Where Dreams Meet the Business of Writing

Posts tagged ‘Writers Zen blog’

N: Names

N: Names


Choosing names for the characters in our historical fiction works can be difficult. Maybe not difficult, but we need to choose the names with care. After all, if I’m writing a tale set in 1910, a female is most likely not going to have an Ashley or a Taylor, especially not with a creative spelling such as Ashlee. But on the other hand, there’s only so many Mary’s and Elizabeth’s that can grace our pages.

One thing to keep in mind is the era you’re writing in and what names were popular at the time.

Another is where the story takes place, or if there’s an ethnic background. A story set in Scotland in the 1600’s would have a completely different cast of characters than my 1930 story set in the U.S.

And – as you are probably aware of and I don’t need to point out – watch the starting letters too. A story with a Mary, Margaret and Madeline could become very confusing for the reader. We want them to keep reading. We don’t want them getting distracted by trying to keep all the characters straight and knowing which ‘M’ one this was without thinking about it.

The Academy of Saint Gabriel has an excellent article that discusses choosing a medieval name.

The Academy is a group of around 50 volunteers who research medieval names and armory. Our primary purpose is to assist members of medieval re-enactment groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism to find historically accurate medieval names and coats of arms. To this end, we maintain the Medieval Names Archive and Medieval Heraldry Archive.


The History Girls also have an informative blog that discusses names in the medieval period.


Historical fiction author Elizabeth Pye has a video clip on her site from an interview. (Go take a look – it’s short, just under two minutes.) One of the questions was about how she chose the names in her French novel. One additional piece of advice she has at the end is: “Do you like it? Does it seem to fit your character?”

If you’re writing a story set in the US, the Social Security Administration has a great searchable list by decades that begins in the 1880s.

Do you have any favorite methods for choosing your period character names?


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Language and Idioms

Join us in the 2019 A to Z Blog Challenge as we celebrate historical fiction. These posts will also be shared in the weekly newsletter, Pages of the Past, which debuted April 5th.


Language and Idioms

Was It Even Used Then?

Words and phrase can be something that easily trips up historical fiction authors. Common phrases used today can easily sneak into our period writing. I was caught on this just last week. I brought a snippet from an early 1930’s short story to my writing group. In it, the characters went to one of the just released Shirley Temple movies. One of the members asked, “Would they have called it ‘the movies’? I remember my Grandma always talking about going to the ‘picture shows’.” Yikes! She caught a good one, one that had slipped by me completely.

Granted, some instances are fairly minor and may not raise many issues with readers. But sometimes it can be a glaring problem. I’ve also seen where readers report that an issue was major enough that they shut the book and don’t read any further.

What do you do if you’re unsure? One of my favorite sites is the Online Etymology Dictionary. You can search a word for its earliest known use. For instance, if I type in ‘heebie-jeebies’, I learn:

heebie-jeebies (n.)

1923, said to have been coined by U.S. cartoonist Billy De Beck (1890-1942), creator of “Barney Google.”

So, I can definitely use this in my short story set in 1928. While the word most likely wouldn’t have been used in 1922, if I’m writing a tale set in that year, I can probably still get by with it. It’s going to be close enough to the time period that most readers would still feel as if they’re in the time. However, Mittie Ann, the girl that came to Texas in the 1850’s in a covered wagon definitely wouldn’t have used that phrase.

How Much Period Language to Use

Another part of language that becomes a balancing act is how much period language to use. M.K. Tod, on A Writer of History, speaks of using dialogue in historical fiction. He writes:

Dialogue – dialogue that is cumbersome and difficult to understand detracts from readers’ enjoyment of historical fiction. Dip occasionally into the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the past by inserting select words and phrases so that a reader knows s/he is in another time period. Don’t weigh the manuscript down or slow the reader’s pace with too many such instances. And be careful. Many words have changed their meanings over time and could be misinterpreted.

In ‘7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity’, Susanna Calkins, with a Ph.D. in history, talked about how accurate her first novel, A Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, was going to be. She wrote:

When I was first dreaming about my story, even before I had worked out the plot or characters, I knew one thing for sure: By gum, this novel would be accurate. Every detail, every word, would be accurate. Historians everywhere would use my book in their classes and would revel in my accurate tale.

That idea lasted about two seconds.

