Monday, April 30, 2012

If I Had it to Do Over Again, Would I?

I started my book Sacred Fire five years ago, and I’ve learned heaps since then. Occasionally I wonder what my book would be like if I started it knowing what I know now. It would be a million times easier to write, that’s for sure. I would avoid the many mistakes I had to fix.

If I started my book today instead of five years ago, Tuccia wouldn’t be my main character. I’m not saying I don’t love her; I knew I wanted to tell her story as soon as I read about her on Wikipedia. She was accused in 250 BC of losing her virginity, a crime that for a priestess was punishable by death. She proved her innocence by performing a miracle to show she was favored of the gods; she carried a sieve full of water from the river Tiber to the temple of Vesta.

Here’s the problem: Tuccia lived through some pretty heavy stuff – the Second Punic War which almost destroyed Rome, a Vestal Virgin’s execution, a Vestal Virgin’s suicide (which I didn’t include), the extermination of the fire of Vesta which caused mass panic through the city – but it all happened long after she performed her miracle. I wanted the miracle to be the climax, so I took some artistic liberties and switched the events.

Come to find out, another Vestal Virgin performed a similar miracle at around the same time I say Tuccia performed hers. When Claudia was accused of losing her virginity, she proved her innocence by pulling a ship onto shore that mysteriously stopped moving before it could reach the harbor. I should have caught this when I first started my research, but I was a novice at the time and didn’t realize my mistake until a few months ago.

If I had it to do over again, I would write the story the way it really happened. Assuming these women weren’t just legends and Tuccia didn’t die prematurely, Tuccia was an old woman when Claudia was a child. I'm sure Claudia grew up hearing stories of the miracle of the sieve. Maybe she was in awe of Tuccia. She experienced the war when she was young, as well as the executions and the fire going out, and eventually had to perform her own miracle, probably using Tuccia as inspiration.

I would change the story structure, too, so that it didn’t have so many subplots and was more focused. I’m sure the themes and characters would be completely different, since I’m a different person than I was five years ago and what matters to me now isn’t quite the same as what mattered to me then. I wouldn’t have to spend as much time revising, which would be wonderful beyond description.

As I thought about this other book I would write, I realized if I hadn’t going through the process the way I did, the book I love and worked so hard on wouldn’t exist. That was a little scary to think about. This novel makes me want to tear my hair out sometimes, but I like what I wrote.

If I could choose between starting this book five years ago and starting this book now, I would keep everything the way it is.

Friday, April 27, 2012


I have good news. Okay, great news. Super great news.

(I’m not pregnant and I didn’t find and agent – those are always the first things people ask when I say I have “good news.” I thought I’d better clear that up right away.)

My super great news is my husband is graduating and will start working as a Mechanical Product Design Engineer on June 1. (He loves how that title sounds. I do too.) The job is here in Mississippi.

What does this mean for me? It’s more than a bigger apartment, a dog, and no more basing our lives around exams. It’s more than watching my husband’s dream come true, though that is wonderful. This is great for me because…

I’m quitting my day job!

No more of this 8 to 5, wake-up-at-7am nonsense. No more squeezing in writing time during lunch breaks. I’m going to be a full-time writer!

…an unpaid, non-published full-time writer, but still.

When you think about it, non-published authors do much the same stuff as the published ones. That’s the great thing about being a writer. If you want to be a dancer or an actor, you need other people’s permission to do what you love. You can't get on stage if the directors don't like you. With writing, it will always be me, at my desk, wearing yoga pants and fuzzy socks, with my computer.

Just the thought of living in yoga pants is enough to make me excited.

This is all I’ve ever wanted to do and all I’m ever going to do. Even as a college freshman, my goals were centered on the idea of me being at home, typing away. It’s my first and last job.

I’m gonna be living the dream, baby!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Game of Sevens and an Excerpt from Sacred Fire

A blogging friend of mine – Brooke R. Busse at Paper Mountain – gave me The Lucky Meme challenge, and I'm excited to participate! She asked seven bloggers to do it and I have to ask seven more, etc.

