My Genre Kryptonite

Can we talk about how great Rachel Kozlowski's art is on these West Elm plates?
Can we talk about how great Rachel Kozlowski’s art is on these West Elm plates?

 

Have you seen Book Riot’s Genre Kryptonite series? It’s one of my favorites they have, and it got me thinking about my own genre kryptonite — what’s guaranteed to make me pick up a book and either take it to the cash register or put it on my to-be-read list.

 

Here are a few of the things that will pretty much guarantee that I’ll buy your book:

 

1. Talking animals (bonus points if they’re wearing sweaters): I’ve always loved stories with talking animals — from The Wind in the Willows to The Chronicles of Narnia to the Redwall series. And even though I wasn’t impressed by The Golden Compass, I loved Iorek Byrnison, the armor-wearing polar bear. Because how awesome is a polar bear wearing armor?! I’m totally with Hannah Oliver Depp on thinking that we need more stories with animals for adults.

 

2. Rival queens: This probably stems from The Royal Diaries series I read in middle school. There always seemed to be an older female courtier/ noble undermining the princess, causing all sorts of drama. I ate it up when I was 12, and honestly, I still do. I’m not into books about girls being catty just for the sake of being catty (I saw plenty of that in high school, thankyouverymuch) but when they’re competing for political power? Yes, please! The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone and Hissing Cousins by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer are both on my TBR list.

 

3. Unlikely detectives: I grew up reading every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on, and I still love the mystery genre. I tend to skip the really gritty, gory mysteries in favor of the stories with unlikely detectives. I love the Flavia de Luce series by Arthur Bradley — who wouldn’t love a mystery with an 11-year-old detective with a flair for chemistry and a vengeful streak? I also love M.L. Longworth’s Verlaque and Bonnet series, about a magistrate and law professor from Aix. In both these series, the relationships are as important as the mysteries, and I really like that. I’m excited to pick up The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling Robert Galbraith.

 

4. Secret identities: Who doesn’t love a good secret identity? Superheroes? Awesome. A dashing British gentleman outwitting the nasty Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel? Yes please. A teenage thief in Venice from The Thief Lord? Sign me up. Any book that promises a secret identity is most likely going straight to my reading list.

 

What are your go-to genres? Do you have any that make you pull out your wallet after reading the blurbs on the back cover? After coming up with this list I’m definitely craving a trip to the bookstore!

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The Cookbook Project

 

Mimi Thorisson's Roast Chicken with Creme Fraiche from A Kitchen In France
Mimi Thorisson’s Roast Chicken with Creme Fraiche from A Kitchen In France

 

Yesterday, I realized I have a problem. I have too many cookbooks.

 

I was reading Sarah’s blog post about the twangy blueberry sauce from Tara O’Brady’s new cookbook Seven Spoons, and by the end of the post she had me convinced that I needed that cookbook. Because I obviously need another one, right?

 

Last night I counted all the books on my cookbook shelf (yes I have a shelf just for cookbooks) and realized — I have 18 cookbooks. 18! And I’m sure I have at least one or two more floating around on my bookshelves that I forgot to include.

 

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Four New & Upcoming Books I’m Excited About

 

Nimona cover

 

I discovered Noelle Stevenson (also known as Gingerhaze) through her Tumblr. (I can’t remember if it was through her Modern Scooby Doo series or Modern Lord of the Rings? Both were great though.) Then I totally fell in love with her webcomic Nimona, which if you haven’t read, is full of anti-heroes, shapeshifters, and medieval knights with mad scientist gadgets. In other words, it’s awesome! You can read it online, or buy it in book form on May 12. Apparently there will be some extra scenes that weren’t included online, so I’m really excited to get it! You can pre-order Nimona here. (photo found here)

 

Voracious

 

I first stumbled on Cara Nicoletti’s blog Yummy Books while I was doing research for my senior thesis on food in Jane Austen’s novels. If you want to cure a ham like Emma or cook your way through The Goldfinch or make Miss Maudie’s Lane Cake from To Kill a Mockingbird, this blog is for you. Voracious is coming out on August 18, and I’m so excited! I heard a rumor that it has a chapter about fat-shaming in the Nancy Drew series, and while I loved Nancy Drew, I never liked how they treated Bess. So I’m really looking forward to it! You can pre-order Voracious here. (Photo found here)

