Category Archive: World Building

Guest Post: How to Use Scapple

Hannah Givens is always a favorite guest blogger at WriteOnSisters, and we’re thrilled she’s back. If you haven’t already done so, follow her wonderful book blog, power packed with great ideas for reading diverse books and authors. And now, take it away Hannah…

I love sticky notes, and I’ve used them to organize my thoughts for years, but that method has some problems: notes fly off the paper, or you have to rewrite the same things several times as you move your notes around. Plus there’s the space issue. Where can you stick enough notes to outline an entire novel, and how can you back that up reliably? Scapple to the rescue!

The Scrivener writing program from Literature and Latte has achieved a certain level of recognition in the writing community, but L&L’s other program, Scapple, has flown under the radar. I can’t imagine why, because it’s equally well-designed and may be even more useful depending on how you like to work. It’s something like mind-mapping software, but with more flexibility — L&L calls it a “freeform text editor” and that seems the most accurate description. You type, and then you can copy/paste or format your text however you like, but you can also stick each piece of text anywhere on your infinitely-large page and connect them with lines or arrows any way you want.

Scapple is really fantastic, but possibly also daunting if you’re not sure how to use it. So today I’ll be sharing three ways I use the program for writing: mind-maps, character sheets, and outlines. (Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored in any way, nor is anyone at WriteOnSisters, we just happen to adore the program!)

1) Mind-mapping:

Again, Scapple isn’t exactly mind-map software, but for me that’s an advantage. I don’t have to force my mind to be mapped according to someone else’s system. I don’t have to know what I’m doing right away, decide which idea is “central,” or anything like that. I can just start and figure it out as I go along. The main way I use Scapple is actually to create character charts, and it’s a huge step up from either mind-mapping or family tree software… I need a chart that can show relationships, but not just familial ones, and also show the passage of time to some extent.

Here’s a sample:

Note how I can have a mindmap with two connected centers, plus a list on the side, and then some special charts underneath (I use the system outlined in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schechter). Some of the character relationships are romantic, some are parental, some are adversarial or professional, and a few don’t show up until halfway through the book, but I don’t need a way to track all that because I know who’s who. I just needed a way to combine “list of characters” with “immediately-visible connections.” That helps me craft a plot that makes sense, without forgetting anything obvious. Scapple is great for exploded-view lists like this.

2) Character sheets:

Many writers enjoy using standardized character sheets or questionnaires, both to keep track of their characters and to learn about their personalities. I often feel like these methods take some life out of my characters, though, so I needed a more organic way of keeping notes on personalities and character arcs.

Here’s a sample for one of my protagonists:

Note the ability to drag-and-drop images! I also love being able to mix and match “forms” that I can fill out or reimagine as needed, so I can combine plot notes with character notes. There are shortened versions of three “systems” in the sheet above, plus an unordered list of relevant information about the character and another list of relationships sorted by type. The next character sheet sits directly to the right in the same document and so on, because I like to see everything at once, but obviously you can set that up however you want!

3) Plotting and Outlining

I love all my character charts and sheets, but outlining is where Scapple really shines. It can handle complexity, and your own uncertainty about which ideas go where. Plus, I tend to change my visual outline structure depending on the project, and Scapple is totally flexible for that.

Here’s a half-done outline for an urban-fantasy project, in which I’m trying to work out several arcs in tandem:

There are four columns there, although muddled a bit: the left-hand column in the box(es) is a blank list of scenes, the guide to where my outline should be. (Again, I’m using Schechter’s system, but all this business of putting it into Scapple is my own design.) Then I have two columns tracing two characters’ arcs on each side, and the yellow notes down the center mark what the villain’s doing at the same time. The red ones are obvious questions to answer.

You can probably see at a glance that this would be incredibly difficult with sticky notes, because I’ve got several types of note and I need to keep track of how they relate to each other before I ever know which comes first in the final product — I’ve done outlines like this in Word before, but the linearity was a problem and things took much longer/were more stressful than they needed to be. (Also note the picture on the side there. I made some notes longhand, and rather than retype them, I just took a picture and slapped it in to refer back to as I go.)

Here’s a simpler project:

With this one I already know how it goes, and it’s a more linear space-travel story, so I’m basically outlining as I go along to have a clear reference for where I am in the plot. If I run into problems I can outline ahead to fix them, or I can go through and colorcode existing notes to highlight problems or check rhythm. It’s a completely different story with very different needs, but Scapple can do both without any fuss at all.

And worry not, you can back up your work in several formats. Plus, if you’re also using Scrivener you can drag notes straight into that. For me, though, I just adore being able to get my thoughts directly onto the page. I don’t have to force them to make sense, and I don’t have to remember how they relate, I can just draw them in however seems reasonable at the time. Then, unlike any kind of paper notes, I can immediately start working with what I scribbled down. Move it around, highlight it, draw lines, make a chart, anything I want.

