5 More Writing Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Tattoos

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What comes to mind when you think of people with tattoos?

That answer is going to be different for everyone, but according to the bulk of the romance genre, the major types boil down to “bad boy” and “hippie/free-spirited girl.”

Authors, we can all do so much better than that. Tattoos are so often used as shorthand to make a character fall into a certain stereotype, but in reality, many people get tattoos for personal reasons that have nothing to do with fitting into one of those types. If you’re going to give a character tattoos, why not make them mean something? Why not use them to add depth to their character instead of pigeonholing them?

Now, in modern times, a tattoo is a completely voluntary thing that someone pays to have added permanently to their body. (If it’s not, none of my advice applies, and you’ll have a different sort of explaining to do–I’m not touching it here.) So the first question is:

  1. Would your character have a tattoo, and why or why not? “Why not” might not be relevant to the story if nobody’s going to have tattoos at all, but “why” definitely is, because somebody’s probably going to ask them, at some point, what the story is behind their art.
  2. Where is the tattoo? Generally visible to the public, partially hidden, completely hidden? How did they choose where it went? Does their line of work require no visible tattoos? Does their family have strong opinions? Or does the character simply consider it private?
  3. How willing are they to share the story behind the tattoo with other people? Do they tell one story to strangers and another to friends or lovers?
  4. Are any of their tattoos, if they have more than one, mistakes? Do they regret any of them? Have they had any removed, or wish they could?
  5. At this point in their life, would they get another one, and why or why not? What would it be, and how would that decision interact with the story?
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Writing Through a Transitional Period

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I’ve been at my new job for a month now. I’m working on a different schedule, sleeping on a different schedule. It’s going well, and I’m happy there, but even with my best efforts, my writing output has taken a hit. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Try to make (or keep) your writing a daily habit, but don’t stress if you miss days. That’s solid general advice, but even more important to remember while you’re making big life changes. But if your writing style has never meshed with the “write every day” advice, don’t try to force yourself now while you’re under stress from other sources.
  2. Accept that you’re probably going to be less productive for a while. This will be a harder pill to swallow for some than others. I can crank out thousands of words a day during NaNoWriMo when I’m super motivated, but outside of that I can still usually slap down 500-1000 words on any random day. That’s not happening now, some days because I don’t have time, others because I don’t have energy. It’s okay. I have to remind myself of that often, but it really is okay.
  3. Your writing time frame might change. If you used to have large blocks of time to get a lot of writing done (like the weekend,) maybe you don’t anymore, and you have to become one of those “five minutes whenever I can” writers. Or maybe you suddenly have bigger chunks of time than before, but only on certain days. Prioritize your time, plan for writing sessions if you can, but keep #1 + #2 in mind.
  4. Write everywhere. Also good advice in general, but keep a notebook on you at all times, or write a few lines on the back of your napkin on break, or dictate a snippet into your phone. You can type it up later!
  5. Don’t allow your writing time to cut into your sleep. I’ve said it before in NaNo prep posts, and I’ll keep saying it until the end of time. Healthy sleep is basically the best thing for you, physically, emotionally, and creatively. Burning the midnight oil every once in a while is fine, when you’re inspired (or on a deadline,) but if your solution to a lack of writing time is to get an hour less sleep every night, that’s probably not going to work long-term.
  6. It’s okay to do other things with your free time. I’ve picked up cross-stitch again, and I’m spending more time listening to music (which I don’t generally do while I write, lyrics make me sing along and lose focus.) I need relaxing activities that don’t demand so much creative energy. Part of my brain is always chanting “but you could be writing right now,” and that’s true. But if I let writing stress me out, I’m not going to want to do it at all.

I’m hoping now that I’ve got a better handle on my new, rebooted life, I can be more productive in May, but I’m still keeping my goal pretty small: write for half an hour a day, more days than not. It keeps me writing actively, but it’s doable without a lot of time or stress involved.

Writers, Watch This: Just Write

I’ve been meaning to recommend the channel Just Write for a while now, but this video from last week catapulted the idea back into my mind. One third of my posts to this blog are art criticism, because Fridays are book review days.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used the phrase “objectively bad” in one of my reviews, but it’s possible. (Honestly, I’m not going to search all of them for it.) I have strong opinions on what’s bad in a book, and what’s good, but watching this made me consider what my biases are.

I managed to come up with a few that I don’t think most people would argue with:

  1. Pedophilia = bad, when portrayed with anything other than condemnation.
  2. Same goes for rape.

After that, though, my grounds for what constitutes good/bad become hazier. Sure, I decry racism when I find it, but I also recognize that being white, with my raising and background, I’m simply not going to see things the way a person of color would–I can point to obvious racism and racial bias in a lot of the work I read, but I know a lot of it escapes me as well.

By the same token, I take a book to task for any obvious misogyny or anti-feminist rhetoric, but I’m not going necessarily going to spot the same things a woman of color would, because I’m in the process of moving away from White Feminism™ to a more intersectional viewpoint.

