Monday, May 29, 2017

A Real Character

This TeachingAuthors series is about creating characters.  I don’t create characters in the way most people think.  When most hear the word “character” they probably think of a fictional character.  Since I’m an author who writes nonfiction, my characters are real people.  I can’t change their character or create any facet of their true character.  But that doesn’t mean writing about real people isn’t creative-it is.  It takes a lot of creativity to breath life into sometimes dry and boring facts. 

I’ve always said, “I don’t create the facts, but I use the facts creatively.” 

In my biographies I show the character of real people though the details and quotes that illustrate who they are. Let me show you what I mean…

In The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon I wanted to show the tender side of Washington and the love he had for his wife, Martha.  I used part of a letter he wrote her in 1775 where he is telling her that he has been chosen the lead the Continental Army and would not be coming home as expected.  Instead he is going directly to Cambridge, MA, to take command. 

He wrote that he would “feel no pain from the Toil, or the danger of the Campaign—My unhappiness will flow, from the uneasiness I know you will feel at being left alone.”

Letter from George Washington to Martha Washington, June 18, 1775

In my book Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium I showed Curie’s character, not through a quote but by describing something she wanted to accomplish.  When Marie and Pierre Curie first married, Marie wanted to learn to cook.  She asked her sister’s mother-in-law to teach her. 

About this I wrote, “Marie approached cooking as if it were a scientific experiment.  She made careful notes in the margins of her cookbooks about the successes and failures of her attempts.” 

In my book In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry, I showed a glimpse into Fry’s character and the high pressure situation he was in as he waited for some refugees he was helping.  The situation was tense as he was waiting to make sure the refugees he put on the train in France had arrived safely across the border in Spain.  They were all crossing the border illegally and would have been arrested if caught.  Varian went to the guard shack to ask if his friends had arrived. 

I wrote, “The guards led Varian into the guard shack and told him to wait.  As Varian sat there he wondered where his protégés were.  He also wondered if he was gong to be arrested.  He smoked one cigarette after another.” 

I don’t manipulate facts about the lives of real people.  But I can choose the right details to show their character.  

Carla Killough McClafferty

Friday, May 26, 2017

Creating a Character, Starting with a Questionnaire

Hello again! In my last post, I said I’d be taking a break. Surprise! Mary Ann explained our schedule shift. As it looks now, I’ll be posting at least once more before our Summer Blogging Break. Although I’m busy with writing (including a new work-for-hire series), sewing reusable shopping bags, and a little bit of gardening (the milkweed is finally coming up--hooray!), I’m enjoying all of these projects. Lucky me!

Bobbi started this series about creating characters with a thoughtful explanation of motivation. Take a moment to explore her process if you haven’t yet. (While you’re looking back, be sure to read Michael Leannah’s four wonderful Wednesday Writing Workouts, one for each week in May.)

When we create a character, we have to decide on a number of traits and behaviors. We explore the character’s history and geography, put ourselves in her shoes and discover her world through her senses, and create conflict based on what she wants. We might base a character on people we know (including ourselves). We can combine traits we admire and dislike. Some writers sketch their characters or find photos that look like what they imagine. Some interview their characters. Some lucky authors hear their characters speaking. I'm always trying to listen!