If you’ve struggled to use pre-structured methods, been inspired by worksheets but haven’t found the exact right thing, or just desperately wanted electronic sticky notes in your life, Scapple may be for you. Either way, I hope this post gave you some organizational inspiration!


Hannah Givens is a lifelong book lover, student of literary history, and writer of numerous term papers. She blogs about genres of all kinds at Hannah Reads Books, and is currently working on her first novel. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter, talking about books and much more.

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Guest Post: Writing Sci-Fi

SciFi PostToday we bring back one of our favorite guest bloggers, Cindy McCraw Dircks. We first met Cindy about three years ago and it has been a pleasure to watch her journey from first draft to newly agented writer. It’s extra special for Robin since she was an early beta reader on the very project that landed Cindy her agent. She also has the distinction of being the writer with the most interesting resume we have ever read. (See below)

Please welcome Cindy.

I love sci-fi. As a daughter of diehard Trekkies from Mississippi, I’ve always held Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk on par with Elvis. The only thing I love as much as sci-fi (and Elvis) is the act of writing and reading all kinds of books. Recently I signed with an agent to champion my first novel, and that first novel (no surprise here!) involves aliens from another galaxy. Still, writing a sci-fi book was scary for me. I mean, where to begin when there are so many things in the universe to write about?

So, based on my experience, here are some select tips for writing sci-fi:

1. Define Your Setting: Tatooine Or Closer To Home?
First off, kudos to those who can create their own world from scratch. No greater feat known to man! But personally speaking (and despite my secret wish to be a Jedi) I’d rather not create my own world. My favorite movies from my childhood, teenhood and young-adulthood were: ET, STARMAN, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and STAR TREK 4 (You know—the one where Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, et al, time travel back to 1984 Earth to save our planet by saving whales?). Just last night while watching TV and riding the exercise bike in the basement, l swelled with pride when Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith saved humans from total annihilation in INDEPENDENCE DAY.
I recall these particular sci-fi movies because they brought space to me. To modern day Earth. These movies created situations in which regular everyday people are forced to deal with the extraordinary. So, earth-bound space movie faves in mind, I set about writing Wayne and Emmy Learn to Breathe, in which an agoraphobic Mississippi-boy who won’t leave home falls for a rebellious girl from another galaxy.

2. Love Movies As Much As I Obviously Do? Then Act Like You’re Writing One!
A well-established agent once explained this to me during her Writers Digest Webinar. Easy visualization is key especially in sci-fi and thrillers. Sci-fi books, albeit all books, are more rich with detail than even the best sci-fi movie could ever be. But a 120 page script has the same story arc as an 800 page epic, just obviously more compact.

3. If On Earth—Where On Earth?
I’m from Hattiesburg, MS, and to my knowledge, no one has ever written about an alien hanging out there before. Sure, there are fewer buildings to blow up than there are in NYC. Or at least way fewer big ones. In my story a teen alien girl steals her parent’s pod and crash lands on a Mississippi pine-tree farm. Since she breathes only carbon dioxide, and she’s surrounded by fresh air, she’s instantly in big trouble.

4. Decide Your Brand Of Sci-fi, Hard or Soft?
I personally veer towards hard sci-fi, meaning I like technical accuracy as much as possible. I think what helps make sci-fi accessible is embedding it in reality. That takes research. I based everything that happens in my book on fact or scientifically accepted theory, thus hard sci-fi. I read articles by Stephen Hawking regarding wormholes. I read papers written on Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world-wide-web. I researched Michio Kaku (American futurist and theoretical physicist), who made interstellar travel seem so possible and even read up on Newton’s laws of relativity so that I knew what high school lessons could tie into what was happening to my main character. And go ahead. Ask me anything about sources of carbon dioxide! I know them all…

5. What Does Your Alien Look Like? And Why?
Anatomy! Folks always want to know what makes an alien different. What makes them tick. Why do their eyelids open and close that way? For my story to work, my alien, Emmy, needed to blend in and look human. I put almost all of Emmy’s differences on the inside, and absolutely everything different about her factors into my plot. Emmy crash-lands near the farm of my protagonist, Wayne, who thinks she’s pretty hot–even though Emmy’s an alien. One day when this book gets made into a movie (dare to dream), the studio will save butt-loads on make up.

6. Okay! Done With Your Completed Sci-Fi Masterpiece? Now Find Those Professionals Who Will Totally Love It, Too!
I attended many beneficial and informative conferences once I completed my first draft of my first book (NY & NJ SCBWI, Writers Digest, Women Who Write, etc.) and met a cast of seasoned professionals who never held back on describing their slush piles–from too few of one genre to too much of another. I familiarized myself with agents and editors on Twitter, scanned Publisher’s Marketplace on a daily basis, and checked out more publishing blogs than you could shake a tribble at. Eventually, all this field work paid off for me. Thus, it couldn’t be more important to find, research and target those who are specifically looking for your work.

