Plotting the Dreaded Middle

Bridging the Gap Between Beginning and End

By Claire Tucker

Reading a good novel is like taking a road trip. The road winds between hills and forests and anticipation for the end of the journey is palpable in the vehicle. Then all at once the hills and forests fall away as you drive onto a bridge spanning a chasm. You gasp, appreciating the splendor of the scenery around you, occasionally giving a nod to the design of the bridge itself. Then you’re across the bridge and your anticipation for the long-awaited end burns within you as the hills and forests close in once more.

That’s what reading a good novel is like. Writing one is much, much harder.

That’s because writing a novel is like trying to build the road.

And so we start. We have a great destination in mind, and we know where we are starting. We’ve selected who will journey with us—our characters—and construction begins. The lay of the land dictates the first part of the journey, and we wind through the hills, our anticipation for the end growing with each sentence we pen. And then …

Then the ground falls away before us and we find ourselves upon the edge of a chasm. The scenery is splendid and you pause a moment to appreciate it. Your gaze settles upon the far side of the chasm and you see your promised destination.

But how to get from where you are to where you want to go?

A lot of focus goes into writing the end of a story. In fact, googling the phrase “writing the end of a story” produces about 1’730’000’000 results. Googling a similar phrase for the beginning and middle of a story produces 1’240’000’000 and 1’180’000’000 results respectively. My point?

We, as writers, can get a lot more advice about writing the beginning or end of our story, when the middle is what gets us from one to the other. The middle is the bridge across the chasm.

This prompted me to set out on a journey. A journey to discover the structure underlying a good middle, that bridge between the beginning and end of every story.

Three important points

To begin, let’s step back and look at the big picture of a bridge, then we’ll take what we learn there and apply it to fiction.

Notice that a bridge has three distinct points: The beginning, middle, and end. Each of these points along the bridge are vital to the structure and integrity of the bridge itself. Let’s look at each one in a little more detail:

  • The Beginning. This is the moment you first move onto the bridge. In a well-constructed road, you won’t realize that you’ve driven onto the bridge until you’re already on it. In other words, the transition from land to bridge is smooth but, upon looking back, clear.
  • The Middle. This point is very difficult to nail down precisely because there is no sign telling road users that they have crossed the middle of the bridge. Why then is it so important? Because at that point you are closer to the end than the beginning.
  • The End. This point is the clearest and most easily defined of the three, because you can see it coming. You are aware of the moment that you pass from bridge to land and your thoughts then shift to the destination you are journeying toward.

How do these three points apply to fiction?

  • The Beginning of the Middle. Like the road-trip described above, you don’t want your transition from the end of Act One to the beginning of Act Two to be jarring. The transition needs to be smooth, the natural outcome of what came before and where the story is going. At the same time, it needs to be clearly identifiable. We’ll talk about how to achieve this in a moment.
  • The Middle. You’ve probably already figured out that the middle of the middle is also the middle of your story. As we reach and cross this point, we are closer to the end of the story than the beginning, and there are specific clues that we as writers can plant in the story to indicate this.
  • The End of the Middle. This is one of the most easily identifiable points in a story. Once we have crossed this point, our attention is going to be on our story’s destination: the Climax.

Before looking at each of these points in detail, I need to point out something that became clear to me in my study of structure:

Every major point in a story is accompanied and dictated by character. In other words, you cannot study plot without considering character. Characters shape plot. Their actions, reactions, and decisions are the driving force of even the most action-orientated books and movies. At the same time, plot shapes character because plot is the events that force characters to react, make decisions, and take actions.

That means that we need to assess these points of the middle (the plot) with characters in mind.

The Beginning

This point is accompanied by a decisive action from the main character. This action differs from previous actions in that it directly involves them with the main conflict. At this point, they have committed themselves.

Example: DreamWorks Animation studio’s How to Train Your Dragon. This point in the story is when Hiccup takes a fish to Toothless. It differs from his previous actions (cutting Toothless free; going to find Toothless) in that it now involves him in the friendship that the story revolves around. He’s committed himself. This action was dictated by what came before and where the story is going.

The Middle

Remember: Once we cross this point we are closer to the end than we are to the beginning. This is shown, once again, by character. They are changing, the events of the story forcing them to release inhibiting beliefs and face their fears. At this point, a little bit of who they will be shines through.

What prompts this change, this glimpse of who they will become?

Action.

Something happens at the midpoint that forces the character to make a decision. Notice that, unlike the previous point, the decision is forced. It is a result of the action that directly preceded it.

Example: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. The middle of the story is Edmund’s journey to the Witch’s house. That’s the action. The resulting decision comes from Peter, Susan, and Lucy. They decide to go to Aslan and ask for his help. The decision shows a little of who they will become: Children who rely on Aslan for help.

The End

This is the most easily identifiable point of the middle, because it is accompanied by great action. I like to think about it as the “first climax”. Why? Because the action at this point involves the antagonistic force coming directly against the protagonist. Most often, the antagonistic force wins. This is because of one of two reasons: The protagonist hasn’t yet overcome the lie they believe or they are missing a key piece of information.

This is the point of the middle of the story, the moment you have been driving toward from when you first moved onto your story’s “bridge”. It leads to those “all-is-lost” moments: Hiccup overlooking the empty sea; Susan and Lucy grieving over Aslan’s body; Rapunzel returning to the tower with Mother Gothel. All of these moments were preceded by moments of great action involving the main character(s) and the antagonistic force.

