Recipe for Creating Characters

Recipe for Creating Characters

Ruth E. Walker

Sometimes, the people I create for my novels and stories wake me up at night. They rattle around in my head like restless spirits and refuse to quiet down until I write a scene they’ve been waiting for.

Wait a minute. A scene they’ve been waiting for?

Exactly. I guess that’s how real they’ve managed to become in my imagination. So real that my subconscious gives them room to believe themselves to be alive.

All writers discover and develop their characters by a variety of approaches, each as unique as the writer themselves. But sometimes, our imaginations can use a little help.

For one of my workshops, I developed a simple and fun exercise for finding a new character. It works for villains, heroes, secondary folks, and even walk-on characters. Use it any time you hit a wall and need a nudge to add new people to a story or scene. It can even help when you have no idea what you’re going to write: bingo! a character to build a story around…all from a recipe.

Follow the recipe

1 cup of a real person: I find a visual source most helpful (a magazine photograph, portrait in an art gallery or people-watching expedition) Perhaps for you, there’s a person in history — recent or long ago — who has fascinated you. Whoever you choose, it’s time to build a story character from an image. Note some vital statistics about this person, (age, gender, eye & hair colour, etc.)

Then go a bit deeper into who they are (family, education, social position/job, hobbies, favourite foods, pets, etc.) Allow your imagination to take you to counter-intuitive places: thing — and people — are never completely what they appear to be on the surface.

Finally, answer three questions:

  • what does this person want?
  • what does this person actually need?
  • what does this person fear the most?

Of course, this outline of a person is open to change once you start to write the story. But by this point, you should have a sense of a personality coming to life. All you need now is to add the rest of the ingredients.

1 cup of story idea:  Maybe your new character has inspired a story idea already but if not, here’s a quick option: choose a central theme (quest, coming of age, gods vs humans, humans vs nature, etc.) and a genre (romance, sci-fi, contemporary, literary, thriller, historical, etc.) Write down the theme and genre (or blend of genres) and add in a few lines about the possibilities to come (escape of star-crossed lovers, a search for a missing “x”; a defense of a territory; a coronation gone wrong, etc.)

2/3 cup of setting: place, era, season, time of day. Here’s where you add in some sensory elements: temperature, quality of the light, smells in the air, sounds near and distant, etc.

1/4 cup of backstory: Careful, too much backstory up front and it will overtake your story stew. Go for subtle flavours: a hint of betrayal, a whiff of loss, a sprinkle of insecurity or shame.

Flavour bouquet: Just like that cheesecloth bag of spices in your chili sauce, here’s where you can mix up an interesting blend for your new-found character. Characteristics. Idiosyncrasies. Behaviours. Qualities of goodness and evil because no person is completely honourable, good and kind. And all of it affects the kind of person you are cooking up.

The garnish: An exciting way to serve up your character is through a line of dialogue. A few intriguing words can be all you need to set in motion a scene for your character.

Make it more than parsley on the plate: “Quick man! Jump overboard or die!” “Before the three moons rise, I promise to find your starship.” “My lady, the castle road and all who travelled it are gone.”

Of course, like any recipe, it’s always open to personal preference. So go ahead and experiment. Add new ingredients. Use more spice. Go heavy with the garnish. The point to all this is to muck about in the kitchen of your creativity and see what ends up on your page. At the very least, you’ll have something on the table that you’ve never had before. Hopefully, it’s one tasty treat.

Last Word

If you want to cook up more characters or spice up ones you already have, Ruth’s offering a one-day workshop Create Compelling Characters on June 15 at her Riverside Cottage property in Haliburton. Registration is open now.

10 Ways To Take Care of Business

10 Ways To Take Care of Business


Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th for writing tips, advice and inspiration on the 10th of every month. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along.

Being skillful as a writer is more than having your work published. It’s also linked to the business side of writing, how you conduct yourself, and how others perceive you. Creativity and professionalism are two sides of any successful writer. In fact, the more professionally you function, the more your muse will drop by to inspire you.

1. Track your submissions. Keeps you focused and prevents you from losing track of where that suite of poems actually got sent. You can follow up intelligently. It also keeps you professional in your head space. And come tax season, you have a record of your writing work. Use a simple table with headings (i.e., title of work / date sent/ where / response / payment) or set up a formal spreadsheet.

2. Keep a calendar. You can go wild and colour-code: conferences & workshops; critique group meetings; time spent researching; coffee with a colleague writer to talk about WIP, projects, etc.; time spent pitching articles; time spent editing. It’s all about a visual reminder of how hard you’ve been working at your craft. More than one calendar? Synch them. And it’s good business to have a paper copy as backup (but note #4 & #5.)

3. Have a logical folder system.   For both your computer and email, set up a system that works like your mind does. Being consistent helps you to file things quickly and, more importantly, to retrieve them. Same goes for naming conventions for the document files themselves. If you like to use dates, great. If alphabetical is your thing, go for it. Just be consistent. Group together files that make sense with subfolders: Writing: Poetry. Non-fic. Stories. Novels. Plays. Readings: Open Mics; Libraries; Book Stores…

4. Keep all expense receipts for sorting later. Better to keep them and throw them out when you have had a chance to decide if they are useful than to wish you had kept them. The tax department disallows any expense you can’t prove you paid for. For more on taxes see Deducting Convention Expenses.

