Monthly Archives: May 2016

History and People: Making Characters

Yesterday, I pushed back my chair in the Historic Programs office with a heavy, exaggerated sigh. Supervisor glanced up. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“This monologue. I can’t make it good.”

Assistant Supervisor popped his head up too. “What are you having trouble with?”

“Making it good.

As I then tried (partly successfully) to explain, it was more a struggle of art than pedagogy. Museum theatre, as we’ve discussed before, holds museum and theatre equally. I knew my historical information. I knew the concepts I want the visitors to learn. But I was struggling to make good theatre—to map history onto theatrical architecture and create some semblance of story arc and character development.


My day yesterday, in a nutshell.

My day yesterday.

I think I got it in the end. Maybe. We’ll see. I’ll feel better once my partner-in-crime has taken a look.

But it was interesting, because the one thing that’s coming much more easily is voice. My character is a sixteen-year-old tavern-keeper’s daughter named Delilah. She lived in the inn with her mother and older brother (her father died when she was eleven). Then her mother died when she was sixteen. Then her brother died three years later. Then Delilah married some farmer’s son in a township quite far away, had five children, and died herself in 1908.

The way we chose these characters was thus: we looked for people who were a) connected to our buildings, and b) roughly the right age, at c) roughly the right time.

Delilah fit the bill, and I like taverns. And so we began getting acquainted.

ca. 1912. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

ca. 1912. Courtesy Toronto Public Library.

It’s a different process than, say, writing a musical about Alexander Hamilton. There are no biographies of these people. There are biographical facts, which you can compile into a vague sketch, and then you take your best, most responsible guesses.

So Delilah was sixteen in 1872, not going to school. Her mother had been running the inn for a while. The 1871 census reveals they were taking in boarders, which suggests that the railway that was laid in 1856 really did take a bite out of the business they’d been getting from the stagecoach line.

Okay, so, what would the experience of a person in that situation be like? How would different types of personalities react to that situation? Maybe Delilah loved helping around the inn, and flitted about like a bright, spirited young belle. Maybe she was super moody, and bitter that she was no longer in school.

There’s no way to know.

There's my girl! Listed as "Deliah." Sigh...

There’s my girl! Listed as “Deliah.” Sigh…

So you take what you do know, and you blend it with art. I am most comfortable playing characters that are freaking Energizer Bunnies. So by virtue of the actor playing her, we see a version of Delilah that’s a little naïve, very earnest, and who wants so, so badly to be helpful. She’s a puppy on a sugar rush.

But the deeper you dig, the more details emerge to fill in the picture you’re creating. I’ve sorted out most of her family tree. Delilah lived surrounded by aunts and uncles (all from her mother’s side). She had about a million cousins, approximately half of whom are also named Delilah. And it’s a family that seems to shuffle relatives around as needed. Elderly Grandpa James is living at the inn in 1861. By 1871, a cousin mini-Delilah is staying there (oddly, mini-Delilah’s brothers are staying with yet another uncle across the street…I wonder why they split the kids up, but I also wonder if that’s where both my Delilah and mini-Delilah went after her mother dies).

Again, there’s no way of telling what it was really like. But you want to believe the best, don’t you? This pattern of taking relatives in suggests—to me, with my eternal optimism—that it was a fairly tight-knit family. The fact that all of Delilah and half of her million cousins are named after their grandmother suggests the same.

You take what you know of history, and you take what you know of people. Delilah marries some guy named Wesley, from a township really far away. It perplexed me, until I realized he had relatives who lived near Delilah. Among them: a girl named Celestia who was a year older.

There's Celestia!!

There’s Celestia!!

So…a girl about your age, who lives nearby, and you marry her cousin (I’m not sure of the degree of cousin-hood, but it’s something). Of course, I’m going to project my own history onto it, and hope that Delilah and Celestia were friends—that of course, Delilah married her friend’s relation.

No way to know—maybe Celestia was incredibly bitter about it. But the census tells me that Celestia also wasn’t in school (seems about half the teenagers in Scarborough were). It tells me that she has two siblings who probably needed a lot of help—“unsound mind” is a terrible and vague term, but it’s all the census provides.

So two girls the same age, both not in school, both with fairly heavy family obligations.

From what I know of people…I imagine it was nice to have someone who understood. In my art—related to, but ultimately separate from the pure history—I make the choice that they were friends. And so another bit of shading, another bit of context.

I’ve been deeply involved in this girl’s history for about a year now. It’s very strange, because I do feel a connection and emotional investment, and I know her family tree about as well as my own…and I have no way of know what she was really like. More than anything, I’d love to see a photograph—I’d love to see her face—but I don’t even have that.

We just have my face.

My face as Delilah.

