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.


Name-generator

Updated to add: I just found this really interesting tool to help with surname generation for characters. I have not used it enough to really test it out, but it has lots of options, including the ability to start with a first name you already have in mind in order to ensure finding a last name that matches well. How NameGenerator.Org determines what “works,” I have no idea, but my first use of the tool was successful.


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.


comparing-heights-for-characters-fiction

When writing romance, relative heights can be important. When the hero grabs the heroine for a hug, does his chin hit her cheekbone, her temple, or rest on top of her head? When leans in for a kiss, how far does he need to bend down? Mr. Initial Man has put together a relative height comparison where you can enter in your characters’ heights and get an average visual. (It is average because people can have longer legs or torso, which might change the place where everything touches, but won’t change the overall height.)


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 Filipino-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. Check out more on setting tools here. I hope these sites are as useful to you as they have been to me. Happy character creating, and happy writing!

Welcome to the Sugar Sun Series!

The Sugar Sun series is an epic family saga of love and war at the beginning of the twentieth century. Books are listed below in publication order, but the series does not need to be read in order. All are interconnected-yet-standalone happily-ever-afters. Read what people are saying about the series.


Under-the-Sugar-Sun-book-one-trilogy

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, or read what people are saying about the series.


Tempting-Hymn-novella-Sugar-Sun-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, or read what people are saying about the series.


Sugar-Moon-book-two-trilogy

The nights were their secret . . .

The papers back home call Ben Potter a hero of the Philippine-American War, but he knows the truth. When his estranged brother-in-law offers him work slashing sugarcane, Ben seizes the opportunity to atone—one acre at a time. At the hacienda Ben meets schoolteacher Allegra Alazas. While Allegra bristles at her family’s traditional expectations, the one man who appreciates her intelligence and independence seems to be the very worst marriage prospect on the island.

Neither Ben nor Allegra fit easily in their separate worlds, so together they must build one of their own. But when Ben’s wartime past crashes down upon them, it threatens to break their elusive peace.

Find Sugar Moon at Amazon.com, or read what people are saying about the series.


Sugar-Communion-third-book-trilogy

This is Andres’s book (aka #UndressAndres) and you can read about my progress in researching his world here. There is a lot of medical history I have learned for the heroine, a doctor. That research has been partly through reading but primarily through podcasts.

Looking for Hotel OrienteDon’t worry, it will be back soon!

Sugar Sun series glossary term #32: Ah Tay bed

The Ah Tay bed definitely makes an impression:

Ben’s hips flattened and froze against hers. He pushed harder and harder until the carved floral bedpost pressed its pattern into her skin. She shut her eyes and her whole body clenched, burned, and then melted with him.

Sugar Moon

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, a 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.)

ah-tay-bed-leon-gallery
Ah-tay bed of Don Lucio Lacson, the father of Aniceto Lacson who is notable for liberating Negros Occidental from the hands of the Spaniards alongside Juan Araneta. Family oral history suggests that Jose Rizal may have slept on this magnificent bed during his visit to Iloilo. Sold by the León Gallery on 2 December 2017.

The Americans did not know genius when they saw it:

“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.”

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.

But actually, the genius of the bed 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, even Philippines Commissioner Worcester, who once called the Ah Tay bed “that serious problem,” came to regard 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 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 debauches him in Sugar Moon.

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.

Sugar Sun series location #7: Balangiga

Sugar-Sun-series-Philippines-Visayas-map
Most of the Sugar Sun series takes place in the Visayan Islands in the central and southern Philippines.

My upcoming book, Sugar Moon, will be firmly rooted in history that I believe every American should know: the ambush of a company of American soldiers on September 28, 1901, in Balangiga, Philippines. Most people have never heard of it. What happened that day in Balangiga—and in the months of American counterattacks afterward—has been overshadowed by other towns that Americans do know, ones with names like My Lai and Fallujah. Had we learned the lesson of Balangiga, though, these two towns in Vietnam and Iraq might never have hit the headlines. In fact, they might not be noteworthy at all.