5. Purge the paper as much as you can. Digitize what you think you might need and park it in the cloud. Look, we understand. Writers and paper just seems a perfect match. But with so much available online or able to download, why not just keep active the papers you need only as you need them? And when you’re done, scan what you must and pitch the rest.

6. Defrag. First focus on the computer to rearrange your files so that they are easier to find and things work faster for you. Kind of like tidying the linen closet. Then defrag yourself (see Writers Guide to Self Care & Your Anytime Writing Retreat) because you need to be in a good space for it all to achieve creative harmony.

7. Schedule professional development. A focus on your craft is more than creating elegant prose or memorable metaphors. It also involves taking in new ideas and perspectives. From intensive master classes to an afternoon speaker at the library, it’s all grist for the mill.

8. Subscribe to publishing and other professional magazines. Quill & Quire, Publishers Weekly, Writer’s Digest, etc., will help you learn about trends, agents, markets and tidbits that can add up to your own savvy marketing plan. Paperless option: Subscribe to the online version. Budget option: Ask your local library if they can add a subscription to their magazines (if they do, remember to say thank you.)

9. Participate in social media. Choose at least one platform and then do it well — remember that calendar (#2)? Schedule social media time in it for at least 30 minutes once a week to post or tweet or comment. Keep it as simple as you like. There’s networking to be had on social media, markets to discover and learning to be absorbed. (Tip: social media can become an enticing sinkhole of limitless depth, so set a timer to climb back out if you need it.)

10. Constantly update your writing profile. Call it your full bio, literary CV (curriculum vitae), writing credits, or whatever you like. Just know that over time, it’s easy to forget the odd poem published, open mic you read at, or the workshop you attended or presented. And like a work resume, when you need it you usually need it fast.

Deducting Convention Expenses

Deducting Convention Expenses

Gwynn Scheltema

It’s that time of year we all look forward to….taxes!

As a tax preparer at an accounting office, I have noticed that over the last couple of years, Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has been paying attention to convention expenses claimed, so I thought it might be useful to all you writers out there to spend a little time discussing writing conferences from a tax perspective.

That said, a caveat: The information and tips offered here are general information only. Your tax situation could be influenced by other factors not dealt with here, so if you are at all in doubt, contact your accountant or check out CRA’s website for more information.

Convention expenses

Let’s pretend that you attended a convention in Toronto, one in the Caribbean and one in USA in 2018. Can you deduct them on your tax return?

Like most tax questions, the answer is “maybe”.

What does CRA say?

“You can deduct the cost of attending up to two conventions a year. The conventions have to meet the following conditions:

  • relate to your business or your professional activity
  • be held by a business or professional organization within the geographical area where the organization normally conducts its business”

Business or professional activity

Let’s unpack point #1: it must relate to your “business” or your “professional activity”.

Professional activity refers to income earned from a profession that is regulated by a governing body (sets rules of compliance, etc.). Typically profession refers to accountants, lawyers, doctors and the like.

For writers, the operative word here is “business”.  Being in business as a writer means you have gone beyond being a “hobbyist”.

Generally, a business is any undertaking that results in profits or has a reasonable expectation of profits within a reasonable time. CRA, however, does recognize that the nature of art and literature is such that “in the case of artists and writers it is recognized that a longer period of time may be required in establishing that such reasonable expectation does exist.”

To determine if you are running a writing small business or if you are a hobbyist, CRA considers 12 factors that speak to reasonableness of profit expectation. Factors include the amount of time devoted to writing, representation by an agent or publisher, the extent to which your work is presented to the public, promotion of your work and the kind of income derived (royalties, grants, etc.). You can check out the full list at the link at the end of this post.

Geographical area

Unpacking point #2: “within the geographical area where the organization normally conducts its business”

Gwynn presenting at a Government Correspondence Conference

As nice as it might be, travelling to a far-flung exotic location for a conference may render the expense of it non-deductible. It all depends on whether a location is within the territorial scope of the sponsoring organization. For instance, The Ontario Writers’ Conference would be expected to hold its convention in Ontario. The Writers’ Union of Canada could hold it anywhere in Canada. Romance Writers of America although head quartered in USA, might hold a conference anywhere in the world that it has RWA branches.

Fortunately, under the Canada-United States Tax Convention, expenses incurred by a Canadian resident or citizen attending conventions held in the USA are treated as if the conventions were held in Canada.

CRA definitely will not accept expenses for conventions held on cruise ships, even if the ship travels between Canadian and US ports or two US. ports. Why? Because the sea is considered international territory.

What can you write off?

Presuming you (and the convention) qualify under the two points mentioned above, you can deduct:

  • Convention fees
  • Travel expenses
  • Lodging expenses
  • Meals to a limit of $50/day

If the convention fees include the cost of food, beverages, or entertainment, but do not show it separately, you are required to deduct $50 for each day from the convention fee and claim it separately as meals and entertainment (where other limits will apply).

Example

Convention costs are $500 for 2 days, meals included.