Several years ago, we Teaching Authors presented at the Illinois Reading Council conference. My part in the presentation included a handout on creating authentic characters. I’ve updated it several times to use it for my writing classes. Here is an excerpt:
Getting to Know Your Character: A Character Traits Exercise
  • Is your character a person or an animal? An actual creature or a mythical or imaginary one?
  • What is your character’s name? Does he or she like it? What would he or she prefer? What does the name mean, and why was it given to the character?
  • How old is he or she? What grade in school is he or she in?
  • What does your character look like? Describe his or her height, weight, hair, eyes, build, and any special or unusual physical characteristics, habits, or actions.
  • How many people are in your character’s family? Who are they, and how old are they? How close are they? What kind of history do they have? What is their financial status?
  • Does your character practice a religion? Which one, and how strictly?
  • Where does he or she live? (City, country, small town, suburb?) What country or what part of the country? What kind of home?
  • What kind of music does your character like? Does he or she play an instrument, sing, or dance?
  • Does your character have a pet? What kind? How does he or she treat it?
  • What does his or her voice sound like? Is it loud or quiet, clear or hard to understand?
  • Does your character play a sport? Which one, how well, and why?
  • What kind of clothes does he or she wear? Why? What would he or she like to wear?
  • What does he or she want? Why? What would happen if he or she didn’t get it?
  • What is he or she good at, both in school and out? What does he or she struggle with? What does he or she like and dislike?
  • Who are your character’s friends? How close are they? What do they have in common?
  • What generation does your character belong to? What period in history? Does he or she fit in?
  • What is your character’s favorite food? Least favorite? Describe his or her eating habits.
  • Does your character have any bad habits? Are they obvious or hidden? Is the character aware of them? How do they affect the character’s relationships with other people?
  • What is your character afraid of? Why? What would happen if his or her worst fear came true?
  • What does he or she carry in a pocket, a purse, or a backpack? What is in his or her desk?
  • Does your character have a secret? What is it? What would happen if the wrong person found out about it?
  • What else do you need to know about your character to tell his or her story?

Intended for authors of fantasy (and useful for all of us), the terrific “FantasyWorldbuilding Questions” by Patricia C. Wrede includes more detailed questions about characters and how they fit into their environments, especially in the “Peoples and Customs” section.

Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is at Reflections on the Teche. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Wednesday Writing Workout(s): THINKING WITH INK!

Welcome to the fourth Wednesday Writing Workout created by Sheboygan, Wisconsin author, educational consultant and veteran elementary and middle school classroom teacher Michael Leannah. It’s the final WWW from his recently-released book WE THINK WITH INK (Brightside Publications, 2016) that’s made our TeachingAuthors month of May even merrier.

As I shared in my introduction to the first WWW that offered Get Acquainted exercises, the second WWW that shared Daily Practices and the third that focused on letters, words and sentences, Michael writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults.

Tilbury House releases his picture book MOST PEOPLE in August.  Two other picture books are soon to follow: GOODNIGHT WHISPERS (Familius) and FARMER HUCKINSHUCK’S WILD RIDE (Splashing Cow Books.)  His stories have appeared in U.S. and Australian magazines.

WE THINK WITH INK is a trove of lessons, projects and activities designed to increase reading and writing skills in the classroom…and beyond.  It’s an ideas book for elementary and middle school teachers seeking to merge writing instruction into science, social studies and math classes.  It’s a guide for teachers looking to help students increase self-confidence and self-esteem.  It’s also a book for students working independently on creative writing skills as well as a manual for learners young and old – i.e. me and you, our TeachingAuthors readers - who aspire to be good – even published – writers.

“The WE THINK WITH INK approach relies heavily on the sharing and critiquing of stories,” Michael shared.  “Our goal is publication, which means that people other than those in the classroom or group will read what we write.  Booklets are put together and made available on the shelves of the school library.  Story collections are sent home for families to read.  Our writing is distributed to local coffee shops and doctors’ waiting rooms.  Our booklets/anthologies are given as gifts to friends and family.  And yes, we write with the goal of someday sending our very best work to magazine and book publishers.”

Check out today’s final WWW and once again, try your hand.

Thank you, Michael, for so generously sharing your smarts, your passion for writing and WE THINK WITH INK writing workouts with our TeachingAuthors readers these past four weeks of May!  Oh, and for making yourself available at, should our readers wish to share their appreciation.

Enjoy thinking with ink!

Esther Hershenhorn

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Story Writing and Revision

A family sets out on a cross-country trip to California. Their car gets stuck in a ditch in Nebraska. With help, they get out of the muck and soon are on their way again. Before you know it, they arrive in California. When they cross the border, they don’t just park the car and say, “We’re here. The trip is done.” There are a million things to see and do in California. The best part of the trip is still ahead of them.