But that’s what museum theatre is all about, isn’t it? Translating those stark facts into something human, and forging connections out of smoke and dust.


What I’m Listening to This Week

Well, actually, I’m listening to the song “Non-Stop” from Hamilton, but it’s not online anywhere. With June looking like a crunch month, it’s been my motivation/training montage song:

How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?

How do you write like you need it to survive?

How do you write every second you’re alive?

Of course, based on the way the musical ends, I probably shouldn’t identify with Hamilton too much… But as I said, no versions online. So here’s a general Hamilton montage.


Naming Characters

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,

It isn’t just one of your holiday games….

With apologies to T.S. Eliot, the naming of characters is no less a holiday game. It’s been on my mind lately, as I poke and prod this story that is probably a play, but may yet turn into a novel. So far, I know four characters well enough to chat at a party. Like Topsy, they just growed…names and all.

While the vaguest outlines of story have been rattling around for nearly a year and a half, I’ve only spent the last few days concertedly sketching at the whiteboards. Even so, it seems inconceivable that these characters could be named anything but what they are.

I got a BIG whiteboard. It's been fabulous.

I got a BIG whiteboard. It’s been fabulous.

That said, I’m not quite sure where my characters’ names come from. For me, character creation is like watching an image develop in an old Polaroid snapshot. Bits and glimpses, until suddenly, the whole picture jumps out at you. The names are a part of that inexorable development. Usually, I get the first letter. Charlotte started that way in HEARTSTEALER. She could’ve been a Caroline and I thought she might be a Catherine, but I could hear that those initial sounds weren’t quite right.

So you sit. And listen. And wait for the Polaroid to develop a little further.

Because, you see, eventually I can start to hear the cadence of the name. How many syllables; where the stress falls. In SING TO THE BONES, I knew Raiepe started with an R. And I could hear the music, the waltz-like stress on the first syllable: RYE-ay-pay.

In both cases, it’s really just transcribing what I hear: what names have those sounds and those stresses? It was a little easier in HEARTSTEALER, using real-world names, but it’s worked out more-or-less the same for names of my own invention, too. I do try to keep consistent sound laws in my secondary-world languages (and sometimes nerd out about those sound laws just a bit too much).

So you sit and wait, and sometimes the Polaroid develops even more—you might get corrected on spelling. Cody becomes Codie; Neve becomes Nieve. Changes like these don’t affect pronunciation, but I think the way the name looks on the page is just as important as the way it sounds. That’s why I preferred Mairi to Mari, and why Caitlin looks so strange to me, as compared to Kaitlin.

(Sidebar; my name is Katie, most definitely.)

Of course, sometimes names strike like a bolt from the blue, and then the rest of the character’s details emerge around them. Little-known fact: very, very early ponderings on HEARTSTEALER had it as a science-fiction Wizard-of-Oz retelling aboard a space station. All I had at that point were names: Findley and Sara. And again, “Sara,” not “Sarah.”

It's *like* a Victorian rural village... (Photo

Space is *like* a Victorian rural village…

And sometimes, you sit and wait long enough that you no longer remember how the Polaroid started developing. Much like your own name, it’s just always been that way, and it doesn’t seem like it could ever be otherwise. Where did Ned get his name? Beats me.

It’s worth throwing in two caveats, though.

One: for walk-on characters, I don’t wait for any Polaroids. I keep a list of names that make sense for the relevant culture/language, and grab the one that fits best.

Two: waiting for developing Polaroids maybe sounds more passive than I mean it. True, it takes patience, and it’s not something you can force, but you need to be actively looking, probing, and trying to make sense of the mist. Character names may emerge, but you have to be listening very carefully, or you won’t hear them.

What about you lot? How do names come to you—for characters, children, cats, pet rocks?


What I’m Listening to This Week:

I’ve always had a soft spot for Romantics of all stripes. This week, I’ve been re-listening to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Specifically, the 5th movement – “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat,” or Dream of the Witches’ Sabbath.

A lot’s been written about the imagery here: basically, our protagonist of this symphony sees himself at “…a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral.” Super plaintive and haunting. His beloved shows up as a repeating phrase – the idee fixe – around 1:18, but warped and twisted into something frankly ugly.

One of my favourite bits? The funereal knells about three minutes in, followed by judicious quoting of the Dies Irae at 3:15 (don’t worry, everyone does it; not just Berlioz). By the third repetition, it sounds like a monster stirring. This is a piece where the more you listen, the more you see as well as hear.




Guest Post: Val Griswold-Ford

Hi pals!

This week, we have a special guest post from author/editor/my friend Val Griswold-Ford. As her new novel releases, she’s here to chat about music and writing. Enjoy!

