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.)

Edited to add: I took a class with Piper Huguley at #RT17, and she had two more great sites to share. Nameberry.com has amazing lists of names: from “Antique Baby Names Ready for Restoration” to “Steampunk Baby Names.” Themeaningofthename.com has name compatibility tests, a numerology calculator, a name day calendar, and more.


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!

More about History Ever After at the Ayala Museum (24 February 2017)

History-Ever-After-Title-Slide

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

Mark Twain said that. He’s one of my favorite authors and personalities in the American canon. Did you also know he was one of the leaders of the anti-imperialism movement, and that he argued for giving the Philippines its freedom in the early twentieth century? Interested?

If you live in Manila, I hope you can come to the Ayala Museum on February 24th, from 2-5pm, to hear my talk “History Ever After.” What will I talk about? Good question. I will start with truth and weave in the fiction, and I think Mark Twain would be proud:

  1. I will prove that our news is not new. In fact, America’s current debates over global economic integration, nation-building, immigration, and the use of military force echo the real and vigorous debate that started with the conquest of the Philippines.
  2. I will show how this history helps me develop my unusual, precocious, and maybe even dangerous heroes and heroines. I will talk about each, too, including the main characters of my new novella, Tempting Hymn. Real history writes the best fiction in any genre.
  3. Finally, I will address one of the most difficult questions in historical romance: how do you write happily ever after when your audience knows the next war is just around the corner? In other words, how do you walk the line between romancing history and romanticizing it?

Maybe you want to know about the shared history of Filipinos and Americans, or maybe you want to hear the latest updates in the Sugar Sun series. Or maybe you’re a writer, and you want to know how to shape conflict and character development with real history. If any of these three are true, there’s something for you here!

This talk would not have been possible without the guidance and vision of Mina V. Esguerra of #romanceclass, and thanks to Marjorie De Asis-Villaflores of the Ayala Museum for all her help.

Tickets and more information can be found here.

History-Ever-After

“History Ever After” at the Ayala Museum

Real history writes the best fiction in any genre. The unusual, precocious, and even dangerous heroes and heroines of real life are the ones who inspire us to start typing. But how do you write happily ever after when your audience knows the next war is just around the corner? How do you walk the line between romancing history and romanticizing it?

As historian and author Camille Hadley Jones posted on Facebook: “I’m finding [writing] difficult because I don’t want to ‘escape’ into the past,  I want to confront it—with a HEA of course—yet I know that’s not what’s many readers seek from [historical romance].” Maybe not, but I am right there with her on “confronting history.” That is why I write my books set in the American colonial Philippines. It is why I put Javier and Georgie in the midst of the 1902 cholera epidemic in chapter one of Under the Sugar Sun.

Advice often given to authors is: “Don’t underestimate your reader.” Don’t gloss over the inconvenient,  gritty truth just because you think your readers cannot handle it. Use it to create real characters and real conflict—but make sure that no matter how dark the dark moment, love will overcome all.

This is the subject of my talk “History Ever After” at the Ayala Museum, Makati City, on February 24, 2017, from 2-5pm. With the help of Mina V. Esguerra of #romanceclass, I will answer questions about how I balance courtship and calamity in my Sugar Sun romance series, set in the Philippine-American War. Hope to see you there!

History-Ever-After

Truths about Sabbatical So Far…

  1. You wake up at 6:30 but do not dress until noon…
  2. Your day is divided not in terms of  three meals, but in terms of two courses: coffee and wine.
  3. Calendars and computers are more important than ever because you have no clue what day it is otherwise.
  4. Because you live in a house heated by wood, you share your husband’s excitement about his new chainsaw.
  5. And that’s when you realize you are a full-time writer married to a lumberjack—like a romance novel, and therefore awesome.
  6. You binge-watch Alaska: The Last Frontier with your lumberjack husband and think, “That’s not a chainsaw. I’ll show you a chainsaw!”
  7. You view your meal delivery service as a correspondence cooking course—and vegetable insurance.
  8. You cook for your 16-year-old dog because you can, and because he deserves it. He doesn’t always eat it, though, because he’s just that spoiled.
  9. You take longer to release books because you have time to make them the best they can be. And your lumberjack is a tough editor.
  10. You look forward to writing conferences and other appearances so that you have an excuse to wear big girl clothes and have human interaction beyond your aforementioned lumberjack.

