Author Archives: mariesontag

About mariesontag

Dr. Marie Sontag has written stories since grammar school. Before she worked full-time as a writer she taught band, choir, social studies, language arts, and technology. She earned a BA in social science, a minor in music, an MA in Instructional Technology, and a PhD in Instructional Design for Online Learning. You can view her teaching website and blog at, and Her writing webpage can be seen at and

Taking Things for Granted

hamilton.jpegToday I read an article in Time about author Ron Chernow. The hit Broadway musical, Hamilton, was based on his book, Alexander Hamilton. I just put a copy of it on hold at my local library.

After I finish this 832-page book (no promises on when I’ll finish – I’m a middle grade author, remember, and I enjoy short books), I hope to read Chernow’s latest tome, Grant.  This 1,104-page book comes out today. Reading it, Chernow promises, “is going to affect how you respond to a lot of different contemporary issues” (Time, Vol. 190, No. 15, 2017, p. 50).

How can this prize-winning author make such a claim? Because he doesn’t see his job as political, but rather as one that offers facts on which people can build informed opinions. That seems to be a novel concept these days in a world of “fake news”, sound bytes and emotional rhetoric.

Grant imageSMl.jpg

“Politics boils down to the stories we tell ourselves,” Chernow says. “And unfortunately we tell ourselves different stories. Unless we know where we’ve been as a country, we don’t know where we are or where we are going” (Time, pg 51).

Do you know where you’re going? I hope to scrutinize my path a bit more carefully and to not take my current knowledge of history for granted.

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Creating Characters’ Personalities

Gretchn Rubin signing.jpg

Today  I met Gretchen Rubin, a New York Times bestselling author, as she celebrated her newest book release, The Four Tendencies. I hadn’t heard about Rubin before attending the event, but since I’m continuing to research personality characteristics to help my fictional characters come to life, Rubin’s book title intrigued me. In her talk, Rubin shared that her book, The Four Tendenciesfocuses less on specific personality types or temperaments, and more on an “expectations framework” – how a person responds to the inner and outer expectations placed upon them. Here’s how she breaks down these four characteristics:

GretchenRubin_SpkrA. Rebels resist both inner and outer expectations. They value authenticity and self-determination.

B. Questioners meet only inner expectations. They push back against and question all expectations. Above all, they do something only if they think it makes sense — they hate anything arbitrary.

C. Obligers meet outer expectations but not always inner ones. In other words, they usually need some form of external accountability.

D. Upholders generally meet both inner and outer expectations, meaning they don’t let others or themselves down.

Over the past few months, I’ve researched several personality/character indicators to get a feel for the positive and negative sides of typical thought and behavior patterns. This serves as a checklist to help me see if my fictional characters are acting true to their given natures (personality temperaments) that I’ve assigned them. It also provides me with an easy list of what their inherent weaknesses and strengths are. I can use their weakness to increase conflict and use their strengths to help them overcome their fears and conquer their problems and conflict – all while staying true to their assigned character traits, making them more believable as a real people.

1. Expectations Framework and the Four Personality Temperaments:  Rubin believes her Expectations Framework can float on top of any of the four personality temperaments, but having researched these personality types for the past several months, I can also see how they might link up with them. Sites I have explored included descriptions and self-quizzes, as one from Psychologia and, for ease of use, a personality type calculator. The four temperaments are said to influence appearance, thinking, behavior, and possibly even career choices. One site states that the “origins of this typology belong to Graeco-Arabic medicine where it was successfully used to treat illnesses.” These types were originally labeled:
A. Choleric (Rubin’s Rebel)
Melancholic (Rubin’s Questioners)
Sanguine (Rubin’s Obligers)
D. Phlegmatic (Rubin’s Upholders)
To help our modern minds better grasp the distinctions between these four types, some descriptive names have been attached to these ancient Latin and Greek names by various researchers, authors and trainers. Several of these are explained below.

2. The Smalley Institute
As a writer, I found the Smalley Institute examination of temperaments most helpful because this assessment tool focuses on viewing personality types in terms of how they affect relationships, a very important element in developing fictional stories. Smalley also links animal images to each of the temperaments:

personality_test_Lion-Beaver_Otter_-Golden_Retriever.pngA. Choleric – Lion (bold)
B. Melancholic – Beaver (careful, busy worker)
Sanguine – Otter (playful)
D. Phlegmatic – Golden Retriever (loyal)
The Smalley Institute also charts each style’s relational strength to illustrate how these strengths look when they get out of balance (for example, when a character experiences stress or conflict), as well as each type’s dominant communication style, relational needs, and the relational balance each type brings into a relationship. A download of the chart is available here.

