Grammarly’s Free Download Helpful to Writers

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Recently, I took the plunge. I downloaded the free version of Grammarly. A software program that corrects grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure. The free version catches my often overlooked typos. My family moved a few weeks into my sophomore year and beginning typing. Therefore, my typing skills are less than stellar. Thanks to the invention of the personal computer I am now able to fix my typos quickly. However, there are still other things I can miss. Grammarly catches those. It underlines the word in question and shows me in a sidebar the problem. Or in some cases the assumed problem.

The program pinged on the word Wok—asking if I might mean walk. Because I was referring to the pan, I choose the ignore button. When it questioned the spelling of neighbor to be corrected as neighbour, I again hit ignore. I didn’t want the British spelling. Most of the time it catches not only misspelled words (my bad typing) but improperly used words, missing articles, etc. Pretty cool. When the software challenges a word, I have found myself coming up with an even better word than the one cited as a possible error. Great way to stretch your creative juices.

A downside, you have to get out of the program to save your corrections. I ran the spell check in Word as a double check. They disagree on a few things.  Words spell check doesn’t come close to catching what Grammarly does, and its limited vocabulary pings errors that aren’t.

Writers still need to do the work.

Grammarly doesn’t replace working hard at crafting good sentences. Nor should it be used as the lazy man’s final draft. My college son relies on it to proof his work. Yes, he admits it’s the lazy way. But as writers, we still need critique partners to help us craft better prose.  We need to practice honing the phrasing of our words until they shine.

As a novelist, the basic program doesn’t understand the need for sentence fragments for pacing or dialogue syntax. For example, woulda used to expression a character’s speech pattern is underlined as misspelled.

Overall it’s a great tool to keep your conscience mindful of your most common errors as you draft your copy. I’d recommend anyone who wants to improve the grammar areas of their writing to give the free download a try. I’ve installed it on FB as well. Everyone notices when a writer has a blaring typo. Haven’t decided if I want to purchase the advanced edition. That portion claims to catch errors on a deeper level. I would recommend checking out the free version.

Have you used Grammarly? What do you think of it?

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Describing Acronyms while Writing Fiction

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At a recent critique session, the group was reviewing a chapter from my second unpublished novel, New Duet. Dan is a veteran, and while having dinner with Issy, he tells her about his truck being hit with an IED, mentioning his MOS while serving in the military. However, nowhere did I define what those acronyms meant. Defining IED (improvised explosive device) and MOS (military occupational specialty code) to my critique group help me realize I needed to make them clear to my reader. So within the dialogue exchange over dinner, Issy asked the questions one might ask in a casual conversation. Therefore, giving the definitions and making things clear rather than the archaic writing style of the narrator stepping in and saying, “Dear reader, let me explain what he is talking about.”

Obvious Acronyms

Some acronyms need no explanation. SWAT- everyone knows these are specially trained police in bullet-proof vests carrying assault weapons with particular skills to take down the bad guys. We know FBI, CIA, DEA. And every TV viewer now knows what CSI and NCIS stand for. Tests like MRI or CAT scan or CPR are understood either through experience or watching medical dramas.

Define so they stay engaged

Then again we can’t assume everyone knows. I recently ran across DIY. My mind went blank. But within the ad were the words do-it-yourself. Ah, sweet clarity. As writers, we should be familiar with the term WIP. But non-writers have no clue. Work in progress needs to appear somewhere in the same paragraph for clarity.

If you are writing about a specific trade the acronyms need to be defined once either before or after its first use. Otherwise, readers are confused and leave your story to google the mystery letters. Too many of those and you’ve lost the momentum of turning pages to get to the end at 2 a.m.

My example

As you craft your story, don’t forget to define terms within the story as quickly as you can without drawing the reader out of the story.  If a DEA agent comes to the door, don’t stop to give a brief history of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Instead:

“Men, are in position, sir.” The tall lanky DEA agent looked to Detective Marshall for confirmation.