The “first climax” differs from the main climax at the end of the story in that the protagonist hasn’t yet committed everything. In the final climax, they will be required to go “all-in”, risking everything for the chance of success.

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup and Toothless fight the big dragon alone.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Peter and Edmund go to war against the White Witch without Aslan by their side.

In Tangled, Rapunzel begs to heal Flynn, offering her freedom in exchange.

Lastly, the best advice I can give you is to go and study the middle of stories for yourself. Now that you know what points to look out for, practice identifying them in other people’s work.

Then go and build your bridge.


Claire Tucker is a Christian fantasy writer and freelancing copy editor and proofreader. Stories are her passion, as is helping writers polish their work to the highest standard. She lives in South Africa and enjoys spending time outdoors, reading books of any genre, and doing a variety of crafts and needlework. You can find her on Instagram @clairetucker_writer and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/claire-tucker-editor


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

The Book Marketer’s Silver Bullet

By Tim Riordan

Wouldn’t it be great if you could discover the silver bullet of marketing success? When I say silver bullet, I’m talking about the cream of the crop, the book marketers’ Mecca, the mother lode for marketers…you get the point.

Let’s consider this from another perspective. What if I gave you an option of reaching six percent of your followers or twenty percent (or more)? Which would you choose? An amazing fact I’ve discovered is that many authors opt for the six percent. 

According to Campaign Monitor, your Facebook post will reach only six percent of your followers while an email sent to your followers will be opened by nearly twenty percent on average (my most recent email had an open rate of forty-nine percent). I believe it was statistics like this that led marketing expert Rob Eagar to say, “There is no better way to ensure future success than growing a large email list.”

If you want to use emails as an important part of your book marketing strategy, you’ll need several important ingredients. Here’s a summary:

·      Email Marketing Service – For starters, you’ll need to enlist the help of a service that will assist you in gathering the email addresses from potential readers and distributing your emails to them in a useful strategy. I’ve used TrafficwaveConstant Contact, and Mailerlite. At this point, I favor Mailerlite.

·      A Lead Magnet – This “magnet” is a gift you offer to readers that requires them to give you their names and email addresses. Don’t be cheap. I deal with this issue in a chapter of my newest book on marketing, and Rob Eagar also offers great help with the process in his books. Even before you make the decision of which marketing service or create a funnel of correspondence for those who accept your offer, you need to work hard on something worthwhile to give away. My gift is a whole book on how to study Psalms. As authors, this is usually a free book or another resource you can share as a pdf. It will cost you time and money spent on editing, and graphics, but that’s all.

·      A Process – A process begins with letters that your new subscribers receive automatically. One could be a welcome letter, and another could be a letter to introduce yourself. Once your series of four or five letters are delivered over a period of a month or two, your subscribers will only hear from you through regular meaningful and useful emails. Some people refer to them as newsletters, but I don’t think many people want to sign up for just a newsletter. Be creative. Call it something that will capture your readers’ attention and interest. Make sure that your weekly, bi-monthly, or monthly correspondence is worth opening. The best way to kill your open rates is to send people stuff that is a waste of their time.

·      A Request Strategy – People don’t want to open your emails only to be hounded to buy a book or write a review. Look for creative ways to mention your book without saying, “Buy my book.” Share helpful material that your readers will appreciate getting. You want them to look forward to hearing from you. At the same time, you will periodically have a request for them. It could be to purchase your newest book or to write a review. If you offer fun, meaningful material most of the time and occasionally promote your book or resource, your readers will be okay with that. If you ask too much, your readers will opt out. Develop a strategy and follow it. I suggest a five to one ratio (or higher) where you develop a strategy that gives material away or points readers to useful information or fun activities five or more times to the one time you promote something or ask for something. Be strategic and intentional.

Email marketing can be a useful and essential tool. For one thing, you own your email list. Facebook or Twitter doesn’t. They can’t shut you down. You also have better overall success with your followers when you connect by email. Your readers want a relationship with you, and email offers them that regular contact.

Maybe calling email marketing a silver bullet sounds a little too aggressive. Let’s call it the ace in the hole—now that sounds like gambling. You could consider it the oil that keeps the marketing machine running along bringing about positive sales and helping you to continually influence your readers. Whatever you call it, you can call it success.


Dr. Tim Riordan is the author of The Next Bestseller: Book Marketing for Success and a bestselling author of eleven books including Wisdom Speaks: Life Lessons from Proverbs, which received the 2019 Christian Indie Award. He is a pastor in Newnan, Georgia and works with various authors through speaking at conferences, consulting, and publishing. You can learn more about Tim or follow his blogs on his website at timriordan.com.


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Read Like a Writer

By Claire Tucker

If you’ve been a writer for any length of time, then doubtless you’ve come across Stephen King’s advice:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

This is perfect! you think. All I have to do is read a lot, and then write! How wonderful!

Well, not exactly. Yes, you need to read. And yes, you need to write. But just doing these two things does not a successful writer make.

It’s how you approach reading and how you approach writing that matter.

Allow me to illustrate using art (pun intended). Now, I’m not an artist. So when I look at a picture, I see the picture. A painting of a Renaissance-era woman with a pretty smile. A ship with tattered sails upon a storm-tossed sea. A landscape depicting a valley cast in golden light.