3.  The Anatomy of Love – Dr. Helen Fisher
This site focuses on personality types through the lenses of relationships and work, typifying these four traits as:
A. Choleric – Director
B. Melancholic – Builder
C. Sanguine – Explorer
D. Phlegmatic – Negotiator

4. Jung and Myer Briggs
The Jung’s/Myer Briggs assessment focus on four personal preference opposites:
1) E/I: Extrovert, a preference for people and things vs.
     Introvert, a preference for ideas and information
2) S/N: Sensing, a preference for facts and reality vs.
intuitioN, with a preference for possibilities and potential
3) T/F: Thinking and feeling, with a preference to rely on logic and truth vs.
     Feeling, valuing relationship
4)  J/P: Judgment, a preference for a lifestyle that is well-structured vs.
     Perception, preferring a lifestyle that goes with the flow
Because the Myer Briggs assessment focuses on four personality type opposites, there are, in reality, sixteen types provided here.


To put Myer Briggs into the context of our four temperaments, however, we can break it down into these four generic categories:
A. Choleric – ENTJ
B. Melancholic – ISTJ
C.  Sanguine – ESFP
D.  Phlegmatic – INFP

5. DISC Assessments
The DISC personal assessment tool is often used by businesses to promote work productivity, teamwork, and communication. These types are labeled as:
D – Dominance, I – Influence, S – Steadiness, C – Conscientiousness (DISC). To keep the various assessments in line with the ones above, however, I will continue to put them in the same sequential order, rather than forming them into the DISC order:
A. Choleric – Dominance / D
B. Melancholic – Conscientiousness / C
C. Sanguine – Influence / I
D. Phlegmatic – Steadiness / S


6. Business Training Model Based on DISC
The “Take Flight Learning company makes the DISC categories even more accessible by giving them better descriptive names, and ascribing each DISC type with a bird’s name:

A. Choleric -Dominant -Eagles / D
B. Melancholic – Conscientious -Owls / C
Sanguine – Interactive -Parrots / I
D. Phlegmatic – Supportive -Doves / S


7. Entry Pointe Christian Profile Assessment
Christian writers might find the “Spiritual Office” assessment helpful for their writing genre.

8. Dressing Your Truth – Energy Profile
Carol Tuttle, author of Dressing Your Truth – Discover Your Type of Beauty, looks at the four temperaments as “energy types” and relates these to each types’ best clothing choice:
A. Choleric – Energy: hydrogen/fire  Movement: active, reactive  Clothing/Shapes: exotic, captivating, angular, textured, dynamic, edgy (a mistake for them to wear black colors)   Label: Type 3
B. Melancholic: Energy: carbon/earth  Movement: constant, still   Clothing/Shapes: elongated ovals with straight sides, parallel lines in any direction  Type: 4
C. Sanguine: Energy: nitrogen/air  Movement: up, light  Clothing/Shapes: colorful, festive/circles and points of a star  Label: Type 1
D. Phlegmatic: Energy: oxygen/water  Movement: fluid, flowing  Clothing/Shapes: comfortable clotheselongated S curves, ovals, softened rectangles  Label: Type 2


Four Temperaments – Labels at a Glance

A. Choleric – 1) Rebel 2) Lion 3) Director 4) ENTJ 5) DDominance 6) Dominant/Eagle 7) Prophet, Peter or Apostle, Paul  8) Energy: hydrogen/fire, Type 3

B. Melancholic – 1) Questioner  2) Beaver  3) Builder  4) ISTJ  5) Conscientious  6) Compliant/Owl  7) Teacher, Luke or Apostle, Paul  8)  Energy: carbon/earth, Type 4

C. Sanguine – 1) Obliger  2) Otter  3) Explorer  4) ESFP  5) I Interactive  6) Influencer/Parrot  7) Evangelist, Phillip or Apostle, Paul  8) Energy: nitrogen/air, Type 1

D. Phlegmatic – 1) Upholder  2) Retriever  3) Negotiator  4) INFP  5) S, Steadiness  6) Supportive/Dove  7) Pastor-Shepherd, John  8) Energy: Oxygen/water, Type 2







Categories: authors, books, Character Development, writing tips | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Rizzoli and Isles meets Sontag

Gerristen_Sontag.pngThis week I met an author whose series of novels inspired a successful TV drama that spanned 7 seasons with a total of 105 episodes. The author was Tess Gerristen, and her series of medical crime thrillers inspired the TV show, Rizzoli and Isles. Gerristen shared thoughts on what has inspired her writing and how she’s turned these sparks of inspiration into compelling stories.

