Christian editors · storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 8: Historical

The term historical does not actually refer to a genre, of course; instead it is a descriptive word used in conjunction with any genre set in a historical period, such as historical romances or historical mysteries. And yes, you might even find historical science fiction or historical comedy. What makes writing anything historical tricky, of course, is as a writer you really need to do your homework to get whatever period in which you’re writing right.

See the source imageAnd there will always be somebody who catches you out if you get something wrong. Not too long ago, my mom was reading a historical romance set in Victorian England, and the child in the story had a favorite Teddy bear. Only one small problem—the Victorian period was June 20, 1837 to January 22, 1901, and Teddy Roosevelt, for whom the “Teddy bear” was named, didn’t become president until September of 1901, and Teddy Bears weren’t invented until 1902. It may seem like only a little thing, yes, but anytime you as a writer make this kind of mistake, someone will notice—my mom did!—and the writer loses credibility.

Technology and Worldview

The “when” of the story matters greatly, and the two areas that catch us most by surprise when we’re writing historical fiction are the changes in technology and worldview. Communications, transportation, energy, building materials, geographic names, medical issues, plumbing . . . all these things and more change drastically over the years, but it’s more than just a question of whether or not your characters can get from point A to point B in a timely fashion. Worldviews change as drastically across time as across cultures, and you need to prepare for that in your storytelling.

Will your hero have only one shot, or does he have a revolver? Is your African safari in Northern Rhodesia or Zambia? Have antibiotics been discovered yet, or will a character die from an infection? Can your heroine get there by train in a day, or must she take a coach over several days? Does your detective have a cell phone on his belt or a pager? They say, “The devil is in the details,” and as writers, we know they really do matter!

Worldview is just as important when it comes to historical fiction. Are you old enough to remember going out to the gate to meet incoming passengers at the airport? We live in a post-9/11 world, and our views on security and terrorism have changed dramatically over the past eighteen years. Is your story set before 1950? How do your characters cope with emergencies without a credit card? Is the teen in your story expected to go to college, or will he need to start working for a living following the eighth grade? Did she even have the opportunity to learn to read and write? How often do people bathe in the time period of your story? (This last is why I rarely read historical romance beyond the Victorian era!) Does everyone still smoke in your world?

Do your research.

I won’t repeat myself here, but if you’re interested in research for historical fiction, do read my previous posts on the topic:

October 19, 2018 – Research Is Your Friend, Part 6: “The Details That Help Build a Story: Historical Stuff”

November 2, 2018 – Research Is Your Friend, Part 7: “The Details That Help Build a Story: Time-sensitive topics—legal, medical, and technical stuff.

March 22, 2019 – Writing the Story, Part 4: When: Timing Is Everything

And always: read, read, READ!

Just as important as research can be reading what other writers have written. When you read a lot of historical fiction and think about what you’re reading, you can get pretty good at picking out the really good writers from the bad or even the mediocre. You’ll see which authors have done their research and which don’t mind taking a shortcut. Don’t stop with contemporary authors. When writing about the nineteenth century, read novels written in the nineteenth century. While you are writing for a contemporary audience and using contemporary language to tell the story, these historical works can help you to see how people actually lived, worked, and communicated—between friends, family members, classes, races—during the period in which you want to write.

Finally, always keep in mind the period in which you are writing and keep your characters in that time. I find little more frustrating than a historical novel or movie in which everything seems spot-on for the period only to have the characters speaking in contemporary “American.” You don’t need to write with an accent—and probably shouldn’t try for a contemporary audience—but watch your slang, jargon, contractions, vocabulary, and word order so you don’t leave your audience questioning the “when” of your story.

Have fun!

Whether you are writing a time-travel fantasy (like L. Sprague De Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall) or want to delve deeply into a period that really interests you (like Francine Rivers Mark of the Lion series), historical fiction can be a lot of fun to write. But it does take work—and a whole lot of attention to details—if you want to do it right. Unless you have a PhD in a specific historical period, count on a lot of hours spent on research. On the other hand, for those who love to write historical fiction, the research is half the fun!

Next time, we’ll look at the hidden traps of writing a contemporary story.

by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links  

Questions? Email  



Christian editors · Christian ghostwriter · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 7: Romance

See the source imageBoy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again—and they live happily ever after! This is perhaps the oldest plot synopsis in literature, but we keep coming back for more. Just how it works varies from culture to culture, publisher to publisher, writer to writer, but we human beings do like our romances.

