The Writer’s Toolbox: Character Development

Do you need to name a hero or heroine? Plan your heroine’s pregnancy? Determine the color of a child’s eyes? I do, too! Let’s go misuse the interwebs, shall we?


Name characters with writing tool Behind the Name from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

I suppose most people use naming sites to name their real children, not their imaginary ones. But we authors name more people than Octomom on a fertile day, so we need a site for power users. At Behind the Name, you can search names by letter, gender, derivation, usage, history, meaning, keyword, length, syllables, sound, and more. Its historical popularity tables include all of the Social Security administration’s data for American names. And, if you find something you like in Spanish usage, for example, it will give you every possible related name in other cultures. It even has a family tree for names. Moreover, you can ask it to randomly generate a name according to your criteria. The “submitted name” feature even allows you to browse the latest monikers that are not “official” in any country’s lexicon, keeping you ahead of the trends. There is a surname section, too! It is a very powerful tool, and I have used it in my Sugar Sun series from the very beginning. (I also browse names in cemeteries, which I cannot recommend highly enough, especially for historical fiction. You can bring those names back and read about them on this site.)


Random number derivation for character details in writing from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

Okay, now you’re confused. What do random numbers have to do with fiction writing? Well, if you are a little obsessive about your characters, then…everything! I determine birthdays, anniversaries, number of children a couple has, how much a bribe costs, and more through the use of truly random numbers. Need to flip a coin, but don’t have any change on you? Random.org will do that for you, too. It will also pick your lottery numbers, practice your jazz scales with you, and randomly generate short prose. These last few features I cannot guarantee.


Calendar feature for character development for fiction writers from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

And, speaking of calendars, timeanddate.com is very powerful. You can quickly search the calendar of any year in any country. Wait, Jen, isn’t the calendar the same in all countries? No, there are many alternative calendars—Chinese, Islamic, Hebrew, Mayan, and others—all of which are on this site. But, more importantly, even though most countries have adopted the Gregorian calendar for civil use, not every country has the same weekend or holidays. This site has them all.

How about moon phases? If you write a night scene, don’t you want to know how much light there was outside? The site also has a sunrise, sunset, eclipse, and seasons calendar. (If you need tides, I like Tides4Fishing, which has historical data back a few years.)

I also frequently use the date duration calculator to figure out exactly how old my character is on a particular day. This is helpful when writing a series that spans several years. It will also tell you what years have the same calendar as the historical year you might be using. You can find out, for example, that 1815 (if writing Regency) or 1905 (my Edwardian series) both share the same calendar as 2017. This means that more limited internet calendar tools—like those below—can now be used with success. Just use the modern year that has the same calendar as the year you really want.


Menstrual period tracker good for character development in fiction writing from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

“Whoa, Jen! That’s an overshare! We don’t need to know about your menses.” No, I don’t use this myself. I mean, I could, but I’m not that organized about my own life. But I will find out every detail about my heroine’s ovulation, cramps, and menstruation. This kind of woman-centric focus is why I dig romance. In fairness, contemporary romance may gloss over periods of “indisposition” or “women’s troubles” because we have tampons and ibuprofen, thank the heavens. But in historical romance, I want to know when my characters are going to be inconvenienced—even if nothing is mentioned in the book. (Yes, I’m a little obsessive.) Now, thanks to Tampax’s Period Tracker, I know all: PMS time, heaviest flow, post-period, and peak ovulation. For people who don’t exist. I’m so messed up.


Pregnancy conception and baby calendars to use for character development for fiction writers from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

My characters screw like bunnies (ahem, romance!), and since they live in a Catholic country in the Edwardian period, conventional contraception is hard to find. So my ladies do get preggers. And since I, the author, have no children, what do I know about pregnancy? Very little. So I have Baby Center. Their due date, conception, and week-by-week pregnancy calendars are very helpful. You can also chart your heroine’s cycle with them, but it is a little more detailed than the Tampax site, and there is discussion of mucus, so enter at your own risk.


Determine color of eyes for character development for writers tool box from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

The Tech Museum of Innovation and the Stanford School of Medicine’s Department of Genetics did not create this eye color site for authors, but it is a brilliant tool for us. It is a part of a larger online exhibit on genetics. The scientists behind the site would tell you that their model is oversimplified, but since I have not had to take a real science class since high school, I think it’s perfect. But they also walk you through adding a little complexity to the model with these instructions.

You can either examine your results through numerical probability or through a random selection of six children produced by the model. In my work-in-progress, Sugar Moon, the heroine Allegra has a Spanish, blue-eyed biological father. Even though her mother was Filipina-Chinese, and despite Allie and her mother having brown eyes, she and her blue-eyed hero, Ben, have better than a 1 in 3 chance of a blue-eyed child. They could even produce a green-eyed baby (about a 13% chance), since Ben’s mother had green eyes, and his sister, Georgina, has green eyes. Are we having fun yet? I could play with this stuff for days.


