Reading as a Writer

We’re writers, but we’re also readers. Some of us were readers long before we had the idea to become writers (raising hand). Some of us read a lot, some a wee bit less (hand creeping up again).

I admit that I read less these days. Partly because life is so busy that by the time I sit to read, I struggle to stay awake for more than a few paragraphs. I used to make Fridays my reading days but that hasn’t been happening as much lately either. But I still read. Every. Day. And I almost always have multiple things going, because there are different types of reading:

  • Reading to learn
  • Reading to keep up
  • Reading for inspiration
  • Reading for the sake of reading

It’s the last two I want to talk about, though.

Most of the books I read these days are in my genre, not only because I’ve always preferred women’s fiction, but also because most of my author friends write women’s fiction.

When I’m working on a project, I seek out books that deal with similar issues to the one I’m working on and authors with similarities in our writing styles. I know there are authors who won’t read anything that resembles the project they’re working on for fear that the other author’s words/voice will seep into theirs. That’s never been a fear for me. I read them for ideas, for inspiration.

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A few years ago, I was reading a review, and while the book sounded interesting, it was this line from the reviewer that stopped me: “I am constantly on the prowl for something that will distract me from the ‘task’ of reading and remind me of the joy of reading.”

I just finished reading a novel that reminded me why I love reading. And why I love writing. Okay, so first, it made me question whether I should give up writing and become a unicorn farmer because the more I read, the more convinced I became that I would never, ever be able to write that well. Which, of course, led to massive panic about the proposal chapters I’d recently submitted to my agent, a slightly-very neurotic email, and a gummy-bear filled pity party.

Yes, dear friends, that’s one of the pitfalls of reading in your genre. There will always be authors who are better than you.

But once I stopped freaking out and relaxed into reading this beautifully written story, I loved every word. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want it to end. And as soon as I stopped comparing my inadequacies to her brilliance, I was able to pin-point the thing that had been bugging me about the project I’ve been working on.

When I read a book that takes my breath away, makes me pause to reread a particularly perfect phrase, I copy it into a notebook that’s titled “inspiration.” I refer to that notebook often when I’m writing, not for ideas but as a reminder of my goals.

I’m not an analyzer. I don’t like to dissect books to see what worked and what didn’t. I prefer the books to work their magic – or not, as the case may be. I used to think that made me less of a writer. But like with the writing process, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Breaking a novel apart doesn’t work for me. It’s like plotting … I’ve tried it, it stresses me out and strips the enjoyment out of the act.

Writing is my job. It’s not always fun and there are days when even scooping unicorn poop sounds like a better career choice.

My goal is to write the kind of story that reminds a reader of the joy of reading.

So yes, when I read, I take off my writer hat. I read for the love of the written word. And as I’m falling into a world created by someone else, I know that by giving myself permission to enjoy the ride, I’ll come out the other side a better writer.



Orly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world where she spent roughly sixteen years working in the space industry. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking entirely too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around two over-fed cats.

She is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, a member of the Tall Poppy Writers, and a quarterly contributor to the Writers In The Storm and Thinking Through Our Fingers blogs.

Her debut women’s fiction, The Distance Home, released from Forge May, 2017. Carousel Beach will release May 8, 2018.

Connect with Orly online at:
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A Study In Humanity

One of my passions is buying and selling vintage décor. I’ve been to a lot of estate sales, and they are a fascinating study in humanity. Estate sales are basically indoor yard sales where everything in the house is for sale. They’re usually run by an outside company that prices the items and receives a percentage of the profit. In most cases, the homeowner has passed away and the remaining family members need help sorting and managing all the belongings left behind.

At first, I admit it felt intrusive—even disrespectful—to traipse through someone’s home alongside all the other eager buyers, snapping up people’s earthly possessions for bargain prices. How would I feel if my whole life was on display, up for sale, reduced to boxed-up objects carted away by strangers?

