Saturday, March 30, 2013

What's Up the Street For Next Week?
We just finished our first week of our Setting Series. Did you discover any new ways to work setting into your novels?

Here's a quick recap:

3 Basic Points to Setting

Creating Settings in places you've never been - 
                Google maps, movies, pictures, books, and A VISIT!!!

The importance of context in the words used for your scenes

Using your camera to give you a sense of Setting

The beauty of Small-Towns as a setting

Next week there are more fantastic settings posts coming your way! your current WIP, what is your setting?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Capturing the Heart and Feel of a Small Town

My home town! Courtesy of Wikipedia
Small town settings have always been popular in Christian fiction. They are idyllic and simple. Filled with people who know each other and stand out. Crafting the small town might seem like it doesn't take a lot of work, but let me say (this coming from a small-town girl) we are something else. We take a lot of studying to make sure you portray our quirks right. ;-)

Setting a small town is just as much characters as it is landscape. Sometimes it's just describing the people walking down the street that make the scene come to life. We don't have to know them, we don't have to know their names. But maybe your main character does and that sets the stage for what and how she feels about her hometown.

QUIRKS. It's in the landscape. It's in the hearts of the people. It's in the size of the town. Not all small towns are created equal. Everyone thinks of small towns in different ways. Where I live (in a county larger than 7 states) we have fewer than 7,000 people. That's a big difference of the small town of 12,000 or a even a tourist town of 5,000. Each has a different landscape. A difference in knowing the person who walks down the opposite street and not.

Pick your small town character carefully. And pick your small town with the greatest of care. If you create one, but don't live in one, visit small towns. Talk to those who come from small towns, not just what you think a small town should or shouldn't have. Everyone will have a different opinion, but garner the best advice and create your perfect setting.

LOCATION. Will you set it in the country or the city? You can have a small town or a small community in the city, but location is huge right now in branding the place where your character lives. Some of us as writers, don't like to pick one particular real place. (say the place you live, unless it's a larger city). So for me, I channeled my home town, the feel of the town, the layout, but gave it a different name and a slightly different location. But I kept all proximity to larger cities to ground it.

PEOPLE. I've already mentioned this, but it can't be said enough: Make your setting, the people of your setting a third character. Give them a voice on the page. It doesn't have to be loud. It doesn't have to always apparent, but let it seep into the story like soft layer. You're story will be richer for it.

PICTURES. Troll the internet. Google small towns under the images option and see what you come up with. Collect some pictures and make an album or a story board on pinterest. It's bound to become a new obsession for you! Make your town come to life. It will be full and powerful, take the richness and depth to a whole new level.

So you've got the small town. You've got the picture. You've got the people. Now you just to write the story! Are you a small town story crafter or do you prefer the big city?

Casey Herringshaw is a homeschool graduate and has been writing since high school. She lives in rural Eastern Oregon in a town more densely populated with cows than people.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Setting With the Click of a Camera

Our wonderful debut author, Krista Phillips, is fulfilling the duties of one of her primary callings today - being a mom. Her sweet baby, Annabelle, is recovering from illness in the hospital, so I'm the punt kicker today. If you want to follow how Krista and Annabelle are doing, check out Krista's blog.

And on a similar note, Krista's fun debut novel is up for free Kindle Download. You can find out more about THAT, right here.

So - what are we going to chat about today? How much a camera can give you a sense of setting for your novels.

Are you guys as crazy as I am? (that was rhetorical, btw) 
Do you take your camera with you everywhere?
I do.
Because I never know when I might walk into a place of inspiration. A sunset. A interesting panoramic scene. A historic bit of information.
Who knows!?!
(The picture to the left is of a house which will 'model' as Thistle Rush Lodge in my modernization of Jane Eyre. Took this pic while driving home from a hike)
In fact, I've taken pictures of places that are a part of my novels and used them to help remind me of the five senses I experienced while there - OR a certain scene of inspiration. 
Let me show you.
For several of my novels, I use two basic settings, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia/North Carolina and the rolling hills of Derbyshire, England. Not only that, but I have the perfect manor house I use as the inspiration for the 600 year old manor house in my favorite novel.
Some places just INSPIRE story - so that's why having a camera handy is the perfect accomplice to muse.

