February 27, 2010

book review: what happens in london

Title: What Happens in London
Author: Julia Quinn

From the back cover: "When Olivia Bevelstoke is told that her new neighbor may have killed his fiancee, she doesn't believe it for a second, but, still, how can she help spying on him just to be sure? So she stakes out a spot near her bedroom window, cleverly concealed by curtains, watches, and waits... and discovers a most intriguing man, who is definitely up to something.

"Sir Harry Valentine works for the boring branch of the War Office, translating documents vital to national security. He's not a spy, but he's had all the training, and when a gorgeous blonde begins to watch him from her window, he is instantly suspicious. But just when he decides that she's nothing more than an annoyingly nosy debutante, he discovers that she might be engaged to a foreign prince, who might be plotting against England. And when Harry is roped into spying on Olivia, he discovers that he might be falling for her himself..."

I picked up "What Happens In London" while grabbing some groceries at the store. It was a week before Valentine's Day, my love life has been stagnant and I thought I might live vicariously through some fictional characters for a couple of hours. I have read Julia Quinn's books before and enjoyed them. This book did not disappoint.

Right now I am focusing on characters in my own work, so I will focus on the ones Quinn created for the book.

The two protagonists — Lady Olivia Bevelstoke and Sir Harry Valentine — are quirky, fun and compliment one another well. Unlike most of her contemporaries, Lady Olivia enjoys reading the newspaper and staying up-to-date with current affairs. Sir Harry is studious and fluent in several languages. Quinn consistently gives her characters distinguishing personality traits, which I find admirable. I will have to tuck that bit back for my own character development.

I also appreciate that Quinn creates strong female leads that fit within the constraints of what was socially expected of the time frame. These women are independent, have their own goals and are likable. It can be easy in the romance genre to create static female leads, but Quinn follows the Nora Roberts' approach and designs her men and women leads to be more progressive.

The supporting cast provides additional comic relief. Their family members bicker, are overly dramatic and like to give the protagonists a hard time. That always adds some much-needed amusement.

The protagonists meet under unique conditions (unique for a beach read, that is). Sir Harry catches Lady Olivia spying on him, and their relationship develops over conversations spoken from their respective second floor windows. They continually get themselves in awkward social settings, but the reader can see a genuine emotional relationship developing outside of the physical one that inevitably develops in a romance novel.

I could probably go into more detail on this book, but I waited a while to write the review and I feel like going and doing something else with my day, so I will just end this post by saying this: I enjoyed this book. I would recommend it. I would read it again. Excellent characters with witty dialogue. The only thing off is the book title (although Quinn's book titles usually take some sort of spin on more modern pop culture references, so I will let it slide).

(Image from www.juliaquinn.com)

February 26, 2010

what's in a name?

Naming a character is like naming your child. Granted, I do not have any children of my own, but I imagine it runs along the same lines.

The name your character has is the name it will always have. It can become a staple. Think Elizabeth Bennett or Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Both names are iconic and part of the culture surrounding the stories.

But how do you come up with a name that fits your characters?

In "The Writer's Little Helper," James V. Smith Jr. gives the following checklist for naming characters (page 176-177):
• Brainstorm a list of names before you begin your novel.
• Don't use names of real people. (Personal note: I named my goldfish after my dad. It was funny until I called my dad three days later and said, "Bruce died." Don't name your characters after people you know.)
• Avoid names that begin with the same letter.
• Avoid names that can be both male and female.
• Be wary of first last names.
• Don't overuse alliteration — first and last names beginning with the same letter.
• Don't use names that sound like half the people in the phone book.
• And don't use names that rhyme in the same story.
• Be wary of long names.
• Be conscious of names ending in -s.
• Don't be cute.
• Don't use a name twice.

I like the name checklist idea for some characters. For my protagonists, I feel I have to give more thought into their names. These are the characters who are like my children, and I they are something I want to be able to live with forever. As far as the other characters, I have no hesitation just drawing from a list. In fact, I think it is a great idea.

A resource I keep on hand is a baby naming book. I swiped it from my mom years ago and it sits on my reference shelf along with my stylebooks and dictionaries. I also just received two phonebooks at my home, and I like the idea of paging through those (I credit Mr. Smith with that idea).

Just Sunday I sat down and created a list of first and last names for men and women. We will see how I can put those to use with my stories.

February 24, 2010

character development

Based on advice I received from Stephanie Bond, author of the Body Movers, at a writing conference, I decided to get organized about my writing. Before I start writing any of my books again, I am going to do some work before-hand, which will hopefully help me expedite the writing process.

This works for me (and is the way Stephanie Bond has made being a novelist her profession). As long as you stick with it. The only book I have made any real progress with included me doing some preliminary legwork. The prep work includes defining my characters and writing a working synopsis for the work. Doing this helps the writer know where the characters are going in the book and why.

