Friday, July 3, 2015

Writer Rooter – Clearing Writer’s Block

We all hit writers’ block at some point in time. What do you do to get out of it and move the story forward?

by Paul D. Marks
writersblock a
Here’s what I do when I get writer’s block:
I Write.

And when I have no more to say, here’s what I do then:

I Write.

And when I hit that wall again, this is what I do:

I Write.

This question is similar to one we had awhile back, but I’ll try to be fresh with my response. But not fresh in the way my mom would call me when I was a kid mouthing off.

I don’t really get writer’s block. Only the one time that I mentioned a few weeks ago, where I wound up down in Palm Desert, playing with index cards—what else is there to play with?—while working on a script that wouldn’t come together.

What I do get is time block. That is, I find that while what I want to be doing is writing, everything else seems to get in the way. Taking the dogs out, which I love. Doing edits on an anthology, which I love. Trying to get this or that working around the house, which I—okay, I don’t love that so much. I love when they’re working though. Goofing off on YouTube, watching old bands like the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Dylan (okay, he’s not a band unless he’s with the Band and he’s not always with the Band so it depends what year or era the clip is from as to whether he’s a band or not), which I love. Or watching newer bands on You Tube, like Of Monsters and Men and The Dark Shadows, which I love. Or in between bands, like the Ramones and the Clash, which I love. Hey, it’s better, well easier than writing anyway.

John Lennon Busy Making Other Plans
But there are real things that come up that take time away from writing, but what the hell. Life happens and you gotta deal with that too. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”— even plans to write.

On the rare occasions that I might get mild writer’s block there’s a couple things I do. I’d mentioned taking drives before, hanging out, all that stuff. But I also might take a day or a week off from that particular project and work on something else. Or play. And even though I might not be thinking about it in the forefront of my mind, my brain is working in the background so that when I do sit down later I will probably be able to get on with it. Sometimes I’ll take a shower—I get a lot of good ideas in the shower. But taking a shower these days is illegal, or close to it, at least if you live in California. So if you’re planning on visiting bring a rebreather.

And if I’m still stuck, one thing I do is just write. Write anything. Let it flow. Let my characters talk and walk, stream of consciousness, and it doesn’t matter if I use any of this stuff because I’m seeing who they are, what they want, where they’re going, etc. And from that the floodgates open to the point where I’m back on track, having just the swellest of times at the keyboard.

C&HThe bottom line is that writing is a job. And just like any other job or a job where you punch a time clock I just have to be there. I have to sit myself down in a chair, stare at the screen and let my fingers do the walking. Eventually something worthwhile (well, hopefully worthwhile) will come out. Try it. I promise you it works. And if it doesn’t work, your money back. Ten times your money back.


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Thursday, July 2, 2015

What Clare Said

I especially liked the way she talked about writing being more than just typing words one after the other.

Writing for me is immersive. I need to set off into the story and spend time there without getting hooked back into the real world. I can do that twice a day if I start from somewhere calm. And if I keep the bottomless vat of monkeys that is the internet far far away from my writing times. Like this:

Email, breakfast, walk, journey to story, write, come back, email, lunch, walk, journey to story, write, come back, email, dinner, the rest of life, sleep. Repeat.

But I couldn't do it if  "the rest of life" - family, friends, hobbies, exercise, entertainment, social media - was mixed up in my day getting in the way of the excursions into the story. I don't understand how anyone can write with a Google alert on the same computer. I don't have any internet in my writing room. To waste time looking at kittens (and God knows I'm not judging; I love a kitten) I have to get up, walk into a different room and fire up a different machine. That's a lot of malice to forethink, when I know I should be writing.

And it gets harder if life isn't calm. I'm lucky enough not to have a day job and I share a house with just one other person who is out from eight until six. I don't have children or caring responsibilities and I live in the middle of nowhere with no near neighbours. This is why I don't go on writing retreats. They've always got too much hurly-burly and hoopla.

But occasionally life drops an anvil on you. Grief, illness, and injury have all managed to stop me writing when they come along. That's okay. They stop people doing other jobs too.

Even pleasant distractions like conventions, houseguests and monumental real-world news can knock me out of a story pretty efficiently. . . until I'm about forty thousand words in. After that a book is bullet-proof. It's as though the world of the book is more real and more powerful than the world outside and nothing in the world outside can compete.

