Naming Things

I have a dog named Dog. All right, that’s a slight exaggeration. I have a dog named Puppy. His collar says his name’s Ptolemy, but no one in the family has ever called him that. Ever since he wandered into our lives, he’s been Puppy. And really, that’s probably a good thing, because who knows how to pronounce Ptolemy?

I get the embarrassing task of responding to each question of, “Oh, what a cute puppy! What’s his name?”

“Um…well…Puppy…”

And then I follow up with the story. Once upon a time on a December 26th, a puppy showed up in the culvert under our driveway like a belated, growling Christmas present. We called, we coaxed, we offered turkey scraps, but nothing would induce him to come out. We ended up calling Animal Control to evict him. Of course, by that point the kids had fallen in love with him.

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So we fostered our little squatter until the animal shelter people were sure no one was coming for him. During that whole week, he was The Puppy, and by the time we were finally sure he was ours, the name was firmly attached. (In case you were wondering, Puppy’s “real name,” Ptolemy, came about because we had another dog named Cleopatra.)

The point of this whole tale is to show you that I’m utter crap at naming things. Dogs, cats, kids, blog posts. But novels, especially. In fact, I’m positive that overall, I spent less time choosing names for my children than I’ve spent on manuscript titles.

I end up with ridiculous working titles like Middle Story, which I then spend months trying to change. Because there are working titles, and then there are titles that have terrible work ethics. They slouch around the house, eating all the snacks and watching TV, and they just won’t leave.

As I suspect that I might not be the only one with this problem (and judging from everything out there on the topic, I’m not), I thought I might compile some of the material I found, with links to a few excellent articles.

So why bother coming up with a great title, you might say? Won’t a publisher change it anyway? Possibly. But it’s still important to stand out from the slush pile. So what follows is my list of the most informative and thought-provoking bits of advice I have found. It’s by no means inclusive. It’s simply a summary of all the ideas I found particularly helpful.

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First of all, the obvious (but always worth a reminder):

  1. A title should be memorable. I think The Hobbit is a great example. It’s an easy but unusual name. Short, simple, and evocative.
  2. A title should be attention-grabbing. Titles such as Fahrenheit 451, Neverwhere, or Strong Poison can be positively chill-inducing. As a kid, I bought (and enjoyed) The Undertaker’s Gone Bananas solely because of the title. Years later, on my bookshelf, it caught my teenage daughter’s eye, too.
  3. It should give an idea what the book is about. Pride and Prejudice. Harry Potter and the (magical artifact).
  4. Make sure the title fits with the story and also isn’t badly out of place with the genre. If you pick up The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, you probably know you’re about to read a fantasy. On the other hand, a title could fit in any number of genres and still be memorable, such as Winter Garden.
  5. Make sure it hasn’t already been used recently, or is the title of a well-known book or movie. Titles aren’t copyrighted, so you can reuse them. It just might not be in your best interests to do so. So do a Google or Amazon search to make sure that Twilight, your epic novel based on the Norse legend of Ragnarök, hasn’t been used anywhere before…

Some great advice I hadn’t considered:

  1. Make it easy to pronounce. Something like Phthamlxatl and the Pachyblepharon—maybe not so much.
  2. Offer a mystery. What is a hobbit (I imagine someone asking in 1937)? Or take, for example, The Other Boleyn Girl. (Wait, there was another one?)
  3. Make a promise to the reader. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Enough said.
  4. Try not to make it too embarrassing to read in public—unless you’re going for something meant to be read in the privacy of one’s home. Imagine sitting on an airplane reading something called Sex Tips for People Who Are Really, Really Bad at It (I’m pretty sure I made that one up. Apologies if I did not).
  5. Be precise. Spend plenty of time choosing the perfect words. After all, Death on a Train isn’t nearly as evocative as Murder on the Orient Express.
  6. Think about multiple meanings—good or bad. A Separate Peace has one, obvious, meaning at the outset. At the end of the book, the reader realizes the title could refer to many different things. (Full disclosure: I bombed that symbolism essay in high school.) On the opposite side, the name Isis has a different meaning to most people today than it did even twenty years ago.
  7. Avoid overly trendy titles, like The (Something)’s (Relation). (Although having just thought up The Geneticist’s Cousin, I’m tempted to write a sci-fi story of forbidden love.)
  8. Don’t make it too short or too long. One-word titles don’t often stand out, unless you’re a Disney film (Frozen, anyone?). Conversely, leave Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships to Jonathan Swift.
  9. A title should be original but not distracting or obscure. Poor Phthamlxatl.