Now, I’m blessed to have many friends who are talented artists. When they look at the picture, they see both the picture and the structural elements behind it. So when they look at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, they see the skill that went into painting a lifelike portrait. They see the composition and color and shading and proportions. They look at the painting of the ship and start studying the waves, looking for how the artist created the effect he wanted. They look at the landscape and see perspective and use of color to create depth.

They see both the picture and how it was created. And then they go home and try to recreate or capture a portion of those paintings in their own work.

This, my friends, is how we as writers should approach our craft. When we read, we shouldn’t just read, seeing the story only for what it is. No, we have to be intentional in our reading, looking past the witty dialog to see the characters behind it. When we come across a well-executed plot twist, we have to look past the twist and see the foreshadowing and setup that preceded it. When we encounter descriptions that bring a scene to life and lift the action off the page, we have to see how the writer did this.

And then we have to go and try our hands at recreating the believable dialog, unexpected plot twists, and lifelike descriptions.

But it all starts with reading. If we want to be writers, then we have got to read like writers.

How do we go about this? Here are a few tips:

  • Read in your genre. Just as an artist who wants to paint portraits will spend time studying other portraits, so we as writers need to read the work of other writers in our genre. We need to study these books, looking for what is similar through them all so that we can fulfill our readers’ expectations. Also, look out for how an author might twist the normal to produce the unexpected. Then study your work and see if you have all the expected elements in your story and if there is some way you can twist the norm.
  • Read outside of your genre. Especially if you’re new to writing. Like an art student studies multiple styles of art and then tries each one, so too must writers. How do you know you don’t like horror? How do you know you don’t like romance? Or action? Or something that’s more similar to Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park? How do you know if you don’t read and don’t try? And if you already know your preferred genre? Then read outside your genre anyway. You’ll naturally be more analytical because you won’t be swept away by passionate love for the story you’re reading. You’ll be more aware of the construction of the story. You’ll see the plot twists being set up. You’ll notice how the themes are brought into the tale. You’ll appreciate the character development and arcs.
  • Read good books and bad books. Good books because they show you how to craft an amazing story; bad books because they show you how not to do it. But when you read bad books, try and work out what made them bad. How did they not fulfill your expectations? Where could they have been improved?
  • Reread books. The first time you read a book, you’re discovering the story. Often, you will miss the little details that the writer sprinkled through the story, the ones setting up the plot twist or revealing a character’s true intentions. But when you reread the book, you’ll spot the details because you’ll be looking for them.
  • If you know what your Achilles heel as a writer is, then pay particular attention to that element in the stories you read. Maybe you struggle to bring your settings to life. Maybe your characters feel one-dimensional. Maybe your villains aren’t believable or your plots are as flat as the paper your stories are printed on. You know what you need to improve in your stories; when you read, pay attention to that element.

Being a writer should change how you approach reading. Like an artist who sees beyond the picture to the elements that created it, you need to see beyond the story to how it was created.

Remember: reading is not a pasttime for writers.

It’s part of the job description.


Claire Tucker is a Christian fantasy writer and freelancing copy editor and proofreader. Stories are her passion, as is helping writers polish their work to the highest standard. She lives in South Africa and enjoys spending time outdoors, reading books of any genre, and doing a variety of crafts and needlework. You can find her on Instagram @clairetucker_writer and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/claire-tucker-editor.


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

How to Pick Character Names

Photo by Nighthawk Shoots on Unsplash

By Lana Christian

I get such a kick out of picking character names for my novels!

It’s like going on a treasure hunt. And when you find a name with a hidden meaning to it, you get to decide whether you’ll ever reveal that tidbit to your readership. It’s much like an easter egg in a book.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

How do you pick character names? Does some formula or secret sauce exist?

Perhaps. It depends on what you need. So, to cover as many bases as possible, here are nine suggestions, including my personal favorite.

Friends and relatives?

Some people want to name a character after a relative or close friend. While that sounds endearing, the person may be offended if you use their name for a character they find unflattering. If they overidentify with your character in a way you don’t intend, that could seriously tax a friendship. Or ruin a family Christmas dinner. Personally, I steer clear of such potential potholes.

Try these suggestions instead.

1. Noodle with anagrams

Making a character’s name an anagram can be fun. In the 2013 movie Doonby, John Schneider is a mysterious drifter by that name. You don’t realize until the end of the movie that “Doonby” equals “Nobody.”

Another example: “Addely” looks like a variant of Adley, a girl’s name. But “Addely” unscrambled spells “Deadly.” Oooh.

2. Create a play on words

An example: “Kinder” is German for “children.” “Karen Kinder” can be a fictitious preschool teacher.

How far can you take a play on words? It depends on whether you want to create a character or a caricature. Either can be effective in the right setting. Just make sure you don’t create a caricature when you intend to create a character.

What do I mean by that? Take the movie Brother White. A blond, Caucasian assistant pastor from a California megachurch accidentally gets assigned to an impoverished black church in urban Atlanta. Pastor White is the only white person in his new parish. Character or caricature? Hmm …

3. Evoke an emotion

Some characters evoke emotions by the way their name sounds. Severus Snape’s sibilant name epitomized the cold, calculating way he sized up Harry Potter. If that wasn’t enough, the earliest version of the word “snape” meant “to nip, bite, pinch.” Snape constantly nipped at Harry with biting remarks, right?

Similarly, movies and books have so wired us to perceive rich people as snooty that we almost expect upper-class characters to have pretentious-sounding names like Ashton, Bentley, Elliston, or Sterling. (Reality: Forbes’ roll call of the richest people in America is rife with decidedly unpretentious names: Mark, Larry, Steve, Bill, Jim. But we’re talking about writing fiction, not reality.)

