Character matters

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

Joe’s Post #167 — Trying to get re-inspired to write has been a bit of a challenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot, which is something I do instead of writing, and this time, my thoughts have turned to character.

I want to make my characters real. Alive. Compelling. Full of good and bad.

I got hammered on a few short stories for lack of character depth. Oh, how much easier it would be to have a written story with theme music and linked sites to show the character’s backstory and they challenges they faced.

But, sadly, I’m not a director. Nor a movie maker. I’m a fiction writer and I need to find a way to bring my characters to life better.

So I looked at the novel I’m reading. No help there. It’s Baldacci and while he’s a best-selling writer and a darned good writer of thrillers, his characters are, at best, shallow and under developed.

Then I watched Babakook with my 13 year old. Apart from being terrified, a light bulb went off. This movie shows people in their worst state. It ripped open their ugly inner selves for the world to see.

And that got me thinking.

Is that what makes a good character?

a-game-of-thrones-book-1-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fireOh, lord there’s a lot of advice on this, but for me, it’s someone who’s complex. Queen Cersei from the Game of Thrones is a vicious, vindictive woman who has sex with her brother. A lot.


Yet, she loves her children unconditionally.  No matter what kind of monsters they are.

She has a code. Protect the ones she loves at all costs.

Even if she ignores all the bad stuff. Like, ah, tossing other people’s children from towers.

Doesn’t that make her more compelling?

So how do I make mine compelling?

Make them less…. Good?


So, I grabbed a glass of wine, sat in my favourite chair and began to challenge my character’s goodness. When my main character is drowning in a WW1 shell hole what if there is someone in there with him? Someone drowning too. Make him not alone. Make it not a lonely struggle.

Good. Hmmm. I’m liking this.

Now, he’s the type of guy who would save the other man. He’s the hero type. But what if instead of saving the other man, in his panic, in his fear of drowning, he steps on top of the other man to free himself? He’s 16. He’s shell-shocked. He’s living out his worst fear…

shell shock What if, later, they called him a hero for what he did in that battle, after he got out of that hole? What if he never told anyone what happened?

What if it became his darkest secret?

What if that moment in the shell hole haunts him forever? Defines him?

Hmmmm. I’m getting closer to making him a more compelling character, right?

Still more to do, but oddly enough, I’m more inspired to write about this guy, and that’s never a bad thing.

So now I need to look at the other characters. Maybe find some good in the villain?


Is this how good characters are made? Or are there any other suggestions?



Always be learning

Joe’s Post #154

IMG_2269 (800x599)As a writer, as a human being, as a full-on weirdo, there’s one thing I should always be doing.

ABL. Always. Be. Learning.

Like the famous speech in Glengarry, Glen Ross. (Parental discretion advised.)

But not, you know, always be closing. Always be learning.

So even when I’m writing on my novel or fixing it or staring at the words I’ve written and wondering what the hell made me think this was a good idea, I continue to try to learn something new that will help me be a better writer, a better blogger or just a more annoying history buff.

This week, I looked at three things I wanted to share.

First, the Writer’s Digest Platform Challenge for October. Check it out. I have a link. Lots of good stuff if you’re just starting out a blog, but also some interesting exercises if you have one up and running.

Here are a few examples. Day 8. Find and share a helpful article. We do this on our blog (or at least share links) but it’s a good reminder to connect with the community at large. It’s something I need to work on with my own blog.

Day 9. Call to Action. I have to confess, this one has me baffled. We’ve not gotten a lot of comments on our blog and when I read other blogs, I see they often do. I’m not sure what we’re doing wrong. Any suggestions? (this is my call to action.)

Day 18. Interview an Expert. Oh, I like this one. Paula talked to an ex-sheriff, but I’m going to task that for next week. Stay tuned. I’m agonna find someone who knows something about something.

sniper 3. Apparently i'm in there somewhere.

Sniper 3. Apparently I’m in there somewhere.

Day 20. Search yourself. Hmmm. Seems Joe Cummings writes travel books. Seems Joe Cummings had a stranger living in his apartment. Seems there’s a Canadian poet named Joe Cummings. So not me. Seems Joe Cummings is an actor in Sniper.

So, yeah, seems I’m a lot of things, but none of them me.

Try justjoebc as a search and see what you find. I dominate that one. Oh, yeah, baby. Yeah.

I think I’ll go back and do up a plan for next week. I should be able to do 2 a day and catch up a bit.

Anyone else willing to give this a try?

Second thing learned.

Black Soldiers in WW1

Black Soldiers in WW1

Watched 8 hours of WW1 footage for my novel. Pretty interesting stuff. I’m going to steal all sorts of facts for my character’s background. After all, that war defined him. But the most interesting thing I learned is that while the US refused to integrate its army into the French army (for good reason), they did integrate their colored regiments, who were treated quite differently in that army than in their own.

Last thing.

I re-learned how important it is to have a support group, a critique group, or just a few writing friends who’ll be there to help you when you need it.

Holland WW2

Holland WW2

See, something was wrong with my first 60 pages. I dunno what the hell it was, but something was nagging at me. Nagging bad. But after spending time with one friend (and Friday, another), I should have it all sorted out.

Funny what a new set of eyes can see that you can’t.

So, if you’re ever stuck, go phone a friend. It’s advice from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

At that’s it from me for this week.


Page count:  90ish (but see that thing about having to redo some of it)

5/5/5 Word count. I dunno. 22,000

Words that will get thrown out: Probably 21,000

Blogs written: 1 (but a burst of 5 starts tomorrow on Just A Stepdad.)

