The facts in fiction

Karalee’s Post #97

Research is a necessary part of a writer’s journey. It’s often a major part of developing/designing our characters and it gives depth to our settings and ideas for our plots. As writers we use research to:

  • get facts straight.
  • know our characters’ world enough to be true to the characters’ behaviors and understanding of their world.
  • be authentic to the time era chosen for the story.

This can sound scary and it was for me when I first started writing. What if I got a fact wrong or didn’t describe something the way it really is? My reputation would be ruined before it was even made….

Now I’m more relaxed and don’t panic if I don’t know something when I’m writing. I can make a note of it and even research it later for exactly what I need and not read the entire encyclopedia of information on that subject (like I did before). Like most writers I can easily get lost in research. It’s often  a lot of fun, but it can also be a friend of the procrastinator. See Silk’s post on that subject! Above all else, it can be a huge time eater, consuming oodles and oodles of time.

One of my characters in my murder mystery has family connections to South Africa. I referred to a Kudu horn this week so I did a quick research on the internet to get a good picture of it in my mind. Of course I also read other information regarding Kudu horns and I now know that there is a Kudu poo spitting contest that more than likely I  won’t use in my story, but it still amuses me days later. This is one of the reasons that research eats time. Writers love to read and learn about stuff.

In his last post Joe is researching for his historical fiction novel in order to create an awesome character. Writers need to understand what has made their character the person he/she is in his story and how that character will react in different situations. I can picture Joe frantically writing down all his ‘What if…?” questions while surrounded by a roomful of books depicting the era of the war to end all wars. What if’s are so much fun and dig into the creative part of one’s brain.

At what point can research be enough and the writing begin? This is a question without absolutes for an answer since every writer has their own style AND level of knowledge about their subject. Writing about what you know eliminates much of the research regarding some subjects, but it doesn’t negate the process of developing your characters from birth to where they are presently in their lives. All writers need to build back-story for all major characters as well as most minor ones, although to a lesser extent.


For me, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the writing process.

Fiction is fiction and there is huge room for creativity, but for sure facts need to be correct or some expert out there will call you on it.

I laughed when I read a well known tourist guidebook when I was in Vegas last week. It says that only one building in Vegas tops 100 storeys and that is the Stratosphere. The entry then encourages tourists to go on the bungee-style SkyJump that drops your 108 storeys from said building. Of course my mind sees a huge SPLAT when I envision the bungee chord being longer than the building is high! Technically the guidebook wasn’t incorrect, but my mind saw 100 for the height of the building and 108 for the drop from the top. Then I wondered if survivors got a special deal on their next jump?? 🙂

This week:

  • No, I didn’t go to a cheap poker table in Vegas. (too chicken) Instead I played blackjack for money for the first time and went through my $100.00 almost too quickly to catch anyone else’s body language!  The fun factor didn’t last long, but I had my own feelings to reflect on and a lesson learned.
  • I consciously people watched in Vegas whenever out and about and at different gambling tables. Lots of sights to see!
  • Words written: 2,000.
  • Desserts eaten at buffet – your guess is as good as mine! Cheesecake and Crème Brule are favorites.
  • lots of walking to counteract above.

Happy writing! If I can write in Vegas, I can write anywhere!



Researching research – part 2

Joe’s Post #118

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon -

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon –

kerrSo it’s begun. The researching. Or more accurately, the research has begun to pay off. My first books began to arrive, including a history on Amsterdam. I dug out my old books on WW2 like Anne Frank, The Iron Heel (Jack London), and the Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr (about a German detective before and during the war.)

People have begun to email me back. One amazing gentleman gave me links to the Dutch police during the war. Later in the week, a person at the Dutch Resistance museum led me to a half dozen sites about the resistance.

But the biggest haul was from my friends. They sent me links to look up. They hooked me up with parents or grandparents who had been in Holland during the war. They phoned people on my behalf, brainstormed people or organizations I could contact (like the Dutch consulate!).

Wow. I mean, wow.

I have to say that two weeks ago, I was lost as to how to get the research done. Then I did something us introverted writers hate to do. I talked to people and I asked for help. With the exception of one person, so many people have been keen to help out.