(Victorious Golden State Warriors, in SF Pride march, after historic SCOTUS ruling,
during ALA, all of which couldn't break-ah my stride last weekend)
So . . . what's my advice for dealing with writer's block? Get off the internet except for a few check-ins a day separated from your writing time by something that clears your head of junk. Do all the other stuff (like writing this blog) in the evenings (separated from your writing time by sleep) and try to carve out a few really dead weeks to get your story bullet-proof before you combine it with travel and other distractions.

Some friends in the writing community are famous for writing all the time, wherever they are. Tim Hallinan and William Kent Krueger can both be seen at major conventions, sitting amongst hordes of revelers typing away in worlds of their own. I've never asked but if they can do that while they're writing early chapters then I need to say this to both of them:

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


by Clare O'Donohue

Q: We all hit writers’ block at some point in time. What do you do to get out of it and move the story forward?

Writer's Block - the Loch Ness Monster of writing. Some insist it's real. Others, equally certain, say it's fantasy and indulgence.

I used to think it was nonsense, but I've had a sighting or two in recent years, and I've become convinced there's some truth to it. I've had stories that I wrote right into a brick wall, and nothing seemed to get me over it. Not the usual, "write badly" or even "skip a scene and pick up somewhere that interests you"... nope, not forcing a routine, or getting hopped up on caffeine, or even (surprisingly) threatening my laptop with bodily harm unless it somehow typed out the words for me.

Sure I had a busy schedule, with work and family, board commitments, blogs, my ongoing need for food and sleep... but it wasn't a lack of time. I still had time to Netflix and Hulu. I still managed to read other people's books. I was still catching myself staring off into space. It wasn't time. It was, I realized, too much stuff in my brain.

My life was busy, and my head was chock full of all kinds of stuff.

The trouble is, writing isn't just typing words as they come to you, it's imagining people, in places, doing things. Imagining takes room in your brain. It takes emptiness and quiet, at least for me. Not physical quiet. I could write in the middle of a Motorhead concert if my brain was empty. What I need is space so my imagination can stretch out and have a little fun.

And sometimes there isn't space. Sometimes life is a toddler, noisy and demanding, and ready at any moment to break something valuable. And when that happens, you have to pay attention to it. I don't make it worse by berating myself for writer's block or thinking "real writers write no matter what." I'm not a tough love kind of gal.

But I also don't indulge in it. If I'm overwhelmed to the point where my imagination has dried up, I try to do a little spring cleaning. I meditate to distance myself from things that don't really matter. I find it a very helpful tool for all kinds of stress, writer's block among them.

I recognize that there are frustrations I can't solve, at least not today, and there are things I have no control over. There's old arguments with people no longer in my life I don't need to replay. There are events happening months from now that I don't need to stress about this instant. I can turn off the news, or the Facebook feed. I'm never going to like the ending to Dexter, so at some point I'm going to have to stop re-writing it in my head.

I let go of the mental clutter and focus on the few things that require immediate attention. Sometimes that means taking a day, or a week, away from writing. I used to think that was laziness, but now I realize there's a sanity to recognizing when to step back.

Once I feel mentally decluttered, I let myself settle into a nice quiet space. I start small, by rereading what I've already written, and then I work my way back up to the 1000 words a day I write when things are humming. If all goes well, hopefully, my imagination comes out for a little playtime.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Exercise Through Writers Block

Q: We all hit writers’ block at some point in time. What do you do to get out of it and move the story forward?

A: I do exercises.

Partly that means physical exercise—get myself up and away from my computer, go for a swim at the beach or snowboarding at one of the local ski hills, weather depending. I live in a rural area that's great for outdoor activity.

But at my desk (to which I eventually return, usually religiously each morning), it means writing exercises. Some good ones are:

CHARACTER INTERVIEWS – You can either use a character interview template someone else has devised, or you can be the interviewer and the interviewee, just hammer out some dialogue that helps you get to know one of your characters. I love writing dialogue, so this always gets my fingers flying. Without the pressure to write material that might one day be published, I can poke and prod and learn interesting things that will almost certainly flesh out the character being grilled when I return to the “actual” story.

