Friday, June 10, 2022

The Handy Dandy Occupational Outlook Handbook

Most of us have a general idea of many careers. Our paths have usually crossed those of dentists, nurses, bank clerks, car mechanics, postal carriers, and librarians, just to name a few. But we’re not always well acquainted with professions other than our own. This is where the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ handy dandy Occupational Outlook Handbook comes in handy for writers.

Never heard of this handbook? Well, if your main character insists on being a biological technician and you know nothing about this career, then this is the website for you. The OOH is stuffed with details about this profession and thousands of others.


First of all, what is a biological technician? According to OOH, biological technicians assist biological and medical scientists. They set up, operate, and maintain laboratory instruments and equipment, monitor experiments, collect data and samples, make observations, and record results. A biological technician may also analyze organic substances, such as blood, food, and drugs.


That’s not all the OOH shares about this profession. It also lists educational requirements, annual wages, and how many are employed in the field. There’s a geographic profile for the profession that breaks statistics down by state and even metropolitan areas.


The profile also provides estimates on how how fast the field is growing and future job prospects. The types of industries that employ biological technicians are also profiled. Some biological technicians work in scientific research while others might work in the pharmaceutical industry.


Using the OOH is relatively easy. On the home page you’ll find 25 categories of occupations. I chose Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations which led me to biological technicians.


Each profession has a menu bar: Summary, What They Do, Work Environment, How to Become One, Pay, Job Outlook, State and Area Data, Similar Occupations, More Info (links to further resources).


All this information helps your imagination as you build the backstory of your character. Keep in mind that education influences the way a person talks and will also influence the way your character talks. If we return to the character who trained to be biological technician, OOH tells us a person training for this occupation would typically need a bachelor’s degree in biology. Biology programs include subfields such as ecology, microbiology, and physiology. Throw in a little math and physics seasoned with laboratory experience and you’re brewing up a biological technician.


Not only will this character’s dialogue be influenced by having a college education, the actual day to day activities inherent in the profession will also color their dialogue. For example, for a biological technician, the word “lab” will conjure up a well-lit, sterile environment that features microscopes, vials, and latex gloves.


To me, the word “lab” conjures up a big, friendly family dog.


I’ve never been a biological technician, but OOH certainly helps me get a good handle on the basics of the occupation such as the education required, the way a character might speak, their work environment, and even their socio-economic status.


All in all, not a bad place to start building backstory and getting to know my character.


Best of all, this information comes to you free from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you want to check out this handy dandy handbook visit 

https://www.bls.gov/ooh/


Occupational Outlook Handbook, career descriptions, character backstory building


Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Let’s Revisit the Ripple Effect

On May 25, 2015, I posted a blog titled “The Ripple Effect in Storytelling.” I wrote about consequences in setting up a scene. I was reminded of this blog when I recently watched Ryan Reynolds’ latest Netflick movie, The Adam Project. As a longtime Reynolds fan (Two Guys and A Girl!), it was fun to follow his adventures as a pilot from the future who goes back in time and encounters his younger self.


Reynold’s character is wounded while stealing an aircraft to travel back in time. Although the bullet supposedly exited, its path was through his body, not a graze mind you, a bullet hole through flesh and organs and blood vessels–and he bleeds a lot.


While he spends some time early on tending the exterior of the wounds, he ends up in several physical encounters with no visible problem of an untreated bullet wound in his side. In The Adam Project, the screen writers forgot about the ripple effect.


What’s the ripple effect, you ask?


Well, once something is introduced into the story, it has consequences that ripple out. Imagine a pebble tossed into a pond, it hits the water and then ever widening ripples reach out to touch more area than the pebble itself touched.


Let’s look at the word consequence. It has two meanings. Consequence is something that can be the result of an action or condition. Think outcome or repercussion or aftermath. The second definition of consequence is importance or relevance. Used in that sense, words such as significance, substance, or value comes to mind.


The consequence or result of being shot is a bullet wound. What is the importance of this wound? Its relevance? We feel it has significance when we watch Reynold’s character pull his blood soaked hand away from the wound.


Thus, the writers dropped in the pebble of a gunshot wound, but they failed to truly widen the repercussions. They erased the effects of the wound.


What happened?


In the beginning, Adam the pilot is profusely bleeding as he escapes capture. He needs to find medical supplies to treat the wound. He even tells his younger counterpart that the bullet exited so he doesn’t need to worry about fishing it out. Then the remainder of the movie, it’s as if he has no bullet wound. There are no consequences. No infection, no fever, no bodily weakness from blood loss.