And how cool is that?

So what have I learned?

Without a doubt, an amazingly beautiful woman.

Without a doubt, an amazingly beautiful woman.

Audrey Hepburn was in Holland during the war and that’s super odd since, in my mind, she was the face of the love interest in the book. The policing in Holland was a mess of organizations. That plays well into the story. When the Germans occupied the country, being Germans, they cleaned up who did what, making it all efficient, but before that, it was like the FBI, DEA, state police, local police and the park rangers all trying to figure out who had jurisdiction.

There’s still a lot more to learn. Like I said in my last post, the most important being those details that bring a world to life. Food. Social structure. History, myths and legends. And Helga may be right, the best way to get those is to visit a place. If only I had the money.

If only I had a time machine.

Wait, is there one on Amazon? If not, maybe one of the world traveling 5/5/5 could go in my place!

In the meantime, I have juggle two competing interests. I do love history. Love-Love-LOVE it, but I could spend the next two years looking stuff up, talking to people, following links and get exactly 0 pages written.

So I took another stab at the first 10 pages.

They sucked. AGAIN!!! But at least I’m trying, right? That’s important, right?

In my mind, these first 10 pages were awesome and amazing and something Hemingway would have said, “Dang, yo, you nailed it.” But somehow, when I actually put pen to paper, it came out all crumply and awkward.

Does that ever happen to anyone?

Check out Chuck Wendig’s funny-ass blog on the subject.

So that was the week. Nothing earth shattering in the way or writing or research, but a good start. With all that’s going on in my busy, amazing new life, a ‘start’ is good.

Anyone who may have links, suggestions, questions, or people I can talk to, please reply, write me an email, give me a call or contact me telepathically.


Best Show Last Week – Big Hero 6. We loved it more than the kids. It made me laugh, it made me cry. It made me want to have a balloon-shaped robot.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Gone Girl. Holy sh*t good!

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book minus 10. I consider what I wrote so bad that it actually sucked the life OUT of the book.

# Turkeys eaten – 1 but somehow I forgot the stuffing!!!!!!!!!!!

# of new friends made on Twitter – 21

# books ordered for research – 0 (Books arrived – 2)

Health – so so. Can’t shake this damn cold!

Best Thing Last Week – The information about policing in Holland, but I also got my library mostly done!

Worst Thing – Damn cold



Deconstructing research

Helga’s Post # 94:   I was intrigued with Joe’s last post ‘Researching Research’. I can totally relate to his challenges as he plans his WWII novel set in Holland. He has neatly outlined all the possible sources for doing research: books, workshops, librarians, personal interviews, Internet, and so forth.

All have their usefulness, to a point. Any one of these tools, or taken together, can be a formidable arsenal to a writer of historical fiction.

But the most powerful tool by far an author can use is to ‘walk the location’ just as Joe did for his previous novel set in the California desert. To actually experience a place first-hand will yield information that none of the other sources would be ever be able to yield.

What about the time difference, you may ask. How can a place, a location, yield ‘authentic’ information when the story takes place fifty years ago? Is the location still relevant?

I would like to say a resounding ‘Yes’. Take Holland. (Especially Holland). Do you think the Dutch have changed their innate personality, their characteristics, in fifty years? I don’t think so. Talk to any Dutchman or Dutchwoman and you will find a uniqueness that they got from their parents or grandparents long ago. Traits they will keep for the rest of their lives. Not just Dutch people, of course.

And they still get around mainly by bicycles. Just as they did 50 years ago.

Holland's main transportation - today as always

Holland’s main transportation – today as always

Younger generations of any culture are forever becoming more homogeneous thanks (or perhaps regrettably) to the evolution of technology, especially the Internet. Still, in the end, you can take a Dutch out of Holland, but you can’t take Holland out of a Dutch. None of the tools we talked about – books, libraries, the Internet, etc. – will let a writer glean the subtle differences that will make his or her novel truly authentic. For that, our writer better pack his bags and get to visit the location of his choice.

Easier said than done. Depending on the setting, it could well be unaffordable. Most writers (or first time authors) are not as well-heeled as American bestselling mystery writer Elizabeth George! While she lives in California, her research takes her to Britain on extensive trips, time and again.