Fishermen in Balangiga Samar where Army Ninth Infantry was attacked during war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
My photo of fishermen in Balangiga, at the junction of the Balangiga River and the Leyte Gulf. From there, it is not far until you are in the Pacific Ocean.

How did I stumble upon Balangiga? When I started plotting my story about an American schoolteacher and a Filipino sugar baron—the story that became Under the Sugar Sun—I did a lot of research at Ateneo de Manila University, where I read through old issues of the Manila Times on microfiche. (By the way, if you want to entertain me, give me two rolls of that microfiche and leave me there all day. It’s like giving a child an iPad. History is my babysitter.) One of the articles I stumbled across was entitled: “Sister Hunting for Brother: His Name is E.L. Evans and He is Supposed to Be in the Philippines.” From there, I conjured up the idea of a missing brother to bring Georgina Potter to the Philippines. Yes, she was hired by the American colonial government to start a school in the Visayas, but her real motive in coming—and for letting herself get entangled with a jerk named Archie—was finding her brother, Ben Potter.

Character board for Sugar Moon upcoming book in steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series set in Philippines
A character board for Sugar Moon. From left: a Filipino woman in 1900 who inspired Allegra Alazas; actor Chris Geere, one of my possible “castings” for Ben; a local house; and Mount Suiro on Biliran Island, location of some adventures. Sorry, no more spoilers!

Why was Ben missing? Maybe because he was in a significant battle? Or, at least, a very confusing one? In Under the Sugar Sun, Georgina goes to Army Headquarters in Fort Santiago in Manila to find out, and she lays out all the news articles from a battle in Balangiga. A clerk tries to help her, to no avail:

“Your brother should be in here one way or another.” The clerk put his finger on the article with the list. “Name and rank?”

If it were that easy, she thought, she would not have bothered crossing the Pacific. “Sergeant Benjamin Potter.”

“I see a Ben Cutter,” the clerk said. “That’s probably him.” He sounded sure, as if the U.S. Army made such mistakes all the time. Maybe they did.

In fact, the Army did print various lists with different spellings of names: Dettron or Bastron for Sergeant Frank Betron, the model for Ben Potter. This is one of the reasons why I chose this setting for my character. It makes sense that if he survived, he still might not want to be found. Moreover, several survivors stayed in the Philippines afterward—in Betron’s case, maybe to find a woman from Balangiga. Now, there’s a story there!

So, it was decided: Ben served in Company C, Ninth Infantry, which saw action in China during the Boxer War, and then returned to the Philippines to be stationed in Balangiga. Poor Ben. Poor Balangiga.

Company C occupied this town, and occupation is ugly. It doesn’t matter how you justify it—in this case, blockading the southern coast of Samar so that the guerrillas in the mountains could not be resupplied, a legitimate military purpose. It also doesn’t matter if the occupation starts off peacefully, which it did in Balangiga. It is not going to stay that way. The lesson of occupation throughout world history—no matter whether we are talking about ancient Greek occupation of Jerusalem, Israeli occupation of Lebanon, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or the American occupation of the Philippines—things will go downhill.

The Americans called the Filipino guerrillas insurrectionists, and they labeled what happened in Balangiga a massacre, implying that the perpetrators had no just cause. On the other side, Filipinos call their soldiers revolutionaries, and they see the event itself as a just uprising. If you want to avoid all judgment, it was an incident, or more specifically an ambush. I am greatly indebted to Philippine historian Rolando O. Borrinaga and British writer Bob Couttie for their first-hand research and outstanding work on Balangiga. In my version of the story, I have taken some liberties—merging characters to simplify things for the reader, renaming a few people—but I hope that my unwitting mentors will find that I got the big brush strokes right. All errors are my own, of course.

Recommended reading is Borrinaga and Couttie on Balangiga Samar Ninth Infantry attack during war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
Two outstanding scholars on the Balangiga Incident, Rolando O. Borrinaga and Bob Couttie. Bottom right is my photo of the monument to the attackers in Balangiga town.