Subtracting $50/day for meals makes the adjusted convention fee $500 ‑ ($50 x 2) = $400.

Additionally, claim the $100 meals and it will be subject to the usual 50% limitation, and end up as a $50 deduction.

Note: Incidental items such as coffee and doughnuts available at convention meetings or receptions do not count as meals.

Up to two conventions

Image result for ontario writers conference
Ruth presents in Moose Factory

So what about your three writers’ conference I mentioned earlier? Okay, so right off the bat, you are limited to two. Assuming all three qualify as allowable conventions, use the ones most advantageous to you. Those might be the most expensive, or if one of them is not closely related to your writing activities, you may be safer to go with the two cheaper ones that are.

Useful links:

Other Top Drawer tax blogs

Power to make a difference

Power to make a difference

This week Writescape welcomes guest blogger Lori Twining. She blogs with other writing friends at AscribeWriters.com and adds laughter and inspiration whenever she joins us on Writescape retreats. Her blog today is all about having the power to improve the life of other writers.

Guest Post: Lori Twining

Sometimes, I feel like I have the power to make a difference. Does this ever happen to you? Are you harbouring tiny pockets of power that could be used for something good?

What if YOU could be the reason someone smiled today?

What if YOU could make a small difference in someone else’s life?

What if I finished a novel, published it and it was because of YOU that it hit the New York Times Bestseller List?

Well, don’t get excited, because I didn’t finish writing that New York Times Bestseller… YET! But many other people have. I have read soooo many books by authors that are filled with amazing stories. Stories that deserve recognition. Authors that deserve to be hugged and told that you loved reading their books. Being an author is a tough business. For some, doubt is creeping around every single corner of every single day, so they could use a little reason to smile.

We are lovers. Book Lovers too!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 42684594_10156106220816225_2255370039609786368_n-300x172.jpg

When my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, we went out for a nice surf & turf supper followed by a few hours of hanging out in the bookstore. We trailed our fingers across every spine in the fiction section, smelling the new pages of some of our favourite authors, discovering new authors and being excited about which books we should buy this trip. We met up in different aisles and pretended we didn’t know each other, and then struck up a conversation about random books we had stacked in our arms. We were basically a romcom (Romantic Comedy) happening in real time. Yes, as a couple, we are two book nerds falling in love all over again, not only with each other, but with authors and their words.

Waiting to be loved

I had a few sad moments while I was walking through the 80% off aisles. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a great bargain but my mind went to the $2 stickers on the front cover and I wondered just how much is the author actually making? The book isn’t even that old. It’s only been in circulation for 12 months? 6 months? Geesh! Then I let my eyes wander around the huge store gazing at all the books waiting for someone to take them home, and yes, like in the movie Bridesmaids, I wanted to have the van full of puppies speeding down the highway after the party. Only, my van would be filled to the brim with all the unwanted books. I would take them home with me—possibly share with my husband—and I would read every single book, trying to make an author happy that their book wasn’t locked inside a bookstore with no one to love it.

Does that sound crazy?

Yeah, I’m sure it does.

But it makes me happy to buy another author’s book, read it and then tell them how much I loved it. This comes full circle back to having the power to make someone smile. When you tell an author how much you loved reading their book, sometimes they surprise you. This past week, I was surprised not once, but TWICE!

Reaching out

Lori Twining ~ #slaughtersquad

During my lunch hour a week or two ago, I listened to a Facebook Live interview between two amazing women authors, Lisa Unger and Karin Slaughter. They were talking about mysteries, suspense and thriller novels (all of which are my favourite). They mentioned that if you commented during the Live interview you might win something. Honestly, I didn’t care if I won anything, I was just hoping to hear some secrets they might share about their process of writing a bestselling thriller novel. I was there to hear about how they research, how they attempt their first draft, how long it really takes to write a bestseller, if they have help editing it into a masterpiece or are they doing everything on their own. These interviews always hold many interesting answers for me. So, I was happy that I listened. I took some notes. I went back to work.

After a week of camping in the woods with my adorable husband, unplugged from the world, I returned home to find my social media had exploded with hundreds of text messages, emails, Facebook messages, etc… and several were from Lisa Unger asking me for my snail-mail address. I had won something and she wanted to send it to me. What? I wanted a copy of her new book, Under My Skin, so my fingers were crossed that it would show up in my mailbox.

Love finds it way home

Lisa Unger & Lisa Scottoline Books
Lisa Unger & Lisa Scottoline Books

Fast forward another week… I received PRIORITY MAIL! $24.95 US worth of bookmail. Unfortunately, it was NOT Lisa Unger’s Under My Skin, but it was a short story called The Twenty written by her, and a hardcover copy of Lisa Scottoline’s newest release, Feared. I thought it was weird, it wasn’t even a copy of one of the two women in the interview, but hey, I love Lisa Scottoline and I didn’t have this one. I was excited and happy because who wouldn’t be? Right?

Plus, I already have all of Karin’s books (just finished reading Pieces of Her and it was FANTASTIC). Inside the Feared cover, it was signed with a note, “I love Lisa Unger, too! xoxo! Love Lisa Scottoline.” Oh, these girls know how to warm my heart. A signed Lisa Scottoline book! Sweet.