 

Milk Bar Life

 

I’ve seen Christina Tosi as a guest judge on Chopped and on Unique Sweets, and she seems to know a lot about pastry without being snobby or overly fussy about it. I didn’t realize she was the pastry chef for Momofuku Milk Bar until I read Bethany’s review of Milk Bar Life: Recipes and Stories. I would probably pick this book up for the cover photo alone, but after reading Bethany’s review I’m really excited to read some behind-the-scenes stories about one of the most well known bakeries in NYC. You can order Milk Bar Life: Recipes & Stories here (Photo found here.)

 

Oh Joy!

 

I got the chance to flip through the new Oh Joy! book yesterday, and it is so beautiful and inspiring! I love how colorful it is, and how many templates she has in the back. I’m definitely not very crafty, bu this book seems so accessible that even I could do the crafts. You can order Oh Joy!: 60 Ways to Create and Give Joy here. (Photo found here.)

 

Bonus: If you follow The Vanilla Bean Blog, you probably know that she’s working on a cookbook  as we speak. I’m really excited, but since it’s coming in 2016, there’s no pre-order info yet.

 

I’d love to know — what new and upcoming books are you excited to read? (New-to-you books totally count!)

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Reading Lists (and Reader Guilt)

Can I make a confession? I have been in a major reading rut lately. I was really excited to read Paris, 1970, but then I unexpectedly got stuck after just a few chapters. Maybe because I haven’t read very much M.F.K. Fisher? Oops. I’m hoping to come back to the book at some point, but right now I’m not ready for it yet. After I put Paris, 1970 back on the shelf, I started thinking about what to read next.

 

Brunch and Jane Austen

 

This time last year, I was knee-deep in essays and books and articles about Jane Austen for my bachelor’s thesis, so I was craving a return visit to Longbourne and Netherfield. But I kept telling myself that I should really read something new instead of re-reading Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time. I felt guilty about never (ever) finishing my self-imposed reading lists and guilty about my tendency to pick nostalgic reads over new/ exciting/ challenging books. But then I realized that I was feeling guilty about the books I choose to read. While I think it’s great to pick up a new book that will make you think, I don’t want to waste time and emotional space on reader guilt because I decided to read an old favorite. Is it really so bad to re-read an old favorite instead of half-heartedly trying to read a book I “should” be reading?

 

I can follow a reading list for a class, but for personal reading I almost always read based on my mood, which can be interesting when I pack 3+ books for a road trip (I wish I was kidding). It also makes it really hard to follow a reading list, even if I made it up. I have a tendency to put books on my list that I “should” read, instead of books I want to read. But at the same time, I don’t want to miss out on a great book because I wasn’t in the mood to pick it up.

 

Another factor that makes choosing a book tricky is the fact that I’m working on my own novel — so far I’ve been avoiding books that are from the same genre unless I’m deliberately looking for inspiration. I don’t want to distract from the story and world I’ve been trying to immerse myself in.

 

Right now I’m almost to the third “book” of Pride and Prejudice, and I’m loving that I don’t have to take notes while I read it! It makes reading about the social gaffes and misunderstandings so much more enjoyable. After I finish Pride and Prejudice I’m  hoping to finally get my hands on Good Omens. It’s been on my to-read list for a while, and since Terry Pratchett’s death I thought it was about time for me to read it.

 

What about you — do you ever have reader guilt? How do you balance reading “for fun” books with serious books? Or balance reading with writing? I’m all ears! Also maybe the most important question of all, who is your favorite character from Pride and Prejudice? I love Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, but I also have a huge soft spot for Caroline Bingley. I love how snobby and manipulative she is, and I think she’s one of Jane Austen’s best antagonists.

 

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Cauliflower Tacos + Dragons Love Tacos with This Picture Book Life

Everyone I know loves tacos — Moms, Dads, Grandmas, kids… and dragons?