As we will see in Sugar Moon, at first things went okay. Uneasily, but okay. An American officer played chess with the parish priest. The man Sergeant Benjamin Potter is based on studied martial arts with the police chief. Individuals got along. But here’s the rub: if the townspeople became too friendly with the Americans, they would face retribution from the revolutionaries up in the mountains. So the town tried to play it cool, stay neutral.

Southern Samar coast in the Philippines is jungle and good cover for guerrillas during war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
The southern coast of Samar is not the easiest place to patrol. This is the Cadacan River near Basey. Image courtesy of Iloilo Wanderer on Wikimedia Commons.

But the Americans noticed some strange things happening—like sweet potatoes planted in the jungle for the guerrilla soldiers, or townspeople not cutting down banana trees that could provide the guerrillas cover—and the Yanks thought they had been betrayed. They ordered the town to cut down essential food sources, to “clean up” the town. If the town complied, not only would they need to destroy their own property, they would also endanger the understanding they had with guerrillas. I think you probably see where this is going. The reality of a town like this during occupation is that it will be caught in between two armies, and if neither army can truly protect the civilians against the other, the people must try to play one off the other. That is a dangerous game.

The captain of Company C doubled down. He imprisoned the town’s men in conical tents that looked like Native American teepees. These Sibley tents were supposed to sleep 16, but were each jammed full with between 70-90 men and boys who had to sit on their haunches all night. They were not fed dinner, and in the morning they were forced to cut down the food their families depended on. This went on for several days.

Sibley tents pictured by Winslow Homer used by Ninth Infantry American army in war against Philippines in Gilded Age
Several African-American Union Army Teamsters rest on a Sibley tent in 1865, giving some sense of their size (and age). It is a crowded sleep for 16 inside, let alone 70 or more. Winslow Homer’s The Bright Side, is in the public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Americans did not see the town turning against them. They only saw their own frustration: they felt alone, vulnerable, on the edge of a hostile island, a day’s travel away from the nearest garrison. Yet they did not expect the ambush. My character Ben will narrate the whole debacle through his flashbacks, which starts with him trying to court a local woman. He’s a proper gentleman, don’t worry, but he’s smitten.

On Sunday, September 28, 1901, the morning after the town fiesta, the police chief attacked the American sentry. A church bell rang. Warriors rushed out of the jungle line east of town. Others dressed as women streamed out of the church with machetes. The American soldiers were eating breakfast. Dozens would die immediately and gruesomely. A little more than half would manage to escape, and several of them would die along the way of their wounds or from other attacks. In total, 48 of 77 Americans would die.

Google Cultural Institute shows Ayala Museum Balangiga attack in war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
One of many wonderful dioramas designed by the Ayala Museum and now viewable through the Google Cultural Institute.

Americans blamed the Filipino revolutionaries—General Lukban’s men in the interior of Samar—but the truth Borrinaga and Couttie uncovered is that the town actually planned the attack themselves. They may have borrowed some men from villages outside Balangiga proper, and they may have coordinated with the revolutionaries, but this was a town fighting back against the soldiers who had imprisoned them.

After that, all hell broke loose. If there is something more violent than the rising up of an occupied people, it is the revenge exacted by a conventional military force armed to the teeth. The American commander in Samar ordered his men to turn the entire island into “a howling wilderness” by striking down all men and boys capable of carrying arms, which he defined as all those over ten years old. (This is in violation of General Order No. 100, which served as the American law of war at this time.) American soldiers made a special trip back to Balangiga to burn down the town and kill anyone in sight. Months of revenge resulted in the deaths of thousands on Samar, maybe as many as 15,000, according to Borrinaga. The destruction was so widespread that it sowed the seeds for a whole new war only three years later.

