In addition to the research guidance that I offer in my Micro-History Workshop, I have collected a slew of tools that I use regularly to enhance my character and setting development.
Do you need to name a hero or heroine? Plan a heroine’s pregnancy? Determine the (likely) color of a child’s eyes? Get some dos and don’ts in describing skin color? Follow this link to learn more.
Do you want to view the same sky as your characters? Make a best guess at future weather, with or without a farmer’s almanac? Find a historical map of your chosen city—or make your own? Find out what plants or animals are indigenous to the region? Follow this link to learn more.
In another post, I showed you amazing free sites online that can help with character development. For some books, though, the physical environment is a character itself, and it needs to be developed just as thoroughly—but differently.
Here are some tools for where (and when) your story might take place:
On my character development page, I talk about the usefulness of Timeanddate.com for moon phases, but—oh my—move over T&D because there’s a new web technology in the house, and it’s awesome, in the traditional grand scope of that word. Meet the Stellarium online star map.
First, choose your setting: click on the left corner rectangle that probably starts with “unknown” or maybe your current location. You can add in an address, or even just a city, and move the pointer exactly where you want it. Below is the location for my fictional San Honorato chapel.
Then choose your date and time with the controls that pop out of the bottom right corner. The slider shows you how the sky changes over the course of the evening.
And then, wow. You’re there. Just like your characters. Amazing! You can ask the program to draw constellations for you, to represent them artistically, or even to take the ground away altogether.
I have just barely scratched the surface, and no doubt there are many other amazing features. For example, if you want to take this outside to use for your night sky, choose the night view button that makes the screen red and black to help your eyes stay adjusted and avoid light pollution for gazing. Go play.
Tides4Fishing will give you detailed information on the rising and setting of the sun, solunar activity, moon phase, and astronomical observation data. However, it is best used for tidal data like the name suggests. How many beach-set books forget to talk about high tide or low tide? Yet it is the first thing you notice when you are actually on a beach because it determines how much sand you have right in front of you.
This site only has historical data back a few years, but I find that if you generally get the right time of year and the right moon phase, it works well enough.
I have found no better weather site than WeatherSpark.com—not for your immediate forecast, but for average historical data? You bet. (You can also check out the Farmer’s Almanac website here.)
The diagram above has a little of everything they offer: from clouds in the sky to precipitation, humidity, temperature, and “beach/pool score” (defined as the number of “clear, rainless days with perceived temperatures between 75°F and 90°F”). Honestly, it is also useful for vacation planning.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “How likely would it precipitate on such-and-such a date?” Now you can snow in your couple at a lovely cabin in Aspen over Thanksgiving, assured that this plot device is totally plausible. I love forced proximity romances, by the way, so gimme.
If you are in the United States or its territories (or former territories), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allows you to search historic weather data. Great stuff! There is also a Climate.gov database.
For those outside the United States, there are some excellent sites to consider.
For those writing in the UK, climate policy and history writer Kate Zerrenner suggests the following two amazing sites. They share data sources, but are arranged a little differently. First there is Weatherweb.net & Martin Rowley’s “Weather in History” which is organized by many increments, making it easily navigable. The Isles Project uses Rowley and other historical sources on weather to put everything in one place. It only has four date indices: (1) 11,000 BCE to 1099 CE; (2) 1100 to 1598; (3) 1600 to 1849; and (4) 1850 to 2007 (July). [I suppose nothing happened in 1599?]
A resource I have used a lot for my books in the Philippines is the Selga Chronology on typhoons. It has two pages: (1) 1348 to 1900; and (2) 1901-1934.
Most other “historical” weather sites reach back only to the 1970s, but if you have found some that dig deeper, please contact me on social media or via email and let me know. I will add them here!
Everyone uses Google Maps, and so do I. But for authorly things I often prefer Mapcarta. This free service uses OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia, but this is one of the clearest topographic maps I have found, especially as the topography can be laid directly over a street map.
Or . . . what if you do not know exactly where you want to locate your story? You need someone to lay photos over the map, like VH1s old Pop-Up Video, so you can choose a location. Mapcarta has done exactly that but (sadly?) without the 80s music. As you linger over one of the circles, the site will enlarge it and even give you a big close-up.
Don’t forget the obvious. YouTube is owned by Google, which is why I recommend using the Google Video search bar. This gives you more tools to limit your results, though beware that date refers to date uploaded. I searched “New York 1900” and look what I found:
Another quick tip: use social media like Instagram and Facebook to search places for user photos too!