 

DLT__10-11

 

According to Dragons Love Tacos (written by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri), dragons love tacos and parties. But taco parties are their favorite. In Dragons Love Tacos, the narrator and his dog invite some dragons over for a taco party. The dragons are delighted and everything is going well until — oh no! The little boy realizes that he picked the WRONG SALSA! Dragons do not like spicy food because it upsets their stomachs. But the narrator has accidentally bought mild salsa with jalapenos added! He tries to stop the dragons from eating the spicy salsa, but too late. And dragons with upset tummies can definitely ruin a party.

 

DLT__28-29

 

When I first read this book, I immediately thought of Danielle Davis of This Picture Book Life. I love the wide selection of picture books she discusses on her blog — from the cute, funny, and heartwarming, to the serious, thoughtful, and heartbreaking, she talks about them all. So when we started talking about taco ideas to celebrate Dragons Love Tacos and she suggested that I think up a recipe for veggie tacos that any meat-lover (or dragon) would enjoy, I knew I had to think up something good. So I came up with a cauliflower taco.

 

Taco Model

 

Cauliflower — in a taco? It might sound weird, but actually the texture is perfect for tacos. Not too soft, but not too crunchy, and they can stand up to Tex-Mex flavors surprisingly well.

 

And because cauliflower tacos aren’t crazy enough, I made crispy taco shells — with my microwave! There are lots of recipes for how to fry your own taco shells, but all that popping oil is a little intimidating. So when I saw Geoffrey Zakarian make crispy taco shells in the microwave during the Warming Winter Meals episode of The Kitchen, I knew I had to try it. And it works! (Although your mileage may vary depending on your microwave and the brand of tortillas you’re using.) No popping oil or messy kitchen to clean up. And I have a hunch that you could make a few at once, so they’d be extra great for any taco parties you might be planning.

 

Taco Platter (2)

 

These tacos are delicious enough to convert the most meat-loving dragon you know. Just don’t add any jalapeno!

 

Spicy Pico de Gallo:

– 4 vine-ripened tomatoes, chopped, with seeds removed (should be about 2 cups)

– 1/2 minced jalapeno, seeds removed

– 1/4 cup minced white onion

-1/4 cup loosely packed cilantro, chopped

– juice of 1 small lime

 

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside in the refrigerator to let the flavors marry. (This can be made the day before.)

 

Tacos:

– 2 tsp. ground cumin

– 1 tsp. garlic salt (if you don’t have garlic salt, you can use 1 tsp. Kosher salt + 1/2 tsp. garlic powder)

– 1/2 tsp. chili powder

– 1/2 tsp. ground coriander

– 2 small pinches cayenne pepper

– 1 pinch black pepper

– 1 large head cauliflower

– 1/4 cup minced white onion

– 2 tbsp. Canola or vegetable oil

– 6-8 small corn tortillas

– 1/3 – 1/2 cup chopped romaine

– Your favorite taco toppings

 

Preheat oven to 350°.

 

Coarsely chop cauliflower, removing as much of the stem as possible. Add onion to cauliflower in a large bowl and stir to combine.

 

Stir spices together in a small bowl until they are evenly mixed. Add oil and stir until well combined. Drizzle over cauliflower and gently toss until cauliflower is evenly coated in spice mixture.

 

Spread cauliflower mixture evenly onto a foil-lined medium baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, until cauliflower is slightly tender.

 

Meanwhile, lay 1 corn tortilla on a paper towel and insert a microwave-safe mug — the narrower the better. Make sure the tortilla is as skinny or wide as you want your final taco shell to be, then place mug (upright) in your microwave and heat on high for 30 seconds. If tortilla is still slightly soft, heat for an additional 15 seconds. Carefully remove mug from microwave, and then remove paper towel and shell and set your now crispy corn tortilla shell aside on a plate. If there is any excess moisture inside the mug, dry with paper towel before repeating with other tortillas. Note: the mug will be hot after it’s been in the microwave, so make sure you hold it by the handle and be very careful when removing the tortilla shell.

 

Once your cauliflower is cooked and all your tortillas are crispy taco shells, it’s time to assemble! Layer cauliflower, chopped romaine, and Pico de Gallo, and then add your favorite taco toppings. We like Sargento’s Mexican cheese blend and maybe some hot sauce, but you can add sour cream, guacamole, black beans, corn salsa, or anything else you like. Enjoy!