Although popular genres tend to run in cycles, aliens never go out of style. At least not yet. Humans have been interested in space and science in one form or another for centuries. Life on other planets remains an immediate possibility, and resonates with readers who press Star Trek-style-handhelds to their ears like they’re begging to be beamed up! I cherish the thought that we’re not alone, and agree wholeheartedly with this quote from Carl Sagan’s CONTACT:
The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

The truth is out there, but until we find that truth, let’s fictionalize it!



CindyCindy McCraw Dircks began her publishing and media career as a “go-for” at Playboy Enterprises and peaked as a production coordinator at Sesame Workshop. She took a hiatus to raise three fantastic children, who are now her biggest story critics. Cindy was selected to participate in the #publishyoself program with the Children’s Media Association and was featured in their collaborative Middle Grade ebook released in April 2015. Now, she’s repped by Sarah Crowe at Harvey Klinger and is focused on her fourth YA novel (a modern day retelling of a total classic), and looking to meet that perfect editor one day. Connect with Cindy on Twitter at @mcdircks, on Goodreads, Linkedin or her website:



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1 Key Question for Worldbuilding (+ A Handy Checklist)

I’m a newbie to hardcore worldbuilding. Up until recently, I’d only developed stories that took place in the real world. I may have put fantastical creatures in the stories, but the setting was Earth as we know it. Now I’m writing a novel that takes place 100 years in the future, still on Earth, but it won’t be an Earth we recognize because, you know, it’s post-apocalyptic! That means I get to make up all kinds of stuff. Fun! It also means I need to figure out what Earth could be like in the future after a major disaster. Daunting!

I had some ideas, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything obvious during my first worldbuilding attempt, so I turned to the Internet and searched for worldbuilding checklists. I found a few blogs that were helpful, but for the most part the information I uncovered was either super general or intimidatingly detailed (really? 500 questions to answer! That seems excessive). So I created my own checklist and in the process discovered there is really just one question to rule them all! Ahem. We’ll get to that. But first…

Worldbuilding Checklist

1) History

How did this world come to be? Write your own creation story! Name the main problem with the world and outline how it got like this. I find it helpful to use the good old 5 W’s…

  • WHO were the major players in the history of this world? Anyone famous? A martyr? A legend? A tyrant? A family member?

  • WHAT happened to cause the Main Problem?

  • WHERE did it happen? Everywhere? Or were only certain places in the world affected?

  • WHEN did it happen?

  • WHY did the world become like this? This is very different than “what happened” which is more event-based, such as “there was a nuclear blast” or “the zombie virus killed 80% of the population.” When answering WHY, focus on character response. There are many different ways your characters can respond to the WHAT; the WHY regarding that character response is the key to making the story compelling.

2) Community

Humans are social creatures. Even if your characters aren’t human, you the human writer will naturally bestow upon your characters the social qualities necessary for a compelling story. (See this post about how the fuel of every story is character interaction.) Unless something has happened in your story that turns all humans into lone wolves, you need to outline how people live together.

  • WHO inhabits this world? Are they all human or not? Think about race, social classes, gender, etc. Who gets along? Who causes trouble? Who are allies and who are enemies? Does everyone speak the same language or not?

  • WHAT roles do people play in society? What are the social rituals? What traditions do people adhere to regarding birth, marriage, child-rearing and death?

  • WHERE do they live? Is the community small or large, rural or urban, or a mix of both? Do they live in houses or holes in the ground? Do they share living space with family or friends?

  • WHEN was this community and its rituals established? How ingrained are the traditions and rituals? Does anyone remember how things used to be?

  • WHY has this community developed like this? Again, focus on the characters’ reasons in response to their world. Basically, you can (and should) ask “why?” of all the answers to the questions above.

3) Leadership

Even the friendliest communities have a leader of some sort (or multiple leaders, or wannabe leaders) who could potentially butt heads with others. Hello conflict!

  • WHO is in charge? Is there a system of government? Is there religion? Is there a community leader?

  • WHAT type of government (democracy, monarchy, dictatorship) or religion (monotheist, polytheist, mysticism, occultism) or community leader (mentor, tyrant)?

  • WHERE are the leaders? Living amongst the commoners or high in an ivory castle?

  • WHEN was this leadership established?

  • WHY are they the leaders? Were they born into the position, or elected, or did they take power by force?

4) Economy

Besides work and money, I cover fashion and possessions to this category as well. After all, those things are tied to the economy!

  • WHO works? Who doesn’t work? Are there employers and employees, or is this a society where everyone chips in equally?

  • WHAT are the jobs in this world? What is the payment: money (paper, coins, gold bars) or a barter system? Do people make enough to acquire personal possessions, or are they barely putting food on the table?

  • WHERE do they work? Is there a main industry? Is there a uniform?

  • WHEN do people start working (age, time of day)?

  • WHY do people work? Because they want to or because they have to?

5) Education

How do the inhabitants of the world acquire, share and spread knowledge?

  • WHO is educated? Everyone or only certain classes/races/genders?

  • WHAT types of education are available? Formal schooling? Apprenticeships? A smart chip in one’s brain?

