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Researching for Historical Fiction in Bath, UK

I had the privilege of visiting England the last week of February — one of my favorite destinations before the coronavirus situation became a deterrent for travel.  I am so grateful! Since I am a historical fiction author, researching the location in person is a real treat, as you can imagine!

The day after I arrived in the UK, and before my week-long intensive Bible course began (the main reason for my visit), my teen friend Mariah and I headed to Bath on a local train to do a bit of research at Sally Lunn’s. During my last visit, I discovered a tidbit of information that led me to write about Sally. More later . . .

The Sally Lunn bun (the size of large hamburger buns, but with the texture of brioche) was excellent — worth risking a reaction to my gluten intolerance. I couldn’t come to Bath without enjoying one! I would describe it as the best hamburger bun you have ever tasted. Hopefully, that’s not offensive to a Brit. Here is a pic of my daughter five years ago when we first experienced this culinary delight. In my story, which I tentatively have titled, “Soli’s Saving Grace,” I bring to light a purely fictional crisis that inspired her to create her bun recipe.

The top of the bun is on the right, and the bottom section is on Olivia’s plate. It is so large, that you must use a knife and fork. Since the bun is as light as a feather, it is no problem to eat both parts in one sitting.

This time, I asked for both. Although the server happily agreed, she seemed a bit perplexed. Evidently, very few people ask for both. Leave it to the Americans to want more! Isn’t this a lovely tearoom? You can feel the history seeping out of the walls.

We finished our lovely meal and headed down to the basement, where a small museum is located. I wanted to revisit the tiny historic exhibition which inspired me five years ago. At that time I found a little sign tacked into a wooden cabinet. It noted Sally Lunn was probably a Huguenot girl named Solange Luyon. That tidbit of information is all I needed to let my imagination run wild! Hopefully, someday, you will read Soli’s story in print.

Next, we visited Bath Abbey, where my character, Soli, flees for refuge. Last time I was in Bath, we were not able to tour it, so I was thrilled when I realized it was possible!

 

So, my reason for visiting the Abbey, other than enjoying the architectural beauty, was to ask a question: Did the Bath Abbey indeed offer refuge for Huguenots who came knocking (did they?) at their enormously imposing wooden doors?

The card given to me by the priest

I found a priest who had time to chat with me. I was surprised to discover he had Huguenot roots himself. Small world! But, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to answer my question. But he did refer me to the archivist who works at the Abbey, and on my way out, I was given a card.

Just what I needed. Now that I have all this time on my hands, due to the #covid-19 crisis, I will email him this week. Who knows what that will uncover!

So, that was my short day trip to Bath for research — quick but productive.  If you are interested, here is a link to my blogpost about my trip to Charleston, SC for Huguenot research.

For a more in-depth look at the city of Bath see my blogpost.

I have two questions for you:

Which era of history is the most fascinating to you?

How is the Covid Crisis affecting your writing habits?

I’d love to read your comments below!

 

Learning to Think In Pictures

Picture-Driven Stories: Learning to Think in Pictures

“A picture book illustrator needs to tell a story with pictures. A picture book author needs to show the same story with words.”Jean Matthew Hall 

When I attended last year’s Write2Ignite conference, I went to Jean Matthew Hall’s discussion, What is a Picture Book. One of her main points was that a true picture book tells the story through both the illustrations and the words. Without either, the story would be incomplete.

When the illustrations build the story, rather than merely reflecting the words, it adds a layer of magic and delight to the book. But while it’s easy to recognize that pictures and words work together to make great stories, it’s sometimes hard to write a book designed to be accompanied by images (especially if you aren’t an illustrator). In order for pictures to help tell the story, the words have to leave enough unsaid.

As a beginning picture book writer, I struggle to leave details unsaid. My brain wants to describe everything, leaving no creative space for a future illustrator. The words feel like the heavy-lifters, so I don’t want to leave too much work for the pictures to do. I struggle with deciding what to show with my words, and what to leave for the pictures to tell.

What has helped me to look at my story drafts differently is reading picture-driven stories.

Picture-driven stories remind me that the words don’t have to do all the work. The illustrations are capable of taking on a larger role than I give them credit for.

One great example of this is Watersong by Tim McCanna. In this beautifully illustrated book, the words are entirely onomatopoeia. They are poetry, providing the sound track to the story told in the images. A fox runs through a storm, and though not a word is said about the fox, the reader is engaged by his experience.  The overall tone is heartwarming and satisfying. This is a story that had to be told in pictures; words simply could not have produced the same effect. Reading it reminded me that sometimes, simplicity in words creates the perfect atmosphere for imagination.