Haddon Hall in Derbyshire is one of those places. Set against the backdrop of rolling English hills, its tall stone walls and immaculate gardens can either intimidate (as in BBC's Northanger Abbey) or invite. I used Haddon Hall as a 'symbol' of a centuries old secret, as solid as the rock in which the home was built.

Recently, my husband and I took a day trip to Olde Salem, a beautifully restored Moravian Community set in Winston-Salem, NC. Since I write novels in various time periods, I took pictures along the way. The town is so wonderfully situatedn, it created an element of story just from walking down the cobblestone streets. Stopping to ask a historian or two about the history of it gave me even more story-fodder.

I was tickled to have my camera with me when the fam and I went on a "Mama's Writing Research" day-trip to Hot Springs, NC. One of my future novels takes place in this town in 1918. Hot Springs is one of the few places German Internees were held in America during World War I. Old pictures, the landscape, and just a visit with some of the ancestors of people who used to live there, helped frame future ideas for my story. Here is a picture of the remains of the Hot Springs Hotel and Spa which stood during the time of my novel.

 Since most of my novels are inspired by my home in the Blue Ridge, many of my contemporary novels are influenced by that world and culture.  The uniqueness of Appalachia, the importance of oral history, and the quirky culture makes it the perfect fuel for story ideas :-) I have family members who are just waiting to creep into a novel page in some form or other :-)

But not all pictures have to be from your own camera. Thanks to the great wide world of internet, you can locate pictures without leaving the comfort of your chair - though another trip to England would be JUST fine with me. The picture on the left is of a house I found for sale in England. It's the home of the devious Lady Cavanaugh in my current historical romance.
The great thing about checking out realtor sites, is they usually post pictures of the inside, use 'wording' from the locale, AND sometimes even provide blueprints - which is where I got the idea for a subterranean passageway in my novel :-)
What about you? Do you have pictures you've taken to inspire your work? Have you found some online? Does your setting reflect your story in any way?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Setting Game

Here on the Alley, we are continuing down the Yellow Brick Road of our setting theme, attempting to entice you to envision colors like yellow, red, orange, blue . . .colors I cannot see due to gray clouds and snow on the ground where I live.  

As a result, poor reader, you will step onto a white brick road.

How necessary is it to be specific with your setting? I mean really. We don't want to bore a reader or laden them with pages of details. Yawn. 

I believe God's Words can be used here: all things in moderation

But what is moderation? Sometimes we're told we have too much, other times we're told we have too little. 

Let's play
The Setting Game 
and explore this topic.

If I mentioned the word fire in my setting, what would you imagine? Oh, you can't answer because you don't know what else is going on in the scene/have enough information? Bravo!

Okay, let's try again. Be sure to read the entire paragraph.

First setting: You are sitting at a table. White tablecloth, china dishes, too many pieces of silverware are placed in the proper position. You are wearing your very best clothes because this is the date of a lifetime. Across from you is the most beautiful/handsome person you've ever met. It is February 14th. In the center of the table the fire flickers, the glow reflects from your date's water glass. 

What you pictured for the word fire? Place your answer for this first question in the comment section.

Second setting. You are in the woods and smell smoke. The group of hikers around you comment on the scent, wondering where it is coming from. Your friends come to the end of the path and see fire. A hundred yards away is a log cabin. A man stands outside the doorway, waves his arm with a full swing and calls out to the group. "I need your help." 

You and the other hikers rush toward the man. "What's wrong?"

The man says, "You're finally back. We're cooking s'mores over the fire and need more sticks." 

What did you pictured for the word fire? Place this second answer in the comment section.

Third setting. Your eyes smart. Breathing has been difficult for the last several hours. You have concern for the coughing coming from your children and wonder if a trip to the hospital is necessary. The clouds on the horizon have a sunset color. An announcement comes over the television stating your neighborhood must evacuate due to fire.

What did you picture for the word fire? Place this third answer in the comment section.

As you can see there is so much more to setting than a few simple words. In the first setting we could also detect a romantic interlude, the second an outdoor adventure, and the third, a family's home setting.

Here is your second word. What do you picture when I give you the word blizzard? Oh, so you think that one is easier, eh? 