The Rules:
  1. Go to page 77 of your current MS/WIP.
  2. Go to line 7.
  3. Copy down the next 7 lines – sentences or paragraphs – and post them as they’re written. No cheating.
  4. Tag 7 authors.
  5. Let them know.
This exerpt just happens to come from my favorite scene!

Background: Sacred Fire is about Roman priestesses who had to watch the perpetual fire of Vesta. The fire went out twice in recorded history; since the fire was supposed to protect Rome, both times created mass panic and the priestesses guilty of the neglect were put on trial. In this scene, the remaining Vestal Virgins are sitting in the temple in front of the dead hearth while they wait for the high priest to relight it. Tuccia, the MC, is only 12 and she's freaking out.

Calpurnia clenched her hands. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. Seeing Calpurnia cry bothered Tuccia so much that she stuffed her fist in her mouth and forced herself to calm down.
The five vestals in their night clothes sat close enough for their legs to brush against one another. Tuccia didn’t know why she and the others stayed, but she knew they had to. Perhaps their instinct to watch the fire was too strong for them to abandon the temple until it was back.
Tuccia was in a daze and didn’t feel the time pass. Shadows shifted in the streets as the moon leaned to the west.

Now for the seven bloggers to join the challenge:

Monday, April 23, 2012

How to Get Blog Followers, Part II

I once posted an article where I shared ways of getting blog followers: I recommended commenting on other blogs, using forums, guest posting, and participating in blogfests. Since then, I’ve learned a few other techniques I’d like to share.

Search Terms

As soon as you set up your blog, you’ll start getting hits from Google. At first, it’ll be for the most random things. I once got a hit from a search on “Randy Jackson,” and I don’t recall ever using the word “randy” or “Jackson” on my blog, ever. 

Eventually, though, you’ll start getting legitimate hits. That’s when you should start thinking about what terms people search for and add those terms to your content.

For example, I’ve had tons of hits from the phrase “how to get blog followers.” I also get hits from things like “vestal virgins,” “nanowrimo,” "beta," "foreshadow" and authors names. Using words that attracts online searches is called SEO, or Search Engine Optimization.

Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin

You can set your blog posts to automatically appear on your Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin accounts. Your followers can see the posts and click on them if they're interested. (For the first six months of blogging, all my followers came from Facebook.) Here's what you do:

Twitter: Set up an account at This site is great and provides you with all kinds of helps and goodies. Click on Publicize > Socialize > Add a Twitter account.
Facebook: Go to, set up an account, and click Add Your Blog. Click on Syndication and it will link them up.
Linkedin: In the top menu bar, click on More > Get More Applications and you’ll see a Blog Link button. I have mine attached to my Twitter Feed.


Triberr is a site where a group of people help each other get traffic by reposting their articles on Twitter, Stumble Upon, and Google Plus. You can’t be a freeloader, though; you have to repost other people’s content too.

You have to either be admitted to a tribe or find a tribe you like and ask to join. I’m a member of a historical fiction tribe of 24 people. All together, we have a reach of 19,815 Twitter followers. That’s a lot of followers. It’s also a great way to make friends.


I get more hits from images than anything else. It’s actually frustrating because the people using my photos aren’t always interested in my content, so the hits from photos mess up my stats. I got so sick of my posts on Phantom of the Opera and Tron always getting on my Popular Posts list that I finally deleted the pictures.

The more pictures you use, the more traffic you’ll get, and even if such traffic is often useless, at least it's traffic.


Titles are like the cover of a book. It’s the first thing people see, and it’s what they use to judge the content of your article. Sometimes it’s the only thing people see, like on twitter, Facebook, Tribber, or links on bloggers’ sidebars. Titles give you more search hits than the content itself. 

I don’t know the secret to a perfect title, but I do know it needs to be descriptive but short and to the point while at the same time being intriguing. It’s a tall order. Good luck with that.