That family trip can be compared to an author writing a story. She starts with great enthusiasm, but gets stuck about halfway into it and needs help to get it going again. Eventually, she makes it to the end, but when she gets there, she isn’t done. The best part — the revision process — is yet to come.

Story Writing

It’s natural for a reader to want to try his hand at being a writer. But, as with so many things first attempted, writing isn’t as easy as it seems. Just when you’re chugging along and doing quite well, the story goes off the road, and you find yourself bogged down and discouraged.
One thing to do to get things rolling again is to tell your story from a different angle and with a different voice. If your story “The Christmas Tree Disaster” is boring and flat, get rid of the dispassionate narrator and let the exasperated mom tell the story. Or the impatient dad. Maybe the little kid watching his parents struggling with the tree would be the best choice. Or maybe the canary in the cage by the window would have fun telling it.
Who gets to tell the story? And from what point of view?

Exercise #1:

Write a description of an incident on a street in your neighborhood. Be sure to include both pleasant and unpleasant elements.
When you have finished describing the scene, put your paper aside and describe the same scene from the point of view of a small dog tied to a tree in a yard. From his vantage point, what does he see, hear, and smell? Considering a dog’s interests, what would be the focus of his description?
When you are finished with the dog’s version of the incident, put the paper aside and get started on another description of the same scene, this time as an angry man watching from a window, or an eternal optimist trying to make everyone feel good about what is happening, or a little old lady who worries about every little thing.

Sometimes telling a story from a new perspective gets the stuck parts moving again. Look around and you might see someone you’ve been ignoring who’s just dying to tell the story.


Some young writers finish the first draft of a writing assignment and say, “I’m done!” That’s like a person getting dressed in the morning and shouting, “I’m done!” after putting on one article of clothing. In both writing and in getting dressed, we are not “done” after completing just one step.
Even for skilled authors, writing is a complicated process, so there are bound to be problems with a first draft. Real writers love working on the second draft. They know there will be mistakes and have fun hunting them down.
Revision is more than editing mistakes, however. Even after all the spelling errors are corrected and the meandering sentences are tightened, we might not be satisfied. Something is lacking. We see a need to make the story more exciting, more vivid. We want some better details.

Exercise #2:

Select a scene from a story you have written. Now put your imagination to work. Write that scene again, describing what is happening as if you cannot see.
Stories that rely heavily on visual details often seem dry and lifeless. If, in your first description, you ignored the sounds that were present, tune in to them now. Before the action even starts, what can be heard? If there are no sounds, then describe the quiet.
What scents are in the air? Do any of them provide a clue as to what is about to happen? Is that a campfire in the distance? Was someone digging onions?
What can you feel? Is there a cool wind pressing against your left cheek? Is that gravel under your shoes?
Armed with this new information, go back to your original story. Can you add a few new details now? (Please don’t try to cram in all the sounds and smells and tactile sensations you uncovered.)
Not only will the new details give your story more richness, the clues they provide will make the story more interesting. Now, before a character sees the hot frying pan, she feels it; before she notices the wet dog, she smells him.

I have had students who, when told to revise a first draft, reacted as if they had just climbed Mt. Everest and were being told to go back down and climb it again. “I’m not writing it again!” Sigh. Revision doesn’t mean starting over. Much of what they had written was good. But it needed to be fixed and polished a bit.
It needed revision.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Spirit Tempered

One hundred fifty one years ago, twelve thousand Confederate forces gathered along Seminary Ridge just outside the small town of Gettysburg. Almost a mile away, at the end of an open field, a copse of trees marked the Union line standing firm on Cemetery Ridge. When the signal was given, the men marched across the field. The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the federals sent shell after shell howling into their midst. Boom! Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood. Still they marched on across that field.

And in the middle of this gruesome battle, the bloodiest of the Civil War, were The Girls of Gettysburg

As I was researching another book, I came across a small newspaper article dated from 1863. It told of a Union soldier on burial duty, following the Battle at Gettysburg, coming upon a shocking find: the body of a female Confederate soldier. It was shocking because she was disguised as a boy. At the time, everyone believed that girls were not strong enough to do any soldiering; they were too weak, too pure, too pious to be around roughhousing boys. It was against the law for girls to enlist. This girl carried no papers, so he could not identify her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. A Union general noted her presence at the bottom of his report, stating “one female (private) in rebel uniform.” The note became her epitaph. I named her Annie, and I decided I was going to write her story.

