Saturday, July 24, 2010

Resources for Writers #27: How to Kill a Character

Feeling well today? Read no further. But if you are strong of stomach and engaged in writing a historical in which a character isn’t going to make it to the end of the story, then check out these websites.

The best by far is Cyndi’s List   If you follow no link except this one, you will find a wealth of information related to medicine and health in the good old/bad old days.

This site, a great quick reference, has several broken links at the bottom, so I added the ones that do work.  Old Disease Names

Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms

Old Disease Names Frequently Found on Death Certificates

While some of the old causes of death sound amusing to us, the tragic fact is that people died of relatively minor illnesses that are quickly curable today. Women, infants, and children were at high-risk for death by disease. Men died from disease, too, as well as from occupational accidents and by violence.

The scourges of tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and pneumonia took their toll. Childhood diseases such as measles often meant a death sentence for children. Diabetes and kidney disease were known but not really understood and certainly untreatable.

Most early doctors had only limited, rudimentary training. Added to the lack of medicine, especially antibiotics, and inability to aggressively treat disease, they could only see lives into the world and, sooner or later, see them out again.

Children born with (survivable) defects were often hidden away and, later, warehoused in unspeakable conditions. The same ‘solutions’ surrounded those with mental illness. Until Dorothea Dix’s crusade for more humane treatment for these unfortunate souls, they suffered without mercy. (A good book about her work is Stranger and Traveler: The Story of Dorothea Dix, American Reformer by Dorothy Clarke Wilson.)

Life wasn’t easy in the good old/bad old days, nor was it long. Here are two links to life expectancy charts specific to the United States.

Life Expectancy in the U.S. 1900-1998

Life Expectancy by Age, 1850-2004

So the next time you go to the doctor and are asked to fill out one of those endless (often redundant) ‘patient information’ forms, have some fun. Write that the reason for your visit today is ‘crop sickness’ or ‘foeter oris’. Unfortunately, you may not get the last laugh, because I don’t think anyone ever reads this so-called critical information anyway!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Resources for Writers #26: A Century of Settings


The Vintage House Book: Classic American Homes 1880-1980 by Tad Burness (Krause Publications, 2003) is one of the best finds I’ve plucked from the shelves of the local library. The 256-page book is jam-packed with pictures of exteriors and interiors of houses spanning an entire century. A brief introduction to each of the ten chapters gives an overview of the prevailing architectural trends of the particular decade.
           Over 2,500 images and photographs (both black-and-white as well as color), including some floor plans, have notations offering fascinating tidbits about the history and/or construction of a particular house. If you ever wondered about the evolution of the modern kitchen and bathroom, you’ll find it illustrated here.
            Imagine my surprise and delight when, on page 166, I found the exact house that my parents built before their marriage in 1940 (they were then married in the living room) and in which I spent the first four years of my life. Pictures of long-forgotten appliances and fixtures brought back a lot of memories!
            Knowing this book is one I’ll turn to again and again as I weave my vintage tales, I checked one of my favorite sites, ABE Books, and found it available from several bookstores at excellent (low!) prices. I’ll be ordering my copy soon!

FTC Disclaimer: I received no request to recommend this book or remuneration for doing same.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Resources for Writers #25: Getting Real

Did you ever have a fabulous idea for a book in a particular genre and then realize that you didn’t couldn’t ‘speak the language’? By that I mean, you simply didn’t have the vocabulary to write the dialogue for an FBI agent, for example. Or an equestrian. A circus performer. An old-time Vaudevillian.

 Unfortunately, there will be people who pick up your books only to close them unfinished if you try to bluff your way through. If your characters aren’t authentic, then neither is your plot. You’ve heard the old adage, “You are what you read.” I submit that your characters are what they say, and if they use the wrong words, they’re toast.

I’ve been playing around with a ‘cozy’ mystery, the first of what I hope to make a series of six. Many of the characters will carry over from one book to the next, so if they don’t come across as the real thing in book #1, why would a reader go on to book #2? I began to write a main character who is undercover with the FBI, and I hadn’t written much before I realized I had no clue what I was doing. Therefore, in the story, neither did he!

So it was off to the friendly local library. (And mine is extraordinarily friendly and helpful, btw.) First stop, the computerized ‘card catalogue’. Keywords such as ‘FBI’ and ‘undercover’ brought up several possibilities. I settled on The Last Undercover by Bob Hamer. Without reviewing the book, I’ll just say that I read it with a yellow legal pad and pen at hand, noting how he referred to various people, situations, etc. Rather than ‘carrying a gun’, he was ‘packing’, for example.

Nothing beats research for authentic characters, settings, plot, and dialogue. Yes, we read in many cases as an escape, and that’s fine. But if you’re writing about ‘real’ people, they need to walk the walk and talk the talk. Otherwise, speaking as a reader rather than a writer, I don’t have time to figure it all out. Tell me. Better still, show me.