A couple of days later, I found another Priority Mail package in my mailbox. This time it was from an agent in New York City. Why was I getting mail from a literary agent? It should be the other way around, right? I should be sending out my unpublished manuscript to agents. Ha! That’s a story for another day… However, my package was from Victoria Sanders & Associates in Stone Ridge, New York. That is Karin Slaughter’s agent. Ohmygod! Karin Slaughter is my ab-so-freaking-lute-ly favourite female thriller writer. Seriously, she is the one I want to be when I grow up and figure out how to write a real thriller novel. I. Want. To. Be. Her. … with Lisa Unger and Lisa Scottoline close behind her.

Back to reality, I pulled out a Karin Slaughter t-shirt. Yep! I’m in love all over again. Then, I started surfing the internet for other #SlaughterSquad or #UngerSquad t-shirts… no luck. My mind started racing about telling these girls they could make money with selling their merchandise to crazy fans, such as myself. Now, I want a “The Good Daughter” t-shirt that will make my mother frown! Maybe, I should make one myself? Or send Karin Slaughter a crazy fan email requesting such an item. I’ll save that for another day, as well. Ha!

Bottom line, I made Lisa Unger and Karin Slaughter smile because I listened to their Facebook Live interview, because who wants to have a Live event that no one comes to? In return they made me smile by rewarding me for listening by sharing secret info, PLUS I was extra-smiling when I received gifts! I feel the power of making a difference here… I’m so busy telling everyone I know on social media and in person about how awesome these two authors are, which is a bonus for them. Plus, I will be extremely happy about walking around with my Karin Slaughter t-shirt on for years to come, thanks to Lisa Unger for picking my name out of a list of random people. It is hard to tell which of us are smiling bigger today.

Having the power

Imagine having that much power… here’s the thing, I think YOU do.

Support an author today. Listen to their podcast. Buy their book. Read it. Tell everyone about it. Word of mouth is a wonderful tool that is one of the easiest ways to make someone smile.

If you are a writer, a day will come when you’ll be begging for someone to make you smile. What if YOU could be the reason?

MAKE KARMA HAPPEN!

Lori Twining

Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in several anthologies. She’s an active member of many writing groups: International Thriller Writers, Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters In Crime International, Toronto Sisters In Crime, Romance Writers of America, Toronto Romance Writers and Ascribe Writers. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents.

Librarians & Self-published Authors

Librarians & Self-published Authors

Ruth E. Walker

Recently, I sat in a planning meeting for a writers’ event and the topic of self-published authors came up. The group was considering offering a workshop to help self-published authors produce a better product.

Among our group of planners is a librarian, and she sat quietly while we brainstormed a possible workshop.

After a few minutes, she offered some careful comments. “Our library system has a mandate to have the self-published books of local residents on our shelves. But often they don’t make it easy for us.”

How so, we wanted to know.

“An ISBN for one,” she offered. “At least then we can process it for cataloguing. And binding! Spiral binding is a real challenge to label. And some binding falls apart.”

The self-published authors in her community are fortunate to have a library system open to their books. Many larger libraries have no such mandate to guarantee local books on their shelves.

Wooing the libraries

In 2017, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) had more than 17.3 million visits to their 100 branches. That’s a lot of readers, so getting your book on those shelves would be pretty amazing. But you better have a polished and professional product to interest their collection department in purchasing your book.

Besides the usual information–title, author’s name, type of binding, etc., the TPL Collection Department needs your book to have, among a number of things, the following:

  • ISBN (International Standard Book Number) Canadian authors of self- published books can get their ISBN for free through Library and Archives Canada.  (You know, that barcode and number thingie on the back cover of books – it identifies the book and the publisher.) The ISBN is necessary if you want your book sold in bookstores, to libraries or through online retailers.
  • a brief summary of the book’s contents (they emphasize “brief” so keep it short — like a synopsis, one page at most is best.) Read the inside jacket of successful books for ideas. Here’s a great example from HarperCollins Publishing’s Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard:
    • Girl Mans Up is a brave and authentic debut…In Pen, Girard has create a kick-ass character who makes tough choices, has her friends’ backs, and is done feeling bad about who she is. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth–in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.
  • why your book would be of interest to TPL patrons (this is your sales pitch so think this one out carefully.) Again, I turn to Girl Man’s Up — this time a review, but it captures some of why a public library would want this book — to reach young, diverse readers:
    • This is a fresh title in the growing sea of LGBTQ YA literature. Pen and her peers are neither quirky nor whimsical… There is no sugarcoating in this very real portrayal of an aspect of teen life that many experience.

You can find these details and more on the TPL website.

But getting your book on the shelves of libraries is more than having an attractive cover, good binding and an ISBN on the jacket. The stuff inside has to be professional as well. That includes layout, thorough proofreading and fact checking and, of course, a book’s contents edited for structure, continuity, style, and story and character arcs.

But that, as they say, is for another blog from our Top Drawer. Stay tuned.

The Last Word

There’s still time and a few spaces left in our April writers’ retreat, Spring Thaw 2019. Bring that work in progress and devote a weekend or more to feeding your muse. All-inclusive means you can focus on writing and let the creative juices flow.

