Thursday, June 23, 2016

Writing Outside Your Culture: The Importance of Interviews

As I researched Desert Jewels, I read a number of memoirs about the Japanese American incarceration and spoke very briefly with one or two people who had been in the camps, but I did not have the opportunity to interview anyone in depth. Then, while we were on a research trip actually visiting the sites in my book, our local newspaper published an article about a Korean War veteran who was willing to serve his country even though he had been incarcerated as a teenager. Friends helped me connect with him, and I discovered that Ken’s wife had been incarcerated in a different camp. (They met after their release.)

I talked to Ken for a short time but spent most of the day with Chiyo.

In the book, my protagonist is incarcerated at Topaz in Utah. Ken was at Gila River in Arizona, and Chiyo was at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. But even though the settings were different, the experiences were similar. Well, not completely. As with anything, personality colors experience.

Ken’s passion was cars, and the only vehicles at Gila River were the trucks owned by the administration. He was in high school but didn’t get involved in sports or other activities. So except for the summer he spent riding around with the garbage men, he felt that his stay at Gila River was wasted time.

Chiyo had a different experience. She has an outgoing personality and attended dances and other activities at Heart Mountain. She also loved ice-skating, and Heart Mountain had long winters. So Chiyo actually enjoyed her time there.

In many ways, the interview simply confirmed what I had already learned from other sources. Even so, it was invaluable because it gave me a stronger sense of the people involved. Not that I didn’t get some of that from the memoirs I read, but there is nothing like sitting across from a living person and listening to his or her stories.

It isn’t always possible for a writer to interview people who have been through the events depicted in a historical novel, especially if everyone is long dead. But if you have the opportunity, take it.

Your story will be better if you do.


A Time Life photographer took a picture of Chiyo’s family at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, but that photo is under copyright and Time Life did not respond to my request for permission to use it. The picture at the head of this post shows the Shikano family and was taken at the Central Utah War Relocation Center (Topaz) on January 3, 1945. Charles E. Mace took the picture as part of his official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain. I don’t know anything about the Shikano family and have include the photograph merely for ambiance.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The ideal writing spot

  I have an ideal writing spot.
  My ideal spot is on a thick cushion that’s faded because it’s tucked next to a large picture window. Matching fluffy pillows support my back and protect my legs from the heat of my laptop.
  The window overlooks a simple flower garden with white, yellow, and pink blooms. It also has a bird house in the middle. The birds’ house is a miniature version of my own.

from Fotolia
  White-bellied squirrels and rusty brown chipmunks with quick grace forage for, and hide, their bounty while I devise brilliant ways for my heroine to overcome great obstacles that concludes in non-predictable yet satisfying way.
  My ideal writing spot does not exist outside my imagination.
  In truth any place I can find a few uninterrupted minutes in consecutive secession is an “ideal writing spot.”
  In the living room, in the dining room, in the bedroom, at Domino’s while I’m waiting for my order, at my desk at work on my lunch break – they all can be productive spots for writing.
  I love window seats and hope to have one someday. But in the here and now the ideal writing spot for me isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind.
  Humbly submitted by H.T. Lord

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Forensic Speaks: How to Write Crime Dramas

By Kelly Bridgewater

As an avid suspense writer, I am always having to look ways to kill someone up on-line. What happens when you cut off someone’s arm? Does blood pour out? Does it dribble from the veins? What causes the blood to trickle out? Sounds funny. But as a writer, we all want to write stories that ring true with the readers. I don’t want some police officer or EMT to pick up my books and shake their head in disbelief, leaving a bad review on Amazon stating that I don’t do my research before writing the book.

During the 2014 ACFW conference, Jennifer Dornbush led a Capstone course that took all day to learn new things. She informed me and all the other students a whole bunch of ways to write crime stories that ring true with the audience. I still refer to those notes when I work on a crime scene in my novel.  

From Amazon
Dornbush wrote a book entitled Forensic Speaks: How to write Crime Dramas. She gave away three copies during this class, and I was one of the lucky ones to win one. It is a great resource for any suspense writer who wants to make their stories ring true without having to actually go to an actual crime scene and figure out the answers to our questions. I don’t know about you, but approaching an EMT, firefighter, or police officer isn’t something I have done, but I really want people to believe what I have to write.

Her book is sectioned into different chapters like “Chewing the Fat with CSI’s” and “Coroner Chat.” There are also subheadings under these overarching titles like Types of Evidence and Exercises. Dornbush has also taken pictures from CSI, Fargo, and Dexter to prove what she has written on the pages.

This is like a dictionary or thesaurus for crime writers. You don’t really read the book, unless you want to, it is more of a resource guide when you want to show how the dead body looks after it has been beheaded or missing an arm. It informs the writer than the reader how long it takes before rigor mortis kicks in. It’s a great resource for any person who writes suspense or mysteries.

Do you have any other resources like this for historical fiction or contemporary novels? Share so we can start a lively discussion.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Beware the Cultural Reference

by Jean Kavich Bloom

Here’s a link to an excellent reminder from literary agent Steve Laube about the use of cultural references in writing. In this post, he warns writers against assuming their readers will understand any cultural reference they care to use, particularly younger readers.

