Inspiring character development with memes

A couple months ago, a friend shared on social media one of those memes where you search your name and use the first search results to make a fantasy name, etc. This meme caught my interest because you had to search:

  • [Your name] fantasy gown
  • [Your name] fantasy crown
  • [Your name] fantasy weapon

For fun, I started with my given (legal) name and came up with this collage, which I love because I’m obsessed with white lace dresses with low backs and curve-hugging forms. I’m a huge fan (otaku) of Sailor Moon so the crown of moonstones and moon-shaped filigree is just to die for, and that sword is nothing to sniff at!

Then I got curious and searched against my writing name, Belinda Kroll, which was interesting because it feels like a darker personality to me. While the dress is reminiscent of a Victorian interpretation of a medieval dress with ruffles and embroidery, the crown, with its sea shells and obsidian gems, speaks to some sort of dark sea goddess. Throw in the emerald sword hilt and again, you’ve got a persona no one should think about messing with!

And finally, I searched my heroine’s name for my gaslamp fantasy and squealed because it’s just so perfect. I love the gold military-inspired detailing in the bodice, the simple elegance of the gold diadem, and the angular shape of the sword spun up so many ideas!

All of which made me think, I should be using internet memes for inspiration more often! One reason I usually don’t do memes is because sometimes I worry this is a method for internet scammers to get information (especially the ones that ask for your middle name or birthdate). But for a character who only exists in my mind? I mean, why not?

Unrelated, I wanted to share that I’m currently cuddling my second child! Wish me luck with recovery and regaining my writing energy after everything settles into place at home. See y’all soon!

Bridgerton: Careful how you insert BIPOC into your historical fiction or romance

As a mixed BIPOC (Black Indigenous Person of Color) myself, I appreciate seeing representation in my media. I enjoyed the 1990’s Brandy version of Cinderella, for instance, because I saw it for what it was… a modern retelling of a fairy tale, which you can’t say was ever a true story, and therefore who are we to say that casting couldn’t have happened (excluding the historical context of the Brothers Grimm, of course)?

I looked forward to watching Bridgerton on Netflix because I had read a couple of the original books by Julia Quinn, mostly the later books about the younger siblings. Eloise comes to mind, being a step-mom story with two fun kiddos. I’m not familiar with the earlier books, but was aware they followed some of the more unsavory historical romance tropes (power struggles, non-consensual sexual activities, etc) since that was popular reading at the time.

And I mean, I thought it was interesting they were going to play with these historical romances by diverging from the all-white characters in the books. Black people existed in many of the socio-economic levels in Regency England, though Duke is definitely a fictional stretch (or maybe not, check out this article from Marie Claire about what Bridgerton got right about Queen Charlotte), so why not play around with the idea in a Netflix series inspired by historical romance?

However. However. Facebook threads exploded in my news feed about the quality of including these non-white characters, confirming my fears from the commercials. If you’re going to go through the trouble of a diverse cast (in any media), the least you can do is avoid the following. I’ll do my best to give reasons behind why you should avoid these things.

DISCLAIMER: Since this is my personal blog, I will be liberal in blocking or deleting unhelpful comments that focus on “unnecessary political correctness” and the like, given the topic.

Do Not Hyper-Sexualize Black People

Keep in mind there is a harmful history in the United States, at least, of titillating the white population with the “threat” of the dangerous Black Man ravaging the innocent White Woman. Related is the Black Woman who is so inherently sexual that the White Man cannot help but be seduced by her (usually physical) sensual wickedness. The idea is that Black people are such savages that they just ooze sexual energy and therefore corrupt anyone else associating with them.

I encourage you to read more about this, especially some recent research that suggests during the centuries of enslavement in the United States, both white men and women compelled non-consensual sexual activity on the Black population, dispelling some of these harmful myths.

Do not suggest Black Women are romantically unavailable

This is sort of the reverse of the previous point. Often you’ll find in media that there is a Black woman in the character list, but she is relegated to a series of stereotypes, including the “mammy” who exists solely to comfort in a mothering way, the best friend who only exists to give advice, the “jezebel” or slut who will say yes to anything sexual, the “sapphire” or angry black woman who is defined only by her inherent aggressiveness, or the “tragic mulatto” i.e. a mixed (bi- or multi-racial) character solely defined and depressed by the fact they “don’t fit in anywhere.”