Getting more specific, I abhor anything that romanticizes abusive behavior (toward anyone, but especially women,) yet what do I find in my own beloved romance genre? “Heroes” who are stalkers, manipulators, abusers, and somehow readers still love them. Do I think they’re “objectively bad?” Absolutely.

But that’s still just a bias.

There’s more, of course–anyone who’s been reading my reviews for long enough could probably list a half dozen on top of these–but to circle back to my original point, Just Write has a lot of thought-provoking videos like this one to get you thinking about writing from different angles and thinking critically not only about the craft, but about yourself and how you approach it.

Writing Homework #19: Tear Apart a Chapter

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I’m struggling right now with rewriting my current project. It’s a more focused process than the word-vomit stage of the first draft, but not the highly targeted, technical work of line editing. It’s something in between, with elements of both, and my brain, so used to critical analysis of the works of others, just won’t apply it to my own writing at the moment.

So I thought of a way to use my strengths to solve my (hopefully temporary) weakness.

I’m not going to rewrite my writing–I’m going to practice on someone else!

For this exercise, take a book you don’t like. Don’t have any sitting around, because you keep your shelves clean? Pick something up cheap at a used book sale. For this, I’d recommend something physical you can mark up–but if that’s not an option, you could download something free from sites like Project Gutenberg.

Read a chapter or two or three, as much or as little as you need to get a sense of the style without getting too bogged down with the plot.

Pick one of those chapters (or half of one, if they’re very long) and go to town with your weapon of choice, be it the classic red pen, or a highlighter, whatever you like. (Or make your notes digitally on the ebook; if you’re not a fan of that, write them longhand on a separate sheet of paper.)

Kill those darlings. Nitpick. Question everything. Cut words. Change ones you don’t like. Make notes on what’s vague or unexplained.

All done?

Now fix it. Rewrite that chapter or scene to suit your style.

Open up a new document or turn to a fresh page in your writing journal, and rewrite what you just tore apart. Since this is an exercise, and just for you, feel absolutely free to make any changes without worrying about if they’d make sense later in the book (if it’s one you’ve already read, anyway.)

Change a character’s name or gender or race or orientation–don’t we all love head-canoning those bland characters into something new? How does it change the story, or does it? Write it all down.

Is the setting present enough for you? Does it need to be fleshed out, or changed entirely? Switch the scene to a different location. A different season. A different country. Set it on the moon, if you like–just make your changes consistent and believable throughout the whole scene. Change everything you need to change to make it feel natural, like it was always meant to happen there.

Does the author use more adverbs than you prefer? Cut them. Make the verbs stronger. Do they not use enough for your taste? Throw some in where they can make an impact.

I could go on, but I hope you get the idea–and a great deal of the specific work will depend on the text you choose, and how you write your own work.

But I’ve always found it’s much easier to be critical (in the classic sense, not the derogatory one) of another’s work, rather than my own. Looking at your own work the same way requires practice, and I’ve just given you a way to get that practice, so get to it!


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6 More Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Living Space

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Time to dig into wherever your characters call home! Whether or not it’s an actual setting in your story, knowing where your character sleeps at night can tell you a lot about them and provide important background for how they live.

As always, I’m using “they” to refer to a singular character of any gender.

  1. Do they live alone? With a significant other? A roommate or two or three? Are they living with family? And whatever the answer, are they satisfied with their circumstances, or would they rather live with (or without) someone else? Why?
  2. Where is their home? City, suburbs, country? How far is it from their job, the grocery, other important destinations? If there’s a commute, how do they travel, and how inconvenient is it for them?
  3. What is the physical building like? Old or new? Run-down or well-maintained? How big is it, and how much of that space is theirs? What interesting physical details make it different from other buildings in the neighborhood (if there are any?)
  4. Are they living where they want to be living? If not, why, and what are they doing to change that?
  5. How are they paying for their living space? Do they own or rent? Is someone else responsible for the bill? Are they living above or below their means?
  6. (For any given room in the place that’s actually used as a setting) How comfortable is this room? Why would they want to spend time there? What could be better? How clean is it kept?

It can be difficult to invent a whole structure out of thin air, or furnish a room without relying on places you, the author, have visited or lived in yourself. This is a great time to search online for reference images–I got the one here from Pixabay with the key words “apartment building;” originally I’d intended to use a more traditional high-rise, but I just love the coziness of small British towns, ever since I visited Nottingham.

And that’s another point to consider–if you’re writing in a real-world setting, the country definitely matters, both socially and structurally. You’re not going to find many American-style front-lawn neighborhoods anywhere in Europe, for example. So if you’re using an actual location as a setting, whether it’s direct or just inspiration, looking at images of that country/city will give you an idea where to start when answering these questions.

Good luck, and having fun building your characters their homes!

Vocabulary From Books #5: The Bookmark Revelation

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Sometimes the simple, obvious solution is the hardest thing to think of.

