Monday, November 28, 2011


Just saw a report on the "Momtrepreneurs," Mommy bloggers who are sharing their insights on products and mom "how to's" and making a living at it. I wonder whether there's a place in the blogosphere for "writerpreneurs..."

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Fun With Google Maps

Researching ancient Assyria for a historical novel I'm writing. I had no idea that ancient Nineveh was in the vicinity of the modern city of Mosul, Iraq. Thank you, Google Maps!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

More Commonly Confused Words

On my website, I have a page dedicated to Commonly Confused Words. Finding them in novels I read helps me realize just how often writers don't understand what words mean. They may hear a word and, having no idea how it  is spelled, not realize that the wrong spelling totally changes the meaning of the sentence. Whatever they intend to communicate is lost.

A good example is the accolade, shouted as an encouragement, especially in Parliament in days long ago: "Hear, hear!" Written out properly, you can see it means, "Listen, listen!" (Meaning: This person has said something worthwhile with which I agree.) For the past few years, however, I've increasingly seen it written: "Here, here!" as in, "Present, present!" (Pronounced PREZ-ent, not pree-ZENT.) That, as you can see, has quite a different meaning, and renders the encouragement, at least in written form, meaningless. (Implication: The person has said something, and I'm in the same location.)

In a novel I'm currently reading (title and author omitted to protect the innocent, namely me!), I came across a word confusion I hadn't previously encountered. The protagonist discovered flecks of paint in a suspicious place. The author (who writes a very entertaining story, by the way) consistently refers to the flecks of paint as specs. "Specs" is a fairly recent word, being an abbreviation of specifications. The singular is spec, from specification. For writers, on spec is short for on speculation, which means you're writing something hoping an editor will buy it for a magazine. (The opposite of on spec is on assignment.)

What the author meant was that there were specks of paint, tiny little flecks of color that weren't where they were supposed to be. Instead, I thought of the qualities of the paint, not the size.

When we as writers use the wrong word, either through our mistake or (Heaven forbid!) our editor's, we run the risk of losing readers. While this author has not lost me, because the story is in a contemporary setting and it's otherwise so well written, had it been set before the 1960s, I'd have put it aside in a heartbeat. Spec in that case would not only have been a confused word but an anachronism. (See my last post.) Loyal readers are worth their weight in gold, now more than at any other time in history. So many other options are available to potential readers--film, TV, internet, etc.--that we want to do all we can to encourage them to read our stories. Taking the time to find the right word may not seem like much, but words are the tools of our craft. Using them correctly is the mark of a master craftsman.

What are your favorite (or least favorite) confused words?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tackling Anachronisms

As a reader, I love entering the past. Letting go of the modern world, losing myself in whatever time frame the book is set--what a delight! I can completely forget the complexities and annoyances of the twenty-first century, unless----
-------SCREECH! CRASH!---------
I'm suddenly catapulted out of the past by an anachronism.

What's an anachronism, you ask? From the Greek ana not and chron time, an anachronism is a reference to some word, object, character or the like that doesn't belong in the story's time-frame. It can be something simple, like referring to the hero's cell phone, when the hero is living in 1977, or having a totally fashion-conscious heroine of an 1880 romance wearing a bustle.

Eliminating anachronisms from writing can be tricky. Half the time they sneak in without our even realizing it. Sometimes our proofreaders don't catch them. The editors can miss them. In fact, we may never know we've used one until the first letters from readers arrive. And readers can be really irate!

Some I've run across lately include using the honorific Ms. in historical novels before the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Ms. first came into more common usage. Finding a heroine referred to as Ms. Smith in a book set in the early 1900s throws me right out of the book. That's not to say I won't go back and read it, anyway, especially if I like the characters and the plot, but it makes it harder for me to let go and enjoy it the way I would if the heroine were Miss Smith before her marriage and Mrs. Jones afterward. (Or whatever the surnames are. You get the point.)

Honorifics should be easy. Something a little trickier is wildlife. I'm currently reading a mystery novel in a series set during the American Civil War (AKA the War Between the States). One of the two main protagonists was in a graveyard when she was startled by a flock of starlings. She wasn't as startled as I was! The first mating pair of European Starlings was brought to the United States by some misguided soul in 1891 or thereabouts, some thirty years after the novel was set. Now if the author had had the protagonist startled by a murder of crows, I wouldn't have put the book aside until I recovered from the experience.

