Anna Questerly

Anna Questerly
Bookseller and bibliophile turned author, Anna Questerly writes medieval fiction and fairy tales for smart kids and young hearts. For adults, she creates Utopian fantasy as A.J. Questerly.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Story Casting: A Character Building Shortcut

Once in a while, you get lucky and a fully-formed character knocks on your door, and invites him or herself into your story. Most of the time, characters are shifting, shadowy forms which are harder to pin down. They change shape as your story unfolds often altering the entire plot with their antics.

When this happens, you have two choices; stop writing (which you never want to have to do) until you flesh out that character using a character sheet, and lock that guy or gal into place. Or continue writing to see where the story goes and what happens (which could lead to a great deal more editing and revising later).

Characters are vital to your storyline. Their decisions are what shape your plot. If you have a character acting in a way that isn’t true to who they are, it can render your story unbelievable. You need a character you can see in your mind. One that is real to you so you can bring him or her to life for your reader. Sometimes a character sheet simply isn’t enough.You need a model.

I discovered this character-building shortcut while writing The Minstrel’s Tale. I call it story casting. I decided to cast the characters just as they do in the movies. I had only a vague idea for the minstrel, Amos Questerly, when I began writing. I knew very little about him. He was a man of the fourteenth century, he wore a patched cloak with hidden pockets, and he told stories. I didn’t know how old he was, what he looked like, or any of his mannerisms.

I asked myself if this were a movie, who would I cast in the role of Amos Questerly? I closed my eyes for a few minutes and imagined several well-known actors in the role. I listened to their voices, watched how they moved, and finally found the perfect Amos in one of my favorite actors.

Patrick Stewart is probably best known for his role as Captain Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He has a distinctive voice, with a slight French accent. He was in his forties, bald, strong and healthy. He was the perfect template for Amos. Once I made the decision to model Amos after him, I could actually hear his voice in my head as I wrote the story.

The ability to completely visualize Amos made writing so easy, it almost felt as if I were merely transcribing instead of creating. Don’t get me wrong, Amos is not Patrick Stewart. He is a unique character with his own thoughts and mannerisms, but having Patrick as a model, helped me to know Amos in a way I couldn’t have done with only a character sheet.

If you get stuck, choose an actor or television character that best captures the essence of the individual you are trying to create. Use him or her as guide for your own character. Have fun and change hair or eye color, height or weight, speech patterns, mannerisms, make him evil or make her angelic, you can change anything you like. By having a ready-made person as a starting point, making slight alterations is easier than starting from scratch.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

FREE to teachers: School Edition of The Minstrel's Tale

 In order to make The Minstrel’s Tale available to as wide a young audience as possible, the author, Anna Questerly and Wishbone Publishing have created this special teacher edition and the complementary student edition of The Minstrel’s Tale in .pdf format, specifically for teachers to photocopy and distribute to their students at no charge and without further remuneration.

To get your free copy, email

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Writer's Shelf

Have you ever wanted to visit one of your favorite authors just to peek at their library? I would love to see which books influenced J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Terry Goodkind. More importantly, as a writer, I would like to see which books helped them to become such amazing authors. Which books on the craft of writing do they frequently pull off the shelf? Which reference books would I find sitting open on their desk?

Working in a bookstore, I am privileged to see what many of my writer friends buy, discuss which books helped them, and squirrel away a few gems for my own library. As a beginning author, you will begin to collect your own books and build your own library, but which books should you put in it? There are so many to choose from; to simplify, let’s break it down into three categories.

First, you should have the books you love to read. Your all-time favorites should line your shelves. Not only will you probably enjoy them again as a reader, but you’ll want to read them as a writer. What is it about those books that you love? How did the author handle dialogue or description. As apprentice writers, this is how we learn from the masters.

I actually need two copies of these books. One for the love of the book. It might be a first edition, a signed copy, or a special illustrated or leather bound edition. The second is a working copy. This copy is dog-eared and it’s pages are well worn. There are notes tucked inside. This is the one I study to learn how my favorite authors write the way they do.

The second type of book will be for reference. A good dictionary is critical. Because I write historical fiction, I use the Oxford English Dictionary. This particular dictionary not only gives you definitions, but tells when the word first came into use and how the meaning has changed throughout time. Not everyone can afford such a dictionary. The set I have is seventeen volumes and takes up an entire shelf. It’s value is $1100 — used. I got my set for a bargain – only two hundred bucks. A new twenty-volume set sells for $11,000! My second choice for a good dictionary is the Merriam Webster’s collegiate edition is much more affordable.