Links on Other Blogs

When people post links to your blog, it’s flattering, generous, and very helpful. It’s also a gift – in other words, it’s not something you can control. All you can do is be friendly with other bloggers, thank them if you notice they’re generating traffic for you, and post links to other blogs to gain appreciation or to return the favor. Making friends will always help you.

Do you have any helpful advice to share?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Books that Take Over

I am disgusted with myself.

I knew a Vestal Virgin in my book would be executed as soon as I started working on it. This death would be so traumatic for my main character that it would make her question her religion, her role as a priestess, and so forth until her dilemma gets resolved at the end of the book.

Trouble was, in my first draft killing that character was sad but not life-changingly traumatic. It didn’t drive the story forward enough. I went back and further developed her relationship with my main character, and I kept increasing her likability and deepening their love for each other in every draft.

By the time I reached my current draft, I thought, “What kind of sick, twisted person would kill this character off?” I felt purely evil.

I can’t stand it when other authors do this. I’ve read books so sad that I think the writers must be messed up to write stuff like that. Maybe they weren’t loved enough as a child so they have too little pity for the human race. Now I'm doing the same thing.

It's not my fault... the book made me do it...

This is a good example of a book “taking over.” Being a control freak myself, I scoff when people say they “do what the characters tell them to do.(I also laugh because it makes them sound like crazy people.)

But there’s some truth to it. I never would have sat in front of my computer and said, “I will now create a character everyone will adore and then give her a gruesome death to upset my readers as much as possible.” It doesn’t matter that I didn't intend to sadden my readers; I wanted Tuccia’s world turned upside down, and this is what I had to do to make it happen.

Often authors know their characters need to get from point A to point B and the book fills in the empty spaces on its own. I believe this is because we are creatures of logic, and our brains make logical conclusions before we’re consciously aware of it.

If you know enough about your characters and their arcs, at some point it’ll feel like they’re talking on their own. When someone says, “I had an ending in mind, but the book told me to write something different,” it doesn’t mean he needs to be put in a strait-jacket; it means the first ending didn’t make as much sense as the second.

I still prefer deliberately plotting my book on my own, without the magical process of the book possessing me.

Do you like to let your book take over, or do you like to keep control?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Deranged, Estranged, and Buried"... that's dark

I set up a Google Alert for "Vestal Virgins" (the topic of my book, Sacred Fire) in case anyone posts new information. It's easy to do: just go to and enter your search phrase and email address. Anytime someone posts that phrase on the internet, you get an email.

Most of the links I get are to travel journals of people who visited the temple of Vesta in Rome. I also get some pretty random sites, like Vestal Virgin lesbian porn, for example. I don't know why virginity is supposed to be so erotic; you'd think it would have the opposite effect on people.

Today I found the link to a song called "Vestal Virgin." I was excited... until I saw that the tag-line was "Deranged, estranged, and buried." Hmm. That's uplifting.

It's a poorly recorded punk mess, and it's pretty much the worst song I've ever heard. You gotta listen to it: click here.

The song refers to the method ancient Rome used to execute Vestal Virgins when they lost their virginity. They believed if a vestal was impure, it would anger the gods and possibly bring about the destruction of Rome, so they buried guilty vestals alive.

I guess if I were buried alive, I'd be pretty deranged and estranged too.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Writing Tools I Can't Live Without

We all have tools to help us in the writing process, whether it’s something as simple as a dictionary, as advanced as Scrivener, or as ruthless as Write or Die. (Write or Die is a program that makes loud noises if you go too long without typing. If you put it on Kamikaze setting, it’ll actually delete words until you start typing again.)

I’d like to hear the tools you all use. In the meantime, these are mine:


Best. Program. Ever. It’s basically a folder on your desktop, just like any other folder, except you can access that same folder from any computer. I can edit my book during my lunch break, save it on Dropbox, and it’s there waiting for me at home.

