Tag Archives: writing

What’s in a Name?

The topic of names could cover quite a wide variety of areas, such as naming babies, place names, collective names of animal groups, or translations of names into languages such as Elvish or Runes; but I’d like to focus on the naming of characters for fiction writers.

Choosing character names can be fairly straightforward if you’re writing contemporary fiction; having said that, be sure to choose names that are not too similar from one character to the next. Unless there is a reason for close names, such as Sandy and Brandi for twins, the names need to stand apart to help readers keep straight who’s who, especially if there are multiple characters in a scene.  In Lord of the Rings, however, JRR Tolkien uses names to comical effect when naming the dwarves: Bifur, Bofur & Bombur; Dori, Nori & Ori; Kili & Fili; Balin & Dwalin; Gloin & Oin; only Thorin stands out as leader and king with a unique name.

When choosing names for modern characters, consider their place, time and age:  If you’re writing a grandfatherly character, he can have a name that was popular in the ‘30s or ‘40s; but if your character is in their 20s, then don’t name them Mildred or Frank.  If you are writing children’s fiction, keep the names modern and simple to pronounce when reading aloud.

If you’re writing historical fiction, consider the era and country in which you’ve set your characters.  For my 18th century trilogy, I compiled a list of names from parish records in southern England from the early-to-mid 18th century, and then condensed it down according to frequency; that gave me a list of the top 20 male names and top 20 females names from which to choose.  Back then, children could only be christened with Christian names approved of by the church; names of kings and queens were popular, such as James, William, Charles, Anne, Charlotte, or Elizabeth.  Biblical names from the New Testament such as Timothy or Mary were also popular, but Old Testament names, such as Jacob or Rachel, were only given to Jewish children.  If you’re setting your story in the ancient Middle East, then find out what names were common then and there; just make sure that whatever you name your characters, they’re easy to read.  Combinations of consonants that are difficult to read will be skipped over – a pity, if your main character is saddled with a forgettable name, such as Cthulhu (Lovecraft), or Tylwyth or Tleilax (Dune).  In my 18th century trilogy, I also had a few characters’ names which emphasized their general character:  Mrs Stacklesprat was a prickly, withered, gossiping, sour woman, while Mrs Huddlepoke was a cuddly, motherly, soft & jolly woman.

For Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, names can be drawn from sources such as planets, galaxies or stars (Andromeda, Galaxus, Draco), or objects such as trees or flowers, or natural occurrences (Vortex, Sparkle, Wave, etc.)

There are so many resources available for choosing names these days:  Online you’ll find dozens of sites for baby names and what they mean; a great place to find names is in film credits – I watch those with pen in hand, and when I find an interesting first or last name, I jot them down; you can combine them randomly and come up with some great fictional names.

Things to consider when choosing your names:

  • Culture: Don’t assume a name is Japanese when it might be Chinese – research!
  • Era: Don’t choose a modern name for a character set in the 1920’s, and vice versa.
  • Age of character: Give age-appropriate names to each character, especially for modern fiction.
  • Combinations with other characters’ names: Unless you’re going for the comical effect of JRR Tolkien and have the language chops to carry it off, choose names that differ from the others in your story.
  • Occupation: Don’t name your murderer Fluffy…
  • Ensure it’s fictional: Don’t name a character and publish your book, only to find out it’s a real name (unless it’s John Doe – then I’d say, go back to the drawing board with choosing a good name)! Google it to see if it exists…
  • Be cautious: If a character is closely based on someone you know, choose a name unrelated to your (soon-to-be-ex) friend or relative…!  Also, there are certain names that are taboo due to historical events; I’d never recommend naming your character Adolf, or Hitler, or Stalin.
  • Personality: If your character is a sturdy, reliable, powerful personality, don’t give them a wimpy name!  And if a character is a wimp by nature, don’t give them a powerful-sounding name – unless they’re going to grow into the name over the arc of the story.
  • Meaning: A name’s meaning might have bearing on your character; it could also add a double meaning.  In the story I’m currently writing, a character is called Janus; this was the name of a Roman god who was two-faced – one looking to the past and the other to the future; it is also the name of one of Saturn’s moons.  As the story is Science Fiction, either meaning applies to my character.