STORY SOFTWARE DOWNLOADS – I'm a junkie for trial versions of novel writing software. Usually I play with a trial for a couple of days, and that's enough to get my juices flowing to get me back on track with my work in progress. But if I fall in love, I buy the full version of the software. Two that I like a lot are StoryWeaver (which is great at the idea stage) and Novel Factory (brilliant for organizing). Last month, Novel Factory helped me take a jumbled mess of a first draft and organize it into acts and scenes that (I'm hoping) tell a complete story. I still have to go write many of those acts and scenes, and there are big plot gaps I'll have to work out as I go, but now when I show up at my desk in the morning, I have a series of tasks that I've already pre-defined for myself. Much easier than the jumbled mess or the blank page.

SETTING EXPLORATION – AKA, Google Maps. I like to wander the streets in the city where my characters are, turn left and right and see what's there. Just this week, I walked Manhattan's East 86th Street through my POV character's eyes, and it helped answer a plot question that had been nagging at me, stopping the forward motion.

And when I'm truly blocked and I can't come up with an exercise on my own, I pull one of my dog-eared writing craft books down from the shelf beside my desk. I find Donald Maass books particularly full of goodies that I can use to improve a scene or fine tune a plot twist or deepen the setting.

It almost doesn't matter what you're doing with your work in progress. As long as you're working with it, in a focused, thoughtful way, any hours you spend will be hours well-spent.

Monday, June 29, 2015

When the Words Don't Come

Q: We all hit writers’ block at some point in time. What do you do to get out of it and move the story forward?

- Susan

I’ve become much less candid about admitting to those moments (days? weeks?) when I seem to bang up against the same wall instead of moving forward. It seems to be fashionable for writing teachers and some well-known writers to scoff and say something along the lines of “Pfffahhh…whining about writers’ block is dishonest. If you are stuck, either bulldoze your way through it like a man/woman, or admit you’re lazy and weak.” Or something like that, usually delivered with a swelling chest and a curled lip. Some of these people are doubtless wonderful to their pets, and sell millions of books.

There’s another contingent that is more practical, represented by a quote attributed to William Faulkner insisting that inspiration is a silly concept, or, as he supposedly said, “I only write when I’m inspired, but fortunately I’m inspired every day at nine o’clock.” 

In other words, just sit down and start, and treat it like the job it is. Fair enough. The resulting prose may be so bad that you are driven to the gin bottle earlier and earlier every day, but at least you have put words on paper.

Then there are writers like Douglas Adams, dear to my heart, who wrote, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” 

Lots of famous writers suffered from writers block, giants like Virginia Woolf and Gustave Flaubert, and they came out all right, or at least their masterpieces did.

What do I do when my fingers either stall over the keys or plunk slower and slower as I see a brick wall rising inexorably on the page? Jump up, fly to the kitchen, and eat chocolate. Tell myself there’s no such thing as writers’ block, promise myself it won’t hurt at all to go back upstairs and delete the 2,500 truly stupid words that I wrote over the last two days, eat more chocolate, kick the cat. (No, no, of course I don’t do the latter.)

I have no easy, sure answers for myself or other writers. Writing is hard work, leavened by moments of excitement or grace, but also fraught with messy, confounding challenges and periods of pure slog. Maybe my fellow Minds are wiser than I and I’ll learn some new coping methods this week. But there is one thing I know for sure: You must, must finish the book, even if you’re privately convinced it’s dreck. Nothing is as inspiring as writing “The end” in the first draft and knowing you now have the scaffold on which to build a really good book.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Digging in the Dirt

By Art Taylor

This week's question is a timely one for me: "Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom?"

In the last two weeks, I've been gathering information on Edgar Allan Poe's first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, which has been called the rarest book in American literature. Only 12 copies of the 40-page pamphlet—self-published "By A Bostonian"—are known to exist, and the last time a copy went up for sale, it fetched $662,500 at a Sotheby's auction, the highest price ever paid for a piece of American literature. (Fun backstory: When the 12th copy was discovered, back in 1988, it was found at an antique store in New Hampshire; a customer bought it for $15, and that one auctioned later that year for $250,000—a nice return on investment.)