I don’t have to wonder whether I saved my book to a jump drive or my desktop. I don’t have to battle with my husband over which computer I can use. I don’t have to download and upload the files every time I want to see them. It's wonderful!

Table of Contents

I used to have so much trouble finding scenes and chapters when I kept my book in one 300-page document. I started separating chapters into separate documents, but I had to keep several documents open at once and I hated it.

Now, I make a table of contents for my book so I can keep a list of every scene at the beginning of my document and I can get to that scene by clicking on it.

If you use Word (this might be different depending on which version you use), highlight the title of each scene, go to Home, and select a style (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc. If you don’t like any of them, right click on one and select “Modify.”) Once you’ve done that to all the titles, go to the beginning of your document and Click on References > Table of Contents. Select the one you want, and it will appear.

If you want to update the table of contents to include changes you made to the document, right click and select “Update Table.”

Microsoft Word 2010

Word has always been a staple with me. The newest version of Word, however, reigns supreme over the others.

My favorite feature is the search engine. When you hit Ctrl F, a box will appear on the left that shows every reference of the word with a full sentence and the page number. You don’t have to click through every single instance of the word to find the one you want.

You can also make your table of contents show up as a sidebar when you use Ctrl F. That way, you don’t have to scroll to the top of your document every time you need to see a list of your scenes.

Electronic Thesaurus

Word also has a Thesaurus function. It’s so much faster than flipping through the pages of a book. To use it, click on Review > Thesaurus.


This is more to help with reading than writing, but hey, the two are closely linked. Goodreads is an easy way to keep track of and organize the books you’ve read and the books you want to read. You can rate them, view others’ ratings, and read reviews. You can go onto your friends’ profiles and find out what they’re reading and what they thought of those books.

It’s especially helpful for research because I can keep all the books I find on my topic in a folder. I also have a folder for books people have borrowed from me so I can remember to get them back.

There are a million other cool features like forums, groups, “best of” lists, giveaways, and more. I go on this site several times every week.

You’re turn! What resources do you use to help you write?

Friday, April 13, 2012

20 Questions for Historical Characters

Creating characters from history is not the same as creating characters from the present day. It’s difficult not to give them modern personalities, and if all hist-fic characters were modern, what would be the point of reading historical fiction? The context of their lives not only make them who they are; it makes them interesting.

Authors sometimes use questionnaires  to help them develop their characters. You can find  tons of them online if you run a search for Character Sketch Questionnaire. Click here for an example.

It occurred to me that since historical characters are different, they should get a different worksheet. I compiled a questionnaire specific to characters from other time periods. (See below.)
I went ahead and did one for Sacred Fire, which you can see as an example (if you feel so inclined) by clicking on “Read More” at the bottom of the page. If you complete this questionnaire for your own characters, let me know; I’d love to read it.

Questionnaire for Historical Characters

(Keep in mind that people change, so the answers to these questions might be different at various points in your book.)

  1. What’s one thing I would never do because I believe it’s wrong? What would it take to make me do it?
  2. What’s one thing about my culture that bothers me?
  3. What’s my favorite aspect of my culture?
  4. Am I patriotic?
  5. What do I want for my future?
  6. What do I want for the future of my country? Do I hope/expect things to change?
  7. How much of my history do I know?
  8. Am I literate? What kind of education do I have?
  9. What do others expect out of me? Will I meet those expectations?
  10. What kind of people/characteristics do I admire?
  11. List at least one thing I would do or I believe that would be controversial today.
  12. What are the trends in my culture (clothes, celebrities, books, movies, games, activities)? How do I feel about these trends?
  13. How do I feel about race and class?
  14. How do I feel about love? Romance? Sex?
  15. What’s my relationship with my family? Is this relationship typical to my time period, or unique?
  16. What is my biggest fear?
  17. What do I do for fun, or to relax after a long day?
  18. What makes me different from all the other characters in this book?
  19. What makes me the same as all the other characters in this book, but different from people you know in your current day?
  20. What is the biggest difference between you (the author) and me?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Is Present Tense Pointless?