Google Cultural Institute shows Ayala Museum Howling Wilderness American attack on Samar during Philippine-American War in Gilded Age
Another of the many vivid dioramas designed by the Ayala Museum and now viewable through the Google Cultural Institute. Also included are a photo of General “Hell-Roaring Jake” Smith and the New York Journal editorial cartoon of his order. Both are in the public domain and are found on Wikipedia.

This was the My Lai moment of the Philippine-American War, and it was just as explosive to the American public as that incident in Vietnam was. For the first time, with the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, the American public could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. The excesses of the Army now blanketed newspapers and magazines Stateside. Though military authorities tried to censor the press by controlling the telegraph lines out of Manila, reporters got around this by traveling to Hong Kong to wire their stories. The courts-martial of several American officers made daily headlines, and Senate hearings began on the issue of American atrocities in the Philippines.

Picture of Ninth Infantry Army soldiers survived Balangiga attack war between Philippines and America in Gilded Age
The survivors of Balangiga in April 1902. Photo in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But how do you criticize the methods of occupation without questioning the whole endeavor to begin with? You can blame a few “bad apples” to satisfy the public, but is it enough? The general in Samar received a slap on the wrist from the court-martial that followed, and though popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement, the punishment still didn’t fit the crime. The general retired with a full pension. Similarly, the American lieutenant in command at My Lai, convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians, served only seven months of house arrest and then was pardoned. In both cases, “marked severities” divided the American public.

PTSD Post Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by American soldiers during war in Philippines in Gilded Age
A military hospital in Manila. Photo in the public domain.

My character Ben tried hard to be better than the rest, but what happened in Balangiga tortures him. You are not supposed to have liked him in Under the Sugar Sun, and he does not like himself much, either. He suffers from Post Traumatic Stress disorder, something that two of my very best friends share with him. Soldiers with PTSd struggle with guilt, depression, substance abuse, anger management, insomnia, and other health problems. I am greatly indebted to these friends for letting me put some of their worst fears on the page. I hope they will also appreciate the redemptive journey Ben goes through and the healing power of love that he finds. They would tell me this is far too simplistic a cure, but I think they want Ben to have a happily-ever-after, so it’s okay.

George Santayana wrote in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is fitting he said so at the outset of what was later called the American Century. The vigorous debate about the use of military force abroad—and it’s aftereffects like PTSd—are familiar to people today. But they were not really a part of American discourse until the Philippine-American War. America’s professional army was born out of this war. Before 1898, the entire US Army was smaller than today’s New York City Police Department. Most of the Spanish-American War had to be fought with state volunteers whose enlistments lasted only a year. When hostilities broke out in Philippines, Congress promptly doubled the size of the regular army once, and then doubled it again. For the first time in its history, America had a significant standing army stationed far from its borders.

Maybe it is not good enough to just remember the past. You should experience it yourself. That’s the garden where empathy grows. That’s where you get all the feels. I hope Sugar Moon helps.

Photograph of an American concentration camp in war in Philippines during Gilded Age
Photograph of an American reconcentrado camp, the exact tactic we blamed Spain for in Cuba.

The History Games: Micro-History Models

What is micro-history, you ask? It is the investigation of small units in history—an individual, a small village, a family, or a school, for example. Why is this important? Because large trends, the kind of history you get in encyclopedias, smooth out history to give you only the most average experience. And who likes to read about average? No one!

You want to read about the outliers, the dangerous, the obscure, the interesting! Part of what authors are selling is the chance to live someone else’s life for a little while. Maybe your character is Marianne, a half-Jamaican hotelier seduced by a spy during the Crimean War; or Lily, a diplomat’s daughter who rescues a wounded American Marine in the Boxer Rebellion in China.


Either way, flat descriptions from encyclopedias won’t cut it. You need to mine primary sources for the convincing details of everyday life. Where else would you learn how Marianne chased off a thief with her rusty horse pistol, primed only with coffee? Or how Lily saved her favorite pony from becoming dinner for starving Americans in Beijing?