Not only would using accurate language make my story unnecessarily pendantic and cumbersome, but many seventeenth-century words and phrases don’t translate readily today. Certainly I could say “The footpad bit the Roger, tipped the cole to Adam Tyler, and then took it to a stauling ken.” But I have a feeling modern readers might not understand that I was saying that a thief has stolen a bag, passed it to a fence, who in turn sold it to a house that receives stolen goods. Unless my editor let me write a companion volume with glossary and explanatory footnotes, this isn’t too feasible.

Just as in life, where sometimes an issue becomes a balancing act, so is it in writing historical fiction. We need to use enough language of the times, to help frame the time period and help the reader feel as if they’re really there in the midst of the tale, without being so accurate that as Susanna Calkins says, it becomes “pendantic and cumbersome.” And, we also want to make sure that the phrases we’re using to help set the tone of the story are accurate and of the period we’re writing.

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Keeping the Memories Alive

Join us in the 2019 A to Z Blog Challenge as we celebrate historical fiction. These posts will also be shared in the weekly newsletter, Pages of the Past, which debuted April 5th.

Keeping the Memories Alive

Luetta and Amanda.jpg

(Not a family photo – simply the inspiration for the two women in my 1928 short story)

It’s always fun as an author when we can use elements of our family history as part of our writing. It feels like you’re keeping a small memory of your beloved ancestors alive – at least in a small fragment. Others may not realize that they’ve read something that was inspired by a family member past, but you as the author know.

I’m finding out that I’m not the only one that enjoys this small tribute to our loved ones. Last year, in a guest post – Mom and Dad May Be Gone but They Live on in My Series – author Lindsay Downs shared about how characteristics of his parents live on in his Upson PI mysteries. (Lindsay is the featured author in Pages of the Past April 19th issue)

You’d think that writing further back in time, say in the time of Mary Queen of Scots, it wouldn’t be possible to include family snippets. Not true. Author Emily-Jane Hills Orford, in writing Queen Mary’s Daughter, was able to use characteristics of her beloved grandmother as a the grandmother in the tale. In the debut issue of Pages of the Past, Emily-Jane shared how her grandmother was a factor in her historical interests. In her author spotlight, she shares:

“I have always been fascinated with the life and times of Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I. Once again, this was a shared interest with my grandmother.”

In my own writing, pieces of family history and characters have been used here and there. One of my Vintage Daze Short Stories I was working on ended up being the most fun when Grandpa Jones (deceased since 1976) pushed his way into the story.

Two small 1928 cookbooks were the original inspiration for ‘Best Thing Since Sliced Bread.’ One I’d purchased in an antique store and one I’d inherited from one of the elderly women that lived next door to us when I was a child. That’s all I knew about the story – is that it would be set in 1928.

I researched events in 1928 to see if there was anything I could work into the story. I saw that in Chillicothe Missouri, the first loaf of sliced bread came out that year. My Grandpa Jones grew up in a small town, Dawn, outside of Chillicothe and his brother, Uncle Scott, had a farm outside Chillicothe where my mom and Aunt Ida were born. Voila! I had the place. The vague outline of a young flapper girl and her quest for cooking began to form.

I also saw that Chillicothe held a popular Chevrolet Day that year. And I read that that’s the year the Hall Brothers Company, in Kansas City, changed their name to their trademarked Hallmark, and started using the new Hallmark logo on their cards. Since I work part time for Hallmark, I knew I wanted to include this part, so the young flapper, Luetta, instantly got herself a boyfriend that just happened to work for Hall Brothers.

The story had been ‘brewing’ for several weeks and I was a few scenes into it, when I happened to be talking to my mom one afternoon. I was telling her about the new story idea and where it was set. “Grandpa would have been a young boy in 1928 though?” I asked.

“Oh, no. He was born in 1908, so he would have been twenty years old.”

“Twenty years old? So if Chillicothe had a Chevrolet Day, he would have been there then?”

“Absolutely,” she replied. “He was a Chevy man his whole life. That’s all he ever drove. I’m sure he would have been there.” Mom continued to tell me a family story that Grandpa had repeated many times throughout his later years. He was driving through town – in a Chevy – and had one arm around the girl in the car. (Pre-Grandma Jones’ days) The constable pulled him over and said, “Casey, you need to use both hands.” Grandpa, the smart-alecky young man that he was, responded, “But, officer, I need one hand to drive with.”

Well, Luetta already had a boyfriend, but now – how to work a young Grandpa Jones into the tale? Luetta’s best friend, Amanda, had to meet Casey so I could work this family story in.

