Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

21 April 2010

So this is what my character looks like!

One way to visualize your characters more clearly and be able to give more precise descriptions is to collect photos of them . . . or, rather, people who look very much like them.

If your characters are unusually good-looking Americans or Europeans, it's fairly easy to find clear photos of faces. For example, look at:
✥ catalogs for upscale stores
✥ advertisements in upscale magazines
✥ fashion magazines
TV Guide
People magazine
Us magazine
✥ Web sites for TV shows and movies
✥ Wikipedia entries for actors and actresses such as:
      —"List of American Film Actresses"
      —"List of British Actors and Actresses"
✥ Web sites for modeling agencies; find lists of links here and here, or search on Google

Web sites for modeling agencies are particularly useful because you can sometimes specify details such as height or hair color and so drill down through the files to relevant photos more quickly. Be aware, though, that modeling agency sites tend to have bells and whistles that make them take forever to load and search.

If your characters are American or European and have bland, average to good looks, sources for photos include:
✥ ads and catalogs for stores such as Sears, Penneys, Kohls, and K-Mart
✥ most mail-order clothes catalogs

The most difficult characters to find portrait-style photos for are people of non-Western ancestry and people who do not meet current Western standards of attractiveness. I never found a satisfactory photo for the heroine in the first novel I wrote, who was short, plump, and dark.

I had more success with Like Mayflies in a Stream, which is set in ancient Mesopotamia. Although I never found any photo that looked like my conception of Gilgamesh, I found my heroine, Shamhat (at right), by Googling "Iraqi models" and following a link, and I found a model for Enkidu (below at left) when I saw football player Troy Aumua Polamalu on TV.

Here are several ways to find photos of interesting-looking or non-Western people:
✥ Web sites for modeling agencies for other countries; find lists here and here.
✥ Wikipedia entries such as:
      —Lists of Actors
      —List of Samoans
      —List of Native Americans
✥ Magazines for other cultures such as National Indigenous Times (a magazine for and about Australian aborigines) and Native Peoples Magazine (for and about American Indians)
✥ Query what you are looking for (for example, "Iraqi woman") on Google Images
✥ Query what you are looking for at a stock photo house (some lists of houses are here, here, and here.)
✥ Ads in city and regional magazines for professionals—lawyers, dentists, doctors, tax preparers, and so on
✥ Magazines and other publications that feature pictures of accomplished people, such as college alumni magazines, business magazines, and company annual reports
✥ Web site for Ugly Models modeling agency

Or create your own interesting-looking people by morphing photos together or transforming a photo at Web sites such as:
Morph Thing
Face of the Future

What sources for faces for your characters have you found that I have missed?

14 April 2010

Retreat to advance

Attending a writing retreat can develop one's writing skill, help one charge ahead on a current work, and rekindle one's enthusiasm for writing.

Like a spiritual or health retreat, a writing retreat involves withdrawing from the ordinary world to immerse oneself in a single goal. A writing retreat has a major benefit over staying home to write: All the interruptions and distractions of everyday life are gone, allowing the writer to focus laserlike on a project.

Writing retreats can be structured in various ways. Here I'll describe the three retreats I've been to, starting with the Easter weekend retreat some of my fellow Clarionites held recently.

The Clarion retreat was held at one Clarionite's home in San Jose. We spent Friday socializing and getting settled in. Saturday and Sunday we sprawled in chairs or on the floor or sat at tables, laptops at hand, each working on a project. For example, I arrived with two book ideas to explore. One I researched and set aside, deciding the book I had in mind was one I would like to read but not to write. The other idea proved more fruitful, and by weekend's end, I knew the setting, who the main characters would be, and what would happen in the first quarter of the book.

Other retreat participants worked on their WIP, wrote blog posts, brainstormed a story with another Clarionite by Skype, wrote a bid for a writing project, wrote poetry, translated French comic books into English, and held timed writing races. During the occasional breaks we discussed writing topics and swapped book suggestions.

Clarionites relax Friday night at a New Orleans–style restaurant before starting work the next day; links go to relevant blogs. Left to right: Edward Gauvin, Nina K., Kim Stanley Robinson, Shauna Roberts, Emily Jiang, Liz Argall, Leonard Pung, Dana Huber. Missing: Eric Schultz.

In 2007, my New Orleans critique group held a retreat. Each day for four days, everyone showed up at my house early and stayed until supper time. We devoted time to each critique group member, working on whatever she wanted to work on. Our schedule also built in formal breaks to eat and chat so that we would not be tempted to socialize instead of work. During the retreat we brainstormed a YA novel, discussed how to add more emotion to one member's novel, worked on one person's query letter and synopsis, and shared techniques for plotting, producing fresh ideas quickly, and creating a story "bible."

 Critique group members take a break from their retreat for a photo op. Left to right: Margaret Nichols, Rosalind Green, Shauna Roberts, Laurie BolaƱos, Farrah Rochon.

By contrast, my first retreat was a solo effort. I went up to an apartment we were renting in Jackson, Mississippi, as a combination get-away place–hurricane refuge. For two days I daydreamed and brainstormed and wrote page after page of notes, with no cats to medicate or feed or take to the vet, no mail to sort, no phone calls or emails to interrupt my thoughts, and no long to-do list to distract me from my goals. I came home with the foundation in place for a novel.

Based on these three retreats, I think some keys to a successful retreat are:
  • a schedule
  • a goal
  • a dedicated space that's not the usual workspace
  • a dedicated time with interruptions kept to a minimum
  • preparation for one's project done ahead of time so that it doesn't cut into work time
  • time scheduled for socializing

Linda Weaver Clark (who was interviewed here in August) interviews historical fiction author Laurie C. Lewis at her blog this week, and one commenter will win their choice of one of Lewis's books. Lewis's series "Free Men and Dreamers" (Covenant Communications) covers the trials of the generation after the Founding Fathers, who must fight the British again to retain their freedom.


Next week's post: finding images of your characters