According to Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia:


“Gunshot wounds that pass through the body without hitting major organs, blood vessels, or bone tend to cause less damage.”


I guess this is what the writers intended, no major organs hurt, no ricocheting off a bone. But bullets still destroy tissue and blood vessels. Gun shot wounds hurt! They cause damage to the body which needs time to heal. Without the proper care, they become infected.


Wouldn’t that hurt?


At the very least, the wound would be a source of pain when someone whacked you in the side.


Yet, Reynold’s character fought valiantly against a slew of opponents, including the villain’s henchman who engaged him several times in one-on-one physical battle. Ryan’s character never flinched or displayed any disability while being pummeled, or leaping around, or bopping the bad guy.


While this lack of the ripple effect may be all well and good for an established actor, the average writer might want to think about the ripple effect’s consequences and how they impact characters when building story scenes.


The screen writers failed to give the wound a true ripple effect. It was the result of an action, but it failed the second definition when its important role in the beginning of the story fizzled out. The ripple effect of this injury never reached its true dimensions.


Don’t leave your readers wondering why a character fails to react when someone lands a punch in a body part that was penetrated by a bullet only hours earlier. Think of the ripple effect as you write your story.




https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000737.htm

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Confessions of a Bookoholic

2021 wasn’t too kind to my blogging. I was a sporadic blogger to say the least. Not only was there the pandemic to live around, we had once told our daughter we would move and live near her when she retired from her career in the U.S. Coast Guard. Needless to say, she retired and held us to our promise. Cleaning out and packing up a home after you have lived there for 25 years is not an easy job. Either physically or mentally.


One of the most difficult choices I had to make was which books to move and which to donate. It was a difficult task and here’s why:


I’m a bookoholic. I love books. Big books, tiny books. Fat books, thin books. Old books, new books. Fiction books, nonfiction books. Mysteries, romances, cookbooks, history books, biographies. I love them all.


I buy books, I borrow books. I check them out of the library. I dug through a dumpster to save them when an Army library in Germany tossed them. Whenever I visit another city, I check out local bookstores and buy some book I didn’t know I had to have because I didn’t know it existed. I volunteered with the Friends of the Library for over two decades. It made finding treasures to buy even easier. I can’t begin to guess how many  armloads of books I lugged home over the years.


I love the smell of new books and the crisp feel of a newly printed page beneath my fingers. I love the musty smell of old books and the soft, worn feel of a yellowing page.


I love the shiny dust jackets that make lavish promises. The audacious “New!” or “Latest” emblazoned on a 30-year-old book. I treasure the less presumptuous and tattered cover of the simple 1956 edition of a biography, promising only the life story of its subject.


I love the information inside the covers of books. Fiction or nonfiction, what joy it is to read what others have written. To be able to visit any time and any place while comfortably ensconced in an easy chair surrounded by books.


Books define who I am and how I live. They have gone from living in the multiple bookcases I have bought or had made just for them to showing up as part of the decor. Artfully piled on the coffee table, nestled in baskets in various rooms, or stacked in hidden corners like the treasure they are, books are in every room of my house.


And while I know that if I did nothing but read 24/7, I could never read all the books I have before I die. That’s okay because I’m a bookoholic. I’m not into reading them all, I’m into giving them a good home.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Writing the Historical Romance Part 3

Historical writers tend to love history and are often lured off the research track by fascinating historical tidbits. Frequently, the lure isn’t germane to the story being written. Which is why I find writing some type of outline or synopsis a great help once I’ve gained a feel for the historical period. This does not have to be a polished, submission level outline/synopsis. This is for your eyes only and can be as sloppy as you want.


Probably the most important first step is establishing a time line. Why read about what happened in 1858 when your story takes place in 1812? Listing the basic elements of your story is another important step. In my November 19, 2019 blog I write about the essential story ingredients such as character, motivation, conflict, goals, etc. You can be as thorough here as you want. This is for your eyes only and can be as vague or detailed as you like. It’s easy to expand a word with a question mark into a sentence which eventually becomes a paragraph

and then morphs into a scene.


Having established the basics will help keep you on track as you continue to research, while also hopefully writing the actual story.


Remember when I said the bibliography at the back of every nonfiction history book is your most valuable resource?


I said that because the bibliography opens the door to the specific. In order to write the general overview of the period, the author pulls together information from many sources and lists them in the bibliography. Scan the bibliography of every resource you use, because nuggets of historical gold are found there.


Let’s return to Stealing Destiny. My initial research gave me a good idea of what was happening in the years preceding and following 1866. Now I needed to begin not only researching specific details but also writing a first draft.


