Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What a Character!

photo by Trevor Patt of Flickr
Carolyn Schriber is a historian by training and profession.  Here she offers some tips on the use of character sketches.

Guest post by Carolyn Schriber

I am currently working on a new writing project.  I hesitate to call it a historical novel yet, since not much of it actually exists.  But I have a fascinating cast of characters  as ingredients in the brew that will eventually become a novel.  In 1861, a group of Abolitionists from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia set sail for coastal South Carolina.  Word had just arrived of a great Union victory at Port Royal Sound.  The Confederate inhabitants had been driven out of the coastal islands, which had been full of cotton and tea plantations.  White slave owners grabbed what they could carry and fled into the interior.  Their slaves, almost to a man, found themselves abandoned, and, to all extents and purposes, free. The Abolitionists hoped to offer their aid to these ex-slaves.  They brought food supplies, used clothing, books, Bibles, and the own eagerness to prove that slaves could be turned into productive citizens. 

The Abolitionists were a motley group.  One of their fellow passengers aboard the ship that carried them described them thus: "bearded and mustached and odd-looking men, with odder looking women."  Another  suggested that they were "broken-down schoolmasters or ministers who have excellent dispositions but not much talent." Such quirks mean that they are going to be fun to work with.  But my first problem is getting to know them as individuals, so that my readers can tell them apart.

This is where I find that compiling a character sketch of each person is an indispensable first step. To my delight, I have just discovered that the new version of "Scrivener," released just in time for National Novel Writing Month, provides a template for such sketches.  (If you are not familiar with Scrivener, the best writing software available, you owe it to yourself to check it out at ).  The template offers the following sections: role in story, occupation, physical description, personality, habits and mannerisms, background, internal conflicts, external conflicts and notes.   Here are some of the resources I use to compile this information for my works of historical fiction.

1. Since most of my characters are real people, I start with a general history text that describes the events I want to write about.  Plundering the index is a quick way to locate and identify such details as occupation and background.

2. My second resource is usually the U. S. Census. Any good genealogy program can quickly located any mention of the character in whom you are interested. I've been concentrating on such things as the family's economic status and my individual's place within the family.  Among the women I am looking at, I found one who was the only girl in a huge family of boys -- thus explaining, perhaps, why so many people comment on her masculine habits and interests.  Another was a nine-year-old-child when her mother died, leaving her to help raise four younger brothers and sisters.  No need to wonder where she developed her nurturing nature.

3. Photographs can reveal much.  One of my ladies  is a spinster, uniformly adored by the children she teaches but an object of scorn by many of the men around her.  Why?  Well, a single glance at her only formal portrait draws attention her unfortunately huge bulbous nose.

4. The character's own writings -- letters, diaries, journals, other publications -- complete the picture.  One of my characters is a preacher's wife.  I knew she was a singer and a teacher, as well as the leading force among the evangelical abolitionists.  I didn't fully understand her, however, until I discovered a book she had written about the evils of slavery.  It shows her not only as an intemperate zealot, but as a lascivious one at that. I might have missed that part of her character if I had not taken the time to compile a character sketch.

The template works equally well for fantasy, purely fictional characters, historical figures, and even the people involved in historical monographs. You must know your character very well before you can expect your reader to understand and identify with him.

Carolyn Schriber now writes Civil War novels.  Her latest release, Beyond All Price, is available from her Amazon Author's Page or from Katzenhaus Books.  You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.  E-mail her at

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Create the Writing Life You Want

photo by Djuliet of Flickr

By Marg McAlister

Ah, writing. For those of us who love to play with words, it's like standing in front of a smorgasbord, agonising over which delicacies to try. You can potter about with your writing as a thoroughly delightful hobby - writing wedding speeches, penning dreadful doggerel for people's birthdays, or writing stories to entertain your children. Or you can work at it, hour after hour, determined that your book is going to be the next bestseller. You can choose the writing life that's perfect for you now, then change direction later, as your circumstances change and your experience grows.


I'm going to work on an assumption here - that you actually like writing. (I can't imagine any other reason you'd be reading this article. If you don't like to write, why are you being such a masochist? There are thousands of other jobs out there that will suit you better. Stop reading this and go find one.) So, given that you like to write, you should now ask yourself: 'Do I like writing enough to do it full time, or do I want to keep it as a hobby?'