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But soon my perspective shifted. Apart from the typical trappings of daily life—bedding, dishes, sofas, clothing—I started to pay attention to the fascinating touches that make every person precious and unique. I began to see these sales as a form of tribute to the people who had passed. I’ve found old family photos, love letters, and recipe boxes stuffed with carefully copied, hand-written recipes. I’ve purchased trophies, amateur artwork, and travel-worn suitcases.

Every house is different. Every life is one of a kind.

My favorite spots to explore are the garage and the basement storage room. Those spaces tell endless stories: there’s the man who stockpiled rocks and fossils; the seamstress with boxes upon boxes of fabric and ribbons and patterns; the family that collected antique tools and kitchen gadgets. All were people with their own dreams and passions, loves and losses, disappointments and triumphs.

Inevitably, many of the homes also contain the typical objects associated with the end of life: walkers, orthopedic shoes, oxygen tanks. There’s no avoiding the twinge of sadness I feel at the sight of those reminders that life is fragile and finite. Plenty of those items could be found in my own home before my mom passed away. But such reminders are important. They keep us rooted in our own humanity.

In my mind, these sales are more than a means to keep my business afloat. They are a source of Story, a prompting to pursue my passions, and a visceral nudge to make the most of every day I am granted in this life.


Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at</div

Writing About Trauma

Many of the characters we read and get to know within the pages of a book deal with trauma. Many characters are children still and many are adults who dealt with trauma as children.

Trauma can be the conflict your character is dealing with.

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As an educator, I attended a training where we learned about Adverse Childhood Effects or Experiences – ACEs for short. I learned about this several years ago and discuss this idea with teachers in my reading endorsement courses that I teach. Just a few months ago, in a course that I teach called Children’s and Young Adult Literature, we read Alan Gratz’s novel Refugee. While discussing this book, we talked about ACEs and how the characters in the book dealt with a lot of trauma. The teachers were surprised to learn about ACEs.

Several years ago, two researchers wanted to learn more about childhood trauma and how it affects people in their later years. They teamed up with Kaiser HMO and all clients of this insurance conglomerate were sent a survey where they had to check yes or no on several categories of childhood trauma. The categories were:

  • Physical, Emotional, or Sexual Abuse
  • Physical or Emotional Neglect
  • Family member with mental illness or depression
  • A family member who was incarcerated
  • Mother who was treated violently
  • A family member who had substance abuse problems
  • Parents divorced or separated.

Over 17,000 clients turned in their surveys.

What they found is that ACE scores were common. They found that if a child had or has experienced at least 4 ACEs, they showed behavioral problems in school. Also, people with 4 or more Aces have 3 times the chance of having lung disease than those with a 0 ACE. They also have 14 times chance of attempting suicide, 4 ½ times chance of developing depression, 11 times chance of using intravenous drugs, and 2 times developing liver disease. If a person with 8 or more ACEs, who do not smoke, drink, or do drugs still have a 360 percent chance of dying from ischemic heart disease – the leading cause of death.

When we write about characters who experience trauma, it would be great to look into Adverse Childhood Experiences to really get a close look at what type of person that character may become. Or, if we are writing about an adult character, this may help you understand why your character is doing the things they are doing. It might even give you more back story for your character – in both instances. Because oftentimes, our writing mirrors real life…and ACEs are real life.



John Scovill is originally from Iowa and has since lived in Arizona, Texas, and now Utah. He is a father, a husband, a teacher – now school administrator, and a writer. He hopes to hear from you at or on Twitter @johnlit360

Writing About Guns Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

triggerTrigger Warning (heh): This post talks about guns and how to write about them. If that makes you squeamish, please go read something else. Thanks.

Good writing requires research. If you’re writing a story that involves open-heart surgery, you’re probably going to do some in-depth reading on the topic so you don’t get critical details wrong. If you’re writing a novel about hackers, you’ll likely want to consult with a computer expert or two to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.

Unfortunately, too many writers ignore this advice when it comes to writing about firearms. Even well-respected authors tend to rely on what they’ve learned on the topic from movies, television and the news media. And sadly, much (if not most) of that is just plain wrong.