Sometimes anachronisms are the result of our forgetfulness. We simply don't think about whether or not something was available or invented by a certain time, and even doing basic research may not reveal it to us. What can we do about it? Read books that were written in the time period, if available. (Obviously, it's harder to get hold of a novel written in Old Norse or ancient Greek.) Check into wildlife books, flora as well as fauna. (I still smile when I think about the American Robin in the 1960s movie "Mary Poppins." That isn't truly an anachronism, but a related faux pas.) If you can find them, read wildlife books from the time frame in which you are interested. Over time, migration patterns and nesting areas can change. Species that are extinct now may have once been prevalent, like the American Passenger Pigeon.

Technology is another bugbear. Yes, there were clocks in the Middle Ages. No, they did not have minute hands. And forget about second hands! Different parts of the world developed at their own pace. You might find steel swords in one part of the world and iron swords in a neighboring kingdom.

Hey, nobody ever said writing historicals was a walk in the park! It's a challenge, but if you're up to it, you may find it a truly rewarding one.

It isn't always easy to research the past on the internet, but it can be your first stop...on your way to the library!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Continuing the gardening analogy...

Yesterday, I posted about how writing is like gardening. Today, I'm comparing it to yard work.

The road where we live is maintained by the county. That includes sending huge mowing tractors out in late spring to cut down all the weeds. For weeds, read wildflowers, small shrubs, and sapling trees. Unless the people living on the property keep the top part of their property clear of grasses and vines, the county will do it for them, in order to keep down fire danger and enhance road visibility. I understand all that. I really do.

Until last year, I had an understanding with the driver of the tractor responsible for our stretch of frontage. After he basically destroyed everything in his path, I went out and asked him not to do that again, because we want our trees. He left it alone after that, and the trees and wildflowers I'd sown in a moment of madness flourished. Then last year, he must have retired, because I was waked early one morning by the sound of trees being chewed by machinery. New driver. Once I'd mourned over the loss of the mulberry and the rest of the trees, he apologized, and asked repeatedly if I didn't want it to look better. The problem was, his idea of looking better and mine were miles apart!

Having spotted the mowing tractors on the edge of town last weekend, I knew that time had come again. This morning, I went out as early as I could (which was already too late in the day for the heat), and used my little string trimmer to whack a goodly portion of the frontage. Goodbye, pussytoes, Queen Anne's lace, grapevines! Hello bare ground and stubble. I'm still not finished, and I hope to get the rest of it done before they make their way down the road. I'm trying to keep the lilies and small trees.

The way this relates to writing concerns self-editing. That's one thing most of us writers hate to do, since we love our prose the way some people love children or pets. The unhappy truth remains, however, that unless we ruthlessly edit ourselves, the editor at the publishing house who buys our work will do it for us. And, instead of just taking out the grasses & poison ivy, the wildflowers and small trees may get cut as well.

How can we tell the difference between the good writing and the bad? What does a poison ivy paragraph look like? To learn that, you need to read omniverously. Especially read in the field where you want to be published, but don't stop there. Read other genres. Read books on writing by authors you trust. Stay informed about changes in grammar and usage by checking into books like the Chicago Manual of Style. The more you polish your skills, the less work an editor will have to do.

Once you've established a good working relationship with an editor, you may think you can slow down on the self-editing. Sadly, editors don't always stay at the same publishing house. You may be handed to a new editor who doesn't understand your style or get your voice. The more work you do yourself, before the editor sees your manuscript, the less you'll have to do later!

Happy Writing! And try to do your yard work before or after the heat of the day!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Growing Ideas

Sometimes we try something new and it doesn't seem to work. That happened when I tried to join Networked Blogs back a while. Tonight, I discovered that a few more steps were involved than I previously thought. I'm in the process of verifying the blog, and, once that's done, it ought to be posting on Facebook every time I come up with an idea to blog.

Writing can be like that. You come up with a wonderful idea, but you can't seem to make it work. That has happened to me many times. I think many writers struggle with this problem. What we have to realize is that an idea is not enough to make a good story. The idea is just the starting point. Without hard work, the idea fizzles out, leaving the writer frustrated.