Speaking of #10, I am off the New Jersey Romance Writers’ Put Your Heart in a Book Conference tomorrow (hence the early post). I’ll mostly be offline, so have a great weekend, everybody!

Sugar Sun series location #2: Dumaguete

I could easily live in Dumaguete. Despite the advent of modernity—traffic, diesel, plastic, and concrete—this is still the same city that charmed the early Presbyterian missionaries who chose it over Cebu and Iloilo for their new industrial-institute-cum-university, Silliman. In the words of Reverend Arthur J. Brown, D.D., location scout for the Board of Missions in 1901:

The location is the most healthful and beautiful that I saw in the Philippines. The land rises gently from a pebbly beach to a noble mountain range.  The lower levels are covered with plantations of tobacco and sugar cane, higher slopes with hemp, and the summits of the mountains with heavy forests of hard woods. Across the clear water, the islands of Siquijor and Cebu are seen, and farther away, but in plain view, are the outlines of Bohol and Mindanao.

You can see on the above image, a vintage postcard from the turn of the century, there was no port or esplanade to speak of back then. Visitors had to be brought up to the beach by banca—or, for those with loftier colonial preferences, be carried by litter.

Creative Commons photo by Eugene of the malecón, or esplanade, known as Rizal Boulevard, in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental.

Once on shore a visitor would stroll through a lovely town dominated by the local Catholic church, St. Catherine’s, and its old stone belfry.

St. Catherine’s cathedral and belfry. The bells warned of pirates who would come and snatch laborers away from their fields, hence the name of the town: dumaguet, meaning “to swoop.” Left photo by Jennifer Hallock, and right on Wikimedia Commons.

Though the iconic Silliman Hall (below) would not be built until 1909, the university has nevertheless dominated the landscape of this city for a full 115 years, ever since its founding in 1901. Yet I never mention Silliman once in my books. This presents an interesting question for my readers: how closely do I keep to the facts? One person recently noticed that the Americans in my version of Dumaguete do not come off well, which was the observation that inspired me to put together this post.

Alas, fans of Dumaguete history, do not despair! First, if I bother to rename someone or something, it is because I plan to use artistic license in service to the needs of my story. So the Silliman Institute, named after donor Horace Brinsmade Silliman, became the Brinsmade Institute instead. (Maybe not so clever, but it sounded good.) Real founders David and Laura Hibbard became the fictional couple, Daniel and Mary Stinnett. While there is some passing resemblance between the two men, Daniel Stinnett was designed as a conflation of the many American missionaries who helped colonize the Philippines. Some of the self-righteous words that come out of Daniel’s mouth can be attributed to the real David Hibbard, and others are from his contemporary brethren, but much of his personality I entirely made up—plucked it right out of my head and threw it on the page. And in an upcoming novella, Daniel will truly outdo himself with priggishness—because my story needs that conflict. It won’t be out of step with American attitudes of the time, but it is still fiction.

Creative commons rendering of Silliman Hall (built 1909) by Samurai John. This building is an example of American Stick Style architecture, and inside there are great-looking tin ceiling tiles repurposed from a theater in New York. It is the longest standing American structure in the Philippines.

So don’t get too hung up on my intentions. Mostly, I want the story to feel grounded in a real place with real people, but I take lots of liberties on dialogue, characters, and sexual mores (and how!). The real Silliman University is an outstanding institution, and I especially enjoyed its anthropology, history, and environmental sciences museums, all open to visitors. If you get the chance, you should go visit, and while you’re here check out Bais, too. I’m already jealous…