The story centers around a horse so I decided to move the story to Tennessee where horse breeding is important. Since I wanted my heroine to travel to New York after the war to retrieve her horse, I knew she had to be a resourceful person and decided to make her a Confederate spy. I wanted my hero to have a reason to be separated from his unit when he commandeered the horse, and decided to make him a mapmaker for the Union army.


Now I’m moving into specific areas of research: horse breeding in Tennessee, spying during the Civil War, cartography, Tennessee during the war, and life in central New York state. I’ve found it useful to read autobiographies or biographies of people who lived during the period. My research for this novel netted me a biography of Stonewall Jackson’s cartographer and gave me an intimate look at the life of a mapmaker during a war.


At this early point in writing, I try to maintain a good balance between research and writing. While you research, always keep writing. Be aware it is easy to get bogged down in research. If you hit a snag in a scene and need more detailed information such as what type of hat your heroine is wearing, mark the place with asterisks and a note to look it up later, and then write around it. Computers make it easy to go back and add additional information.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Writing the Historical Romance: Part 2

Inspiration for a historical story can be triggered by a multitude of sources. Be it a sentence in a book, a personal experience, a dream, a podcast–the list is endless for source material. Today’s writer of historical can tap into a wide variety of autobiographies and biographies, historical nonfiction, and print or online magazines. Period films, movies, and documentaries are another favorite source. You never know what nugget of information will become the trigger for a story.

If you enjoy history, inspiration never runs dry.

The idea for my first published book, Stealing Destiny (aka Tennessee Waltz) came from an item I ran across while reading about the Civil War. A Yankee officer had commandeered a horse from a woman in Virginia. After the war he wrote to her that the horse survived the war and was doing well. I thought the woman in Virginia, one of the most fought over states in the war, needed that horse more than he did. I decided to send my heroine after her horse.

With a time period, three characters (and yes, the horse was a central character), and motivation, I began my research. I prefer to go from the general to the specific. I like to get a general feel for the time period before zooming in on specific details. To obtain an overview, I like to read a general history that spans at least twenty years of my target time period. Ten or so years before the story begins as well as ten or more years after it ends. College textbooks are an excellent source because I can’t think of any historical period that some college professor hasn’t written about.

For example, my first two novels are set in post war 1866. I found Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863 to 1877 an excellent source for this time period. Written by the prize winning author Eric Foner, Ph.D., who specializes in writing books about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

General history books about different time periods are available in the history collections of most public libraries. Other sources for getting a general feel for a time period are the popular “everyday in the life of” type books. I used the Writer’s Digest Books, Everyday Life During the Civil War by Michael J. Varhola as well as Everyday Life in the 1800s by Mark McCutcheon to help flesh out the story. Keep in mind the bibliography at the back of every nonfiction history book is a valuable resource as you narrow your focus.

Don’t forget to check out the children’s section of the library. Books written for younger readers offer a good spring board into unfamiliar topics. I also love the Eyewitness Visual Dictionary series published by Kindersley Publishing. From Dinosaurs to Climate Change, these books offer easy to read but detailed coverage of over 100 topics. Ships and Sailing provided me with valuable information about steamboats for Stealing Destiny.

The Internet is a wonderful source for today’s historical researcher, but use it with caution. Its greatest drawback is the frequent lack of a bibliography which makes validating the information difficult. History buff turned web site manager doesn’t always equal historical accuracy. Plus, there’s always the problem of a site disappearing into cyberspace. Treat the Internet as yet another resource, not the only one.

This initial research helps anchor me in the time period and gives me fodder for bringing the story to life. It also triggers ideas for scenes in the story. To avoid being overwhelmed with scene possibilities and to keep my research organized, I like to use an outline or narrative synopsis.

Before you faint at the idea of writing an outline or narrative synopsis at this point (sloppy is fine because it’s for your eyes only), think of it as a tool to help focus your research. Rather than going off on unnecessary historical tangents, an outline helps you concentrate your research on the historical facts you need to write this particular story.

In the next blog, we’ll look at how to focus your research while balancing your story writing with research.

P.S. By the way, you might enjoy my August 2020 blog, Title Control: Coming up with a Title for Your Story in which I share how traditional publishers sometimes ignore story content and assign a title willy nilly. As happened to me when the publisher came up with the title for my first book Tennessee Waltz.


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Writing the Historical Romance: Part 1

“Never write a historical novel as your first book.” I read this piece of writing advice in my first how-to-write fiction book. Youth and an undergraduate degree in history made me discard the advice. I spent the next two years writing a 900 page tome about Roman Britain set in 60 A. D.


Gladiator it was not. 