I’m reading more and more books that are written in the present tense. I don’t get the point. People tell me, “It makes the action more immediate so the reader feels like the story is happening right now.” I’ve never read a present-tense book and thought to myself, “Wow! These verb conjugations make me more involved in this book!”

Maybe I’m just odd, but my brain doesn’t pay so much attention to verbs that it can make that kind of distinction. Whether you write “He runs” or “He ran,” it doesn’t matter; either way, I visualize a boy running. Even if you did write “he runs,” it doesn’t trick me into thinking I’m there watching him run. He never runs or ran because he’s not real.

I don’t think present tense is pointless by any means. I just think those are pointless reasons to use it. Here are some reasons I agree with:

It’s easier to write and read

Sometimes conjugating verbs sucks. When do you say he ran, he was running, he has run, or he has been running? Even if you use your verbs correctly, sentences like “he has been running” are hard to digest.

When you write in present tense, it’s much simpler. It either happened now, or in the past. Let me illustrate this:

I sit at the table and think about the last time I ate fried chicken. It was raining.
I sat at the table and though about the last time I had eaten fried chicken. It was raining.

In the second sentence, not only does it sound bad to say “I had eaten,” but when did it rain? While he sat at the table thinking, or when he last ate fried chicken? It would make more sense to say, “It had been raining,” but that’s so wordy.

Sometimes it just makes sense

I’m seriously considering writing Hunger in present tense. I don’t particularly want to, but at certain points, it only makes sense. For instance, let’s say my character gets frustrated and says, Ugh! I didn’t know what to do.

Here’s the problem: when is she saying “ugh”? Did she say it when she didn’t know what to do, or is she saying it to readers as she narrates the story? It sounds like she’s sitting down talking to the readers, and she’s not. “Ugh” expresses her frustration during that moment, not her frustration at the memory of the moment.

Ergo, it would make more sense for her to say, Ugh! I don’t know what to do.


There are things you can do with present tense that are difficult to do with past. Stream of consciousness (writing exactly as the character thinks) lends itself well to present tense, for instance.

Let’s say my character is having an argument with herself. It sounds better like this:

I want to take him back, but I can’t. Well, maybe I can. I don’t know. Should I? I’ve been thinking about it for days. Ugh! I don’t know what to do!

…than if I wrote it like this:

I wanted to take him back, but I couldn’t. Well, maybe I could. Should I? I wondered. I didn’t know. I thought about it for days. Ugh! I thought. I didn’t know what to do!

If I wrote this scene in past tense, I’d have to completely change it in order for it to sound right.

You can use words like “now”

Just yesterday I was reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my husband when I ran into the sentence, “No moon was out tonight.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Andrew said. “Isn’t this supposed to be first person past tense?”

“Yeah. So?”

“Then it doesn’t make sense for her to say ‘tonight’ unless she’s using present tense, right?”

For a second, I just stared at him. “I thought you’re supposed to be an engineer,” I said. “How’d you know that?”

This is also a problem with the word “now.” Logically, theirs is no “now” in past tense. Here’s an example: “If he wasn’t mad before, he was now.” How can you used to be mad now?

Why would you use past tense?

As I read over this article, I wonder why I hate present tense as much as I do. I can’t think of any reason that past tense is better than present, but I just know in my gut that it is!

I’ll be frank; I use past tense because it’s what I was raised on. It feels unnatural to switch. Sometimes I’ll be halfway through a book and realize it’s in present tense, and I’ll think, “No, no, no! That’s not right! It’s so weird!”

You can keep your present tense to yourself; I will always be partial to the past.