What to do:

  1. Study other titles in your genre.
  2. Brainstorm lists of 10-20 titles, then refine them down to the top two or three.
  3. Poll other people on what they think of your choices.
  4. Figure out what your book is really about. Write down some key words that you think describe it, then construct a title from one or more of those words.
  5. Find something from your text that speaks to you. Maybe it’s something one of the characters says that defines the theme of the book. Or maybe it’s an original twist that you think is unique—an unusual world (The Night Circus), event (The Hunger Games), or an intriguing protagonist (The Ghost Bride). Perhaps it’s your character’s unique perspective (Bridget Jones’s Diary). Add imagery and/or alliteration (Blood Rose Rebellion).
  6. Finally, if you’re really, really, really stuck, there are always the online title generators. A Google search will give you an obscene number of hits. Here are only a few:
    1. Completely random: http://booktitlegenerator.com/
    2. This title generator (http://www.fictionalley.org/primer/title.html) generates ideas that actually have something to do with your plot. It uses key words that you input.
    3. And finally a fun one: this title generator by Tara Sparling (https://tarasparlingwrites.com/book-title-generators/). You use your name, birth month, and so on to generate the title of your masterwork. Looks like I need to get started on my chick-lit book, Where Smiles Would Speak. Or perhaps my autobiography, My Breathtaking Pilgrimage.

Great references:

Appel, Jacob M. 7 Tips to Land the Perfect Title for Your Novel. http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/write-first-chapter-get-started/7-tips-to-nail-the-perfect-title

Bottcher, Saul. How to Pick a Title for Your Book. http://www.indiebooklauncher.com/resources-diy/how-to-pick-a-title-for-your-book.php

Buttars, Marla. Choosing Your Fiction Title. http://www.eschlerediting.com/choosing-fiction-title/

Farndale, Nigel. Naming a Novel: Nine Months of Angst. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/books-life/7075095/Naming-a-novel-nine-months-of-angst.html

Max, Tucker. Picking the Perfect Book Title. https://bookinabox.com/blog/how-to-title-book/

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah and writes renaissance-era historical fantasy. She read—i.e. memorized—her first book, The Owl and the Pussycat, when she was two. She likes to think this is where she got her first taste for thrilling adventures in magical lands, spiced with a touch of romance. When she’s not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she enjoys spending time with her four independent children, an adventure-loving husband, and more dogs and cats than she likes to admit. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden.

What Makes You Happy?

I had a moment of transcendent happiness a few weeks ago. Now, I’m not an unhappy person, as a rule. Though my family may disagree, I believe I tend to stay pretty evenly keeled. My bouts with crushing, wrenching despair are probably as rare as my bouts with supreme joy. But this moment struck me, and because I’m fairly scientific by nature, I spent some time trying to analyze just what the formula for that sort of happiness was.

I was in the French Quarter of New Orleans, sitting at a restaurant with my husband and my in-laws, and we were two long days into a road trip from Utah to Florida. (Which on the outset sounds more like a recipe for tearing one’s hair out than bliss, doesn’t it?) New Orleans wasn’t a stop on the quickest route, but my mother-in-law had never been there, and my husband and I hadn’t been back since our honeymoon, so we decided it was worth the extra couple hours of travel time. So we fought our way through narrow, crowded streets, found parking, walked for a bit, and did a quick online search for good lunch spots. And now here we were, seated next to French doors opened wide onto the street. It was mid-November and seventy degrees. Rock music and jazz battled it out in the distance, with additional percussion provided by road work a couple of blocks over. Traffic bustled past—foot, vehicular, and horse-drawn carriage. The scent of fresh manure floated in on the breeze, courtesy of the latter. From within, there was a noise of clattering dishes and people talking. Over everything was a tantalizing odor of Cajun food.

