Chatting with Speak Up Talk Radio

I’m so excited to share that I was interviewed by Pat Rullo with Speak Up Talk Radio back in November. Speak Up Talk Radio is such a great, unique offering. Their mantra has always been this:

Speak Up–your words can change the world. Your words and your books are a rare treasure and they act as a powerful source of light for readers. You never know whom you touch or how your words affect those you may never meet.

Speak Up Talk Radio

I’ve uploaded the 30-minute interview for your convenience below, but you can also listen to my interview by subscribing to Speak Up Talk Radio and looking in the November 2020 archives. I also typed a transcript, which you can read below.

We covered topics including what is user experience design (my day job), how and why I picked a pen name for my historical fiction publications, how Haunting Miss Trentwood (2010) came to life, explored the behind the scenes of The Last April (2017) and how we came up with the cover, and a teaser for my upcoming gaslamp fantasy, slated for release sometime in 2024.

Listen to the Interview

Author Belinda Kroll chats with Pat Rullo on Speak Up Talk Radio

Transcript

Pat: Welcome to the Speak Up talk radio network. I am your host is Pat Rullo. We bring you hand selected hosts, podcasts, and talk radio programming with listening options 24/7 streaming or listen on demand. We also feature one-on-one segments with important guests. People who have something to say that you need to hear and if you have something to say and would like to be featured on the network, please visit speakuptalkradio.com for all of the details or contact us at pr at speakuptalkradio.com.

Well today, I have a fellow Ohio author with me, she is Belinda Kroll. Belinda is the author of three historical novels and in addition to being an author, she is a user experience design professional, a hobbyist photographer, and an unapologetic Ohio State Buckeye fan. She enjoys dancing lindy hop, finding inspiration from cooking shows, and petting every dog that allows her to do so and I love that. I’m excited to bring her on so welcome to the network, Belinda.

Belinda: Thank you very much, I’m glad to be here.

Pat: I am glad to have you here too. Now before we begin, I just want to know, what is a user experience design specialist?

Belinda: Yeah, so user experience design is essentially someone who is… I like to call it as someone who likes to make software and websites intuitive for people; meeting the needs of why they came to that particular software or website. So, anyone who is trying to, you know, make the navigation make sense. Trying to make sure that if you went to Amazon, is that buy button right there where you need it or are you hunting around the screen for it? I’m the person that tries to make sure you’re never hunting for something, that everything is where you expect it to be.

Pat: Yes, everybody needs that, I mean I know what it’s like to try to try to do that yourself, there is quite a learning curve to that, so to have somebody like yourself—and I guess during these times it’s… well, any time actually—it’s easy for you to work at home. Remote is not such a problem, right?

Belinda: Yeah, you know, it certainly helps to be in the office with the developer teams and other stakeholders to make sure we’re communicating clearly and all understanding the problem we’re trying to solve, but certainly working remote, we have, I think, we’ve been able to transition pretty well.

Pat: Good, good. All right now, Belinda. You use a pen name sometimes and sometimes not. I think that’s interesting. I know a lot of authors kind of toy with that idea. Before we get into your books, talk about that for a bit. Why did you decide to use it? When do you use it? how does that work for you?

Belinda: That’s a great question. My given name is Binaebi and when I first started publishing, I knew I wanted to start publishing historical fiction. And you know, I wanted… I was thinking I wanted a name that really sort of implied the genre. And so what I did is I took the first letter of my first name, and I picked my middle name and that’s basically “Belinda.” And then I picked my mother’s maiden name. When I put those two together, that just felt like a nice, solid, easy to remember and spell author name. Whereas my given name, especially at the time when I started back in 2003, I just wasn’t sure whether my given name was really going to “speak” historical fiction to readers. Especially given that I wasn’t necessarily writing historical fiction about persons of color at the time. So, this separates my different genres.

With Belinda Kroll, that’s all historical anything, historical fiction. I’m currently working on and brainstorming a historical fantasy, and then my other titles, like Beatrice Learns to Dance, which is a children’s story book, and then some of my nonfiction—I was invited to do some cameo work for the sketchnotes field guide, er, the Sketchnotes Handbook, actually—and then I did a small pamphlet with Sketchnotes Field Guide and those are under my given name of Binaebi Akah.

