Friday, July 31, 2009

Using Genealogy Software to Discover Your Characters

By Persia Walker

So I finally did it. I broke down and bought genealogy software. Yes, I'm an amateur genealogist, but in the end, that's not why I cracked the piggy bank. I did it to get help with discovering characters and organizing their familial relationships, not mine.

The story I'm now working on involves a fairly complicated family history. I tried using outlining software to keep it all straight, but without success. I could've just done it the old fashioned way, with a pad and pencil, but then I would've ended up with squiggles all over the place. So computer software it was.

As a Mac user (tried and true), I first turned to Reunion. It's a great piece of software, but I couldn't get it to generate the family trees I wanted it to.

Even so, I would've gotten it, but the price. At $100 a pop, Reunion would've had to write the family history for me.

Then I found the other Mac-friendly software, My Family Tree. Nifty. More than nifty. Quite satisfying. I downloaded a demo and then after playing around with it for about half an hour, decided that the $49 price (which is only $4 more than what I'd budgeted for such a software) was a fair and decent price. It even offered a few features that Reunion doesn't offer. I spent another couple of hours entering data for all the characters, their kin and kindred, into the program.

Sounds like a waste of time?

It wasn't. The program asks all kinds of good questions: birthdays, deathdays, days of marriage, education/graduation, etc. It asks not only when but where events occurred. In posing these questions, it prompts you, as the writer, to think about coming up with answers. Plus, there's a world history window that tells you what was going on in the world during any given character's lifespan. A specific event might not be immediately relevant to your story, but it will flavor your character. There are certain events, for example, that freeze time. Many people remember exactly what they were doing when they learned that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and now many can say the same about Michael Jackson. Most will have a favorite song that, when heard, reminds them of their high school prom, or freshman year in college, or the girl that got away. A program that offers such convenience as a world timeline can help an author tease out the events that might or might not have impacted or influenced his or her character, i.e. ground a character in his or her period.

My main complaint with My Family Tree is that the timeline feature does seem to be a bit glitchy. I added Michael Jackson's lifeline in there as part of the current storyline (the character loved his music). When I tried to add his date of death, the program kept changing it from June 2, 2009 to January 6, 2009. Huh? But otherwise, I'm happy. I've generated relationship sheets that help me keep track of each generation, how the people are related to one another. Will I include all of that information in the final work? Most likely not. But I'll (a) be able to write with more confidence (always a good thing) and (b) avoid certain faux paux. I remember wishing I'd had such a program when writing Harlem Redux, when I began The Palmer Affair, The Quilt, and now the untitled book I'm now working on. (Note: If you're wondering why you never heard about The Palmer Affair or The Quilt, it's because they're one of the five or so books on my hard drive that are 85%-90% done, but not quite there yet.) After several manuscripts without this genealogy software, it's good to have it. I've actually gone back and even plugged in Lanie's information. It's wonderful to see what was going on in the world around her. Again, I do wish that the folks behind it would work on the glitches in the Custom Database, but other than that, I'm happy with My Family Tree. It was a good buy and a useful tool for a writer.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Setting the Scene
By Patricia Sargeant

I love to learn the inspiration and motivation behind writers' works, whether they're creating songs, screenplays or books.

In an interview with L.A. Banks about her Vampire Huntress Legend series, Ms. Banks explained the battle between the huntress's army and the vampires serves as an analogy to the battle between drug dealers and our communities.

Have you read any of the Vampire Huntress Legend books? I have, and I can definitely see the comparison. It's fascinating.

In a documentary on George Lucas's body of work, he explained while trying to develop the script for Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, he had a clear image of the scene in which Indiana Jones battles the Nazi caravan. Do you remember that scene?

Lucas said once he had this image, "all" he had to do was figure out what came before that scene and what came after it. That's all.

When developing my first published romantic suspense, You Belong to Me, one of the first scenes that came to me was the one in which the hero confronts the heroine in her hotel room to try to persuade her to sell him the film rights to her book.

One of the first scenes that came to me while developing On Fire was the scene in which the hero saves the heroine from a burning building.

As a writer, can you share with us one of the first scenes that came to you for one of the books you've written? As a reader, is there a particular scene you've read that especially resonates with you?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Another Great Time-Waster for Writers
By Persia Walker

I'm an expert at distracting myself from writing. Today I want to share with you my latest discovery: face transforming. But this isn't just the run of the mill "cartoonize-me" face transforming that some of us (ahem) know and love. It's transforming on a new level, the level of the scientific. And it's free!

The University of St. Andrews has this very interesting website that allows you to upload a photo and then morph it, so that you see yourself as you might appear if you were of a different age group, ethnicity, or -- and this was the best -- painted by a great artist!