According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance fiction is a $1.8 billion industry (2013) and owns 34 percent of the U.S. fiction market (2015). That’s a lot of love—and good reason to write in the genre. There are a number of romance subgenres—from contemporary to historical, paranormal to suspense, erotica to young adult—but the important thing to remember is what makes a story a romance. Again, according to the RWA, “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” In other words, the romantic relationship is the core of the story, and happily-ever-after is a must.

Is it a Romance, a romance, or a love story?

There is, of course, a wide range of how a romantic relationship is portrayed in fiction, from “sweet” to “extremely hot.” Here’s my take on it:

In what I call a “capital-R” romance, there will be explicit scenes early and often. Marriage is not out of the question, but if it happens, it will be toward the end of the story—or even after it’s over. When the characters are not actually acting on their physical desires, they’re generally thinking about doing so, and that passion remains central to the relationship, the character development of both parties, and the plot throughout the story.

In what I refer to as “little-r” romance, passion is certainly not off the table, but it is generally not the complete focus of the story, will happen later in the plot, and authors will usually leave the reader at the bedroom door. The relationship between the two characters is built on much more than physical attraction, and while “love at first sight” is not out of the question, the relationship that develops throughout the story will generally prove a lot more complex—and, in my opinion, much more interesting—than that found in the “capital-R” romance.

The love story is all about a growing interpersonal relationship between a man and a woman that leads to a lifetime commitment. I always think of love stories as those in which the focus is less on “falling in love” and more on “being in love.” In other words, the relationship comes first, and the romance comes out of that relationship. That does not mean sparks won’t fly between the two characters from the very beginning—in fact any love story would be pretty boring without them—but friendship comes first, romance follows, that final step will for sure wait until after marriage, and the reader will not be present for it.

Should every work of fiction with a love story in it be considered a romance?

Absolutely not! Remember the RWA talks about “a central love story.” In other words, if you take the love story out of a romance, there’s nothing left. But if you take the love story out of another genre story, the plot can hold.

I love romance, and I generally have at least one in every fictional story I write. Are all my stories romances? Not at all. I actually have only two novels that I consider romances, because if I were to take the love story out of either of them, there wouldn’t be much of a story left. For the others, however, the love stories contained therein, while certainly a big part of the story, are not critical to the main plot. For example, in one of my science fiction novels, Jane and Captain Konner don’t have to fall in love, following the starship captain’s rescue of the kidnapped earth woman—the rest of the story would work without that relationship blooming—but it was really cool that they did when I wrote it, and their love story made the novel more fun for me to write. But The Stars of Dreams (Book 1 of The Commonwealth Chronicles) is not a science fiction romance; it is, rather, science fiction, because the story would work perfectly well, if the two characters hadn’t fallen in love at all.

The same can be true of any hybrid genre story. Whether fantasy, mystery, suspense, science fiction, western, Christian fiction, or historical—whatever the primary genre—a love story can be present without turning it into a romance. It all depends on how critical that love story is to the main plot, and whether or not the plot can stand on its own without it. If it can’t, then you have written a romance!

The next time, we’ll look at historical fiction.

by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links

Questions? Email 

Christian editors · storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 5: The Western Novel

See the source imageThough western fiction represents only a small category in fiction sales, this market holds an intriguing place in Americana. Susan Brooks, an editor with, writes,

There are several categories of western novels, but the general definition is fiction set in the 19th century frontier or Old West America, west of the Mississippi. The characters are strong and self-reliant, and the stories usually involve cowboys, cavalrymen, lawmen, and outlaws. Generally, western novels focus on themes of individualism and adventure. Westerns generally feature a lone hero (usually male) who reluctantly answers the call to adventure, rescues damsels in distress, and brings the bad guy(s) to justice. The hero is idealistic and driven. (

But is this really an American invention? Robert Wood, in his “The 3 Golden Rules of Writing a Western” says, “It’s not about the cowboy hat,” and in fact, American westerns owe a great deal to the samurai narratives from Japan. Central to both is a character who is a fundamental, traditionally masculine hero, whose old ideals tend to clash with the changing landscape around him. Rather than give up those ideals, he uses them in such a way as to show they may be old-fashioned, but they hold a strength, a value, that is timeless. The western hero may be a drifter, a gunslinger, a bounty hunter, or a marshal, but at his core, he is a good man who won’t let the changing world change who he is.

