Thursday, July 23, 2009


We’ve talked about how to get an idea. Simple enough, you say—but not always. Writing is a process—we’ve all heard that before, but let’s think about what the “process” actually is.

First of all, we have to come up with the idea that we want to write about. For many of us, the stories start with just one idea, one scene that we’ve thought of, or even dreamed of—the germ of the story that we want to tell. There are many ways that writers get the beginning seed of what their tale will become, but how to make it be “the best that it can be?” Regardless of how an idea comes to you, it’s what you do with it that counts, in the end.

Some stories are uniquely your own to tell. An autobiography, such as Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, or a fictionalization of an autobiography, such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, could not be told by anyone else in the same way.

Other ideas are out there for the taking—but it’s up to each writer to put their own spin on a “generic idea” that others have used before. One of the examples I like to use in class about this is the retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in many different formats through the years. It’s a basic story; “star-crossed lovers” that can only be together in death. Who would believe a successful musical could be made of that theme in “West Side Story”? The twist on the ending was that Juliet’s counterpart, Maria, didn’t die, but the other parallels remain constant. There have been several movie versions, but a few years ago, Leonardo DeCaprio starred in a modern remake of Romeo and Juliet, his men using semi-automatic weapons rather than swords. Oddly enough, the director chose to let the characters keep the original dialogue that Shakespeare wrote. There was a message in that: no matter what the time, no matter what the weapons, or the clothing, the love between the hero and heroine remained as constant now as it was then. Although the medium that relays the message has changed—written word translated to stage then to screen in various “takes”—the point of the story never changes, only the telling of it.

So you’ve decided what to write about, and you have a basic idea of what the story will be. Has it been done before? More than likely. What will YOU bring to the table? How can you tell the story that will make it “the one” that everyone will want to read? Putting your own tone and “self” into the story will be what makes it different and unique, even if it has been “done before.”

The next question you must ask is, who are you writing this story for? What audience are you aiming at? Most people have a pretty clear idea of what group they are targeting, but if this is something you haven’t thought about, give it some careful consideration. If you’re writing YA, remember it’s going to have to be a bit “edgier” than what publishers were looking for when you were “that age.” The romance genre has changed, too. Some things that were acceptable, such as heroes who took what they wanted regardless of the consequences, (forced sex) are frowned upon in today’s mainstream romance market. However, there is a huge range of venues in other genres that are more accepting of that type of behavior for their heroes. Just be aware of your target audience. This will help you not only in completing your writing project by giving it direction, but also in finding an agent and/or publisher when you’re finished.

Getting organized is the final preparatory step. Whether you’re a “planner” or a “pantser”, you need to have some general direction of where you’re headed with your book. I don’t generally recommend forcing pantsers to become planners. But in the beginning, sometimes it’s good just to make some kind of a general outline about what you want out of the story. There’s one question that must be answered of any story you want to tell:

“This is a story about __________________ who wants to do ________________.”

Easy enough, right? Sometimes, that’s harder to answer than it seems it will be. It’s not always cut and dried. And there may be more that one simplistic answer as to what your main character(s) want.

To recap, decide what you want to write about—something you love or are interested in telling about. Start with an idea, and don’t be discouraged about not knowing where to put it in your story. Many times, the idea we think is the “beginning” of the story turns out to be something nearer the middle. Has it been done before? Yes, but you’re going to make it different than anyone has ever told it before by bringing your own writing style and personality to it. In other words, you are bringing YOURSELF to the writing table, pouring your thoughts and beliefs and skills into your work to make it different and interesting. Who are you writing for? Give it some very careful thought. Some people write for themselves, while others hope to be on the NYT bestseller list in 6 months. Targeting your audience is important, either way. Getting organized is the next step to preparation. Getting your thoughts together and making an outline or even a general “guide sheet” to go by loosely will help, no matter what you’re writing.

