Monday, February 24, 2020

A Writer's Toolbelt

by Ane Mulligan @AneMulligan

My husband is an artist and our Community Theatre's set designer. When he plans a new set, he lays out his favorite tools before he begins the work. Pens, pencils, rulers, angle finders, compasses, geometric shape templates, etc. all laid out within arm's reach. It's quite an array. If it's a painting he's working on, he has at least a dozen tubes of oil paint next to his easel and dabs of at least a half-dozen others already on his palette. 

I have a similar routine when I begin a new book. I first open a new project in Scrivener, my preferred writing software. I populate it with a character interview for each point-of-view character. 

There are a couple of tools in the interview that are important tools:

1. goal, motivation, and conflict (I use WhatWhy & Why Not instead)

2. the lie my characters believe 

Once I figure out the lie my POV characters believe, I write a stream-of-conscience backstory. I have to insert here that often during this exercise, I get some surprises that can change the lie. I always go with what the character tells me.

Besides what's in my computer, I have an array of tools on my desk. These are my favorite writers’ tools:

1.  List of quirks and habits (every character needs at least one). In my new release In High Cotton (Aug 2020), a secondary character chews cloves. They were a good cure for bad breath back in the 1920s.

2.  A Flip Dictionary (I'm on my second copy, the first having fallen apart from use).

3.  The Emotion Thesaurus, by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. There are several types. I have the original, then I bought The Negative Trait ThesaurusThe Positive Trait Thesaurus, and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus.

4.  The Baby Name Survey BookNames are important, and I love this book because it surveyed people to find out what image they got when seeing a name. 

I'm a visual writer, so before I fill out any of the character interview, I find photos of my characters. I keep a file filled with pics cut from magazines, and I also haunt the internet for them. I don't often use actors' photos, although I have been known to, especially if they played a character in a movie that fits my image for my heroine/hero. Another caveat to that is if the actor's personality fits my character. But my preference is an unknown. That way I don't ascribe a trait that is the actor's and not my character's.

My final tool is a map. If I'm using a fictional town, I make a map of where every store and house resides within my town. For my Chapel Springs series, I posted the map on my website, making sure I linked that to any social media post or blog interview. I also made a postcard with the map on one side and the book covers on the other and handed those out at book signings. I'm delighted my publisher is putting the town map of Rivers End in my book In High Cotton.

If the town is real, I use actual maps. With On Sugar Hill, that was a little difficult. In 1929, Sugar Hill wasn't a town, but a militia district from the Civil War (you know, the war of late unpleasantness). The town didn't incorporate until 1939. So history was sketchy, and maps weren't very inclusive. I interviewed a lot of locals who had lived here all their lives to get the information I needed.

Those are my favorite and vital writing tools. I have others, but those are the first ones I reach for. What are your favorite tools? I hope you'll share. I'm always looking for new ones to add to my toolbelt.


Ane Mulligan has been a voracious reader ever since her mom instilled within her a love of reading at age three, escaping into worlds otherwise unknown. But when Ane saw Mary Martin in PETER PAN, she was struck with a fever from which she never recovered—stage fever. She submerged herself in drama through high school and college. Years later, her two loves collided, and a bestselling, award-winning novelist emerged. She resides in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a rascally Rottweiler. Find Ane on her websiteAmazon Author pageFacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and The Write Conversation.  


  1. Some great ideas, Ane. I don't use Scrivener (yet), but I do have an accordian file and 3-ring binder for collecting lists, pictures, notes, character interviews, bios, etc. One thing I did was have my main character pics and a real pic of a rural SC diner put in a collage then on a coffee mug - which sits on my desk. I have a list of REAL street names and pics of many of them from road trips. They show up in my setting in Northwest GA even though they are real roads in MT, VT, ME, SC, TN, and GA. Thanks for sharing.
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

    1. Thanks, Jay. You have some great prompts to get your story moving. I love the coffee mug idea!

  2. Great tip for added use of Scrivener. Thanks for sharing. May you see blessings from all your teaching tips. Teach on! Carolyn Knefely