Let's play

First setting: You are driving along in a little commuter Yugo through busy streets where buildings on your left cast a long shadow even at noon. The tank is almost empty but you planned to get gas at the station four blocks up the road where the price is cheaper. You glance to the right. Lake Michigan waters have a heavy chop, white caps frost each wave. 

The wind suddenly shoves into your car. You grip the steering wheel with both hands and squeeze. The sky darkens before you clear the intersection behind a long line of other vehicles. The air become a wall of white. A moment ago you knew where to drive, you've followed the same path for five years. At this second, however, you can't see beyond the hood of your car and can't be sure the Yugo is still on the road. The wind howls and pummels your car with sleet and snow. Three dings from the dash later the engine dies.

Where are you? and bonus question: What should you do? This will be answer number four.

Last round:

Second Setting: You and your three friends velcro special footwear over your boots and dress in layered outerwear. The backpack you're carrying has an ax, rope, water, extra gloves, and other needed supplies for the trip. There hasn't been a car in the vicinity for miles. The four of you have been hiking on varying inclined terrains for an hour and haven't seen a structure any time recently.

The wind gusts, increasing speed and challenging your sense of balance. The trees bend at their trunks. Their branches flail knocking into each other. You and your friends note the drop off several feet ahead and stop to make a plan. A storm hadn't been in the forecast, but a heavy cloud blasts across the sky saturating the air with freezing moisture. You pull out your cell phone and remember there is no coverage at this high, remote altitude.

Where are you? and bonus question: What should you do? This will be answer number five.

Each setting took little space to give the reader the meaning of the word fire or blizzard. The point is readers have different preconceived ideas about the meaning of a word. If you need the reader to create a specific image in their mind for a word, paint the setting with vivid words that convey emotion, senses, and etc. Fire can be good or bad. A blizzard can be good or bad. Any snowy northerner care to share the good of a blizzard? Two words: no school. :)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Writing A Setting Of Where You've Never Been

Writers are a tricky brood of people. You see, writers often must weave a tale set in a place (or a time period) that they have never been. How do you do that? Sure you can make it up and hope that it comes close to the real thing, but more often than not, you will get someone shooting you an email telling you that you are way off the mark in your setting. They used to LIVE in the place you are writing about and it never had the types of trees or flowers you wrote about.

What if I were to write a story set in Scotland, yet I've never been there? Let's say I've heard the song that goes..."You take the high road and I'll take the low road..." so I think there must be some mountains in Scotland. I've heard about the craggy cliffs there. Sure! So I begin to write the setting picturing this:

photo by CNaene
Yes! It must look like Colorado. Mountains, right? Well, not really. Scotland looks more like this:

photo by James Barker
Yep...a bit different, wouldn't you say?

So how does one go about writing a setting in a place you have never been before? Here's some ideas:
  • If you have the money, take a vacation there! If you were published, you could write it off as a tax deduction. Maybe you can write it off even if you aren't published yet. Hmmm, possibly Krista Phillips would know the answer to this, being our only published author right now! 
  • Check out or rent movies set in the area you are writing about. I wrote a medieval set close to the Scotland border so I watched movies like Made to Honor, Braveheart, Brigadoon, etc. Even though I wasn't physically there, I took note of things particular to that country. (Foliage, roads, rain, sun, etc..)
  • Check out documentary type or travel type DVDs at the library. You can get a lot of great information from those.
  • Check out books from the library about the country/area you are writing about. Yes, it takes longer to research, but who might stumble upon an old legend or great landmark that you didn't know about before!
  • Talk to someone who has been there or lived there. Maybe they have photographs of their trip that they would share with you.
  • The internet is a great place to find pictures of places. All you have to do is google the country/area and then search within google images to find pictures of what you need. (FYI...just don't copy them to use in any of your blogging...I learned the hard way!!!)
Those are just a few ways to learn more about the place you are writing about. You want it to be realistic. You want to transport your reader into the scene with the perfect setting. So do your research and make it REAL!

What other suggestions do you have for creating a real and tangible setting when you've never been there before?

This post is brought to you by
 Sherrinda Ketchersid

Sherrinda is a minister's wife and mother to three giant sons and one gorgeous daughter. A born and bred Texan, she writes historical romance filled with fun, faith, and forever love.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Setting Up Your Story – Your 3 Point Terrain

The Writer Alley is gearing up to chat about ‘Setting’ for the next two weeks and you guys are in store for a lot of great information. So since you’re going to hear about various different settings within the next several posts, I’m going to chat about ‘setting’ as an overview in your story.