Choose from the 3-day or 5-day options. Workshops, one-on-one consultation, group sessions, full resort amenities and fine dining at Elmhirst’s Resort. Stay in your private bedroom in cozy lakeside cottages. For more than 10 years, it’s been a true escape to write…with Writescape.

Moving on…grammatically speaking

Moving on…grammatically speaking

Gwynn Scheltema

According to the Global English Monitor, as of January 1, 2019, the English language boasts 1,052,010 words. Apparently, we can thank The Bard for 1700 of those: addiction, assassination, bedazzle, cold-blooded, fashionable and managerare among them. And every 98 minutes another word is added. That’s almost 15 words a day! English is anything but static.

When I was working in communications for the provincial government, we regularly had meetings to discuss what was new and what had gone out of style in accepted grammar and usage. Sometimes, it got quite heated in those meetings, which just proves how strongly professional communicators feel about word usage. A lot of the discussion was around acceptable word choice, like persons with disabilities vs. disabled persons, or First Nations vs. Aboriginal.

But grammar, formatting and punctuation also made it onto the agenda. When proportional spacing became the norm on word processing programs, the double space after a period became a single space (standard now in all ms submissions). When emails were the new thing on the block, we had to refer to them as e-mail messages. Later we dropped the second word and they became e-mails. Still later, we dropped the hyphen and adopted the word email.

So when does a rule start or stop?

For the English language, there is no one body that decides. Our language is a living entity, changing over time. That’s what makes it so rich. While I firmly believe in “correct grammar” for clarity, I accept that sooner or later rules I hold sacred may indeed change. And that’s okay. It’s all a matter of common usage.

The grammar “rule” that I notice most lately is the changing use of the default pronoun.

The old default pronoun

The rule I learned was to use “he/his/him” as a default pronoun when talking in general terms, as in: “A journalist should always guard his sources.”

I like to believe that writers today know the importance of and support a less gender-based, less sexist approach to our language. So it makes sense to stop using “he” as the default pronoun. The question then becomes: what do we replace it with?

Substituting “she/her” is equally sexist. Flipping between “he” and “she” in the same piece of work would be altogether confusing.  “He/she” is cumbersome. “It” loses the human connection. “One” is acceptable, but sounds like an old-fashioned lecture.

Some people prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns created specifically for the purpose, such as ze, sie, hir, co, and ey, but I haven’t seen much evidence of their use.

The new default pronoun

More and more each day “they/them/their” is emerging as the new default even in singular situations: “A journalist should not reveal their sources.”

Now before you get your knickers in a knot over it, using “they” in this way is nothing new. It appears in Old English from 600 years ago. Here’s a line from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, ca. 1400:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up […]”

And if you are interested in the history of the singular “they” through history right from 1375, read this post from the OED website.

I do admit, using a plural pronoun for a singular is something that I still have to get used to, but I see its value, and as imperfect a solution as it may be, it’s the only viable one we have right now.

Is singular “they” really acceptable?

In business situations here in Canada, The AP Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style are generally the go-to authorities. Here is what they have to say:

AP Stylebook (2017 edition)

“They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”

For example, to avoid the specificity of an individual’s gender, this use of their is acceptable: “The employee believed their position was in jeopardy.”

Chicago (17th edition)

 “While this usage [they, them, their, and themselves] is accepted in those spheres [speech and informal writing], it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use. When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.”

What’s a writer to do?

My first inclination is to structure your sentence so you don’t need to make the choice. Make the whole sentence plural: “A journalist should protect their sources” becomes “Journalists should protect their sources.”

That said, if it is more respectful to do so, use “they” as a singular pronoun. Make sure you match your verbs correctly though: “They are visiting.” Not “They is visiting.”

For business writing, follow your accepted style guide.

For fiction, you have control, but consider your audience and genre. Strive for unobtrusive choices and good flow, and of course, consistency.

Last word

Above all, be aware and don’t fight grammatical change just because you don’t like it or you learned something a different way. Remember, our language lives and breathes and changes all the time. Contractions (don’t; isn’t; can’t; shouldn’t) were once considered uncouth, but now we all use them.

And remember, we can thank writers for opening up the English language to new rules and new words. From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I: “Where is our usual manager of mirth? What revels are in hand? Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?”

Thanks, Will.

10 Places to Find Characters

10 Places to Find Characters

Look for Writescape’s 10 on the 10th for writing tips, advice and inspiration on the 10th of every month. Think of it as Gwynn and Ruth sitting on your shoulder and nudging you along.

Where does a writer come up with ideas for a new character? Do you always find characters the same way? Maybe it’s time to explore new ways to find the people who populate your writing.  

1. Everyday people:

Spend time in any public place and someone is bound to catch your attention because of what they are saying or wearing or the way they are acting. Play the “Who are they?” game. Name them. Give them an occupation, a family (or not), and a problem. Watch, listen, take notes, and then let your imagination take over.  Read literary voyeur Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading, a collection of micro fiction inspired by people on Toronto transit.