  • WHERE do they learn? Public or private schools? Libraries? Religious centres? The Community Leader’s living room? On the farm?

  • WHEN do people start and finish their education (age, time of day)?

  • WHY do people learn or not learn? Again, what are the human reasons behind this?

6) Infrastructure

This section covers many things necessary to society (technology, transportation, communication, food production, water supply, waste disposal, health, law) that we don’t always think about because they operate in the background of our lives. After all, if you’re lucky enough to live in the developed world, a simple turn of a tap provides you with clean water, and a porcelain machine sucks away your poop. Amazing! But in a post-apocalyptic state, how will you get safe, drinkable water? What will you do with human waste now that the sewer system no longer works? How will you get food once the grocery stores are raided and stripped bare? And so on and so forth.

I’m not going to go through the 5 W’s for all of these subcategories in this blog post (that would take too long), but here are some more general questions to get you started:

– What kind of technology does this world have? Are they still working on the wheel, or have they perfected space travel?

– How do people get around? Cars? Horses? Foot? Transit? Magic carpet?

– How do people communicate? What media (if any) is available to spread news and entertainment?

– Are there laws? How are they enforced? Is there an established legal system? Are there law enforcement officers?

– Is there health care? What happens if someone gets sick or injured? Do they go to the hospital or call the local shaman?

One Question to Rule Them All

So those are the six main categories of worldbuilding that I’m using. But what about that super important question that trumps everything? Well, it’s worked into the above section but not noticeably highlighted, so here goes:

worldbuilding WHY-alt

Yep, “WHY?” Many of the worldbuilding checklists I found online had dozens if not hundreds of questions to ask, but didn’t always get to the meat of the issue, which is basically: WHY are things like this? Writers can come up with all kinds of cool stuff for their made-up worlds, but if there is no reasoning behind that stuff, if they haven’t asked why and come up with answers, they may end up with a world that at best feels underdeveloped and at worst doesn’t make sense. So every time you build something into your fictional world, ask why it’s there and why it’s like that. You may conclude that it doesn’t fit or make sense at all and you need to change it, or you’ll come up with a fantastic reason that strengthens the story.

How do you worldbuild? Do you have a checklist? Or do you figure stuff out as you write the story?


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How Local Culture Inspires Worldbuilding

Today’s Guest Post is by Rose B. Fischer. We first met Rose about a year ago and were instantly impressed with her creativity and willingness to lend a hand to her fellow writers and bloggers. Her kindness is teamed with a great sense of humor, making her a delightful person to know and a fun writer to read. She has developed a unique approach to worldbuilding, and it’s so helpful that we invited her here to share it…

Map for Rose

Worldbuilding is one of my favorite aspects of genre fiction. I spent about three years building the world of Synn before I started writing my serial. There’s so much potential with a new world, so many factors to consider — from physical setting concerns like geology, climate, flora and fauna, to politics and culture. It can be overwhelming, and there’s a tendency to get carried away. I’ve read books that felt like the author was just grabbing bits and bobs of every ethnic or social group they could think of and mashing it all together rather than creating a unique, cohesive setting. While there’s nothing wrong with using elements of real world cultures, there needs to be something that grounds your setting and makes it feel like a world rather than a hodgepodge of Earth cultures. My favorite grounding technique is to adapt my own local culture and New Hampshire history and weave it into my fictional settings.

Here are four aspects of local culture that inspire worldbuilding:

Industry — Textile and paper mills built New England on the backs of its poor. There’s no pretty way to say it. Everywhere you look in New Hampshire’s cities, you see huge red brick complexes that can take up both sides of a street. When I was a kid, I thought they were fortresses or mazes. Walking around the mills is like being enclosed in a medieval castle or dystopian city-state. People came to the mills from farms and rural logging communities looking for opportunity. The mills gave them company-owned homes, accounts at a company store, and demanded grueling work days with little to no time for eating or socializing. In exchange, the workers got meager wages that were garnished to pay back their company credit accounts and exorbitant rent. But the cities exploded because the mills produced. The region prospered. Fashions changed. Storebought clothes became commonplace, and fabric to make clothing became less expensive and more varied. Water-power and river trade flourished and because of the mills.


The textile mills were dependent on Southern cotton, though. Both paper and textiles relied on coal, needed export and were hindered by taxation.

I love the mills, I love their aesthetic, but it’s important for me to remember their history in my fiction. I could go on about them for a long time, but the point is, there’s a lot you can add to a story by looking at the implications (both positive and negative) of a local industry. Industry affects architecture, clothing, politics, physical growth of the setting, and so much more. Whether you’re writing a tale that takes place on one planet or a space opera that spans twenty, places have industry, and all local or regional industries depend on other areas for support. Those things don’t have to be major plot elements, but they have a wealth of potential when layered into a story.