You don’t have to be a gun expert to write about guns. In most cases, you’re actually better off being as non-specific as possible. Getting into a lot of details about models and actions and calibers is a sure-fire way to put most of your readers to sleep. When details matter, though, it’s important to get them right. Failing to do so can turn readers off to your writing.

Whether you’re writing about guns or diamond mining or pigeon racing or square dancing, always remember:

Dave’s First Rule on Writing About Technical Details

When you mess up the technical stuff, not everyone will notice, and not everyone will care. But those who notice will care.

I have a friend who is a respected firearms instructor. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of firearms knowledge. A number of years ago, a best-selling author contacted him and said, “I need you to teach me about guns.” My friend spent days and days on the range with the author, teaching him everything from gun basics to marksmanship to defensive tactics.

I recently re-read this writer’s series from the beginning and it was easy to tell the exact point in the narrative where the author got his firearms training. First of all, the author named a character after my friend, so that was kind of a giveaway. Second of all, the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics went up exponentially at exactly that point. A little knowledge went a long way.

The Language of Guns

Words, like guns, are tools … and we all know what happens when you use the wrong tool for a job. If you refer to a Glock 24 as an “automatic,” talk about inserting a “clip” into a revolver or describe a character “cocking” an AR15, you’ll reveal to your readers that you really don’t know what you’re writing about. This intrudes on the willing suspension of disbelief, and can lead to readers abandoning your narrative.

Major Categories of Guns

If you’re going to write a story that involves guns, you should probably know a few of the basics. The following definitions are adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Handgun: A weapon with a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand, which fires a projectile from one or more barrels. (Subcategories include revolver, pistol and derringer.)

Revolver: A handgun featuring a revolving cylinder that typically holds five to ten cartridges, each within a separate chamber. Before a revolver fires, the cylinder rotates, and the next chamber is aligned with the barrel.

Pistol: Any handgun where the barrel and chamber are a single unit. Pistols can be manually operated or semiautomatic. A semiautomatic pistol generally holds cartridges in a magazine located in the grip of the gun. When the semiautomatic pistol is fired, the spent cartridge is ejected, the firing mechanism is reset, and a new cartridge is chambered.

Derringer: A small single- or multiple-shot handgun other than a revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

Rifle: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore—one projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Shotgun: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Note that some people call revolvers “pistols” as well—that distinction is not entirely agreed-upon. For obvious reasons, rifles and shotguns are often referred to as “long guns.”

If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s at least one other type of gun you need to know about:

Musket: A muzzle-loaded long gun that was the precursor to modern-day rifles. While rifles are distinguished by the “rifling” grooves that spin a bullet while it travels down the barrel, muskets generally feature a smooth-bored barrel.

Because of their smooth bore (and because the musket balls are often smaller than the barrels they shoot through) muskets are much less accurate than rifles. It’s said that rifles are aimed, but muskets are pointed. If you’re writing about the American Revolutionary War and you describe Redcoat soldiers “pointing their rifles” at someone, lots of your readers are going to laugh at you. The earliest muskets date back to the 1500s, and muskets were still in common use through the U.S. Civil War and even up to the turn of the last century.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be pretty particular about accuracy, so it’s worth doing some research if you want to sound informed.

Firing Action

Another way to categorize guns is by their “action,” which is a component critical to their design:

Fully automatic: A weapon capable of firing a succession of cartridges while the trigger is depressed, until the ammunition runs out or a malfunction occurs. Automatic weapons are considered “machine guns” and are highly regulated under the National Firearms Act and subsequent U.S. gun laws.

Semiautomatic: A weapon that fires a single shot each time the trigger is depressedA semiautomatic uses the energy of each fired cartridge to cycle the action and advance the next available cartridge into position for firing.

Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon that fires rifle cartridges (as opposed to handgun cartridges). Machine guns are usually designed to be shoulder-fired, and generally feature a barrel 14 inches or longer. Larger machine guns may be fired from a tripod or bipod.

Submachine gun: A simple fully automatic weapon that fires a pistol cartridge instead of a rifle cartridge. “Sub guns” are often short-barreled variants of light machine guns. Smaller submachine guns, called machine pistols, have no shoulder stock and are not designed to be fired from the shoulder.

The distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is an important one. Lots of smart people get this wrong. Plenty of famous authors get this wrong. Consistently.

The important thing to know about automatic weapons is how rare they are. They’ve been highly regulated since 1934, when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. It’s illegal for civilians to own any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986. Pre-1986 guns, when you can find them, are extremely expensive—$15,000 to $30,000 at the low end—and they require an intensive colonoscopy from the BATF to acquire.

Semiautomatic guns are a different story. They’re nothing special. In fact, the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S. are semiautomatic.

Calling a semiautomatic gun an “automatic” demonstrates either profound ignorance or an intent to deceive. Smart authors need to stop doing it.

Misunderstood Concepts

Assault Rifle vs. Assault Weapon

selective-fireAssault rifles, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, are “selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machine gun and rifle cartridges.” The “selective fire” part is the important part: a true assault rifle has a switch to select between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes. (Some assault rifles include a “three-shot burst” option as well.) This is a very specialized type of firearm, available only to military and law enforcement purchasers, virtually impossible for civilians to acquire. Roughly 99.999 percent of the time, when someone on the news is talking about “assault rifles,” they have no idea what they’re talking about.

barrel-shroudThen we have the “assault weapon.” From a functional perspective, “assault weapons” simply don’t exist. This is a purely political term coined in 1989 by anti-gun politicians who needed to classify an arbitrary group of firearms for the purpose of banning them. On both the state and federal level, “assault weapons” have been defined and redefined in contradictory ways. In many cases, the legislators creating the definitions don’t even understand what they mean. This is humorously illustrated by the famous interview with a politician who, when asked if she knew what a “barrel shroud” was, said it was “the shoulder thing that goes up.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

“Assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term unless you’re writing about the politics of gun control.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the “AR” in AR15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” (ArmaLite was the company that originally developed the design.) An AR15 is not an assault rifle (nor is it a high-powered rifle). In truth, it’s a garden-variety semiautomatic that shoots a middling cartridge (.223 or 5.56x45mm NATO) that looks a lot like a military weapon but isn’t.

Magazine vs. Clip

mags-clipsThis is another one lots of writers get wrong.

Clip: A device that makes it easy to insert multiple rounds of ammunition into a gun’s magazine.

Magazine: A device that feeds ammunition into a gun’s action. Some guns have internal magazines, while other magazines are removable. The term is often truncated to mag.

If you’re talking about the rectangular thing filled with ammo that pops into the grip of a handgun, you’re talking about a magazine, not a clip.

Bullets, Shells, Rounds

If you buy ammunition for a rifle or handgun, you’re buying cartridges or rounds. Each cartridge consists of a brass or steel casing (or shell), a bullet or projectile (usually lead, sometimes jacketed in copper), a primer and propellant (also called a charge). Ammunition comes in lots of different sizes, and you have to use the right caliber and cartridge for the gun you’re shooting. Some common handgun cartridges include .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Parabellum, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .22 LR (which is also a rifle caliber). Common rifle cartridges include .22 LR, .223, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield. There are literally hundreds of different caliber/cartridge combinations.

If you buy ammo for a shotgun, you’re buying shotgun shells, or shotshells. Shotshells are measured in gauge, not caliber. The most common are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A shotshell is generally a plastic casing with a metallic base, which contains the primer and propellant (or charge). A plastic or felt wad helps keep the powder in place. In front of that is the shot (multiple pellets or BBs) or slug (a single, big-ass bullet). Shotshells are subcategorized by the size of their shot, with birdshot and buckshot being the most common.