Think of Rooster Cogburn in Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit. As the seemingly restraining rules of modern law and order spread throughout the American west, this old-time marshal is after true justice, which requires killing a murdering snake, rather than taking the chance that he could get away with murder while the wheels of this new-fangled justice system slowly turn. For Rooster, evil must be defeated with a gun; anything less cannot be called justice, and hang the consequences.

The real trick to writing a western—as opposed to writing a detective story or a sci-fi adventure with the same kind of masculine loner who is a traditional justice-minded character—is the setting. At the center of the western is a character who rides a horse in America’s wild, wild west. And if you’ve never been around horses or cattle; if you’ve never ridden a horse in a western saddle; if you’ve never experienced dust storms or thunderstorms with no shelter in sight; if you’ve never been west of the Mississippi River to experience the wide-open spaces; if you’ve never actually fired a rifle or a revolver, then maybe writing a western is not for you.

Write What You Know!

I’m not saying you can’t, or even shouldn’t, write a western without all that first-hand experience, but if you really want to write a good one, you have your work cut out for you in terms of research. In my October 19th post, I wrote about “The Details That Help Build a Story: Historical Stuff,” in which I discussed finding primary documents on American history. That would be a place to start, as you investigate what it was really—as opposed to Hollywood facsimile—like to live in the old west. The good news is the Internet abounds in historical images and documents. There are also a plethora of videos on everything from saddling and riding a horse to drawing and shooting a gun.

If you’re really intent on the western genre, however, I would suggest actually visiting the location. For your next vacation, take Route 66 from Chicago to LA or follow parts of the Oregon Trail; visit historic sites and camp—and I don’t mean in some RV park. I mean experience primitive camping, so you know what it’s like to sleep on the hard ground and fix your breakfast over a campfire. Or you can make a reservation at one of the many ranches that teach riding and roping, herding cattle, and living on the trail. You can fake it as a writer with enough research, but if you make yourself sit on the back of a horse for five or six hours a day for a week, you’ll know what it really feels like to be saddle-sore!

I, personally, have not tackled the western genre, though my science fiction novel, The Stars of Home, comes close, as the first half of the book takes place in the eighteenth-century American west, when my Commonwealth pilot crash lands there. Most of what I talked about above, however, is not beyond my own realm of experience. I grew up next door to a farm and spent hours there riding horses—both bareback and saddled—helping to gather eggs and “herd” cattle that had gotten out. I know first-hand what it’s like to try to tighten the cinch of a western saddle on a pony that doesn’t want to be ridden that day! And in my teens and twenties, back-country hiking and primitive camping were my favorite kinds of adventure.

I have also crossed this country by car multiple times, including the last time in 1996, when I was on my way to library school, travelling from Washington State to Indiana, and came too close to running out of gas while crossing Wyoming. You simply cannot know how big and how empty that part of the country is until your gas gauge is on the “E”, and there isn’t a sign of human habitation in any direction as far as the eye can see! And while watching movies and reading books can help, if you want your readers to really feel the experience through your writing, give your characters some first-hand experience through you.

Go for It!

So, if you’re drawn to the traditional values and honor of the old west, and decide to write about it, go for it! But do your research first, because these stories are about more than a guy with a cowboy hat and a six-gun. They are about “real” men, heroes with a deep-seated honor, who are struggling to stay true to what they’ve always believed in the face of a changing world. And doesn’t that sound like a great place to start a story?

The next time, we’ll look at Christian fiction.

by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email 

Christian editors · Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 5

Where: Location, Location, Location—It’s Not Just Important for Real Estate!

Where-are-youLocation is more than just a place on a map. It has a real affect on the behavior and attitude of your characters too. The obvious issue is urban vs. suburban vs. rural, and this factor will definitely predominate whether the story takes place in the United States, Europe, or Africa.  But there are other things too, from food preferences to sports to laws, requiring your attention as you write of people in other places.