Regional rivalries — Trees are big business in New Hampshire and Vermont. I’ve mentioned the paper mills, but we also have a large timber industry, fall tourism driven by leaf-peepers, commercial orchards, and a huge maple sugar/syrup trade. Winter sports and activities related to snow are the other part of our tourism industry. We compete with Vermont for that too. Rivalry for tourism and export dollars can be intense even in the present, but in historical times led to some serious, bitter conflict. Rivalries around resources like this are a great source of conflict for everything from science fiction and fantasy where the scale is huge, all the way to romance where it’s more personal. The key is to weave in specifics about those resources. Try to avoid “black and white” situations where one side is clearly corrupt and the other is taken advantage of.

Folklore and Local Heroes — Our state website has an archive of books about New Hampshire folklore and legends. I’ve been familiar with most of those stories since elementary school, but many of my friends in other parts of the country have never heard of them. Either way, adapting your local folklore to a fantasy or science fiction setting is a fantastic way to add depth to your setting.


Culture and Subculture — Woodworking and artisan crafts related to wood are a big deal in NH. It’s a coastal state, so commercial fishing and lobstering are also prominent. The Abenaki Nation and Pennacook Tribe are part of the state’s history and culture. Because we’re close to Quebec, we have a big French Canadian population. There’s a large state university system, big cities with crime and population problems, hiking and climbing trails that attract adventurers, and rural areas where people live much as they did a century ago. I’ve written before about bike week in Laconia and how biker subculture plays a part in my life and my writing. This section is starting to sound like a travel brochure, but if you take the time to notice and learn about the place you live, I bet you’ll find a lot to add depth to your fiction!

On the surface, my worlds look nothing like New Hampshire, but because I understand the history and culture of my state and the surrounding region, I can extrapolate at a conceptual level to create a society with built-in problems for my characters to wrestle with. So many writers look far and wide for exotic cultures to build their worlds around, but end up with bland, boring books with “cultures” that feel like window dressing. If you live somewhere for a long time, it might look dull and uninteresting to you, yet to someone else it may be just the thing that helps your story feel alive and unique.


rosewinkpngfoxRose B. Fischer:
Rose is an avid fan of foxes, Stargate: SG-1, and Star Trek. She would rather be on the Enterprise right now. Since she can’t be a Starfleet Officer, she became a speculative fiction author whose stories feature women who defy cultural stereotypes. In her worlds gender is often fluid, sexuality exists on a spectrum, and “disability” does not define an individual. Her current project is The Foxes of Synn, a low-tech science fantasy serial.
She is a survivor of domestic violence who lives with multiple disabilities. In the early 2000s, she became homeless after leaving her abusive spouse. She later entered a transitional housing program while attending college. These experiences inspired her to begin writing non-fiction, and have had lasting impacts on her approach to fiction writing. She publishes science fiction, science fantasy, horror, and biographical essays. She blogs about the intersection of storytelling, social responsibility, art, and pop culture at

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Do Your Characters have Character?

ShawnGriffithToday we bring you a guest post from one of our newer blogging friends, Shawn Griffith. Shawn runs a blog called Down Home Thoughts, and his site is packed with old-fashioned wit and wisdom. He’s on WriteOnSisters to talk about character, a topic near and dear to his heart. In fact he’s conducting a survey on character over at his blog. Make sure you head over there next and lend him your own down home thoughts on what character means to you. 

When outlining your main characters, you think about their purpose in the story, you contemplate various names, physical traits, habits, etc., but do you think about their character? By character, I mean those traits that make up how an individual, in this case, your character, reacts to the ups and downs that life (or an author) throws at them. Traits like the ones described in the Knight’s Chivalric Code; honesty, self-discipline, courage, justice, mercy, generosity, faith, nobility, and hope are great examples. Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics is also an example of a fictional code. The First Law states that “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” What kind of character do your characters have?

Do Your Characters Have Character?

I believe that having a code of conduct for your characters helps make the decisions about how they respond in difficult situations a bit easier. It’s a good idea to keep your traits general at first. You can expand on the traits as needed. Since character is not easy to define due to its complexity, you should focus on no more than three or four attributes per group of beings. We’ve all heard the saying that actions speak louder than words. A character’s true personality or character will show in their actions. This is why knowing your character’s character is important. If you struggle with defining a set of social norms, the 5 questions below can help you develop your own social code for particular group.

5 Questions To Develop a Social Code
1. Is there a driving central theme or passion for this group? Klingon’s love battle and value honor above all else.
2. Are there specific traits you need this group to have (or lack) for your story to work? Orcs in Lord of the Ring are utterly bloodthirsty and destructive.
3. Are there traits you want to emphasize/de-emphasize? You have a culture that respects property very highly and your main character is kleptomaniac.
4. Do you need a society’s character to change in the course of the story? The peace loving Ewoks in Star Wars are forced to fight for their home with the rebels.
5. Does your society have a central character flaw or strength? Asimov’s Foundation has the planet Trantor where conformity, obedience and acceptance are expected.

