What a Character

They’re all around us. The people whose outfits demand a raised eyebrow, whose accents incite chuckles, or whose topics of discussion could give hard-boiled news anchors a full-bodied blush. They are the real-life characters in your daily routine, and they make wonderful additions to your story, too.

Most of my fictional characters are fairly normal human-beings. They all tend to be semi-well-adjusted adults of various ages, with typical jobs, cars, homes, and families. But every story needs some quirkiness. It breaks up the normal, and wakes up your reader.

man-looking-through-binocularsI like to add some fun to a story with folks like Jib Boeller, a middle-aged man who insists that he saw the aliens who abducted the missing photographer. Rowan Kirk is a character I invented who refuses to wear neck-ties – why give an attacker a weapon already in place? – and who is fluent in nearly one hundred different languages, if you count all the most common computer programming scripts. I’m currently developing Ingrid, who is 118 years old with the appearance of a twenty-something supermodel. She’s a gourmet cook who loves opera and dangerous stunts.

My eccentric players are fictional, but their most defining character traits are certainly borrowed from my reality. I have friends who “speak” computer, see aliens, and jump from one adrenaline rush to the next. Every time I hear about someone doing something outrageous, I write down the basics and look for opportunities to include them in a story.

I don’t write them in such a way so that they could recognize themselves and be offended. I just include the details that make me curious about them in the first place. I believe that if I, as the author, am interested in them, then my audience will be, too.

Go ahead and give your reader a character who wears tiger-striped pants and chews fruflamesit gum whenever he wants to remember his computer passwords. Give your hero an Aunt Gilda who wears blue-glittered false eyelashes and drives a hearse with flames on the fenders.

These quirky folks don’t have to be your protagonists, but how a point-of-view character reacts to their idiosyncrasies can speak volumes to your reader. A vignette with a peculiar personality can provide your readers with respite from an otherwise tense scene. A well-placed kooky character can also help connect you to your reader. They will recognize their outfits, their mannerisms, or their habits, either in themselves or in someone they know.

Great characters are everywhere, just waiting to be part of your next tale. Keep your eyes and ears open and your pencil handy.

Kimberly Black


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Making Pacts

Making PactsWriting a story is a deeply personal act. You are revealing a portion of yourself that cannot be seen by casual eyes – perhaps not even evident within more intimate relationships. No matter how different from yourself a character might be, when you breathe life into him, you are making him part of you. You are telling the world that somewhere inside your being is this thought that has become a person in your story.

Reading is a personal act as well. No two people ever truly read the same story. Each person sees their own cast, hears their own voices, and understands their own pains and joys, through the words on the page.

To write is to trust others – usually strangers – to understand and to care. To read is to trust an author with your heart. Every novel becomes a pact between reader and author. Two people speaking and listening, without ever meeting face to face.Writer's Desk

It is the author’s responsibility to maintain the trust if she wants the reader to return to her work. Breaking the trust by whatever means – using offensive images, betraying a character, misrepresentation, or abandoning a character without resolution – breaks the pact and shatters trust. It hurts the integrity of your writing. You’re not just damaging the offending story, but also any future books you write. Once a reader has been hurt, he won’t return. He has plenty of other options.

While this all may seem obvious to most writers, many authors today are bucking traditions and writing across genres in the same name. Authors like Liz Curtis Higgs write children’s books, Christian fiction, and inspirational titles. Many authors jump between romance and suspense, while others pen non-fiction and novels alike.

People readingEach genre has its own structure, as well as reader expectations. The trick is to create a story that maintains the structure of the genre and fulfills the reader’s expectations. A Christian author may write suspense or romance novels, but if they use language or content that, though it may be common in the other genres, is inconsistent with their Christian values, they are breaking the pact of trust they have set for their readers. They haven’t held up their end of the bargain. They lose their integrity, and in turn, lose the reader.

An author of histories will lose his readers if he fails to properly research for a suspense novel. An inspirational writer may drop the ball if his fictional characters are flat or unsympathetic.