Just Google any of the keywords above, and you'll find tons of information, of course—but what I've been interested in is a different bit of history: One of the 12 is missing, stolen from the University of Virginia's Alderman Library back in the early 1970s and never recovered.

Here's a glimpse at the research I've done on this—and a thank you to the folks who've helped me:

  • Tracking down the original AP coverage, thanks to a librarian at George Mason University, since the library's database for AP articles doesn't go back that far
  • Gathering information from U.Va. thanks to a media relations representative who's gone above and beyond the call of duty in answering emails (and who very graciously said he enjoyed my story "The Odds Are Against Us" and invited me to get together with him if I came to Charlottesville)
  • Getting information on security issues from such old journals as The American Archivist and Georgia Archive and from the the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries—and still trying to track down an old copy of Library Journal from 1974 with an inventory of everything that was stolen
  • Searching for the 1988 Sotheby's catalogue which detailed the history and condition of the Tamerlane that sold then and also provided information on other copies of pamphlet (I can buy the Sotheby's catalogue for $60, but I haven't gone there yet)
  • Reading many, many pages of notes from the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (a tremendous resource)
  • And, of course, reading the full contents of Tamerlane itself—including various versions of the title poem (and from elsewhere in the Poe canon: "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "William Wilson" and a little bit of "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-tale Heart" and....)
How much of all this is going to make it into the story I'm working on? So far, I've got about a two-page scene where two characters talk about the fact that there's a missing manuscript and what happened to it.

Overkill maybe on the research... and yet...

And yet: Rather than just providing detailed backstory for me to fold into a conversation, all that reading and research has sparked my imagination toward the plot of my own story and seems to be helping to shape what happens. 

Part of this may seem obvious, of course: If I'm fictionalizing a story around a true-life event, then I have to be faithful in some ways to what actually happened. (I feel strongly about this, but others do not; consider, for example, some of the novels built around the Gardner Museum heist in Boston.) But it's more than that too. My story isn't just adhering to the details of what happened, but it's being shaped by possibilities spinning off of those "what ifs" from the brainstorming that goes hand-in-hand with dense research.

I'm hopeful that at least part of that process might work.

Beyond that, I'll simply agree with many of the comments that my colleagues here have mentioned already this week. The way we writers incorporate research into our stories should never bore or burden, and a little goes a long ways. 

On the Road with Del & Louise

In another direction, just a quick bit of news. My forthcoming debut book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, to be published September 15 by Henery Press, is now up for pre-order at many places, including at my own local independent bookstore, One More Page Books and More in Arlington, VA, which will be hosting my book launch on Saturday, September 19.

Click any of the links below to pre-order—or if you want to save your money, you can first try to win an advance copy through my Goodreads giveaway, running now through Sunday at midnight.

One More Page (pick-up):

One More Page (shipped):

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Eyes Open! Stay Awake!

by Alan

No boredom Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom?

Some people, old roommates mostly, call me lazy. I prefer the term efficient. I don’t like waste, be it energy, food, money, brainpower, or time (especially food).

I know a lot of writers enjoy spelunking in the proverbial stacks, unearthing long-forgotten historical tomes. Their jaws drop in wonder at a newly-discovered journal from the 1300’s or a never-before-seen map of the ancient Roman empire.

I’m not one of them. I strive to do exactly as much research as necessary and not one iota more. I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of including too much research in any of my books or stories. Ever. Really, EVER.

Readers don’t need to know how the sausage is made. They just need to know that one of my characters has stopped at a street vendor to get a delicious brat on a bun.

Don’t get me wrong, I work hard to make sure that what I write is as accurate as possible and, in order to do that, research must be conducted. It’s just not my favorite thing. That’s why I rarely worry about bombarding my readers with all kinds of arcane knowledge. I try to give them just what they need to understand whatever is going on in my book.

I operate on a simple plan: if it serves the story, it goes in.

If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.


Still a few more days left in Amazon’s The Big Deal sale! More than 350 Kindle books for up to 85% off, including RUNNING FROM THE PAST for only $1.99!