I hope these thoughts help you on your way to choosing memorable character names for your own projects.  Whatever you do, keep writing!

Names 1Names 2Names 3Names 4Frank

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Short Story: The Stranger

Below is a short story written by an old friend, and I’d like to share it with you, by kind permission.

“A few years after I was born, my Dad met a stranger who was new to our small town. From the beginning, Dad was fascinated with this enchanting newcomer and soon invited him to live with our family.

“The stranger was quickly accepted and was around from then on. As I grew up, I never questioned his place in my family. In my young mind, he had a special niche.

“My parents were complementary instructors: Mom taught me good from evil, and Dad taught me to obey.

“But the stranger… he was our storyteller. He would keep us spellbound for hours on end with adventures, mysteries and comedies.  If I wanted to know anything about politics, history or science, he always knew the answers about the past, understood the present and even seemed able to predict the future! He took my family to the first major league ball game. He made me laugh, and he made me cry. The stranger never stopped talking, but Dad didn’t seem to mind.

“Sometimes, Mom would get up quietly while the rest of us were shushing each other to listen to what he had to say, and she would go to the kitchen for peace and quiet. (I wonder now if she ever prayed for the stranger to leave.)

“Dad ruled our household with certain moral convictions, but the stranger never felt obligated to honor them.  Profanity, for example, was not allowed in our home – not from us, our friends or any visitors. Our long time visitor, however, got away with four-letter words that burned my ears and made my dad squirm and my mother blush.

“My Dad didn’t permit the liberal use of alcohol, but the stranger encouraged us to try it on a regular basis. He made cigarettes look cool, cigars manly, and pipes distinguished.  He talked freely (much too freely!) about sex. His comments were sometimes blatant, sometimes suggestive, and generally embarrassing… I now know that my early concepts about relationships were influenced strongly by the stranger. Time after time, he opposed the values of my parents, yet he was seldom rebuked… And NEVER asked to leave.

“More than fifty years have passed since the stranger moved in with our family. He has blended right in and is not nearly as fascinating as he was at first. Still, if you could walk into my parents’ den today, you would still find him sitting over in his corner, waiting for someone to listen to him talk and watch him draw his pictures.
“His name?  We just call him ‘TV’.”

by Larry Ellsaesser

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Feeding the Right Wolf

Two Wolves

There’s an old Native American proverb about two wolves:  One is a black wolf, and the other, white.  The black wolf is everything that is bad, and the white one is everything that is good.  These wolves are constantly at battle inside each one of us:  Which wolf wins?  The one you feed.

This story has truth at its core, and we can apply this principle to any area of our lives:  Thoughts; diet; exercise; writing; speech; relationships; habits, and anything else you can think of.  Another adage comes to mind:  “Garbage in, garbage out” – what we feed ourselves (any part of our trinity, whether mind, body or spirit) is what will come out of us.  There are all kinds of sayings around this truth – roots and fruits, and all that.

Each one of us has a daily routine; it may vary greatly from person to person, but it’s there.  We all probably have habits we’d like to break; they could be things that are time- or energy-wasters, or habits like smoking or overeating.  I’d like to focus on the habits of writers.

Creativity, like caffeine, is a legal addictive substance; an addiction is formed from repeated applications (i.e. habit).  If we feed the right wolves, we will reach our goals, whatever they are, but if we feed the wrong wolves, we won’t – it’s that simple.  For some, it’s finishing the first chapter; for others, it’s publishing; for others, it might be collecting enough poems, artwork, or other creative forms until there’s enough for release (art show, cookbook, anthology, etc.).

Each creative expression has its own unique pair of wolves.  One common black wolf is what I would name “NEDs” – Negative Energy Drains.  It can be expressed through negative talk about yourself or your writing (whether its source is internal from a lack of self-confidence, or external from unsupportive environments or relationships), or a pressure placed on yourself (again, internal or external) to complete a goal based on unrealistic expectations.  Another common black wolf is “Ambiguity”:  As long as we don’t know what concrete steps to take to reach a goal, it’s difficult to move forward; as long as we allow ambiguity to feed, it will paralyze us.