And I realized I was happy. Purely, blissfully, incredibly happy.

(No, it wasn’t the drinks, thanks for asking. They hadn’t even arrived yet.)

There are words for supreme happiness, but none of them seem to fit. Terms like rapture, beatitude, and ecstasy imply a religious angle (or a sexual one, which is an odd but not incomprehensible intersection of meaning). But it’s not about religion. Or about sex. It might be akin to the feeling one gets when falling in love—that magnificent sense of everything being fated. The conviction that no one has ever, ever felt this way before—that you’ve discovered a grand new emotion.

But really, I suppose, it’s just—being in the moment, being completely content. Knowing that this instant, this right now, is where you are supposed to be.

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If I ask you what makes you happy, chances are, you’ll talk about the things you love most in the world. Spouse, family, children, to start. And I agree. Don’t get me wrong—I agree. But that sort of happiness, at least for me, has always been fraught with so much else. With my children, for example, I’ve always tempered happiness with worry for their futures, responsibility for their wellbeing, guilt over not doing the many, many things the world tells us a good parent should be doing. There’s always something left undone when I’m dealing with the people I love, something niggling at the back of my mind that tells me I might be inadequate.

What about a good job well done? What about writing? I understood two things, that moment in New Orleans. First, that this is the same feeling I get sometimes after a good day’s writing. And second, that for me, there are some profound similarities between writing and that afternoon in a crowded restaurant.

Writing is also fraught with worries, of course. Once you share your words with the world, you open yourself up to criticism. What will the reader/agent/editor/publisher think? If writing is a career, the worries compound exponentially. But there was that nugget of joy, wasn’t there? That pure moment when you said, “Yes, this is where I’m supposed to be.”

That day in New Orleans, I discovered three reasons for my happiness. First, I was exploring a strange and exciting new place. What was around the next corner? My feet itched to wander, even if only for a few minutes. Second, I was sharing my admittedly limited knowledge of the area with others. I’d been there once before, but my mother-in-law hadn’t. I wanted to show her around, and I had just enough confidence in my abilities to feel good about that. Thirdly, there was the immediate prospect of good food—always serious business for me (ask anyone).

When we write—and maybe what I’m saying is particularly specific to fiction, but I think it applies to nonfiction as well—we’re leading our readers on a journey through a wonderful new world. We’re their guides, knowledgeably showing them the highlights, the things that could touch their souls. And there’s just enough of the unknown in it for us as well that it’s still exciting to see what’s around the next bend. (But what about the good food, you ask? Believe me, if I could add it to my manuscripts, I would.)

Is there stress, worry, guilt? Of course. But sometimes we get lucky and all that fades into the background, and we set off into the wild—intrepid leaders following the trail of story.

And now it turns out I have a word for that type of happiness after all. Because out of all the ways I’ve phrased it above, one of them keeps resonating with me. Maybe it’s the season, but that word is joy.

May we all have joyful writing in the coming year.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

Is it a Comedy or a Tragedy?

“It’s been an awful year,” I said to my brother Andrew. It was 11:30 on New Year’s Eve 2016, just outside of Seattle, and we were the only ones in the house still up. The music was low, the kitchen was a warm glow in the darkness, and the mood was much more suited to introspection than celebration. My baby nephew was cranky with a cold. Andrew and his wife had just come back from visiting her dying aunt in the hospital. A planned fun evening with my husband’s sister had been cancelled after she badly sprained her ankle.

And that was just December 31. Our father had died in September, after fighting pancreatic cancer for three years. It had been a difficult few months, especially for Andrew, who was still coming to terms with the fact that his son would never know his Grandpa Steve. The country had just gone through an ugly election, and one of my first thoughts at the time was that I was glad my dad hadn’t lived to see it.