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hey! Did You Know…?

by Tracy Kiely

We all have certain topics that fascinate us. For me, it’s whether or not King Richard III really killed the princes in the Tower. Working these topics into our books can be great, if it’s done correctly. If it’s not, however, it becomes nothing more than an information dump. How do you know if you’ve crossed the line into this dreaded territory? Well, it can be hard to recognize on your own – after all, it’s your baby.  But a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if you’d like to hear all of this information at once at a dinner party.
Think of it; you are sitting quietly when the person to your right begins to Talk. And Talk. And Talk. Do your palms begin to itch? Does your gaze wander? Are you beginning to squirm? The sensation is not unlike being cornered by that certain relative – you know the one – who insists on telling you every detail about her life.
In real time. 
It usually goes something like this:
“So last Saturday, Bob and I decided to try out the coq au vin that everyone is raving about from that new restaurant – you know the one – that cute little bistro on Main Street. It used to be that horrible Italian place that served that awful lasagna. The owner was that big sweaty man with the limp. He probably wouldn’t have such a terrible limp or sweat so much if he bothered to lose a few pounds. Judy said he drank, and I think she’s right. There’s simply no other excuse for that lasagna.
“Anyway, so Bob and I had a 12.30 reservation. At the bistro, not the Italian place. We left the house at 12.15 – no wait, that’s not right. It was more like 12.10, now that I think about it. You know how terrible traffic is this time of year. Why, last week it took me nearly an hour to drive to the hairdressers. Can you believe it? An hour! Judy said she once was stuck in traffic for thirty minutes trying to get to the bank. They really need to put a better traffic light in downtown, but I think the real problem is all the tourists. They love nothing more than to drive around, sightsee, and cause problems.
“Anyway, so we got to the restaurant at 12.20 and guess what? Our table wasn’t even ready! But who do you think I saw? Mary Fisher! You remember her, don’t you? She had that terrible accident a few years back and now has to drink all of her food, poor thing.”
Of course, by now you’ve intentionally split your glass of wine down your shirt to give yourself an excuse to run away rather than hear how poor Mary Fisher drank her coq au vin.
Were it only so easy when reading a book.
Do not dump your favorite topic over your readers’ heads all at once like football players do to their coaches with those huge barrels of Gatorade. If you are lecturing the reader, they will get annoyed. If they are happily reading a cozy mystery set in an ancient Irish castle and suddenly find themselves reading several jam-packed pages outlying the subtle differences between the mating rituals of the African Forrest Elephant and the African Bush Elephant – neither of which live in Ireland – they will write bad things about you on Amazon.
Your readers want entertainment, not a lesson. If you cannot bear to delete all the delightful facts you’ve acquired on the mating habits of those elephants, then put them up on your website. But don’t make your reader have to sit through the lecture if they didn’t sign up for the class.

PS. Henry Tudor TOTALLY killed those poor princes. Richard III was framed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Don't Put Your Readers to Sleep

By R.J. Harlick

Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom? 

Even though I write fiction it is important that the story be credible. So I, like most of my fellow fiction authors, want to ensure that anything that occurs in real life is reflected as accurately as possible, like police procedures, actual places, methods of killing, characters’ accents and so on and so forth. 

You can’t have the Lincoln Memorial standing next to the Eiffel Tower or a Texan speaking with a Russian accent, unless of course, you are wanting to make a statement. Readers will pick up on these errors and judge your book accordingly.

I remember one French writer, who will go unnamed, who situated one of their books in Canada. Unfortunately they didn’t do their research and placed the national headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Gatineau, Quebec and not across the river in Ottawa where it is actually located. Needless to say this didn’t endear the writer to Canadian readers.

To avoid a similar mistake, I check out anything I’m not completely sure about. But I will admit occasionally it runs away with me, particularly when I’m delving into a topic that really captures my interest. When it does, I want to include as much information as I can in my story. I figure if it intrigues me, it will intrigue my readers too.

Unh-unh. It doesn’t work that way. Usually I will realize this as I am going through the revisions, because too much information stops the forward action of the story. But if not, my critiquers will red pen it or my editors will tell me to tone it down. 

The challenge is to come up with the right balance: enough information to give your story credibility and depth yet doesn’t put your readers to sleep.

Using different methods to convey this information also helps to keep your readers awake. It doesn’t need to be written in long ponderous paragraphs, but can be revealed through your characters’ actions and dialogue. 