In this scenario, the white wolves would be named PEFs (Positive Energy Feeds) and Preciseness.  Those might simply manifest themselves as speaking positively to yourself every time NED tries to speak or putting up positive post-its of where you’re going with your goals.  For the second wolf, define the steps needed – set yourself an appointment for the purpose of researching the steps, and finding concrete resources to help you reach your goals, then take one step at a time.  Keep that appointment.

Which wolf do you feed?

TwoWolves-black-white

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Pure URLs

I’m fairly savvy in a lot of things to do with technology; I’m usually the one in our house who figures out how something works, from electronic gadgets to computer programs.  Having said that, I’m probably a complete novice when it comes to all things “webby” – web design, computer programming, SEOs, and their ilk.

I found out about something recently that I thought I’d share with you – especially those of you who are authors with e-book editions:  Pure URLs.

When you do a search, say, on Amazon, for your book, the URL will reflect the search phase.  If you use that URL as a hyperlink in your ebook, it won’t work for anyone else – which is hard for you to know as, when you test it, Amazon will recognize your computer and reinstate that search result.

Here’s an example:

If I do a search on Amazon for one of my books, the URL looks like this (with spaces added to prevent conversion):

https: // www. amazon .com / Cardinal-Part-One-Stephanie-Huesler-ebook/dp/B00PKS2EWO/ ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1501893862&sr=1-1 &keywords=Stephanie+Huesler+The+Cardinal+Part+One

the pure URL will be shorter, like this:

https:// www. amazon .com / Cardinal-Part-One-Stephanie-Huesler-ebook / dp/B00PKS2EWO

If I remove the spaces and paste the pure URL into this post, it will look like this:

 

I hope this helps you as you prepare your document for publication.  It’s something I am in the process of editing in my already-published books (in preparation for updates).  As always, honing skills means that there will be cringe-moments when looking back on writing results from years ago.  Bringing out a new book is good reason to go back and give the other documents (which need to be updated with new book information anyway) a good run-through!

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Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling

Recently I came across Pixar’s rule #19, quoted in James Scott Bell’s book, “How to Write Short Stories (and use them to further your writing career)”.  It’s an excellent book, and one of a few of his I’ve got in my Kindle collection.  But this rule reminded me of the whole list, full of good advice for storytellers whether their format is film or novel (from flash fiction to tome).  Most writing advice boils down to things like focus, self-discipline, detail work, and honing one’s craft to the best it can be – and that is an on-going process, a habit, an addiction.  It needs to be a passion.  Honing our craft means covering all the bases – grammar, syntax, plot, character, vocabulary, pacing, theme-building, and so, so, much more!  If you’ve got a weakness in your writing skills, the good news is that you can always improve it!  Make it a strength!  So be inspired, and keep writing!

Pixar's Writing Rules

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Google is a Verb

Recently I was chatting with a few friends, and the topic of finding information came up; I was surprised that it hadn’t even occurred to them that they could find such information online.  Time and again, I meet such people.  It is a modern phenomenon that we have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips; Google has become so ubiquitous with searches that it’s made it into dictionaries as a verb, and yet it seems that some people have still not realised its potential.

Granted, there is a lot of static out there:  Misinformation (whether intentional or unintentional), nonsense, and useless clutter (someone’s grandkid’s cousin’s uncle’s birthday party, or videos that need massive editing before they’re much use but they’re online nonetheless).  But if you know how to search, there’s a world of information out there to be had; you need to use discernment, and – especially if using the information as a basis for an article, or in writing a novel – you need to get cross-references and confirmation.  But I’ve found that the people I’ve talked to on this topic can’t seem to get past the static and therefore seem to have difficulty in viewing cyberspace as a serious information source.

The downside of so much ready knowledge with easy access is that people no longer need to memorise or learn information themselves – they can just grab their phone and look it up.  The upside of it is that, if people make proper use of it, they can learn so much more than previous generations ever even had access to.  The photo below, gone viral, is of a school class sitting in front of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”; while it appears that they are bored and inattentive to what is around them, they’re actually using the museum’s app to learn more about the photo and the painter as part of a school assignment.  Notice that they’re interacting with each other, and even helping each other.  Hopefully part of the assignment was also to study the painting with their eyes.