IMO—the best resource is research.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Resources for Writers #24: Mail Marketing Campaign

One important resource that a (published) writer needs is marketing tips, and cheap is good. However, if you have a little money to spend, it’s important to use it in the right venue. I looked at a number of ideas and, after the local library bought both my books outright, I settled on targeting libraries, based on the following premises:

1)     Libraries buy books.
2)     People who work in libraries buy books.
3)     People who work in libraries know people who buy books.

First, I found a listing for every library in the state (197) and made a set of labels (Avery 8160 is a good size). Typing the labels took some time, but I have them saved if I ever decide to do this again.

Next, I designed postcards at VistaPrint and ordered 250, of which 100 were free in a special offer, so I paid $27.11 with postage. I included:

  • my website where the books/trailers can be previewed
  • the email address of the publisher’s online store (for purchasing)
  • a note that the author is available for book signings, reviews, and workshops

Postcards require a 28-cent stamp. (Remember the days of the penny postcard?) Postage came out to $55.16. However, I already had almost 100 17-cent stamps, so I only had to buy the extra postage for those this time around.

Using Avery 8160 again, I made another label to use on the back with the address label. On this one, I made sure that the recipients would know that I was a local Arkansas author. Then, just for good measure, I added the title of my upcoming 2011 release. To make this label stand out from the address label, I added a border, shading, and used colored font.

All that was left was to label and stamp the postcards. The post office said that sorting by zip code wouldn’t facilitate delivery, so I didn’t do that. Speaking of zip codes, the list of libraries didn’t include those, so I had to look up them up individually from another printed list. Also, if a city was large enough to have more than one zip code, I had to look up the library itself. However, none of that took as much time as you might think. (Hint: Not every state thoughtfully provides one concise list. I looked for one in Texas and found that I had to check out the library systems to get the names and addresses of individual libraries!)

I chose not to use a return address label, electing to have the business contracted between the library and the publisher.

So for the investment of under $100 ($82.27), I’ve made contact with libraries all over the state. If half of them look at the postcard, that’s almost 100 potential buyers. Sales could come from both libraries and from individuals. Or, they could come not at all. That’s always a possibility, especially with books being something of a luxury in a poor economy. If I receive any requests for speaking/workshops, that’s exposure as well as an opportunity for individual sales. It seemed worth at least a one-time effort and investment.

I’m not sure if I can get any information from the publisher regarding sales from this mail campaign, but I may inquire about it anyway. It would help to know how many sales  (if any) resulted so I could decide whether or not to make the same investment of time and money again. 

I’d love to heard from anyone who has done something similar—or has other marketing ideas. Consider yourself invited to guest blog here at The Word Place anytime!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

This Fourth of July...

Yesterday as I backed out of the driveway, the local radio station played Kate Smith’s classic “God Bless America”. As always, it brought tears to my eyes, but this year I wept for different reasons. Irving Berlin, born in Russia, an immigrant to this county as a young child, gave America this song written from his heart. It touched the hearts of every American as World War II brought us together as never before. The song, like the country, has endured.

 Every country like every person has a past—good, bad, indifferent. America is no exception. No one is proud of the treatment of Native Americans, of slavery, of Japanese internment, of segregation and the terrible things that accompanied it. All of that was wrong, something to be ashamed of, something to make us stand up together and say, “Never Again”. But like individuals who have made mistakes, a country must go forward, too, or remain stagnant and, eventually, die.
I remember a scene from the powerful film “Judgment at Nuremburg”, between the leading American trial judge and the housekeeper employed in the house where he stayed. He tried—kindly, he thought—to ask about what it was like to live under Hitler, how everyday people thought about and reacted to National Socialism. The woman, near tears, said nervously, “We were not political. My husband and I were not political.” She went on to say, speaking of the death camps, “We did not know.”

Until recently, I would have said the same thing: I am not political. Perhaps I still am not political, but I am afraid. Will the country in which my grandchildren are growing up even be recognizable as America when they are adults? Will they have the right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’? Will they still enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights? Or will we, the members of this generation, have allowed all that to slip away, saying, “We were not political. We did not know.”

I’m not going to speak to individual issues here. Everyone has his own opinion to which he is entitled. The question is, can we find common ground? Can we find people who will legislate for the common good—not for their personal agendas? People who believe in America--not themselves? Can we come together as Americans—just Americans—who want their country to endure and grow stronger—especially morally stronger?

The future of America is not a political issue—it is a personal issue. The Constitution of the United States begins, We the people...  We must be THE PEOPLE. We must find some way to respect our differences and work together. If we cannot work together, other forces will work for (or against) us.

And years hence, “God Bless America” may be only an old, meaningless song.