My 15 year old defined setting like this: You have to know the terrain to plan the battle

I LOVE that – because it’s true! The palate of setting influences the rules, decisions, expectations, beliefs, and plot to paint the picture of your story. If you don’t know your setting, it’s difficult to plan your writing strategy.

So…er….what is ‘setting’? Well, briefly, here are three points.

1.       Provides a sense of space and time (the bottom-line basics)

2.       Provides cultural rules and expectations (the flexible frame)

3.       Provides character (the influential core)

A sense of space and time

This first point is about the ‘bottom-line basics’ of setting. It’s the answer to the question Where and When does your story take place?  Simply put, this usually sums up our ‘genre’ titles like: Historical, Contemporary, Speculative, Fantasy, Western…etc

In my YA fantasy novel, The Book of Beginnings, I’ve developed an imaginary world. This is the most extreme way to manipulate setting. Much like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, the author creates a ‘story world’ which is different than our own. Nonhuman beings, a brand new space-time continuum, machines or animals unfamiliar to us.

But that’s not all. Even if the setting is in our own world, it guides our choices of vocabulary, dress, references, occupations, and even transportation.  Sleepless in Seattle is a contemporary setting. Gone with the Wind is a historical setting. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is mostly a fantasy setting. Our brains develop a certain ‘picture’ of setting when we use these words and it’s from this starting point where we move off to the other setting-points.

Cultural rules and expectations

The place, time, era, and culture in which your character lives (and was raised) is a highly influential part of the setting. To know how this influences your story, you might answer the question So what makes this setting different to your characters' lives? How does it 'frame' their worldviews?
My historical novel, The Thornbearer, is set during The Great War. AlleyCat Amy Simpson’s novels are contemporary romantic suspense. The cultural expectations of my heroine are extremely different than the cultural expectations of hers. Does this influence the story? You bet!! My heroine’s ‘secret’ is a BIG deal in 1916 – a social and moral debauchery. In the contemporary world, it’s still a big deal, but it doesn’t darken other people’s opinion of the main character like it does in Edwardian England.


My favorite point of setting and the most influential!
This is where the setting takes on a life of its own. In my Contemporary Romantic Comedy, the Blue Ridge Mountains becomes a pulse in the workings, emotions, and relationship opportunities for my characters. The weather and terrain influence the character’s lives, choices, and even the way the talk :-)

Some authors use one piece of setting to hold special meaning. I think Nicolas Spark does this a lot. For example, the church in which a heroine’s mom and dad were married holds special significance for her and provides ‘answers’ in her hard times. Therefore, there might be several scenes when she is particularly ‘broken’ in which she MUST visit that particular church to feel her parents near her, even though they are dead.

In my historical, the Lusitania provides a setting which is as alive as the sea on which it floats – thrusting my characters into fighting against it to survive.  World War 1 also provides this opportunity, shaping the attitude of individuals, decision which wouldn’t otherwise have to be made, and moving the story forward with the sheer force of its presence.
So – have you ever thought about setting in this way? How does setting work in your stories?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

What's Up the Street for Next Week?

Photo credit:

Seriously, I don't know about you, but where I'm at, that day on the calender had zero affect on the weather outside my office window.

Here on the Alley though, we believe in making our own Spring.

Spring oftentimes happens most in the outdoors. In the flowers we see sprouting.

In the birds we hear chirping.

In the newly cut grass we smell.

It's all in the setting.

So for the next two weeks, the Alley will be celebrating SPRING and all the glorious bits of joy it brings us. Not the least of which is mud for the young boys in your life to go out and make puddles in. ;-)

Check our posts out Monday through Friday for spring time news being heralded from the cozy corner of our office chairs next to a blazing fire as the snow continues to throw their own cold version of confetti upon this "arrival" of Spring.

Happy Spring and how are you celebrating the arrival of the weekend?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Interview with the fabulous Candace Calvert!

I am ecstatic to have author Candace Calvert as my guest on the Alley today! Not only are her books some of my personal favorites, but she is just so sweet and lovable. Read a little further and you'll soon see why you absolutely must pick up one of her fabulous books STAT!