4. Walk a graveyard

Dwayne Smither, an author colleague on Twitter, strolls through cemeteries to score interesting names. Finding tombstones from the era you’re writing about ensures those names were in use during that time frame.

5. Dig through documents

Virtually any document can be a potential source for names.

  • Travel manifests
  • Immigration records
  • Family trees
  • Newspaper articles
  • Old yearbooks

6. Use a fake name generator.

Several websites exist for this, but the most comprehensive one I’ve found, Masterpiece Generator, goes beyond basics like gender/age/nationality to also ask for details including your character’s religious background, parents’ nationalities, whether the character is evil, good, or otherwise. (Sidebar: Other software apps exist for creating superhero, sci fi, or fantasy names.) All such sites have significant limitations, but they can be a starting point in character naming.

7. Combine names

Combining names is a way to ensure uniqueness and avert the potential problem of wrongly naming a real person. Jerry Jenkins used name-combining in Dead Sea Rising, which follows dual story lines of Abraham’s parents/his birth and a modern-day archaeologist trying to get permits for a dig in Saudi Arabia. One problem: the Bible lists Terah as Abraham’s father but is silent about his mother. (Midrashic legend says her name was Amathlai.) Jenkins blended two names that were in use around 2000 BC to create the name Belessunu for Abraham’s mother.

8. Mirror a person’s quality

You can name your character after a fictional or real person you admire for certain qualities. Say your character is adventurous and fearless, or her character arc leads her to become that way. You could name her Amelia—because Amelia Earhart embodies those traits.

9. Find character traits in word origins

This is my personal favorite way to pick character names. I find words’ original meanings that reflect a key attribute of my character. In my book about the Wise Men, each of their names means “wise” in their first language (Persian, Arabic, and Egyptian). To me, that’s more meaningful than their traditional names, which hark back to 8th-century suppositions. Another character in my Wise Men book is Nakal, which means “swindler” in Hebrew. When the Wise Men stop in Sussita for saddle repairs, their dealings with Nakal ultimately cost them much more than they could have imagined.

In all my books, every character name I choose carries a special meaning.

So where can you find these word origins?

My favorite places are

  • babynames.com
  • babynamespedia.com
  • babynameguide.com
  • behindthename.com

You can sort names by gender and nationality. Variant spellings and word origins are included. Both help trace names backward through time so you can find their meaning, first usage, and country of origin.

If you can’t find what you need on those sites, try typing a culture or country’s name into your search bar, followed by dot org. I found some ancient Turkish names this way. I typed “turkishculture.org” then clicked on “Lifestyles.” A subtopic within that menu selection included a list of Turkish names for people. NOTE: This doesn’t work for every nationality, but it’s worth a try if you come up empty-handed otherwise.

A similar strategy is to find a country’s equivalent to our Encyclopedia Britannica. For my book about the Wise Men, I spent many hours poring over the Encyclopaedia Iranica online.

Conclusion

You don’t have to make your character names reflect one of their key traits—but it’s so much fun to do! And you can parlay that as “insider information” to share with your mailing list or readership at large during your book launch!

*********************

You turn! Where do you find inspiration for your character names? Share your thoughts!


Lana Christian writes biblical and historical fiction. The first book in her biblical fiction series has garnered several ACFW awards. She in the throes of querying books in both genres. She’s convinced that hiking or chai tea can solve most problems—but she knows God can solve every problem. Find her on Chistianwriters.com; follow her on Twitter (@LanaCwrites) and at lanachristian.com/blog.


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Writing From Life’s Lessons

By Stephanie Jaye

We’ve all heard the phrase “write what you know”. And while some debate the legitimacy of that idea, I’ve found in writing that reaching beyond that simple concept into something a bit more heartfelt can make for a passionate work of fiction.

No one likes trials (can I get an amen?). Yet, we all know that God uses these trials in our lives to produce character and further our walk with Him (James 1:2-4). He also teaches us lessons that we probably wouldn’t have learned any other way. While it’s so valuable to pass along these lessons to our family, children, and friends, I think putting them into fiction can also be valuable in a couple ways.

For example, the book I’m querying has a core lesson of pursuing God’s best for our life. In it, my main character is forced to choose between pleasing those around her and settling for what everyone else thinks is best, or leaning into what God has to say and choosing His way, even when it’s difficult. However, as she finds out, obeying God always leads to blessings–ones we couldn’t even imagine ourselves.

This part of the plot came out of my passion to see people choosing God’s best in relationships. It also came after a season where I myself had to choose to be obedient in a situation that was really hard. Because I hadn’t seen the fruit of that decision when I was writing the book, writing the happy ending made me emotional, knowing that God is faithful to keep His word, and that I would also get my happy ending because of that, too.

Putting the lessons we’ve learned into our books can be both encouraging and healing, for us and our readers. Of course, as Christian writers, most of all of us weave themes of redemption, forgiveness, and love in our stories. And those topics are needed! But sometimes what reaches to the hearts of our readers most is the grit and heartache that can only be told from personal experience, even if put into the context of a fictional character and setting.

Writing the words the end on a story that came out of your own heartache and trials, and seeing how God worked everything out in the story, can be reassuring and healing, and the passion you’ll have put into your work will make the story shine even brighter. It’s also just one more way God can use what He’s taught you to further His Kingdom for His glory. That in itself is pretty special, too. 


