• Bruce Shields

January 16th, 2021 NEWSLETTER

This newsletter is the first for 2021, and we have a lot of great information to cover!

  • Ideas for your future books

  • Organizing your book ideas

  • Character creation and organization

  • Creating a great backstory

  • New Author Tool in development


I have talked about various ways I get inspired and feed passions for stories that I write. It's time to talk about how you can get your creative juices flowing and why it's important to strike while the iron is hot.

Various novels waiting to be written

First of all, striking while the iron is hot has meaning. When working with hot metal from the forge, you must hit the iron while it is hot. Beating cool iron hardly moves it, wastes a lot of energy and strength, and causes you to work ten times as hard to get the same results.

So when is the iron hot? Creativity comes in waves. Any creative person will tell you this. I believe that most "dry spells," or "writer's block," takes place because a creative person is trying to strike the cold iron. They either waited too long to get started or lost inspiration and wanted to fake it to make it.

Just don't.

It's not worth it to force creativity. When you get that idea, write. If inspiration wanes, find more inspiration!

As I said with my series Pandemic Dawn, if I felt my inspiration drying up, I stopped writing immediately and tried to reignite that flame.

I would find inspiration from various sources, even music! I remember precisely one day when I wasn't "feeling it," and I happened to hear Imagine Dragons on the radio, and boom, I was reignited.

Look for inspiration in movies, books, pictures, music, and driving through an area resembling the story you wish to write. I even get inspired by talking with others with similar likes about the project. Once the candle of inspiration is lit, write, write, write!

Write down all of your story ideas on notecards, even if they don't fit together! I will write more next week about storylines and plots. Write everything down, and eventually, you may find out where it all works. It is better to have some ideas that don't fit in, rather than not write them down and lose them forever.

Organize your ideas


I cannot say this enough. Save everything—all your notecards of random thoughts, book ideas, character ideas.

Notecards are cheap! Don't be afraid to use them.

I have multiple card organizers with my notecards. One box marked 'character ideas,' another marked 'story ideas,' you can even make one called 'life events,' and when you need some help with backstory, randomly draw one.

As you write your book, place the character notecards into your box marked with your book name. This way, you never accidentally use the same character in two unrelated books or stories.

You could take this even further and write notecards filled with ideas about different themes, moods, conflicts, events, crisis, and if you ever hit a slump or stumbling block, draw a card for inspiration!

Character creation


When it comes to creating a character that fits your story's needs, it's best to have well-defined requirements.

If you have a story that needs your main protagonist to get from point A to point B (whether points are locations, thoughts, or conclusions), you need to decide what requirements you have for your story.

a) protagonist needs to find out the security box is empty

b) protagonist needs to know who emptied it

c) protagonist needs to know where to find said person

Your new character can fulfill these three well-defined needs for your story.

You create a character that a) tells the protagonist about the antagonist emptying the security box. b) Who the antagonist is, and he knows that the antagonist went to Florida.

Remember, you don't want to fill your stories with too many secondary characters with no real reason for being in the book.

A few years ago, I met an author who wrote what I call Zombie Fiction. Zombie Fiction is a slasher, blood, and gore book. There are people out there who like this genre, probably the same who love slasher films. His books featured hundreds of secondary characters.

The reason? He held contests to raise money for his novels by allowing readers to pay to be in his books. You could spend a few bucks, and your name and how you die by Zombie would be in his next novel.

Now I'm not knocking this method if his goal is to make a few dollars rather than tell a compelling story. But for most authors, we have a story we wish to tell, and a novel filled with secondary characters would cause a lot of confusion and distraction from the book.

Limit secondary characters, and only give details that are important to your story.

The importance of backstory


Since we are on the subject of characters' details, a great backstory is a key to riveting storytelling. As mentioned in my last blog, backstory can move your readers emotionally to where you want them.

I like to define what I need from my character to accomplish my story's goals. You want your readers to feel hate for the character? Make him a terrible person in his past, then write about how bad he is now. You want your readers to love the character? Tell a good backstory, and show how he tries hard in your story to keep being good. Some shortcomings and flaws will also make your character more appealing and believable. Make them an underdog, and your readers will root for them.

Some backstories are so good they become "spinoffs."

While writing Pandemic Dawn Book IV: Before the Sun Sets, I wrote of two characters introduced in the ninth chapter of the novel, Tanner and Virgil.