The lovely and uber-talented Candace Calvert....

Often called the author of "medical hope opera," Candace Calvert is an ER nurse who landed on the other side of the stethoscope after the equestrian accident that broke her neck and convinced her love, laughter--and faith--are the very best medicines of all.

Her popular medical drama series (Mercy Hospital and Grace Medical) offer readers a chance to "scrub in" on the exciting world of emergency medicine, along with charismatic characters, pulse-pounding action, tender romance, humor, suspense--and an encouraging prescription for hope. Think "Grey's Anatomy finds its soul"!

A native northern Californian, mother of two and proud grandmother to seven, Candace is a passionate "foodie," equally at home with a whisk in her hand as she is penning stories. Folks who follow her on Twitter and Facebook will find photo-embellished recipes, funny insights into the writing life, snippets of upcoming work, and a chance at book giveaways. Please visit her website at:

So Candace, what is your favorite thing about writing?

Oh, good question! Though for most writers it’s a bit like asking (smile), “What’s your favorite thing about breathing?”

We. Must. Write.

A dear friend sent me a card once, with a photo of an old typewriter and this quote by Anais Nin:

“We write to taste life twice.”

I know that’s true for me. If I visit an intriguing place, eat an amazing food, see a sunset, hear a unique sound, inhale a heady scent, sink my feet into warm sand, or touch a baby’s skin—I almost ache to re-create the experience with words, savor it all again. And then I long to share it with others. My feelings too: belly laughs, joy, heartbreak, passion, frustration, pain . . . and the incredible awe of feeling connected with our great God himself. I want to write it so my readers can feel it too. And be encouraged by that.
When it works, that’s my favorite thing about writing.

Tell me something about yourself that might surprise your readers. Good, bad, or quirky—we can take it J

(Laughing) Quirky is my middle name. But we’ll spell it with a C to make a perfect alliteration: Candace Cuirky Calvert.
-Chewing gum makes me feel claustrophobic.
-Intellectually, I’m awed by whales. Personally, I have a serious phobia about them. I think I may have been scarred by the movie Pinocchio.
-More seriously: In a former life, I was married to a police officer. I carried his gun in my purse when we went to the beach and he wanted to take his shirt off.  In my novel Code Triage, I wrote the happier ending to that ill-fated love story.

What has been your favorite story you’ve written so far?

That’s a hard question! Each story was personal in many ways—it’s like picking a favorite child.

I’d probably say it’s a tie between Code Triage and Trauma Plan. Both feature nurse-chaplain Riley Hale.  Her story (from injury to happiness) is one that speaks to me.

What character is most like you and why?

My DNA can likely be found in all of my heroines—and a few secondary characters. But I’d say I’m probably most like nurse Erin Quinn of Disaster Status. It took me a long time to stop trying to be a “strong woman,” and learn to become a “woman of strength.” The difference is faith.

What was the best book you’ve read in the last 12 months?

I’ve had the great privilege of having been (historical fiction author) Nancy Herriman’s critique partner for more than a decade. Mind you, I normally read contemporary fiction. But Nancy’s work is (for me) like overdosing on “Downton Abbey” with a chaser of pure poetry. Her imagery, dialogue, subtle humor, story “texture” amazes me. If I didn’t love her, I’d be pea-green with envy. 

Josiah’s Treasure is her latest. Loved it.

Do you miss nursing? Or do your medical dramas keep you feeling connected to the field?

When I hear sirens, part of me still wants to leap up and join in. When I remember how rugged the last few years in ER were (short staffing, high census, heightening acuity of cases), I’m grateful to hang up my scrubs. I do very much miss the camaraderie of the medical team and the beautiful moments of connection with patients, when “being there”  meant so very much. YES, writing medical fiction does mimic all the best things about being a nurse. The connection with fellow writers feels very much a “team,” and sharing a story with readers (all over the world!)—hearing how they are touched by my story—is much like those special moments with  my patients. A blessing, indeed.

What’s your favorite TV show?

I admit to having too many lately. Superb, tight writing is what grabs me most. Right now, it’s probably “Downton Abbey”, followed (so contemporarily) by “Castle,” “Rizzoli and Isles,” “The Good Wife,” and “Scandal.” British gentry, police procedurals, law and politics—how’s that for eclectic?