Stephanie Jaye is a Christian Romance writer and blogger who loves Jesus, sweet tea, and sunshine. You can find her on Instagram @stephjayewriter, and you can find her blogs at stephjaye.com.


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

A Publisher’s Thoughts on Writing

Image courtesy of bigstock

By Ferrel D. Moore

I am often asked by writers, what is the one thing that they can do to improve their stories. 

Can they make more interesting plots?  Did their plots fail because they failed to exploit the character’s strengths and show their weaknesses?  Are their plots not intricate enough, should they be more complex and convoluted? 

Do the characters fail to evoke from the readers sufficient emotion?  Do I have sufficient chemistry between my main characters?  Have I made the right number of formulaic secondary characters?

Can I improve my characters by making them more interesting?  Can I make characters that are more identifiable?  Do their characters lack depth of emotion? 

Are my settings strong enough?  Do I fail at the art of description?

I have to scratch my heads at such questions, because when I get them, I have the distinct feeling that the people I am answering to will no doubt be failures at the art and craft of writing.  They will be self-published failures to boot.  They will litter the literary landscape with their self-publishing efforts, which will remain published forever in these days of the mighty Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Books, Google Books, Kobo, and, well the never ending parade of outlets that make so many millions of books available that we scarcely have time to wade through them all.

There are only two things you can do to better your writing—read and write.  And you can do without all of those beta-readers, too.  They only make you weaker as a writer, not stronger.  If you can’t see your own mistakes by simply putting your manuscript in a drawer and coming back to it in six months, chances are you will never make it as a writer.  You have to concentrate on the two fundamentals of reading and simply writing.

Lost in the myriad books on character arcs, emotional description and so on, is the fact that simply reading is the single most powerful influence on your writing that you can have.  It is, in essence, the power of imitation at first and then, gradually, spreading your wings as a writer.  Going your own way with your own ideas.  Having those flashes of insight that only years of reading with introspection can yield.

You have to simply write, too.  Make all of the mistakes that you can make in your early years, so that you can hone your craft, so your prose will eventually soar above the rest, so that it will shine like the sun with your own brilliance.

You have to throw away all of those writing books—they won’t help you to be a good writer.  Read one or two at most, and then get down to the business of making your mistakes.  Believe me, the good will winnow them out, polish their words, make their craft sing.

Finally, get a good editor.  That will be the capstone of all your efforts, making up for all the beta readers that you ever knew—all the relatives that criticized your manuscripts, all the friends, and all the unknowns of every writing group you’ve ever joined and criticized a manuscript.

Being a good writer takes time, and being a great writer takes a lot of time and effort.  You might as well get used to it and embrace it early on, because there is no substitute for it.


Ferrel D. Moore may be reached on Linkedin.


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

How Much Research is Enough?

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

By Lana Christian

Sooner or later, novelists ask, “How much research is enough?”

Good question.

That begs a more basic question: why do research?

We research so we can write plausible, realistic stories that exceed the limits of our experience.

That applies equally to historical and contemporary novels.

Research and readers’ radar

Ernest Hemingway said all great writers have a “built-in, shockproof, s**t detector.” I submit that writers need said detector because our readers already possess one. Their inborn radar starts pinging the minute they open a book. History buffs or not, readers morph into super sleuths that can detect inconsistencies in whatever you want to convey as real and accurate in your story. The minute readers sense something is out of place or unreasonable, it throws them out of the story. That’s bad news for everyone.

I was enthralled reading a book that swept me through ancient battles across Near East countries. But, in a pivotal early scene, the main character (MC) pulls a Torah out of his backpack and barters it away to a trader. A Torah scroll was huge and weighed fifty pounds. How could he fit one in his backpack, let alone haul it around as he fled bad guys? (Note: Due to a birth defect, the MC couldn’t run. And mini-Torahs didn’t exist until a few years ago.) That scene stuck in my mind like a splinter embedded in my finger.

What research details do you need?

Whatever is necessary to substantiate your story. Let your plot, characters, and setting decide how much detail you need to include.

Here’s a checklist of four common categories of research:

(1) Settings

  • Time
  • Locations
  • Cultures
  • Language(s) spoken and idioms used
  • Furniture, food

(2) Character motivations

For example, in my first-century novel, my MC dodges a temporary, contractual marriage that would have provided protection to his orphaned cousin. We don’t have any law remotely resembling that today, but it’s a key piece of my MC’s backstory.

(3) Features that uniquely identify your character

  • Clothing
  • Preferred weapon
  • A prominent scar
    (How did they get it?)
  • Inborn or acquired limitations
    (Ailments were treated differently historically vs currently; did that affect your character?)

(4) Sources of tension and conflict

Politics and religion can create both physical danger (external conflict) and emotional turmoil (internal conflict). 

Pitfalls and rewards of research

Finding resources online is absurdly easy these days—which also makes it absurdly easy to run down rabbit holes that take you off task.

Photo by Cathy Holewinski on Unsplash

Recognize when you’re delving into details just because they interest you. Learning is never wasted, but get back to writing as soon as you find the research you need.

Two universal truths exist regarding research.

  • You’ll find more than you can use.
  • You’ll still need to look for more tidbits as you write.

Regarding that second bullet: I crafted good motivations for my antagonist, but my spidey senses said they weren’t enough. Something bigger had to convince my antagonist he was doing right, regardless of what it cost or who he hurt. Moreover, the readers had to fully believe his motivations (but disagree with his actions).