For historical authors, detailed maps of how cities used to look are essential. For example, Locating London’s Past, with GIS-compliant data-rich maps is a great resource for those setting their book there. For other cities, a specific Google search may be your first stop. Your second stop? Your target city’s library and any digital map collections they might have.
But where next? Try the University of Texas at Austin’s Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. They have maps from all over the world, on topics from population to transportation to history. You can start by browsing their curated collections:
Or you can search for a particular country and look at everything they have. This is the current collection of historical maps on the Philippines:
Most of these maps are government publications, which means they were never in copyright and can be used in commercial publications.
If you want privately published maps—many of which are out of copyright and may be downloaded in high-resolution files—check out David Rumsey‘s collection. Most of the downloads are free, but you can purchase prints, even framed prints, directly from the site. With maps like this one from Time, I can see the appeal.
I found excellent historical maps of Boston in this collection, and I used these to help construct the backstory of my first heroine, Georgina Potter. I knew her address before the story began, though it never once came up in the book itself. Does anyone else go a little too deep into their characters’ backstories, even if just in their heads? Okay, maybe it’s just me.
And if you are not writing historicals? What about science fiction. This site has interactive planetary maps, too, like this one of Venus.
What if you don’t want to use a map but make a map? Stamen is a “data visualization and cartography design studio” that has worked for pretty much every major museum and Fortune 500 company. For the rest of us, they have made some great tools for downloading open-source maps for our own illustrations. First, choose among many different options, three of which you can see below:
Then, enter the place you want—and, yes, it has to be a real place. This is Columbus, Ohio, my own hometown, and the origin of my next heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shepherd.
Click on <image> and you are given options for downloading a portion of the map. Check out the watercolor base for my Sugar Sun series map of Bais:
Amazing, right? It’s actually even prettier in the download. Here’s what I whipped up for my readers:
Do you want to disappear down a museum rabbit hole? Google’s got that. They have digitized collections from over 100 global museums and cultural sites, particularly useful for the budget (or pandemic) constrained.
While nothing here can be downloaded, obviously screen grabs work pretty well.
I particularly appreciate Google’s work with non-profit and academic institutions to bring ancient sites to life. I plan to use these in my teaching.
And, of course, they have both world wars pretty much covered:
I have just scratched the surface here. Go lose yourself.
One of the most important aspects of setting is what flowers you smell or what animals you see crossing the road. Whether flora or fauna, the GBIF database is incredibly powerful. If you know the species name of what you want, this site will show you where and when it has been sampled or observed. It will also give you a lot of data that I cannot really explain what to do with, but maybe you will figure it out. (The lack of science in my post-secondary education is obvious.)
In order to find the record of any particular specimen, you cannot just click on the dot, which is not the greatest user interface. But if you use the limit tool underneath the zoom out button, you can find the information you want.
There is one other important type of map, and there is only one person making them: sensory maps. You got it: what does your scene smell like?
You can read more about artist Kate McLean and her project on Atlas Obscura. If you want the maps themselves, you have to go to her own website, SensoryMaps.com. There you can find illustrations that ask questions like, “What did ancient Rome smell like?”
Smell is the sense too often forgotten in writing. See if Kate McLean can help you fix that.
Thank you for checking out this blog post. I hope the tools I have found are helpful to you, and feel free to contact me if you have other suggestions. Thank you for visiting!
I drove two hours to attend Latin Mass and, predictably, understood not a word. The church was not struck by lightning, though, so I am counting it a win.
Let’s start at the beginning. People say write what you know, and it is good advice…that I do not follow very often. Okay, well sometimes I do: I’ve written two teacher characters so far. My heroines in past and future books hail from Boston (near where I currently live); Fairmont, West Virginia, where my mother moved in high school and the home of my favorite pepperoni rolls; and Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up. I love inserting sports into my historical novels because I am a football and volleyball coach who grew up playing softball and dated a baseball player in high school. Even the hymns used in my novella are favorites from daily singing at the Episcopal school where I teach.
But I have nothing in common with a Roman Catholic priest in 1900. I have written men before, though not celibate men who spent their entire young adult life in the seminary listening to lectures in Latin. When trying something completely different, research matters. I want to write Andres Gabiana as authentically, respectfully, and convincingly as possible.
Where to start? I read. And I read. And I read. You can follow my progress on Goodreads, if you like. What follows is not going to give you any spoilers about the upcoming novel, Sugar Communion. It is more like a stream-of-consciousness book report (which I would admittedly never accept from my own students). Here goes:
I’ve read twenty-two priest and nun memoirs so far. I’ve read three written by priests who, after struggling with celibacy, rededicated themselves to their vows and remained active priests. I have read three written by children of priests and nuns. I have read one by a man who came close to entering the seminary—he lived with religious orders and went on retreats—but ultimately decided against it. Mostly, though, I have targeted memoirs (fifteen of them) written by Roman Catholic priests who left the Church. And, like most of the other hundred thousand American priests who have left, they did so in order to take part in consensual, adult relationships. I really cannot emphasize these last three words enough: Consensual. Adult. Relationships. If marriage is a sacrament and a human right, and the Church says it is, then these priests left to exercise that right.