Scale, or How We Visualize Distances

Distance and transportation access are real issues affecting characters in any story location, but this also includes a very real change in scale, or how people view distances from place to place. For example, back in 1982, I spent eight weeks in a little place in Scotland called Edrom, which was quite rural and surrounded by sheep farms. One day we had the opportunity to attend a concert in Edinburgh. Coming from the Pacific Northwest in the United States, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was less than fifty miles—just over an hour away—but they packed the car as though for an entire day’s outing. Back home, my parents commuted an hour and a half each way to Seattle every day, a commute that included over an hour on a Washington State ferry, so it was difficult for me—who’d grown up in a very large scale area—to relate to the much smaller scale mind-set of the Scots.

Forty-eight miles was a long way to drive in Scotland in those days, but because my family had driven the 3,000 miles coast to coast across America three times back in the 1960s, I knew what real long distances looked like. (These family trips occurred in 1965 and 1966 before the U.S. Interstate system was completed, so we took the much slower U.S. highways most of the way.) My new friends in Scotland couldn’t even imagine those kinds of distances living in a country that was only 874 miles from the extreme southwest tip to the extreme northeast tip. When everything in your country is less than a thousand miles away, you simply don’t have the same perspective on distance as we do here in America, just as people who never leave New York or Washington, D.C., can never really understand how challenging it can be to get from city to city in the fly-over zone, and why we must have cars to get anywhere.

How Big or How High?

If you do live in the fly-over zone in America and have never been to a coast, you can’t know what a big body of water feels like. Yes, you can look at pictures, but pictures and even movies cannot replace knowing personally what it is like to stand on a Pacific or Atlantic beach. There is an immenseness to an ocean that you can’t get from any other body of water. At the same time, someone who only knows the crowded beaches of Atlantic City or Malibu can’t really picture what it’s like to walk along an empty, wild stretch of beach on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula on a rainy day.

 Likewise, mountains feel quite different, depending upon what you have experienced. A story set in the Rockies or the Cascades will not read the same as a story set in the Appalachians or the Great Smokey Mountains, where altitude and year-round snow won’t be an issue. I remember when I was a kid, going back east to visit family and driving up into the Appalachians with my aunt and uncle to pick up one of my cousins at summer camp “in the mountains.” We got there, and my sister and I asked, “Where are the mountains?” Believe me, once you’ve crossed the Rockies or stood at the 10,000-foot level of Mount Rainier, every other mountain range, short of the Himalayas, seems small!

Why These Things Matter

The old adage, “Write what you know,” can be good advice when you’re telling a story, because, of course, it cuts out all sorts of necessary research. A simple scene in a restaurant can tell readers a lot about what the author knows about regional preferences. For example, my Southern friends can’t understand why I don’t like seafood, when in fact I do like it very much—when it’s not so spicy it bites back! (I have learned living in southern Mississippi that Cajun cooking is an acquired taste, and I am absolutely certain I will never acquire it!) Our Yankee visitors were sincerely shocked when they came to visit us while we were living in Kentucky and learned they had to drive fifty miles, or at least to the Tennessee state line, before they could buy any alcoholic beverages, since our county was dry. And just try wearing any jersey other than one from the New Orleans Saints’ during the NFL season in my current home town, and see how far you get without odd looks or comments.  These are the details that make a story come alive, but they can also trip up storytellers who decide to stretch the geographic boundaries of their writing without thinking things through.

 Remember, Research Is Your Friend . . .

This does not, of course, mean you need to go live someplace for a time before you can set a story there (though it might be fun), but you do need to be aware of the unique characteristics inherent in any location you select and research accordingly.  Read books—both fiction and nonfiction—set in your location of choice and see how other writers deal with the specifics of a location’s topography and culture. Travel guides, memoirs, autobiographies, or even interviews can help you get a feel for a place through the firsthand experience of others.

 The next time, we’ll look at the “why? or the “so what?” of a story.



by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email 

Christian editors · Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 4

When: Timing Is Everything

timing-is-everything (1)They say timing is everything, and it certainly is when you’re writing a story. I’m reading a novel right now set in 1982, and oh what technology these characters do not have at their disposal! I’ve mentioned before the Larry D. Sweazy series set in rural North Dakota in the 1960s (see Also Murder: A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery, Seventh Street Books, 2015), when most home phones—if they even had one—were party lines. And remember Sleeepless in Seattle (1993), in which Tom Hanks and his son escort a lady all the way to her gate at SeaTac airport?