If you just want to keep it as a hobby, then you are relieved of a number of 'duties' already. Since it's a hobby, you don't have to earn money. You don't have to please editors. You don't have to be published. You can scribble in faint grey pencil on a table napkin if you want - nobody else has to read it. And best of all, you don't ever have to write anything except what you want to write!


Most of us are not in that situation. We either want to write as a paid hobby (which might also be known as 'part time writing') or we want to work towards a full time career. Let's look at 'part time writing' first, and assume that you wouldn't mind being paid for what you do. (At least in kind - a free book or meal in exchange for your carefully produced text.) If you want to be paid, then you are faced with a certain set of responsibilities. You have to make sure that the person paying you can read your work, so faint grey pencil is out. In fact, it's very likely that good clear word processing is in.

Hmmm... this is beginning to sound expensive. Suddenly it's taking money to make money. You have to invest in your career - in the form of hardware and software and consumables. You have to think about GST and that means a business name. Your part time writing career might take up more time, and cost more money, than you had expected.


But wait... you have more decisions to make. Are you going to concentrate on just one kind of writing (say, writing short stories for popular magazines) or are you going to peddle your words in any way that will bring in cash?

There are lots of people out there who require writers. They need wordsmiths to write their 21st birthday party speeches, or to put together smart resumes and application letters, or to create snappy promotional material for their business flyers. If you're happy enough to do all of these things and more, then you can certainly generate a part-time (or even full-time) income. Of course, you may have to advertise, and obtain business cards, and that costs more money... but don't worry: the better you become at what you do, the more your clients will do your advertising for you. ("Oh, you must get so and so to do your flyer; she's really good...")


Time to move on to the Serious Writer. Serious Writers come in two flavours: the ones who want to write the Great Australian Novel (or win one of the major literary awards for novels) and disdain networking, marketing, self-promotion and all those mundane things.

They are passionately committed to writing literary fiction, and if it takes twenty or forty years of living off relatives or typing at night after their day job, then so be it. Some of these Serious Writers can write like angels and will undoubtedly achieve what they want. Others never mix with anybody else and have no idea that their work is substandard or boring until they get their first rejection. (They may not realise even when they get their hundredth rejection.)


The other kind of Serious Writer is the one who is determined to make a success of writing, investing as much time, energy and cash as is needed. He is happy to network and talk to clients or editors and other writers. Sometimes this becomes a broad-based writing career - this person just loves words and crafting finished pieces of writing, whether it's fiction, non-fiction or promotional material. He is happy to be writing - any kind of writing!

Not everyone is happy to write whatever puts bread on the table. Some writers are content to do an assortment of fiction (mainstream, romances, or romantic intrigue, for example) or to target one specific genre - say speculative fiction - in both short and long formats. They spend time tracking down other aspiring writers in these genres, swap stories of near-misses and 'good and bad' rejections, and share the jubilation of finally getting a 'yes'. If you are determined to write only what you want to write, then don't give up your day job in a hurry - it might take a while and a few 'practice books' to get your first acceptance.
What you can do, right now, is determine the writing life you want-and start working towards it. Begin by asking yourself the ten questions below.

  1. Would I rather do any kind of writing than do other work? (If the answer is 'yes', and you know you handle words with creativity whether you're writing a short story or a letter to the bank, then a multi-faceted writing career might suit you.)
  2. Can I identify a range of writing that I would be happy to attempt? Is there a need for this writing? Can I provide a special service, or target a niche market?
  3. What kind of books do I like to read? Are these the kinds of books I'd enjoy writing?
  4. How much money do I need to spend on equipment or resources to start a writing business? If I haven't got this money, how long will it take me to save it or obtain it?
  5. How many hours can I devote to writing?
  6. Do I need a separate office and phone line, or can I share a computer with the family?
  7. What other commitments do I have? What other demands are there on my time?
  8. If I could choose any kind of writing at all to do, what would it be? Can I work towards this, even if I can't spend all my time on it now?
  9. Do I have a network of supportive people - friends, family and other writers - to help me achieve what I want? If I don't, can I find these people?
  10. What can I do RIGHT NOW to set my writing career in motion, or to start moving in the direction I really want?

(c) Copyright Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers' tipsheet at
Who links to my website?