Incidentally, ammunition is referred to as rounds because … bullets used to be round.

Other Considerations

Counting Rounds

Don’t tell anyone in Hollywood, but guns don’t come pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of bullets. If you write a gunfight, you need to know the capacity of the gun or its magazine, and then keep track of how many rounds have been fired (and where they went). Does your character carry additional mags or speed-loaders? If not, your character is limited to the ammunition already in the gun.

Most handguns, when they run out of ammunition, don’t go “click, click, click” when the trigger is pulled. Many revolvers do this, but most semiautomatic pistols don’t. In most cases, when a semiautomatic handgun runs out, its slide locks open. Pulling the trigger will do nothing.

Oh, and anyone who’s ever bought a gun knows they’re not cheap. You don’t throw your empty gun at the bad guy when you’re out of ammo. That’s ridiculous.

Manual Safeties

A manual safety is a mechanism built into a gun that, when switched to safe, makes the gun incapable of firing. Some guns have them and some don’t. One guaranteed way to make a lot of your readers roll their eyes is to write about a character unholstering a Glock and clicking off the safety. Glocks don’t have manual safeties. Most revolvers don’t, either.

Most modern handguns (including Glocks) do have multiple integrated passive safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental discharges. These include hammer blocks, firing pin blocks, grip safeties and trigger safeties. This type of safety can’t be switched on or off, so if you mention a character flicking a safety, make sure the gun you’ve put in his or her hands actually has one.

Working the Action

You know the scene where the bad guy appears and the cop racks his slide or pumps the action of his shotgun in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, that’s stupid. Just about anyone legally carrying a gun will have “one in the pipe”—a round already chambered. This is especially the case if the person is a law enforcement officer. Working the action with a round in the chamber just ejects a perfectly good catridge onto the ground.

Hollywood does this all the time because it looks and sounds dramatic. But it’s not realistic.

Guns Are Loud

You know that scene where your protagonist runs into some bad guys, exchanges gunfire, and then hides in a closet or something listening intently for footsteps on the stairs?

That’s bullcrap. Guns are LOUD—especially in enclosed spaces. If your character fires a gun without hearing protection, he or she won’t be hearing anything but a nasty ringing sound for half an hour or so. At the very least, your characters won’t be whispering to each other just moments later, because they won’t be able to hear the whispers.


You know that scene where the hit man shoots his “silenced” gun and there’s a tiny little sound like a mouse fart and the target collapses to the ground? Complete bullcrap.

Earlier this year, a prominent U.S. politician tweeted: “When someone gets shot by a gun with a silencer, it’s quiet. Witnesses might not hear. Police will be less likely to track down the shooter.” This is exactly the type of thing you expect from someone who learned everything they know about guns from Hollywood.

First of all, “Silencer” is the name of a specific product created by Maxim in the early 1900s. The generic term is suppressor. Suppressors are regulated by the National Firearms Act, the same law that controls the sale and distribution of automatic weapons.

Second of all, a suppressor only partially reduces the sound created by the rapid expansion of gasses at the muzzle of a gun. It doesn’t do anything for the telltale crack that occurs when a bullet reaches supersonic speed (1,127 feet per second, at sea level). Most suppressors reduce a gun’s noise output by about 30 dB—just enough to shoot without hearing protection and avoid permanent hearing loss.

If your character fires a big handgun (say, a 1911 chambered in .45 ACP), each shot generates up to 162 dB of noise trauma. Suppressing such a gun can “silence” it to around 132 dB, which is still louder than the noisiest rock concert or NASCAR race. A suppressed .22 rifle could be as quiet as 112 dB, or even a little less if low-powered subsonic ammunition is used. But that’s still roughly the same noise output as a household leafblower.

Any gunshot, suppressed or unsuppressed, is going to be heard by the people in the next room—and probably across the street. Suppressors don’t “silence” anything. They just muffle really really loud noises so they’re only really loud.

Most People Can’t Shoot

Seriously—most people can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces. And yes, this often includes law enforcement.