Romance and sex are two different things. One can have romance with little or no sex (sweet romances are the genre), but it is rare to see a Black woman get the romance treatment in media. If you’re looking for a unique offering, that would be a great area to explore.

Do not make skin tone an indication of… Anything

Have you heard of the “brown paper bag” test? Its history is rooted in racism and colorism. The basic idea is privileges may be determined by whether a person’s skin tone matches a brown paper bag or lighter, leading to acceptance. Whereas anyone darker will be disregarded. For the most part, this happens within the Black community and likely why, when racism comes up as a topic, you might hear “but Black people are racist against Black people, too!” When we’re discussing privilege in terms of amount of melatonin in one’s skin, that’s actually colorism.

If your character is dark as night, don’t also make that character corrupt and villainous. It’s just lazy writing. If your character is a lighter-toned Black person, don’t imply they are less corrupt than a person darker than them, or imply a white person spending time with them will become “less pure” by association. Again, it’s just lazy.

OK I get it, what am I supposed to take away from this?

Historical fiction is fiction for a reason. It’s inspired by historical fact, but in actuality, exists in the shallow end of speculative fiction. We all know a Regency Duke would never have married a governess. It would have been below his “station.” Heck, even Mr. Rochester, a landed, untitled man in England, shocked everyone by marrying his governess Jane Eyre.

If your Black characters are defined by one thing and that one thing only, and I’d say this for any marginalized population, then consider rewriting or removing that character. If your Black characters lack their own narrative arcs or are written with the assumption that they exist to be a threat or to serve white people, consider rewriting or removing that character. What are you trying to say, really?

Give your characters, all your characters, some sort of emotional depth. And if you can’t do that because you feel you have to rely on stereotypes that make characters feel Other Than White, then you might want to avoid it altogether or hire a Sensitivity Reader/Editor. If you’re going to be progressive with your fiction and/or fantasy, then be progressive, friend!

Why podcasts are saving me during “lock down”

I’ve never gotten into audio books because even with the best narrator, I lose interest or feel sleepy about 15 minutes into a listening session. This is a big reason why I never picked up podcasts, I assumed the same thing would happen.

Part of the problem was friends were suggesting podcasts that they cared about… I don’t need more politics, or reasons to get frustrated about the inequalities experienced by women and minorities, or the incomplete or biased snippets we get from audiovisual news media. I have plenty of sources for that, thanks, but I appreciate the suggestions.

However, in the last month I’ve craved a way to consume media that doesn’t require using my eyes. I sit in front of a computer for work, and ultimately for writing as well. I stumbled onto Stitcher, a free podcast streaming service, I can’t even remember how, and now realize what I’ve been missing. Many of these episodes are only 15 – 20 minutes long, which is my sweet spot, but I’ve found I can even listen to 45 minute episode because it gets my brain into a writing mode.

Screenshot of Stitcher.com home page
Create your own account at Stitcher.com

Between Stitcher and adopting Notion.so to plan and write my latest book, I’ve never been more mobile and nimble with my writing. The other day I went on a walk with the kid and was able to listen to a full episode and write a little over 150 words into the Notion app on my phone, then later go into my tablet and rearrange scenes, and still later go into my computer to do additional plot tidying and some deeper research.

I don’t think I would have sought out podcasts had it not been for the pandemic. We’ve been one of the families to stay at home since March since I’m a high risk individual. This means we’ve worked full time from home and provided child care as well. We’re not accepting help in order to protect me, basically. This means we’ve been catching an hour or even just 30 minutes each day to ourselves. That’s not enough time to plan and write a book, or so I thought.

I’ve felt burned out and frustrated because I wanted to write, but didn’t know how to start. The lock down started right as I was about to rejoin my writer’s group, which didn’t move to a virtual platform and I probably wouldn’t have dialed in anyway because I’m in so many video conferences for my day job. On top of the whole pandemic reality, I’ve felt insecure about the book I want to write because of the way certain media outlets have twisted the purpose and meaning behind the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve blogged about my insecurities about writing about someone who looks like me but living in a historical context… mostly because so many people don’t understand that the Black experience in America was more nuanced than “all people from Africa were slaves and no one was allowed to marry them.”