– KT


First, thanks, KT, for letting me hang out here today! Music is a big part of my writing, and in fact, Winter’s Secrets, the book that is coming out now, started as a musical advent calendar. It’s very hard for me to write without music. I have playlists for every novel/project I’m working on.

I’m also fairly musically eclectic. I’ll listen to almost anything. When I write Molly and Schrodinger (the main characters for Winter’s Secrets), I listen to Christmas carols. In fact, Winter’s Secrets was originally based on a musical Advent Calendar, and the only outline I had was a list of my favorite Christmas carols. Which is weird for me, because I’m very much a plotter, not a pantser. But I found that by allowing myself the freedom to simply allow the song of the day to dictate what was going to happen in the story, it really helped me to write each day. The original blog story was written daily, and there were some days that I honestly had NO idea what I was going to write. Schrodinger was a complete surprise (as was the fact that this story got the following it did), and so was the Gate stations.

When I posted the daily story, I attached a link for a YouTube video of the song that Molly received, so that my readers could enjoy the music along with Molly and Schrodinger. I didn’t want to lose that experience when I decided to publish the book, but I also couldn’t afford royalties on 25 songs. So I looked around and realized that while performances of songs are copyrighted, titles are not. And since I hate coming up with chapter titles anyways, what better way to keep the list there? So I titled each chapter with the song that Molly received each day.

If you follow me on Spotify (I’m there as vgford), you can follow the Winter’s Secrets playlist, which is the entire calendar that Molly received. I’ve made it available for anyone to follow. If you’re interested in any of my other playlists for my projects, you’ll want to follow me on Patreon.


What I’m Listening to This week:

I’ve gone back to the Dark Horseman universe for my current book, and so I’m listening to a combination of Billy Joel, Nightwish, Lyriel, Magica, Indica, and Tori Amos. Shanna is a lot darker character than Molly or Schrodinger, and the music that I use to channel her reflects that. Interestingly enough, I do have some Christmas music on the list, but it’s from the Nightmare before Christmas, which is one of my favorite musicals. Shanna’s personal preference is for Billy Joel and 80s music, but Jonathan, who is the other main character, is into electric violins and Finnish music. Yes, really.

This is one of the songs that is on repeat in my head at the moment:


Beta Readers are Awesome

Beta readers are awesome people.

Every single one of my novels has gone through a few rounds of betas. I honestly don’t know what I would do without them. They’re like that friend who runs lines with you before performances, or asks questions for mock interviews. They love you and they have your back, and they’ll call you on things.

Like I said: awesome people.

My novel just went out to betas. As I compiled my list, I had to smile. Over the years, I’ve collected a lot of wonderful beta readers. They come from all spheres of my life: the museum, my writing pals, my church/choir, my family, my former schoolmates…

Yay friends/peers/colleagues!

Yay friends/peers/colleagues!

For me, there’s no particular formula for finding good beta readers. Mostly, it’s about keeping your eyes and ears open: paying attention to the people around you. And making sure they actually have time. But looking closely at my Beta Super Team, some patterns emerge.

First and foremost: they’re readers. They love books; they love stories; they love words. Most are well-versed in fantasy—they know tropes; they can sense when a story’s out of joint. And those with diverging tastes are still lovers of story. They offer new insights, fresh takes, all while keeping the story’s interests uppermost in mind.

They’re conscientious and thoughtful. Some have read absolutely everything I’ve ever written ever (Hi, Cara!). This round, a few haven’t read anything of mine before. Either way, I’ve spent enough time with all of them to know: they’re smart people. Their judgement is sound; I know they won’t just fling random thoughts at me willy-nilly.

This is what the capital looks like. (Courtesy: The City of Sydney Archives)

Reference image: downtown Sydney, ca. 1890. (Courtesy: The City of Sydney Archives)

And they have insights both brilliant and varied. I like having a fairly large Beta Super Team. (Novel’s currently out to 11, and I have a few more people to approach.) Partly, this is to try and get some consensus in response. A note from one person may or may not indicate a problem; the same note from a dozen probably does.

But also—remember how my Beta Super Team comes from many, many different parts of my life? They have vastly different backgrounds, experiences, and areas of knowledge/skill.

I love using actors as beta readers because they’re trained to look at texts and analyze characters. I love using my healthcare-type pal because she’s flipping brilliant with story logic and prose-level technical issues. I love using history types who can call me on worldbuilding; fantasy lovers who can feel if the story hits right; writers who can delve into issues of art and craft.

It's like how you need a balanced Pokemon team. Here was mine, the last time I played Leaf Green.

It’s like how you need a Pokemon team that can handle anything. Here was mine, the last time I played Leaf Green. No psychic types, but psychics are mostly useful against poison/fighting, and I’ve got Sandslash and Pidgeot for those. Cover your bases, that’s all I’m saying.