Pat: Got it. I love that. B-Linda, right? Your middle name’s linda?

Sidenote: It’s actually “Lynn,” but my audio cut out.

It’s good to understand how and why you decided to do that. Now, you’ve written novels, short fiction as you mentioned, non-fiction… but historical fiction seems to be your main interest. Why is that?

Belinda: You know, historical fiction… well, first off, I grew up reading, you know Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery, Jane Austen… I picked up Elizabeth Gaskell in college, and at the time there was something that was really sort of escapist for me. You know, people wearing these sort of grand outfits from my perspective, but a lot of the thoughts and fiction was about interpersonal relationships, and I felt I was learning so much about people even while I was reading fiction.

You know, you read Pride & Prejudice and you learn, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s not good to run away with someone without talking to your family about it’ when you’re thinking of Wickham and Lydia. Or how Jane and Bingley, if their family members hadn’t told them to talk to each other, they may not have gotten together. So there’s a lesson there, and there’s just something really interesting to me about looking at historical eras as a way to learn about what’s happening today. And I think that is also partially why I like to read historical fiction. And I’m also considering moving from kind of the more genre to even now trying to jump into persons of color in historical fiction since I am also a person of color. That is something I’ve been nervous to do, but I think this is a good time for me to embrace that and try it out.

Pat: Oh, absolutely, now is the time for that. Absolutely. Yeah, I look forward to that, and maybe we’ll maybe talk about what your upcoming fantasy that’s going to take place in Columbus, Ohio. We’ll talk about that in a bit. Let’s go backward. Let’s see, in 2003 you wrote Catching the Rose, an 1861 novel in Washington DC, in 2010, Haunting Miss Trentwood, that takes place in the UK. Let’s start with one. We’ll pick a couple today and highlight those. So tell us about that.

Belinda: So Haunting Miss Trentwood is a fun fiction. It starts out a little, well, very much in the gothic realm. The first chapter really sets up this gothic feel of this woman in her mid-to-late 20s, so think of the main character’s situation. She feels like she’s lost her opportunity for living her own life or finding love. She’s been taking care of her father who has been ill the last X number of years, and her mother died previous to the story. So the opening chapter starts with the funeral of her father. It’s a blustery day out, it’s just cold and wet and she’s sort of in shock that it even happened… and then she actually sees her father crawling out of the grave and no one else can see it. No one else sees him. And then she wakes up in bed, her aunt is taking care of her, saying she’s been out of it for three days and then Mary thinks, “Gosh, it’s been a rough time and I’ve had a lot to go through, maybe I imagined the whole thing.” Then the chapter ends with her father standing at the foot of her bed, saying, “Really, you think you imagined me?”

And it goes from there. Mr. Trenwood is hilarious, he’s a very funny ghost. So the story quickly pivots and becomes more of where you’re starting to see me blend historical fantasy a little bit, because you have this funny ghost who’s basically trying to parent his daughter as she is moving through her grief and also figure out, “What is my place in this world? Who do I want to be and who do I want to be with… who do I want to invest my time in?” And will she find love?

Pat: Oh my gosh I would love to be in your head. There’s so much going on. Don’t you wonder where all this comes from?

Belinda: Yeah, I do! You know, at the time, because I was thinking about this the other day… what in the world made me think about that. At the time, I was watching a lot of shows like Dead Like Me, and the pie maker show, what was it called… Pushing Daisies… and you know there were just something about these quirky shows about death and how death isn’t necessarily the end if your story. I think there’s something about that I wanted to explore. I also was, at the time, growing up. I was in college when I was first writing the first draft of that story. I published it while I was in grad school and that was my coming of age era.