If you want to read another author’s perspective on the matter, check out G.S. Carr’s “Wielding Historical Inaccuracy Against Authors of Color.” It really made me think! Why do I not question when a book suggests a duke could marry a family-less, penniless governess? We clearly know that wouldn’t happen, just look at any of Jane Austen’s works to know that’s too much of a leap. Why do I pause when I read about an interracial relationship in the 1800s? I know they occurred whether in secret or not, and at least here in the United States, not all states had laws against interracial relationships. In fact, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia never had laws preventing interracial relationships!

But I digress. These are the podcasts that I’m following these days:  Writing Excuses and DIY MFA are both great for different reasons, but I credit both of them for strengthening my creative backbone to just try something. I just picked up but have yet to listen to The Self-Publishing Show, Writing Roots, and the Alli Self-Publishing Advice podcasts.

Tell me, is there something you’ve tried that you wouldn’t have if there were no pandemic? How is it going?

Rewriting history in response to today

This past Saturday, I woke at 5:30 AM, troubled by our political climate. As a hobbyist historian, I found myself wondering how we got here and what could have prevented such an ideological divide. The answer lies in studying, among other things, John Quincy Adams’s impact on the Gag Rules, the South Carolina Nullification Crisis of 1833 (the first time they threatened secession), and the Supreme Court rulings following the Reconstruction Amendments that opened the door for state-governed Jim Crow laws.

I was chatting with a co-worker the other day that the Union won the battles of the Civil War, but lost war of cultural change during Reconstruction. So, this picture is my attempt to “fix it.”

My historical fantasy is set in 1873 Columbus, Ohio. My city was doing a lot of good stuff for the education of the general public, including desegregation to deal with the rising population, opening a public library, and founding The Ohio State University (which had women and persons of color in their first graduating classes). However, the political history I mentioned above had an impact that cannot be ignored.

In my alternate history, I tweaked the Reconstruction Amendments to be more inclusive and with less caveats. I allowed Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas to not be so heavily swayed by South Carolina. I even play around with the idea that President Lincoln let’s South Carolina secede for a (very little) while.

In my story, slavery legislation is a state equality issue, where it’s unfair that states with larger populations of people who aren’t citizens (I’m looking at you, 3/5 law) get extra votes. Plus, there’s magic. More on that later.

In the meantime, I felt a little better after rewriting history for 90 minutes. I feel like maybe I can face whatever new sad news I’ll see today about the transition of power between the former and new president. I feel like we’re on the cusp of a new era of Reconstruction, this time perhaps a more focused attempt at bridging the ideological beliefs separating the 70 million who want things to stay as they are from the 74 million who push for equality and unity.

Misleading Plots

I admitted on Instagram the other day that I’m at a crossroads as an author… Not only am I considering shifting genres from historical fiction to historical fantasy (gaslamp fantasy?), but I’m also taking a hard look at my recurring writing habits with an eye to improve.

While reading WRITING FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION by Orson Scott Card, Philip Athans, and Jay Lake, I realized a hard truth… my plots misdirect the reader. This would be ok if it were done with well-crafted intention, but of course, that is at the reader’s discretion about how well I’m doing that.

Now, clearly I’m improving or I wouldn’t have won the 2017 Self-Publishing Review award for THE LAST APRIL. Even so, I’ve been learning more about the types of stories that populate fantasy and sci-fi and instead learning more about how I should be crafting my historical fiction. Isn’t that funny?

The book mentions four story categories: milieu, idea, character, event, a.k.a. “there and back again,” “answer the question,” “character transformation,” and “bring the world back to order.” At least, that’s how I’m interpreting these to help me dissect my own writing.

Card mentions readers get frustrated when you start with one category yet end with another. This made me reflect on some of the criticism I’ve received for my published works.