Once the societal norm is established, look at the main characters and decide what are their strengths and weaknesses according to this norm. Use these questions as a starting point for laying a framework for your character’s character.

5 Questions for Character
1. What drives or compels them to do what they do?
2. What are their character strengths?
3. What are their weaknesses?
4. What is important to them?
5. What are they willing to die for?

Hopefully these questions have made you think about character in a new light and perhaps even the effect of that character’s struggle on the character of your reader. I would love hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment so we can discuss it.

Shawn Griffith currently has two writing projects underway. One is a non-fiction work about the importance of understanding, identifying, and promoting good character development in ourselves and those we influence. The other is a work of science fiction and is in the formative stages. You can find out more about Shawn by visiting his blog Down Home Thoughts. It is a collection of wisdom, character and common sense thoughts passed along from his parents, grandparents and others, with a dash of stories, photos, book reviews and other writings.

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Throwing Open the Vault: Tips for Writing a Heist

Safe CC 2.0 Anonymous Account Most writers don’t naturally possess the best skills for a life of crime. We can’t crack a safe. We don’t have a clue how to forge documents. And we wouldn’t feel comfortable holding a gun, let alone pointing it at another human. That’s why research is often our best friend.

The moment I decided to write a heist novel, I realized how little advice was available from other writers. Most of the blogs I read featured long lists of crime shows to watch and not much else. Sure, I love spending an afternoon watching the Italian Job as much as the next gal, but it’s not a research-heavy experience. I tend to favor facts, and historical data over another writer’s interpretation of a great heist.

In the last year, I’ve amassed quite a collection of treasures on writing a heist. Today is the first day I’ll throw open the vault and start letting everyone inside.

Please remain orderly, there’s a lot to see and it might take a while to show you what’s inside all my safety deposit boxes.

This looks like a good place to start: Breaking and Entering

Museums, banks, and other repositories of cash and treasures are run by smart people. They have to be, or every thief would walk in and take whatever they wanted on a daily basis. The staff of these trusted institutions, if they want to keep their jobs, are not going to talk about what security measures they have in place and which ones they don’t. So if you don’t have the inside track (say, a few years of working in a museum or a bank) or the opportunity to study camera placements, staff rotation schedules, and silent alarms activation systems, you’ll need to hit the books and learn all you can.

Read about real heists:

Successful criminals are everywhere. Reading about actual crimes will help you pin down what type of heist you want to write about. There are some brilliant criminal minds are out there, so you should learn from the best.

Some successful crimes appear remarkably simply. This week a 12 year-old girl walked out of a store with a 4.6 million dollar necklace.

By far the most famous US art theft, the Gardner Museum heist, was also a simple plan. This is well-documented crime and you can find a number of books on it. This heist Newspaperremains unsolved to this day.

Remember, many major crimes aren’t very interesting, and they never make the global news. Some crimes are concealed at the victim’s request.

To find unique crimes you may have to dig a little. Start by following agencies that look for stolen art and antiquities. You can glean a lot of information from reading their databases.

I also recommend looking for lists of crimes by type. This will help you get a feel for the different approaches criminals have used in the past. Time magazine counted down the ten smartest thefts in recent history here.,28757,1865132,00.html

Here’s another list of the best bank robberies of all time.

Looking for something more sophisticated and less vigorous? Maybe you’re interested in writing about con men vs. a cat burglar. Con men get the goods by manipulating the most vulnerable point of any institution, the staff. Setting up a con is a complicated process and it take brains. I say go to the source when looking for information on the criminal element, try the FBI’s Most Wanted List, many con artists have graced their top ten list.


Include some high tech gadgets for your characters to elude:

Once you have the breaking and entering method picked out, you need to nail down the bricks and mortar of your fictional security. Since those smart museum and bank people refuse to tell anyone what they’ve installed as a reference point, you will need to imagine what your target location might have. One option is to track down the companies who sell museums, banks and collectors all that high-end surveillance equipment or design their security plans.–the-art-of-securing-pricelessness.html

If money is no object, consider joining a professional association. Many groups offer their members access to classes and libraries overflowing with information. Industry specific publications are also a great source. You can find advice on setting up good security practices or practical guidelines for handling emergency situations. Exploiting an emergency plan might be a great diversion tactic to use in your fictional heist. There are always classes being offered to professionals in museum security. A quick search this week found this online class.

If you plan to set your fictional heist in a smaller venue–say, a manor house–you may need less in the way of research. Of course this depends on the safe you plan to include in your story and the method of cracking it your characters are using. Here is an overview of basic safe cracking methods.

Never forget to research the basic tools. Every shady character should have something on hand for gaining spur-of-the-moment unlawful entry. Good old fashioned master keys and picks are useful, but electronic key cards are the new standard.

The idea that in a few years phones will come equipped with biometric security shocks me. However, in heist fiction, biometrics are just another piece of the game.

Basing your book on real world concepts and equipment will make the plot more believable. Some suspension of disbelief is fine, but you should have a bedrock of facts. Aim to make your heist implausible, not impossible.