How much of what you’ve written in your books has happened to you in real life?

A fair amount. Right down to a marriage in jeopardy, sick horse, paralyzed arm, reconciliation with my father, and . . . skydiving. 13,000 feet.  Seriously. My life in fiction.

What’s next?

The third and final book in my Grace Medical series, (working title) First Responder, is scheduled for release in spring of 2014. I’m currently working on a proposal for another inspirational medical fiction series. Have stethoscope, will write.

Thank you, Amy, for letting me connect with your readers! An honor, indeed.

Didn't I tell you? Yep, she's amazing! 

Don't miss out on Candace's upcoming release Rescue Team! Due out in May and comes highly recommended by this Alley Cat!

 Your turn: What's your favorite Candace Calvert novel? 
-----Mine? Trauma Plan followed very closely by Disaster Status. 
But honestly, you really can't go wrong!


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Developing Your Writing Style

Earlier this week, Julia did a beautiful job talking about how we can write memorable secondary characters. Today I want to keep the discussion going by looking at how we can create a memorable style.

First off, I want you to take a second, and think of five books you really like. You may even want to write the list down. 

Here are my five:

  • Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart, by Beth Pattillo
  • My Life As a Doormat, by Rene Gutteridge
  • Miss Invisible, by Laura Jensen Walker
  • Secrets, by Robin Jones Gunn
  • Save the Date, by Jenny B. Jones
Do you know what each of these books has in common? They all have characters, settings, or plots I distinctly remember--things that have stayed in my mind long after I put the books down. Does the same principle apply to the list you made?

Let's look at a few examples. In My Life As a Doormat, the main character really struggles with standing up for herself, and her initial attempts to change that tendency are hil-arious. We're talking, laugh out loud funny. Rene does a brilliant job creating a character that is so relatable, she hits us in the heart with the truth of her story. Same thing applies to Miss Invisible. The main character in Miss Invisible likes to be . . . well . . .  invisible. She, too, is sassier inside than out, and she struggles with her weight, which is an issue I think most of us can relate to because everyone, regardless of weight, has struggled at one point or another with self-confidence and self-perception.

Secrets by Robin Jones Gunn is memorable for a different reason. This story is set in a fictional small town so real and quaint, it makes you wish you could jump on a plane and join the characters for a cup of afternoon tea. And maybe, in a certain way, you can. Maybe that's the power of this story.

Your writing needs this same kind of zing. The question is, how can we learn to develop our own writing style so that readers remember something about the story long after they put the book down?

Well first, I think it's important to acknowledge that writing style takes on many forms. Maybe your writing sparkles because your pacing and word choices are poetic. Maybe you write characters who seem to jump off the page, or plots that keep readers turning from one page to the next. It's important that you realize your own writing strengths so that you can then further develop them. Having a seasoned writer or a critique partner read through your first few chapters can help you identify areas of your writing you might think are commonplace, which, in reality, actually stand out beautifully.