 

Taco Platter and extra Pico

 

To keep the fun going, Danielle is talking about Dragons Love Tacos over at This Picture Book Life, so be sure to check it out! We hope you’ll make these tacos. But remember, if you invite any dragons for dinner, you might want to leave out the spicy Pico de Gallo!

 

DLT__20-21

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Favorite Places | Little Dickens

Is anybody else confused about what’s going on with independent bookstores? It seems like everyone is talking about how they’re surviving with the e-book and Amazon boom, but no one can decide whether they’re going to die out or not. Personally, I hope that Chuck Wendig is right, and that indie bookstores will thrive in the post-Amazon market — by doing more than just selling books. My favorite bookstores are the ones that are a little quirky, have a killer selection of books, and are really tuned into the community around them. But I might be a little spoiled, because I grew up with a fantastic bookstore practically across the street from my high school.

 

Little Dickens

 

This bookstore is definitely quirky – it has two names (Little Dickens and Givens Books) and some of the most unusual decor I’ve ever seen. It really hasn’t changed much since I was in elementary school, and it has definitely carved out a niche in the community. It has a permanent spot on my must-visit list whenever I go back to Lynchburg.

 

 

Little DIckens_Robot

 

This is probably the most kid-friendly bookstore I’ve ever visited. There’s more than enough grown-up books for the parents to look at, but half the store is full of books and toys to keep the kiddos entertained. It’s so fun! And they also have the largest selection of teaching supplies in Lynchburg, which is great if you’re a teacher — or a teacher’s kid. Whenever my Mom would go shopping for teacher stuff I’d have an excuse to go book-shopping.

 

Little Dickens_4

 

There are reading nooks with comfy armchairs scattered throughout the store, although it’s almost impossible to get a spot by the fireplace — I really lucked out the day I was here. Also, I love that there are Christmas presents stacked around the portrait of Edgar Allen Poe.

There’s also a great cafe called the Drowsy Poet in the back of the store. There are sandwiches named after famous authors and novels and yummy baked goods, but my favorite thing to get is the Milton milkshake – a coffee cinnamon milkshake that is to die for. I crave it, and I was so excited when I found out that Starbucks’ Cinnamon Dolce Latte is basically the perfect doppelganger. So even if I’m not in Lynchburg, I can get a Milton – minus the ice cream.

 

The photos don’t really do Little Dickens justice (I managed to snap a few on a last minute Christmas shopping trip when I was in town), but it is the most colorful, wacky, fun bookstore ever. Now whenever I visit a new place I always seek out the independent bookstores (for the record, Nicole’s Literary City Guides are my secret weapon for finding new bookstores, restaurants, cafes, even libraries). I’ve found one or two favorite indie bookstores in Houston that I love, so I might have to write about them sometime soon. As long as I don’t get chased out of the store for taking pictures – one store has a very strict no-photo policies. So we’ll see!

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Queen Susan Herself

I recently re-read Prince Caspian, and I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic, especially because I was reading the paperback copy that I’ve read so many times it’s starting to fall apart. While Lucy and Edmund have always been my favorite characters, this time I couldn’t stop thinking about Susan.

 

Susan the Archer

 

Susan is hands down the most controversial character in the Narnia series, but I honestly have mixed feelings about the character analysis I’ve read. Most of the articles I’ve seen are either by Christian men or young women who grew up in a Christian community and later left. I’m a twenty-something woman and a Christian, so I kind of agree and disagree with all of them. At the same time. Confused yet? I know I am.