The reader knows what she wants when she picks up the book with your name on the cover. All you have to do is make good on your promise and give it to her.

Kimberly Black

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A video on how to plot your novel. Good stuff!

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All Five Bring It Alive

ScentI’ve worked with children for most of my life, as a sitter, a nanny, a mom, a Bible class teacher, and as a Children’s minister at my church. I’ve done a lot of research on how individuals learn differently, and how to employ a variety of techniques to engage each type of learner.  These methods have also proven useful for writing as well.

When constructing a manuscript, whether fiction or non-fiction, it’s important to include sensory imagery of all five senses. Some readers will connect to the smells you include, such as coffee, cedar chips, or sweat. Some like to linger on the visual descriptions of blotchy blue ink or red-rimmed eyes. Others like to imagine the feel of silken fibers on their neck or gritty sand between their toes.

The sound of a match scratching across a rough surface and then bursting into a flame can strike fear or offer relief when placed in the right paragraph. The taste of sweet tea or orange marmalade will do more than light up taste-buds. It will also trigger memories of porch swings or family breakfasts or a hundred other things. It bridges the span between writer and reader in a way nothing else can.Music

Of course every page shouldn’t have every sense on it. You don’t want your story to sound like a child’s pop-up book – unless that’s what it is. But including one of the senses on each page, as appropriate to the scene, will help keep your reader interested. It acts as seasoning to your story, keeping it from becoming bland and impersonal.

The images give your story life, and keep it alive in your readers. When a reader is engaged, they are happy. They anticipate what comes next. They want more. Adding sensory imagery gives them more – more than just a simple description – it keeps their minds and imaginations working long after they’ve finished your book.

Kimberly Black

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Terry McMillan

terry_mcmillanTerry McMillan (born October 18, 1951, in Port Huron, Michigan) is an American author. Her interest in books comes from working at a library when she was sixteen. She received her BA in journalism in 1986 at University of California, Berkeley. Her work is characterized by relatable female protagonists.

Her first book, Mama, was published in 1987. She achieved national attention in 1992 with her third novel, Waiting to Exhale, which remained on The New York Times bestseller list for many months. In 1995, Forest Whitaker turned it into a film starring Whitney Houston. In 1998, another of McMillan’s novels, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, was made into a movie. McMillan’s novel Disappearing Acts was subsequently produced as a direct-to-cable feature, starring Wesley Snipes and Sanaa Lathan. She also wrote the best seller A Day Late and a Dollar Short. The Interruption of Everything was published on July 19, 2005. Getting to Happy, the long-awaited sequel to Waiting to Exhale, was published on September 7, 2010.Who Asked You

The 1992 publication of Waiting to Exhale sold over three million copies by 1995, the time of its film adaptation, The novel announced and contributed to a landmark shift in Black popular cultural consciousness and production. McMillan was instrumental to the construction and visibility of a female Black middle-class identity in popular culture. The novel develops female protagonists expressing heartbreak, sadness, loneliness, and sexual desire.McMillan thus introduced the interior world of black women professionals in their thirties who are successful, alone, available, and unhappy.The novel embraced a rhetoric of Black women openly venting about men and embracing a desire to be taken care of. The novel’s themes are resonated in a number of successful R&B Projects such as TLC’s No Scrubs and Destiny’s Child’s Bills, Bills, Bills.

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Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison  Ralph Waldo Ellison, born on March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, studied music before moving to New York City and working as a writer. He published his bestselling, acclaimed first novel Invisible Man in 1952; it would be seen as a seminal work on marginalization from an African-American protagonist’s perspective. Ellison’s unfinished novel Juneteenth was published posthumously in 1999.