Even after my full manuscript was in an agent’s hands, I trolled the web, unsure of what I still needed. But I knew I’d have an aha moment when I found it. Finally, bingo! The result was a tighter story and an entirely new Chapter 6.

When the right solution presents itself, you’ll know it. It’ll feel like finding a long-sought-for puzzle piece that falls perfectly into place.

Research is a tightrope walk. If you don’t add enough of it to your story, you’ll sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. (Unrealistic hospital scenes are a big teeth-grinder for me.) If you infodump, you’ll sound like you’re lecturing. Both take the reader out of the story.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Treat research as seasoning—not the main course

That’s a Jerry Jenkins mantra. So, how much research is enough to add? When its details

  • Orient the reader sufficiently to your setting
  • Are essential for moving the plot forward
  • Reveal something about your main character that can’t be revealed in other ways
  • Plant the readers in the middle of what you want them to experience (sights, sounds, smells, and so on)
Photo by Tiard Schulz on Unsplash

Ground your readers but resist the urge to add nonessential research details.

Say you score a map showing London’s sewer system in the 1850s. Do you write pages of detail about a waif making his way through miles of sewers? Everyone knows they’re filthy, dark, and full of undesirable stuff. Remember:

  • Relating details can validate you as an authority—but only if the details serve your readers.
  • Readers’ needs are basic: they want a reason to keep turning the page.

Maybe the sewer scene reveals the character’s deepest wound or greatest fear. If not, you likely can shorten the scene to move the character into greater trouble. For example, briefly describe him slogging through sludge and darkness for two hours, fighting smells and fending off rats until he emerges at [location]—only to have police nab him anyway.

Two final tips

Research sources matter

Find primary sources whenever you can. (Wikipedia is not one of them.) Primary sources include firsthand visits, interviews with experts, eye-witness accounts, and original documents—or as close to them as you can get from other reliable sources. Also, compare sources. If they yield conflicting information, which one carries the greatest weight of evidence? Make your call based on facts—not long-held opinions.

Track your book’s timetable

In an early draft of my book, one of my MCs secretly wanted to study in the great libraries of Alexandria. But Chapter 1 started thirty years after the libraries burned. I didn’t realize that until I double-checked my research. Back to the drawing board I went. Did the libraries burn completely? Partially? Were they rebuilt? If so, when?

IMPORTANT: Whether you set your book in the past or present, confirm that the landmarks you describe are still there!

Say you want to write a mystery set in Rouleau, Saskatchewan—the location of the Canadian comedy Corner Gas. If you set your book in 2014 or later and talked about the iconic gas station or next-door buildings from the series, you’d commit a huge faux pas. The gas station was demolished for structural reasons, and the buildings used as a diner and a local grocery burned to the ground.

Conclusion

Research can make your book sparkle! The amount you need is as individual as your book’s story. Err on the generous side in finding research; err on the conservative side in using it.


Lana Christian writes biblical and historical fiction. The first book in her biblical fiction series has garnered several ACFW awards. She in the throes of querying books in both genres. She’s convinced that hiking or chai tea can solve most problems—but she knows God can solve every problem. Find her on Chistianwriters.com; follow her on Twitter (@LanaCwrites) and at lanachristian.com/blog.


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Writer’s Block: Fact or Fiction? … And What to do About It

By Elizabeth Jacobson

If you go to a search engine and type in something along the lines of “tips for beating writer’s block,” you are going to find something you may not have expected.

Mainly, you will find a lot of people saying that writer’s block is a myth. Or, even more inflammatorily, that writer’s block is an excuse not to write.

Ooh! Them’s fighting words!

However, you will also see people calmly giving tips about what to do about writer’s block, as if having it is the most normal and acceptable thing in the world.

After having heard or read many pundits’ opinions on the subject and having lived in the writing trenches for a few years now, I am here to throw my hat in the ring and tell you all what I think.

I think it depends.

And yes, I am aware that this answer sounds wishy-washy to start, but hear me out. Writing is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Stories are not a one-size-fits-all thing. People are not a one-size-fits-all thing.

So why would writer’s block, which sits squarely at the confluence of all of the above, be a one-size-fits-all thing?

Now, if you came to this page looking for advice and now you’re feeling like you’re off the hook and can safely declare that you just can’t write right now, you have writer’s block, hold up.

I have some bad news.

No matter what your writer’s block ends up being – the “real” kind or the “fake” kind – getting out of it is going to stink. It is not going to be easy. But if you want to be a writer, if you want to have books finished, books published, books sold, you have to get through it.

So. Let’s discuss how to differentiate between the two types of writer’s block, and some strategies for dealing with each.


Scenario One: “Fake” Writer’s Block

Honestly, if I had to pick one, I would want to have “fake” writer’s block every time. I know that sounds weird, since fake writer’s block has been accused of being an excuse not to write, but hear me out.

You can do something about fake writer’s block immediately, and get back to writing relatively soon after.

Imagine you’re writing, and the words are flowing, the scene is coming along beautifully, and then it ends. And then bam. You have no clue what happens next.

“Ahh! Writer’s Block!” is the typical reaction.

And yes, I mean, you’re a writer, and the easy flow of your thoughts has been blocked. That’s true.