“Tell the men to move in. Slowly. Don’t want to spook these guys.”

“For sure, they’ve given us the slip more than once. “The agent keyed his mike. “Move in, low and slow.”

“If they flush the drugs, our case is toast.” Detective Marshall kept his eyes on the third story window. Three guys sat at a table. What they were doing could not be seen from his vantage point. Fear moistened his collar. He hated dealing with drug smugglers. It always brought in the feds, and more hands in the pie could end badly.

“I heard from a guy in Vice over at Precinct 23 that these guys operate in four states.”  The young detective moved closer with the declaration. Marshall wasn’t in the mood to chat.

“Well, today it stops here.” Withdrawing his Glock from its holster, he moves in a squat posture toward the building.

Now in this less than stellar scene you get the idea. I have given you the information that the DEA is a federal branch of law enforcement that deals with drug-related crime. I’ve given the reader the needed info without stepping away from the scene.  Always give just enough to define the acronym but not so much as to drag the reader from the action.

What interesting acronyms have you run across? Do you have an example of how yuo defined an acronym while still moving the story along?

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Finding Weeds in Your Word Garden

 

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Photo by Charles Huff

How many of you love gardening? Seeing your landscape creation take shape, watching the bulbs you painstakingly planted bloom in glorious, magnificent colors. Now, how many of you love weeding?  Getting down on hands and knees and ripping out those menacing thistles, dandelions, grass, stray saplings, and (if you have a neighbor who feeds squirrels) corn stalks. Well, if we were in a gardeners class, I’d be the one hiding behind the big kid, hoping to avoid getting volunteered.

 

 

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Photo by Charles Huff

I love a beautiful garden but hate, HATE weeding! The whole process makes my arms and shoulders ache and my fingernails acquire black French tips just thinking about it. Needless to say, my yard gets pretty weedy before it is attended to. Over the years, my landscaping has become pretty Spartan.

 

A writer’s garden of words needs weeding, and that can become a pretty daunting task, too. Especially for the novice. It’s like sending a four-year-old into your flower beds to weed. They know not what to pull so they remove a lot of healthy foliage. If her eyes are green, don’t keep telling me her eyes are green. He gazed into her green eyes. Or, Her green eyes snapped. Maybe those eyes blaze like an emerald when she’s angry. Still green but more exciting.  Her pupils grew large when the villain approached. See what I’m getting at?

Does your hero fist his hands a lot? Or run them through his hair? (Mine sure did.)  Flex fingers, white knuckles, clenched-fisted. Find more interesting ways to refer to physical action.

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Some varieties of flowers come in different sizes. Daisies can be small, tall, bushes and a myriad of colors. Daisies are my favorite flower, but I would not want my whole yard covered in them. Neither does your reader want to read the same word over and over again. Rather than your hero breathing try panting, gasping or straining. His breathing might be thready, heavy, faint or gulping. You might write:

The thready sound of air passed through his teeth.

A whisper of air tickled her neck.

My editor found a lot of sipping going on in my novel. So we had to weed those sips out. My characters held the mug to their lips. Stirred the content. She gazed over the cup. Gulped, swallowed, savored and drank.

Don’t walk across the room. Stride, skip, stomp, waltz, plod or any other action word.

We use lots of was, were, is, are in our writing. She was sad might transform to sadness gripped her. If it gripped her heart in one paragraph be sure it travels to her toes or spills out her eyes later.

Thistles end up in my yard and flowerbeds because of the Cardinal bird feeders in the neighborhood. When you think you’ve got them all, more pop up. Common words can become thistles. Just, only, have just, but, because, really, very and lots of -ly words.

 

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Photo By Charles Huff

 

When a thistle blooms, it is lovely. It’s the national flower of Scotland.  Most Americans don’t grow them intentionally. They are prickly and a nuisance when they pop up in random places. Do you recall listening to a speech sprinkled with the words: you know? Or have a friend end every sentence with –just saying. Make sure your word garden is free of those.