They were simple secondary characters who traveled with a group of survivors. Within this group was a primary character.

I had no intention of ever doing anything more with these characters than have them in the group as tag-along secondary characters.

I wrote about their backgrounds. Tanner was a medical student with a gentle personality. She seemed unfriendly, but it was a byproduct of her debilitating anxiety and PTSD. Her boyfriend Virgil used to work for a salvage yard and was very loving and protective of Tanner with great compassion for her weaknesses.

Remember, I had no plans of ever doing anything with these characters. However, as I wrote in Before the Sun Sets, their relationship drew me in. I found them and their dynamic very interesting, and I found myself wanting to write more and more about them.

After I finished Pandemic Dawn Book IV, I decided to write short stories, perhaps novellas, about some of the character's backstories in Pandemic Dawn.

This series is still in the outline stage, but the working title is The Pandemic Dawn Chronicles. The first book in the series is about how Tanner and Virgil first meet and end up with the survivors. It's called Dream of Tomorrow.

So I say, write everything down, keep good records of Characters, and always take your time writing their backstories. You never know what may develop!

Author's Word Count


I have many people ask over the years, and I mean to blog about it within the next week; how do you know how many words or chapters to write?

There are many websites out there that will give you the average word count for various types of books. The word counts are directly related to the kind of book you plan on writing.

Word count in no way dictates the value of the contents of a book! Look at some of the word count examples.

Animal Farm 29,966

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 46,573

The Hunger Games 99,750

Dune 187,240

It can be challenging to monitor your chapter/word count while focusing on writing. So I created a program years ago that I use to do this.

I have never thought to offer it to anyone before, but it may be worth giving copies out with so many people asking.

This tool has a page showing you the number of words, the different genre's average, and a few average word counts from books on Reedsy.

Once you choose your target word count, you enter it into the program. As you write and track your progress, the program determines from how many chapters you will write, the average word count per chapter, your total word count, and tracks your progress, showing you your percent of the completed manuscript.

You can also track how many chapters you have written for each storyline if you have multiple, as I do in the Pandemic Dawn Series.

The tool is a great help.

As soon as I have it finished for distribution, I will share how to get your copy in a newsletter. Of course, I will make it free.


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  • Bruce Shields

Why backstory / background for your character is important

So for today's blog, I was thinking about what I should write about. I am really getting into sharing information about how I write, manage my working space, and talk about how I do what I do. Yesterday I wrote about how I create and develop characters for my books. Keeping with that theme, I thought I would talk a little about how I work on a character's background.

For this example, I thought I would look at Mikayla. Now, if you have never read my Pandemic Dawn novel series, you may not know who Mikayla is, and if you are like me, you HATE spoilers. So for the sake of this public blog, I will make up a character, one I have never used in a book.

Did I mention I hate spoilers? I remember when a particular movie had just come out, and I was so excited to go see it. But I had a rough work schedule and didn't get to the premier. A customer came into my antique shop, talked with another, and gave away the biggest twist in the plot that I would have never seen coming!

I was so disappointed!

So, let's create an imaginary character that has never appeared in any of my books, shall we?

Lost in the Woods

Following the blog I wrote yesterday about character creating, we will have to first think of a reason/purpose for this character to exist in the story.

The plot is about a young girl who is lost in the woods and cannot find her way home. The storyline is about how she sees a dog who leads her to safety.

So we begin to think about the feel of the story and what we want the reader to experience. Fear, loneliness, anxiety? If that is the direction, then those are the things your character must feel.

So the description of the character may be something like;

She is a young girl from the city who stays a few weeks with her uncle and aunt at their cabin in the woods. Her mother has just passed away, and her father had a breakdown and needed some time to deal with his loss. She feels he abandoned her in her time of need and hardly knows her uncle and aunt. Besides, she's never even seen the country before and misses the city and her friends.

This short description and back story helps you focus on who she is and what she has already been through. Being lost in the unfamiliar woods would be terrifying to a young girl, especially one already so hurt and afraid.

Wolves near the cabin

To exemplify fear, the uncle and aunt warn her about traveling too far because of wolves in the area.

This will also play into the anxiety factor when you talk about the dog/possible wolf tracking her in the woods as it gets dark. Perhaps from a distance, it appears it is a wolf, and she is afraid of becoming its dinner.