It's easy to assume everyone else thinks the way we do. But the reality is, they don't. So we must first become conscious of the preoccupations in our own minds as well as the things we do well, because doing so will allow us to grow all the more. Once you have a good idea of your own strengths and voice, I would encourage you to take it a step further by asking the following questions:
  • What am I passionate about? I'm talking about deep-level passions--story questions that drive the whole book--as well as the various "random" passions you hold in your life. The latter can bring flavor to the in-between points of your story. I'll give you an example. I am very passionate about animal rescue, so I try to include a rescued dog or cat in each of my stories. I've found that doing so not only makes my characters more relatable and likable, but it also incorporates something that really matters to me. When we write our passions, the vulnerability and spark behind those passions comes through on the page. So if you're having trouble with a chapter or subplot that feels dry, try spicing it up by infusing one of your own passions or interests into the writing.
  • What am I good at? It's important to know your weaknesses so that you can make them better. Everyone would agree about that. But it's also important you know your strengths, so you can make those better too. If you write lyrically, great. See if you can go from a very good lyrical writer to the best in your genre. If you write characters your readers empathize with, see if you can go from making them cry, to making them wake up in the morning still crying. Find your strengths and never stop working to develop them.
  • What do I want readers to remember about this book? Do you want to offer readers some escape from the world through a funny story? Are you the I Love Lucy of CBA? Or do you want to catch the attention of the secular market, presenting the gospel in a metaphorical from, like The Shack accomplished? Do you want your readers to feel inspired by your characters and remember them as friends (i.e. Christy Miller)? Or do you hope readers dream about your book through the night, and God uses the imagery to stir the depths of their hearts? You don't have to only pick one thing, of course, but it's a good idea to define your goals and strive for one particular effect. Doing so will help focus your writing and keep you goal-oriented through each page.
  • Am I confident in my calling? All too often, a lack of confidence keeps us from having a greater vision. We're scared to try something out of the box, or to be unique. We might be afraid of rejection, never selling the book, or just not doing it "right." While there is certainly something to be said of being attentive to the trends of the market and being smart about what you write (i.e. not trying to sell a chick lit vampire romance to Harlequin's Heartsong Presents), you don't want fear to take the place of God's direction over your story.
I hope these questions encourage you to dig deeper into the heart of your story, as well as your own heart, to discover a little more about yourself and the direction you want to go with your writing. It's amazing how a greater understanding of ourselves can so often make for more captivating (and easier) writing.

Which books did you think of at the beginning of this blog? Why do those stand out to you?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Question Technique

Image 1 by chrisroll
In every picture, every line of information, every person’s face, is a story waiting to be discovered. How successful we are at unearthing that story – how deep and resonant and complex we are able to make it in the telling – depends largely on one thing: the questions we ask ourselves.

The principle is simple: start with an idea, or a picture, and ask yourself questions until you find your story.

Keep asking questions until you know your story.

This technique can be used to generate new story ideas; add twists or layers to your plot; or take you deeper into a scene you’ve already written. You may prefer to be methodical and work your way through a list of Who, What, When, Where and Why questions, in the vein of a newspaper reporter; or, like me, you may wish to ask yourself questions organically and with genuine curiosity, as they occur to you.

This week I’ve been writing a short story. Here’s how the Question Technique worked for me.

Image 2 by pixbox77

1. Generating a story idea
Ideas can come from anywhere – a picture, a newspaper clipping, a line from a song, a resonant memory, a scent, a feeling, a dream.

The idea for this short story came in the form of a status update on Facebook. Our region recently experienced severe and sudden flooding, and I began following a Flood Updates page to stay abreast of the news. One update mentioned that 20 people, including children, were stranded by floodwaters in the town hall of a tiny country community not far west of where we live. State Emergency Services knew of the situation, but no-one had yet been able to reach them.

I immediately began asking myself questions.

How would that feel, in this modern age, to be completely cut off from the outside world?

How would it feel to be a parent in that situation? With no food or clean water for your children, no toys to entertain them for those interminable cooped-up hours, no bedding to sleep on at night, and no idea of when rescue might come?

How would it feel if you had a baby who was bottle-fed – and you had no formula to feed her with?

Aaah. Suddenly, for me, the story had become personal. As the mother of three small children, including an 8-month-old baby, I’d hit a resonant note, one with which I had immediate emotional empathy.

I knew, at that point, I had the germ of a short story.

2. Add layers to your plot
There were more questions to be asked before my story could take shape. I had to start at the end and backtrack to know how my characters got to that point and who they were.

  • How did the people get from their homes to the town hall?
  • Which family would be central to my story? How many children did they have? What were their names? Whose POV should I write from?
  • How long had they lived in this small town? I knew instinctively I wanted them to be outsiders. So why had they moved there?
  • When did the flooding occur? During the night, I decided, for dramatic effect. So in my family, who discovered the rising waters and alerted the others?
  • How did it feel for them to find water in their house?
The questions continued as the story progressed, and the family found themselves in the hall. How long would they be stuck there? Who would rise up as a natural leader of the group? How would the children behave? With the constant screaming of a hungry baby, how long would it take for tempers to fray and people to turn on each other?

3. Add depth to a scene

My first drafts are usually fairly spare. I have to go back over them and flesh them out, adding concrete details. At this point I ask questions such as: What does it look like? Sound like? Smell like? How are the characters reacting to their situation?