But there is still another choice, one that Joe also alluded to in his post: Older family members. I believe that is the next-best thing to actually setting foot on the novel’s location.

I well remember my dad’s stories of WWII. He often repeated the same ones, time and again. No use telling him, ‘dad you already told us’. He didn’t need an audience as much as satisfy his own need to verbalize his experience and in so doing, re-live it over and over. So, while I never was in Russia (well, except for a short trip to touristy St. Petersburg, which doesn’t count), I learned much about the country, seeing it through my dad’s eyes, feeling it through his story-telling in the most minute details.

It also helps if the writer actually grew up or lived extensively in the setting of her novel. My motivation for writing my first novel ‘Closing Time’ was the setting: Vienna. Not only the setting, but the time too – the Cold War era of the late Fifties. That’s where I grew up and I remember much of that period. Come to think of it, I should give Closing Time another try, especially since some time has passed since the sting of the last rejection letter.

Vienna's wine gardens 'Heurigen' today like 100 years ago

Vienna’s wine gardens ‘Heurigen’

But this time there won’t be any more rejection letters. Self-publishing can do that.

Researching research

Joe’s Post #117

So how do you do all this research stuff? I’d love to hear from other writers, especially ones who have worked on a historical novel.

holland 1940For me, this one has become a bit of a challenge. It’s set in WW2. In Holland. I need to know the details if I’m going to bring my book to life. It’s what I got from Don Maass. What’s their favourite hot drink? What do they mix in it? What was the weather like and how did they dress? Were air raid sirens sounding before the war? Did the canals stink at times? What was their form of bread (everyone seems to have a favourite form). How were the Jews treated before the war? Blah, blah, blah.

And there doesn’t seem to be much on the subject.

So let’s look at the options.

First, in this day and age, it’s the internet. Simple searches can reveal links to books, sites and forums that have good information. Find a good one and they’ll lead you to other sources. You can even post on a good board asking for help.

To date, I’ve found a PhD dissertation on Holland from 1850-1950, and that was kinda cool, but lacked the details I need. I guess when you’re writing a PhD paper, you don’t mention how the coffee tasted.

I even wrote 3 emails to experts in Holland, but so far have received one, “I can’t help you,” and 2 no replies.


anne frankNext are books. I had great success with this when I wrote my last book. I found all sorts of great books on serial killers, on brainwashing, on profiling and even on route 66. I have a whole shelf now.

However, here, again, I ran into problems. I ordered a half dozen books online in an effort to get an idea of what life was like. Anne Frank-like books. A pair of histories of life under the German occupation. One on tanks, cuz, you know, I like tanks. And one on the politics between the UK and Holland from 1940-1945 (a text book!)

I know I’ll get some more details, but I’m still thinking it’s not quite enough.

Next step – visit a library. Them librarian-folks gots some big brains on dem so I’m going to tap into their experience and data base and see if they can find any books. Thanks to a suggestion from my amazing brother, I’m also going to go to UBC and bug them there. Who knows if someone else wrote a paper on the toiletries of 1940s Holland.

Lastly, and by far the toughest step, is to actually go and talk to people or walk the location.

I did that in the last book and it made a HUGE difference for me being able to bring the California setting to life. I could see all the little details that my writer’s eye gobbled up (wait, did I mix a metaphor there? Can eyes gobble?) From clothes to salt shakers to ruined gas stations, I was able to mine a ton of great details.

I also talked to people to get a feel for them. Each place has a character and the people in the California desert are no exception. San Francisco is to the desert towns what Rome is to a village in the Cotswolds.

But both those options for this book are limited. However, I’ve reached out to my friends to see if they know people who have lived in that time or who are Dutch or who are just plain interested in helping me. So far, I have recommendations to go and talk to 3 people.

Then I remembered talking to my great-great uncle about WW1. He didn’t much want to talk about some of the details, but I was 10 and loved war in the way that only a 10-year-old can and bothered him until he was able to tell me some of his stories. Most were horrific and fascinating, and form the basis of my character’s experience in WW1.