The opportunity pictures provide for imagination is even better seen in wordless picture books. I didn’t realize this genre existed until I began working at a library where patrons asked for help finding them. One fun example I found is Rainstorm by Barbara Lehman. (I was on a rainy-day kick this week). In this book, a young boy all alone in a big house finds a key, which leads him to explore and to find unexpected friends. Told in colorful images, the story guides the reader through the action and curiosity but leaves space for us to imagine as well. What is the boy feeling, thinking, saying? All that is left to our interpretation.

As a writer focused on words, reading a story without a single sentence in it lets me exercise a muscle I don’t usually use.

The advantage of reading books where the story is told mostly or entirely in images is that it trains my brain to think differently. They teach me to think in pictures. Suddenly, I’m not hearing my story being told; I’m seeing it. My narrative becomes a Pixar short film in my mind rather than a podcast.

Without steeping myself in the power of illustrations, it’s hard to let go of my pet narrations and descriptions. Cutting away the unnecessary details becomes easier when I’m reminded of the beauty of discovering the story visually. Wordless picture books like Rainstorm and picture-driven stories like Watersong help me to experience the capabilities of pictures. They teach me to be a better writer by showing me what I don’t need to write.

What are some of your favorite picture books? Do you think their stories are more word-driven or picture-driven?

 

Do You Google?

Google and the InternetWhen I was 14 years old, I won the grand prize in a contest: a set of encyclopedias. I know—not very exciting, is it? But this was in the ancient days before computers, personal or otherwise. You’d have thought I won London’s crown jewels!

I was so proud of that prize. It replaced the 25-year-old encyclopedias my parents owned. This new set included photos and up-to-date entries. Don’t laugh—I stayed up nights just reading about various subjects for the pure joy of learning. Yes, I was a bookworm…or nerd…or geek…or whatever it’s called today.

Those encyclopedias took me through high school and into college. Back then, computers were the size of a room and programming really was a foreign language. As personal computing evolved, so did access to information. Eventually we were no longer restricted to physical books, or even a physical library, to satisfy our hunger for information.

The internet became the new frontier – the digital equivalent of the wild west. And search engines became our railroad for traveling this frontier. Search engines changed the way we access information. Lycos, Google, Dogpile, Ask Jeeves (which morphed into Ask.com), and Bing were just a few of the sites that helped us retrieve data from the World Wide Web. Their names were as creative and varied as the information they provided.

Still, information takes us only so far. The bigger question is, how are we using the information? Interpretation and application determine if the information becomes truly helpful, or if it remains an info dump or even a temptation swamp we wade through each time we turn on the laptop. Two potential quagmires readily come to mind:

Personal Impact

With all the blogs, tweets, networks, websites, and search engines out there, it’s way too easy to allow the information overload to sap our energy, drain our time, and influence our values as we passively take it all in.

Discernment is not a word we often hear these days. Yet, discernment is exactly what we need to process the information that’s so readily available. Depending on your perspective, search engine filters are either a necessary moral protection or a restriction on free speech. Still, even with the use of filters, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to guard our hearts (Proverbs 4:23) and minds by guarding our eyes and ears.

Writing Research

As writers, we also have a responsibility to be discerning in our research. Information is readily accessible for our writing needs, but just because we find data online doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Googling our questions is easy. Discerning how we use what we learn is more difficult. Whether we write books, magazine articles, blogs, or devotions, readers view us as having implied authority. We have a responsibility to investigate the accuracy of our research before we use it. As we’ve all heard, “Google, but verify!”

Each time I turn on the computer, the Holy Spirit calls me to be aware of the fine line between gaining knowledge and losing myself, both as an individual and as a writer. How about you?

What are you doing to guard both your heart and your credibility when you use the internet?

writing

Writing Resources: Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams

“This book is for you–the person who wants to be published or grow in your writing craft  . . . My desire is for your writing to thrive and move into a higher gear after you read these pages.” (W. Terry Whalin, pp. 20)

Writing for publication is a skill that must be learned, and one of the best ways to learn is to go to the experts. Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams by W. Terry Whalin offers solid advice in clear, easy-to-digest sections which motivate you to work toward your goals.  At the end of each chapter, Whalin includes Dig Deeper lists of additional resources that elaborate on the subjects he discusses. He also offers questions for reflection and challenges you to take action based on what you’ve learned. Whalin aims throughout the book to help you define and achieve your goals as a writer, and in doing so, he creates an informative, encouraging text that you’ll want to keep ready at hand. 

