Inspired by a Beloved Character?

Readers love character-driven fiction. We’ve all had our imaginations captured by a character (or characters) so well drawn that we feel compelled to dive into the story alongside them. That personal connection can be so powerful that we feel this character is someone we know — almost like a close  friend or family member whose trials tug at our heartstrings.

Some characters are so well-loved that we can read about them on social media where their fans compare knowledge of a character’s activities, interest, or appearance. They post and debate and argue over what he/she did or didn’t do, what they might do, or even what they should do. In fact, there’s an entire genre known as fan fiction in which avid readers will borrow an author’s characters and write new stories for them.

What is a Beloved Character?

But today, on the eve of the release of When Starlings Fly as One, we’re checking in with Irish historical fiction author Nancy Blanton to get her views on the topic. In reading her blog post on the topic I couldn’t help but notice: Blanton walks her talk. Nowhere does she expect her readers to fall in love with characters from whom she is distant.

She says, “When I use the term “beloved character” I mean first and foremost that the character must be loved by the author. A writer can’t possibly make a reader care about one of their characters unless they themselves first care very deeply about them — and know them extremely well. That knowledge and understanding is like relationships with real people: it shows itself over time.

We asked her about Merel de Vries, the protagonist of her latest novel, When Starlings Fly as One. As with many wonderful relationships, this meeting was purely serendipitous. “I wasn’t even thinking about the book or the story. I was in bed, browsing dreamily through my Pinterest feed. And there she was.”

“She stared at me from a small portrait, a headshot as we say, and not even head and shoulders. The painting was quite old and badly scratched, but the scratches looked like teardrops. Something about her dark eyes hooked me and I couldn’t sleep until I had found something about who she was. The post said only, “Head of a young woman, c. 17th century by an unknown Dutch artist”.”

Follow the Clues

There was, however, an additional clue: word ‘ashmolean’ appeared in the caption. Living in the U.S., Blanton says she was barely familiar with the magnificent Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology on Beaumont Street, Oxford, England. Regardless of its holdings, this museum holds a great deal of historic sway: it is the world’s second university museum and Britain’s first public museum. The first of its buildings went up in the 17th century specifically to house the cabinet of curiosities that Elias Ashmole gave to the University of Oxford in 1677.

If you know that Blanton loves research every bit as much as she enjoys creating stories to share her findings, you can probably guess what came next. “I contacted them. They had the painting, but no further information about the subject or painter. In that case, I had a blank slate on which to build. I purchased the usage rights for my book cover, even before I had really started the manuscript.”

So, on one hand, the author was free to create a story to match the portrait. On the other, there really wasn’t much to go on. Or was there?

Portrait as Character Sketch

“From this portrait alone, I knew Merel was young, smart, petite, and a bit sad. The bow in her hair made her look younger than she probably was, but the grand pearl necklace and fine yellow gown said she lived as a person of wealth. I may never know who she really was, but I certainly hope I’ve reflected at least some of her truth.”

That the woman was Dutch initially seemed to be an obstacle, but actually provided the author with an unexpected — and perfect —  solution to writing about the 1641 Irish Rebellion against the English. Although her heart is forever and always with the Irish, Blanton hoped to approach this episode with as unbiased look as she could muster.

A Character’s Point of View

shallow focus photography of teal and white ceramic bowls and cupsSince ‘histories are written by the victors,’ finding objectivity could prove difficult. The English side was well documented and recently the Irish perspective has become a bit easier to uncover. Creating a fairly young and mostly neutral protagonist would allow the reader to travel with Merel as she discovered both sides of the story and explored her own internal conflicts.

From there Nancy Blanton did what she typically does for a character. “I gave her a birthday, parentage, relationships, desires, flaws. Some of what I set up in the beginning changed as I progressed in the story, and learned more about her and how she would react in specific situations. I got to know her, and well before the end of the book, I loved her.”

We hope you do, too.


When Starlings Fly as One by Nancy Blanton will be available June 23, 2021.


Birth of a Book Cover

Developing the right book cover for your new work involves far more than simply choosing a more durable paper stock and a lovely graphic. Like almost everything else in the publishing industry, when done well, the addition of a book cover appears quite simple. And that appearance of ease and simplicity is part of the goal.

In the time it takes to write, edit, and prepare a manuscript for publication authors find themselves responding to “tell me about your book” or “describe your work in progress” over and over again. Eventually, though, that book gets published. Who, then to “tell me about your book?”

Who’s Going to Tell About Your Book?

If you guessed the book cover you’re absolutely right and have arrived at its purpose: the book cover stands in for the author when she is not available. Its job is to tell about the book, to let the prospective reader know a little bit about why the author loved this story enough to tell it — and why they’re going to love reading it. That’s a tall order and one not generally fulfilled by a prefabricated cover design.

A great book cover is comprised of several parts: the title, the spine, the inside front and back cover copy. We will look at some of those parts in the future. Today we’re going to start with the overall image which likely includes some of those other components. The simplest way to do that seems to be to trace Nancy Blanton’s process as she created the cover for When Starlings Fly as One. Or, as one reader asked, “How did you get from A to B?”

Young Woman in a Dutch Portrait

The process started, as it always does, in Nancy’s glorious imagination and the cover pictured at the top of this post. As readers of her first series know, Nancy is a great fan of the portraits of the time. She was intrigued by the young woman and truly loved the Dutch portrait initially featured on the cover; it inspired many aspects of the protagonist and her personality.