Teens using museum app

I do a LOT of research online; for some of my books, I’ve done odd searches which I’m certain mess with the algorithms of Google & co.  I’ve searched for the average size of a human corpse and the distinctions between a coffin, casket and cist (I started getting ads for funeral services after that); how to throw a kris dagger vs. a regular dagger; tide tables; sunrises, sunsets and moon phases in the 9th, 18th and 21st centuries; native flowers to Britain in the Georgian period; medicine at sea; the effects of various soil compositions on a corpse and artefacts, postmortem forensics, and dozens of other bizarre topics.  In my free time, I do a wide variety of crafts and cooking, and so my Pinterest pins multiply like rabbits in the dark!  Just click on my gravatar link to have a peek through my cupboards there.

If you put your mind to learning how to do anything, you can find instructions for it somewhere online.  A few weeks ago, I wanted to reupholster our office chairs (they are the kind that has a hard plastic frame at the back and underside of the seat).  I found a Youtube video that showed how to take them apart, and within an hour I had the first chair dismantled, reupholstered and reconstructed.  As Amelia Earhart said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is mere tenacity.”  I find that, in talking with friends, they often don’t know how to begin searching, and I think that’s the key:  They don’t try because they don’t know how to start, and so they can’t learn how to do it – learning by trial and error.  Failure is merely success in progress, but the point is that progress requires action… movement.

For writers, cyberspace is worth its weight in gold; no library could hold the amount of information available to us at our fingertips; no university could teach the wide range of topics available online; no video library could contain the staggering amount of documentaries, DIY instruction videos, and step-by-step how-tos.

What was the most recent thing you searched for online?  Was your search successful?  How much time did it take you to find what you were looking for?  Please describe it briefly in a comment below!

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POV

POV is shorthand in the film industry for “point of view” – in that context, it has to do with not only the narrative context but also the camera angles and editing process.  Changing the POV can affect the way the audience – or readers – perceive a character, an event, or the overall atmosphere of a scene.

Mark Twain - History's Ink is Fluid PrejudiceRecently I was watching a history documentary series from BBC called, “British History’s Biggest Fibs”, with Lucy Worsley.  The basic point of the series is that history is subjective; whoever wins gets to name the battles, and shape future generations’ perceptions about events; the victor gets to smooth over their own weak points and play up their heroism for posterity.  PR and spinning a good yarn helped to shape how reigning kings were perceived and toppled, or usurpers could style themselves as “successors”.

When writing a novel, the POV can drastically change a scene either from the inside, or the outside, or both; by that I mean that either the scene itself changes “camera angles” to tell the story from a slightly different perspective, or that something within the scene shifts slightly, affecting the reader’s perceptions of characters or events in the scene.  For example:  I was reading through a particular scene in my current manuscript that I knew I wasn’t happy with, but couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me aside from the outcome.  The scene involved an unjust flogging aboard a Royal Navy ship.  The officer on duty was forced by the captain to either flog the innocent man or be punished worse in his stead.  The original scene played out with the officer carrying out the punishment unwillingly but obediently.  The scene’s purpose is to show the gradually decaying grip on reality in a captain going insane; I wanted a stronger contrast, and so I tweaked the dialogue, which changed the outcome:  The officer refuses to punish the innocent man and takes the punishment on himself.  This outcome builds far more tension among the crew, gives grounds for retribution against the true instigator (a snivelling King John’s man of a junior officer), and contrasts the honourable dealings of the officer on duty against the captain’s failing sense of right and wrong.  By shifting the scene slightly, I take the reader and myself down a much steeper path.

POV - Screenshot Marvel's Avenger'sIn this illustration from Marvel’s Avengers film series, the camera angle chosen gives much more of an adrenaline rush than, say, if you were passively watching from off to the side; the fact that the arrow’s flying straight at you gives the scene that extra “kick”.

If you find yourself staring at one of your scenes – or even an entire premise of your story – that you’re not satisfied with, trying shifting the POV (sometimes it helps me to refer to it as the “camera angle”).  Put your inner eye’s camera in a different position in the scene, and see if that unlocks the key to improving that scene, the story arc or a character’s arc.  Keep writing!

