I’ll be honest: I’m one of those writers who usually has about a dozen tabs open while I’m writing. Not because I’m checking Facebook, but because I’m confirming details. Oh the details! I love them. I won’t even pretend I don’t. And over the years, I’ve developed a list of favorite resources. Because I’m such a nice person, I decided to share them in case they’re useful to any other writers.
Unless your work is fantasy/science fiction, you probably want your characters’ names (especially side characters) to echo their demographic details. SSA.gov is my go-to resource, providing the top 100 names for each state and birth year. A middle-aged man from Louisiana? Try Roy or Melvin. A 20-something woman from Vermont? How about Kayla or Alyssa? (Disclaimer: the site has been a bit wonky lately so if you get an error from your search, um, not my fault.)
If you’re looking for a name that has a specific meaning, names-of-baby.com allows you to search both by meaning and popularity. And when you’re looking for surnames, Behind the Name will let you browse by cultural ancestry or you can check out a list of the top 1,000 surnames in the U.S. And if you’re desperately seeking inspiration, they even have a Random Name Generator.
When I’m describing a character’s home, I like to know what’s realistic for the region and my character’s price range, and Realtor.com is a great tool for that. As a bonus, the sales listings usually have pictures. Obviously you can avoid describing a character’s home in detail, but since I’m a strongly visual person, I tend to picture every setting I write in detail, so I might as well try to make it as realistic as possible.
Another major setting detail is weather. But if you’re writing a contemporary genre and setting your book a couple years in the future, how’s a person to know? Well, by looking at the past, of course. WUnderground can tell you what the weather was like in past years in a certain month or week. And if your genre is historical, you can also view specific days. More weather data than you could ever possibly need, right at your fingertips.
This next tool probably won’t be useful to most of you, but since my last couple manuscripts have involved a beach, I’ve become enamored with the NOAA Tides & Currents information. Enter a date a couple years away (future or past), and boom—an exact time for the high tide and low tide. This helps me know whether my character will encounter a wide expanse speckled with shells or a narrow strip of sand becoming narrower by the moment.
So, I write murder/suspense, which means I need to know gory details sometimes (all the time). Like the specifics of firearm wounds. One of my favorite places to find a whole range of useful details is a British site called Explore Forensics. And going to a specific resource usually means I can avoid search the entire internet with mildly concerning terms like “how long to dismember a human body.” (Although, let’s be honest: disturbing Googling does still occur, on occasion.)
There you go, some of my favorite resources that help ensure the intricate details of my writing are realistic and accurate. Your turn. Do you have favorite resources that enhance your writing?
Sometimes my husband and I have conversations about big issues and ideas. (Sometimes he just listens to me rant.) One such conversation occurred a few months ago as we were heading home from seeing Captain America: Civil War. It went a little something like this:
Me: You know, I’m loving the increasing diversity in superhero movies. In that movie, there were several women, several black men.
Him: Yeah, it’ll be really cool to see Black Panther’s story.
Me: Yes! I’m glad he’ll get his own movie. He seems like an intriguing character. But I have to wonder . . . where are the women of color? The black woman superhero, the Latina? I mean, I’m not well-versed in the full range of the superhero world, just the mainstream movies part of it. But the only woman of color superhero I can think of right now is Storm (from X-Men) and she was part of the ensemble, not the main focus of an entire movie.
Him: That’s true, there definitely aren’t many. Although I feel like most superheroes are relatable to everyone.
Me: Sure, in some ways. But think about it–when you were growing up, almost everywhere you looked, you could find a superhero who looked like you. Okay, maybe not a redhead specifically, but a white male. In comic books, in cartoons. You got to see people who looked like you doing awesome, heroic things. And it made you think hey, I can do awesome things too, right?
Him: Yeah. Within reason.
Me: There were fewer options for me, I was more likely to look like the person in need of saving, but there were still a decent number of white woman superheroes. Even fewer for black boys, I’m betting. Maybe a few, although not very mainstream. But for black girls? Latinas? It has to have a psychological impact on a kid when they don’t see someone who looks like them doing incredible, heroic things. What message does that send?
Him: That’s a great point. I never thought about it like that.
That, humans, is why diversity in books and shows/movies is important. Because every kid should see a superhero who looks like them. And every kid should see a superhero who doesn’t look like them. And adults benefit from seeing that diversity, too.
I was fortunate to grow up in a diverse area, to attend a school where my friends were Asian-American, African-American, Caucasian, and Native American. One of my good friends when I was little was hearing impaired, and because of her I became more aware of people whose abilities are different from the majority of the population. An awareness that grew when I earned my undergrad degree in speech-language pathology.
But what about kids who grow up in areas where the people around them look the same as them? How do they learn about other people?
Ideally, through books. As a storyteller, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of story. Stories are how we learn, how we experience the world. Stories show us who we are and who we can be. Diversity in books is growing, but slowly and more in some genres than others.
I dream of a day when we can find, in the pages of books all around us, characters as vividly diverse as the world we live in. It’s a challenge I often issue to those around me and to myself–to shift beyond our own experiences, to learn and grow, and then create within our books a world as vibrant as the one we inhabit, supporting other storytellers who do the same.
Learn. Grow. Create. Through those steps, an artist may find the power to influence the world. May we always use our own superpowers wisely.