Next, it’s time to start building your characters!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


For some reason, choosing the name of the heroine of a story is hard for me—much harder than naming the hero. I’m wondering if it’s because, as women, we give more thought to what we find attractive in a man (naturally!) Even if he’s “Hunk of the Week,” if his name doesn’t appeal to us, it’s hard to think of him romantically.

We are seeing our heroines from a different perspective. They are…us. So, naming them might not be as important in our minds, since secretly, we are them. (No, we can’t use our own name!)

The various heroines of our stories, while different in some respects, still retain qualities of ourselves that we’ve endowed them with. If you look at the heroines you’ve created, though they come from different places and circumstances and have different views of the world, there are some basic things about them that don’t change.

There are at least three basic considerations for naming our heroines, apart from the obvious ones we covered when we talked about naming our guys (time period, setting, etc.)

The first one is, understanding the heroine and her motives.

Let’s look a minute at how a part of ourselves creep into our heroines’ lives, no matter what sub-genre we write. I always think of two examples that stand out in my own life experience that are easy to show.

Growing up in the 1960’s, women had three basic career opportunities: teacher, secretary, nurse. Those limitations didn’t matter, because I wanted to be a nurse ever since I could recall. But because my parents discouraged me from that field, I never pursued it—except in my writing.

At some point, in every story I write, that aspect of myself comes through in my heroine. There is always a need for her to use her nursing skills, and it’s usually to take care of the wounded hero. (In a Cheryl Pierson story, the hero will always be hurt somewhere along the way. Much like the guys with the red shirts on Star Trek know they wont be beaming back to the Enterprise from the planet’s surface, my heroes always have to figure they’re going to need some kind of medical care to survive my story.)

The second example is the fact that, being a child of an alcoholic father, I do not like surprises. I want to know that things will be steady, stable and secure. But what can be certain in a tale of romance? Nothing! Just as the hero of my stories is going to be physically in jeopardy at some point, the heroine will always have to make a decision— a very hard decision—as to whether she will give up everything that she’s built her life around for the hero. Will she take a chance on love? In the end, of course, it’s always worth the gamble. But, because I am not a risk-taker in real life, my heroines carry that part of me, for the most part, with them—until they have to make a hard choice as to whether or not to risk everything for the love of the hero.

The second consideration is, that we must like the heroine.

She is us! Have you ever started writing a story after carefully picking names for your hero and heroine, only to discover you really don’t like the character herself; or maybe, when you write the name of the character, you feel your lip starting to curl? Is it the name itself you don’t like after repetitive use, or is it the character you’ve created? Either way, there’s a problem. Stop and consider exactly what it is about that character/name you have started to dislike. Remember, the heroine is part of you. If you’re hitting a rough spot in real life, it could be you are injecting some of those qualities into your character unwittingly. There may be nothing wrong with the name you’ve selected…it could just be your heroine has taken an unforeseen character turn that you aren’t crazy about.

The third consideration is that we have to give her a name that reflects her inner strengths but shows her softer side.

This is not a dilemma for male characters. We don’t want to see a soft side—at least, not in this naming respect.

I try to find a name for my heroines that can be shortened to a pet name or nickname by the hero. (Very handy when trying to show the closeness between them, especially during those more intimate times.)

I always laugh when I think about having this conversation with another writer friend of mine, Helen Polaski. She and I were talking one day about this naming of characters, and I used the example of one of my favorite romances of all time, “Stormfire” by Christine Monson. The heroine’s name is Catherine, but the hero, at one point, calls her “Kitten.” Later, he calls her “Kit”—which I absolutely love, because I knew, even though “Kit” was short for Catherine, that he and I both were thinking of the time he’d called her “Kitten”—and so was she! Was “Kit” a short version of Catherine for him, or was he always thinking of her now as “Kitten”? Helen, with her dry northern humor, replied, “Well, I guess I’m out of luck with my name. The hero would be saying, ‘Oh, Hel…’”

One final consideration is the way your characters’ names go together; the way they sound and “fit.” Does the heroine’s name work well not only with the hero’s first name, but his last name, too? In most cases, eventually his last name will become hers. Last names are a ‘whole ’nother’ blog!