Below is a list of words to weed from the landscape of your novel. Words that distract the reader. The passive word that slows the action. Perhaps a favorite go-to word planted between awesome words causing the scenes to droop. These words distract the reader from the beauty of the overall work.

 

 

It is recommended by most authors I know to start your own list of words you habitually plant in your projects.  Refer to your list when you begin editing. Get out your weeding tools and eliminate the majority of them. Thin others. Not every was is unneeded and an occasional just is just fine.  Keep the list handy because those little buggers are going to reappear time and time again. And you will probably add to your list when you notice your replacement words become repetitive.

What are some favorite words you use in excess in your writing?

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Whittling Down History Tidbits to Add A Little Setting Spice to Your Novel

 

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Jesse James dressed in a Qunatrill’s Raider uniform.

Today I thought I’d share a fun factoid I read while researching my novel. You can’t research the old west and not read about Jesse James. You may know he was an outlaw. He robbed banks for a living. He had been one of Quantrill’s Raiders before and during the Civil War. They were a group of men who attacked free-staters in Kansas. Free-staters were against slavery. Kansas was a territory being settled by those both for and against slavery. The settlers hoped to gain enough population with the same view on slavery in order to sway statehood votes in their direction. Quantrill’s men would burn out anti-slavery towns and murder their residents in hopes of making Kansas a slave state when it sought statehood.

 

Guerrillas in the Civil War

If not for the Civil War these men would have been arrested and hanged. But the confederacy recruited them. These murderous outlaws became a special guerrilla unit who wreaked havoc on many fronts in support of the war effort.

 

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I was surprised to see how many times Jesse had his picture taken. And yet people rarely identified him as the one who committed the crime.

 

Robberies no Robin Hood

After the war, Jesse along with his brother Frank formed a gang and began their infamous adventures. The banks and trains the James -Younger gang robbed were believed to be owned by former union officers and other Yankees they felt wronged their family. The former soldiers were now part of the Republican Party and active in Reconstruction. They became the target of revenge for wrongs inflicted on the south. James Edwards, a newspaper reporter painted Jesse as a Robin Hood character. But there is no evidence that the gang ever shared their loot with any in need.

jesse-james-robert-ford-edited-by-matthew-t-raderJesse James was eventually shot and killed in his home by Robert Ford.  Ford, a member of Jesse’s own gang, wanted to claim the $5000 reward the railroad placed on James.

Hiding loot

When visiting Merrimac Caverns with my children years ago, we learned James and his gang hid out in the caverns. And it was believed they hid loot from robberies there, as well. The caverns are a dark and dangerous place and unless you are familiar with the tunnels you could get lost for days.23579635

Women’s clothes

While reading about Inns and how they accommodated travels during post-Civil War America a story was told about Jesses James. Theses Inns were no Holiday Inn. The large room had rows of cots and all the travelers shared the same space. The women might be housed in a separate room.

The story goes, in order to escape capture after a bank robbery, Jesse disguised himself as a woman. He spent the night at a roadside Inn. The Innkeeper thought it odd that the woman insisted on sleeping with her valise. She would allow no one to even touch it. The discovery of the woman’s identity came after Jesse was long gone. I imagine the outlaw’s stay became a great draw for future guests.

Seasoning your story with tidbits from research

I found Jesse’s disguise as a fun addition to my own villain’s escape plan in my novel, Secrets and Charades. Because Evangeline left Missouri to go west, she feared robbery and mentions the James gang as having robbed the bank not too long before she headed west. Just a few tidbits of history from all the volumes of facts I learned to give a feel of place and time.

What interesting factoid have you learned while researching for your book?

Did you find it fascinating or fun?

Did you add it to your story?

 

 

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Populating Your Historical Story World

 

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Notice the diversity in these cowboys.