Huh. People. Talking to them. Yeah. I need to do that. There’s nothing like talking to someone first hand, and talking to several someones may actually give me an idea of what life was like.

heinekenBut it’s all going to take time. More time than I thought it would. I know I can make stuff up if I have to, but depth in setting, real depth, comes from being able to build a world that my readers will want to live in.

So today my books arrive. Today I’ll contact the 3 people to see if I can meet with them.

Any suggestions on what more I could do?


Best Show Last Week. Walking Dead, again. Very few people on the planet could make a lollipop a symbol of oppression.

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book – 10 (yup took a stab at the opening scene. It sucked.

# turkeys eaten – 0!!! Not a one. Nada. So sad.

# of new friends made on Twitter – 73

#books ordered for research – 7

# of people spoken to – 0

# of days I doubted I can actually write this book – 7


Research is the love of learning

Karalee’s Post #87

For me, researching a topic  often pulls me in so many interesting directions that it can be difficult to refocus on the details that really matter. I don’t want to get lost in the milieu of research, rather I need just enough information and details to enrich my story to keep it exciting, or to convince readers that my details and characters are authentic, or to keep my plot line progressing at the proper pace.

Building stories and the world that one’s characters live in is a fun challenge whether it takes place on Earth or on some made-up planet or anywhere else for that matter. Today the internet is the go-to place to search for anything imaginable. It’s a magical place that can entice a person to explore forever and not stop when you’ve found what you were looking for because “everything” is interesting. This can be fun, but not always. It can be a time sucker and prevent real progress, and one can get lost in places never intended to go to in the first place, like Hansel and Gretel.

Focusing on the task in hand can seem almost impossible.

photo by Joanne SmithLast Friday my friend Joanne and I were running  around Burnaby Lake. The sun had caught this spider web, bringing into focus what is often nearly invisible, and we couldn’t help but stop and admire it. Call me crazy, but it made me think of story building and how this spider had to both start and finish somewhere. Not only that, but the purpose of the web itself is to catch food for survival.

Now unless you as a writer have given up your day job and risked everything in order to make a living at writing, the purpose of your story as a writer isn’t literally for survival.

We write because we love to tell stories and build our story worlds and have them make a difference in our reader’s lives, whether for sheer entertainment or for teachable moments when we view our worlds in unique ways.

Research can provide our stories with anything from the foundation up, but it must all be built from the author’s story ideas and  knowledge of this craft called writing. I’m sure spiders learn along the way too and build better webs with practice.

I read this great blog post about research by Tosca Lee on the blog The Kill Zone. Check it out as I feel her method not only makes sense, it is also a good use of one’s time and energy.  Now that’s worth researching.

Happy writing!

Cruising Sunny’s turf

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Silk’s Post #95 — Our summer cruise down the Puget Sound to Seattle this year is immersing me in the setting of the book I plan to finish over the next few months. Re-visiting the haunts of my heroine, Sunny Laine, is plunging me back into the story I started in our 5 Writers challenge in 2012, but never finished. After nearly a year in the bottom drawer, Catch and Release (working title) is back on my desktop.

A couple of days ago, we sailed the sinuous length of Whidbey Island’s west shore, past the beaches Sunny loves to stroll, past the bluffs where she goes to watch the sunset, past the community where her crazy family lives, past the bridge where … but let’s not give away too much here.

I do have to keep a few surprises to myself, for now.

Tomorrow we begin a 5-day stay at the Bell Harbor Marina, just three blocks from Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. It’s about as close to a major city downtown district as a yacht harbour can get. There, I’ll be scouting locations for the book’s scenes. Capitol Hill, where Sunny lives. Washington University, where she studies law. Belltown, where she hunts for … but I’m getting ahead of myself again.

I’m looking forward to soaking up as much of Sunny’s world as I can (without turning our whole summer vacation into a fact-finding mission), knowing I’ll need to come back in late fall when the book’s action takes place. Seattle in late November will be a different world from Seattle in high summer. A much darker world, as befits the plot.