So this is what I'd looked like if the good Lord had made me as Asian. Not bad. When I compare the morphed versions with the original, I'm surprised at how many of my features lend themselves to other ethnic groups: the brown eyes, the broad nose, the narrow eyes. What do you think?

I've always had a secret yearning to know what Modigliani or Mucha would've done with my portrait. Thanks to St. Andrews, I have a chance to find out.

The St. Andrews site offers you the option of several perceptions, including but not limited to seeing yourself (or someone else) as a baby, teenager, young adult, older adult, a member of the opposite sex; as Caucasian, East Asian, West Asian; as seen through the eyes of Botticelli, Modigliani, and Mucha. You can also do a Manga version. (I tried it. It was the one version guaranteed to make my narrow eyes look big! A bit too big.)

Now how does this help your writing? I can't say that it will. But I don't think it'll hurt it, either. It always helps to take a different slant on things, including yourself. Just off the top of my head, I'd say it would be fun to upload a photograph of someone you see as a character in one of your books. Morph it and see how a change in age and/or ethnicity affects your perception of your character. It might even help you crystallize vague ideas about your character, make specific and detailed choices. It might help you enliven a character who seems asleep on the page. If nothing else, it'll provide at least 15 minutes of happy distraction!

Here's the long form of the link:

Best wishes for healthy fun and creative distraction!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Continuing Education
By Angela Henry

I’m constantly amazed on a daily basis about how much I still have to learn about the ins and outs of the publishing biz. Fortunately, for those of us with inquiring minds, there is a ton of info online made available by people in the know. Here are some of my favorites:

Pub Rants is the blog of literary agent Kristen Nelson. Nelson dispenses wisdom, knowledge, advice, and industry insight from an agent’s perspective. She even posts sample query letters by some of her clients as examples of what kinds of queries caught her eye as well as sample pitch letters she’s sent to editors.

Ever wonder what happens to your book after a publisher acquires it? Then Pimp My Novel is the blog for you. Written by an anonymous person who works in the sales department of a major publisher, blog topics include explanations of such mysterious publishing terms as Nielsen Bookscan, Sell through, and just what it means when your book has been skipped.

As someone who has a project currently on submission, The Intern has been an invaluable blog. Written by an actual unpaid intern at a publishing company, this blog covers what happens after your manuscript arrives in a publisher’s mail room, what goes on in those editorial meetings, and why who your manuscript is addressed to can make all the difference in the world. Good stuff.

EReads is the blog of agent Richard Curtis. Okay, full disclosure, Richard is actually my agent and he happens to be one hell of an insightful man when it comes to the publishing biz. Some of the posts on his blog are actually essays he wrote twenty or more years ago and are almost scary in their accuracy in predicting publishing’s current downward slide.

Now, go forth and be informed!

Friday, July 17, 2009

I Just Fell in Love ... With A Website
By Persia Walker

Debbie Ridpath Ohi's wonderful site,, promises a slew of daily diversions for writers. That's an understatement. With cheerful comics and inspirational bits of news, Ohi will not only help you happily distract yourself, but also, somehow, actually get you to writing more than you thought you could!


Right now, she's urging folks to take on the 500-Words-A-Day Challenge. (We just missed the 10,000-Words-In-A-Day Challenge! Whew!) Take a break from your writing. Go on over to, get refreshed, get inspired, and have fun.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tweet Tweet!
By Angela Henry

I finally broke down and joined the Twitter revolution. I'll be tweeting about my MystNoir blog updates as well as book stuff and whatever else that comes to mind. So click the link below and follow me, pretty please!

Get Twitter Buttons

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Way Back: Blog # 7
By Gammy L. Singer

To be on top is a tenuous position—the bottom, tenuous--and the middle is mostly unrewarding. Who would want to be a writer? That’s an underlying theme of Olivia Goldsmith’s (The First Wives Club? died of complications of plastic surgery at age 54?) 1996 novel, BESTSELLER. Why hadn’t I read this book before? If I had, would I have become a writer? Oh hell, probably. For the same reason people become actors, or dancers, or artists—they’re built that way, in the genes, in the destiny. Whatevah!

I discovered the book on my weekly trek to my local library. There it was, sitting quite unremarkably on a shelf. I was of course drawn by the title. See? Titles do count. The color was eye-catching too, pink and red. What do those colors say? Pink, a woman’s book. Red, expect some spice. Well, it is a dishy book, exposing the underbelly of publishing.

When I started reading I didn’t want to interrupt to figure out who was actual and who was made up, (but it required some mind-muscle to figure out who was who, not knowing all the super-players in the book world), but the author provided an index of all names, pages of names which thudded with name-dropping regularity throughout the book. Authors, publishers, editors intermingled with fictional ones, and the revelations so dicey I figured, well, those people had to be fictional. Not true.