All that’s great. But you know why beta readers are really awesome?

They’re doing this for love. Love for you; love for the story; love for the process. It means so much to me when someone agrees to beta read. They’re giving up their free time to help me. Everyone has their own lives and projects; it’s no small thing.

And it’s a special thing, this relationship between beta reader and author. Like falling in love – when it clicks, you know. Everyone’s working towards the same goal:

The most kickass story possible.

So, to my Beta Super Team: thank you thank you thank you. I hope you enjoy the novel, and I am stoked to hear your thoughts!


What I’m Listening To This Week:

I actually can’t listen to this piece too much, because it makes me cry, and I’m scared that repeated exposure will dull the effect. This rendition of “Calon Lân” is a beautifully-sung traditional Welsh hymn, but it’s the choir that makes it here. There’s something in these young men’s eyes—passion, spirit—that gets me every single time.

This is how choirs should sing, always. Music starts at 2:10.


Shaping the Year

For me, the year starts in May. This is wholly a side effect of my dayjob. We go back in May—it’s like how academics get new beginning and carpe diem feelings around September. The calendar year is one thing. On a bone-deep, feeling level, we shape the year according to our own lives.

(Fun story: I once exclaimed to my crazy-smart and priestly friend Rachel, “It’s so cool how the liturgical and agricultural calendars mirror each other so well!” She just laughed.)

So for me, the year falls into two distinct parts: Season and Off-Season. Dayjob and full-time creative work. Museum Months and Winter. They’re both important parts of my life. Usually, I’m chomping at the bit to get back to work. This year’s been so busy that my feelings are more, “Oh…sure! Yes, that would be very pleasant!”

Still happy to go back. It’s just not been foremost in my mind, you know?

I've been busy.

I’ve been busy.

I like this idea of thinking of the year holistically. There’s something very comforting about seeing its rhythms as part of a larger context. The off-season is ending, which means that my creative work will slow down. It has to. I’ve been working full days all winter—I can’t add another 30-40 hours/week and expect to maintain the same pace.

But that’s okay, because we’re looking at the larger picture. Just like the agricultural calendar: it’s okay that the fields lie quiet in January. It’s not the time for sowing in January. It’ll be time in the spring. The time will come.

Of course, it’s problematic if you’re spending the entire year with fallow fields.  That’s not the point. The point is recognizing that just because things are slower right now this second, it doesn’t mean that you’re screwed long term. As I’ve discussed, I write yearly goals. Knowing the year’s shape helps me slot them in, in their proper seasons.

A Canadian winter... Lawren Harris, "Snow II" (1915).

A Canadian winter…
Lawren Harris, “Snow II” (1915).

The big things this off-season were finishing the HEARTSTEALER audiobook, and finishing the first draft of SING TO THE BONES. Heavy lifting, time-intensive projects, best suited for the winter (best suited, not only suited—I wrote HEARTSTEALER during the museum season). Outlining my Ed Greenwood Group novels, writing more short stories, and the odd freelance editing gig? Those fit in more easily around my dayjob.

Everything gets its time, in its time.

Quite frankly, this is how I manage to get everything done. Sure, the chronic insomnia helps, but things go so much more easily if there’s structure. You don’t have to think so much then. Essentially, you’re hacking the calendar. Everything slides into its proper place, at its proper time, and then boom—the off-season rolls around again, and you’ve accomplished rather a lot.

That’s the plan, anyway. I think my favourite winter was still the one we recorded HAPAX, simply because we were all so young and naïve and optimistic…but this one runs a close second.

That said…

It *is* nice to see the light chance and the light return...A.J. Casson, "Spring, Lasky, 1932."

The light changes and the light returns…A.J. Casson, “Spring, Lasky, 1932.”

Cloistered creative work gets a little…insular. While I’ve enjoyed hermiting away, I’m excited to see the apple trees bloom—for the white petals to carpet the grass. I want to meet the new lambs. I want to hear the trees creaking and moaning in the wind; to feel the sun on my arms; to walk through the stillness before we open, when everything seems brand-new and possible.

Everything in its season.

What about you? How do you shape your year?


What I’m Listening to This Week

Totally a guilty pleasure—for me, Celtic Woman is the musical equivalent of cotton candy. Light and fluffy, but damn it makes you feel good.

I wish this song had been released while I was writing Heartstealer. If I was making a fan-video of Charlotte and the Gloaming, I’d score it with this piece. It’s impossible to listen to it and not feel the urge to dance.

The one thing about listening to this group is that it does make me want to write more in the Heartstealer universe. Fortunately, I have a few other Celtic/Irish-flavoured projects in the pipeline…