Come back next Wednesday when I’ll throw open the vault again and take out a new box: The Stakes!
The stakes might be a chest of jewels, a cache of gold bars, or a numbered Swiss account with more zeros than anyone could spend in three lifetimes. Sometimes, it’s not the crime a reader remembers, and a writer loses sleep over, it’s the scope of the prize.


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Originality: Building the Unique World

OMy debut novel, WIVES OF LUCIFER, has been through many incarnations since the first draft, almost as many as my young protagonist, but one aspect has remained stable: the setting. In this story, I invented alternate world concepts for what many would call Heaven and Hell and struggled mightily with taking the traditional concepts for both and turning them on their heads. I’m not a religious person, although somewhat schooled in the world’s religions, but have more of a cosmic and otherworldly view, heavily influenced by my background in astrology and the sciences. When I set out to create this new world, I discovered it was much more difficult than I ever imagined. Readers will suspend their beliefs somewhat, but only to the extent that they can accept what you are offering. There have been many times when I’ve read a story or seen a movie/TV show and declared, “Oh come on! Who would ever believe that could happen?”

Writing fantasy is pure delight. Dreaming up fantastical images and beings, or powers for your characters, can be enchanting and thrilling, and it’s easy to lose yourself in the incredible world of your own imaginings. As the architect, however, you must consider the structure carefully, building it brick by brick and avoiding the dreaded info-dump, something I easily fell prey to in my early writing.

Drafting the blueprint for my fantasy world, I discovered something called The Iceberg Principle, also known as The Theory of Omission, and attributed to the famed writer Ernest Hemingway. It essentially resulted from Mr. Hemingway beginning his writing career as a journalist, which required he write succinctly—just the important facts, sir—as word count dictated how much he could include when reporting a story. When he began to write ErnestHemingwayfiction, he applied this habit by giving his readers only about 10% of what they really wanted. Hemingway believed the true meaning of a piece of writing should not be evident from the surface story, rather, the crux of the story lies below the surface and should be allowed to shine through. He claimed that good writing meant the reader should crave a conversation with him, asking for all the little details he wouldn’t share. Give them just enough so they understand what is going on, and to whet their appetite. And the more you as the writer know the easier it will be because you know the whole picture and you can narrow down just which details are essential for understanding. After that you can drop in others for fun or as added description.

When presenting any setting it’s necessary to avoid longwinded and isolated explanations. Instead mix them with action and dialogue. And remember the most important rule of all. Show your world to us, don’t tell it to us! I let my readers learn about the orphanage for the souls of dead babies by having my protagonist assigned to work there, hence it is discovered through her eyes and actions. I introduced my version of the Jinn by having her accidently bump into them where they unfortunately get stuck to her body and explode, covering her in slimy green goo.

Mr. Hemingway sums up like this: “A few things I have found to be true. If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless. The test of any story is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.”* He claimed that only the tip of the iceberg should be visible in fiction—the reader should see only what is above the water—but the knowledge the author has about character and setting that never makes it into the story acts as the bulk of the iceberg. And that is what gives your story weight and gravity.

Well said, Mr. Hemingway. Your words are gold, just like always.

So craft your unique world carefully and painstakingly, then eke out little snippets as you go along, keeping your readers razzled and dazzled, just enough to draw them in…or perhaps…to dream about.


Up Next…  Robin with Pro the Prologue or Against?

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Navigating Architectural Spaces in your Fiction: From Apse to Ziggurat:

I happen to love architecture, I always have. I’m one of those strange people who measures time by my landmark acquisitions. However, I believe anyone can learn to write about structures (from castles, to space stations, to huts) by asking themselves a few simple questions about how they want to use the building in the setting.

  • Think about the building’s purpose.

Your primary building will most likely be housing. So, how long has your character(s) lived there? How do they feel about the house, sentimental or resentful? Make sure you give your building enough square footage to meet the demands of your story. Did you write about a huge extended family smashed into a few tenement rooms, or about a single person rattling around in a huge empty nest of a chateau?

image: IvoShandor

image: IvoShandor

  • Give the structure a basic shape and composition.

Please, don’t restrict yourself to squares or rectangles unless the story calls for it. Think about giving your building curves and angles. Is your building made of bricks or maybe wood? What about the roof? Is it covered in grass, perhaps with a few goats nibbling on it? If you’re writing fantasy, you can use influences from a few different cultures to invent something other worldly. If you write historical fiction and don’t want to use a real structure, combine elements from several structures to create something fresh.

image: Kjetil Bjørnsrud

image: Kjetil Bjørnsrud

  • Use regional details.

Building influences come out of the availability (or scarcity) of local materials and climate considerations. Wraparound porches, screened sleeping rooms, matched windows and doors for cross ventilation are all common to warmer locations. Think about your character’s needs. What would make them comfortable or uncomfortable? How would they interact with nature, on a patio, or buffered from the outside in a solarium?  