I am a pantster, I write my stories as my characters speak to me. I don’t usually outline and sometimes characters appear I never met until the words appear on the page. During my research in preparation for my historical novel, I was fascinated by the various nationalities, who populated the geographic setting of my story. Because the information ruminated in the back of my mind, many minor characters took shape from those tomes.

 

Potpourri of ethnicity

During the mid -1800s significant immigration by many diverse people groups to the unsettled regions of the Midwest occurred.  African Americans came west after the Civil War. Former slaves looking to start new. Irish immigrants who’d help build the railroads and were sick of big city life in the East. Some who in order to gain citizenship fought in the Civil War on both sides. Chinese nationals helped build the railroad. Wikipedia places them only on the west coast. However, my resource books show they also moved inland. Not all Native Americans were on reservations either. And Mexicans were the first immigrants to the area under the Spanish flag.

All of these nationalities took up residence either on the ranch or the surrounding community in my novel, Secrets and Charades.

Research the nationality of your setting

 

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Irish immigrants. Notice the one in the union hat.

 

When populating your novel with characters, it’s important to know who settled the area. For example, did you know that most police officers and firemen in New York in the 1800s were Irish? Those jobs were considered dangerous. The Irish were treated as second-class citizens when they arrived on American shores. Some had military training, either in Ireland or were Civil War veterans. Because these jobs paid better than most available to the Irish, many took up the call. Often patrolling tenement areas housing Irish

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Irish women took any job available. These washerwomen might have traveled west for a better life. My ancestors among them.

immigrants. So, it would be appropriate to have Irish police officers in your novel set in this time period in New York. Those same poor, abused Irish immigrants came west as farmers, miners and the like. The various free land opportunities gave them a chance for a better life.

 

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Former slaves on their homestead.

 

African-Americans

African Americans who had served during the Civil War also participated in homesteading opportunities. Former slaves with specific skills such as blacksmithing could make a living out west.  Black communities sprung up throughout the west. The stigmatism leftover from slavery made it safer to form their own communities.

 

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Mexican vaqueros taught the American cowboy many things.

 

 

Mexican -Americans

Mexican-Americans from the rich to the poor had to make room for many settlers. The poor Hispanics found work on ranches. Non-Hispanic cowboys learned their skills from these experienced vaqueros. Often the household staff on large ranches were Hispanic.

 

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Chinese railroad workers

 

Chinese

The Chinese usually create their own communities in a section of town. Their different dress, language, and culture put them under suspicion. Chinese were not permitted to bring their families with them. Although I don’t explore the seedier side of their communities in my novel, sadly there was one.  Rather I chose to paint them with a more compassionate brush. Asians have been part of American culture for hundreds of years. Besides, a key scene in Secrets and Charades would be impossible without my Chinese characters.

 

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Native Americans

 

Native Americans

Native Americans were ever present in the old west. Not all lived on reservations. Their life was hard, abuse at the hands of the white man is well-documented. Still, there are accounts of Indians and mix-race families living peacefully with white neighbors.

Less Vanilla

Knowing the culture of those who lived during the time you place your story can make the tale not only more believable but far more interesting to the reader. Don’t hesitate to add some color to your otherwise vanilla characters.ed1c1dd3bf71efd7db9ad9c540d4421a

Who are the characters that populate your story world?

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Homestead Homes: Soddies to Cabins

In creating settings, a writer does a lot of research. Historicals require just enough information to help the reader see your story world but not too much to slow the story down. Housing from the era and geographical location can become the juxtaposition of a dramatic twist. While researching my novel I found the homes built on the prairie ingenious.

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Well maintained soddie

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This soddie looks thrown together.

 

Soddies and Dugouts

Because in some areas wood was hard to come by, the first homes were often soddies made from handcrafted blocks of dirt. These blocks were cut and placed on a frame. Up until the 1880s, sod bricks were cut from thick grasses with a shovel. With the invention of the grasshopper, a special plow designed to cut through the thick sod, the task went faster. It was not uncommon before this invention to build on a hillside using the hill as the back wall.