She sits under a tree, in the dark, alone, afraid, and hears the noises of the wolf/dog.

This would be easy enough, and readers could relate with the character and feel precisely what you want them to feel. But suppose you really want them to fear for the young girl (which also creates a greater joy when the young girl survives). In that case, while she sits in the dark, alone and afraid, she thinks about her loss, her mother, her absent father, how she never wanted to come to the woods, to begin with.

The story can take her to the edge, and your readers along with her.

She is cold, alone, and it's dark, nearly freezing under the tree in the woods. She gives up hope, feels there is nothing to live for, and then he appears, the wolf, which is actually a kind and gentle Great Pyrenees who had found the young girl's trail and followed her deep into the woods.

Great Pyrenees

She spends the night with the dog keeper her warm. In the morning, the dog leads her to the safety of her uncle and aunt's cabin.

If you like a little more action in your stories to increase anxiety and fear, you could write about how wolves were also tracking the young girl. In the middle of the dark night, the dog fought them off and protected the young girl from them.

This draws your readers in, causes them to feel and relate to the young girl, all because of a good back story.

Yes, the story could still be good without the background. However, the elements added from a great background, develop, and build up your character. The readers will feel far more. You want them to love the character and to like the character to live!

When working on creating characters, I only go as deep into their background as I have to. For instance, does it matter if this character had a best friend named Polly at school? Only if you're going to have her think about this friend and miss her in the woods. Does it matter what job her father has? Not really. If you want to say his career kept him away from home, that's good enough. If you even decide to write about that.

In large novels like my Pandemic Dawn Series, I have just over 100 characters. Some of them have a couple of notecards stapled together with all of the information needed for them, but they are significant characters. The secondary characters have very little if any back story on their cards.

So focus on what is needed. If you get halfway through a story and realize you need something, add it. You can do that. You are the creator of your tale.

Perhaps while hiding under the tree in the woods, you want to write about how the character is afraid of the dark. So you add a detail to the notecard about how the power went out when she was little and how terrified she was, but she felt safe in her mother's arms. If only her mother could be here with her now, under this tree to keep her safe and warm.

A detail that initially was not on the notecard but easily added later to enrich the story and add another element.

This weeks newsletter will have some tips and links to websites and software to help you with character creation, be sure to subscribe!

Happy writing!

Today I would like to talk about character creation and development. At least, the way that I create and build a character.

Everyone has their way of doing things. I am a believer in doing what works for you and your stories. The storyline and plot are essential to your story. However, suppose your characters are flat, one dimensional, and have no appeal. In that case, people will hate the story you're trying to tell.

I believe the characters are more important than the storyline or plot, and this is the making of a cult film. A cheesy story plot, a guy, gets mutated and fights crime, an exaggerated storyline.

Bullies throw nerd they are picking on out of a window, nerd falls into toxic waste and becomes The Toxic Avenger. The rest of the film is the avenger fighting crime. Now, don't get me wrong. I loved the Toxic Avenger when it came out. But it wasn't for the unbelievable super-hero creating plot or the clumsy storyline of countless encounters with the Toxic Avenger and baddies. It was because the main character was relatable to the viewers and also likable. The retelling of the storyline of a loser becomes a winner; the downtrodden become hero. The classic tale of the underdog coming up.

So, it becomes a cult classic, implying. Everything about it is cliché, yet, it has a following because people like it, even though they shouldn't.

In Pandemic Dawn, I created the main character to be an average, unassuming businessman from the city. The everyday guy who happens to find himself in an apocalypse with no natural survival skills.

As mentioned before, Pandemic Dawn began as a short story; however, after the characters started to flesh out and develop, the story wrote itself, and it turned into four novels with a fifth on the way.

The plot was simple, survive, and find his son. The storyline was singular at first; by the time I wrote the 5th or 6th chapter, I realized there would be multiple storylines within the book.

All because of the characters.

So I thought I would write today about the Character creation and development process that I use. This is what works for me. You can take what you will from it and tweak it for yourself, and hopefully, it helps.

By the time I create the main plot, I have a pretty good idea about who the main character is. The main character is probably the simplest to develop and flesh out because the main character is the story.

