Thursday, April 29, 2010

What's In A Name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Every author of fiction knows that Shakespeare was dead wrong about this, at least when it comes to naming characters. We may agonize over our hero or heroine’s name, or it may come to us in a flash of inspiration, but it just has to be right. Changing a name once chosen is no trifling matter. Sometimes a character clings to a name a stubbornly as we do to our own.

Every author has their own way of choosing names. Baby name books, mythology, online lists of names from different languages and ethnic backgrounds, there’s no shortage of places to look. I know one author of historicals set in American Colonial times, who went through military and census records to find names that fit the time period. For historicals, names can’t sound too modern. Fantasy and paranormal writers face a different set of challenges in creating names that suit the world they’ve created. Sam and Frodo, Boromir and Faramir, Aragorn and Arwen…sound familiar?

Personally, I borrow or steal any name that appeals to me and mix and match it with a new surname. That’s how I came up with Trey, Beth, Sidonie, Rochelle and Colin. Sidonie – my personal favorite – was the name of the French author Collette’s mother. I borrowed Trey from a former student of mine who had Southern roots. I found the name McShannon in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals and lifted it as well. Surette is a common Acadian surname, so I used it for the French branch of Trey and Chelle’s family tree. As for Martin Rainnie, his name just came to me without any thought at all.

In romantic fiction, the hero’s name is a very big deal. So what makes a name appealing to the opposite sex? An article written by Michael Hopkins, published in 2004 on , describes the results of a study done by MIT researcher Amy Perfors. According to this study, men’s names are sexiest when they contain strong consonants like K and B along with vowel sounds made at the front of the mouth, like ‘e’ or ‘I’. Mike and Zeke trump Paul or Tom. For women, the opposite is true: names with ‘round’ vowel sounds, like Laura, are most appealing. Of course, cultural factors play a large part. Some names are considered masculine and others feminine. That has changed over time. The name Shirley was considered masculine in Victorian times, while now it’s thought of as feminine.

I love old-fashioned names. Ethan, Galen, Nathan, Daniel, and Matthew are among my favorites for men. Emily, Sarah, Elizabeth, Faith, Rachael are names I like for women. I also like short, snappy names like Kate and Ruth, Ben and Zeke. I’ve never really cared for long names.

I ran into a bit of a sticky name situation with McShannon’s Chance. Without realizing it, I wrote three male secondary characters whose names all began with ‘N’ – Nathan Munroe (Nate), Neil Garrett, and Nolan Kinsley. Nate, Trey’s childhood nemesis, flatly refused to budge on the issue. Nathan he was and Nathan he would remain, world without end, amen. I really didn’t dare approach Neil about it. He keeps a loaded shotgun under his bar and rents the back rooms of his saloon to loose women. Not going there. Nolan, though, was an easy-going sort, comfortable enough in his skin to trust that I would only change his name, not him. So, Nolan became Logan – a name I borrowed from another student. Logan Kinsley has a nice sound, I think. Maybe some day I’ll reward him by writing about his adventures as a young man.

One of the things I love most about writing is having a character take shape and become real in my mind. Names are a big part of that. If you write, I’m curious to hear how you name your characters. What are your favorite masculine and feminine names? Why?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Crazy English

As some of you know, I work at a small private school that just opened in January. I teach science and math to four girls in grades 7 and 9, and English as a second language to a group of Muslim women. I’ve been teaching math and science for years, but I’m new at teaching English. It’s really made me think about the vagaries of this weird and wonderful language of ours.

The head of our ESL department has a standard answer when the students are befuddled: “Crazy English.” What else can you say when trying to explain why ‘though’, ‘bough’, ‘enough’ and ‘trough’ have the same spelling, but completely different sounds? Why the present and past tense of the verb ‘ to read’ are spelled exactly the same, but pronounced differently? Or try explaining the difference between ‘slender’ and ‘skinny’, or ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ – which one of the students thought was a man’s name.

My students are Arabic speakers and Arabic doesn’t use articles or prepositions, so they wonder why we bother with ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘to’ and ‘the’. “I am going store” conveys the same meaning as “I am going to the store”, so why bother with those annoying little words that are so easily misplaced?

Every language has its quirks, but ours seems to have more than its share. “I before e, except after c, or when sounded like a, as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’.” Crazy English! To help the students learn vocabulary, we sometimes play Go Fish with picture and word cards. First, the students had to learn the game, so we taught them with playing cards. Most of them are still a little shaky on recognizing long vowels, so “Do you have an ace?” comes out as “Do you have an ass?” When I pointed out the difference there were a lot of blushes and giggles. And when we ask questions, why do we have to turn the word order around? “You are going shopping?” with a raise in pitch at the end makes the meaning clear, so why say “Are you going shopping?”