I have written about doing research on “ Historical Stuff” (see October 12, 2018) in order give your writing credibility with your readers, but it is more than just whether or not a character needs to find a payphone and a nickel (or a dime or a quarter?) in order to make a phone call. There are also the intangibles, those worldview changes that affect an entire society when something extraordinary happens, whether it’s the invention of the automobile, the Emancipation Proclamation, or 9/11.

Three Examples of Major Worldview Changes


The ability of the average Joe to move from one place to another has changed so drastically over the years I think we forget the dramatic impact this has had on human society. I’m told by those who visit there that one of biggest surprises in the Holy Land is how close everything is. We read Scripture and imagine hundreds of miles between events, when in reality there are actually only a handful of miles between the locals. But we assume—at least in the U.S.—that everything is farther apart, because when we travel for three days, we might put 1,500 miles on our car!

Even our own view of distance here in the United States changed dramatically as transportation improved. How different it must have been for someone in 1850 contemplating traveling to California by covered wagon than for someone living in the 1870s planning to travel by rail (following the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869). Even the changes in motor transportation between the mid-1960s (when my own family traveled by station wagon along U.S. Highways from Philadelphia, PA, to the Pacific Ocean) and today (when we have the vast Interstate network) alters how we think about distance.

 Ask yourself, “Where and when do my characters live, and how big or small is their worldview in light of how easy or how difficult it is to get from place to place?”


Try to imagine life without a credit card. I know there are a lot of Americans today who still don’t use credit cards for various reasons, but according to Gallup, that’s only 29 percent of us. The rest average 3.7 cards each. How will life be different for your characters if none of them have credit? If you are writing a story that takes place at a time when credit might be limited to the local general store, then your characters’ spending habits are going to be a whole lot different from today. And faced with an emergency, without credit, what can they do? What will their attitude be?

The Sanctity of Life

This is a significant issue, depending upon a story’s location and time, and a character’s view of this issue can prove a major part of your story. Does your story take place in ancient Rome, when people died by the hundreds of thousands in the various games? Does it take place in China, where until the 2015 abolishment of their one-child per family policy, untold numbers of girl babies were exposed? Are you writing about gunfighters and bank robbers in America’s wild, wild west?

This issue is a particularly timely one here in the United States, as attitudes ebb and flow concerning abortion and euthanasia. If you touch on either of these subjects, you have to be really aware of the prevailing attitude within the decade in which your story takes place. In the 1982 story I mentioned above, An Accidental Life (Pamela Binnings Ewen, B&H Publishing Group, 2015), a district attorney is prosecuting an abortionist, who is charged with second degree murder in the death of an infant who survived an abortion, only to be put aside to die. This act would have been outrageous at the time of the story, only nine years after Roe v. Wade made abortions legal in the United States, and even when Ewen published this book in 2015, readers might have still been shocked by the plot. But today, a number of states are passing laws legalizing infanticide.  How things have changed since the decade following Roe v. Wade—and how quickly they have escalated in just the past five years.

 And it’s not just about Roman, Chinese, or American law—the details of which you do need to get right for your story to be believable. It is also about social norms and attitudes. Times do change—sometimes radically—for example when even a handful of years ago a group of American lawmakers cheering infanticide would have been inconceivable.

Know the Time of Your Story

 This is why it is critical to know the time of your story well—and how it affects the cultural and social attitudes of your characters. As I’ve said before: read, read, READ! You may be writing fiction, but if you are dealing with a specific period in history—even recent history—you need to read primary documents published during the period in which your story is set. Head to the library or the Internet to find newspapers, popular magazines, and books published in the time frame that interests you. Ask yourself, “What are the critical issues of the period?” and “What were the prevailing attitudes of the people living in the kind of community about which I am writing?”

 When the average life-expectancy is nearing 80, people behave quite differently than they do when it is only 40. When most people never leave their hometown, their attitudes will generally be provincial rather than global. If your characters live in a time where most people never go beyond the eighth grade, they will not see the same world as those living at a time in which college is the norm. If you want your characters to be “real” to your readers, you owe it to them to put your characters in the right mind-set for the time period in which they live.