You’ll also need a great thesaurus or two. I use The Oxford Thesaurus and The Synonym Finder. While not exactly a thesaurus or dictionary, Random House Word Menu is a wonderful resource for writers; it gives a list of words particular to a certain subject. You’ll need a style guide; I used to have several of these and they contradict each other occasionally. Since I want to stay consistent in my writing, I limit myself and use only the Chicago Manual of Style. It covers every situation you could think of. A world atlas is helpful, unless, of course, you write sci-fi or fantasy; then you’ll have to draw your own maps. If you want a useful book for choosing character names, get a baby name book.

Finally, books on the craft of writing. A few of my favorites; Bird by Bird by Anne LaMotte. Stephen King’s On Writing, and Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Throw in Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt and Word Magic by Cindy Rogers, and you’ll have yourself an ideal beginning on your own writing library.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Minstrel's Tale Audio Book!

Oh, I am so excited! The Minstrel's Tale audio book is currently in production and should be ready before the holidays!

After auditioning many narrators, I decided to go with Alec. He has a ton of experience producing audio books and a great minstrel's voice. I can't wait to hear the whole book. We just inked the deal, so I'll keep you informed of our progress as we go.

An audio book of The Minstrel's Tale can reach an entire new audience, but also lets parents play the fairy tale stories for younger children. I believe audio books can help children learn to read if their parents don't have time to read to them every day. In addition, it thrills me to be able to offer an audio version to children and adults who can't read because of blindness or vision problems.

Now, if only I knew a movie producer...

Friday, September 7, 2012

Write What You Know?

Many writers receive the age-old advice to ‘write what you know’. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found that to be too limiting. My life is rather boring and probably wouldn’t make a good story, at least not one I want to write.

I don’t know anything about life on other planets, magical worlds, and I’ve never lived in a haunted house. I’ve never met a zombie, a vampire, or even an elf. I’ll bet the authors who write about those things haven’t either.

I think a more apt piece of advice would be to ‘know what you write’. For example, I write historical fiction. My books take place in fourteenth century Europe. I didn’t live back then, I don’t know what it was like. According to that advice, I shouldn’t be writing about it.

But that’s where I wanted my story to be set. Hmm, what’s an author to do? Since my time machine was out for repairs, I had to settle for researching the time period. I found some great books to read; one of my favorites was The Time Traveler’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer. The author is a historian and he’s published many scholarly works, but he wrote this book for non-historians. In it, I learned what people ate and drank, what kind of furniture was inside their homes, how their homes were made, how their currency worked, what they wore and lots of other stuff.

This was a great starting point, but there was more I needed to learn. I had to study the kings and queens of the time, the religious leaders, which recorded events happened just before, during, and right after the time my story takes place. I pored over maps with boundaries that changed every couple of years. I found out how long it would take to get from France to England by foot, on horseback, and by boat.

I bought a DVD set of The Medieval World by Professor Dorsey Armstrong. I was able to hear the sounds of instruments that would have been played back then. She explained what the food would have tasted like and how they may have prepared it. This was all fascinating to learn and I almost felt as if I were living in the fourteenth century.

Once I began researching, it was difficult to stop. There is so much information and some of it conflicted. I still needed a bit more help. (Serendipity is an author’s best friend and something we quickly learn to rely on. Once you begin writing, it’s as if the universe conspires to help you.)

One fine day, Dr. Brook Ballard, a retired, medieval history professor, walked into the bookstore where I worked. We began to talk and I explained about the book I was writing. He agreed to be my historical advisor for my books. SCORE!

Dr. Ballard lent me source materials, read over my manuscript, pointed out inaccuracies, and answered my many questions. He told me to remove the forks from the table, since they hadn’t been invented yet. He has my undying gratitude for his assistance and his patience.

Tip: Advice from a recognized expert is priceless to an author, but you can’t just find one and pick their brain forever. Don’t waste their time with things you can find out on your own. You have to do the preliminary work yourself.

I know what you’re thinking. “That’s fine for history, but what about those other planets and magical worlds where there are no experts? What about those vampires, zombies, and elves?”

Great question! You’re going to love your research for this. There are actually three ways to go about ‘world building’. The first and easiest way is to build on worlds already created by your favorite authors. This is considered ‘fan fiction’, and it’s a perfectly acceptable way to get your feet wet writing science fiction, fantasy, or paranormal stories. 