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Grammarly Musings

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Spell checker in action

I’ve been editing, tweaking, editing, and tweaking this week; not to mention editing.  Over the years I’ve used a wide variety of tools, such as Scrivener, but have found that, for me, the best combination is MS Word and my brain.

One of the tools I’ve also been using recently is a new one for me:  The Grammarly app in Word.  I’m of a mixed opinion about it.  Do any of you use this app with your manuscript?  If so, what is your experience/impression?

So far, the app is batting less than 1 out of 10; in other words, of 10 “critical errors” that it points out, only 1 of them is legitimate.  I’d say the average is more like 1 out of 15 or 18.  There is also a version of this app, which requires a monthly or yearly subscription, that will expand its range of editing suggestions; but before I go that route I want to know that the app actually works in the free version.  So far, it’s more static than editing aid.

Now to be fair, my manuscript is not the average; it’s got words like en queue (the hairstyle of men in the 18th century), and odd terminology to do with nautical actions or environments.  But some of the errors that it points out, such as those to do with commas, are actually correct (e.g. pointing out the second comma of a parenthetical phrase as out of place).  Most of the time the suggestions that it makes are just downright wrong in the context; it proves that language is a fluid concept, and nearly impossible to intelligently simulate in a computer program.  It also means that we are far better off becoming fluent in grammar rather than relying on ANY program to correct our writing!

Having said that, I still appreciate it because it forces me to think through a decision, whether that be sentence structure, punctuation, or phrasing.  Sometimes it sends me in search of confirmation for a grammatical assumption I’ve made; rarely am I surprised by what I find, but it nevertheless helps to solidify the right way of writing something in my mind.  For the most part, I have the app turned off (a great function – the only reason I still use it!), just running it through sections at a time as my other editing nears an end.

Are there any programs or apps that you use for editing?  If so, what is your experience?  Please share in the comments below!

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Interconnectivity

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Interconnectivity

This weekend I led a singing workshop; at the time I was focused on the instrument as such, and the amazing, complex expressions the voice can produce.  I covered topics like anatomy, and the psychology of singing, as well as techniques and choices – the “paint palette” a singer can learn and use to produce a desired impact on the listener, painting an image before the mind’s eye through the choice of vocal colour and tone.  For me, the truest sense of interconnectivity in the context of vocals is that they are an expression not only of an individual’s anatomical uniqueness but also the personality, and even the spiritual condition.  I believe that we are created in the image of God – that is, a trinity:  We are body, soul, and spirit; and as such, when one area is facing challenges it will affect the other two areas, as well as the expression of the voice, tone, attitude and even the extent of the performer’s control over their vocals at any given moment.  [I also touch on this topic in my article about layering.]

Afterwards, the writer’s side of my brain kicked in and I began thinking of such things in terms of character development.  As I build a character’s profile, something must challenge that character or they’ll come across as flat and lifeless.  If a character had a traumatic experience with water as a child, they may have to face their fears through swimming across a lake, or getting into a rickety boat; if they’ve been abandoned by a parent, they may need to recognise a paralysing fear that keeps them from committing to relationships, and their arc may have primarily to do with overcoming that fear or not – it may be a side issue, but it will still add depth and humanity to the character.

Whatever weaknesses or challenges I decide on for a given character will guide the story to some extent; they will also influence their attitudes, responses and reactions in connecting with other characters.  These things will in turn influence the way they dress (rebellious, reserved, bold, fearful, quirky to keep people at a distance, etc.), the way they might walk or talk, or certain quirks like mannerisms or ways of speaking.  I might go through a list of a hundred related items (if they’re the main character, especially) to narrow down who the character is, even though most of it might not make it into the final cut.  The more I understand my character, the more consistent their responses, dialogues and actions will be throughout the story.

I just thought I’d share these thought processes with you, in the hopes that they can inspire you in your own characters’ developments.  Give them challenges, and find ways they can overcome (or be temporarily overwhelmed) in the midst of other more pressing issues, and (if you’ve chosen the path of hero-success over hero-failure) still find a way for them to triumph in the end.

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