A short time later, my cousin – not knowing I was working on this story- texted me one morning about another Grandpa Jones story. Uncle Alvin had shared about when Grandpa was running a trunk load of moonshine up from Arkansas to Missouri, stowed in the trunk and covered with armloads of hay. He was stopped and the officer said his lights were out. Grandpa played dumb like he didn’t know. The officer opened the trunk asked, “What’s with all the hay?” Grandpa replied, “Why, officer, you feed animals with it.” And the officer closed the trunk and Grandpa went on his way.

Yes, that was written into the short story too. In real life, the Grandpa I knew was such a quiet, unassuming man. Yet here he is forty years later getting a little pushy from the afterlife, pushing his way into the story. No one else will know as the read that these two parts are real life tales, from a Grandpa’s younger days so long ago. But I’ll know and feel good about keeping a small part of his history alive.

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Family Tales


Family Tales

Varieties of Family Stories

photographs-1209751__340 pixabyYou’ve set out to write your family story. But you keep hearing different genres thrown about. What genre does your family story fall into? It could be any of these.

Memoir: A memoir is highly personal and uses a narrow lens, looking at a snapshot in time. Now the snapshot may cover a period of many years, but it’s not a birth to now telling.

Autobiography: An autobiography is also personal. You are the main character, and this will cover a longer scope of time, with a wider lens than a memoir would have.

Biography: A biography’s main character would be someone else, not you as the author. It could be a significant family member. The scenes and events would be filtered through their connection to the main character.

Historical Fiction: Historical fiction is just that. It’s historical and may be based on actual events and happenings, but it will be largely fictionally created. When I wrote my story, Fat and Sassy, it was based on my grandparents and my mom and her siblings when they were young. I had a lot of real events and memories that I drew from, but had to embellish so much to create a tale, that I ventured into historical fiction. It’s not a true family history, as it didn’t go into my grandparents earlier days, or their family tree before them.

Characterization: Bringing Our Ancestors to Life

class-526350__340A common complaint from readers and editors is that the character didn’t come alive. We want our characters to come to life on the pages, whether they’re real ancestors we’re writing about or fictional ones that we’ve created. What’s involved in bringing a character in our story to life? What do we need to do to create compelling characters so readers want to keep reading?

There are several methods to add layers of depth to our characters – real or imagined- so that readers will connect more closely with the people on our pages. We want readers to be able to see, touch, feel, and hear the people we are paying tribute to with these tales.

Use Details

The details we use are key to breathing life into the people that walk the pages of our stories. Use the details to show what’s happening in their world.

Where do they live? What does the area look like? What kind of home do they have?

What do they see? Are they surrounded by wooded areas or farms? Do they live in a congested, urban area full of traffic and commotion?

How do they feel about it? If a move across the country is involved, are they excited at the prospect of adventure, or nervous about re-adapting to a new environment?

What do they look like? Did a gray, tight bun always adorn her head? Did he have shoulder-length, scraggly locks? Was he as thin as a rail? Are feet always moving in a soft-shoe little dance? Was a cake or pastry always near at hand, as evidenced by their ample girth?

I utter a mention of caution about the details. While they are essential to help bring the story alive in your reader’s imagination, we also want to use the details and adjectives sparsely. Too much description will overwhelm the reader and keep the story from moving forward in an easygoing flow. Think of the details as a sprinkling of seasoning over a fine dish. You want just enough to accent, but not so much that it becomes the main ingredient.

Show How They’re Relatable

Find and show elements of your ancestors that are relatable. As humans, we’re not totally all evil or all sweetness. Even the sternest authoritarian of the past must have had some redeeming feature. If we can find the dichotomy of their lives and bring it out in our tales, as characters in the advancing plot of life, they’ll be more relatable and real.

Can you dig up information that reflects on what made them the way they were? Were they abandoned at a young age? Working at the mills since the age of 8? Mother of 12 children in a span of 14 years? Was great-great-grandmother a Civil War victim, widowed at a young age as the family farm was pillaged and burned? What in their past motivates them and supports their actions and attitudes?


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Elements of Historical Fiction


Elements of Historical Fiction


Five or seven? Or more? How many elements of historical fiction are there? It’s said that the five main elements of a story are:

  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Conflict, and
  • Theme

A Writer of History wrote that there are seven elements. To the five listed above, they added two other elements:

  • Dialogue
  • World building

But then, they went on to add that historical fiction has one additional challenge. They write:

All writers of fiction have to consider seven critical elements: character, dialogue, setting, theme, plot, conflict, and world building. While every story succeeds or disappoints on the basis of these elements, historical fiction has the added challenge of bringing the past to life.