Have you ever noticed how TV shows convey needed information? Rather than one character recounting the entire information in one long boring speech, several will provide parts of it as if they were carrying on a conversation. It helps to maintain the pace of the show.

Happy belated summer solstice, everyone. I hoped you enjoyed it appropriately.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stepping out into the unknown

Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom?

by Meredith Cole

It's easy to get distracted when you're writing. Sometimes, instead of actually fixing a plot point that doesn't work at all, you can find yourself distracted by research. You dig deep to find out everything there is to know about a certain gun or traffic patterns in the city where your book is set. The next thing you know, you have enough for a non-fiction book on the topic and you've completely neglected your fiction altogether.

So how do you show your reader that you know your stuff without boring them completely? I think the secret is in the details you sprinkle throughout your story. If the details that are relevant to your story ring true, your reader will be right there with you. But if you're heavy handed with the details and interrupt the story to explain something for pages and pages (just to show them that you know your stuff) you'll lose them. Eventually, too, you have to leave the research behind and take a leap into the unknown and enter the world you've created.

Right now I'm grappling with the question of how much research is enough and how much is too much with my current book. It's set in 1951 in a small town. I've been surprised by how much 1951 was similar to the way we live today (cars, refrigerators, telephones, television...). But the difference really is in the details. The prices of things. The language. The options for women. I've done far more research on bank security and details on life in the 1950's than will ever make it to the final pages. But hopefully when you read it, it will feel right to you and the story will suck you in. And then I can feel like I've done my job.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Sex, Lies and Character Traits

by Paul D. Marks

Those in the writing know often suggest that writers prepare character profiles for each of their major characters. If you follow this approach, what do you tend to highlight? And if not, how do you keep track of your characters as the story progresses?

Before I respond to the question, from the Official Department of BSP:

Macavity logo d2

This blog post was done a couple days ago, ready to be scheduled. So I’m happy I waited on that since I have to add something additional to it: Macavity Award finalists were announced yesterday. I’m thrilled and honored that my short story, “Howling at the Moon,” from Ellery Queen, is one of the nominees in the short story category. And honored to be in the company of Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, Travis Richardson and our own Art Taylor. Yea, Art!  But the good news doesn’t stop there, fellow Criminal Mind Catriona McPherson’s novel “A Deadly Measure of Brimstone” is nominated in the Best Historical Novel category and she’s also nominated in the Best Mystery Novel category for “The Day She Died”. Yea, Catriona!

I want to thank Janet Rudolph and everyone who voted. I hope you’ll all read all the nominated stories and books. I believe most of the short stories are online. Here’s a link to the Anthony Award short story nominees, of which four, Art, Craig, Barb and I are also nominated. So if you scroll down to the short story awards, there will be links to our four stories that are also Macavity finalists:  And you can find Travis’ story in ThugLit issue #13.

*  *  *
And now to the question at hand:

Mostly I just try to keep it in my head these days. So, of course, my head is about ready to explode.

When I first started writing, I often made a character profile chart. It had all the usual stuff, background, eye color, favorite foods, cars, etc. And I would diligently fill it out. But these days I really do keep most of it in my head. I might make a few notes about the various characters, either in a computer file or on a piece of paper, but I don’t fill out any forms anymore.

By the time I sit down to write, I’ve usually been thinking about the characters and major plot points in my head for some time. And since many of my characters are, at least in part (composites), based on people I know or know of, it’s sort of easy to keep it together. The problem is when you’re working on more than one thing at a time they can all run together.

The main concern with characters is to be consistent. What’s important is to keep track of what you’ve actually said in a work or series so the characters remain true to themselves/consistent. On a very simplistic level if a character likes chocolate at the beginning and hates it at the end, people will be taken out of the moment, out of the “reality” of your story. Unless that’s your character arc, how and why he comes to hate chocolate by the end.

Remember, too, that you don’t have to use every bit of background in your character profile. It’s good for the writer to know all these things, because these traits will make the character act or react in various situations. But maybe it’s not necessary for the reader to know everything – just enough to buy any actions on the part of the character.

Character Profiles collage

That said, when I occasionally teach a writing seminar or class, I do tell the students about character profiles and even hand one out. I think it’s a good thing for people who are starting out because it does make you think about these things.