Shooting is a skill. It’s one that must be perfected through hours of training and practice. A top competitive shooter can blow through 25,000 or more rounds of ammunition in a year. Military snipers will shoot far fewer rounds, though they make every round count. Also, to be fair, their ammunition is much more expensive.

By comparison, most police officers shoot fewer than 200 rounds per year. Law enforcement qualifying tests are notoriously easy to pass, and most departments allow their officers to retake the tests as often as needed. It’s not hard to find stories of extremely poor shooting by law enforcement personnel. In one notorious case, two NYPD officers fired 16 total rounds to take down a single bad guy … while also managing to wound nine innocent bystanders.

I don’t mean to knock LEOs. Sure, they carry weapons, but their primary role is to investigate crimes, not prevent them. Most departments have very little budget for live fire training. Also, most officers never fire a single shot while on duty, and many don’t do much shooting outside of the qualifying range.

If your character is a firearms noob in a high-pressure situation, he or she probably won’t be pulling off amazing feats of marksmanship—especially at distances beyond a couple of yards.

Even in the hands of a trained shooter, handguns are only accurate for so far. You know that scene where James Bond shoots down a helicopter from a moving boat with a single shot from his Walther PPK? Total baloney.

Kinetic Energy

A person doesn’t get blown back 20 feet when hit by a bullet. This may look dramatic, but it ain’t realistic. A bullet just doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to do something like that.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the effects of bullets on ballistic gel (an analog for human tissue) or animal corpses. I won’t post any links here, but it’s really easy to find that kind of thing, if you need to know more.

Shooting to Disarm or Wound

You know that scene where the cop takes careful aim and shoots the gun out of the hand of the bad guy? Pure nonsense. Likewise, the whole “shoot the bad guy in the leg to wound him” thing is complete hogwash.

Anyone with any law enforcement or self-defense training knows that you don’t “shoot to wound.” You “shoot to stop the threat.” If a situation calls for the use of deadly force, a trained shooter will aim for center mass, or the middle of the torso. Aiming for a person’s gun hand only increases the likelihood that a defender will miss and hit an innocent person. It also increases the chance that the shot will miss, and the defender will end up being hit by return fire.

Character Counts

Much of this goes out the window if you’re writing in the voice of a character who doesn’t know much about guns. In the movie “Stand by Me” (which is based on a fantastic novella by Stephen King), Chris Chambers shows his friends his father’s 1911 service pistol, which he’s brought along on their journey. Gordie asks, “Ya got shells for it?” It’s totally the wrong word, but Gordie is a kid and he probably doesn’t know better.

We don’t expect Gordie to know the difference between a cartridge and a shotshell. But when a soldier or police officer in your story uses incorrect terminology, it sets off warning bells. Similarly, no trained shooter who wants to actually hit his target would hold a handgun “gangsta style,” but a gangbanger (or a wannabe who’s watched Boyz N the Hood too many times) might actually do that.

If your characters are going to display their ignorance of guns, it’s a good idea to cue your reader that the mistakes they make are the characters’ mistakes … and not yours.

John picked up an empty magazine and tested the spring. “How many bullets does the clip hold?”

“It’s a standard thirty-round mag,” Mary said, trying to hide her irritation. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.” He picked up the rifle and fiddled with the charging handle. “Is this how you cock it?”

“John!” Mary yelped, pushing the muzzle aside. “Stop being an idiot and put that thing down!”

What to Do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

No amount of research can equal the experience of sending rounds downrange. If you’re going to write about guns, you owe it to yourself to actually do some shooting so you know what it feels like. And you don’t have to pay a firearms instructor to for one-on-one time at the range. Practically everybody has a friend who’s part of the “gun culture.” It might be that friend of yours who’s a hunter, your cousin in law enforcement, or a neighbor who’s a competitive shooter. Just approach the person and say: “I really want to get a little experience with guns. If I pay for the ammunition, would you take me shooting?”