Here’s a sneak peek of what Whalin has to say:

Fittingly enough for a book focused on achieving dreams, Whalin spends chapter two discussing the importance of making a plan for your writing. This chapter grabbed my attention the first time I read it because it makes two very convicting points.

First,

Whalin asks us to consider what our Time Wasters are, listing among them emails, family interruptions, and even writing opportunities. He explains, “Whether you have several hours a day or a full day to accomplish your writing goals, it is easy to fill those hours with ‘good things’ that do not help you move toward the fulfillment of those goals” (pp. 32). As an expert procrastinator, this line stung me a little. Whenever I sit down to write, there are a million other to-dos floating through the back of my mind. All of them seem more important, or at least equally important to the task at hand. But at the end of the day, time set aside for writing needs to be set aside for writing. If we want to accomplish our goals, we have to be willing to make them a priority. And that means sometimes, it’s okay to say no to other opportunities, even good opportunities. Our writing is worth devoting our full attention to, even if it requires a little sacrifice.

Second,

Whalin reminds us to make consistent short-term goals. Big-hairy goals, as a professor of mine used to call them, are great. Necessary, even. Dreaming big inspires our writing, helping us to believe in the possibilities. Short-term goals, however, make those big-hairy dreams achievable. Whalin explains that the key to being productive is to continually set smaller goals and follow through with them. Every small milestone brings you a step closer to your destination. While writing a 500 page novel can be daunting to consider, writing 5 pages a day is a manageable plan. And over time, the consistent effort of 5 pages a day will create the finished novel that was so intimidating at the beginning.

These tidbits of wisdom barley scratch the surface of all you’ll find in this book. Every chapter brings with it more applicable information, getting deeper as you go through.

So How Would I Rate This?

I give Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams 5 out of 5 jumping goldfish. 

This book is designed to be put into practice. Whalin’s conversational tone, real-life examples, and calls to action make the book engaging, and the advice is easy to understand and apply.  Reading each chapter left me with the same feeling I get when I leave a writer’s conference: I just can’t wait to get started. I hope you’ll add a copy to your shelf, and if you do, I hope you learn as much from this book as I did. 

One final question before you go. What is one short-term goal you have for your writing, or that you’d like to set for your writing today?

 

Whalin, W. Terry. Jumpstart Your Publishing Dreams: Insider Secrets to Skyrocket Your Success. WTW Press, 2009.

 

Finding Your Writing Voice

Find Your Writing Voice Through Guide Poets

“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery – it’s the sincerest form of learning.” ― George Bernard Shaw

As writers, we tend to strive for originality. We don’t want our work to be a copy of someone else’s; we want to write words that are unique. But what if I was to tell you that you should imitate other writers? Would you believe me if I said that mimicry can help you write more authentically? The fact is, every one of us has authors who influence the way we write, and by studying those authors, we learn how to grow in the areas we care about most. Guide poets can lead the way as you find your writing voice.

So What is A Guide Poet?

A guide poet, put simply, is a writer whose voice resonates with your own. Think of your guide poet as a kindred spirit. In their works, you’ll find a style that matches the tone of your words or a way of thinking that speaks to you. Their writing will sound like something you would say. This isn’t just an author you like; it’s an author you understand and who you feel understands you, although you’ve never met.

How to Find Your Guide Poets

Choosing guide poets is a bit like choosing friends: it’s a mix of chance and intentionality. Here are a few tips to help you get started.

  1. Start with your nightstand-The collection of books you keep ready at hand are a great indicator of your current interests. Make a stack of the books you always have nearby; the books you list off as your favorites and the ones you reread often. Even though not all of your favorite authors are guide poets, chances are your guide poets will be found among your favorite authors.
  2. Evaluate your collection— Look at each of the books in your stack and consider why you’re drawn to them. Do you like them just because they’re fun to read or you learned from them? Or, do they connect with you on a deeper level? If you find yourself underlining whole passages of a text or thinking “I wish I’d written that,” then you may have found a writing guide.
  3. Pick your guides–Ultimately, who your guide poets are boils down to who you want them to be. If you feel like you connect with a bunch of different writers, focus on the ones you’d most like to emulate. Find the ones who best match the goals you have for yourself and make them your models.

 How Your Guides Help You Find Your Voice

Once you find authors whose voices resonate with your own, who you feel connected to and want to learn from, it’s time to consider how they can help you find your voice. There are two main ways these writers can help.

