a few to get you started:
    • © Copyright symbol = alt +0169
    • ™ Trademark sign = alt + 0153
    • ° Degree symbol = alt + 0176
    • ¢ Cent sign = alt + 0162
    • £ English pound = alt + 0163
  • The control key also allows you to keyboard commands without stopping typing. Hold down the control key as you hit the shortcut. The keys themselves are also intuitive as they often stand for what you want to do. S for save. P for print, etc. The ones I use all the time are ctrl + f = find and crtl + z = undo.
    Here’s a full list:

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There you go. Hack away, writer, and see if all this doesn’t make your writing and researching life easier.

Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Writer: Who’s in Your Tribe?

Ruth E. Walker

Margaret Laurence, one of Canada’s exceptional writers, spoke of the other Canadian writers — friends, colleagues or just-starting-out — as “the tribe.” It was at a time when writing was a lonely business in Canada. When literary prizes were few (let alone boasting glitzy galas and live broadcasting) and especially for women writers, when there were few achieving success and critical acclaim. So for Laurence, she saw the truth behind the word “tribe”: a community of humans.

In ancient Rome, the root word of tribe, tribus, meant a division within the state. When European settlers began explorations, they used the word “tribe” to describe any and all cultures they came in contact with. I guess it was a handy, one-size-fits-all way to deal with difference and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that conquer-all mindset.

A Tribe of Writers

But back to Margaret Laurence and her use of tribe. It was a term used in a good way, meant to gather together the group of humans who penned words, often without any hope of recognition or acclaim. Her tribe was other Canadians driven by the passion and need to write.

Some years ago, I had a chat with Linwood Barclay, then a Toronto Star columnist and now a hugely popular author of mystery novels. He told me how Laurence was a mentor to him when he was a student at Trent University.  He never forgot her kindness and direct, unerring eye, and the difference it made to his eventual career and international success.

Linwood was in Margaret’s tribe long before he was selling his books in the millions. And Laurence was in his tribe, long before he realized he had a tribe.

Everyone’s Tribe is Unique

My tribe is difficult to capture in words, mostly because it is a loose-knit connection of all kinds of writers. Sometimes I spend more time with some tribe members than others. My intense critique group, Critical ms, where we give written and verbal feedback to each other, meets every other week, alternating between Peterborough and Whitby. The Writers’ Community of Durham Region counts among its membership many writers who I am so happy to call friends as well as colleagues.

Haliburton Writers

My tribe also includes the Canadian Authors’ Association, CANSCAIP, The Writers’ Union of Canada, the Muskoka Authors’ Association and the Muskoka Novel Marathon group (the photo at the top of this post is from 2014, the year I attended the MNM in Huntsville.) I’ve recently expanded my tribe to include members of the Literary Arts Roundtable of the Arts Council, Haliburton Highlands.

  • Do I know everyone in all those organizations? No.
  • Do I support the work they do and volunteer when I can to help them grow and support other writers? Yes.
  • Do I have members of my writing tribe who don’t belong to any of these groups? Yes indeed.
  • And do I have members of my writing tribe who I value beyond the ordinary? You bet.

I have a core group of writers who I might term My Tribe within My Tribe. My go-to people when the rejections arrive and the first ones to know when I’m celebrating. The ones I will drop almost anything for if they need my help. Some have been in my tribe since 1996 when I started this crazy journey of words. And some are more recent core members. They are more than friends and colleagues, and they know it.

Tribe Members Aren’t Always Writers

My tribe also includes people who are not writers. The people who support and encourage my writing — family and friends who turn out for book launches, readings and events I help organize. And I learn from the non-writing members of my tribe. I learn about books I might not have picked up myself to read. I ask research questions and get directed to places and people who can help. I have beta readers who offer feedback and suggestions.

In short, a writers’ tribe benefits you when it’s not an exclusive group.

So who’s in your writers’ tribe? Is it like my ever-expanding circle of contacts or a more intimate group or a combination? Is your tribe online or face-to-face? Is it just Canadians or does it have an international flavour?

One thing is certain: Writing is a solitary act but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

Links to writing organizations in my tribe:

The Writers’ Community of Durham Region

The Writers’ Union of Canada

Canadian Authors’ Association

CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers)

Muskoka Authors Association

Muskoka Novel Marathon (Facebook page)

Arts Council ~ Haliburton Highlands