I’ve torn sticky notes into strips to tab words I don’t know (I never bothered to buy actual sticky tabs) but they come loose easily, and eventually I ran out of notes anyway and never got more, since it wasn’t a good solution. I’ve read books with my vocabulary journal and my phone sitting in arm’s reach, so I can stop to look up words, but in books where that happens frequently, I find myself getting burned out on the process, all that stopping and starting. I’ve dog-eared pages with the intention of coming back and looking up a word, but since I don’t mark the word directly (I’m really hesitant to do that whenever I’m not sure I’m keeping the book) sometimes I end up reading the whole page over to find/remember the problem word, and that’s just slow.

I’m dedicated to expanding my vocabulary this way–I’ve been doing it for 2½ years–but it can be a trial sometimes, especially with certain authors.

When I started Misery, I was at my desk, which is not where I keep my stash of bookmarks. I did, however, have a small pile of index cards. I like my pretty bookmarks, of course, but I’ll use just about anything in a pinch.

When I ran into my first unknown word, everything fell into place.

I’ll admit that I expected to find more words in Misery I’d need to learn, given my past experience with Stephen King, but a week later Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters more than made up for any perceived lack of new vocabulary.

What were the actual words? Let’s find out together.

The door at the far end of the huge ward opened and in came Annie Wilkes–only she was dressed in a long aproned dress and there was a mobcap on her head; she was dressed as Misery Chastain in Misery’s Love.

mobcap: a large soft hat covering all of the hair and typically having a decorative frill, worn indoors by women in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

And he had returned to his calèche without so much as a response to Geoffrey’s question.

calèche: a light low-wheeled carriage with a removable folding hood.

On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces.

cenotaph: a monument to someone buried elsewhere, especially one commemorating people who died in a war.

Mother is having only a slightly better time of it than Mrs. Moseley who, having fallen victim to chronic aposiopesis in the morning, spent the bulk of the afternoon seated in silent defeat behind her desk, while her restless third graders improvised games of catch with a variety of show-and-tell items.

aposiopesis: the device of suddenly breaking off in speech.

Allow me, finally to offer up this arresting little trenchancy: given a few weeks, I, or either of you–most anyone on this isle for that matter–might learn how truly easy it is for one to create a sentence of length matching Nollop’s–perhaps one even shorter.

trenchancy: vigorousness or incisiveness in expression or style.

What a pharisaic, vigilante witch!

pharisaic: relating to or characteristic of the Pharisees or Pharisaism; self-righteous or hypocritical.


Those who look closely at my pictured bookmarks will notice several words missing from my post. I became frustrated with Ella Minnow Pea for that very reason: when I found an unfamiliar word, I had to either look it up right away or make my best guess as to whether it was an existing word I truly didn’t know, or an invention of the author’s. I dismissed most of the inventions I saw based on their obvious root meanings and context–if I could figure out what was meant by it, that was good enough for me. Apparently, though, several made it through my rough screening process, leaving me looking up definitions that don’t exist.

Usually this peril doesn’t exist–I’ve only discovered one other nonexistent word that way prior to Ella. So it’s not putting me off my vocabulary quest, but it was disheartening.

Writing Homework #18: Go Somewhere You’ve Never Been Before

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As a companion to my last assignment, I want you to go somewhere you’ve never been before and write about it.

This doesn’t have to be a beautiful Italian city on the sea, though if you have the opportunity, I’d certainly vote for that. It can be somewhere much more accessible. Do you have a usual coffee shop you go to? Yeah? Go to a different one next time. Sit down at a table in the corner. Observe the other customers. Notice what’s different about the menu, about the staff, about the lighting and the atmosphere. If you ordered your usual drink, does it taste noticeably different here, better or worse?

Not into coffee shops? Sure, I get you. How well do you know your local library? Or the branch one or two towns over? Or what about trying a different grocery store? How is it laid out differently? What did you have trouble finding? What type of music was playing in the background?

Have you been meaning to check out a new restaurant, or visit a different park? It’s all on the table for this, as long as you’ve never been there before. Go. Look. Pay attention. And then write it all down, while you’re there if that’s possible/polite, or as soon as possible afterward. Big impressions, small details. Smells and sounds, especially.

I’d advise going alone, if you can, so you can concentrate on your personal experience rather than a shared or social one, but that can be flexible too. If you take someone along, have them tell you what they observed. What parts of the place did you both notice, and were your reactions different? What did your companion see that you didn’t?

If you can’t tell from this, I’ve been struggling with setting, recently. On rereading my novel draft, some places in it are vivid and well-realized, while others–usually generic city stuff–are bland and uninspiring. For any given project, you won’t necessarily be able to physically go everywhere your characters do, especially if you have fantastical settings. But you can approximate a lot, and by widening your experience of the world we have, you can better formulate a world for your characters.

Happy living, everybody, and happy writing.


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