  • Work your five senses on the space.

Think about what your old house smells like, the flowers in the yard or the food cooking on the neighbor’s stove. What does your house sound like? Most wood houses creak, but houses set on adobe ground often pop. What about street noises? Do the doors and windows scrape as they stick? And what sort of windows are they, big glass walls that flood the rooms with light? Or are they small dirty windows that let in almost no light at all?

  • Create a blueprint of your building, if not your whole world.

You don’t need great art skills to create a template of your building, a basic layout will do. Record all the details. You may not use them all, in fact, it’s better if you don’t. When your character stumbles on the front steps you’ll know if he falls down two steps or ten.

  • Give your character some social standing.

How does your character’s structure relate to the other buildings in the area? Is your protagonist’s shop the smallest store in a fancy resort town? Or the grandest store in a crime ridden ghetto? No structure exists in a vacuum; they’re always influenced by the surrounding land and the other buildings. By paying attention to this detail, you can create a sense of community and the illusion that you’ve described a real place. 

  • Show us who lives there.

Are they concrete thinkers, people seeking to bring order to everything? Set them in a white house with symmetry, and long linear lines. Are they free spirited people, with an arty style? Set them in a home with lots of color and jutting greenhouse windows. Even small details can tell the reader a lot. Remember don’t be afraid of mixing it up, everyone loves a maverick, someone who defies convention because s/he can.

If you learn to write about structures with skill they can become a huge asset to your story, as much a part of the work as any of your characters.

 Happy house crafting everyone!

Up next from Robin… Into the Wild: Creating Landscape Settings.

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Misty Moors and Bloody Battlements: The Rules of Setting

256px-Warwick_Castle_-mist_23o2007The principles of choosing and researching a real world location for your fictional setting follows the same rules regardless of the genre. So contemporary writers listen up, someone out there knows more about the downtrodden civic center you’ve picked as the setting for your new novel than you do. So if you don’t want the negative comments, follow these rules and reap the rewards.

Travel to the setting.
Imagine you’re the location scout for the movie version of you story. Where would you go? Nothing beats that first-hand multi-sensory experience of running your hands over the stone blocks of your building, or walking the twisted cobbled roads of your cityscape. However, it’s not always practical (or possible) to see the real location. If you can’t, you must collect data and lots of it. Find maps, guidebooks, information about the city’s public transit system and population demographics. Immerse yourself in the landscape. You should feel confident enough to give tourists directions, if not keep… researching.

Pick locations that trigger an emotional reaction.
As you travel your locations, look for ones that spark your creativity. If you fantasize about living in the old mansion on the edge of town, or panic every time you step into a certain dense grove of trees, chances are you can translate that emotion into a captivating setting. Can you see your characters inside those spaces? If you can’t, you should keep looking for a better setting to use as your model.

Look for an expert.
Documentaries, guidebooks, computer generated reconstructions, photos, maps, and diaries are wonderful things, but nothing beats finding an expert, particularly if you can’t travel to your site. Look for historical societies, university scholars and websites devoted exclusively to your place. Make sure to check the credentials of your expert, check out any books or articles they’ve published. Talk to the local papers. Newspapers often have one reporter who acts as historian. The newspaper may also have records about your site, or know who does. While you have the reporter’s attention, gather weather data and information about local events, or culinary traditions. Most experts would love to help you for a small donation to their museum, or mention in the book.

Try to understand the basic nature of the site and its real history.
Yes, of course you’re writing fiction, and everyone expects the author to adapt the sites to fit their needs, but when you pick a well-known site it comes with preexisting considerations. If you want to change the site’s fundamental nature, you need to give readers a reason to believe in your change. I like to think of this in the same way I do physical laws. Can characters defy gravity? Sure, as long as you give readers a reason they can. It’s the same with recognizable real world locations. Use them for any new purpose under the sun, but be prepared to create a back-story.

Include only the settings that relate directly to your plot.
Caryn has already reminded everyone of the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun. So don’t spend a page describing a castle on the hill, unless you plan to drag your protagonist inside it, and throw them face down on its filthy stone floor. Any setting acting as window dressing must go. Include only the places you’ve woven into the plot, or help define your character’s ethos.

Don’t add setting that sits apart from the action.
The exposition can’t read like some endless monotone from a cheap tour guide. The moment a writer drones on about geological features, and architectural details, readers start to skim. Just because you know everything about the Vatican, even down the last doorknob, doesn’t mean you need to tell us. Unless, of course, your character is OCD about doorknobs, and trapped inside the Vatican, in which case, please, carry on.

Double and triple check the details.
Another good reason to have an expert is they can help cut down on the last-minute fact checking. Make sure you have everything based on real world locations perfectly researched.The little things matter a great deal to some readers, so don’t diminish their enjoyment with mistakes.

Few things excite me as much as a wonderful setting. Please share with us a bit about your setting, and what makes that place special to you.

Up Next from Robin… From Apse to Ziggurat: Navigating Architectural Spaces

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