In 1880, the top ten female names were, in order: Mary, Anna, Emma, Elizabeth (4), Minnie, Margaret, Ida, Alice, Bertha, and Sarah (10).

By 1980, they’d changed drastically: Jennifer, Amanda, Jessica, Melissa, Sarah (5), Heather, Nicole, Amy, Elizabeth (9) and Michelle.

Twenty-eight years later, in 2008, there seemed to be a resurgence toward the “older” names: Emma, which was completely out of the top twenty in 1980, had resurfaced and taken the #1 spot, higher than it had been in 1880. The others, in order, are: Isabella, Emily, Madison, Ava, Olivia, Sophia, Abigail, Elizabeth (9), and Chloe. Sarah was #20, being the only other name besides Elizabeth that remained in the top twenty on all three charts.

If you write historicals, these charts are great to use for minor and secondary characters as well. If you’ve chosen a name for your heroine that’s a bit unusual, you can surround her with “ordinary” characters to provide the flavor of the time period, while enhancing her uniqueness.

Names can also send “subliminal” messages to your reader. I wrote my short story, “A NIGHT FOR MIRACLES,” (release date Dec. 2, 2009) about a couple that meet under odd circumstances and experience their own miracle on Christmas Eve. Halfway through the story, I realized what I’d done and the significance of the characters’ names.

In this excerpt, widow Angela Bentley has taken in a wounded stranger and the three children who are with him on a cold, snowy night. Here’s what happens:


Angela placed the whiskey-damp cloth against the jagged wound. The man flinched, but held himself hard against the pain. Finally, he opened his eyes. She looked into his sun-bronzed face, his deep blue gaze burning with a startling, compelling intensity as he watched her. He moistened his lips, reminding Angela that she should give him a drink. She laid the cloth in a bowl and turned to pour the water into the cup she’d brought.

He spoke first. “What…what’s your name?” His voice was raspy with pain, but held an underlying tone of gentleness. As if he were apologizing for putting her to this trouble, she thought. The sound of it comforted her. She didn’t know why, and she didn’t want to think about it. He’d be leaving soon.

“Angela.” She lifted his head and gently pressed the metal cup to his lips. “Angela Bentley.”

He took two deep swallows of the water. “Angel,” he said, as she drew the cup away and set it on the nightstand. “It fits.”

She looked down, unsure of the compliment and suddenly nervous. She walked to the low oak chest to retrieve the bandaging and dishpan. “And you are…”

“Nick Dalton, ma’am.” His eyes slid shut as she whirled to face him. A cynical smile touched his lips. “I see…you’ve heard of me.”

A killer. A gunfighter. A ruthless mercenary. What was he doing with these children? She’d heard of him, all right, bits and pieces, whispers at the back fence. Gossip, mainly. And the stories consisted of such variation there was no telling what was true and what wasn’t.

She’d heard. She just hadn’t expected him to be so handsome. Hadn’t expected to see kindness in his eyes. Hadn’t expected to have him show up on her doorstep carrying a piece of lead in him, and with three children in tow. She forced herself to respond through stiff lips. “Heard of you? Who hasn’t?”

He met her challenging stare. “I mean you no harm.”

She remained silent, and he closed his eyes once more. His hands rested on the edge of the sheet, and Angela noticed the traces of blood on his left thumb and index finger. He’d tried to stem the blood flow from his right side as he rode. “I’m only human, it seems, after all,” he muttered huskily. “Not a legend tonight. Just a man.”

He was too badly injured to be a threat, and somehow, looking into his face, she found herself trusting him despite his fearsome reputation. She kept her expression blank and approached the bed with the dishpan and the bandaging tucked beneath her arm. She fought off the wave of compassion that threatened to engulf her. It was too dangerous. When she spoke, her tone was curt. “A soldier of fortune, from what I hear.”

He gave a faint smile. “Things aren’t always what they seem, Miss Bentley.”

I hope you have enjoyed this look into A NIGHT FOR MIRACLES. Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment!