Visual Prompts

Just in case you’re wondering — When I come across a photo that I find interesting in terms of storytelling, I add it to the list of revolving header images you see on this website.  I haven’t figured out how to caption the header images so if you’re interested in knowing more about a particular image, please ask.

Software for Writers: ProWritingAid

If you add together all my published work — academic, popular press, fiction — I’ve got something like 1.5 million words in print.  To provide some perspective on this, I wrote my doctoral thesis (1985) with WordPerfect 1.3, and my first published short story with whatever version of MS Word that was floating around in 1990. 

Over the years I’ve tried all kinds of software to help with keeping my research, storylines, characters and timelines organized. Theoretically Scrivener does this, and for a long time I tried to get it to work for me. I gave up on that about four years ago (and explained why, here).  At various times I have tried LibreOffice, Mellel and Ulysses, all of which have loyal users for good reasons, but none of which work for me. There are dozens of other software packages, all of which do the same stuff with differing degrees of complexity and features. You can read about them here, here, and dozens of other places.

In the end I always come back to Microsoft Word as a word processor. Whether I’m writing a technical report with footnotes, tables and cross-references, or a novel that tops out at 300,000 words, it does the job. But it’s not enough. As an academic linguist and as a historical novelist I deal with research of all kinds, and keeping it organized is a ongoing challenge. My approach isn’t perfect, but it’s functional. I use

  • Evernote to organize and backup documents, web clippings, images and other bits and pieces collected for research;
  • Zotero to organize books and articles in pdf format;
  • Calibre to organize ebooks.

What I have never been able to find is software that does some basic analysis on style.  Grammarly is an online program a lot of people like, but it doesn’t work for me as a creative writer. I do not want to be scolded about passive constructions; when I use a passive, I am perfectly aware of that, and I use it for a reason.  However, I do want to know if I use ‘very’ three times in a paragraph. 


What I’ve been looking for: software that provides a list of adverbs in my manuscript, and allows me to go right to the little buggers so I can deal with them. Reports on repeated words and phrases would also be very welcome.  But of course, this is too good to be true. SmartEdit — which is free — is Windows only. Even if I went to the trouble of installing Parallels and buying a Windows version of MS Office, it wouldn’t work (according to the FAQ page on the website). 

This brings me to ProWritingAid, which is both an on-line and a desktop application and is available for Windows and Mac.  I spent an hour experimenting, and I can say now that maybe — just maybe — it will do what I need it to do. I imported a chunk of Where the Light Enters and let ProWritingAid go to town on it. The resulting report was eight pdf pages long and included analysis of everything including

  • Style
  • Grammar
  • Overused
  • Readability
  • Cliches
  • Sticky
  • Diction
  • All Repeats
  • Echoes
  • Sentence
  • Dialogue
  • Consistency
  • Pacing
  • Pronoun
  • Alliteration

Maybe sixty percent of the analysis is of no real use to me at all; as is the case at Grammarly, the people at ProWritingAid want to tell me about the passive. They are also fond of sentences like this one: “Avoid using prepositions such as “with” as the last word in a sentence.”  Apparently you can fine tune the analysis to exclude such observations while leaving the very useful observations intact. 

Now I’m trying to decide if it’s worth $40 a year to use this software. Anybody have experience with ProWritingAid? 


In which I embrace and celebrate my historical-geographical nerdiness

It’s amazing sometimes what you come across. For anyone interested in France, the history of France (or Europe), and maps, this is pretty wonderful.  Bless the Wikipedians, say I. 

Watch this dynamic map and it will show you how the borders of France changed over time, lands lost and gained. It would be even more interesting if they had links to the wars that were responsible for the shifts, but that would be a fun little project at some point when I’m bored.

I embrace and celebrate my historical-geographical nerdiness. Nerditude?

French borders from 985 to 1947

By [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Character Sketches: Your Input

For a while I’ve been thinking about the best way to put together character sketches for characters in all of the Wilderness novels and GH. Not a small undertaking, I know, but I think of it as a long-term project.  

