Need help with research, but can’t reach primary resources?

My husband showed me a marvelous website today, both for teachers and for writers–the updated Library of Congress website. The benefits of this site are the following:

1) Large amounts of the LOC’s collections are now digitized. That means, without actually visiting its site in DC, you can view rare materials like maps created by George Washington, newpapers from the time of the Civil War, and political cartoons from the Great Depression.
2) The award-winning interactive site offers the opportunity to virtually “visit” the current exhibitions at the LOC, play “Knowledge Quest,” and make your own personal collection of favorite items.

As writers, we can benefit enormously from this resource. Setting a story in the past? We can find letters, diaries and journals of historical figures and be able to quote them in our work. Wondering what should be in the bedroom or office of your main character? You can see the books they read, find out from their diaries what their favorite foods were, places they visited, who they knew, see photos (from 1860s on) of how people dressed in those days, or paintings or woodcuts of where they lived. Need the characters to sound real? You can find out how people felt about historical events while they were still happening through personal correspondence, letters to the editor of newspapers, and political cartoons.

The 2 easiest ways to write books yet


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For a while now, I’ve been a believer in the Snowflake Method. It was invented by Randy Ingermanson as a way to build your novel in a structured, yet streamlined way, and it does just that. I came late to it, as my novel had started off as a short story, then had expanded to much more than that. I wish I’d got to the Snowflake Method sooner–it would have prevented me from floundering about quite as much. There are other ways to create a novel with discipline and skill–but this has always seemed to me just about the easiest. There’s even a computer program that can help you with the method.

However, there’s new tool that makes creating a book possibly even easier. Building on a successful blogging format, the folks at PressBooks have designed a online tool that adapts the WordPress platform for the purpose of making a book. The writing process becomes as easy as managing a blog, using the same familiar, simple tools.

The webware is free, and can be used collaboratively (multiple authors can have access to your book-in-progress at once, just as with a blog). Each post is roughly one chapter. You can take your document and covert it to a PDF, epub, etc. It can also be used for a POD (Print On Demand) service, if that’s what you want to do. The design of the book is reportedly much more refined than in most do-it-yourself POD products.

I’m skeptical about its utility for novel-writing (although if you want your final product to seem like a fly-by-the seat-of-your-pant serial, where what happens next might surprise the author as much as the reader, it might be okay). It’s too linear, where a good novel is usually built in layers. However, if you are working on a non-fiction book project with colleagues, I imagine it would be outstanding. Check more about it out at:

Everything I need to know about Styling, I learned from LuLu


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Okay, okay, so my title is a bit of an exaggeration. Here’s the story:

I get lots of questions from new writers about how to format manuscripts for submission. My first piece of advice is always to follow the specs articulated by the periodical or book publisher you are submitting to. However, if you don’t know where you’re sending it to, I’ve always preferred to use a sans-serif font like Arial or Helvetica for titles and author info, followed by a double-spaced body written in a simple serif font like Times New Roman or Courier. (Serif fonts have those little crowns and tails, sans-serif do not.) You can always reformat later, thanks to the magic of Microsoft Word. And don’t forget to insert a footer with a page number and your email address on every page.

In the past, that magic formula has always worked. But now that I’m working on something longer–in fact, an entire book– things have gotten complicated. It’s simply harder to be consistent across more than a hundred pages. I can’t remember how I numbered the chapters (with numerals or the numbers as words), if I put in an extra line after each chapter heading, or what size and font I used for each. Sometimes I paste in pieces from other documents and the font and size may differ. My document was turning into a mess. And don’t even ask me what happened when I went back and started to rewrite!

That’s where LuLu stepped in. You see, I was doing a lot of research last week and the week before regarding e-publishing (hence a couple blog posts wherein I mentioned it). If you publish an ebook through LuLu, you have to use a very specific format. Or, rather, you Style instead of Format.

Most of us look at the Style menu in Word and have no idea what to do with it. We write using the Format menus, sometimes just out of habit.  Even if you don’t plan to use LuLu, your editor will still be much happier if you use Styles. Doing so can save you time, but it also will increase consistency throughout a document and prep it for conversion into other document formats like Adobe InDesign or ePub. In fact, if you use LuLu, you have to use Styles, because that’s what triggers page breaks for chapters and creates your table of contents.

Some people hate the way the Styles look, or object to the fonts and spacing used. That’s okay! With a little practice, you can create your own Style and apply it throughout your Word document. Want to learn how to do this? Here are some links that can help you:

I doubt I’ll go the LuLu route, but I owe the company a debt of gratitude. My reStyled document looks beautiful and is perfectly consistent and organized. Now if only I can finish my rewrite…


The Right tools for the Write job

Red Metal Tool Box Clip Art

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Each writer has a unique toolbox of implements they use while writing.
I could be speaking metaphorically, but in this case, I’m talking about actual tools. Most writers have a very special relationship with computers, word processing programs, desks, paper, journals, pens, highlighters, folders, and the like. There are favorite brands and coveted models of all these writing implements.
Most writers have very strong opinions on at least some of these items. There are Moleskin fans, Mac devotees, people who swear by fat .9 mechanical pencil points, and others who want only a black Bic Stick with a fine tip.
Sometimes, I “test drive” pens. I’m not the only one–have you ever gone to store and found the display covered in squiggles and John Hancocks? Pentel, Biro, Bic, PaperMate, and Pilot all have their advocates. Check out this great blog with comparisons of different types of pens, markers, and paper for use by wordsmiths.
And here’s an example of how some writers creatively re-purpose items not normally associated with writing for their exploits.
Recently, I caved into my cheapskate habits and purchased a $0.99 composition book to use as a journal. I think I’ll have to discard it soon…I’m not using my journal like I usually do.
This seems silly, but having the right instruments makes writing more pleasurable–and therefore, you’re less likely to avoid sitting down and getting to work. (It also helps to have a comfortable chair at your computer desk.)
Currently, I prefer a blue gel pen (Pilot is my fav), medium point only. My preferred notebook is hardcover with a spiral binding so that the pages lie flat. And a pretty picture on the cover helps. That’s for journaling, outlining, diagramming–all that pre-writing work. I sometimes do my very first draft in the notebook, too, but then I switch to the computer. I’m pretty flexible on the Mac vs. PC issue, but I HATE, HATE, HATE laptops.
Did I mention that authors have strong opinions on these subjects?
Care to share yours?