CHALLENGE: How many books can you list off the top of your head (don’t cheat by looking at them) that were written in present tense? I’m curious to see how memorable it is. I can think of The Help, Water for Elephants, and The Hunger Games.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Vote for Independent Book Blogger Awards

If you're on Goodreads, you can participate in the Independent Book Blogger Awards by voting for your favorite blog! If you feel so inclined to vote for me (oh, you're too kind), all you have to do is click on the "Vote" button in the upper left-hand corner of this page. Voting closes April 23.

If you're not on Goodreads, why on earth are you not on Goodreads? Get on Goodreads.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Pros and Cons of Deadlines

October 31st is an extra special day for me. It’s not because it’s Halloween, though that is an awesome holiday. It’s because I’ve looked over the revisions I need to make to Sacred Fire, and I’ve decided to try and get it agent-ready by November so I can do Nano. This will be the third year in a row I query agents on October 31st.

What an awful tradition.

October 31st is an eternity away so it might seem silly to say, “I shall be done on this exact day.” But I need deadlines, and I need incentives for keeping those deadlines.

I wasn’t always this way. In fact, there were times in my life when a deadline was the worst possible thing for me. Having been on both sides of the spectrum, I’ve learned some of the pros and cons of having deadlines. Without further ado...


Pressure: Nothing kills creativity like guilt. I’ve tried putting pressure on myself to get work done, and it only fills me with dread. Using pressure and guilt makes me produce less than if I only work when I feel like it.

Meaninglessness: Let’s say you miss your deadline. Who cares? A deadline is supposed to help you kick things in gear, but if you just pick a random date and have no incentive for meeting that date, it won't change a thing.

Rushing: Writing novels takes a loooooong time. If you focus too much on getting things done instead of getting things right, you might not improve your novel as much as you need to.

Difficulty planning ahead: Sometimes it’s impossible to know how much work a novel needs and how long it’ll take you to complete that work. I made the decision to revise my book in January, but I did not make a deadline until now because it took me two months to figure out what all needs to be changed. I only know how long it'll take me this time around because I've revised my book before; when I did my first revision, there's no way I could have picked a deadline.

Skipping thinking time: I’m learning more and more the value of giving yourself time to think. I hate putting my book away for months at a time, but every time I do, I come back to the book with a fresh perspective. Occasionally you’ll need time to let your novel simmer, and you can’t put a deadline on that.


Structure: The best way to make your deadline affective is to break down what you need to do into sizable chunks and set goals for finishing each one. When you do this, you won’t sit at the computer thinking, “What should I do today?” because you’ve already planned out what you’ll work on this week. This will help you from feeling overwhelmed.

Direction: When you plan out the changes you’re going to make, you can take a step back and look at everything you plan on doing. You can picture what your novel will look like once it’s done. This helps you keep track of everything, and it helps you focus on what needs to be done.

Habits: To meet a deadline, you need to not only plan out what you’re going to do; you also plan out the time you’re going to spend on it. You might decide the only way to meet your goal is to write an hour every day, every other day, or every week. You can’t just say, “I don’t feel like writing today” because then you know it’ll put you behind and make you sad. It’s a great way to build a habit.

Results: When you effectively work towards a deadline, the work actually gets done!

Satisfaction: Meeting a deadline feels amazing. I can’t tell you how awesome it felt last year when I publically announced I would finish my revision on October 31st, and I did!


Here’s what you can take away from all of this:

Incentives are important. Maybe you could plan on swapping books with your beta reader on a certain day, finish before a writing conference, finish before Nano, or tell your deadline to your blog followers so that not meeting your goal brings you public shame. Whatever works for you.

Make a plan. You can’t set a deadline without knowing what changes you need to make, approximately how long it will take you to make them, and how much time your schedule will allow. If you try to set a deadline without a plan, you might as well just pick a random date out of a hat.

One last thing: remember, the quality of the book is more important than the deadline.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter and What it Means to Me

I decided when I started this blog to avoid religious discussions because I wanted it to be "professional." Then this Easter, my church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – asked all members to bear their testimonies of Christ online. 

While I debated on how I wanted to participate, I thought, if I can't be myself on my own blog, where can I? So for this very special holiday, I ask you to grant me this one indulgence.