In my first draft I wrote this line to describe the first night in the hall:

The wet flotsam of the tiny rural community huddles in small, miserable groupings, too exhausted and shocked to speak.

In my second draft, I tried to add visual and sensory details:

Bodies stretched out on the floor, heads pillowed awkwardly on a crooked elbow, a pair of shoes. It brings to mind an international airport, or perhaps the scene of a shooting. Someone is snoring. A child stirs and cries out in his sleep. Glass rattles, loose-jointed, in the windows. Rain drives without pause against the roof.

I’ll keep asking questions until the story is complete. Who are my characters? How do they feel? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What do they see, hear, smell, taste and touch?

Your turn. Choose any photo from this post and ask yourself some questions. What story will you discover within?

Image 3 by Victor Habbick
Image 4 by africa

Image 5 by Ian Kahn

We’d love you to share with us in the comments. Just state the number of the photo you chose, and the germ of your story idea.

Images courtesy of

Karen Schravemade lives Downunder and likes to confuse her American friends by using weird Australian figures of speech. When she's not chasing after two small boys or cuddling her baby girl, she spends her spare minutes daydreaming about the intricate lives of characters who don't actually exist. Find her on her website and Twitter.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Creating Memorable Secondary Characters

Who says main characters get all the attention?

Think of Dorie in Finding Nemo.

As a secondary character, she steals the show with her humor.

Rhino, the loveable hamster in Bolt, adds panache as he cheers for Bolt and becomes endearing to us in his own right.

How about Abu from Aladdin, the kids in Incredibles?

Who can forget the old lady with a shotgun in Ratatouille?

Or housekeeper, Minnie, from The Help?

Now, how can you create a secondary character that's loveable, despicable, memorable, hilarious, endearing, or infuriating?

Give your secondary characters a fascinating backstory.

Alley Cat Pepper suggested journaling from the perspective of my antagonist over a year ago. Since then, I've done so with a variety of other characters. Getting into their heads has definitely helped me write stronger secondary characters.

Make him/her sequel worthy.

You know you've created an in-depth secondary character when readers beg for a sequel from that character's perspective. One example would be Surrender the Dawn by Mary Lu Tyndall. I so desperately wanted to read Luke's story because he was an excellent secondary character with a lot of depth.

Give them a quirky trait, particularly as they are relating to your hero or heroine.

Any character who shows up more than once should have at least a few identifying traits.

Maybe the car repairman has a nervous tic and always shakes when he's signing the receipts.

Perhaps the doctor who has diagnosed your heroine's cancer always smiles when giving bad news. Its a nervous habit.
If they are a more major secondary character, go even more in-depth with their personality.

Think of your secondary character who has the most major role in the story. Consider taking a few minutes to take an MBTI assessment on your most important secondary character. Interview your secondary character as if your his or her therapist.

The Book Buddy is a resource that has helped me increase the depth of my minor characters.

Think about motivations of this secondary character. Why do they do what they do? What are their needs? Do they have a "lie" they believe that affects the main character?

For instance, although we are each responsible for our own journeys perhaps mom believed a lie that she then "taught" to the main character during childhood. Main character has to unlearn this lie throughout her journey.

You don't have to include all these details in the story (in fact you probably shouldn't) but it can help you to understand their journey and to write more compelling scenes.

Don't forget the most compelling secondary characters don't need to be human.

Think of Dorie. Abu. The dog in The Accidental Tourist.

Pets can be believable and loveable companions to your character and have their own quirky traits.

Remember opposites attract isn't just true in romantic scenarios.

Sidekicks are often compelling and interesting because they have opposite personality traits to the main character. Think of movies with a "funny" sidekick. Danny DeVito has often played this role in the movies. These characters make us laugh. Even in the most serious books (I enjoy writing what my hubby likes to call women with issues fiction...though who among us doesn't have issues) we need a break for laughter.

A good secondary character is an emotion trigger.

Our main character typically isn't neutral toward a well-drawn secondary character. She helps draw out emotion from the main character.

For a great example of this, check out this post by Susan May Warren.

Do you have a favorite secondary character from the movies or books? Why is he or she your favorite? Or who is the most compelling secondary character in your story and why?
Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys reading and reviewing books for Library Journal, The Title Trakk, and Christian Library Journal.