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.
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 do not accept excuses from my students, so why would I give you any? Well, maybe these are not excuses, but explanations. What is the difference? I don’t know.
Here are mine: School started. Football season is fully in gear. My blog database failed. Most of the last year’s pages need to have their images rebuilt, and part of me is just ignoring that looming chore. Most importantly, any few hours of free time I have are dedicated toward Sugar Moon. It’s coming. I promise.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
“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:
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.
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.
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.