For instance, HAUNTING MISS TRENTWOOD starts as an “idea” story. Mary’s father crawls from his grave and we end the first chapter wondering why she is the only one to see this or if she’s losing her mind. The question the story needs to answer, at least based on the set up, is why is Trentwood haunting his daughter? Those who have read the book know this is actually a character story, because the mysteries culminate in a couple character transformations, and while we solve the mysteries, the characters are the true point. I have readers who love this, and readers who felt misled by the gothic nature of the first chapter.

THE LAST APRIL also begins as an idea, but it is more apparent that is has to be a character story because anyone who knows anything about President Lincoln’s assassination knows it had nothing to do with anyone in Ohio. Or at least at this point in our understanding of historical events, that is true. Anyone who has never learned anything about that event will feel misled by the premise. Anyone who is aware will realize this book is about the characters and the feeling of being one small individual caught in the storm of national events.

So anyway, it’s making me wonder why I start my stories on an idea but end with character transformations. I’ve always said I’m a character-driven writer, I’m proud and excited by that fact. The obvious thing to do is stop writing “idea” beginnings and instead write “character beginnings.” Putting this into practice will certainly be a challenge.

Have you read a book that you felt misled you? Did it work for you, or were you left wondering what happened?

Plan Your Novel with Trello

Starting a new project, whether for NaNoWriMo or something longer term, is a great opportunity to seek out new tools and methods for planning your novel. When I worked on The Last April, I found a number of tools that helped me, and I want to use them again for a new project… with some tweaks.

Even though I write first drafts in a paper notebook, most of my planning and research is digital for quick reference. The Last April had spreadsheets for character details and motivations, plot timelines, and news media excerpts. It had book plan documents and plot diagrams. I had to bounce between too many documents to get the big picture.

I need to see my characters, plot, historical timeline, and marketing plan in one location so I don’t lose sight of the objective. Enter Trello.

Why Trello?

Trello is a powerful tool because it is so simple. You create an account, open a board, and start creating lists. Within each list, you create cards.

What do you do with the lists and cards? The lists could be family member names, while the cards are chores for the week. The lists could be phases of a project (to do, in progress, done, blocked) and the cards could be components of the project. The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the reasons why I chose Trello to plan the next book, whatever it may be.

Trello is…

  • Free, though you can pay for a subscription and get additional features
  • Both textual and visual planning
  • Accessed from any web browser and has a mobile app
  • Popular enough for some pretty cool extensions

The extensions are what really make this planning method shine. The default Trello experience is a series of columns in a single row. To combine my character sheets, story arc planning, marketing definition (book plan), timeline, and historical research into one board, I need rows of lists, preferably with a heading so the grouping is clear.

Default Trello is a single row of lists

Trello comes with what they call Power-Ups to extend the experience, but I didn’t see anything that met my need. Plus, for free accounts, you only get one power-up. Enter browser extensions.

Set Up Your Trello Board

Create a Trello account if you don’t have one already.

  • Create a new board
  • Create lists to plan your novel, like
    • Characters
    • Eleven stages of a three-act story
    • References (setting, newspaper clippings, maps)
    • Timeline (my stories span a couple weeks)
    • Book plan (goals, market demographics, marketing plan)
  • If you know the content already, add cards to your lists

Create Your Swim Lanes

For this to work, you need the Chrome or Firefox web browser and its associated browser extension. These extensions only work on desktop/laptop views. I have Firefox, so the instructions at this point might differ for Chrome users.

Swimlanes for Trello is pretty simple. To make a new swim lane, or row, type the pipe character (the vertical bar) into the name of your list. To make a characters row in the screenshot below, I named the first list “Main |Characters.” I waited about two seconds, and the board shifted to having headings above rows of lists. That’s it!

Browser extensions make multiple rows of Trello lists

You will need to follow the instructions for List Layouts if you are on Chrome but I assume it is just as simple.

Success! What was multiple documents is now a single board. The fun thing about Trello is you can add labels to cards; I will like do this for the plot to chart where characters have pivotal moments. You can also add images , which I think will be useful for character sheets, setting, building references, etc.