Sadly, consensual adult relationships with priests are not the average Bostonian’s first thought, but here’s the problem: the priests who sexually abused children in this diocese hid inside the Church. They did not leave it. And that has cost the bishops: nineteen American dioceses have been bankrupted by $3 billion dollars in court judgments, according to the National Catholic Reporter, and all because the Church refused to listen to victims and victims’ families, and instead reassigned these criminals to new parishes instead of turning them into the authorities. Pedophile priests are a small—and incredibly destructive—fraction of those who have broken their celibacy vows. Celibacy does not cause pedophilia. Institutionally, though, it can create the conditions that allow it to thrive, if the seed is already planted: a flawed selection process for priests, sexually immature men in positions of power, a culture of secrecy and shame around sex, and possibly a celibate’s lack of a parental impulse to protect children.
In order to separate my story as far as I can from this pattern, my heroine is a few years older than my priest (both are in their 30s); she is a professional (medical doctor) in her own right; and she is not a member of his parish. Andres is also a good man and a good priest.
He is a good priest, I swear, even by the teachings of the Church itself. Did you know that throughout the first eleven hundred years of Christian history, the leadership—including popes, bishops, and parish priests—could legally wed and celebrate the faith as married men? (I did not know this, either, not until I read two academic treatments from experts A. W. Richard Sipe and William E. Phipps, which are the basis of most of the historical information to follow.) The Jewish tradition celebrated married love and required it of priests and rabbis. Not only was Jesus a Galilean Jew, but his role could be best described as an early rabbi (teacher and scholar). There is evidence that Jesus himself may have been married (and maybe widowed) by the time of his ministry. We know Peter was married. Paul was widowed. Moreover, in the early Jesus Movement, women played significant roles in ministry, church leadership, and funding.
So where did Catholic clerical celibacy and patriarchy come from? Pre-Christian Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. If you didn’t know, these guys were pretty big misogynists, as were most Athenian men. It is from their teachings that early Christian saints decided that male genitals and the whole of women were created by Satan. A female was a defective male, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, quoting Aristotle.
Even worse, once clerical celibacy was required—not until 1139, mind—it inaugurated the most corrupt period in the Church’s history. Marriage was eschewed as foul, while concubinage, pedophilia, and rape were only given mild cautions that were often ignored. Everyday churchgoers needed protection from ravenous clergy that hunted their wives and daughters. Those few priests who wanted to live moral lives by marrying their spouses found themselves excommunicated and their wives enslaved. Schisms and war erupted. It was a nasty time of division and violence, and it was overseen by the men who brought the Church celibacy.
Today Catholic clergy do not even agree upon the definition of celibacy, let alone practice it consistently. At any one time, Sipe says, only about half the clergy in the United States is celibate. What I have learned from the memoirs I have read is that most priests were not given any training at how to be celibate while they were in seminary, other than a few lectures on Eve’s temptations and the corruption of the earthly sphere. They might also be taught the official Catholic teaching on homosexuality as a “disordered” behavior, despite recent studies that have estimated over half of American priests today would identify themselves as gay or bisexual if they were free to do so. The person who first encouraged me to try a Latin Mass is a practicing Catholic who currently lives with his common-law husband, the love of his life, in Arizona. Had this friend been free to be a married gay priest, he would have been one of the very best. Good people of all genders are lost to the priesthood because, for reasons that have nothing to do with their morals and leadership qualities, they are not allowed to apply.
Sexual liaisons are not the only relationships that seminaries restricted, I have learned. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seminaries did not want their charges to even have close friendships. The instructors monitored who walked with whom between buildings like they were overseeing cotillion dance cards. Nor was a seminarian allowed to remain in close contact with his own family. Trips home—even for weddings and funerals—were very limited. The future priest was the property of the Church and not the other way around. Even after ordination, the vow of celibacy allows this control to continue for a lifetime. Bachelor priests are easier to move without notice, and they have no widows or heirs to claim Church property. Not surprisingly, then, the theme that came out strongest in all the memoirs is loneliness.
By immersing myself in these memoirs, I have been able to live, albeit briefly, in the culture that will shape Andres Gabiana. I took extensive notes, and I even bought a scanner to enter them! Most of what I learned will never make it to the fiction page, but it still helps to set the scene in my head.