Another good tool is Proust’s Questionnaire. Change ‘you’ in the questions to your character’s name and it will really get you thinking about who your character is.

Proust’s Questionnaire:
1.    What is your idea of perfect happiness?
2.    What is your greatest fear?
3.    What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
4.    What is the trait you most deplore in others?
5.    Which living person do you most admire?
6.    What is your greatest extravagance?
7.    What is your current state of mind?
8.    What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
9.    On what occasion do you lie?
10.    What do you most dislike about your appearance?
11.    Which living person do you most despise?
12.    What is the quality you most like in a man?
13.    What is the quality you most like in a woman?
14.    Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
15.    What or who is the greatest love of your life?
16.    When and where were you happiest?
17.    Which talent would you most like to have?
18.    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
19.    What do you consider your greatest achievement?
20.    If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
21.    Where would you most like to live?
22.    What is your most treasured possession?
23.    What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
24.    What is your favorite occupation?
25.    What is your most marked characteristic?
26.    What do you most value in your friends?
27.    Who are your favorite writers?
28.    Who is your hero of fiction?
29.    Which historical figure do you most identify with?
30.    Who are your heroes in real life?
31.    What are your favorite names?
32.    What is it that you most dislike?
33.    What is your greatest regret?
34.    How would you like to die?
35.    What is your motto?

Some of these questions hit on a deeper level than what’s your character’s favorite food which, no doubt, you can find on Facebook, as they post one pic after another of their daily cuisine.

For those who are interested, there are many variations of character profile forms online. Just search “character profile”.

There are more things one can ask about their character or put in their character’s “profile”, but I think this is a good start.

More great news:

My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was just picked up by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Not sure when it will be published yet. Set on today’s Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, not that other one back East. But the ghosts of Chandler, Fante and Cain are there in force.

And my noir mystery-thriller novella, Vortex, will be out soon. Advance Reader Copies are available if anyone’s interested. Hardcopy. E-version, stone tablets, hieroglyphics, Cuneiform, written on sand, any format. Choose your poison. Contact me at if you’re interested.

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Other Donald

By Catriona

I'm not a massive fan of character bibles. You know how the book you haven't written yet is perfect and wonderful? And then you get cracking and it gets worse and worse and more and more hopeless until there's nothing for it but to finish it and move on to the next one that's still perfect(ly unwritten)?

Basically every decision you make while you write is slamming closed a door on all the possibilities you didn't choose and so for me a character bible would mean starting the book with quite lot of doors already slammed. Where's the fun in that?

There are still some things about Dandy Gilver I don't know after ten books. In fact, more than not knowing, there are things I'm determined not to find out, because I want to be able to decide when the right moment comes.

And that brings me to my Donald Rumsfeld system of what you do and don't need to know about characters.

I never understood why people gave him a hard time about the (un)known (un)knowns. It struck me as perfectly sensible. Here's how it works for character development.

1. Known knowns. You need to decide pretty early on what your character's name, age, race, gender etc are (unless . . . see 2)

2. Known unknowns. The things you know you don't know and so you don't talk about them. Perhaps very deliberately. For example, the protagonist of Rebecca is nameless. And perhaps because you want to leave breathing room for later developments. Like me with Dandy Gilver.

3. Unknown knowns. These are the things about your character that you get without being able to define. For instance, Shakespeare wrote the gloriously neurotic character Hamlet a hundred and fifty years before neurosis was named. I think you need access to the output of a character but you don't necessarily need to be able to pin it down.
4. Unknown unknowns. These are bad. These are really not good. The technical term for them is  . . . mistakes. The things you don't know you don't know about your character will make them do and say things they'd never do or say.
The most common example of an unknown unknown is when you try to write a character who comes from somewhere you don't. Unless you get it checked out, you're on a shoogly peg. (A shoogly peg is Scottish for thin ice.) You're fine as long as the book is read by other people who don't know but Blimey O'Reilly it clangs when someone who does know gets eyes on it. (Blimey O'Reilly is British for Boy Howdy.)
This is right at the front of my mind just now because I've written a Japanese character (in Scotland, speaking English) in COME TO HARM and although I bugged Japanese friends endlessly, asking questions, I'm waiting to hear what I got wrong. So that's known unknown unknowns, I suppose. Suspected ones, anyway.