Exercise days: 0 – sick as a dog for most of last week

Movies Seen: Fury Road (with the boys). The Martian (maybe it was that time of month for me, but I teared up a lot). San Andreas (with the youngest boy, a movie that proves if you go by a formula, you’ll suck. Even with the Rock.)

Book I’m Reading: Something From The Nightside by Simon R. Green (a book akin to the one I wrote for the Tor open call).




Researching characters

Joe’s Post #120 

William "Wild Bill" Donovan, future head of CIA

William “Wild Bill” Donovan, future head of CIA

Researching characters? Say what?

Has anyone ever done research to help create a character?

Well, that’s what I’m doing. It’s because I’m writing a historical thriller. It’s because a character is built from their past. It’s because of what has happened to them,shapes them. Defines them.

It’s how they see the world. All plot flows from their experiences, training, and personality. All descriptions are seen through their eyes, which has seen so many things before. It’s how they deal with relationships, with adversity, with success or failure.

So how can research help?

Well, once again, I’m just me. But once I have an idea of a character, I need to know their past. For this story, I looked at the Great War and how it affected people. I remember talking to my great-uncle about his experiences. I was 10 and he was, gosh, old, I guess. Really old. He got a funny look on his face when I asked him about it. Like he wasn’t there suddenly.

I thought old age. But he came back and told me a horrific story of being gassed. He told the story with intensity, like it mattered that I know it, like it was yesterday, like it still terrified him. When he was done, he was exhausted, his eyes were wet, and he said, “No one should ever have to experience war.”

That war changed him in a very deep way.

Know this fellow? He was deeply affected by WW1.

Know this fellow? He was deeply affected by WW1.

So for this story, I began to read more about that war to end all wars. I knew I wanted my character to suffer. I wanted that war to transform him. So how could I make a horrific, truly horrific war even worse? What role could he have played in the war? How could he have been scared physically, emotionally?

I came up with a flamerthrower carrier. A man who burned other men alive. A man who every German machine gunner tried to kill over all others. How would THAT affect him?

Or, how would he deal with gas or drowning in the water-filled shell holes? Wait, water-filled, what if he couldn’t swim? What if he fell in with a 50lb tank of gasoline on his back and began to sink in the watery mud, struggling, clawing, tearing at the sides of the hole, sinking deeper, going under once, fighting for breath, going under, twice, terrified…

And who could save him who would later reappear in his life? Or would he save himself? Would he learn he could count on people or learn there was only himself?

But no, dammit, the US army didn’t use flamethrowers. History was against me, this time. Next week I’ll talk a bit about fact vs fiction, but for now, dammit, no flamethrowers.

So what if I replace the flamethrower with a wounded friend he was carrying? Hmmm.

Would his parents have been interned?

Would his parents have been interned?

On to other parts of his life. What defined him as a child? As a young adult? Growing up in Chicago, being the son of emigrant?  How could I make his life tougher? How could I make it a vital part of who he became? What if he grew up in a poor area, an Irish area, where there were only 2 choices in life, gangs or cops? And what if both were equally bad?

Then what would motivate him to go to war? What posters would inspire him? What speeches? What articles read in the newspaper? Ah, wait, newspapers, could he read? Did he go to school or did he have to help his father? What if his father was a blue collar worker through and through, but wanted more for his son and pushed him to read? Would that make his closer to the Irish boys? Or more of an outcast, quoting Byron or Marx or Dickens?

Public Service Announcement, Chicago, 1919

Public Service Announcement, Chicago, 1919

Then, when he got back, how could I make his life worse, still? What if the great flu pandemic killed off his wife, his family? We forget that 50-100 million people died. 50 million people!!! Wouldn’t that affect him?

And what would he vow when he got back home, later than the rest, having missed the parades, his lungs scared by gas? What would he believe in? What would he not? What if he vowed he would never kill again, no wait, that doesn’t quite work, so what if he vowed to save people, save as many as he killed? Would he become a gangster? No, probably not. A cop?

Why not? The last honest man in Chicago? A bull fired with determination to help people, even the dead. Maybe, ESPECIALLY the dead.

Then, how would he find the roaring twenties? How would he get through the Great Depression? How would he deal with Prohibition and the massive corruption it created? How would he deal with raising his sister, the only member of his family to have survived the pandemic? What if she became his world, his anchor?

Brücke Nijmwegen, Sicherung durch holländische SoldatenThen what would happen if she left and got in trouble? What if she sent a message from Holland in 1940 saying she needed his help? And what if he arrived too late to save her?

All of this has to be based on history, HIS history – as influenced by the world around him or the people in it.

This all begins with research. I want to read about the letters they wrote home. I want to read about the details of the battle. I want to read the newspapers of the time. I want to find out if mail got to the front lines (spoiler, it did!). I want to know what they wore, the conflicts between race and religion and social status. EVERYTHING!

All so I can know the world that shaped my character(s).

I love finding this stuff out, I really do, but there’s a trap, isn’t there?

I’m not writing a history book.

At some point, I need to get my character onto the page and torture him some more.


Best Show Last Week – Check out “Chicago PD”.  A fast-paced and driven cop drama.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Tamar – Oh I have some things to say about this one!

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book  0

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

# of new friends made on Twitter – 7 (hmmm, have I neglected twitter? She is such a needy thing, she is.)

# books ordered for research – 0 (But I need to look into Chicago between wars and find me a good WW1 book.)

Health – Better.

Best Thing Last Week – Finding a book about Paris in 1938, a best-selling novel by Alan Furst called Mission to Paris. Who says WW2 books can’t sell?

Worst Thing – Taking classes for the first time in 20 years. Ever had that nightmare about being in class and knowing nothing? Well, that was my experience, but at least I had pants on (unlike my dreams).

How was everyone else’s week?


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