You know, I would say I led a really fun childhood. My parents let me remain a child without a lot of responsibility through high school, you know my job was to be a student. I helped work for the family business but I wasn’t necessarily out working in retail or restaurants picking up those sort of life skills where you’re dealing with the general public and trying to figure out how do I interact with people? So college was really that for me. I had this theme of I was having my coming-of-age story a little later than maybe other people would have, and that was also something interesting I wanted to explore. What if your coming-of-age story happened when you were 22 instead of 15, 16, like most fiction?

Pat: Right, isn’t that fascinating how most writers are kind of writing themselves and writing about their lives and learning about themselves, and growing and becoming through their writing. And it’s almost a secondary thing, putting it out there and publishing it for others to read. It’s almost more important the fact that you were able to participate in that and write it down and do that for yourself.

Belinda: Yeah, you know I think to me, I feel like that’s how I interpret the ‘write what you know.’ It’s not necessarily write what you know from a factual perspective, but write what you know from your life experience. What rings true for you as an individual and a human being, someone else in the world has probably had a similar experience or similar emotion or reaction. Maybe their exact details of their situation was different, but that sort of visceral reaction, that’s probably a very human thing that many people can relate to.

Pat: Yes, it’s a double gift, one to yourself and one to your readers. Now, your most recent was in 2017, The Last April, and by the way I love the cover of that, I want to talk about that in a minute. So that’s an Ohio Civil War drama. Give us a little peek into that.

Belinda: Yeah, so this is a fun story, basically what ended up happening is the war is over… it’s set in April 1865 and the war has literally just ended days before. And we’re in Columbus, Ohio, and there’s a girl, her name is Gretchen. She lives on a farm just south of Columbus proper, so with today’s map you could probably think someone close to Grove City, which is part of Greater Columbus. So she’s on her farm, in her garden, and then she looks up and see this guy collapse right in the middle of her garden. She’s like, well, who’s this guy, and what’s going on? He has his head bandaged, and he’s dressed like he’s a confederate, and she’s wondering what’s a confederate doing in my garden in Columbus, Ohio? It goes from there, because then her mother comes back from the market saying, “Hey the news just came out and they’re saying President Lincoln has been shot.” They think he’s dying or dead, and now there’s a nationwide manhunt happening. So now Gretchen is asking the question of whether this guy was part of the conspiracy, what is he doing up here? So it’s a little mystery.

Clearly, if you know history, you know no one in Columbus had an particular activity with President Lincoln, but for the audience that this story was, really it’s more middle grade and adults reading escapist fiction, it’s still an interpersonal story that’s really more navigating the politics and emotional response of a nationwide tragedy that happens. How does that effect individuals?

Pat: All right, that’s called The Last April. Tell us about your covers, that one in particular, I don’t really know, I can’t explain it to you, but there’s just something about that cover that just calls me. It really strikes me. I love that cover.

Belinda: I commissioned that cover from a local Columbus, Ohio cover artist. She does hand lettering, illustrations, and book covers. I gave her my specs—my specifications—I wanted to make sure that I had Gretchen with her braid over her shoulder because that’s how she wears her hair, and I wanted a confederate soldier with his head bandaged. I wanted to appeal to the fact that the majority of the story is happening on this tiny little farm in Ohio, so that’s where we got some of the corn stalks, and then the implications of the American and Confederate flags with the stars behind the characters. So it’s a very patriotic-looking book. The red, white, and blue does speak to us in general as Americans. And then you know, when you have the book in your hand, the book has a really soft, matte cover. It’s not a glossy cover, so it’s something very soft in your hand and it just feels good to hold. I mean, everything about the production of this book is just great.

Pat: Oh I love that. Well, like I said, when I saw that cover I was just so taken by it, so congratulations to you and your illustrator on that cover, it’s perfection.

Belinda: Yeah, the cover artist is Seedlings Design Studio, I think that’s what she goes by, she’s fantastic to work with.

Pat: You found a good one. Now forthcoming in a couple years, you say 2023, it’s an untitled gaslamp fantasy taking place in Columbus, Ohio in 1873. Where’s that coming from and where are you in the process?