First, Defining Your Voice:

Guide poets can help you decide what you want your voice to sound like. Your writing voice is the underlying tone and message that weaves through everything you put on the page. It’s the flavor that makes your writing distinct, and it stems from both the way you write and the reason you write. Guide poets help you define your voice by helping you recognize the aspects of writing you are most focused on.

When you read the work of the authors who influence you, take note of why you connect with them. Do you love the way they write characters? Is their message something you care about too? Make a list of the different characteristics you admire in their work and then compare it to your own writing. As you begin to find overlap between your style and goals and theirs, you can start to put into words the characteristics of your voice.

For example, studying my guide poets (J.R.R. Tolkien, William Joyce, and Annie Dillard) helped me realize that one of my main goals in writing is to take small, simple parts of life and show the value and wonder to be found in them. I realized I love books with lots of description, color, and light, and so these were aspects that I wanted to focus on in my projects.

Second, Developing Your Voice:

Guide poets can also help you develop your voice through imitation. By mimicking the aspects of your guide poet’s style which resonate with you, you can test out different parts of your voice. You aren’t giving up your uniqueness, but rather using similar authors to learn the skills you need to grow. In taking on the style of another, we can’t help but make it our own. That’s why a thousand different poems can be written in the same form without becoming the same poem. The guide poets simply become a shell, an outline, that we fill with our own color and design.

Here’s a simple exercise to try.  Give yourself 30 minutes to write as much as you can in the voice of one of your guide poets. By putting on their style for a moment, you’ll exercise your creative muscles in the areas you desire to develop.

 

At the end of the day, God has gifted each of us differently. Your story is distinct from all others; your voice is unique to you. The influence of others doesn’t take away our ability to find our own tune, but rather enhances our ability by offering us a chance to sing in harmony.  When we learn from guide poets,  we take what is offered to us and make it into something new.  In them, we find both mentors that guide us as we find our voices and friends who make the journey easier to travel.

So who are some of the guide poets in your writing journey?

 

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Karley Conklin is a part-time librarian, part-time editor, and full-time bookworm. On her blog http://litwyrm.com/, she discusses all sorts of literature, from poetry to picture books. Her goal is to use the power of stories to remind others of hope and joy in a world that all too often forgets both.

Grow Your Writing Skills — Part III

Polishing your writing is the final step in Ian Lurie’s copywriting course.

In an effort to grow my copywriting skills, I took Ian Lurie’s LinkedIn Learning course “Learning to Write Marketing Copy.” He broke copywriting down into four easy steps: create a plan, free write, write your first draft, and polish your writing. While the course focused specifically on writing marketing copy, I’ve been able to apply his method to fiction writing, blog writing, and even journalism.

For the final blog in this series, I’d like to focus on Lurie’s fourth and final step: polish your writing.

Polish Your Writing

When I first started my job as a promotional writer with Liberty University Marketing, I noticed something almost immediately. Writing only takes up a small amount of my workday. The bulk of my time is spent editing and proofreading my work (and other writers’ documents).

Our editorial process has several levels it must pass through to meet the university’s quality control standards. Because everything that comes from the marketing department must be properly branded, there are very specific guidelines we must follow when creating an email, letter, or advertisement. 

Our editorial team, called quality control, checks for grammar, spelling, clarity, and, of course, our brand. They ask questions like Does this piece sound like it was written by the president of the university? Is this email consistent in tone with our other pieces?

However, before they ever lay eyes on my projects, I need to polish my text to be the best it can be. Lurie suggests taking three steps when polishing your work: get help, edit, and proofread.

Get Help

Always be willing to ask for help when polishing your work. Readers will often catch mistakes that you do not.

No matter what kind of writing you do, it’s always good to have another pair of eyes on your work. If you’re writing a company newsletter, have a fellow employee read over it for you and offer suggestions for improvement. If you’re working on a fictional piece, reach out to a friend who enjoys reading fiction. 

As one of eight promotional writers for my department, I have seven other writers who review my work for me before it goes to our quality control team for proofing. Generally, we try to have two “reads” on our work before we hand it over to quality control. 

This is helpful, especially when I’m writing something similar to what I’ve written before. Every month, I write monthly offer emails. These emails generally advertise similar offers, but I often leave information out because my brain writes on auto-pilot. Having coworkers who are unfamiliar with the material lets me know where I need to improve. They ask questions as both a reader and a writer, offering insight and sparking conversation.

If you cannot find someone to review your work for you, take some time away from the piece. Anywhere from an hour to a few days will give you “fresh eyes” when reading the document, and you’ll find mistakes you didn’t catch while writing. Reading your writing aloud is also a great way to spot errors.