When it comes to writing an authentic setting, there’s nothing quite like being there. (Living there is even better.) When you read James Lee Burke’s New Orleans, or Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, is there any doubt that the writer has the setting deep in his bones? These living, breathing settings are not simply backgrounds against which action takes place. They are more like characters in the story, with a heartbeat all their own.

Yet fantastic settings have been created by authors who never set foot in the place they’re writing about. Obviously, historical novels are set in places and times that can never be experienced again, except through research and the imagination. Fantasy and sci-fi stories often are set in places that exist only in the mind – worlds that the author literally has to build. I marvel at the skill of writers like Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte who transport us to vivid historical settings. I’m in awe of fantasy masters like J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling who have imagined worlds so vast and detailed that they take on a life of their own. And even readers who don’t delve deeply into the sci-fi genre are transfixed by greats like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, who invented their own cosmos.

I’m starting with a more modest goal: to see and feel real places through the eyes of a made-up character who’s different in age, temperament, background, experience, wants and challenges than myself. That seems like a pretty tall order already.

And then I’ll be looking for some beta readers who really do know the settings intimately. What gaffes might a reader who lives in the actual setting find? Will there be local expressions and shorthand names for local landmarks that I’m blissfully unaware of? Did I get the food right? The weather? The character of the neighbourhoods? Ethnic mix? Local transportation habits? Dress codes? How about longstanding local tensions, or points of pride? It only takes one tone-deaf sentence to reveal to a reader who really knows a place that the writer … doesn’t.

Real “local knowledge” shines through (even if the place is imaginary). When you read a book whose setting rings with authenticity, it’s a transporting experience. You’re there. You can see, hear, smell, taste and feel it.

Now, there’s no shortage of advice for writers on the subject of settings. Plenty of how-to books and articles and workshops. But for me, the most important thing about a great, authentic setting is that it’s not just a place. It’s a whole culture. A world that’s specific and unique, and at the same time full of the diversity that makes the real world … real.

Some writers are terrific researchers. Others are blessed with soaring imaginations. Creating a memorable setting takes both skills in spades. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to with enthusiasm – and not a little trepidation.

And I’m open to suggestions! How do you research, conceive, imagine and polish your settings?

Black sheep



Paula’s Post #76  — My apologies for being a wee late with my post this week, but I’ve been travelling in Scotland. Part of this trip is to reconnect with the relatives in Scotland, but this journey also affords an opportunity for me to visit the Western Isles, specifically Skye, the setting for my latest novel.

If you’ve travelled in this remote region, you’ll know the staggering beauty of these rugged islands and the warmth and courtesy of the people. I haven’t yet been able to download my photos, but would like to share with you just a few of my impressions.

1) The roads in Scotland are scary – really scary. My husband is driving and I spend much of the time yelling out ‘mirror’ meaning we are about to crash said passenger side mirror into a wall or a parked vehicle. My husband then immediately shouts back ‘truck’ meaning a huge oncoming lorry is bearing down on us, scaring us silly and crowding us off the road. My husband is an excellent driver and has driven on the ‘left side’ in the UK many times, but the narrow mountain roads of ‘The Highlands’ are a new challenge. Thankfully, we’ve only bashed the mirror once, and it seems to have survived the experience unscathed.

2) The Western Isles are a great place for writing… provided you’ve brought enough adapters for your ‘devices’ and don’t need the internet. Are we typical travellers? I don’t know, but between us, we’ve assembled one laptop, two iPads and four iPhones. Oh, and the 99 pence Scottish Pay-As-You-Go phone we bought the first day for the purpose of making local phone calls here. The first seven devices require charging frequently, – unfortunately, we have only one electrical adapter so we are severely hampered in our ability to keep ‘current’ (pardon the pun). But the lack of ‘current’ pales in comparison to the availability of internet signal. While we did have reasonably good service at our lovely hotel in Skye, our subsequent stops in Oban and pastoral Dumfries and Galloway have been a ‘challenge’. In the latter, we stayed with my husbands relatives, a charming couple in their 80’s who are incredibly active and vigorous, but see no need for ‘connectivity’: no mobile phones,  no computers… no Wi Fi. How quaint.