Next time we’ll look at location, and how it can affect your story.

Christian editors · storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 10

Some Handy Print Resources I Still Use on Occasion.

researchI have spent the last several weeks blogging about doing research online, and while that is certainly where most of my research takes place these days, especially when I’m caught up in writing fictional stories, there remain a number of print resources on my shelf that I continue to use. A few of these I have purchased new over the years, but many of the better titles have been found in library book sales, particularly those following a major weeding of a college or university library collection. I won’t list them all here, but I wanted to give you some good examples, in no particular order of importance.

 Word Dictionaries

I still like to use a print dictionary, because I find browsing through such a resource always snags something I might miss if I simply look up a word in an e-dictionary.

The RandomHouse College Dictionary, Revised Edition (Random House, Inc., 1975): Okay, I’m dating myself, now, but this was the dictionary I used in college the first time around, and while it is over 40 years old, it still allows me to comfortably browse multiple word meanings.

Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Jeff Prucher, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2007): If you write science fiction, this is a book for you. When I first became serious about my sci-fi writing, I often found myself wondering if the language I was using was too strongly influenced by Star Trek. This dictionary told me, however, that it was okay to use the word “starship” to describe the interstellar ships in my stories, because the word was first used in a story published in Astounding Stories in December of 1934—in all likelihood, the same place Gene Roddenberry acquired it!

Dictionary of Word Origins: The Histories of More Than 8,000 English-Language Words (John Ayto. Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1990): There is actually a 2011 edition of this title available in today. As I’ve mentioned before, the history of word origins can be particularly important when writing historical fiction. Contemporary jargon does not belong in a historical story, and if you can’t find the history of a word in the free, online edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, you may want to have a copy of this book on the shelf.

Biographical Dictionaries

New biography reference sources rarely include complete lists of historical names you might need if you’re writing in the past, either fiction or nonfiction. The four biographical dictionaries I have were all found in library sales, and while I don’t use them often, I am still glad to keep room for them on my office shelf.

Webster’s American Biographies (1975) and Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary (1988): These books are my first stop when I can’t find someone any other way. The former has expanded articles on 3,000 notable Americans, and the latter provides the “essential information on more than 30,000 deceased men and women from all parts of the world, all eras, and all fields of endeavor.” Like most reference resources, these books provide a place to start if you have a name and nothing else.

The Dictionary of National Biography Founded in 1882 by George Smith: The Concise Dictionary From the Beginnings to 1921 (London: Oxford University Press,1930): This is a historical treasure, which I rarely use but enjoy browsing on occasion. It can also be a fascinating source of historical names. I find myself perusing this volume when I’m looking for interesting names for new characters in one of my books.

Dictionary of Saints (John J. Delaney. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980): Billed as “an up-to-date, easy-to-use compendium of factual information” on 5,000 saints, the entries range from basic facts to column-long articles. This is a very handy reference for those who write anything about Church history, especially if you want to research a less famous saint.

 Quotation Dictionaries

We all like to quote famous people, and while there are a plethora of online sources with quotations, this is one instance where you will want to use a print volume that (a) has some authority and (b) provides the actual source of the quotation. Far too many online writers wrongly quote famous individuals!

Familiar Quotations, Thirteenth Edition(John Bartlett. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1955): Bartlett is probably the best known collector and publisher of quotation books. This particular collection is organized by both person and topic.


These resources can put any person, place, thing, or event in historical context, making them extremely helpful to historical writers.

The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies (1990): Organized by topic from Explorers and Exploration to Sports, this reference gives limited timelines per heading under subheadings. The section on technology is particularly helpful.

The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events, 3rd Revised Ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975):  I find this volume more useful for my writing than the above, because this one is organized by year. For each year, significant people, places, and events are given under the headings of History, Politics; Literature, Theater; Religion, Philosophy, Learning; Visual Arts; Music; Science, Technology, and Growth; and Daily Life. So, if you have set your story in 1965, you can look up that year and see what was going on in the world around your story. A revised 2005 edition is available.

 Style Guides

“Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.” When writing for academia or publishing, you do, of course, need to use the writing style guide required by your discipline or a publisher. While I have years of experience writing in MLA Style (Modern Language Association) and APA Style (American Psychological Association) due to my eclectic academic background, these days I stick with the two style guides used and recommended by Christian Editing Services.