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Soddie built into a hill.

 

If having shelter quicker was needed a dugout would serve. A hole dug in the side of a hill large enough to house the family could be constructed quickly. Either sod blocks or a wood frame covered the entrance.

 

Both of these were intended to be temporary shelters. Soddies and dug-outs housed insects, snakes and other underground varmints in the walls. Lining the walls with wood or plaster helped create a barrier between crawly creatures and human inhabitants. A large rain could flood a dug-out or destroy a poorly constructed soddie. Once a proper cabin was built the soddie or dug-out were often repurposed as a storage area, a barn or quarters for either a newlywed eldest son and his wife or aging parents. Some soddies were so well-constructed they lasted for decades.

 

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Dugout with a roof.

 

Shanties and Cabins

Another throw together dwelling for new homesteaders might be a shanty. The walls were of thin wood covered in tar paper. The siding might be added after the first cash crop. They were drafty and did little to keep winter cold out. The floors were dirt and often windows were made of butcher paper rather than glass. Butcher paper (used to wrap fresh meat.) would be rubbed with lard and affixed to a window opening. You couldn’t see through it but some light came in through the greasy film.

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Small cabin

 

A real cabin might only be one room wooden structure with a sleeping loft. Much warmer than a shanty and far cleaner than either a soddie or dug-out. Windows might still be butcher paper unless the owner could afford glass. Often windows were made of many panes rather than one large sheet of glass. The small squares were more economical in case the window was damaged only the smaller broken portions need be replaced.

 

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Adobe structure

 

Adobes

In desert areas or flat plains homes were made of adobe. A special mixture of mud, the base being clay and sand and sometimes dung. Straw was added. One account I read mentioned horsehair. The mixture is poured into frames to create bricks. They were sundried. Adobe bricks have been used all over the world for thousands of years. And are still used as an economical way to construct a home in some areas of the world. They are sturdy and keep the homes relatively cool in summer and warm in winter.

Whatever kind of home a pioneer built the interior walls were whitewashed as soon as possible. This gave a cleaner appearance and reflected light.

Setting creates mood

The Double M ranch in Secrets and Charades is made from adobe bricks. Jake has a soddie on his ranch. It is used by his ranch hands if they are too far afield to make it back to the bunkhouse before dark. And his family’s original homestead is a cabin. Each of these locations is a crucial setting in the story.

Even after all the research on their construction, I chose not to put that information in my novel. Too much description draws the reader out of the action. Evangeline’s observations of her new surroundings set the mood. Each structure plays a key in building the emotional tension between characters. Had I taken the time for Jake to explain how each structure was built you would be bored. Now, if they were building one of these structures together, the process becomes part of the emotional struggle the characters experience.

What have you researched for your WIP to help create your story world? How much of that information do you feel really is necessary to use? Please share in the comments.

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Why Professional Headshots

cindy huff 2016If you follow me on Facebook, you’ve noticed I’ve changed my profile picture. I also posted two photos for my friends to help me choose which will go on the back of my novel. Headshots are essential if you take your writing seriously. It identifies you to future readers. So, it needs to be excellent quality. Whether you are traditionally or self-published, you need a professional headshot. Even if you haven’t gotten one item in print yet. Why would I need a photo if no one knows I write? To ask is to answer.

Business cards

You need it for your business cards so publishers, editors, agents and fellow writers can more easily connect. We all remember faces before we remember names. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, you will need business cards for conferences. But don’t wait until the last minute to get them. That might mean no photo which is not a good idea.cindy 2016

Publication pics

You need headshots for publications who want the photos of their authors with the article. Even e-zines request headshots. Selfies are tacky and scream amateur. It is better to send no photo than a selfie.  The photo embeds in people’s brains. They may be attracted to your book because your photo looks familiar. Torry Martin has funny photos. Comedians can get away with a bit of silliness. If comedy is your brand of writing, by all means, have a silly photo. Even that needs a professional hand to make it shine.