Most of the discussion is going on at the I Am a Mormon website, thought you can also see our Facebook page. I'm grateful my church provided this opportunity for us to share our feelings about Christ, and I love reading what others have written.

As I was on that site for the first time (I've been going back to it every now and then all weekend), I remembered a scripture -- one I always think of whenever I feel doubtful or alone: 

Three days after Christ died, two of his apostles were walking on a road when Jesus joined them and spoke with them, only they didn't know who he was at first. When they understood that they were speaking to the Savior, they said they should have known: "Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?" Luke 24:32 

I know Jesus is my Savior for the same reason they knew: it burns within me. Nothing can take away that fire, that peace, that resonating truth. I feel it when I read others' testimonies, and I feel it when I bear my own.

Happy Easter.

Here's a very special 7-minute film on Christ's life the Church produced specifically for this Easter. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Tips on Organizing Your Research

Last night, I had a marvelous dream. I went back in time five years and smacked 21-year-old me upside the head.

Bewildered, young-me rubbed her head and said, “Ow! What was that for?”

I answered, “Will you please organize your research? I’m trying to sift through all your crap, and it’s killing me!”

Since I did my research for Sacred Fire so long ago, I started rereading and fact checking to make sure I’m not getting sloppy. Problem is, I can’t reread material I didn’t save, or fact check when I don’t know where on earth I got those facts.

For example, I wrote in my book that there was a grate surrounding the temple of Vesta. That doesn’t make sense. There was a wall around the temple of Vesta. Why would you put a grate around a wall? All the sources I have say nothing about a grate, but I know I didn’t pull that fact out of thin air... I even have a picture of it!

The only place it could be is in a book at the BYU library. Since that’s in Utah and I’m in Mississippi, that doesn’t help me.

I wrote an article awhile back on how to organize your research before starting your book. I said to own all your research books, save every webpage you visit in its entirety even if you don’t think you’ll use it again, print and highlight the important stuff, and organize it all in binders and in folders on your computer. If I had done that, I would have that fact about the mysterious temple grate either on my desk or on my desktop.

Now I’m thinking about how to organize research while in the process of writing and revising. Once you have all that information, what do you do with it?


I had a crazy idea; what if I treated this book like it was a school paper? Every time I use a fact or quote, I could put a little number behind it and include the reference at the bottom of the page. (If you use Microsoft Word, click on References > Insert Footnote.)

That way, when one of my characters say “Fire is the highest and ethereal nature of heaven,” I don’t have to flip through my notes or run a Google search to find who said that quote. I could just scroll down and see that it was Ovid from Metamorphosis.

It would be a pain to delete it all for the final draft, but not as much of a pain as what I’m doing now.


I’ve tried all kind of timelines (all of them Word documents), and they all sucked. If I had it to do over again, I’d construct a visual, all-encompassing timeline that I’d tape to my wall. The historical events and their dates would be written directly on the paper, and all the fictional events would be on movable tabs. That way, I can reorganize scenes without getting the events confused. Then I’d have smaller movable tabs that indicate each character’s age during milestones in the book.
I can see it in my head, and it is beautiful.

Review Everything

I’m a big believer in plotting the book only after your research is done so your novel molds to the truth, instead of truth molding to the novel. The only problem is you don’t always know where your book will take you. That means you can’t always know what you need to research until you’re waist-deep in the novel.

For instance, I’m rereading Livvy’s account of the Second Punic War, and I’m getting so much more out of it than when I read it five years ago. I’m catching stuff I didn’t know was important back then, and I’ve even added and rewritten scenes because of it.

Now I’m a believer in making a research sandwich: doing my research before writing, then doing more and reviewing it later.

I can’t wait to apply all these ideas when I start my next book after finishing Sacred Fire (which will be never, grrrr).