3. Daylight: If you write best when it is light out, this is the place for you. When we were on Skye, I found myself researching my families history well into the wee hours of the morning. Glancing up from time to time, I was surprised to see that it was still light past 11 o’clock at night. I admit I got a little carried away and carried on until it was ‘dark’. But even I was shocked when i heard ‘tweet tweet’ … ‘tweet tweet’ … and discovered the birds wake up and start singing somewhere around 3 am… because it was already getting light again.

4. Darkness: This is not the place to write if you require the cloak of darkness for inspiration.

5. Family History – Are you a MacDonald or MacLeod? Between the beginning of the 19th C and the middle of that century, Scotland suffered through a period of ‘depopulation’. The Highlands, and particularly the Western Isles such as Skye, Lewis and Harris were hardest hit. the crofters’ livelihood disappeared when traditional farming and kelping industries collapsed and the landlords moved to sheep as a more profitable alternative. This lead to the infamous Highland Clearances, a time when poor tenant farmers were evicted from farms to make way for grazing. Like the Irish, these incredibly poor families survived on a diet primarily based on the potato, but when that crop became blighted and failed, people starved. Emigration schemes linked to eviction, left little choice to the crofters. Though, as my own family research has discovered, not all left voluntarily. Either way, the greatest loss occurred in the islands, particularly Skye… and times of great turmoil lead to many dramatic stories. One of these stories, I’m planning to tell. The story of the ‘black sheep’ of my family.

But that’s enough of a hint for now.

We’ve now left Scotland after a fabulous visit with the rellies in Dumfries and Galloway, in the Southwest. We spent last night in historic York and this morning, we will be exploring the City. I’m sure I’ll find inspiration for a hundred more stories, but for now, I’ll resist temptation and try to focus on Skye.




Does a writer need to be right to write?

Karalee’s Post #72 —

Okay, so I’m a perfectionist. As a writer I often feel that this is a disadvantage.

It makes sense that to lead a balanced life everything should be in moderation. This means everything from food intake, exercise, work, play, cooking, hobbies, etc.

But it’s extremes that make a story more interesting. Take Helga’s last post for instance, and how experiencing the (extreme) unexpected was refreshing and added energy and interest to her desire to write. Readers want those extremes in stories they read too.

Does that mean that writers need to know the extremes of what they want to write about? In my opinion I would say no. Not at first. Rather, what writers need to know or research to understand, are the norms.

Then start asking the age old jump-start-your-ideas question, “what if?” Keep asking the question and pushing the normal until you get an extreme that excites you and you can build your story around.

So what’s my problem? Why do I feel being a perfectionist is a hindrance to me?

More often than not I feel such a strong urge to “make sure what I write is right” that it often prevents me from getting out of the starting gate. How can I push the extreme unless I know exactly what it’s all about or how it really works?

Is this a form of writer’s block?

I read the blog The Kill Zone today and it was about this subject and Joe Moore’s opinion about what is behind it. I tend to agree a whole lot with his view.

So no, I don’t have writer’s block, I have writer’s fear. Fear of being wrong about my concept, scientific details, geographic details, etc., etc. It does stop my progress, or rather my beginningness!

How do I overcome my tendency to want to know everything before I start? Are there other writers like me out there?

Research is important, sure, but one can’t research forever, and if you are like me, research will never be enough to soothe me since there will always be more details to learn.

I’ve been working hard on personal issues and growth the last year or so and it has come to light that my reluctance to dive in and expose myself to writing something that might be “wrong” is due to childhood issues of never being good enough, and it has fed a negative loop I’m finding hard to break.

I’m a bright person and can use this to my advantage. I know what this “extreme” feels like and I can use it in my writing. And, as for not knowing “everything” before I start writing, the details I don’t know need to be put into perspective. From the experience of writing my first two books, I know that the details that need to be fixed are usually minor, or an expert can help me with that particular event to make it “real.”

In effect I really don’t need to know it all. Or even very much of it!

The secret is to simply WRITE. Don’t let not knowing the in-depth details of something stop the writing in progress. Leave a blank and keep going. Leave lots of blanks or put in details you think will work and review it later. It doesn’t really matter when you are in the middle of creative output. What does matter is to keep writing!