There are many websites/wikis devoted to book series and movies that do a good job of this.  Examples include Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) has a character sketch which is exhaustive and very carefully put together and  Debra Morgan (Dexter) is another example of a very intense and detailed character breakdown. Wikipedia has character pages for fictional characters across time and space (here’s the Wikipedia very elegant approach to Katniss Everdeen). Game playing sites go to great lengths and make very complicated character infoboxes.  Wikia provides an example character template which would not work for fictional characters, but could be adapted. It’s interesting to see what they throw in, at any rate:

{{Character Infobox
| name                     =
| image                    =
| alternate name           =
| aka                      =
| d.o.b.                   =
| age                      =
| birthplace               =
| residence                =
| race                     =
| height                   =
| weight                   =
| shoe size                =
| hair                     =
| eyes                     =
| body shape               =
| tattoos                  =
| jewellery                =
| dress                    =
| appearance-other form    =
| dress                    =
| emblem                   =
| markings                 =
| accent                   =
| language                 =
| weapons                  =
| transport                =
| motto(s)                 =
| favourite music          =
| likes                    =
| dislikes                 =
| pastimes                 =
| family                   =
| powers                   =
| fighting style           =
| food                     =
| businesses               =
| lovers                   =


janeaustencslistAt (a kind of Jane Austen super wiki) there’s a simple but effective approach, as you see here to the left. Click for a larger image.

Every once in a while I spend a half hour experimenting in the best way to do this for my characters. Full disclosure: this is something I should have been doing since the beginning.

The easiest way would be to do it just like the Pemberly folk have done for Jane Austen’s characters. So for example anybody who wants to contribute would go to the page for a given novel and leave a comment (if this were a proper wiki, you could edit the page yourself, but in this case, a comment would be enough):

Endless Forest (W6). Mr. Turner. Shopkeeper in Johnstown  who sells Ethan and Callie supplies.

That would certainly be a great start if I could compile a complete list of all characters showing up in the novels.  But historical novelists are OCD by nature and so I also imagine a more detailed accounting, something like the following, for characters who are more substantial. Rough example:

Full NameEthan MiddletonImage/AppearanceBlond, middle height, elegant build
Role__Primary __Secondary __Transient
Date of Birth1792
Place of Birth[[Paradise]], Hamilton County, NYAppearing inW1, W3, W4, W6
Date of Death
Place of DeathHudson River (steam boat accident)
OccupationOwner of most of the town of Paradise, town manager and plannerQuote"I'm a cousin, but I go home eventually to an empty house and I don't like it. You're alone in the world too, and we have always got on just fine. I thought we could help each other." W6
BiographySon of [[Julian Middleton]] and [[Kitty Witherspoon Middleton Todd]], nephew of [[Elizabeth Middleton Bonner]] born after his father's death. Raised by his mother and step-father [[Richard Todd]]. As a young man spends two years. .Marriage or other romantic relationships--Harrison Quinlan, short term
--[[Calista WIlde Middleton]] married 1824
SourcesW1, W3, W4, W6, GHChildrenGuardian to the children of [[Jennet Scott Bonner][ and [[Luke Scott Bonner]] after their mother's death
Factual Conflicts

Before this could get started there’s a big decision to be made: should all of the character sketches be folded into  The Gilded Hour kinda-wiki or should I start a separate wiki for the Wilderness novels. The thing is, I don’t expect this to take off right away or at all, even, so that’s something that could be discussed. So the question is, if you are one of those people who re-reads the entire series on a regular basis (and bless you if you are), would you be interested in participating in the very brief way described first above? You’re plowing through Lake in the Clouds for the xxth time, and you come across Captain Mudge and you wonder, hey, has he been entered into the character list yet?   So you’d go to the page for Lake in the Clouds and leave a comment:

LitC W3. Captain Mudge. Captain of the ship that takes the escaping slaves to Canada.

Now, somebody might come along and say, wait, he has a first name. Or, he’s too big a character for a one line entry, he needs a full template because ….

So then that would be a debate. This kind of discussion is common on real full-size wikis, because the community puts the entries together and debates about the best way to do it. I don’t imagine that anybody has a lot of time or energy to devote to something like this, but maybe contributing once in a while when you come across something — that would be the idea. 

If you know of a website that uses character templates that you like, please leave a link in the comments. I’d be interested in seeing what appeals.

Now I have to go back to writing a very difficult scene.