UPDATE: I finally found the information I was looking for about the grate (two months after this was posted). Ovid, Fasti, VI, 261 as a primary source and Recent excavations in the Roman Forum by E. Burton-Brow as a secondary source.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Humiliating Love Story

Whenever I go to a dinner party/game night with married people, the first question everyone asks is how you met your spouse. My story is the most quintessential, stereotypical Mormon dating story: Andrew and I met in a single’s ward at BYU.

At one party I had listened to just about everyone’s story (and told my lack-luster one half a dozen times) when I reached one last couple. “How did you two meet?” I asked.

The guy turned beet red and bent his head down. His wife looked at him and grinned.

“That’s quite the story,” she said.

The two of them were part of a group of friends that had been together since childhood. At some point in high school, he realized he was in love with her.

He was afraid he’d scare her away if she knew he wanted to be more than friends, so his crush was top secret. He only told two guys, and they knew better than to tease him or mention it to anyone. You couldn’t torture the information out of them.

One day the group of friends were hanging out at his house and they started fooling around with a skateboard. The guy wanted to show off for the girl he was in love with, even though he had never been on a skateboard before in his life. It ended badly, of course; he fell and made everyone laugh. They stopped laughing when he didn’t get up.

He was conscious, but he was acting funny, and they thought he might have a concussion. They decided to take him to the hospital and helped him into the car.

When the girl leaned over him to put on his seatbelt, he stopped her by putting his hand on her arm. “You are so beautiful,” he said.

She didn’t know what to make of this. His friends who were in-the-know were mortified on his behalf.

The doctor affirmed that he had a concussion and gave his friends instructions to keep an eye on him. They brought him back to his house and stayed with him for the rest of the evening. He sat in a corner and for the most part quietly listened to the conversation, except whenever the girl spoke or laughed. Each time he heard her voice, he said, “I love you. I love you so much.”

He didn’t remember any of it the next day. When his friends told him what happened, he was so embarrassed that he refused to speak to her for months. Eventually, she was able to coax him into dating her. The rest is history.

Monday, April 2, 2012

How do You Write What You Know?

They say you should write what you know, but how is that possible? If we only wrote about our experiences, most of us could only tell one story. It might not seem necessary to you; after all, Tolkien never went to Middle Earth, I'm not a Roman, and Stephen King has never been attacked by a madman with an ax.
Donald Maass says you shouldn't write what you know, but write what you care about. Passion is all you need. 

He makes a good point, but I agree with the rule of sticking to what you know. I believe most writers who shudder at this idea just don't know how to apply it.

I've read stuff and thought to myself, "She has no idea what she's talking about." The characters' feelings and actions feel false, forced, and contrived. I especially feel this way when people write about depression. Having seen a lot of it in my life, it's easy to tell what's genuine and what's not.

Here's an example; J.K. Rowling has never been attacked by a dementor. However, she has struggled with depression. Dementors are creatures who suck the happiness out of you, making you feel as if all the light has gone out of the world. She's pulling from her own experiences. It resonates with readers because she's writing what she knows.

In my WIP Fierce, one of the main characters gets raped. (I feel like such a sell-out; it's seems half the books in this world have rape victims in them.) I myself have never been molested. I refuse to write the scene of it actually happening because I feel it would be presumptuous -- even disrespectful -- for  me to attempt to describe it.

However, I do have some experience with trauma. I once got hit by a car while riding my bicycle and shattered the windshield with my body. The post-traumatic stress was terrible... I was deathly afraid of cars for a year!

Ergo, I started my novel not with her getting attacked, but with her at home the next day trying to hide the rape from her husband. It's difficult because she jumps at every sound. She can't stop shaking. Whenever he moves his hands too close to her, she flinches. All she wants to do is hide in her bed under the covers.

This experience is real to me, and my critique partners say it feels real in the text. I wrote what I know.

I challenge you to look at your writing and ask yourself how your character's struggles relate to your life. The character doesn't have to be you, but surely you can find some common ground. If you can put pieces of yourself in the writing, it will be potent.
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