Andrew leaned back in his chair and said, “F*** 2016.”

And I had to agree. But I was hopeful for 2017. Grief doesn’t last forever, after all, even though it sometimes feels that way.

What do you do when sadness pulls you down? With so many serious things happening in the world, it sometimes seems hard to justify spending time on a trivial activity like writing fiction. You may think, “What good will it do? How is this going to change humanity for the better?”

Despite my hopes for 2017, the year hasn’t been all kittens and birthday cake. The massacre in Las Vegas two weeks ago hit close to home—literally. I live only a couple of hours away from that glittering, self-absorbed, resilient city. A couple of good friends were at the Route 91 Harvest concert at which 58 people were senselessly murdered and hundreds of others injured. Though my friends are physically fine, the pieces of their story that they have so far shared are absolutely heart-rending.

And once again, it’s hard not to wonder, “Why bother? Why am I wasting my time on this when there are important and real things to do in the world—things that may actually make a difference?”

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The plays of William Shakespeare tend to be divided into histories, tragedies, and comedies. (For purposes of this post, I’m going to ignore further divisions such as romances and tragicomedies.) In the simplest possible terms, if the play ends with everyone getting married, it’s a comedy. If it ends with everyone dead, it’s a tragedy. As for the histories—well, I’m going to ignore them, too.

There always have been, and always will be, happy stories and sad stories. My husband can always tell when my book club is reading something sad, because I’ll be down for days. (My book club went through a phase where it seemed that the only books we read were about Nazis or slavery. Whoa. Just—whoa.)

Humans need sad stories. The tragedies—the deep tales that dredge up all the emotions we usually prefer to keep buried—can serve a cathartic purpose. A catharsis, according to Brittanica.com is, “…the purification or purgation of the emotions (especially pity and fear) primarily through art.” It goes on to add, “… through experiencing fear vicariously in a controlled situation, the spectator’s own anxieties are directed outward, and, through sympathetic identification with the tragic protagonist, his insight and outlook are enlarged. Tragedy then has a healthful and humanizing effect on the spectator or reader.”

In practical terms, tragic stories can give us the impetus and courage to change things—whether within ourselves or in the world at large. Who could read The Nightingale, The Book Thief, or The Invention of Wings and not want to fight evil and ignorance with every last breath?

But maybe you prefer stories that make you happy. I know I do. The ones you choose to tell probably depend in some measure on the ones you like to be told. Because I prefer comedies (in the Shakespearean sense of the word), that’s what I try to write. I love stories in which unhappy things may happen, but in which everything comes out all right in the end. Light-hearted tales may not garner the respect that serious ones do, but they can release us, at least temporarily, from a life or a world that may be less than perfect.

We humans need the happy stories as much as we need the sad ones. Studies have shown that reading fiction makes people more empathetic. Check out this article: “Why Reading Fiction Makes You a Better Person”. We could all use more empathy, right?

Here’s another article, this one from the TTOF family. Rosalyn Eves has written an encouraging post that touches on the importance of fiction as an escape.

And in case you simply have a hard time opening up that document file and getting to work, Megan Paasch has some good tips for writing when external things get to be too much.

Because I want to write a comedy—because I prefer them—I’m going to finish with a couple of happy things. Thousands of people survived the worst shooting in modern U.S. history. Stories have emerged from that terrible night—stories of heroes, human connections, lives well lived, and legacies handed down.

Finally, on a more personal note, my brother and I had never been close. We have different mothers, he’s fourteen years younger than me, we live 1,100 miles apart, and we haven’t shared a home since I was seventeen and he was three. But my dad’s cancer sparked a friendship between us that might not have happened otherwise. Because of something tragic, I’ve gained new relationships with a brother, a sister-in-law, a nephew, and even a handful of step-cousins.

And that’s worth writing about.

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Kris Bio Pic.jpgKristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah and writes renaissance-era historical fantasy. She read—i.e. memorized—her first book, The Owl and the Pussycat, when she was two. She likes to think this is where she got her first taste for thrilling adventures in magical lands, spiced with a touch of romance. When she’s not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she enjoys spending time with her four independent children, an adventure-loving husband, and more dogs and cats than she likes to admit. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden.

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Permission to Write—Granted

This was going to be a completely different post. I was going to consider writing rituals—those choices of location and atmosphere that we feel inspire us to be more creative. I was going to talk about superstition, and how it can sometimes be a good thing, if, like a magic feather, it helps to trick your mind into performing.

So I started doing some research. What do other writers—ones with far more authority than I—do to get the creative juices flowing?

I began by paging through my copy of On Writing, by Stephen King, which I first read about seven years ago. But after only a few minutes of this, I was hooked. I opened the book to page one and read it straight through. I finished the next day (it’s not a very long book, and it’s an easy and engaging read, half autobiography and half pep talk).

I’m a more seasoned writer now than I was the first time I read the book, so I noticed different things this time around. Bits of advice that had seemed profound many years ago (avoid adverbs whenever possible, kill your darlings) were now simply nice reminders. What surprised me the most, though, was the message I took away from this second reading: with nearly every page, King grants us permission to write.

It turned out to be a message I really needed to hear that day.

You see, I was feeling a little down about all the time I’d been spending with my laptop. Maybe I was even slightly ashamed of it. “I, uh, write a bit,” was a huge—I mean huge—admission for me. As if my friends and family were going to demand a resume, a bibliography, and three years worth of tax returns to prove my credentials.

You may be familiar with imposter syndrome—that idea that whatever success you’ve had is a fluke, and you’re about to be found out. There have been some excellent Thinking Through Our Fingers posts on it, such as here and here.

Why is this so prevalent among writers? Is it because writers tend to be such an introspective bunch that self-doubt comes naturally to us? Is it because popular culture only venerates the bestsellers, the blockbusters, the top-forty hits? Or is it because the statement, “I’m a writer,” calls to mind stereotypes of pretentious know-it-alls who delight in correcting one’s grammar?

If you (or any of your friends) play golf, you probably don’t mince around with the word golfer. You don’t say, “Well, I golf a bit, but y’know, it’s just something I do when I have time. I haven’t been able to earn a living at it yet.” No. You say, “I’m a golfer.”

My husband’s hobbies are rock-crawling (extreme four-wheel-driving) and desert racing. And while I can’t say he’s never made a dime at it, I can affirm that he’s spent far more money on it than he’s ever made doing it. And he’s never apologized for it, because he loves it. It’s part of what defines him. He’s a rock-crawler. I’m a writer.

Say it with me. I’m a writer. There, that wasn’t so hard.

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So if you’re feeling a little down yourself, feeling like you’re maybe wasting your time, here are some words of permission by Mr. King himself.

“…when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy.” (p. 150)

“If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires…consider it hereby granted by yours truly.” (p. 150)

“In writing classes, if nowhere else, it is entirely permissible to spend large chunks of your time off in your own little dreamworld. Still—do you really need permission and a hall-pass to go there? Do you need someone to make you a paper badge with the word WRITER on it before you can believe you are one? God, I hope not.” (p. 235)

“I have written because it fulfilled me … I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.” (p. 249)

So what are you waiting for? Write. Even if you never make a dollar at it. If it makes you happy, write.

For what it’s worth, you have my permission, too.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

Avoiding the Pitfalls of {too much} Solitude

I work at a university, which is another way of saying that I never had to leave school. At least I’m on the other side of the red pen, now. And I still get to have that school year mentality—the one where Christmas break, spring break, and summer vacation are the most wonderful times of the year.

Ah, summer vacation! I start looking forward to it in March (pretty much the day after spring break ends), because I am going to get SO MUCH done. When May rolls around, I think with awe about the months spanning uninterrupted before me. I make elaborate lists: write, work out, write, read, write, yard work, write, home improvement… I wake up early, excited to get started. Why can’t the entire year be like this?