Marianne and Lily are intriguing because they are based upon real people—real outliers. My inspiration for Marianne came from The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacolewhile Lily is based on Laura Conger in Sarah Pike Conger’s Letters from China. Cool books! Where did I find them, you ask? At the end of this post, you will find a handout detailing many wonderful places to find free primary sources on the internet: books, articles, artifacts, photographs and videos (if available), illustrations, newspapers, and more, all from the time period itself.

But how do you use this information to create realistic characters and believable conflict? And how do you know what facts to use and what to make up? I came up with five models to help you figure it out:

The Ice Cube Tray Model

My fake characters Marianne and Lily are based upon the broad outlines of real people—one or two sides of a mold—but if I actually wrote books for them I would fictionalize them by mixing in other elements. Pour in all the individual hopes, dreams, and quirks that you need to make each character three-dimensional.

Here is an example from my writing: I found the original inspiration for my character Allegra Alazas of Sugar Moon from a single lantern slide found at the Philippine Photographs Digital Archive. Why did this image speak to me? Because the half-scowl on the woman’s face seems to say, “Mr. Photographer, you and I both know that you are an idiot, but I am just polite enough not to say it out loud.” Based on what I could discern from the photo, I thought that maybe this woman would have been educated in Manila at a fancy convent school. So I found a few of those in another primary source, a Commercial Directory of Manila in 1901. And what would the woman in the photo say to Sister Elenteria in their Artificial Flowers class? Well, if you know Allegra, you know that she told the sister where exactly she could put her artificial flowers in a country with bountiful natural ones. And Allegra was born.

Ice-Cube-Tray-Micro-History-Sugar-Moon

The Straitjacket Model

What if you find outliers you don’t like? There always will be archival sources that represent the worst of a chosen era, and these constraints can give you what you need for a foil or villain. I did this for Archie Blaxton and the Stinnetts, the ugly Americans from Under the Sugar Sun and Tempting HymnThese characters were partly modeled after the Coles, teachers in Leyte (see photo of Mary Cole below).

Straitjacket-Micro-History-Jennifer-Hallock

The Open Flame Model

Real history can also provide conflict, too. Why did Georgina Potter head to the Philippines in Under the Sugar Sun? I found a newspaper article in the Manila Times archive about an undelivered letter that fell into the hands of the wrong person. It was written by a very-worried sister who did not know what had become of her brother. And I thought to myself, “Where was this brother? What was the sister going to do next? What would happen when she actually finds him?” Good conflict adds heat underneath your character’s feet. I call this the open flame.

Open-Flame-Micro-history-Jennifer-Hallock

The Millstone Model

For Sugar Moon, I gave my hero a troubled past. Ground down by the millstone of war, he is someone new because of this real event. It is a big part of his internal conflict.

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The Fridge Magnet Model

Finally, I use real vignettes and anecdotes throughout my books. A lot of people remember the snake scene in Under the Sugar Sun, and I wish I could take full credit for it. But that really happened to a real clueless American on one of his first nights in the Philippines in the early 1900s. There’s some stuff you cannot make up, and you shouldn’t have to. But you do need those little details that make your book convincing.

Consider this: when you walk into a house, where do you find the small details important to that family’s daily life? On their fridge. (Or their medicine cabinet, but shame on you!) Therefore, I call this the fridge magnet model. These little snippets tell your reader more about a character or setting than Mr. Exposition ever could. For example, the snake story told me how clever people were to use one pest to control another; and it told me that Georgie, for all her pluck, wasn’t going to get anything right her night in Bais. Her “fish out of water” anxieties will be essential to her later conflict with Javier.

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Conclusion

Whenever I approach a primary source, I think: how can this event advance my story or my character development? And you need to be thinking this, too. No matter how much fun it is to research—no matter how many rabbit holes you want to fall down—everything should move your book forward. Stay focused on these five models. I hope they help!

By the way, here is the handout of websites that I cover in the workshop’s “how to” portion: Hallock Micro-History Researching Tips. Happy researching!

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