Ellison started writing what would become The Invisible Man while at a friend’s farm in Vermont. The existential novel, published in 1952, focused on an African-American civil rights worker from the South who, upon his move to New York, becomes increasingly alienated due to the racism he encounters. Upon its release, Invisible Man became a runaway hit, remaining on bestseller lists for weeks and winning the National Book Award the following year. With millions of copies eventually printed, the novel would be regarded as a groundbreaking meditation on race and marginalized communities in America, influencing future generations of writers and thinkers.Ralph Ellison 2

Invisible Man continues to be held up as one of the most highly regarded works in the American literary canon.

Learn more about Ralph Ellison at:


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Ten Commandments of Good Historical Writing

Historical Woodcut Having a double-major in history and anthropology one of my writing goals is to remain true to good historical writing.  To update my knowledge of the topic I went searching on the internet (and if it’s on the internet, it must be true!). Much of the information I found to be guidelines for the college student writing for senior level or graduate classes – been there, done that.  I did find a nice little gem and I give thanks and recognition to Theron F. Schlabach, a professor of history at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.  He provided the following Ten Commandments of Good Historical Writing and gave permission to reproduce his document with him to receive credit.  I have provided key points (topic sentences) he included, so I encourage you to read his entire article at: http://courseweb.stthomas.edu/gwschlabach/10commnd.htm

Many of these commandments apply  to any writing genre.

I. Thou shalt begin with an outline that buildeth thy entire paper around thy central idea.

An outline built around a THESIS AND SUBTHESES will do the job much better than one that only categorizes information or puts it into chronological order — although topical analysis and narrative also have their uses.

II. Thou shalt avoid self-conscious discussion of thy intended purposes, thy strategy, thy sources, and thy research methodology.

Draw your reader’s attention to the points you are making, not to yourself and all the misery and sweat of your process of research and writing.

III. Thou mayest covet other writers’ ideas but thou shalt not steal them.pen and books

Document EVERY quotation, paraphrase, or crucial idea that you borrow from a source.

IV. Thou shalt strive for clarity above cuteness; thou shalt not use jargon when common language will serve, nor a large word when a small one will serve, nor a foreign term when an English one will serve, nor an abstract term where a vivid one is possible.

Learn first of all to write lean, tough, logical, precise prose.  After you have learned that, you may begin to experiment with metaphors, allusions, and fancily turned phrases.

V. Remember thy paragraph to keep it a significant unity; thou shalt not fragment thy discussion into one short paragraph after another, and neither shalt thou write a paragraph that fails to develop a topical idea.

Think of the paragraph as an instrument to develop an idea.  The paragraph should have a recognizable idea, usually as a topic sentence.

 VI. Thou shalt write as if thy reader is intelligent–but totally uninformed on any particular subject;  hence, thou shalt identify all persons, organizations, etc., and shalt in every way try to make thy paper a self-sufficient unit.

Here, the chief temptations are:  to plunge into a subject without adequately establishing time, place, and context; and, to refer to authors and t obscure historical events as if everyone knew of them.

VII. Thou shalt use quotations sparingly and judiciously, only for color and clarity; if thou must quote, quotations should not break the flow of thine own language and logic, and thy text should make clear whom thou art quoting.

Effective quotation is a literary device — not a way to transfer information unprocessed and undigested from your sources to your reader.

VIII. Thou shalt not relegate essential information to thy footnotes.

Normally, discursive footnotes should be very few.  If the information is important enough to print, get it into the text; if not, save the paper.

IX.  Thou shalt write consistently in past tense, and in other ways keep thy reader firmly anchored in time.

The “historical present” causes more confusion than it is worth.  Sense of time and context is first among the historian’s contribution.  Writing of past events in the present tense is usually evidence that the author lacked appreciation for historical setting.

X.  Thou shalt not use passive voice.

Passive voice destroys clarity because often it does not make clear who did the acting. (“The order was given.”) In such cases, it fails to give complete information.  Or even if it does give the information (“The order was given by Lincoln.”) it gives it back-end-forward.  Why not:  “Lincoln gave the order.”?

These commandments provide excellent points to review on a regular basis during your writing process.

Donna Otto



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