From my experience, most gun owners love to take newbies shooting. Make sure you go somewhere safe and always follow the Four Rules of gun safety.

Finally, if your story involves a lot of firearms, invite a knowledgeable shooter to be a beta reader. Ask your reader to pay special attention to the gun-related content in the manuscript. Your story will benefit from having an expert double-checking the details.



Postscript: I like to practice what I preach, so I had my friend (the one mentioned at the top of this post) check my work in advance of publication. He made some great suggestions, which I have incorporated into this piece. He also asked me to be a guest on his weekly radio program. You can listen to the program here. It’s the 1-06-18 show. My segment starts around 00:11:50.

David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at

Talking it Out: With Experts

Back in April, I posted about my rejection of the the old “don’t-talk-about-your-book” bromide. Recently, Nik Riptrazone took up the subject again over at The Millions, which rekindled my interest in the core ideas of that post. I also wanted to push a few of those ideas along.

Riptrazone’s post represents one of the most common beliefs about creative process, namely that it’s primarily done by lone geniuses. This goes back at least as far as the Romantic poets, but I just don’t buy it. Our creative communities and networks are real, vibrant, and important. Creativity doesn’t flourish in a vacuum.

In his post, Riptrazone describes an encounter with a professor which led to a discussion of writing. As he began talking about a work in progress, the professor held up his hand and said that people should never talk about a book until it hits the shelf, or they’ll kill it. In this essay, and in everything I’ve read on this idea, no one ever describes exactly how talking about your project kills it.

Riptrazone says:

If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.

But this doesn’t explain what talking does. When we’re told to cough into our sleeve, it’s obvious how that keeps us from showering the room with tiny, moist, viral droplets. What people have to say about not talking about your work reveals no deleterious process. They only say it’s bad, and it will have bad results. Here’s the thing: a book is supposed to belong to the world. Writing is an act of communication, and as far as communication goes, you can’t do it alone, not without people looking at you funny.

I don’t think you should sequester yourself. Even deliberating juries get to talk to each other. But this isn’t what I want to discuss. The comments sections of the internet have this handled.

I’d like to revisit the idea that conversation, interaction, and sharing are generative. They help us create. More specifically, they help us work around our own patterns and avoid cliché. In the previous post, I focused on using conversation to generate ideas. This time, I’m thinking about how interactions with others is a profound and important way to conduct research.

Normally we see research portrayed as a solitary endeavor: one person against stacks and shelves of information trying to locate the needle in a haystack. With grit, focus, and fortitude the researcher will find lost and forgotten gems of information, notice patterns, and verify important truths. This is how it was presented to me in the research methods course I took for my PhD.

Stills from Call Northside 777 (1948).

But there is another method of research. It is common, but overlooked. In fact, this approach has been maligned by the many in my academic field (revered in others). This is the model of the reporter, detective, or social scientist. Conversation and interaction are primary tools for people who move about in the world asking questions. They get people talking, and then they listen.

The research I do for my fiction involves information I’m often not familiar with, so it’s difficult for me to have a clear sense of the key terms and concepts that would allow me to navigate traditional information systems, even some of the amazing ones given to us by databases and machine learning algorithms. Sometimes I only have a broad and imprecise sense of what I want to know, and I’m looking for a deeper kind of serendipity, one where I only know that there must be something there, but I have no idea what it is, or only the vaguest notion of what it might be.

One of the most complex epistemological sets is the category of “things I know must exist but have not been able to find or identify.”

Conversations with experts has consistently been the best approach for me to positively identify and learn about things I know must exist but don’t know how to find.

As I’ve been drafting my current novel project, I have sought out doctor friends to ask medical questions on their understanding of the physician’s duty of care and their thoughts and feelings on Good Samaritan laws. I’ve taken anthropology professors to lunch to learn about ethics of archeological digs. I asked the president of my university (a former prosecutor) about a complex legal question about how prosecutions work across multiple jurisdictions. And a few days ago, I interviewed a former student with a Master’s Degree from the Glasgow School of Art about the philosophical underpinnings of museum curation.