But here’s the key. I have heard it said many times, and I will say it here: If you only write when the words are flowing and pouring out of you, if you only write “when inspiration hits” then you will never, ever finish a book. There is absolutely no way. Every book has parts that the author had to slog through to get the scene done. Every book has parts that the author had to revise ten times because the scene would never play right. None of that was done under inspiration. It was done under grit. And that’s the thing. Writing takes grit. Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, you have to buckle down and force the words to come, so that those moments where the scene is pouring out of you can have a chance to exist in the first place.

This is why fake writer’s block can become an excuse to not write. Because writing under these circumstances is admittedly not fun. But, you have to imagine, if you find yourself hit with fake writer’s block, that you’ve fallen into a hole with a few handholds just out of reach. The only way to go is up. And the first bits of climbing will be the hardest.

So, how do you climb? Here’s some options, and what works for you will not work for everyone else. Everyone is different.

Check your planning and outlining. Do you need to back up and rewrite?

Look at your notes. Why are you stuck? Is there an unexpected plothole? Do you need to back up and fix that? Are you realizing that the motivations of the characters are not driving them strongly enough? Do you need to back up and fix that? Are your story and world too blank? Do you need to back up and add a subplot that will converge on your main plot, driving it forward?

Look at your story as a whole. Where are the holes? What is causing the writer’s block? What would need to happen to get your characters from point A, where you’re stuck, to point B, where you know you need to end up?

The brain is weird. You may just need to “do something different.”

I’m a teacher by profession, and I know that the human brain is a very interesting place. If you find that you’re stuck, try doing something else for a while. Walk. Listen to music. Walk while listening to music, especially if the songs are inspirational for you! Put the story down for a day. Go visit nature. Paint. Hang out with friends. Read. Sometimes, the brain just needs a little bit of something else.

Make a wordcount goal and stick to it, every day.

This is the hardest one. This is that slog I was talking about. And unfortunately, I can almost guarantee that you will have to use this strategy at some point. Set a wordcount goal that is not overly crazy, and get it out. Just do it. Every day that is a planned writing day. No matter what (caveat in Scenario Two).

The writing you produce may not be great, but it is writing, and you have moved your story forward. No matter how much you have to edit later, you have moved your story forward. You have continued. Remember, if you only write when inspiration hits, you will never finish.

Scenario Two: “Real” Writer’s Block

When I said that I would rather have Scenario One every time, I meant it. Because here’s the deal with Scenario Two – it’s rough. It’s really rough. And it means you’ll have to have a real heart-to-heart with yourself.

Is the story just really … nothing … after all?

If you realize the story you’re working on is destined to go nowhere, that’s okay. Every writer encounters this. It’s a tough realization to come to the conclusion that what you’ve been working on may have been ultimately fruitless, but you have to be able to move on regardless. Put it aside. Move on to something else.

A word of warning – don’t make this decision lightly. Try everything in Scenario One first – multiple times!

Am I not skilled enough to write this story?

This is tough one and requires you to be honest with yourself. Is the story too “big” for you? Have you not researched enough? Are you not a skilled enough writer?

The good news is that, if you can have this honest conversation with yourself, and accept that this is the issue, there is hope. You can learn and grow as a writer. In time, you may be able to come back to the story.

Am I burned out?

You cannot be creative if you are exhausted. This includes mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. If you need to give yourself a break, give yourself a break. Take that time that you need to reenergize so that you can get back to being your best creative self. Be gentle with yourself, and know that your story will be waiting for you when you return.


Writer’s block is difficult. There is a reason why it is so commonly talked about, why everyone, even non-writers, knows what it is. It is a hill to climb, but is not a hill to die on. There are solutions and ways to move on. Don’t lose hope, and don’t give up. Write, chase down those words – so that you can experience those moments of incredible inspiration.


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Why Selecting the Right Beta Readers is Important

By Elizabeth Jacobson

When I first started writing, it seemed like every person in the online-universe-of-writing was saying that your beta readers should not be friends or family members.

Now, off the bat, this seems strange. So you’re saying I need strangers to critique my writing?

And honestly, this is what it sounded like to me. And I was definitely not prepared to throw my manuscript to the wind and just let any old person from the internet look at it.

After a time, however, I did end up assesmbling a great beta team, and I’d like to share what I learned about the above wisdom in the process.

But first, to briefly review what we talked about last time: beta readers read your manuscript after you have edited your draft into a state you wouldn’t mind sharing. They can critique everything from characters to plot to sentence construction. You’ll find that each beta tends to have their own personal “style” as to what and how they critique. (I find that when I do it, I tend to focus most on character motivation and grammar/word choice.) Also, anyone can beta, as long as they want to. However, this does not mean that everyone should beta, or at least should beta for you. Which brings us back to the piece of internet wisdom I mentioned at the beginning.

After having now spent much more time in the writing process, as a general rule, I agree with the idea of being leery of having family and friends as beta readers. But, like most things in the world, this comes with a caveat.

The reason why most people say not to choose friends or family is because most writers’ experiences involving friends or family coming into contact with their writing world tend to either end up intensely negative or inordinately positive. Most writers find that friends and family either do not believe in them as a writer at all, regardless of their skill, or they are so supportive that they either overlook problems or shy away from any form of critique.

To sum up, as a general rule, there is less likely to be impartiality involved.

But, notice I have been saying “most writers”. Your mileage may vary. You know your friends and family and the internet sure doesn’t.

Your beta reading team, by the time they are done, should be able to accomplish three things for you. They are:

  1. point out sentences that need editing
  2. examine the story as a whole and pinpoint issues with plot/characters
  3. tell you if it’s any good

Before you consider friends or family as beta readers, you need to ask yourself if they can do these things and do them well. Will they be impartial? Do they have the skills to properly critique like this? This does not mean that they have to be writers, but they have to be people with good writing skills and an an understanding of character and story structure.