Caveats and Disclaimers

This stacked list style only works on a Firefox desktop display. Since I write first drafts on paper, often with a mobile device beside me, it is easy to scroll the single list view if needed. When I’m in generative thinking mode and need the entire view, I’m probably on my laptop anyway.

If you make more lists after creating your swim lanes and have to move them around, it can confuse the extension back into a single row. If this happens, refresh the page and everything should return to the stacked view.

Those are the two glitches I’ve found so far, neither of which is a deal breaker for me.

I hope this tutorial helps; let me know in the comments how you set up your board or if you’re using a different tool to plan your novel. If after this post you realize you still prefer pen and paper, check out my Etsy shop where I have novel planning notebooks for sale.

– Belinda

Dreaming of the Next Book

Now that I’m weaning myself off the honeymoon period from releasing The Last April, I’ve been dreaming of my next book. There always is “the next book” for authors. Kind of like how “there’s always a band” for The Music Man.

I was in our living room, cuddling with the mini-schnauzer while working on my November writing challenge from @pageflutter on Instagram, when I sat straight up with an exclamation.

Can’t see the embedded Instagram post?

“Hunting Miss Trentwood!” I shouted at my husband, who jumped, and then grimaced. No, that was too close to the title for the first book, Haunting Miss Trentwood. But I knew something was there, and abandoned my writing challenge to ideate on possible titles:

  • Hunting Miss Trentwood
  • Seeking Miss Trentwood
  • Seeking Mary
  • Hunting Mary Trentwood <– the tentative winner

In this proposed sequel (my first ever), we follow Mary and Hartwell as their relationship is tested by the pressures of London, Queen Victoria’s Jubliee celebrations, future mothers-in-law, Victorian spiritualism, and hey, Jack the Ripper might make an appearance (at least in newspaper headings).

I’m just starting to revisit my old written notebooks for my Haunting Miss Trentwood research, but the excitement for writing a book is returning!

Can’t see the embedded instagram post of my research notebooks?

Anyway, it’s a good way to end the year, I hope, dreaming about my next book.

P.S. I’m revamping my newsletter to a semi-monthly review of things I’m into that you should totally know about and hopefully be into as well. If you’re not getting my newsletters, you can sign up and read the archives here.

Happy reading,

Belinda

Sneak Peek into Our Next Adventure

I’ve never written a sequel before. It’s a terrifying thought. Which perhaps makes it all the more appropriate that the plot which often disturbs my dreams is a sequel to my young adult comedic ghost story, Haunting Miss Trentwood.

I haven’t been able to make it out to my writer’s group due to my hectic schedule, but I wanted to share a scene with you.

Image borrowed from the TV show Penny Dreadful because it is so perfectly matched. Penny Dreadful is not suited for children and some adults, nor is it safe for work. It has many triggers, so please do your research before watching this show.

– – – – –

It took the panicked prodding of the young miss beside Mr. Jasper Steele to yank him from his bored reverie. Their hands were clasped, and it took him a moment to remember where he sat.

“May I help you?” he hissed, his pale moustache twitching.

The little brunette, who reminded him a great deal of a former interest, squeaked and nodded in the direction she meant him to look. Mr. Steele looked up to find a fetching young lady floating above the round table as if lifted by her torso like a cloth doll. It was Miss Sewell, the daughter of their hostess. She rotated in air like a suspended top, rotating until stopping to face him. Her upside-down, unseeing stare sent chills down his back. The young lady beside him whimpered.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, for Mr. Steele, this was not his first haunting.

“Ah,” he said. He cleared his throat. “I do beg your pardon. I was… otherwise engaged. Might I help you?”

The séance participants, already on edge, inhaled in unison.

Miss Sewell blinked one eye, then the other. Her soft blonde locks began to fall from their careful coifs, the curls sweeping the table. “Jasper Ssssteele.”

Mr. Steele nodded. “You have the right of it, that’s my name.”

The girl beside him trembled so violently, they almost broke their handshake.

“Do not release his hand!” Dame Hartwell, their séance guide, said.

Jasper gripped the girl’s hand, glaring at her, daring her to let go.

“Jasper Steele,” Miss Sewell said again, far more clearly.