Poses

Your professional pose will appear on all your social media. Make sure it’s your best. Skip the “model” poses. You know what I mean. My six-year-old granddaughter strikes those poses the minute grandpa gets out his camera.

I once receive a business card from an up and coming writer with an odd photo. She was leaning sideways and her hair drooping in that direction. Her head at an awkward angle. Someone else noticed the photo while I was flipping through the business cards I’d received at the conference. They asked if the person was mentally challenged. So sad. Her latest photo is top-notch and speaks confident writer.

Update your photo

Over the course of my writing career, I have had five photos. The first one appeared in a column I wrote for the newspaper. I couldn’t find a copy to post here. That was back in the 90s before we had digital cameras.  It was face forward from the neck upward. Not very flattering if I recall. But face forward for a thumbnail picture is probably the best pose. The paper’s photographer took the picture and the paper chose the pose. Probably why I didn’t care for it.

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First photo taken by Hubby

 

Years later I needed a photo for an article. Here is the one my hubby took. He takes great landscapes and tries to make sure the lighting is good when he photographs family members. This was taken with a simple digital camera. Not bad and I could crop it as a headshot pretty easily. It appeared on my Facebook page when I first got an account. Not professional but at least I’m dressed up an smiling.

 

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Second semi-pro photo

The second picture was taken by a young lady just getting into photography. Like the first—no touch ups and easy to crop. This replaced my FB picture and was the first pose on my blog. (If anyone knows how to delete old profile pictures permanently so they don’t reappear when I post my blog or Goodreads reviews on social media, message me.)

Small head shot of Cindy Huff

Cropped professional shot

 

My third headshot was done by a pro. He canceled his day of appointments and forgot to tell me. So, when I called and said I was waiting at his studio, he came and took them anyway. The happy ending is he gave all the proofs to me for free for the inconvenience he caused. There was no touch up here either.

My most recent headshots are below. These are my two favorites from my professional photo shoot. These have been touched up.

Copyrights

I have all the rights. This is important. I can make a zillion copies, place them on anything I want. They are mine and not the photographers. These photos will be used for whatever advertising my marketing people will deem prudent.  Retail store photographer or those studios who focus on graduations, family photos come with watermarks. Legally I can’t make copies. Have you ever tried printing copies of your kid’s senior picture and found it less than satisfactory? Walmart and the like won’t reprint photos that are watermarked. Legal issues again.

Watermarks

These photographers want you to come back to them for copies. Copy sales are part of the meat and potatoes of their business. And there is nothing wrong with that. But for my purposes, the cost of purchasing additional pictures or working with their copyright license doesn’t work for me.

All Rights

I paid for my photo shoot, two photos, and touch-up from a very reputable photographer. He was so fun to work with. He tried a variety of poses and took several snaps to be sure he got the best picture possible. (Side note: Be sure to check references before taking the time and paying for the photo shoot.  And get quotes from more than one photographer.) He made sure the pixelation was suitable for any enlarging or reducing.  I can crop it to any size I want. I want to keep clear of violating any copyright issues, even by accident.

My photos span about 12 years, and I imagine I will be doing a few more updates before my career is over.

Headshot part of brand

DiAnn Mills mentioned in a conference class on social media that our headshot is part of our brand. She’s always wearing a turtleneck in her poses. I am not sure what my brand is. Notice in each photo I am wearing a different color. But, all of them are flattering. Flattering is always good. Some authors create a persona for their headshot. If they write westerns—a cowboy hat.  And as I mentioned silly poses for comedians. Jennifer Hudson Taylor writes Highland fiction so her back cover pose reflects that. Until I can wrap my head around the nuances of branding, I’ll probably stick with a professional pose with (hopefully) a confident smile.

 

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DiAnn Mills

 

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Author Jennifer Hudson Taylor

 

Do you have any tips about headshots or a fun story about your photo? Share it in the comments. I am confident there are things I have yet to learn about it.

 

 

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