Most of the memoirs on my reading list took place during the 1940s-1980s, mostly in the United States and Ireland but also one in rural Brazil. I do not read Spanish or Filipino, which limits my Philippines-based sources. However, many of the orders operating in the Philippines were European-based, and their rules applied internationally. The Church is also a hierarchical organization following its own canons (code of law) applied throughout every diocese.
The Brazilian account exposed one flawed assumption from my previous books. In the provinces of predominantly Catholic countries in the early twentieth century, priests would have been in short supply. No curate would have had the luxury of ministering at one tiny chapel at Hacienda Altarejos full-time. Poor Andres. His job just got a lot harder. You’ll see.
Research itself will only take you so far, though. Some things you have to witness. For example, even if you are Catholic, forget (almost) everything you know about mass. The Latin Rite (pre-1962) is not just in Latin, a language that most laypeople do not understand, but also the priest keeps his back to the congregation the vast majority of the time. Half the time he whispers. The only chance for participation is at communion, which is still not a verbal exchange. I had to see the whole thing in person to understand it, so this Monday morning I went to Latin Mass.
On the face of it, the ritual seems designed to be incomprehensible. I barely saw the Host and never saw the priest consume the sacramental bread and wine. It was like watching a cashier make change from across the room. In a court of law, I could not testify that he actually did it. And, to be honest, that confused me more than the silence. It’s not great showmanship—or is it? Maybe what appeals to people in the service is the mystery: “a religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation.” Awe and enigma have fueled religions from the beginning.
I was most impressed by the server, or altar boy. (It does not have to be a boy, by the way. It can be a layman, a subdeacon, deacon, or another priest. Needless to say, he does have to be a male.) I would say the boy was about the age of my students, going into ninth grade. He had to know more than just when to ring the bell: he had to answer for the congregation since we never spoke. This meant he had to know a lot of Latin, and he had to say it clearly. In fact, I found it easier to understand his elocution than the priest’s because, proudly, he sorta shouted. He did not go to school for eight or twelve years to learn how to manage this mass; he learned his part on his own time. He probably takes Latin at the local Catholic school, but still.
I am not sure if Roman Catholicism would not have survived as the largest denomination of Christianity these past fifty years if it had stayed so inscrutable, but the Latin Rite does have its attractions—especially for the priest, I imagine. He is more remote, powerful, and enigmatic. This had to be, at least partly, the draw of a vocation. As all the memoirs made clear, the whole family took on an elevated status in the parish once they had a son in the seminary.
(I do not know if this last part is still true because traditional geographic parishes are breaking down in favor of “personal parishes,” or parishes based on nationality, language, or other specializations. The church I went to was a personal parish centered around the Latin Rite, for example. There is a growing conservative Catholic movement in these personal parishes, and you will see them more and more throughout the United States.)
When I went to mass, I never spoke to the priest about any of my reactions. I never spoke to him at all. He did not seem particularly stern or unapproachable—he was younger than me, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, and he sported a well-trimmed beard. I did not talk to him because he wasn’t standing at the back of the Church shaking hands as people left. Maybe he greets the parish after High Mass on Sundays? I will go sometime to find out, but I am still not sure what I would ask him. I could ask why he chose to be a part of a religious order dedicated to the Latin Rite, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, but that seems like more than a two-minute conversation.
There’s one place for sure that the mass-goer can talk to the priest: in confession before the service begins. In the memoirs I read, though, most priests disliked confession. It is not the voyeuristic extravaganza you might expect. It’s everyday stuff at best (cursing, gossip, impure thoughts); and it’s troubling at worst (domestic violence) without clear ways to intercede and provide help without violating the seal. Crime dramas centered around confessed murders rarely happen, despite each priest hearing dozens if not hundreds of confessions a week for their entire careers—not that anyone wants a murderer confessing to them, of course.
Actually, one theme that came from both the academic books and the memoirs is that confession can mire a priest in the muddy sludge of the material world—lust, greed, corruption—for which the seminary’s tight rules do not prepare him. Often he is ordained before he truly understands what he is agreeing to. He goes from not talking about sex at all to parishioners asking questions about sex (e.g. “Is oral sex with my husband a sin?”). At the time that celibacy became a discipline in the Roman Catholic Church, most priests would have lived about ten to fifteen years total after their ordination. Now they live fifty or more. Statistically, the hardest year for priests is the thirteenth anniversary of their ordination, and by this point many priests have reached a crisis.