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Fall/ Winter Reading List + My Writing Uniform

It’s been  rainy and dreary here in Houston the past few days, and all I want to do is curl up on the couch and read, binge-watch Gilmore Girls, and write. I finally got a Houston Public Library card yesterday, so I was able to load up on some of the books on my fall reading list, even if it’s almost too late to have a fall reading list. Here’s what I’m excited to read lately:

 Fall Reading List

{Amy Poehler: Yes, Please; Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven; Jeffrey Overstreet: Auralia’s Colors; M.L. Longworth: Death in the VinesMichael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and ClayNeil Gaiman: Stardust}

 

I’m kind of excited that I don’t have any plans for this weekend besides reading, binge-watching Gilmore Girls, Skyping a friend, and writing. I plan on wearing this pretty much all weekend:

 

My Writing Uniform

 

{Rowley Glasses + Sweater: Wit & Delight, by Melissa Oholendt, Epic sweatshirt: J. Crew, High Waisted leggings: H&M}

 

Some variation of a comfy sweater + leggings is my writing/ weekend uniform of choice. It’s comfy and cozy and perfect for when I know I’m not going to go out and see anyone, so I can wear my ugly-comfy sweater if I want to. Also, high waisted leggings because I hate when my leggings don’t stay put. But, if you want to feel a little fancier, you can wear a fancy robe like this one, or this one (despite its ridiculous name). I got one from some of my friends at my lingerie shower, and it’s one of my favorite things. I think it can give a washed up 40’s screen siren / Miss Havisham vibe, which would be fun if you want to pretend to be Zelda Fitzgerald for the day.

 

What are you reading/ writing this week? I’m excited to do some more work on my plot and characters and maybe write some more story blurbs. I started writing some this past week, but I felt overwhelmed by how much I still don’t know, so I decided to keep up with the writing while I work out some of the details. Anyone who’s doing NaNoWriMo, how’s it going? I found this article about  ways to get inspired even if you’re not joining in, and I thought it was pretty great.

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Dear Reader: Harry Potter Re-Read

Harry Potter

As I mentioned earlier this month, I started a re-read of the Harry Potter series this summer, and I fell in love all over again. One of my favorite things about the series is that while it’s an easy, comfortable read, there’s plenty to make you uncomfortable. Despite his (generally) good intentions, Harry is not the most reliable narrator, and so all of the descriptions of characters and events are colored by his perspective. This is something I think many critics forget; Harry’s beliefs don’t necessarily reflect Rowling’s, and so when it comes to the ethics of the series there’s an intriguing question about where Harry’s ideas end and Rowling’s begin.

 

For instance, there have been lots of comments that the good characters are always thin and conventionally attractive while the villains are always ugly and/or fat. Harry tends to describe his enemies in negative terms, while overlooking his friends’ flaws. Harry’s assumptions are at the forefront of the novels, and while many of his biases are revealed and directly commented on, many are not. I think it adds to the realism of the magical world– it has its own prejudices, political problems, and injustices, just like ours does. And I kind of love that.

Divine Magic1

One of the best examples of this is Dumbledore- Harry is reminded often throughout the series that he should trust Dumbledore implicitly, and since Harry is “Dumbledore’s man” throughout the first six novels, the reader isn’t given much reason to doubt Dumbledore’s apparently benevolent means of fighting Voldemort. However, Rita Skeeter’s expose opens up a massive can of worms about Dumbledore’s intentions and methods, which makes Harry (and the reader) downright uncomfortable. Harry eventually accepts those questionable decisions and remains “Dumbledore’s man,” but should the reader follow his example?

 

I took a class on Harry Potter my junior year of college (one of the many reasons I loved being an English major), and when we discussed Dumbledore’s questionable motivations and actions the conversation was heated. Most of the class was horrified by the suggestion that Dumbledore was anything but a kindly father figure– despite the fact that he let Harry fight Voldemort as a child, espoused Grindelwald’s blood purity ideals (albeit briefly), and manipulated all the other characters. Since I didn’t have the same emotional connection to the series (after all, I’d only read them 2 or 3 years before) I thought it was a really interesting discussion and wasn’t emotionally traumatized. (I told you the discussion was heated).

 

Dumbledore's Dark Secret

 

I’ve tried to remember that while I read the books, and think about the uncomfortable things a little more seriously. I talked about food and the role it plays in the series in my last post, but I think there are some really interesting questions about the political power structure– i.e. the relationship between the Ministry, the Daily Prophet, and Hogwarts, and the Order of the Phoenix, the Muggle/Mudblood/ House-elf/ Non-wizard/ racism commentary, as well as Dumbledore himself.