Mr. Steele’s mouth ran dry.

“You must help her,” said Miss Sewell’s unnaturally deep, echoing voice.

“Help whom do what?”

Miss Sewell blinked, her expression clearing, starting to show a moment of horror. “My sister,” she whispered. With a quiet gasp, she crashed to the table, unleashing everyone’s screams finally.

Lady Sewell rose from the table, trying to calm her guests, who all ran from the room as if on fire.

Mr. Steele frowned. He leaned forward. “You don’t have a sister,” he said to the prone Miss Sewell.

“I did,” she said before fainting.

Author Interview with Laura Bendoly

My writer’s group is full of amazing people full of clever words and heart-wrenching plots. Today, I want to share my interview with fellow Columbus young adult writer (contemporary, not historical), Laura M. Bendoly.

Read to the end to find out the winners of THE LAST APRIL from the April Showers blog hop and Goodreads Giveaway.

What should readers know about your writing style?

I’d say my work is character driven. I begin most stories from the point of view character and start to imagine how she would observe the world. What her vocabulary is like, who she’s interested in, who she is nervous around, what she eats, when she goes to sleep, how she prepares breakfast. Once there, the style evolves to suit that character. Sometimes it’s slap-dash informal, all unfinished sentences and a lot of slang. Other characters urge me to write much more formally, and I always put humor in the voice of a secondary character.

There is usually a mystery to solve, either as primary plot or secondary, and also some degree of magic. I use magicians, alchemists, dragons, healers, mermaids, angels, prophets, and saints as vehicles of extraordinary action. These aren’t typically the primary event in the story, because the climax needs to be human in scope and reasonable in its resolution. But there’s a fair degree of the supernatural in a secondary character who helps out.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Huh — when I find the book that stole my plot/character/awesome ending. Hate that. Of course it happens to every writer. But whey does it have to happen to me?

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Reader’s block, never. Writer’s block, all the time. I don’t stop writing, I just tend to get blocked in that I write in circles. I sometimes repeat the same scene again and again and don’t realize it.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Find a secondary art form you love as much as writing. That keyboard will make you a crazy person who no one wants to be around. (I found photography!!)

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I have researched Russian art, folklore and mythology, Scottish/English and Irish fairy tales, I’ve gone to grave sites and holy stones, I’ve traveled to many libraries and bought a lot of expensive books, I’ve read a lot in French. I researched Laerka at least four years before it went to press. It will be more like five years’ research with my WIP. It’s not for everyone but I really want to know my subject.

How do you select the names of your characters?

I base them on the culture I’m writing about (Russian, Irish, French, etc), I try to make the name sound like something that character does. For example, my current work has the protagonist Irene. She is quite like a nature goddess, or nature queen. Queen in French is “reine.” Sounds like the ending of “Irene.” Aslo, Irene sounds like “serene,” which my character is. See how it goes?

What is your favorite childhood book?

I loved and still adore The Little Prince. One of the best fairy tales for all ages. Breaks my heart every time I read it. Also The Giving Tree. Tears are starting to come right now.

How long does it take you to write a book?

A first draft can be as fast as four months, but the whole finished, edited version, at least two years. I rewrite most pages three times.

Do you believe in writer’s block?

I believe in writer’s boredom. Everyone gets bored in their own head. You need fresh ideas and clean space. It’s good to vary your writing location.

Tell us about your latest release!

Laerka is Southern Gothic tale of rescue involving a group of teenagers and a Russian crime ring that sells girls to night clubs in Savannah, Georgia. One particular victim, Laerka, is a Danish girl who transforms into a mermaid when in water.

The Russian crime boss who masterminds the trafficking changes into a “Vodyanoy” dragon when he hunts girls for the illegal skin trade. Savannah native sixteen-year-old Stella Delaney finds Vodyanoy’s first victim floating face down in the marsh.

Can she save Learka from this fate? Is she in danger, herself? Could Laerka be a crook herself? She and the traffickers share the same prison tattoo so who in this forbidding landscape can be trusted?

Purchase your copy today.

Thank you, Laura, for sharing your answers with us! I’ll be sharing my answers to these questions next month!