2. Historical people:

People throughout history have done amazing, stupid, brave, cowardly, horrific, heart-warming things. Digging into the past can uncover all kinds of people, both those who are documented, and those that were —or might have been—in their lives. Check out museums, plaques, archives, diaries, statues. If you don’t want to write about a famous person, think about siblings, spouses or colleagues and imagine their lives. Think of Susanna Moodie Roughing it in the Bush, or Philippa Gregory’s book The Other Boleyn Girl.

3. Historical events:

Pompeii excavation

Whether you are a fan of Tudor times, fascinated by the destruction of Pompeii, read avidly about the great wars or have your interest piqued by the voyage of the KonTiki, historical events are filled with possibility for creating characters. Anthony Doerr creates a blind French girl and a young German radio operator for his WWII novel All the Light We Cannot See.  In his book Pompeii, Robert Harris creates four characters – a young engineer, an adolescent girl, a corrupt millionaire and an elderly scientist – in a luxurious world on the brink of destruction.

4. Art forms:

Flip through a magazine or visit an art gallery. Visual art and photography can always inspire. Degas’s art inspired Cathy Buchanan to write The Painted Girls; Vermeer’s art inspired The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  The same goes for books, plays, movies, dance, comedy, music and oral storytelling. Think of Annie Proulx’s Accordian Crimes, a novel that follows the lives of characters who successively own a green accordion.

5. Travel:

Travelling always offers fresh perspectives on everything from the scenery to the way things are done, the foods people eat or their attitudes to life. You can set the story in the foreign place, like Frances Mayes did in Under a Tuscan Sun. Or write about the effects of travelling like Vicki Pinkerton’s Reflections on the Road. Or tell a home-grown tale with characters influenced by other cultures like Wayson Choy’s Jade Peony.

6. Media:

News text, TV and social media are a goldmine for finding unique characters. If you read a headline and it gets you asking questions, (Why would anyone do that? How did they survive? Why didn’t anyone help? How did they get away with that?) then you likely have the makings of a story and a character. Ask lots more questions, flesh them out and go your own way. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie was published two years after the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites was inspired by Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was convicted of killing her employer. Of course, the personal ads are always a fun place to start. Julia Wertz wrote the graphic anthology, I Saw You, based on real-life missed connection ads posted on Craigslist and in local papers.

7. Death:

While thinking about death might not be everyone’s cup of tea, gravestones, cemeteries, obits, and death masks offer great opportunities for creating characters. In Edinburgh, Greyfriars’s Kirkyard, just steps from The Elephant House where J.K Rowling penned the first Harry Potter book, you will find five gravestones she used to inspire characters in her books: Potter; McGonagall; Moodie; Scrimgeour and Tom Riddle.

8. Names:

And while on the subject of names, remember that many of them reflect ethnic and cultural connections, have religious or folklore connotations and can suggest era too.  Want an Irish character? Try Googling “Irish Names”. You’ll find lists for boys and for girls; meanings and popularity by year. Or page through phone directories and baby-name books. Notice street sign names and names on buildings. Want to write about rape or feminist themes, using the mythical name of Philomel (who was raped, and voiceless, but was transformed into a singing nightingale) adds a layer. Check out Margaret Atwood’s use of that connotation in her novella Nightingale published in The Tent (2006),

9. Opposites & reimaginings:

The despised Wicked Witch of the West in the movie The Wizard of Oz becomes a much more sympathetic character when we see things from her point of view in Gregory McGuire’s book (and later musical)Wicked.  If you read Jane Eyre and can’t stop thinking about the secret madwoman in the attic, then read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea  which follows a young Antoinette Cosway who is sold into marriage to Mr. Rochester and slowly descends into madness.

10. Traits:

Start with a character trait and create a situation where someone with that trait finds themselves facing it/using it/fighting it.  Then ask questions. Why are they in this situation? Who is the other person in the scenario? What happens next?

A woman who reads body language well:
Maddie knew Ashton was lying. His eyes looked down to the left, and shuffled his feet.

A hero who is uncomfortable around weeping women:
Tentatively taking Auria’s elbow, Gaston said, “Don’t weep. It does not become you.”

A womanizer:
As Alysha seated Tyron between his new love and his ex at dinner, he loosened his tie and looked for an escape route.

So many ways to discover characters, and this list is by no means exhaustive. So stash a notebook in your backpack, put on your hiking boots, and get out there to see who you can find.

Ready for Intense Critique

Ready for Intense Critique

Ruth E. Walker

Every two weeks, Gwynn and I head to a small meeting room to join with several other writers. We have the same goal for our meeting: to give/receive in-depth critiques.

We call our group Critical MS (CMS). It’s a fun word play on “critiquing” and “manuscript”, but also on the scientific term that refers to the point at which a chain reaction starts in a nuclear explosion. Business has adopted this term too, for the point when a business starts to take off and be successful. We like to think that with the help of the group, our novels will reach that take-off-and-succeed point, too.

But, it’s not for the faint of heart – if you need to only hear lovely things about your writing, CMS (or any similarly intense group) is not for you.

The process

Manuscript excerpts are submitted by email at least one week in advance. A large submission (40 pgs, double-spaced) gets the whole two-hour meeting. Smaller submissions split the meeting time (we keep our critique focus to two pieces maximum each session.) One person maintains the list of who is “up” for the next two or three meetings and members are responsible to make sure submissions are sent on time, ready or not.