I like to compare writing to gardening. Ideas are like the seeds we plant, hoping a wonderful story will grow. Before we begin to create the story, however, we should prepare the ground: set the stage with characters, places, plotlines. Then we plant our little idea and water it, watching it grow. If we've properly laid the groundwork, it starts becoming a good story. Unless we're careful, however, weeds can invade our story ground. The pernicious weed of Too Many Subplots can choke our story. Going Off On A Tangent can twist our plot out of recognition. The Secondary Character can take over the story, causing unhealthy growth. Like a good gardener, we must recognize the weeds when we see them and root them out. If we protect the plant from weeds and from outside attacks, we should be able to grow a good story!

Happy Gardening! er, Writing!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

God of the Empty Tomb

Sometimes you start a project with few hopes for its success. That's the way it was for me with our church's production of the Easter musical, "God of the Empty Tomb." We listened to the demo CD as I read the score. It seemed less than reverent to us. The singers on the CD all had good voices, but they lacked something, and that made us wonder how we were going to turn this into a production that would please the Lord.

As the choir practiced the songs, I could tell an immediate difference. The CD performers are professionals. We aren't. Despite the general lack of training for most of our choir, we still sound better than the album. As I sought the reasons, one thing became glaringly clear.

We all BELIEVE what we're singing. We've experienced God's love in our lives, even when going through trials and tragedies, and we KNOW He lives. 

I don't know how many of the performers on that demo CD are Christians. Maybe a few. Maybe many. I know the stress of performing in a studio. It can be overwhelming. That could be one contributing factor. I hope they all know Him. I pray for any who don't, to come to know Him, to believe the words written in that pageant.

All I know is this: when you have a group of people praying for the Lord to use them for His glory, He will.

How does this relate to writing? Here are some thoughts.
  • Do you believe what you're writing? If you don't, your readers won't, either. 
  • Are your characters flesh-and-blood people, or pawns you're shoving around a chessboard of plot? While some stories are designed to be plot-driven without much characterization, you still need to make your readers care about the outcome of the story. If they don't feel something for the inhabitants of the planet Xifantiroc, it won't mean anything to them when you destroy it.
  • Is the ending in doubt? Your readers will wonder whether your hero can win if you've given him setback after setback. Otherwise, they're liable to think something like, "So, he saved the day again. Ho hum." Make them truly believe he may utterly fail. It will make his success all the sweeter.
  • Is your finished work greater than the sum of the parts? It takes a lot of people to make a successful production. A story's parts must all work together to give reader satisfaction.
Writing a story and putting on a play are a lot alike in many ways. While writing is generally solitary, and a theatrical production just the opposite, the end results are the same. You put in a lot of work, and, if you do it correctly and have the right support, you bring it to a successful conclusion.

Have a blessed Passover and Resurrection Day!

Photo courtesy of and copyright by Kathleen Davis.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Hidden salt

Good Morning America had a segment on hidden sodium in foods. That got me thinking about hiding things in our writing.

Food manufacturers & restaurants add sodium to the things we eat & drink for a couple of different reasons. One is for flavor, to enhance the taste of something that might otherwise be bland and uninteresting. The other is as a preservative. While too much sodium can lead to heart & kidney problems, too much "salt" in our writing can lead to reader indigestion.

What do I mean by salt in writing? It can be anything, really...
  • Historical snippets inserted into a novel set back in time to give it a feeling of authenticity
  • Describing things as your viewpoint character sees them (easy to overdo)
  • Adding in author worldview
  • Making note of details, such as what the characters are wearing, driving, reading, etc.
A little salt in writing goes a long way. The salt should never overpower the plot or characterization. It should always be well blended into the story, like a little salt in your muffins. Finding a glob of salt in a muffin is unpleasant. So, too, is an information dump in a story. Stirred in until it's thoroughly mixed, however, where it can't be removed without damaging the story, and your salt will bring out the flavor without harming your reader!

Happy writing!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spring Cleaning

The other day, I started a post about spring cleaning. Whether I forgot to click the "save" button, or the window closed prematurely, I don't know. It was unfinished. When I came back and found the blog entry gone, it made me think about other things that disappear.

Time. Whether you are paying it any mind or not, every second that goes by will never come again. You can make good use of time by accomplishing the things you need to do, spending it with family or friends, taking it to get better acquainted with God through reading His love letter, the Bible, using it to regenerate energy by proper rest and nutrition. You can waste it by frittering it away on things that don't matter. Whatever you think about time, our lives consist of only so much of it. What are you doing with yours? I know I'm not doing enough with mine!