Gettysburg Battle

Researching this story was a daunting task because no other battle has been studied so thoroughly. I read A LOT to get these facts right. But then, there’s the emotional truth, the story behind the facts. This became the heart of Annie’s story.

What would motivate a girl to disguise herself as a boy, and then go to war? Annie’s motivation was key to making her life authentic.

The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in.

If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

As for Annie, it was the grief at the loss of both her brothers that set her off. Along the way, she discovers a deep need to be free, to create a life that she could call her own and find a place to belong.

Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next.

Abraham Bryan House
Two other characters share space with Annie: Grace Bryan, the daughter of African American Abraham Bryan, a land-owning farmer living seven miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. Despite the danger living this close to rebel lines, Grace refuses to leave her home even as the Confederate army closes in, and the threat of enslavement by the rebels loom. And then, there's Tillie Pierce, the spoiled daughter of a merchant, whose romantic ideals of soldiering is broken in the midst of war and chaos as she flees for her life.

Each of these perspectives, grounded in the social and racial ideals of antebellum America, transcend their limitations as each struggle to survive. At the core of each character’s confusion of right and wrong is her inner struggle. Annie struggles with her grief, even as she yearns for a place to belong where she can be herself. Disguised as a Confederate soldier, she rebels against the social constraints of her gender. She endures the injustices of her fellow comrades in order to earn their respect, desperate to fit in, but all the while careful to keep her true identity secret.

Fleeing from danger

Grace struggles with her guilt for running away from her mother, who has fled to safety on the last train out of Gettysburg. Her father has stayed behind to assist in the war effort. It turns out, he is part of the Underground Railroad. She becomes trapped in town, where she discovers two runaways. The three of them together make a mad frantic dash out of town as the rebels march down the street.

Tillie struggles with her sense of social refinement, as she begins to recognize there is no right and wrong, no good and evil, and there is nothing noble about war. There is only life and death. Of the three, Tillie learns the hardest lesson of sacrifice and humanity.

Tillie Pierce

This inner struggle is what the character brings to the plot. It’s there before the story begins. It’s this struggle that is holding her back in life. And she’ll carry this struggle throughout her story.

The key to writing Girls of Gettysburg was finding the soul and voice to each of my three main characters. As I began to piece the story together, I took notes. I outlined everything. I wrote my first drafts in longhand. I find the relationship between pen and paper much more intimate, and demands me to go deeper into the character. Then, I transferred the story to the computer. But even as I edited the manuscript, I had to print the story out, and work with pen and paper again. I use recycled paper, to be sure!

But as we know, stories tend to be organic, and sometimes outlines, research, and all the “great plans of mice and men” need to be tossed as characters take over. In which case, I tag along for the ride. Even in historical fiction, with its challenging blend of story and fact, It’s as much about story-building as it is about story-creating.Molly Hunter explores this process in her book Talent is Not Enough in which she offers:

The child that was myself was born with a little talent, and I have worked hard, hard, hard to shape it. Yet even this could not have made me a writer, for there is no book that can tell anything worth saying unless life itself has first said it to the person who conceived that book. A philosophy has to be hammered out, a mind shaped, a spirit tempered. This is true for all of the craft. It is the basic process which must happen before literature can be created.”

Thank you for reading!

Bobbi Miller

Photo Credits:

Gettysburg Battle: N.Y. : Published by Thomas Kelly, 264 Third Avenue, between 22nd & 23rd St., c1867 (N.Y. : Printed by Wm. C. Robertson, 59 Cedar St.). Library of Congress.

Bryan House: Gettysburg, Pa. The Bryan house on 2d Corps line, near scene of Pickett's Charge. Library of Congress. 

“Fleeing from Danger” from Tillie’s book, AT GETTYSBURG.

 Tillie Pierce. Library of Congress.