You can see their excellent post at A Writer of History.

Help Teaching has a fun little video clip about the elements of historical fiction. It’s geared towards students, but I still enjoyed watching it. It’s only a minute and a half. Check it out. See if it prompts any ideas for you.


Now I’m off to go contemplate about how I can put more effort into making sure that my writing brings the past to life.


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celebrating historical fiction, sign up here.

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Words are Another Medium

Today I’m writing for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group’s blog hop. The first Wednesday of each month, we write in inspiration to a question posed by the group’s administrators. We don’t need to write in response to the question posed, but I like to use their query as the springboard for the monthly post.

This month the OPTIONAL IWSG Day Question is: Besides writing, what other creative outlets do you have?


Words are Another Medium

Creativity has been part of my life for as long as I remember. Well, at least as early as sixth grade, when my mom taught me to knit and crochet. Then came sewing – on an old treadle sewing machine that my dad bought at an auction in Indiana for just a few dollars. Home Ec classes refined my sewing techniques and were followed with embroidery and some novice attempts at quilting.

iswg1.jpgThese early creative attempts with fabrics and yarns are probably why my favorite pursuits are in the fiber arts area. Several years of weaving classes plunged me further into the field of fibers and weaving soon turned to spinning, dyeing, and felting.

But, I’m a Gemini and I can’t do just one thing. So there’s also papermaking and altered books. These are even more fun with I can combine yarns and weavings into completed projects.


But…behind Door C is glass! One glass fusing class was all it took and I had to get my own small kiln. What to make, what to make? Pendants? Buttons? Tiles? So much glass – so little time. And if I don’t feel like firing up the kiln, cold glass projects – like mosaic work – are satisfying too.


And then there was the ‘Polymer Clay Phase’. More earrings to make. Pens to cover. Journal covers to create. Jars and tins to embellish. So many ideas and ways to play with this versatile medium.

But lately, I haven’t been spending much time in these creative avenues. I’ve been too busy crafting with another medium – words.

Writing seems more cerebral. It doesn’t seem to qualify as a creative pursuit. But it is. Writing is creativity expressed in another vein. Instead of acrylic paints, I’m using words to paint the canvas. The techniques are much the same – learning, crafting, and perfecting the skills. The editing is like sculpting with clay. Trim a little here. Pinch off this. Smooth this out. And soon, a completed project is ready and done. Only this one doesn’t hang on a wall, or sit on a mantle. This one is a stack of printed papers or a bound book. All the work of the same muse – Artistic Imagination.



There’s Writing and There’s Writing


Today I’m writing for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group’s blog hop. The first Wednesday of each month, we write in inspiration to a question posed by the group’s administrators. We don’t need to write in response to the question posed, but I like to use their query as the springboard for the monthly post.

This month we were asked, ‘How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?’

open book.jpg

There’s Writing and There’s Writing

First off, we’ll answer the easy one. How do major life events affect my writing? Pretty much, if they don’t merely slow my writing, they usually bring it to a screeching halt. It seems that I have a limited reservoir of energy. I can use it writing – or I can use it dealing with major issues. I don’t always have the resources to do both.

Has writing ever helped me through something? Yes. And, no. There’s two types of writing in my world. Journaling, which is private and therapeutic. And writing for the public eye, such as books, short stories, articles, and blogs.

Journaling helps me through things. But that isn’t writing that I share with anyone else. Now, later on, after that difficult part of life has passed, then I may use some of that for fodder for the public writing. For instance, in 2010 I had a Sudden Cardiac Arrest. My heart stopped beating on an airplane. That incident took me about two weeks to even come to grips with what had happened, let alone dealing with all the associated emotions that arose. Did my journal get a work out that year! Now, once the intensity of the moment subsided and life stabilized back to a routine (and I’m talking a few years here), then I began publicly writing about it. Several times I’ve even excerpted short snippets from my actual journal, but only in short selected sections.

But for me, I need a lot of processing time between the actual event and publicly writing about it. Sometimes I even need this transition period to even be able to talk about it with someone else. But, that’s me. I’m usually a private person and don’t easily show others the open shards of my heart. So I’ll show you some of my writing – the other – that’s tucked away on a shelf to rarely see the light of day. I guess it just goes to show that not all writers are open books.


Check out more Insecure Writer’s Support Group posts here.

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