Let’s say you loved The Hobbit, as much I do, and didn’t want to leave that world. Using Tolkien’s world, Middle Earth, you could set different characters on a new adventure within Middle Earth. Your research for a project like this would be to study the world that Tolkien built. You would need to reread everything he wrote, study his maps, and pay attention to the rules of his world. (Rules like how the elves’ magic works compared to a wizard’s magic.)

The second way is to build your own world. This takes much longer, sometimes many years to create a world for a book like The Hobbit. In my opinion, this is what makes a true classic. J.K. Rowling did it with Harry Potter. Hogwarts with all of its rules and quirky staircases did not exist before she wrote it. Isn’t that mind-boggling?

Writing a book such as this is my highest goal. I’m not there yet, so the advice I can give is limited, but there are a few books on world building for science fiction and fantasy writers you can read for further information. How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction edited by J.N. Williamson and Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy by the editors of Analog and Asimov’s Science Fiction, are both great starting points.

The third way, and probably the most useful, is to read many books similar to the one you want to write. Let’s say you want to write about dragons. You should read The Dragon Riders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series and any other books about dragons (fiction or non-fiction), that appeal to you. What you are looking for during these readings is the mythology of dragon lure. What do they all have in common? What’s different? How do Chinese dragons differ from European dragons?

Then you can use that information to make your dragons ‘fit the mold’ so to speak, yet still be unique. For instance, maybe every dragon you’ve read about lays eggs, but you want your dragons to have live births, like mammals. In that case, you would need to explain to your reader why your dragons don’t lay eggs like the rest. If you make it believable, you’ve set your dragons apart from the others while still keeping true to the accepted mythology the fans of fantasy have already adopted as truth. This technique works with vampires, ghosts, zombies, aliens, elves, wizards and any being already immortalized in literature.

Although you are using the mythology of other fiction writers, you are not writing fan fiction by placing a different story in someone else’s world. Instead, you are building on the work of others who have come before you. Most of the books published today use this method.

You don’t have to write what you know, but you should know what you write. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find researching for a new book to be as much fun as writing it. Writers, by nature are smart and curious people. We have to know a bit about many things to make up a believable story.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Are you a writer?

Do your imaginary characters speak to you?
Do you answer them?
Do you dream of worlds yet to be built?
Is there a book burning inside of you?

If you answered yes, there’s ink in your blood. You, my friend, are a writer and must seek help immediately. You need a transfusion. The story has to come out. The ink must be bled from your veins and injected into your laptop.

Friends and family often don’t understand the condition and may be well-meaning, but able to offer little relief. I’m here to help. For many years, I suffered from Ink In My Blood disease. It wasn’t until I was forty-six years old that I was cured. Perhaps cured isn’t exactly the right word. A writer is never really cured. There is always a bit of ink residing in each of us.

Instead, we learn to manage the disease. We figure out ways to live with this condition. We seek out others like us and form support groups. We stay abreast of the newest technology hoping to ease the most painful symptoms. (spelling, grammar, punctuation, publishing – that type of thing). More importantly, we write every day.

Many people afflicted with this disease, initially try to deal with it by reading books about writing, talking about their story ideas, or daydreaming scenes for their characters. However, there is only one remedy proven to help. You must write the book.

I encourage you to begin now, while you are young and able to fend off the more debilitating aspects of the disease (self-censorship, lack of imagination, writer’s block). Don’t wait until your life is half over, as I did, to experience the thrill of having your book published, of receiving fan mail from total strangers, and of getting royalty checks.

Warning: Not everyone suffering from Ink-In-My-Blood disease will manage to complete the transfusion. Writing is work. It’s hard work. There is so much more to it than you can begin to imagine. It takes commitment and dedication to see a novel or even a short story through to completion. Those who do not write their book will be plagued by it until they do or, even sadder, the ink may eventually evaporate and their story will never be written.

My blog is here to offer guidance and support to young writers. This is where I’ll post links to resources I’ve found to be helpful. We’ll have writing challenges, guest author posts, and much more.

We’ll discuss plot lines, character development, world building, dialogue, scenes, points of view, and conflict resolution.

We’ll even venture into the geeky territory of verbs, punctuation, and grammar in fiction writing. Don’t groan; it’s not quite the same as what they teach in school.

We’ll talk about, copyright, agents, editors, self-publishing, and book marketing.

In short, here is where you’ll find everything to do with writing. Although this blog can provide you with the tools you need to extract your book, no one can do it for you. You are the only one who can write your story.

Feel free to comment or post a question, invite your writing friends, or just lurk in the shadows. All I ask is to keep your comments on topic, be polite, and have fun.