Each submission gets remarkable written comments from all the members – edits and comments to take home to review. Even if you can’t make it to the meeting, comments are expected to be emailed, so a serious commitment is definitely needed. But the true gold of CMS is the lively and diverse group discussion about the submission that happens during the meeting.

Frankly, my CMS colleagues have saved my writerly ass many times.

I can’t thank them enough.

The results

Discoveries are made. Plot holes and thematic possibilities debated. Character arcs and structure are dissected, along with murky or confusing settings. POV shifts. Tense shifts. Time shifts. Smoking guns that need resolution… 

CMS members have a range of professional expertise and resources, and they bring all that to the table. We generally don’t do “fixes” but suggestions can be mused upon – and the writer takes notes and speaks only occasionally (if clarification is needed.) It is gruelling and exhilarating because it validates you as a writer.

There’s an added bonus. Analyzing another writer’s work adds to your understanding of the writing process, of the craft, of the basic nitty-gritty of getting words on the page that will matter to readers.

Plus, listening to what others noticed that I didn’t, or had the opposite view to mine — setting, POV, character trait or plot point — well, that’s a real learning opportunity. Maybe they’re right. Maybe not. But it makes me reconsider my notes and my view.

Ultimately, the writer with work on the table has to go home, sift through the marked manuscripts and their meeting notes. They decide what to do with all that input. But again, that’s the true work of the writer: editing choices.

Accountability

Perhaps the greatest bonus for all members is our goal-setting program. It isn’t enough for one or two members to prepare their work to share with the group. Nope. We ALL get to state measurable goals for the next two weeks. Goals are noted and at the end of each meeting, we announce if we’ve met the last two weeks’ goals.

Goal met: applause. Goal not met: $2.00 fine.

Sometimes, we are brilliant and no cash goes to our goal-tender/treasurer. However, it might be interesting to note that our money pot has grown over time so that it once helped support a financially needy student to attend arts camp and recently assisted a far-north school with some needed supplies.

What can I say? We may not always achieve our goals but we do share the wealth of our procrastination. Seriously, the act of setting a goal is, for some of us, priceless. Not that anyone is brow-beaten for not achieving the goal. We all know that life happens. But there is something affirming about others listening to what we hope to achieve, ready to celebrate when we do or commiserate when we don’t.

Toes in the water first

I’ve belonged to other writing groups/circles before CMS and it was wonderful to give and receive feedback and comments – often carefully broached to avoid bruised egos and more loose in structure. I learned from them and became a better writer because of them. But the time came for a greater intensity.

When you are ready, like I was, to receive critiques on the level of a publisher or professional editor, you need to seek out the next level of your feedback process. It is not easy. And you need to commit to offer careful and thoughtful critiques to your colleagues. But it is an important step to let go of the ego and move deeper into the craft of writing.

So. Where are you on the feedback continuum? Is it time to dip your toes in or are you ready to ramp up your level of critique? If you don’t know the answer, maybe it’s time to give the question greater attention.

Last word

Looking for feedback on your writing?

Sign up for Spring Thaw, Writescape’s all-inclusive writers’ retreat April 26. Participants receive written feedback on their work from two professional editors, Gwynn Scheltema and Ruth E. Walker. That feedback is followed with a one-on-one private consultation with either Gwynn or Ruth, and they’re both available for ongoing consultations during the retreat.

Choose from the 3-day or 5-day options. Workshops, group sessions, full resort amenities and fine dining at Elmhirst’s Resort. Stay in your private bedroom in cozy lakeside cottages. For more than 10 years, it’s been a true escape to write…with Writescape.

Writer’s Guide to Self Care

Writer’s Guide to Self Care

Ruth E. Walker

For the past two days, you’ve been in the middle of an important edit and you have a magazine article deadline looming. You’ve ignored that tickle in your throat but today, you wake up, head pounding and your throat feels like someone’s taken a scrub brush to it.

You’re sick. You long to pull the covers over your head and stay in bed. The house is warm yet you are chilled and shivering. But if you stop now, you’re sure the edit will lose its forward progress. And that article was paying pretty good per-word compensation.

STOP

Let’s rewind a day or two. It was just a sore throat and a bit stuffed up. And if you paused long enough at that point, you might have remembered the last time that happened you ended up with Strep. Or bronchitis. Or influenza. Or…

If you paused long enough.

We writers sometimes get so caught up with taking care of our work we forget to take care of ourselves. I know this because I have a lot of friends and colleagues who are writers. Many times I’ve heard them say “I’m so darn tired but I can’t go to bed early with that deadline.” Or “Oh, it’s just a cold. Can’t let it stop me.”

I have a confession to make. Since before Christmas I’ve been dealing with a rotten cold. It would get a bit better and then a couple of days later, I’d be blowing my nose and coughing. And coughing. Eventually coughing so much I could barely talk. I was exhausted just climbing the stairs.

Did I go see a doctor?

Nope.