We posted a few versions of that first cover on Nancy’s Facebook page and on the Amelia Indie Authors page as well and asked her existing readers about their preferences.

While both Nancy and her support team appreciated those comments they were not at all what we expected. Frankly, we thought the crowdsourcing would provide a clear preference. At first it did not. After reviewing the comments elicited by book cover number one, Blanton and the team moved from confused to inspired. In our experience, that’s what readers do: they inspire.

The Trip from A to B: Readers Inspire

Although the book covers look very different from one another, there are a number of logical steps from point A to point B. Here’s some of what Nancy had to say when she recently shared the finished book cover on social media:

You truly inspired the new look. We’ve used the murmuration background that was most favored, along with the preferred type style for the title, and made sure it was clearly readable. We also retained the castle image, though it is on the back cover now. And though I truly loved the Dutch portrait of a young woman, several of you pointed out that use of it on the cover could discourage male readers.

This is a book for all genders, for anyone who is interested in Ireland. That interest is the core that will attract readers to the book, and so we put Ireland on the cover. I hope you’ll love it as much as I do.


When Starlings Fly as One

Publication date: June 23rd

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Although the book covers look very different from one another, there are a number of logical steps from point A to point B. Click To Tweet

After reviewing the comments elicited by cover #1, Blanton and the team moved from confused to inspired. In our experience, that’s what readers do: they inspire. Click To Tweet

The simplest way seems to be to trace Nancy Blanton’s process as she created the cover for When Starlings Fly as One. Or, as one reader asked, “How *did* you get from there to here?” Click To Tweet


Featured Author: Darryl Bollinger

Meet Darryl Bollinger, an award-winning author of seven medical thrillers. The richness of detail in his books can only come from someone who spent twenty-eight years working in the health care industry. It’s a field that touches all of us from time to time — and this author has collected a lot of juicy stories to tell.

The Healing Tree was inspired while Darryl and a friend were walking in the woods near his North Carolina home. He says:

I was halfway through the first draft of what, at the time, was going to be book number seven. On a hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a friend mentioned that he had a great idea for a book. “What if someone hiking in the park discovered a tree that was thought to be extinct?” he asked. As ideas tend to do, this one reached out and grabbed me. By the time we finished the hike, I’d sketched out a story. I shelved my then-current work-in-progress and immediately started writing The Healing Tree.

Plants as Medicine

Most good novels contain some fascinating research and this one is no exception:

Since the Cherokee Indians are so much a part of this area, I wanted to incorporate them accurately and respectfully. I probably read four or five books on the Cherokee and their history and visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC. (Highly recommend!)

The Healing Tree is based on the premise that the Cherokee know about the healing tree and its properties, so Darryl also delved into how plants are used for medicinal purposes. His local bookstore, Blue Ridge Books, recommended a great book on the subject: Plants of the Cherokee by William H. Banks.

How Far Would You Go?

We asked Darryl what he would like readers to take away from The Healing Tree.

First, the question of “how far would you go to save the life of a loved one?” Justin Reeve, my protagonist, faces this question a number of times. His sister is dying and conventional treatment is not working. He desperately wants to save her, but at what risks? What compromises will he be willing to make?

The second takeaway is the realization that our health care system is driven by money and greed. As a country, we spend twice as much per capita as the next closest country, yet our outcomes are in the middle of the pack at best.

A Long Time Coming

Like many of us, Bollinger had an interest in writing from an early age.

I’ve always loved reading fiction. As a child, it was an escape. I tell people that it took me over twenty years to finish my first book which, by the way, is still unpublished. I didn’t have the confidence to try to make a living writing, and went into a business career instead. So, I was a “closet” writer for those twenty years.

When I finally retired, my wife challenged me to give writing my undivided attention. That was when I finally finished my first novel. I realized it wasn’t ready for prime time, so I put it in the file cabinet and started on The Medicine Game, which became my first published novel.

When asked about his writing inspirations, Darryl took the difficult step of limiting it to three.

Ernest Hemingway. I love his brevity and concise prose. Every word in his writing counts.

John Updike, probably one of America’s greatest writers—a writers’ writer. One of only four to have won two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction, he also wrote non-fiction, short stories, poetry, stories… everything.

Michael Crichton. Brilliant. An M.D., author, and filmmaker. He always started with a kernel of truth and then wrapped an incredible story around that core. Like Jurassic Park. The kernel of truth was dinosaur DNA found preserved in amber. I give Crichton credit for my belief that my books are fiction rooted in reality.

Finally, loyal readers will be happy to know that Darryl has picked up the manuscript he put on hold when he began to work on The Healing Tree.

It’s called The Treatment Plan. My last two books are set in North Carolina, but I’m going back to Florida for this one. When a stranger asks for help in finding his daughter who has been kicked out of a drug treatment center for non-payment, a reluctant ex-federal agent must battle a corrupt health care company to save her and prevent more victims

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The premise of The Healing Tree by Darryl Bollinger came on a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “What if someone hiking in the park discovered a tree that was thought to be extinct?” Click To Tweet

The Healing Tree by Darryl Bollinger looks at area customs.“Since the Cherokee Indians are so much a part of this area, I wanted to incorporate them accurately and respectfully.” Click To Tweet

What would @DarrylBollinger like readers to take away from The Healing Tree? First, “how far would you go to save the life of a loved one?” What risks would you take? What compromises would you make? Click To Tweet