Money. Without a plan, money often disappears without a trace or anything to show for it. When you have very little to start with, every cent can matter. Some things are nonnegotiable, such as paying bills, buying food, keeping some sort of roof over your head and enough clothes on your body to be decent. Sometimes it can be difficult to generate enough income to cover your "outgo."

Family & Friends. These, too, can disappear. Whether we offend a friend and lose them, or move to a new place, through neglect, or terminal illness or accident, it's too easy to lose people we value. What can we do to stay in touch with those we love? Is it a waste of time or money? Hardly! Having people we value in our lives, being someone of value to them in return, offers wonderful benefits to all concerned. A good friend can keep you from losing yourself.

So, as I look around at the raft of things I need to do, I'll keep these in mind. Lord willing, I'm spring cleaning with a purpose this year. To discern what is important, and keep dispense with what isn't...

Happy Spring Cleaning, everyone.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

How Do You Write When You're Sick?

If  you're me, the answer is probably: "Badly." However, if you have the constraints of a deadline (which I currently do not, though I wish I did!), you have to tough through it somehow. How do I think I'll do when I have to push ahead despite feeling dreadful? Will I
  • write anyway even though I'm afraid it's complete drivel and hope there's something I can salvage in editing?
  • not write and feel guilty, knowing I'll have to work extra hard as the deadline approaches?
  • call my agent or editor and explain and hope they can extend the deadline?
  • ask for help?
Currently, when I am too sick to work on my main project, I am sometimes still able to work on plotting for an upcoming project. That's what I did today, when the pounding headache & nausea I'd been struggling to believe wasn't the same virus that's been plaguing my mother finally convinced me that it was.

If you're a writer, with or without deadlines, what do you do? Please share your ideas and suggestions with me! Sorry there's no prize for the best post, but I will post a link to your reply on Facebook, so others can share your insight!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Website Update

After a long hiatus during which I've been writing & editing stories, composing & playing music, and in general trying to survive, I revisited my Hope Chastain website to update the Commonly Confused Words page. It seems almost every time I read a book, I discover yet another word that has been used in place of a similar-sounding (and correct) word. This time it was adverse used in the place of averse, as in "I'm not adverse to that idea." Since adverse means inauspicious, what the author really wanted to say was "I'm not averse to that idea," meaning opposed to or against.

I'm always willing to give writers the benefit of the doubt. After all, it's easy to misuse a word through writing too fast. Fingers flying over the keyboard trying to keep up with the thoughts tumbling from a writer's brain can easily add or subtract letters, changing words and meanings. That's where proofreading comes in.

Proofreading is one of the most difficult of all the arts associated with writing. It's so easy to get caught up in what is said on the page and miss typographical or grammatical errors. My hat is off to all proofreaders everywhere.

Editors can't catch all the mistakes. They get caught up in the story, just as we do. So, writers, it's up to us to catch our own mistakes, so they don't have to!

Happy proofreading, everyone!

Friday, January 28, 2011

A blank page. Waiting to be filled with ideas, plans, thoughts… Perhaps with words, or sketches, or musical notation… Perhaps instead, mathematical equations, chemical formulas, architectural renderings…
Babies are kind of like blank pages. So much wonder in those little eyes…
As we grow older, all kinds of things get written on our page. Sometimes we do the writing. Often, however, other people write things into our lives that we never would have planned. They scribble on our page, add things we don't want, subtract things we do want—in short, people can make a mess of our pages.
At times, we don't even need other people to mess up our page. We do a fine job of it on our own. Letting things annoy us to the point of snapping at those we love… Deliberately going our own way when someone else's way would be better. Choosing to do something that we know is wrong, because we want to. Insisting on having our way at the expense of others.
Do you ever wish you could erase what's on your page? Or, just click "Delete" and eliminate what's on there? You can try to do better, but those mistakes just won't go away. No one else may see them, but you know they're there.
The good thing is, even though you can't make your mistakes and deliberate willful disobedience to the laws of man and God go away, God can. I'm not talking about a "Get out of jail free" card. Some things we do have consequences. People whom we've hurt may never forgive us. Broken laws can lead to fines, jail time, or even capital punishment. While your body may not be free, your spirit can be.
God planned you before the beginning of time. He is willing and able to rescue you from bondage to things from which you'd rather be free. Jesus is the editor who can turn your page into something beautiful.
Are you ready to have your page edited? Just ask Him. He will.