That way, when it comes to writing the story, the writer can focus on the details and dialogue without having to wonder where any of this is going.

Here are some of the supplies I needed to get started.

Using a multi-tabbed folio (or whatever it's called) I include notes relevant to different novels I want to write. For example, if I want to write a book set in Upstate New York, I might include a map of the area, notes about the scenery and people. Or, if I plan to have a character be a firefighter, I might include notes about what this job entails. These serve as a handy reference if I need them while I work.

As I've mentioned before, I have several novel ideas. To keep them all straight, I have a folder for each. It keeps the information separate and are readily available while I work.

Inside the folder, I include my detailed chapter outline, my character sketches and other key notes that directly pertain to my novel's content.

I include detailed profiles of the key characters in my book. I am trying envelopes right now to keep them all separate. On the envelope, I include the character's name and a photo clipped from a magazine of what I think said character looks like. It helps to better visualize the character.

Inside the envelope, I include information about the character. Physical description, characteristics and the like. Also under Stephanie Bond's recommendation, I make a chart. The chart addresses what the character was like before the book and where the character will be in his or her life after the book. This develops the character and better explains the role he or she plays in the book.

If you want to write books with characters — as most do, I'm sure — a baby naming book is a handy resource. I use the one I swiped from my mom back in middle school. You can learn the meanings of names, which can help be a source of symbolism. Otherwise, it can just be a source for ideas so you can come up with clever name ideas.

There are also many Web sites available. I like babynames.com. Also, the U.S. government provides a list with statistics about popular names based on the year. This can be especially helpful if you want to know what names were trendy for a time period. It dates all the way back to 1879.

Another helpful resource to have on hand: magazines. On occasion, I find articles that help me come up with story ideas, or at least subplot elements. The magazines are also a good resource for looking for models/ people that look like what you imagine your characters to look like.

I have also spent much of my downtime this weekend re-reading books I enjoy. I skim the books and think about what makes me like the books. Emulation (not plagiarism) can be a great tool for writing.

At the very least, doing this prep work has helped get me excited about writing once again. I'm back into the mindset I had when I came up with these book ideas, and it motivates me to keep going.

February 22, 2010


Characters are the first and most important ingredient of a well-developed story.

"Story is what happens to people," according to James V. Smith Jr. in "The Writer's Little Helper."

"Except for a few best-selling authors whose action and plot ideas are killer, action and plot ideas don't count for much if the characters are cardboard cutouts," Smith writes. "No amount of special effects can rescue a film tale with boring characters."

This explanation makes sense to me. As a reader, the books I like best are the ones where I develop a bond with the characters. I come to think of the character as a friend and feel like I know him or her.

This also comes into play when I consider the story I might like to tell. I see the main character or characters and think about what he or she will be like. What happened to them before the story? What will happen to them during the story? What will play out for them after the story ends? What traits does this person have that brings about the outcome?

Smith poses the following questions as the "Minimum character elements for any story." Does my story have:
• A truly heroic character?
• A heroic character's worth goal quest?
• The heroic character's worthy adversary?
• Action and conflict involving the heroic character's quest?
• A perceived ending?

(Read more about this development in "The Writer's Little Helper" pages 22-25. The book is a great resource and you will hear me quote it more in the future.)

Taking Smith's advice to have well-developed characters, for the next few posts, I will examine what it will take to create characters worth reading about. Stay tuned.

February 21, 2010

where to begin

A story starts with an idea.

The writer may use his or her life experience to shape a story. The late Ken Kesey used his experience working at a veterans hospital — and experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs — as the inspiration for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

It can start from a dream. Stephenie Meyer says the idea for the Twilight saga came to her after having a dream about a vampire who was in love with a human.

Anyone can have an idea for a book. The difference between published writers and everyone else is that they did something with that idea. Through creativity, discipline and hard work, these initial ideas turned into fully developed stories.

I have never had a problem coming up with ideas. I have a long list of book ideas, some originating when I was quite young. The ideas for them came in many forms, but right now, they are still just ideas.

A little background about me: I have worked as a journalist since I was a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I started my career at the independent student newspaper the Daily Nebraskan. I worked as a reporter, editor and designer during my more than two years at the DN. During college, I also interned at the Lincoln Journal Star and was also published in the Kearney Hub and Seward County Independent, in addition to various UNL publications. After graduation, I interned at The Southern Illinoisan for a summer. Since August 2008, I have been a corporate journalist. I conduct interviews, write stories and take photographs for industrial employee publications.

As a professional writer (although the writing is one small part of my job) I find I use that as my biggest excuse for why I do not follow through on completing my books. It is my crutch and I need to get rid of it.

Since March 2006, I have started writing three novels. Although I have not given up hope on completing any of these books, I lack the discipline it takes to see the process through. Through this blog, I hope to encourage myself to complete one novel and see where it goes from there. I will use research gained from published novelists, consider their advice and see what I can do to make it my own.