Creating Characters – A Book of Inspiration

I’ll tell you a secret. March 2016 will be the last month of the blog series “Back to Gettysburg on Tuesdays.” But don’t worry – you’ll still get weekly Civil War history articles through a completely new series!

In this last month of Gettysburg, I thought it would be fun share some thoughts from the research and writing process of Blue, Gray & Crimson.

Today, I’ll give you a little glimpse into the “book of inspiration” which helped solidify the creative foundations of my historical novel.

The Concept

I read a stack of books about writing before I started, learning about story structure, grammar, and inspiration. I made plenty of mistakes (so thankful for good editors and proofreaders!), but one thing that was extremely helpful was collecting inspirational pictures. For years, I’d been saving photos that captured an idea, an expression.

A 30 page scrapbook was crafted with pages for each major character, setting, and a few important scenes. I used photographs, historical quotes, phrases I created and liked, and background “mood” paper.

The inspiration scrapbook was very helpful as a sort of reference or food for the imagination. And I’m using this tool again on my current project, but this time on a secret Pinterest board!

How It Actually Worked

Here’s a photograph of the scrapbook page for the character Thomas Russell.

Writer's Inspiration Scrapbook

He’s considered a minor character in the story, but his role is crucial to the plot and drive of the tale. When crafting his character, I envisioned a strong, likeable character – the kind of guy that we’d all like to have as an older brother or friend. So here’s how his character and important detail reminders were built on the scrapbook page.

“Mood paper” – okay, that sounds a little strange – but I’m referring the paper that adds color and brings the page to life. It’s a bold patriotic stripe paper. Perfect for this daring soldier…

Across the top of the page is a strip saved from a calendar of historic Gettysburg photos. It shows a wooden fence, the “cow high, pig tight” style. Why the fence? Oh, it’s an important part of the plot. (Read the story to find out!)

Next is a historic Civil War photograph of an officer. Thomas isn’t an officer, but I like the man’s expression and appearance.

Two photographs from re-enactments are also included on the page. One shows a cavalryman gripping a pistol and reining his horse; that represents part of the fight Thomas is involved in before he meets the Westmore family. The other photograph shows horse and rider blurred because of the speed of the gallop; that’s a reminder of the importance (and scary part) of being a messenger on a battlefield.

And then, there’s a picture of beautiful chestnut horse with a large white blaze on the face. That represents Thomas’s horse, who is a wonderful “problem causer” at a couple points in the story.

The historical quote on the page comes from Miss Tillie Pierce’s writings. She was actually describing the colonel of the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment, but I thought the description was inspiration for crafting Corporal Russell. “He was a kind, pleasant and intelligent man, whose very countenance told me that he possessed a soul of honor and sympathy, and which at once inspired a confidence.” (Don’t worry – I didn’t plagiarize anything in the story and Russell is not a “carbon copy” of colonel from Minnesota.)

There’s a list of character qualities on the side of the page – reminders of what I wanted to convey through this character: Practical, Appreciative, Stoic, Courageous, Informative, Encouraging, Observant, Reserved, and Friendly.

In the center of the page, surrounded by photos, a quote, and brainstorming text is the “announcement” of the created character: Thomas Russell, 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Company K. Courier Duty at US XI Headquarters.

The Novel’s Text

You’ll have to read the story to learn all about Thomas Russell. (I can never pick just one favorite character, but Thomas is definitely in the contest.) Here’s an excerpt from the chapter when the Westmore Family meet him:

“Thank you for seeing that the messages got through and for bringing me into your home.” He grimaced, took a deep breath, and spoke with effort. “I’m Corporal Thomas Russell. 17th Pennsylvania Cavalry. My company’s attached to the Eleventh Corps headquarters. We’re couriers.” (Blue, Gray & Crimson – page 77)

Sarah Kay BierleCrafting Characters

Occasionally at book-signings, people ask, “How do you write? What inspires you?”

History. Crafting stories of characters in tough settings.

Actually getting the ideas onto paper (or the computer) is the challenge. I’ve learned that sometimes a collage of ideas and images can help. Rarely is it one image that can create a character. I prefer to collect inspiration from a variety of sources, but then I have to craft a character that’s mine. Realistic, believable, likeable (theoretically), and crucial to where I want to turn the story.

Right now, I’m trying to refine a character for a new story. He’s no “carbon copy” of Thomas Russell. He has to be his own charming, moody, likeable, jolly self. (That sentence might not make a lot of sense, but trust me – this character is going to be good – when I have it all worked out on paper.)

And that’s part of the fun of writing. How else do you get to take the best and worst of human nature, dream up someone handsome or pretty or common, and start bringing a character to life through written words? It’s hard, but I think it’s a marvelous challenge…especially to create a character who fits a past time period accurately.

Your Historian / Writer,

Miss Sarah



2 thoughts on “Creating Characters – A Book of Inspiration

  1. Pingback: An “Author Interview” – Part 1 | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: Good-bye, Gettysburg (I’ll Miss You) | Gazette665

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