Well, not until I recognized that the rattling sound in my throat and chest wasn’t a good sign. I even ignored that for a couple of days. Editing commitments and deadlines took precedence. My priorities might have been a bit whacky. At least that’s what the doctor inferred when I said how tired and short of breath I’d been. “Yes,” he said and fixed me with that you-ought-to-know-better eyeball. “That’s probably because you have bronchitis.”

Two kinds of inhalers and some heavy-duty meds later, I got on the road to recovery. However, if I’d gone to see the doctor when the coughing got bad instead of struggling through a week of Buckley’s cough medicine, I’d have been on the road at least a week earlier. Yes, Buckley’s really tastes awful and helped control some of the cough but it’s not meant for chest infections. So I was just applying a Band-Aid to an artery wound.

Back to you, writer

Do you recognize yourself in any of this? What would you tell that writer deep in the edit and with the looming deadline?

  • you should come first; the passion to edit your novel will come back stronger when you’re stronger
  •  deadlines can be renegotiated
  • if you can’t renegotiate the deadline
    • ask a trusted colleague to take what notes you’ve got and complete the assignment
    • offer up a name or two to the client to replace you
  • by doing either of these things, you may lose the money but your client will know you are professional

But let’s not forget that sometimes illness happens because you’re not taking care of you in the first place. So remember the usuals:

  • proper meals, exercise and sleep (just like the doctor ordered)
  • take breaks, even if just for 15 minutes to step away from the work (set a timer if need be)
  • treat yourself with kindness in whatever form that takes for you (avoid negative self-talk)
  • spend time with people you really like and enjoy (this is a choice, not a chore)

Consequences remind us to be smarter next time

And, most of all, if you feel the onset of something, don’t bury your head in your work and “soldier on.” Be smart. Pay attention and if it is warranted, get yourself checked out medically. The hours of solid editing I lost by refusing to acknowledge I needed to see my doctor, have meant even more hours making up for the lost time.

However, I’m not forgetting to take care of myself in the time crunch.

You’ll have to excuse me now. I hear the kettle boiling and it’s time for my tea break.

Did You Know?

There’s all kinds of ways to take care of yourself. You can expect a healthy dose of pampering at Spring Thaw, our all-inclusive writers retreat in April.

Enjoy catered lunches and dine overlooking the lake in the evenings. Afterward, head to your lakeside cottage to unwind by the wood burning fireplace or head off to bed in your private bedroom.

What about writing, you say? Write in your jammies every morning with in-cottage breakfasts. Daily workshops will fire up your pen with exercises and inspiration. And Gwynn and Ruth will offer written feedback and personal consultation on pre-submitted work, plus be available for chats all weekend long.

As if that’s not enough of a good thing, you can add two more days with our Extend Your Pen option, designed for uninterrupted writing time except for lunch and dinner. A wonderful way to dive even deeper into your writing project.

Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Romance: sweet or sizzling?

Gwynn Scheltema. 

Many years ago, as a beginning writer, I decided that the easiest fiction to write was romance. After all, I reasoned, it was shallow and formulaic. It would be easy.

So one summer, I conducted an experiment. I ordered four books in four different imprint series from Harlequin and read them all over July and August. I figured that by the end of summer, I would have that formula down pat!

Dead wrong!

I was wrong. Romance books are not shallow and formulaic. To be sure, they do follow an underlying expectation that the hero and heroine will get together in the end, but that’s where the formula ends.

They span many genres: mystery, suspense, historical; the plots are varied and complicated; the settings global; the characters believable and fascinating. And the writing was, for the most part, good. Some books were stronger than others for me, but I can say that about any genre I read. I realized very quickly that I would have to learn a whole lot more before I ever… if I ever… tackled a romance novel of my own.

Digging Deeper into Romance

red valentine graphicSo where do you go to find out more about the genre? The Romance Writers of America, (RWA) website gives a good overview of the genre as well as information on the romance sub-genres. They describe themselves as “dedicated to advancing the professional interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy.” There you can also find information of RWA chapters throughout North America including Canada, where you can meet other romance writers and attend workshops and conferences.

Sweet, saucy or sizzling?

One of the things I learned from my experiment was that not all imprints are the same. Some were sweet and innocent, some were downright racy. I wondered if I would ever be able to  write the sex scenes effectively and how to know how much was enough or too much.

Harlequin, the world’s largest publisher of romance, provides clear, detailed guidelines on their website for each of their imprints, from the word count to the level of sexual content. For example, Blaze editors ask for sensuous, highly romantic, innovative stories that are sexy in premise and execution. The tone of the books can run from fun and flirtatious to dark and sensual. Writers can push the boundaries in terms of explicitness…an emphasis on the physical relationship…fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism BUT not erotica. The Blaze line must still uphold the Harlequin promise of one hero and one heroine and an implied committed relationship in the end.

Unagented submissions

Some of Harlequin’s imprints require agent representation, but unagented submissions are welcomed for Harlequin Series. Harlequin Series Books (aka “Series Romance” or “Category Romance”) publishes more than 85 titles each month over a wide range of genres.

Your romance

Want to give writing romance a try?

This infographic from Harlequin’s website will help you decide where your romance fits in their imprint series.

Harlequin infographic



Did you know…

Registration for our Spring Thaw 2019 retreat is well underway. Save your spot now!