Besides, the world changes fast. Yesterday’s news is just that—so yesterday. Whatever was before the general population one year ago, let alone a decade ago, can quickly fade from memory, never to be returned without a lot of memory jogging, if then. Or maybe you and all your same-age friends will instantly remember "that thing that happened with that person that time" and "get it," but not every segment of American reader necessarily will.

As a reader and an editor, I have noticed writers, even novelists, apparently fail to take this into account. I can raise the question with an editing client, but I can't so much when I am a reader.

I recently read a new book by an author (maybe in the mid-forties age range) who described a character as looking like Gene Shalit, with no further explanation. Now, Gene is a ninety-year-old film critic who retired from the Today Show on NBC almost six years ago after being on the show for forty-one years. Focusing on most millennials who could be interested in this book, I have to believe they are going to be stopped cold, wondering who in the world Gene Shalit is. But so might anyone who has never watched the Today Show, or has viewed it only in the last five years.

The story, then, is not only interrupted, but the reader without a reference point still doesn’t know what that character looks like.

The solution is simple: unless you know the majority of your audience will recognize your reference, or is fascinated enough to look it up (have you ever talked to a Gilmore Girls reruns enthusiast?), beware of its use. 

This is not to say cultural references should never be used, but they should probably be either in some way explained if too many readers are bound to have no reference point or made a part of the fabric of your book for readers who enjoy the challenge.

In other words, if you very much want your character to look like Gene Shalit, then the man looked like Gene Shalit is probably not as helpful as the man looked like Gene Shalit, a film critic who used to be on TV and was well known for his wild hair, mustache, and bow ties and suspenders. (No, I did not say this example is good writing!)

Here is a video of Gene Shalit to view if you have no idea who he is and what he looks like.  

By the way, this works both ways, age-wise. An author I was editing, who is younger than me, referred to someone looking like an "emo girl." I had to look it up. My children are grown and my grandchildren are all under ten, and apparently my taste in TV shows and film doesn't support knowledge of such a girl. Staying on top of current trends in culture is tricky!

Do you want readers to have to look something up to understand what you're talking about or what a character looks like? Probably not, but the decision is yours, and it's worth your time to beware of the cultural reference.

Let’s have a show of hands. Who knew what Gene Shalit (a reference to the past) looked like without the help of Google or YouTube? Was anybody thrown by my reference to Gilmore Girls (a reference to an insanely popular TV show currently only in reruns)? Did you know what an "emo girl" (a reference to a current trend) is without looking it up (try here:

Jean Kavich Bloom is a freelance editor and writer (Bloom in Words Editorial Services). Her personal blog is Bloom in Words too, where she sometimes posts articles about the writing life. She is also one of many contributors to a new blog for women, The Glorious Table. Her published books are Bible Promises for God's Precious Princess and Bible Promises for God's Treasured Boy. She and her husband, Cal, have three children and five grandchildren. 

photo credit:

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Come with Me

My wife, Judy, died five months ago and I am learning day by day how to adjust to her absence. As I told a friend at church last Sunday, I feel like a mariner who has crossed the equator: I still have my sextant and compass, but I must learn how to navigate all over again.

In our 41 years of marriage, Judy and I shared life on the most intimate (and, some would say, trivial) levels. One of our favorite pastimes was to go for long drives, just to see what we could discover together. On such a drive last July (with Judy at the wheel), we struck out east from Anderson and chose our turns as we went. We saw Wilbur Wright's birthplace, stopped for a soft-serve ice cream cone in Winchester, and realized just before sundown that we were near the Ohio state line.

All along the way, I shared my memories of growing up on a farm in East Tennessee. I got plenty of memory prompts from the hay fields and cornfields of eastern Indiana that July afternoon! In fact, each of us interrupted my childhood narrative often to comment on what we saw, smelled, and heard as we wended our way toward Ohio. Our running commentary ("Look at the snowy egret beside that pond." "This fresh-cut grass smells like a ripe watermelon," etc.) seared the memory of that drive in my mind. What I miss most about Judy is the opportunity to share those incidental observations of daily life--call them the "trivial" things if you like. I still find myself spontaneously saying things like, "I just heard a sand hill crane. There must be a flock overhead."

I felt depressed yesterday afternoon, wishing I still had a companion to share these rich trivialities of daily life. I wondered, Who could I invite to come with me now?

Immediately, the thought came: My readers. They enjoy yarns of days gone by, as much as Judy enjoyed the story of my life as a farm boy, but they want just as much to experience the sensory details along the way. I don't have to tell them what the details mean with respect to our journey or destination, though the details should have some significance for the story; I can simply call these things to our attention and let their significance unfold.

Vivid description does that. So does authentic dialogue. In fact, everything in a well-told story should sear the memory of it in the reader's mind.

I'm thinking I ought begin every story by saying to the reader (in my imagination if not on paper), "Come with me. Let's see what this world looks like today."

Joe Allison has been a member of the Indiana Chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2010. He lives in Anderson, IN.