Fill in the blanks or make changes later. Some plot points may need to be altered, but the important thing is that good progress has been made AND I now know exactly where/what details I need to find out about. In effect, my research has been narrowed down!

I find it very interesting that the blanks are often minor details that are important, but won’t take all your time (days, weeks…) of research, most of which I don’t need to use or know about.

If you are looking for interesting tips on developing your writing skills, I find the following blogs a great read: and

Also, for interesting extreme behaviours and/ or life circumstances, you may want to watch the Dr. Phil show!

Happy writing!




The curious mind of a writer

Silk’s Post #62 — Writers are the original life-long learners. Don’t we have to be? They say, “write what you know.” The corollary: if you don’t know anything, you don’t have anything to write about – except perhaps your own memoir.

Hmm … could that explain the high percentage of new writers who start with a personal memoir?

While most of us are motivated by some weird creative gene that seems to compel us to express ourselves in words, I wonder whether there’s an even deeper need that we fulfill by becoming writers: the craving for knowledge, for novelty, for understanding, for bigger horizons. We writers thrive on learning.

Looked at from that perspective, there’s never been a better time in the history of the world to be a writer. The Internet is a researcher’s paradise, this is well-known. But it’s also now becoming a spectacular, populist institute of learning. A virtual bazaar of courses, workshops and training. You can find everything from tutoring for kids who are behind in school, to specialized courses and coaching for professionals (like writers), to advanced university courses – even certificate and credit courses.

Well, this is to be expected, you might think. The Internet is just one big marketplace. It offers as great an opportunity to sell education as to sell all the other stuff cluttering cyberspace: shoes, show tickets, air travel, porn, cars, books, guns, antiques, hotel rooms, real estate … the whole overwhelming avalanche of commercial goods and services that now tumble into our very homes through a thin wire or an invisible wave.

What’s amazing, though, is how many of these learning opportunities are absolutely FREE. At least for now. So take advantage.

Here are three FREE resources that I’ve recently looked into. Did I mention they’re FREE? Check them out!

1. Coursera® –


The blurb: Sounds too good to be true, but happy users say that it’s the real deal …

We believe in connecting people to a great education so that anyone around the world can learn without limits.

Coursera is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds.

We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

The courses: Everything from science to humanities. A few of the listings today (tell me if you don’t see a few fantastic writer’s thought starters here) …

  • The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Color (Wesleyan University)
  • Surviving Disruptive Technologies (University of Maryland)
  • Introduction to International Criminal Law (Case Western Reserve University)
  • Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction (University of Virginia)
  • Artificial Intelligence Planning (University of Edinburgh)
  • Introduction to Forensic Science (Nanyang Technological University)
  • Statistics: Making Sense of Data (University of Toronto)
  • Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets (Brown University)
  • Introduction to Astronomy (Duke University)
  • Human Trafficking (Ohio State University)
  • Early Renaissance Architecture in Italy (Sapienza University of Rome)
  • Unpredictable? Randomness, Chance and Free Will (National University of Singapore)
  • Constitutional Law (Yale University)
  • Experimental Genome Science (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Unethical Decision Making in Organizations (University of Lausanne)
  • The Music of the Beatles (University of Rochester)
  • Drugs and the Brain (California Institute of Technology)
  • Climate Change in Four Dimensions (University of California, San Diego)
  • Buddhism and Modern Psychology (Princeton University)
  • Nanotechnology and Nanosensors (Technion – Israel Institute of Technology)
  • A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior (Duke University)
  • Image and video processing: From Mars to Hollywood with a stop at the hospital (Duke University)
  • History of the Slave South (University of Pennsylvania)
  • And my favourite-sounding course of all time: How to Change the World (Wesleyan University)

The universities: Nearly 500 globally (multiple languages), most of which are nowhere near you, and you couldn’t afford to go to anyway.

2. Khan Academy –


The blurb: This invention of genius Salman Khan (with three degrees from MIT and an MBA from Harvard) is a ground-breaking resource that started microscopically and has bloomed into a towering mission, attracting support from luminaries like Bill Gates along the way …

A free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We’re a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.