Belinda: In true Belinda fashion, I started this book a year ago for NaNoWriMo, which anyone who doesn’t know stands for National Novel Writing Month, you try to write about 1600 – 1700 words a day so that by the end of the month you get 50,000 words. Now, I tried to do this because I had just had my first child the previous April and I was really missing my creative outlet, which was writing at the time and has always been my primary outlet. So I thought, NaNoWriMo it is. I’m gonna try to write something and you know November a year ago, I was really curious about writing about someone who looks like me, someone who is a person of colors. And I wanted to write again about my hometown here in Columbus, because this town is a hidden gem. On the surface it’s a nice midwestern town, maybe not a lot to talk about except the Buckeyes and our food scene has really explored in the last couple of years, but then I started reading more about the history of Columbus.

In particular, 1873 started to stick out to me. It was the year The Ohio State University was founded off the land grant from President Lincoln’s announcement during the war, and then it was the year of our first public library and reading room… so there was something going on about 1873 in Columbus having to do with education and literacy that I just thought was so interesting. And then I started reading about the first graduating classes, of which at the time I think it was called the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, I don’t think it was quite The Ohio State University yet, that’s what it would become. The first graduating classes… I think the first class had a woman in it, and within the first 10 graduating classes, there were people of color in those graduating classes. That’s not necessarily what you think of when you think of the 1870s and 1880s, really, anyway in the United States it’s not entirely what we’re taught in our public schools so I thought that was so interesting… what was it really like back then that our history books maybe either don’t pay attention to or don’t have the space for because you have to get through so much in your curriculum.

And you know, the more I lived with the story over this last year, magic just kept popping in. A year ago, the magic was very library focused, I was playing up the literacy aspect that I was trying to explore, but over time, I started learning more about the educational opportunities for persons of color back in the 1870s. a lot of those educational opportunities were centered around artisanship and craftsmanship. Today we might call them technical colleges where you’re getting a degree, you might be an associates degree, but you’re using your hands and you’re problem solving. You’re making things for people so I think my magic system has shifted from being library and literacy focused to now being more about crafting and then seeing how you can push the bounds of reality through your crafting.

Pat: So you’re kind of growing with this book, or its growing with you as its morphing through different phases.

Belinda: Oh yeah, none of my stories come out fully flushed. I think that’s why it takes me about seven years to write these stories. Because I’m… I’m doing historical research, I’m letting the characters tell me what actually rings true to them or not, and it also takes a while for me to even understand who the characters are. I mean, my main character, her name has changed four times and I think finally, we’ve hit on the right name because now she’s talking to me, and I’m seeing her interact with these other characters, and she’s got her attitude figured out. So yes, it’s a very organic sort of process for me. I’d say I’m a plantser. I mostly a pantser but at some point you do have to plan and think out what’s going to happen next.

Pat: Oh, you’re a hybrid, oh that’s funny. You know, also because your genre requires so much research. I know myself, what I’m doing research I get lost in the research and then that takes you down one rabbit hole and then you go somewhere else and you could research forever, so I imagine that writing a novel, that requires so much research obviously takes a lot of time.

Belinda: Definitely and you do have to have a threshold for yourself. Do I have enough information to at least get a first draft down? And then there are times where I will have enough to get a chapter but then maybe I have a placeholder within square brackets, like [look up street name] or [look up guy who did thing] like I know he did a thing, I can’t remember what his name was or I can’t remember the details of it, so go back and look it up so that way I don’t necessarily lose momentum of writing fiction.

Pat: Right, yeah, there’s a fine line with how much research you do and then how much you present to your reader. I know for me, I want to give everyone all the information I can, and then you’ve got to go back and pull back and say, well that’s just too much.

Belinda: For sure, and I think that’s definitely something I learned while writing Catching the Rose. I wrote that one in high school, so it definitely feels like a first attempt at a book. Certainly, there are readers who like it, but really that is my learning book, did I go too far in one direction with the research, do they go too far in another direction with character development or describing what they were wearing. Do we really need to know what the character is wearing… if it’s not pushing the plot forward, things like that I think… I consider, well, I love Catching the Rose and it has a special place in my heart, but it definitely was my learning book. Haunting Miss Trentwood I consider my debut as an adult writer, you know, someone who has lived a little bit of life and understands how to pick and choose what is actually going to help move that story along.