By the time, I wrote “The End,” the advice made sense. A novice historical romance writer is giving herself two difficult new skills to master: the craft of writing and the creation of a different time period. 


The beginning writer of a contemporary story worries only about learning the craft of writing, because she can draw upon a store of shared contemporary images when she creates her setting. For example, the word “McDonald’s” puts the reader in a fast-food restaurant replete with smells. 

Life isn’t as simple for the writer of historical novels. You don’t have this store of contemporary images and if your story is set before 1827, you can’t use the word restaurant. 


How do I know this? I  checked my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, an excellent source for when a word first entered our vocabulary. English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh is another useful addition to your library if you want to know if your 16th century hero can say “sandwich”. 

Still anxious to tackle your first historical romance? Of course, you are. If you weren’t passionate about writing and history, you wouldn’t be reading this essay. But before we delve into researching the historical romance, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind. 

 

Whether your story is about Viking warriors or Regency rogues, you must enter that world in order to bring your reader into it. The world you create must be historically accurate because your readers know their history. Make too many historical mistakes in your writing and you will lose readers. 

On the other hand, too much history can cost you readers, too. Romance may come second in the category description of historical romance, but the romance should always come first. Remember, your story is about the relationship between the hero and heroine. The history provides the context in which your hero and heroine develop their relationship.  

Another challenge for the historical romance writer is to keep characters true to their time while offering the reader a strong and independent heroine. Today’s writers of historical romance walk a fine line between historical accuracy and heroines that appeal 

to modern readers. This challenge can be turned into an asset if you use the social mores of the past as added conflict for the characters, especially the heroine. Good research will keep both your reader and heroine rooted in the time period no matter how sassy your heroine is. 

I feel very fortunate that Jo Beverly, one of Regency’s most famous authors, helped me figure out a key plot element for my Regency Butterfly Bride. Jo was famous for her attention to historical detail and I was ecstatic when she volunteered to help me figure out how my heroine could legally end her marriage. We worked through various scenarios until we hit upon one that stayed true to the historical period.


A good story plus good research is the key to a good historical romance, but where do you start?  

 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A Story of Flashbacks

Flashbacks are events that happened before your primary story began. You insert them in the scene in such a way as to flesh out the story, being careful not to slow the pace of the story, lose the reader’s interest, or create confusion. 

I recently read a novel set in World War II Paris. The book chronicles the lives of two women during the Nazi occupation of Paris. It is told almost completely in flashbacks. I guess they’re flashbacks since there’s no real timeline.

The story begins in 1943, but the subsequent chapters bounce between 1939 and 1945 (when the Allies free Paris from Nazi rule). Not only does the story bounce around in time, it bounces between the two heroines. 


Does this type of story telling slow the flow of the story? Does it lose reader’s interest? Does it create confusion.


Honestly, I’d have to say yes to all three. 


Still, many readers enjoyed the story and it has received good reviews. Some readers didn’t stick with it and voiced their dislike of the structure.


Here’s the real question. Did writing the story with a bouncing timeline make the story better? 


I don’t think so.


While each chapter heading set the date and location, there was always momentary confusion as I tried to orient myself to the year, the point of view character, and the setting. Once I accomplished that, I could usually fit the opening paragraphs into the context of the overall story. 


I realize some authors like to turn story telling on its head and try new gimmicks. And yes, I think a novel filled with flashbacks is a gimmick. The story lacked the basic structure of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.


Story telling is an ancient art form refined through countless centuries and countless stories. It originated eons before there was pen and paper. Early storytellers did exactly that, they told stories to their family, friends, and visitors. A good storyteller learns how to keep the audience interested. 


Through trial and error, storytellers unknowingly shaped stories around the way the human brain processes information. For example, one strong component of storytelling is its reliance on the participation of the audience, or in this case, the reader. Brain research has revealed that humans get quite caught up in stories. Most readers try and guess what comes next. And a good story uses twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. Listening to or reading well-written stories also enhance our critical thinking skills.


The Paris occupation story isn’t told in the accepted story format and it makes it difficult for the reader to participate in the story. We know this isn’t an alternate history story and we know the Nazis will be defeated at the end. As written, we don’t get a chance to anticipate how the heroines will react to the various events or guess what might happen next because the next chapter might well be set two years earlier than the one you just read.


You may wonder why I finished this book. I admit, I wasn’t sure I was going to read all of it. What kept me going was the author’s historical research. She did a fine job of putting the reader in occupied Paris. As a history buff I enjoyed that aspect of her novel. So, I guess I connected with her story via the setting. On the other hand, the lack of story structure makes me wary of reading any other book by her.