All of the site’s resources are available to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. Khan Academy’s materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge.

The courses: A big emphasis on school-age tutoring, math and science, but spreading out into the arts and humanities, and economics. Includes amazing “partner content” from institutions like the Museum of Modern Art.

3. TED – Ideas worth spreading –


The blurb: For the three people in the world who know less about TED Talks than I do …

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference and TEDGlobal — TED includes the award-winning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

TED conferences bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).

On, we make the best talks and performances from TED and partners available to the world, for free. More than 1500 TED Talks are now available, with more added each week. All of the talks are subtitled in English, and many in other languages, too. These videos are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license, so they can be freely shared and reposted.

The courses: Not courses as such, but rather a variety of methods for idea-sharing, including a web portal that could keep you busy for months mining for gems. Here are their recommended 11 “classic talks” for newcomers to TED (all on the website):

  • Ken Robinson: How schools kill creativity (2006), a moving case for creating an education system that nurtures creativity.
  • David Gallo: Underwater astonishments (2007), jaw-dropping footage of amazing sea creatures.
  • Sarah Kay: If I should have a daughter … (2011), a poet’s personal metamorphosis from wide-eyed teenager to a teacher connecting kids with the power of self-expression.
  • Hans Rosling: The best stats you’ve ever seen (2006), a statistics guru debunks myths about the so-called “developing world”>
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story (2009), a novelist tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice, and warns of the dangers of listening to a single voice rather than many.
  • Johnny Lee: Free or cheap Wii Remote hacks (2008), how to build sophisticated educational tools out of cheap parts.
  • Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability (2010), insights from studies of human connection, our ability to empathize, belong, love.
  • Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injustice (2012), a human rights lawyer shares some hard truths about America’s justice system, with its massive imbalance along racial lines.
  • Bjarke Ingles: 3 warp-speed architecture tales (2009), a Danish architect rockets through photo/video-mingled stories of his eco-flashy designs.
  • Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are (2012), a social psychologist shows how “power posing” – simply standing in a posture of confidence – affects your brain chemistry and chances of success.
  • David Christian: The history of our world in 18 minutes (2011), a complete history of the universe from the Big Bang to the Internet, narrated with stunning illustrations.

That should keep you busy for the rest of the week!

Facial expressions and the element of surprise

Karalee’s Post #45

I spend a significant amount of time in the kitchen as I believe in cooking from scratch for my family. I’ve decided to lighten up my cooking time and instead of watching Criminal Minds or Drugs, Inc. to satisfy my bent for mystery and the criminal element in my writing, I’ve turned to Just for Laughs: Gags.

I haven’t laughed so hard in years.

The gags generally rely on one main theme: the element of surprise. And the reason behind the surprise determines the facial expressions. For instance:

  • people try to make sense out of what is obviously non-nonsensical. How could anyone think that a dead chicken wrapped in saran could move and squawk? Or a filing drawer from a two foot cabinet be pulled out thirty feet?
  • for some reason body functions especially farts are a source of embarrassment in our society and seem to be especially funny if it’s from a woman. Imagine sit-ups. By-standers expressions are hilarious.
  • Sex is even more entertaining especially if it is between old people
  • people are generally very helpful, but when something unexpected happens their reactions range from shock, disbelief, and amazement. The variation of expressions, and whether the person stands frozen in inaction or react quickly to help, is amazing.
  • people stare in fascination and generally (surprisingly to me) in a state of indecision when someone is obviously doing something wrong right in front of their eyes. It took me a couple of episodes to realize that the person in the “wrongdoing” was also in a position of authority such as a policeman. Who does one turn to when a policeman is trying to go after a “thief” and rams the cars both in front and behind his cruiser to get out of his parking spot in a hurry?
  •  And you can just imagine the expressions on those trying to cover up for a nun nursing a baby, especially when they “admit” the baby is theirs and the nun runs off and leaves the baby behind. 

People’s reactions to the element of surprise is amazing. Their expressions are genuine and seemingly exaggerated, and right there for writers to study.

Not only will you be entertained watching Just for laughs: Gags, it is a must show for writers to watch facial expressions and body language.