I have a lot of admiration for my students, most of whom are in their early to mid-twenties, in a foreign country, trying to learn the language while coping with young families. I often wish, for their sakes, that English didn’t have so many exceptions to the rules. But we muddle along, and slowly but surely Haifa and Lama and Eman and Fatima and the others are starting to make sense of our crazy English.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Take on Description 2: Setting

Greetings.” The whisper came straight back at me in an echo so quick that I knew I was very near the wall of the cave, then it lost itself, hissing, in the roof.

There was movement there – at first, I thought, only an intensifying of the echo’s whisper, then the rustling grew and grew like the rustling of a woman’s dress, or a curtain stirring in the draught.

Something went past my cheek, with a shrill, bloodless cry just on the edge of sound. Another followed, and after them flake after flake of shrill shadow, pouring down from the roof like leaves down a stream of wind, or fish down a fall. It was the bats, disturbed from their lodging in the top of the cave, streaming out now into the daylight valley. They would be pouring out of the low archway like a plume of smoke.

Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

The Crystal Cave is the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, which I read when it came out in the seventies and still re-read every few years. One of the main reasons these books are keepers for me is Stewart’s gift for setting.

When writing setting, I’m always tempted to focus too much on what’s visible. The true art of describing setting is in using as many of the five senses as possible, and I’m trying to get better at that. One of the reasons I chose the above example is that there’s very little use of sight here.

For me, the magic in this description comes from Stewart’s choice of words. ‘a shrill, bloodless cry.’ ‘flake after flake of shrill shadow.’ ‘like leaves down a stream, or fish down a fall.’ Knowing we are in a cave, we don’t need the author to tell us what’s happening. With the line ‘something went past my cheek’, we immediately think ‘bats’. The visual references given are imagined, not actually seen.

How much setting is too much? For me, it’s too much when it slows down the story. When it starts to read like a grocery list. When I sense that the author is trying too hard. If a character is going from point A to point B, with nothing important happening plotwise in between, I don’t need to see everything they pass along the way.

It’s interesting how strong characters tend to make for strong description. If a character is well-developed, I tend to see through their eyes and feel like I’m right there, even if the author hasn’t spent a lot of words on setting. What’s important in the setting is what’s important to the character, and that’s all we really need to see.

Here’s a fun writing exercise I once had to do at a workshop. Choose a familiar setting – your backyard, your bedroom, any place you know really well, and describe it from the point of view of a blind character. Does the afternoon sun come in the window, heating a patch on the bed? Is there a transition from pavement to grass? What can you hear? Smell? Try it, and if you feel like posting the result here that would be great. Or, post an example of a description of setting that you admire, yours or someone else’s.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Take on Character Description

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin – that skin so prized by southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns.

Whenever I think about the craft of description, this timeless paragraph comes to mind. Without a single wasted word, Margaret Mitchell not only paints a vivid picture of Scarlett but gives us her background, the time period and location of the story, and even a taste of her parents’ characters. A wonderful piece of craft.

For me, a great character description is all in the details. Scarlett’s eyes are not simply green, they are pale green without a touch of hazel. Her brows slant upward. Her skin is magnolia-white. Using simple words, Mitchell lets us see Scarlett as if she stood in front of us in the flesh. As for her personality, she has twin brothers caught by her charm. We know she’s a vixen from the very first sentence.

The best character descriptions do double duty. They convey a lot more than physical appearance. Even one telling detail can be enough to make a character come alive – the way they walk, sit, approach another person. This becomes easier if you practice observation. Watch people when you’re out and about. Ninety percent of human communication is non-verbal. Practice putting it into words.

A word of warning: When writing body language, it’s easy to fall into the “stage direction” trap. You don’t want your description to read like instructions to an actor. Analyze how some of your favorite authors handle body language and borrow from the best.

Describing a character through another character’s eyes is one way to develop both at the same time. This is especially true of romance. The hero and heroine’s first impressions of each other set the stage for the relationship. Why not use that moment to give a physical description?

So, what makes a great character description? Detail. The true art is in using the right details, and the right amount of detail. Observe, observe, observe, read, read, read, and borrow from the best.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Contest Time!

Nothing looked solid or permanent compared to the stone construction Beth was used to seeing in Denver. Nothing held the eye in town, but a far-off view of rolling foothills in the late afternoon light caught her attention. If all went as she expected, she'd be headed out there.

Cadmium yellow and orange, some French ultramarine. A touch of Hooker's Green. The light's beautiful. I'll have to tell Graham to put some paper in my trunk. She'd brought her watercolor kit along, but she didn't expect to have a lot of time for painting as a homesteader's wife. Not that Beth had a very clear idea of just what that would involve. She pulled the rumpled letter from her purse and read it one more time.