In the time that Andres will be a priest, it was almost impossible to leave the clerical office. Though it is easier now to be laicized, or “reduced” to the non-clerical state, it can still take years, or even decades, because the Church is very good at burying paperwork. Meanwhile, they are told to stay far, far away from their old dioceses and all their old friends, some of whom have cut them off anyway. Loneliness can beget more loneliness. And despite what you read in the press, there is no such thing as an ex-priest in the Roman Catholic Church. A priest is a priest forever, even if no longer able to receive confessions, which is done on behalf of the bishop. A laicized priest can still administer some sacraments, like the Eucharist and Extreme Unction, but he can no longer serve as deacon (the position he had before ordination). In other words, their status is…complicated.
Let me thank all the priests (and children of priests) who wrote their memoirs. They have been willing to share their most personal thoughts with me, a stranger. It has been a summer of learning. If you have comments on this book report, please join my Facebook group, History Ever After, and post them there. The real test, dear reader, will be writing Sugar Communion, and there my work is just beginning.
One of the themes of this May’s #RomBkLove series on Twitter was covers. Whether I am at an author event live or just chatting online, the feedback I hear most often about my books is how much people like the covers. If that sounds like a brag, you should know that I do not design my covers. I have some input—more than a traditionally-published author has, probably—but the real credit goes to the unsung hero of Little Brick Books Publishing, Mr. Hallock. (A former professional photojournalist and now a ghostwriter for a consulting firm, Mr. H is also one of my editors, as well as my marketing advisor, business manager, and accountant. We are still happily married, a modern day miracle.)
But we’re here to talk about covers, so let’s get started. I’m going to be giving the inside scoop here, which I hope doesn’t detract from the magic of the final product. Given how many people are choosing to self-publish these days, I thought a little transparency might be helpful. All images were purchased from Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: Always defer to your designer’s technical and professional judgments, as this post is not a step-by-step how-to. Even Mr. H knows not to bow the author’s every whim. The cover is not totally about the book, remember: it needs to project the genre, mood, and theme. For me that meant:
Genre: cross between historical romance and historical fiction
Mood: politically and emotionally charged, with explicit sex
Theme: heavy themes (e.g. war, colonial policy, PTSD, and more)
I am not qualified to instruct you comprehensively on design elements, but here’s another piece of advice: the cover must scan well and read clearly as a thumbnail. Okay, so here goes a short tale of three covers:
Under the Sugar Sun
When we first started this venture, we had some ideas of creating virtual three-dimensional images of dresses, but the technology in 2015 just wasn’t there yet—nor was our expertise. So we started looking at stock images. Since the heroine of Under the Sugar Sun has red hair, I built a collection of redheaded women in vintage (or retro) dress styles. We were paging through them together when Mr. H stopped on the image above. “Easy,” he said.
Easy, I wondered? I loved her hair and the corset, but nothing about the original surroundings of the model was what I wanted. (What kind of bedspread is that, by the way?) But the very next day, Mr. H showed me the crop that would become the cover, including the blacked out background. Instantly, I was excited. Yes, the hooks in the corset are not really true to period, even if you keep in mind that my period is 1902 not 1814. Moreover, my character never wears a corset in the book . . . but never mind! You cannot be too literal, remember.
“So,” you ask, “what did you do to make this cover happen, Jen?” Not much. I did choose the title font, which has become the signature of the Sugar Sun series (which is why I am not naming it here). I searched through font after font, typing in “Under the Sugar Sun” in generators to see what (a) looked turn-of-the-century and (b) struck the right balance of stylistic elements and readability. Mr. H was not sold at first, but he ultimately agreed. A cover was born.
Tempting Hymn had to be a little sultry, though not because Rosa is the temptress she is accused of being. With a title like this one—and a story centered on two people of faith who sing in a choir together, complete with chapter titles from those hymns—this book needs a little sex upfront to warn readers of inspirational romance that this isn’t one. I have no problem with closed-door romance; I just do not write it. This book is open-door. Wide. Open. Door. (I am not afraid of bad reviews on this score. A review saying there is too much sex in a book is pretty much the best kind of negative review to get. However, I do not wish to make people unnecessarily uncomfortable.) Mr. Hallock had to do a lot of work to make this a cover—see the above note about nail polish—but I love it.
It took a really long time to find this photo. A really long time. Not quite as long as it took to write Sugar Moon, but honestly almost. I did not want to compromise this time by cutting off the face of a non-Asian model. In fact, I wanted a Southeast Asian model in (potential) period dress, which was as picky as I thought that I could be. Mr. H and I both loved the image right from the start, but it took my husband’s expertise to make it the cover you see above. I’m all heart eyes. It is my favorite so far, and that is saying something because I do love them all.