 

I also love the commentary and additions made by fans of the series. I think some of the best commentary on the books is made by Tumblr users, believe it or not- I love seeing the alternate universes, headcanons, and interpretations. I particularly like Brigid Vaughn’s art and commentary on the series; she’s one of many questioning the assumed races of the main characters, and adding diversity in a way that still matches the books’ character descriptions and personalities. (You can see some of her Harry Potter-themed art and other Tumblr posts here, and all of her art here.) I don’t think there is a right way or a wrong way to depict the characters, and I think the different interpretations only make the books richer.

 

What do you think of the series? Do you like the commentary and debate, or would you rather just enjoy the books at a simpler surface level? Personally I have a feeling that I’ll be thinking about the story with the little boy living under the stairs any time soon.

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Sketchy: Character Development

Meg Chittenden quote

Along with the writing I do for this blog, I’ve also been working on two story ideas that will (hopefully) turn into novels. I’m trying to move past the planning stages to the writing portion, which has always been the biggest struggle for me in the past. Even when I was little I would come up with elaborate backstories for my Barbies but then when it was time to actually play with them I got bored quickly. So I’m trying to break my old, bad habits. At the moment I’m getting to know my characters better, which is both more fun and more difficult than I expected. I have writer friends whose characters talk at them, forcing them to scramble to transcribe as much as possible so they don’t forget. Unfortunately, my characters aren’t so helpful. Usually they flit around the edges of my thoughts while I throw ideas at them and see what sticks, like an imaginary game of 20 questions. Or those magnetic dartboard games where the darts fall right off the board unless you throw perfectly (which I never do).

 

One thing that’s been helpful for me so far is secret Pinterest boards for characters, setting, mood, and plot ideas, but after a while they tend to get cluttered. I recently stumbled on Emily Henderson’s Material Girls series, where she makes design mood boards for imaginary clients. (This one is my favorite.) I loved that idea, and since I’m kind of obsessed with moodboards/ inspiration boards anyway I thought making a more permanent (but still digital — at least until I get a printer) inspiration board for some of my characters would be a great reference point. Here’s my moodboard for Elsbeth, the 12 year-old protagonist of my fantasy story:

Elsbeth Inspiration board

 {sources: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5}

 

Elsbeth lives with her grandfather in a small village (in either Germany or France — I’m having a hard time deciding), and she’s just old enough to start wondering if the fairy tales her grandfather tells her are true. She works for the local brewer 4 days a week, mostly helping brew the beer and mead and taking care of the bees and goats. Adanne promised to give one of the baby goats to her next spring, and Elsbeth is beyond excited. She’s resourceful and spunky (try to think of a better word… fiery?), and is familiar with the forest that borders the village thanks to frequent trips with her grandfather. (These visits will be really important later in the story.) She’s fiercely loyal, with a hot temper and a vindictive streak. She’s not one to be left out of anything.

 

Favorites: taking care of the goats, gingerbread cookies, her Grandfather’s clocks (and dollhouse? Other toys?), her Grandfather’s stories, her friends (need to think more about them)

Dislikes: Thunderstorms (is that when her parents died?), bullies, being kept out of things, people thinking she’s stupid

 

I wasn’t expecting it to be so tricky writing such a short summary! I’m so used to hearing “show, don’t tell” that it’s actually kind of hard to just describe my character briefly. And while this is obviously veeery rough, it’s actually showed me a lot of the areas I need to think about more. For instance, I need to find more dislikes and flaws for Elsbeth besides the stereotypical “I don’t like sewing, or washing my hair, or clothes or other girly things like that. I’m not like other girls.” This worked out really well, and I think I’ll do it for some of my other characters, since it helps me figure out where to go next.

 

 I also love Chuck Wendig’s list of 25 Things You Should Know About Character (word to the wise, Wendig doesn’t shy away from profanity or the ick-factor, so if profanity-laced writing advice isn’t your thing, I might skip it). I also really liked this article about 3 goals for every character, and Yeah Write! has a great archive of posts about characterization if you’re looking for more resources.

What’s your process for character/ idea development for writing? Do you think mood boards are helpful, or do you think they’re only for designers and visual artists?

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