And then, about mid-June, the novelty wears off. I start to get…bored. I sleep in later. Seven a.m. turns into seven-thirty turns into me barely cracking an eye when everyone leaves the house. The sad truth is, as much as I love my writing time, my mind starts to unravel when left to itself for too long.

As I’ve been doing this summer thing for awhile, I’ve developed some coping techniques. When the kids were younger, I was still at my wits’ end by August, but at least it was never dull. Then they started getting drivers’ licenses. The house got too quiet. My low spot was the summer a few years ago when pretty much my sole hobbies were playing Candy Crush and crying (yeah, I know—so many warning signs). After that, I took a good hard look at myself.

Writers, of necessity, spend a lot of time in their heads. We long for those quiet hours when it’s just us and the keyboard. But this isn’t a healthy place to stay for too long. These are some of the things I’ve learned that keep me functioning.

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  1. Take care of yourself, both physically and mentally. After my rock bottom summer, I started seeing a wonderful endocrinologist, who did some blood work and prescribed a medication for hypothyroidism that changed my life. It turns out that was what I needed to combat depression, but everyone is different. Don’t neglect yourself, and don’t downplay symptoms.
  2. Stay in touch with other writers. And not just through text on a computer screen. I have a writer friend I don’t see often, but we message each other every now and then and meet up for lunch. It’s incredibly invigorating to have even just that little bit of contact. Critique groups are wonderful for that, too. Also writing conferences.
  3. Join or start a critique group. I know I mentioned this already, but it’s important enough to repeat. A thriving critique group is hard work, but a go-to support group is a lifesaver. It’s also a source of accountability. I find it a lot easier to sit down at that keyboard when I know three other people are waiting for 5,000 words by Tuesday.
  4. Get some exercise. I am the world’s most reluctant athlete. I don’t get runner’s high—I get runner’s I-hate-this-I’m-so-miserable-and-why-is-it-so-damn-hot-(or-cold-or-windy)? Some might say I don’t run far enough (I’m looking at you, my marathon-running critique partners). My answer to that is…well, I won’t say it here. But even with as little as one yoga session and a couple of walk/jogs with the dogs every week, I find my body refreshed and my brain churning with new ideas.
  5. Hide the snacks. Getting rid of them is best, of course, but that’s too hardcore for me. I’m guilty of leaving treats in plain sight—right at this moment I’ve got a family pack of Reese’s Pieces, some strawberry peanut M&M’s, a bowl of tortilla chips, a box of candy left over from Christmas, and half a bag of chocolate Chex Mix on my kitchen counter. And that’s only what I can remember without going to look. Welcome to my sugar-addicted life. It’s only a few steps from my laptop to Chocolate Heaven—not nearly enough to count as exercise, more’s the pity. But out of sight, out of mind, and putting all that stuff away in a cupboard helps. And right after I finish this, I’m going to do just that.
  6. Train your family to be supportive. This one doesn’t always work. But if you’re fortunate, you may have someone in your life who will not only respect your writing time, but help pull you out of any writerly funks you may fall into.
  7. Learn something new. For awhile, I made a game of developing a new skill every summer. One year, I learned how to knit. Another, I took piano lessons. Last summer, I canned 36 jars of peaches from our tree. (For someone who hates to cook, that’s a huge accomplishment.) New hobbies keep me busy when the words don’t come, and hey, now my characters can talk semi-intelligently about knitting, pianos, and canning fruit. This summer’s goal? Dog agility training. Really.
  8. Or volunteer. Or otherwise become involved with something external and different. My family is usually supportive (see above), but my husband is occasionally guilty of uttering the words, “Since you’re not doing anything this summer, why don’t you…” But you know what? One day a week of working at his business has actually been good for me. For one thing, it resets my mind. After applying it to new and challenging problems, I return to my writing refreshed. Also, new skills: if your characters need intimate knowledge of state and private vehicle impounds in the state of Utah, I’m your guy. And it keeps me on a reasonable getting-out-of-bed schedule.
  9. Finally, have something to look forward to. For me, it’s road trips, days at the lake, and returning to my fulltime job in August. Ah, fall semester! I can’t wait.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

Getting Back on that (Writing) Horse

I went horseback riding last month, for the first time in about [number redacted for security reasons] years. I grew up in Los Angeles, owned a horse, and went riding a couple times a week. My husband grew up in Southern Utah, had horses in his backyard, and had never been on one in his life. Go figure.