This is Beth Underhill's first impression of Wallace Flats, Colorado Territory, when she arrives to marry Trey McShannon in McShannon's Chance. Beth is a very visual person, as would be expected of a budding watercolor artist.

I made Beth a painter because it's something I enjoy, too. I have several of my watercolors on the walls of my home. The above image is one of my paintings, done at Point Pleasant Park here in Halifax. The actual work is on 11x15 watercolor paper, ready for framing - by the lucky person who wins my contest!

All you have to do to be entered is to comment on this blog at least twice between today, April 18, and the end of May, 2010. On the first of June I'll draw a name from the hat, and someone will have a piece of original art to call their own.

I'll leave you with Beth's impression of Trey later in the story.


He was beautiful, too. All warm shades of brown, hair and eyes and skin. All long lines and lean muscle. She'd love to paint his portrait, just like this, but of course she'd have to knock him unconscious to do it.

His wife.

Possession. The word had never occurred to her in connection with Daniel. She would have found it repugnant if it had, but she didn't now. There was such a thing as belonging with, not belonging to.

Elizabeth Marie Underhill. In the middle of the woods, in broad daylight.

No, not Elizabeth Marie Underhill. Elizabeth Marie McShannon.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Family Divided

“In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you…”

Rochelle McShannon closed her eyes, but she couldn’t shut out the minister’s words or the scent of the freshly turned earth waiting to fill her mother’s grave. She couldn’t connect the thought of death with a beautiful March morning like this, cloudless and bright, with new green everywhere and the wind carrying the fragrance of Morgan County’s rich soil, ploughed and waiting for seed.

But not our fields. Not this year, maybe never again.

The spring sun warmed the black wool of her dress, sending trickles of perspiration down her back. She slipped her black-gloved hand into her twin brother’s, felt his fingers close tightly around hers and knew he was struggling for control, too. Through the rest of the service, Chelle clung to Trey’s hand, gathering her strength for the task of receiving condolences.

Most of the county was there. Sidonie McShannon had been popular with her neighbors, from the Sinclairs and the other large planters down to the hardscrabble farmers. It wasn’t in her nature to look down on anyone, and she’d been good at smoothing the feathers that the less than tactful little Yorkshireman she’d married tended to ruffle. She’d possessed an easy grace that Chelle had long ago given up trying to emulate. She was too much like her father.

This is the opening scene from McShannon’s Heart. It’s the springboard for my series, with the family on the verge of splitting up, Rochelle and her father to return to his old home in Yorkshire and Trey to come of age on the battlefields of the Civil War. McShannon’s Chance is Trey’s story, as he makes a new life for himself in the Colorado Territory after the fighting is over. Heart follows Chelle during the war years, as she finds her place in the Dales village of Mallonby and comes to terms with her new life.

I chose Colorado for Trey because it captured my heart with scenes like this. As for the Yorkshire Dales, I fell in love with them years ago through James Herriot’s stories. The old farm above makes me hear the haunting strains of Chelle's hero Martin's fiddle in my mind. The third book in the series brings the twins together again in Colorado after ten years of separation. It features an old neighbor from Morgan County, Nathan Munroe, a secondary character from Chance who demanded a happy ending of his own.

I love a book with strong secondary characters that make me yearn to read their story, too. Nathan’s book promises to be a lot of fun to write. I seem to find myself laughing a lot when I work on it, the kind of laughter that writers understand and others find just plain weird.

After all, if I didn’t write, how would I explain my quirks?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Second Book Syndrome

Less than a week ago, I completed my second historical romance, McShannon's Heart. It's the prequel to my debut novel, McShannon's Chance, which came out from Bluewood Publishing in October.

Which brings me to the topic of this, my first post on this blog: Second Book Syndrome. That oh-so-paralyzing feeling that your first book was a fluke, that you don't have another one in you or at least, not one worth reading.

In her autobiography, Agatha Christie talks about what she calls 'the burden of the professional - to write when one doesn't feel like writing and isn't writing particularly well.' She took up that burden after her painful divorce. Rule 1 about writing: life gets in the way.

There have been a lot of changes in my life over the last couple of years, but for me it's been more a matter of my head getting in the way, and a few more craft lessons learned. My writing process mystifies me at times. I've tried to morph from a pantser to a plotter, without success. My characters don't allow me to stick to a plan. For both my books I've written approximately twice the number of words that ended up in the final manuscript. My first book changed from a time-travel to a straight historical. The plot in my second got rerouted three times. Will I ever learn to be efficient?

Probably not, but I think the next phase of my writing journey will be learning to accept my process as it is and go with it. Once I do that, I'll spend less time getting in my own way and more time writing.

I hope.