In order for this particular conversation to proceed, I had to tell Debra about my book: plot basics and some character information. This provided a framework for our discussion of the key principles, epistemologies, and guiding practices of museum curators. I told her one of my characters was a curator, and I needed to learn enough so I could begin some of my own deeper research. I didn’t know enough about museum work to do anything more than skim the surface, which I knew would lead to cliche. She was worried that she wasn’t going to share anything useful, and I assured her that I didn’t know what I wanted her to share, but I would know it the instant she said it.

The conversation was inspiring.


We spent close to an hour going back and forth about the differences between artifacts and specimens, accumulations and collections. We talked about the curatorial impulse and how provenance was everything, that provenance was more important, in some cases than the artifact itself. Once she got going, she starting making the most amazing associations, recalling things she hadn’t prepared, making new connections on the fly. I would ask follow up questions, which took us deeper into unplanned and uncharted territory.

This give and take, which (as I’ve said) involved me talking about my book, was an amazing process. From that conversation, I felt I was finding new and interesting, and most importantly, non-cliche ideas about this book. As a by-product of this exchange, (specifically the part about auction catalogues) I had a revelation about the book’s epilogue. Was I planning an epilogue? No, not until the very point in our conversation when I experienced what I can only call an epiphany.

This entirely brand new idea hit me out of the blue, completely formed, as a result of me not hiding my unfinished book in a hole.

When you are minding your own business, keeping your book on the down low, this kind of thing doesn’t happen much. In the end, I’m of the belief that this taboo against sharing your book is a lot like kidnapping a person and keeping them locked in the basement. Or maybe it’s like those hogs confined to sterile facilities where they fatten unnaturally and can only be kept healthy with constant injections of antibiotics.

It’s okay to share your work and interact with others. Your book isn’t going to disappear if you talk about it or your process, which an organic, evolving thing that needs a nourishing environment in which to thrive. As John Donne wrote:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;


Todd Robert Petersen is represented by Nat Sobel of Sobel/Weber Associates. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Role Playing Games: An Unexpected Resource for Writers

My daughter’s class is doing a fantasy writing unit in school. As part of this unit, she was assigned to create two characters as homework. The assignment wasn’t coming together the way she wanted it to and she was getting more and more frustrated. I tried to help her, but that, uh, didn’t work well.

Finally, I picked up the Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook and handed it to her, suggesting she look specifically at the sections on backgrounds and personal characteristics.

And it worked! She didn’t necessarily find the answers she was looking for, but the exercise sparked ideas that led her to figuring out her own problem.

This isn’t a huge surprise that this helped with character creation since the point of games like this is to create your own character that can move through stories guided by the dungeon master or the DM (sometimes called the game master or the GM). One of the main purposes of the Player’s Handbook is to help players create interesting characters by having them think about things like the character’s alignment (are they good or evil? lawful or not? Etc.) and their background.


One of my favorite additions to the newest Dungeons and Dragons edition is the inclusion of tables for different personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws for the different backgrounds. If you like randomness and are writing a fantasy, you can even roll a dice to determine who your character is. What I prefer, though, is to flip through it and look at the different options. Like my daughter, I usually don’t find things that perfectly fit the character idea I have in my head, but it gives me ideas that lead me to the right answers. For me, it has a similar effect to brainstorming aloud with another person.

These traits and characteristics don’t just apply to high fantasies, though, but almost all of them can be translated into a contemporary or historical context. For example, one of the personality traits for a Folk Hero is that they “misuse long words in an attempt to sound smarter” (131). Most of us have met someone like this.

Mostly, I like that the Player’s Handbook gets me thinking about my characters and my story in a different way. Plus, it’s a pretty fun game and we’ve found that, with a few adjustments, it works well on long road trips.

But what about you? What resources have you found recently that have you looking at your work in a different way?


Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

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.


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.


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.