So I decided it was time to see what my life’s companion looked like on horseback. (Spoiler: like someone way more comfortable with a steering wheel in one hand and a gear shifter in the other.)

It wasn’t until right before the big moment that I started to wonder about what I would look like on horseback. Even though I rode all the time as a teenager. Even though I’ve been bucked off, stepped on, kicked, and shoveled more manure than I ever want to see again. Ever. Even though I endured months of riding lessons, walking, jogging, and cantering around in circles while my teenaged instructor made out with her boyfriend in the middle of the ring (which made me an expert in boredom, if nothing else).

So, yeah, I used to be an ok rider, but remember that number? The big one at the beginning of this post?

But of course that’s not the real reason I was worried. The real reason is plain ole’ everyday stage fright. The tittering voice in the back of our heads that tells us we’re just not good enough, and why on earth would we put ourselves on display like that when it would be so much easier to go sit in a corner somewhere?

Getting Back on that (Writing) Horse

I don’t know about you, but this gnawing doubt has always been part of my writing experience. As with riding, I took several years off from writing seriously. There was always a reason. My kids were young. I had just started a new job. I went through a divorce, and then a remarriage. But at heart, the real reason was this: I knew, just knew, that real writers had something I didn’t, and that nobody could possibly be interested in what I had to say.

Until I realized that there was something missing in my life, something I missed desperately. So I started taking my writing seriously again. But it took me some time to feel comfortable with it.

To return to my dubious horse metaphor—I was convinced I’d make a fool of myself, even though the poor little mare I hoisted myself onto wasn’t much bigger than I am. There was little resemblance to my old horse, Aman Mirage. Aman had been a piss-and-vinegar half-Arabian with attitude to spare. The horse before me now made me think of Banjo, the tired, grizzled pony I rode once a week until he died at age 24. I hoped this one wasn’t about to die, as well.

Now, I’d known all along this ride would be no heroic adventure. It was a cruise ship shore excursion, of all things, designed to suit every possible level of physical fitness. Sleepy toddlers would have finished the journey with their slumbers intact. I think my horse slept through it, too.

But I’ll admit, it took a minute before everything started to come back. And I felt so sorry for my little horse that I didn’t have the heart to push her into anything more energetic than follow the leader. But soon my feet fell into place, my hands remembered their job, and my back straightened up. Turns out riding a horse is like riding a bike. And you know what they say about riding a bike.

My “aha” moment, the profound thought that inspired this post, was when I noticed my right hand. These reins were short, but I had learned to ride Western style, with long, trailing reins. I glanced down, and caught my right hand resting on my thigh, looking forlorn. It was missing those trailing reins. My right hand had remembered what to do, even though I had never consciously reminded it. Here I was, trying to force myself to remember everything, and all along, my hand just lay there, unconcerned, wondering where the rest of the reins were.

I was trying too hard, as usual. When I started writing again, too, it took some time to relax and let my word-generating muscles take over. I (mostly) stopped worrying about what people would think and just let myself do it. And pretty soon, things started rolling along.

We’re all here because we love words—reading them and writing them. But we don’t always consciously remember what we know. Sometimes all it takes is to flex those muscles to get them doing their thing. And soon enough, we’re riding off into the sunset.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

Writing Real People in Unreal Settings

Raise your hand if you’ve ever stared too long at someone because you were trying to memorize their features for a character description. Ten points if there was awkward eye contact. Twenty-five if it was a work colleague, and you were casting a villain.