And then of course with The Last April, that is certainly my tightest writing so far. And I do love that book because it has some epistolary influences. I actually pulled newspaper snippet from the newspapers of the era. I spent a lot of time at the Ohio History Connection going over their archives and finding excerpts so that way you got a real feel of what it was like to live in Columbus in the days after President Lincoln was shot. No one really knew what was happening. The fastest communication you could get was the telegram, which is pretty fast, but when you’re literally playing the telephone game, things will get distorted the farther you are from the event. And so I just wanted to make sure to include… well, the war itself was huge, and then President Lincoln… this was like the 9/11 event of that era. On top of the war we’ve all just tried to close, or at least we all just said ok we think we’ve come to an impasse. General Lee has surrendered, so we think we’re done… so there’s an authenticity I try to go for, but again, it’s finding that fine line. I don’t need the entire article, but I do need maybe that one paragraph that would really speak to the emotional response.

Pat: Lots of work involved in your books, for sure. And speaking of work, something extra, you’ve got an Etsy shop called Bright Bird Press and I was impressed with that! Maybe share that with our listeners as well.

Belinda: Yes, Bright Bird Press is my umbrella company. I use it for my books, I also use it for creating journals and trackers for those who are creatives and caregivers. My shop is split between two categories: those who are trying to write fiction, and I have novel planners in the form of spiral notebooks and saddlestitch notebooks, and I have a couple printables you can print out for yourself and have as many copies as you need for that particular planner.  And then I have a category of products for caregivers, and that’s because I’m a relatively new mother, I have a young one. And then I have newborn trackers that will cover roughly the first three months of your child’s life so that way when you go to the doctor, you don’t have to worry about how many diapers is this kid soiling in a day. You know, those little stats you don’t want to have to keep track of. My first child, I used a mobile app and I think that was helpful, but you know, especially in this remote situation, if I can avoid being in front of a screen, I want to. So I created these newborn tracker logs to help with that. I have a journal I can reference instead.

Pat: Thank you, I love that. So that’s called Bright Bird Press on Etsy. All right, well we’ve kind of danced around many of your books and your work. I know there’s a lot more we could chat about today, but I want to make sure that we haven’t missed anything that you want to talk about.

Belinda: This has been a great conversation. This is the sort of thing that, over time, I know you mentioned in my biography at the beginning that I’m a lindy hopper and I swing dance, that I have a hobby photography business, but you know… ultimately, all of my creative pursuits are being funneled back into my writing. So when you purchase something from Bright Bird Press, you’re really supporting my next fiction so I can afford my cover artist, afford my editor, so everything is just trying to be self-supporting. Creative outlets supporting creative outlets is really how I look at it. So I really appreciate getting to talk about it.

Pat: Oh thank you, I appreciate it too. I was looking forward to this very much today and I want to be sure folks know where they can purchase your books and find everything that they need from you, so why don’t you share any and all of that?

Belinda: Sure, my website is worderella.com, it’s a play on Cinderella. That is also my Instagram handle, so if you want to follow me on Instagram, I’m at Worderella there. As you mentioned, my Etsy shop is Bright Bird Press, and otherwise you can even send me an email at worderella at gmail.com. In terms of my books, you can find my print books on Amazon, I have ebooks across the internet. So if you go to my website, that’s probably the easiest way.

Pat: Excellent, it’s worderella.com, a play on Cinderella, I love that. Worderella. That’s so cool, you’re so cool! I’m so glad we had this opportunity to talk. Any final words before we say goodbye?

Belinda: You know, thanks again so much and I hope to release this next historical fantasy sooner than later, but you know, I can read the math and see it taking about seven years between each book, so… just trying to set myself up for success there.

Pat: So hang on readers, read all the past books and by that time maybe we’ll have the next one out. Head over to worderella.com. Belinda Kroll, thank you so much for sharing you today.

Belinda: Thank you!

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.

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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!