Edit

Editing is making large structural changes to your work, while proofreading is checking for grammar and spelling.

Lurie describes editing as “reorganizing and modifying copy.” Basically, this means you should make large structural changes before worrying about the details of a piece.

When editing, you’re looking for readability and flow. You want your piece to make sense to the reader without them having to work too hard to understand what you’re trying to say. (Many readers will stop reading if the writing is difficult to decipher.) Editing can be as simple as rearranging a few paragraphs to totally reworking sentences. 

At the end of the editorial process, your piece should have a logical flow that gently guides the reader from sentence to sentence. 

Proofread

Proofreading is a little different than editing, though the two often get lumped together. Lurie says proofreading is “correcting spelling and grammar.” Spelling and grammar are difficult for many people. Understandably so.

My suggestion for proofreading is to make it easy for yourself. Always write with spellcheck turned on. Download Grammarly for free to have your work automatically proofread as you go.

Tools are great for proofreading, but they will fail from time to time. That’s why it is so important for you to have a basic understanding of English grammar. I keep a couple of books on my desk at work to help me with proofreading. You don’t have to know everything about English grammar, but using these resources will help you grow more comfortable with it:

  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary — Because spellcheck doesn’t always work the way you need it to
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White — Great basic overview of English grammar
  • The Copyeditors Handbook by Amy Einsohn — Excellent resource for mastering copyediting

Never rely solely on built-in tools to proofread your work for you. Always proofread your work all the way through before submitting it to your editor, posting to your blog, or sharing online.

At the end of the day, writing is a skill that you develop. You may be a passionate young writer with many exciting stories to tell, or you may be a seasoned professional struggling against the daily grind. No matter where you are in your writing journey, know that there is always room for improvement. Just remember Lurie’s four steps: plan, pre-write, write, and review.

Follow these four steps, and you’ll see improvements in your writing in no time.

Emily Babbitt is a promotional writer for Liberty University Marketing. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband. Learn more about Emily here.

Grow Your Writing Skills — Part II

In an effort to grow my copywriting skills, I took Ian Lurie’s LinkedIn Learning course “Learning to Write Marketing Copy.” He broke copywriting down into four easy steps: create a plan, free write, write your first draft, and polish your writing. While the course focused specifically on writing marketing copy, I’ve been able to apply his method to fiction writing, blog writing, and even journalism.

This week, I’d like to focus on his second and third steps.

Freewriting

Freewriting is a great idea to develop ideas for your writing project. Whether you’re working on a short story, a novel, or a blog post, jotting down ideas through freewriting will help “free” up your mind and flesh out your ideas. 

Lurie suggests setting a timer for 5-10 minutes and allowing yourself to write without thinking about spelling or grammar. Just write down everything that comes to mind about your topic, even if you end up going down some rabbit trails. Don’t stop writing until the timer is up!

When the buzzer finally rings, stop and step away from your computer or paper for a few minutes before you review your writing. Then, highlight any new ideas that may have sprouted during your freewriting time.

I apply this to my own work, especially larger projects. A lot of my work is quick (i.e., emails, banner ads, social media ads, etc.), but I have several large pieces per month that require quite a bit of cognitive effort on my part. 

Freewriting is a great way for me to get some ideas out on paper, especially if I’m not sure which direction I want to take the piece. 

Writing Your First Draft

Writing your first draft is always the hardest part of starting a new project. Depending on the length of the piece, you may want to break it down into manageable steps for yourself. For example, if you’re working on a novel, take it chapter by chapter or scene by scene. Once you have a goal in mind for what you want to write, set a timer for 45-90 minutes and begin writing!

Writing your first draft is a little different than freewriting because you need to allow your goal to guide your writing. Keep your goal, writing style, and the type of piece in mind. Keeping the type of piece in mind just means that you need to remember the context. If you’re writing a novel, ask yourself: Where does this chapter or scene fit into the rest of my story? 

When writing your first draft, Lurie suggests leaving the introduction and heading for last. This just gives you the opportunity to develop your ideas before you introduce or conclude them. I often leave headers and subject lines on emails for last, and I often wait until I’m done writing body text before writing salutations in letters or direct mail pieces. Having all of the other copy written first gives me a good idea of how to introduce it.

When the timer is up, Lurie suggests stretching for a few minutes, smiling at your accomplishment, and then polishing your writing, which we will discuss on Jan. 2!

About Emily

Emily Babbitt is a promotional writer for Liberty University Marketing. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband. Learn more about Emily here.

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