There’s a whole lot of great advice out there for developing characters. Maybe you have an entire notebook filled with information about yours, up to and including their favorite ice cream. If you do, I confess I’m jealous. I’m a great believer in outlines, but I’m an inveterate pantser when it comes to character development. I have no idea who my characters are until they start interacting with each other. Only then can I figure out whether they prefer vanilla or mint Oreo.

If you write contemporary fiction, you may have been able to transplant your real-life human subject into your story with few modifications. However, those of us who write historical or speculative fiction have a bit more work to do. We have to think about language, the mannerisms and habits, and especially the fundamental assumptions of the time and place. Each of those could warrant its very own post, if not its own textbook chapter.

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This is my short advice: research, research, research. Write what you know, sure. But also: write what you’d like to know. Write what you’d willingly spend hours reading books, articles, and web pages about. This doesn’t only apply to historical fiction. Even if you write high fantasy, your setting will have at least some similarities to an actual historical period, whether it be fourteenth century Italy or feudal Japan, Viking Denmark or Queen Victoria’s England. I mean, come on, you know you didn’t make everything up. (And if you write science fiction, I’m begging you to know at least a little science first.)

Say you’ve got this wonderful character in this fantastic setting. Say it’s 1543 Munich. You know what your character looks like, because you’ve taken your spouse, your neighbor, or that guy in line at Starbucks, and put him in a doublet, beret, and, ahem, a bright orange codpiece.

He’s waiting for a friend. Since it’s not 2017, he’s not going to pull out his phone and catch up on social media. Will he pull out a book instead? Would he own a book in 1543, and if he did, would he take it outside and risk exposing it to the elements? Would he pick a flower? Pick his nose? Say he steps into a mud puddle. What does he say?

The most enjoyable research I’ve done in months was to read Holy Sh*t! A Brief History of Swearing, by Melissa Mohr. It’s not for ready blushers, but it’s humorous and contains a world of information of how (mainly English-speaking) people have used obscenity and swearing since Roman times. It discusses how oaths—the “holy”—and obscenities—the “sh*t”—have waxed and waned in their relative gravity over the centuries.

Our sixteenth century man might have used an excremental word to convey his displeasure. But if he were really, really mad, he might say something like, “God’s teeth!” And you see what side of the pendulum swing we’re on now, since I didn’t have trouble typing his oath, but hesitated before typing the other expletive. But our man lived in a different world than ours, in which sex and bodily effusions were rather more out in the open.

For this gentleman, an oath before his god would have been worse than epithets about excrement. The pendulum was swinging, however, with the rise of a new middle class, who showed off their hard-won respectability by declaring barnyard activities obscene. (This is why people have sworn like lords, tinkers, and sailors, but no one ever accused someone of swearing like a grocer.)

So now that we’ve figured out how our character talks and acts, how about his assumptions about his world? I’m not talking about the things we need to tell a good story—his hopes, fears, flaws, or his emotional arc. I’m talking about the things in his environment that he probably will not question—ever, unless our plot forces him to. Like the role of religion in his society. Or women. Or kings. Or the plague. Or the intelligence of children and peasants and dogs.

And yet we want to make our characters resonate to our readers, despite possible different worldviews. We want to identify with this man, codpiece or no. We want to look through his eyes, and feel his loves, hates, and needs. He needs to be like us—he is like us—in all the ways that matter most. So we walk a thin line between historical truth and emotional truth.

I’ve read a few novels written by historians, and in my opinion, most were dry as dust. I think these scholars spent so much time trying to be true to the historical figures they’d spent years studying that they’d lost sight of the fascinating people living behind the history. The books were nonfiction masquerading as fiction, and thus fell flat. I write historical fantasy rather than straight historical, so I can probably get away with a little more fact-tweaking. But I enjoy, and try to write, stories that strike a balance between historical accuracy and storytelling.

We writers have at least one advantage—we’re all experts at being human (apologies to any nonhuman writers out there). We enrich the worlds we create, intentionally or not, by placing the people we know into them. And no, I haven’t ever cast any work colleagues as villains. All right, maybe once, but it was years ago. Promise.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.