When it comes to who the main character meets and interacts with or others needed for the sub-plots or moving a story forward, creating a stable, believable character can be challenging.

Here are the steps I use;

  1. Blank notecard (colored cards help designate characters, i.e., love interest, enemy, friends, groups, whatever you decide each color represents.)

  2. Basic description (the purpose for the character)

  3. Name and history (if needed)

  4. Place the character in the container.

Pretty simple, but extremely useful!

First off, the blank notecards. Notecards are essential for keeping track of your characters, plot, storyline, events, unique objects, or objectives. I go through many of these for each novel.

I love the colored notecards; as mentioned earlier, the colors can help you organize or create groups.

When using the colored notecards for laying out your storylines, they help you keep track of which storyline they belong to by color.

Secondly, write the reason/purpose for the character, a short description of why it exists. Don't just fill your story with characters. They need to have a reason for being in the story. Characters have to have a point. Either by making your story better, moving it forward, explaining something more in-depth, or creating an event, something that explains why they are even mentioned.

In a few cases, I brought a character into my story who did not seem to fit or belong. However, many chapters later, it was brought to light why it was there.

I wouldn't suggest doing this too often. I would hate to be predictable. I have done this a couple of times, though, and I personally like the surprise.

So I write a few lines about the character's purpose and maybe a short description. So, let's say we need a character that takes the story from one location to another. We choose to make this character an antagonist. Now we need to create a reason for going from one place to the other.

So we give him a mission.

Character Notecard

In Pandemic Dawn Book III: Day of Abomination, I created a character to take the story from the secret military base to the mainland. There they would come in contact with the other characters in the story.

His mission causing him to go is he was commanded to kill all humans who resist the Chairman.

Following him, we can move the story and characters from one location to another. Done plausibly and acceptably to move the story forward.

Thirdly, we can name this character and maybe give a little back story as well. Because this character is a Combat-bot working for the Chairman, he is designated a number. Seven-Twelve. A short back story helps define him as well. Now the descriptions and back story may never actually be written about in your books. However, when writing about the character, his personality, choices, and actions are developed from the back story. So it is essential to know a little about the characters you are writing about.

Seven-Twelve is a military Combat-bot serving under One-Twenty (another Combat-bot) loyal to the Chairman. He was given orders to kill all humans who resist the Chairman.

After I write the purpose, I name a character because it has to fit with the character.

Obviously, in this case, for example, the bot gets a random number assigned. Naming a lot of characters can become difficult. In the Pandemic Dawn Series, I have approximately 100 characters total in the four novels. Giving them names was easy at first, then became burdensome over time.

There are some random name generators online to help writers. In fact, I have seen generators that will even develop a complete back story, description, likes, and more. If you really want to get your creative juices flowing, deal yourself a random hand, and work with it. It will really bring out the realism of your story.

When it comes to the back story, I only go as deep as needed. No point in listing a character's parents, what they did for a living, etc., if it has nothing to do with the story.

Pandemic Dawn Character Notecard Case

Finally, place it into your notecard case, preferably in alphabetical order for you to find later. Unless you need to list them by affiliation, or in this case, under "C" for Combat-bot.

As you write your story, things that happen to the character can be listed on the card. If the character loses an eye, it's important to remember which one. If the character takes something from someone or lies about an event, little details will draw your readers more in-depth into the story. I love the details in movies and books. One of the reasons I have always loved novels over novellas. I read a few pocketbooks, and for me, they always leave me wanting more of the story.

I know novels are a more significant commitment. Still, to readers who love details and multiple storylines within a single story, they are the only way to go!

Now you are set, you have your character in its place, you can grab it at any time for a refresher, or to add or remove details, and track them all without fail.

Notecards for Pandemic Dawn Series

There is software out there that can do this as well. I like Writer's Café personally. Still, honestly, it is easier to thumb through a Rolodex as you are writing than to have another program running on your computer and switch back and forth.

Whatever works best for you, do it!

To summarize;

  1. Blank notecard (colored cards help designate characters, i.e., love interest, enemy, friends, groups, whatever you decide each color represents.)

  2. Basic description (the purpose for the character)

  3. Name and history (if needed)

  4. Place the character in the container.

I hope you found some useful information here. Later I will blog about the plot and storyline development using colored notecards for multiple storylines within one novel.

Until then, happy writing!





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