Underneath the title on the cover, the copy says, “Every Book Has a Story,” and that’s what the premise is. The stories of five authors, whose writings range from the literary to the profane. Five authors, five lives—oops, one is dead, but her mother pushed the book to publication, she's alive. There’s also a publisher, Gerald Ochs Davis (G.O.D.) who insists on publishing himself and giving himself a million dollar advance, and then plays with the numbers, rifling book sales from midlist as well as bestselling authors. There's also a “good” underdog editor and a crazed one. It’s wild reading, guys. You ought to check it out. Very eye-opening for this author, with publishing practices put in the context of these character's lives. Interesting reading.

Loved all the quotes heading each chapter, by writers, or about writers and writing. Had to sort out the fictional from the real there as well. For instance, this quote is attributed to G.O.D.--see above--and I had to figure out if it was a real publisher--see below.
The year I returned to active publishing there were five varied manuscripts submitted to Davis & Dash; five manuscripts, each by a different author, each with different aspirations. All five made the enormous jump from unpublished manuscript to published book, but only one among them was destined to make the next leap to become the bestseller.”

Some other yuks, randomly chosen quotes from the book.

Chapter 51.
“Let every eye negotiate for itself, and trust no agent.” -William Shakespeare-

Chapter 56
“The publisher is a middleman, he calls the tune to which the whole rest of the trade dances, and he does so because he pays the piper. –Geoffrey Fisher-

Chapter 27
“A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The waste basket has evolved for a reason.” – Margaret Atwood-

Chapter 66
“An absolutely necessary part of a writer’s equipment, almost as necessary as talent, is the ability to stand up under punishment, both the punishment the world hands out and the punishment he inflicts upon himself.” -Irwin Shaw-

Chapter 34
“I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money.” –Dorothy Parker-

What I gleaned from the novel’s subtext. Fear operates at every level, through every human being. But each of us is in charge of ourselves, after all. We can choose to be fearful on this path, or not. I choose not. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!

I will not be fearful--on my way back!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Writing is writing, right?
By Angela Henry

“You’re a writer. So you should be able to help me write my research paper, right?” Researching the paper topic, yes. Writing it, no way. I get asked this a lot from the students and staff at the college where I work. Everyone seems to think that because I write, I know how to write everything. We’ll I’m here to tell you that not all writing is the same. I write fiction. Fiction. In other words, I make stuff up. I put a lot of thought and planning into what I make up. But it’s made up none-the-less.

I graduated from college in the late eighties, which means I haven’t had to write a research paper for more than twenty years. And writing papers was my least favorite thing to do. My papers tended to be a lot of BS strung together with a works cited page tacked onto the end. Plus, my grammar sucks. Other writers may disagree. But for me writing fiction is a whole lot easier than writing non fiction. Yet, when I try and explain this to people, they listen politely and then proceed to ask, “But you can still help me, right. I mean you’re a writer."

What about you? If you're a writer what do you write: fiction or non-fiction? And why?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Craft books: Plot & Structure
By Patricia Sargeant

Have you read any good craft books lately?

I'm almost finished with Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. It offered some good insights into plotting, such as:
- The elements of a plot (lead characters, objectives, conflicts, etc.)
- Generating plot ideas
- Revision tips
- Pros and cons of outlining your stories

Each chapter ends with writing exercises based on the topic covered within that chapter. Chapter twelve also offers several common plots (e.g., revenge, quest, love) and their basic components.

Some of the information is a little rudimentary, but overall, Plot & Structure is a good writing craft book. I'm sure I'll refer to it from time to time, at least for chapter twelve.

Have you read any craft books lately? If so, would you recommend it? Why - or why not?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

MystNoir Rides Again!

By Angela Henry

Back in 2000 I started a website called MystNoir, which featured mystery/suspense/thrillers by and about African-Americans. The site was a labor of love for me. As an avid, lifelong mystery reader and eventual writer, there just wasn’t much info out there about mysteries by black authors. I figured I wasn’t the only one interested in the genre. So I started MystNoir to share the books that I was finding. MystNoir was featured in Black Issues Book Review Magazine. Won a Golden Web Award. Was named a "Hot" Site by USA and was a featured website on numerous mystery related sites. However, as the years went by, and my own writing career progressed, I found myself with less and less time for MystNoir. The labor of love had become just a labor and I’m ashamed to say the site fell by the wayside.

Now, thanks to my fabulous fellow Crime Sistah Persia Walker, MystNoir is back in blog form! I’m still tweaking the blog to get it just the way I want it and there is still much updating to be done as far as reviews and resources go. But I’ve posted a featured title for July. Click here for the new and much improved MystNoir! I hope you guys have a safe and happy 4th of July ; ).


New York Times Feed

Design by Dzelque Blogger Templates 2008

The Crime Sistahs - Design by Dzelque Blogger Templates 2008