The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press): Used by writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, copywriters, designers, and publishers world-wide, unless someone specifically requires another writing style, I would recommend sticking with Chicago, which is up to its 17th edition now and is available online in both print and ebook format.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, 4th Edition (Zondervan, 2016): This manual fills in all the holes found in Chicago and other style manuals concerning Christian writing. There are simply terms, ideas, and other nuances used by Christians that need clarification for Christian writers.

 Biblical References

Though I value greatly what has to offer, sometimes keyword searching in a humongous database just doesn’t work. Simply searching in the wrong Bible translation may make it impossible for you to find a passage you need.

Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1949, 1966): Alexander Cruden (1701-1770) has been the standard in English language biblical studies for over 250 years. I found my edition, once again, at a college library used book sale, but this one is still in print and can be found in Amazon as well as Christian book stores everywhere.

The King James Study Bible, 2nd Edition (Thomas Nelson, 2013): Whichever translation you use, be sure to acquire a good study Bible. Thomas Nelson puts out a really good one that includes multiple topical indices, references (color maps; monies, weights, and measures; an illustrated Jewish Calendar; etc.), a brief concordance, and footnotes all through.

Whatever you do as a writer, you should never underestimate the usefulness of a print reference book. Looking up facts online might be the quickest way to find needed information, but there’s something to be said for browsing entries in a reference book and the occasional serendipitous encounter with information you didn’t know you needed. As writers, we can never know what we might stumble across along the way.

This completes our series on research. The next time, we’ll look at some New Year’s writing resolutions and how you might go about planning your 2019 at the keyboard.

by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

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Christian editors · storytelling · writing tips

What Makes a Good Story: Part 1

Some stories are important to a specific time and place, but some last for millennia. What do really good, lasting stories have in common? What makes them a “classic”? What is it about The Odyssey or Oedipus the King, or Romeo and Juliet, or Cinderella that makes them last? What is it about them that clicks in the human psyche in such a way that they continue to make a lasting impression, generation after generation?
lord of the rings
As writers we can always hope we’ll hit the jackpot, like a  J. R. R. Tolkien, but will Bilbo Baggins still be there to read about in another two or three centuries? Will someone in 2318 write yet another version of Cinderella?

That’s anybody’s guess, I suppose, but there are things we can do to help our own stories along, because The Lord of the Rings is not just about hobbits, and Cinderella isn’t just about going to the ball to meet a prince.

So what do the great stories have in common?

The Characters

One thing the classics all have is strong, or well-developed, characters. There is just something about the hero or heroine that grabs the reader. The best are flawed in some way, which makes them more interesting and allows the reader to relate to them on a personal level but also leaves room for character development throughout the story, which is what keeps the reader turning pages.

“Strong” and “well-developed” are not always synonymous. For example, we don’t know a lot about the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, though we can infer quite a bit from his actions. For example, we know he must have been a successful merchant, because (1) he had enough money to put the battered man up in an inn, and (2) he—or his reputation—was well enough known by the innkeeper that he trusted the Samaritan to return and reimburse him for his care of this Jew.

Likewise, Bilbo Baggins is the first hobbit we meet, and we don’t know a lot about him, hobbits, or Middle Earth, but through Bilbo’s adventures, we learn a whole lot about this unpretentious little creature who shows extraordinary courage in the face of dangers that would defeat most of us. Is he flawed? Certainly. But he comes through in the end, because he has that special “something” inside him that overcomes his fears. And it is that special “something” that keeps us reading.

The same applies to current, contemporary characters. There are hundreds of contemporary thrillers out there, but I tend to read best-selling authors like Catherine Coulter, Nora Roberts, and Jayne Ann Krentz, because their characters usually grab me from page one. Their female leads are inevitably strong, independent women who have doubts and fears just like the rest of us. They win in the end, because they can depend upon themselves, but also because they can allow themselves to lean on someone else, when the climax to the story comes, which shows a different kind of courage.

I, for one, look at character first, when I read any book. If I get to Chapter 2 and still don’t like the main characters, it doesn’t matter to me how promising the story is. I will put it aside to donate to the next book sale at the library. “Character counts”—in life and in fiction.

Next week we’ll look at how settings can make—or break—a good story.

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