Now, I will be frank. I am blessed in that my friends and family are good at these things. However, I did not ask all of them to be beta readers, because, firstly, they have their own lives, and secondly, I wanted them to have a more polished taste of my writing, since for 99.9% of them, my manuscript would be the first piece of my writing they would ever read.

Even if it is easier for you to ask friends and family, you have to ask yourself these questions. Will they be good at it? Would they enjoy beta reading? What state do you want them to see your writing in?

Which will naturally lead us to the next question. Who do I ask to beta for me if not friends and family?

The answer is – you must seek out a specific type of friend. The Writer Friend!

Maybe you have some of these already. Maybe you met them in “real life” or maybe you met them online, in a forum for writers or by using the same writing hashtag on Instagram or Twitter. (Yes, I am saying that to find Writer Friends, you may have to venture into the Wild West of social media.)

Writer Friends, being fellow writers, will often have a leg up on other possible betas, because they live and breathe story structure and characters and word choice, just like you. They will likely also need a beta at some point or another, leading to a reciprocal relationship where you can both help each other out. If your “regular” friends and family are not a good choice to be your beta readers, these are the people you need to find.

Now, before you believe that I am trying to dissuade you from having your “regular” friends and family as betas, let me tell you who was on my beta team.

Two Writer Friends and one family member.

What works best for you is what works for you. Just remember not to blindly jump into having “regular” family and friends beta you because it is the simplest choice.

Before I go, I want to leave you with a great list from The Writing Cooperative. After reading this, you may be wondering about a few people you had been considering for betas – maybe they’re not writers, or they haven’t written in a long time. Now, it’s true, as I mentioned, that fellow writers will often be more able to answer your direct stylistic and narrative questions, but, with a bit of guidance, a non-writer can still give you great information. The Writing Cooperative has a great list of beta questions here that works great for non-writer betas. And, if your writer betas finish and still haven’t answered these questions, be sure to ask them!

Like I said in my last post, your beta readers are your crack team. They’re handpicked by you to give you the best critique and information possible. Take time to figure out who will be the best betas for you. You won’t regret it.


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Warning: Even Your Umpteenth Draft May Stink (i.e. Why you need beta readers)

By Elizabeth Jacobson

Warning: You might stink.

No, not you the author. I’m talking to your draft.

“What?!” you shriek. Perhaps you’re clutching your pearls. “My draft?? My baby?!

Yes, your draft. Your third, fourth, nineteenth draft. Yes, your baby that you have worked on for approximately 1,528,996 hours.

To be fair, it’s not your draft’s fault, or your fault, but in this moment, it might stink all the same. And if you’ve never had a beta reader, you have gone “noseblind” to your draft, and you will never know that it stinks. You will never suspect a thing.

Here’s why it might stink:

It might stink because you are completely and utterly blind to the fact that the word “suddenly” appeared in your last paragraph three times within the span of two sentences. You are blind to this because you wrote it and you’ve read it forty times, and the “suddenlys” have become white noise.

It might stink because you are blind to how someone else will see your story. You know your characters and their motivations and the world you’ve created like the back of your hand. You cannot see whether or not your words translate this for the real world.

See? Totally not your fault. But your draft – and you – still need help.

If you don’t know, let me fill you in on what a beta reader is. A beta reader is not an editor. Nor are they a “rah-rah cheerleader” who will only tell you that your work is amazing and inspirational and life-changing and the next great novel. A beta reader is a book-lover or writer, someone who appreciates the written word and characterization and can speak logically about the strengths and flaws of your writing.

When I started my first draft of my now-complete manuscript, finding beta readers seemed like too much trouble. And besides, I said to myself, I know where a comma goes and I can use a thesaurus. No big. I’ll self-edit and send it off to an agent.

DO. NOT. DO. THIS.

I don’t care how great your story is. Us authors tend to be pretty myopic when it comes to the weird non-grammatically-correct-quirks and habitual errors and character problems of our own writing styles. You NEED other people to point them out to you, before you query an agent or self-publish and try to promote it yourself. Otherwise, your manuscript goes out into the wide world, quirks and errors and problems blazing proudly, and you’ve shot your chance (and possibly even reputation as a writer) big time.

Thank God I learned quickly while writing that my “no betas” plan would be about as effective as collecting water with a sieve.

So, I know it might seem like a lot of work to you (your mileage may vary; maybe you are super stoked at the idea of finding people to read and critique your work), but you need to find betas.

Notice that I have continually used plurals when discussing beta readers throughout the above paragraphs.

This is the second, but still very important thing I want to note today:

One beta is eh. Two betas is fine. Three betas or more is great.

There’s mathematics behind this. You have one person’s opinion, that’s great, but it’s only one person. More is better, to get a spread of thoughts on the same story.

There’s a catch there, though. If you get another beta, you have two people who are bound, at some point, to have different opinions about the same bit of your writing.

Now, if you have a third beta (or more, but don’t take on more than you can handle), suddenly you have a tiebreaker.

Trust me when I say that getting a good group of betas together is the absolute best thing you can do for your writing before you query or self-publish. Betas are your crack team, your own personal think tank. They are people who are invested in your writing and your story and you as an author. Their insights are invaluable.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the next next step of this process – how to choose the right beta readers!


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.