Skin color tone guide for character development in writing toolbox from Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series

Speaking of color, descriptions of skin tone can get offensive quickly. Using food is fetishizing, cliché, and worse. If you have questions on this premise, read more from Colette at the Writing with Color blog. Here, though, let me direct your attention to part two of this series where Colette gives many wonderful suggestions, clarifications, and resources to help you decide what to use. It is not just about sensitivity; it’s about good writing, no matter who your characters are. I highly recommend the whole site.

Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series writer toolbox by Jennifer Hallock author

And so concludes the first in my writer’s toolbox series of posts. I hope these sites are as useful to you as they have been to me. Happy character creating, and happy writing!

Research Notes: Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines

Do you remember the days of card catalogs? Or the days when, if your library did not have the book you wanted, you had to wait weeks—maybe months—for interlibrary loan? (And that was if your library was lucky enough to be a part of a consortium. Many were not.) Even during my college years, I made regular trips to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., because that was the only place I knew I could find what I needed. Since I could not check out the books, I spent a small fortune (and many, many hours) photocopying. I still have their distinctive blue copy card in my wallet.

The point is that “kids these days” are lucky. Do I sound old now? Sorry, not sorry—look at the wealth of sources on the internet! With the hard work of university librarians around the world, plus the search engine know-how of Google and others, you can find rare, out-of-print, and out-of-copyright books in their full-text glory.

Today, I (virtually) paged through an original 1900 copy of Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines to bring you some of the original images that you cannot find anywhere else. For example, you may know that almost every village in the Philippines—no matter how remote or small—had a band of some sort, whether woodwind, brass, or bamboo. In fact, these musicians learned American ragtime songs so quickly and so enthusiastically that many Filipinos thought “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” was the American national anthem. You may know this, but can you visualize it? You don’t have to anymore. Here is an image in color:

Filipino street band 1900 full color image from Harper's Magazine in Gilded Age American colony
Full color image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

Smaller bands than the one pictured above played at some of the hottest restaurants in Manila, like the Paris on the famous Escolta thoroughfare. I have seen the Paris’s advertisements in commercial directories, but I had never seen a photo of the interior of it (or really many buildings at all) since flash photography was brand new. Harper’s had a budget, though, so they spared no expense to bring you this image of American expatriate chic:

American expatriates navy officers at Paris restaurant in Manila Philippines in Gilded Age colony
Image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

Not every soldier or sailor ate as well as the officers at the Paris. The soldiers on “the Rock” of Corregidor Island, which guards the mouth of Manila Bay, had a more natural setting for their hotel and restaurant:

Corregidor Island hotel in mouth of Manila Bay Philippines during war between Philippines and United States during American colonial period
Image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

Another interesting image is of a “flying mess” (or meal in the field). Notice the Chinese laborers in the bottom right hand corner. Despite banning any further Chinese immigration to the Philippines with the renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1902, the US government and military regularly employed Chinese laborers who were already in the islands.

American Army soldiers field mess during war between Philippines and United States in Gilded Age
Full color image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

But enough politics. It’s almost the weekend, so this relaxing image might be the most appropriate:

Filipina girls women in hammock posing for American photographer during colonial Gilded Age
Image from the Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines, accessed at Google Books.

Want to learn how to find such cool sources yourself? Next weekend, on April 22nd at 1pm, I will give my research workshop, The History Games: Using Real Events to Write the Best Fiction in Any Genre, at the Hingham Public Library, in Hingham, Massachusetts. The hour-long workshop is free, but the library asks that you register because space is limited. Follow the previous library link, if interested. Hope to see you there!

(Featured banner image of card catalog from the 2011 Library of Congress Open House was taken by Ted Eytan and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

Welcome to the Sugar Sun Series

Read the series that Courtney Milan called “meaty historical romance . . . must-reads.” And “Like nothing I’ve ever read before.”


Chronological Order*

*All books are standalone HEAs (happily-ever-afters) and do not have to be read in order.

Hotel Oriente by Jennifer Hallock novella one in the steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series

The Oriente is the finest hotel in Manila… but that’s not saying much.

Hotel manager Moss North already has his hands full trying to make the Oriente a respectable establishment amidst food shortages, plumbing disasters, and indiscreet guests. So when two VIPs arrive—an American congressman and his granddaughter Della—Moss knows that he needs to pull out all the stops to make their stay a success.

That won’t be easy: the Oriente is a meeting place for all manner of carpetbaggers hoping to profit off the fledgling American colony—and not all of these opportunists’ schemes are strictly on the up-and-up. Moss can manage the demanding congressman, but he will have to keep a close eye on Della—she is a little too nosy about the goings-on of the hotel and its guests. And there is also something very different about her…

Find Hotel Oriente at Amazon.com.


Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock book two in the steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series

A schoolmarm, a sugar baron, and a soldier…

It is 1902 and Georgina Potter has followed her fiancé to the Philippines, the most remote outpost of America’s fledgling empire. But Georgina has a purpose in mind beyond marriage: her real mission is to find her brother Ben, who has disappeared into the abyss of the Philippine-American War.

To navigate the Islands’ troubled waters, Georgina enlists the aid of local sugar baron Javier Altarejos. But nothing is as it seems, and the price of Javier’s help may be more than Georgina can bear.

Find Under the Sugar Sun at Amazon.com.


Tempting Hymn by Jennifer Hallock novella three in the steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series

A Missionary and a Sinner

Jonas Vanderburg volunteered his family for mission work in the Philippines, only to lose his wife and daughters in the 1902 cholera epidemic. He wishes his nurse would let him die, too.

Rosa Ramos wants nothing more to do with American men. Her previous Yankee lover left her with a ruined reputation and a child to raise alone. A talented nurse at a provincial hospital, she must now care for another American, this time a missionary whose friends believe her beyond redemption.

Find Tempting Hymn at Amazon.com.

Sugar Sun series glossary term #32: Ah Tay bed

I just wrote a hot sex scene for Sugar Moon that prominently features a wooden Ah Tay bed. It definitely makes an impression:

Ben’s hips flattened against hers, pinning her shoulder against the bed post. He nudged Allie harder and harder against the wood until she felt the carved floral pattern tattoo her skin.

I bet you’re wondering what that would look like—the carved bed post, not the sex. You can use your imagination with the sex.

Antique Philippines bed in Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series
An antique Ah Tay bed on auction. Leon Gallery opened the bidding at 160,000 pesos, or just over $3200. Salcedo Auctions hoped to get 350,000 pesos, or $7000, for theirs.

The elaborate four-poster Narra frame, with its intricately carved Art Nouveau posts, was the creation of Eduardo Ah Tay, an ethnic Chinese furniture maker in Binondo. The kalabasa, or squash-shaped, dome design became “a status symbol for the nineteenth century mestizo elite” in their bahay na bato houses.

Cheaper beds—versions not made by Ah Tay—had spiral posts. They were not as desirable as an Ah Tay but were still better than sleeping on the floor. However, if you were expecting a mattress on any of these platforms, think again.

“Look here, North,” the congressman said. “You gave us unmade rooms!”

Moss had checked the rooms himself. “What are you missing, sir?”

“Most of my bed!” Holt huffed. “Why, there isn’t a stitch of bedclothes on the blooming thing. Not even a mattress! I raised the mosquito-netting and found nothing but a bamboo mat.”

Hotel Oriente, prequel novella to the Sugar Sun series.

Holt’s confusion was based on a real story of an irate newcomer to the Hotel de Oriente. The rattan platform, mattress-less bed was known among Americans for being “springless, unyielding, and anything but comfortable,” or “an instrument of torture, a rack, an inspirer of insomnia.” Even Philippine Commissioner Dean Worcester called the Philippine bed “that serious problem.”

Antique Philippines bed from Hotel Oriente in the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series
Two photos of the “sleeping machine” at the Hotel de Oriente from the Burton Holmes Travelogue.

The real genius of the bed though was air flow. Woven rattan was both perforated and strong, which made it the go-to technique for a lot of local furniture, including the sillon chair. This ingenuous use of local materials kept you cool before the advent of air conditioning.

Eventually, Commissioner Worcester came to like the bed—he even regarded it a luxury of the tropics. Traveler Burton Holmes agreed the bed had been “unjustly ridiculed and maligned.” He said, “It is…perfectly adapted to local conditions, a bed evolved by centuries of experience in a moist, hot, insect-ridden tropic land, and from the artistic point of view is not unattractive.”

Antique Philippines bed in the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series
Left: A modern-sized reproduction of an Ah Tay bed in the Museo sa Parian (1730 Jesuit House) in Cebu. Photo by Looney Planet. Right: A large Ah Tay at Casa Consuelo Museum at Villa Escudero Plantations in San Pablo, Laguna, as photographed by the Philippine Inquirer.

But don’t try to sleep on an original Ah Tay: not only might it be in delicate condition, but most are far too small. (Humans have gotten bigger—both taller and rounder—in the last 120 years.) There is a decent sized one at the Casa Consuelo Museum in Tiaong, Quezon, and its owners even claim that it—and everything in the house—is authentic. Or you can build yourself a modern-sized reproduction, complete with solid mattress frame, like at the Museo sa Parian in Cebu.

Either way, this is the type of bed where Allegra Potter will bring her handsome, six-foot-plus suitor, Ben Potter. This is where she will debauch him in Sugar Moon. Look for it in late 2017.

Reproduction of antique Philippines bed in the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series
Try an Ah Tay reproduction out for yourself at the Hotel Felicidad, photographed by InterAksyon.

(The featured image is an architectural drawing by interior design student Marinelli Fabiona.)