During Gerristen’s talk, she spoke of getting inspiration from reading newspapers, exploring her interests, and exploring things outside of her area of interest. When something intrigues her in one of these settings, she asks herself “what if” questions. She then turns her creative answers to these “what if” questions into fictional books that have sold over 25 million copies in 40 countries. Here is a three-minute video snippet from her talk as she shares the inspiration for her newest book (and perhaps the last in her Rizzoli and Isles series), I Know a Secret.

Gerristen’s success with medical crime thrillers proves the validity of the admonitions to follow your dream and to write what you know. It also validates authors’ experiences of writing out of their pain. As a child, Gerristen dreamed of one day writing her own Nancy Drew novels. Her Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American parents, however, prompted her to choose a medical career. She graduated from Stanford with a BA in anthropology and then studied medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Afterward, she established a successful practice as an internist. While on maternity leave, Gerristen entered a statewide short story contest and won first place and $500 for a story that focused on a young man reflecting on a difficult relationship with his mother. Gerritsen claims the story allowed her to deal with her own childhood turmoil, including the repeated suicide attempts of her mother.

Gerristen’s first published books were romantic thrillers published by Harlequin Intrigue. Her writing career really took off, however, after she wrote her first romantic medical suspense novel, Harvest, marking her debut on the New York Times bestseller list at number thirteen. Five years later, she wrote The Surgeon, introducing the detective Jane Rizolli. Her next ten novels paired Rizolli with the medical examiner Dr. Laura Isles. The final episode of the TV Rizolli and Isles series aired September 5, 2016, hinting that the medical examiner, Maura Isles (played by Sasha Alexander) will take a break from the medical field and try her hand at writing. Gerristen makes an appearance in this final episode as a writer who helps Maura Isles establish herself in the literary field.

Gerristen shared that a possible eight-episode TV series may surface in the near future featuring Maura Isles as a writer (once again played by Sasha Alexander) who becomes involved in a medical mystery while writing a mystery story when vacationing in Italy. Alexander’s husband, Edoardo Ponti, son of Sophia Loren, will direct the series. Gerristen shared that she’s written what’s called the “Bible” for all eight episodes, and one show includes an appearance by Sophia Loren.

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The W Plot

Plotting choices.png

I just read an article on yet another form of plotting. This one’s called the W Plot. My arsenal now includes the Hero’s Journey, the Virgin’s Promise, and the W Plot. I’m a pantser, but I’ve finally come to agree with writing coaches regarding the importance of plotting and finding the right one to fit your novel.


I just learned about the existence of the W Plot today in an email from writing coach, Lynn Johnston. I then found an article that presented the W Plot’s bare bones on a Blog by Ken Strathy. Intrigued, I went to a video about the W Plot narrated by Mary Carroll Moore in 2011.

Writing coach Lynn Johnston believes that, “The W Plot is one of the most flexible, easy to understand plot structures you can use to plot gripping stories.” Johnston is offering an inexpensive (very) course on the W Plot, so, after reviewing the above information, I signed up.

writers block.jpegI do, however, realize the trap of investing so much time on the creation of plot charts that I never get around to writing or finishing my novel. In fact, spending so much time on the left side of my brain has started to give me right-sided writer’s block!

islands.jpgMoore offers sage advice for this dilemma: “If your storyboard blocks your writing, go back to your brainstorming list of topics and keep generating islands for a little while.” For fiction writers, Moore’s “islands” refer to scenes you generate for a story that may not necessarily connect to your storyboard plan or character arc – at the moment. Generating a list of scenes, and even fleshing out a few, can get the creative juices flowing once again. Moore continues, “Eventually, you need to organize your islands. Your islands must become continents. They can’t stay as islands and create a book.”

Update: I just completed a self-study course by Lynn Johnston on The W Plot. I believe it will help me work through the snags in my current WIP. My new project didn’t fit into the Hero’s Journey or The Virgin’s Promise plot structure. I think this might be it! Johnston has slides, videos, and worksheets available with the course. I highly recommend it!

Categories: authors, books, Hero's Journey, Story Structure, The Virgin's Archetypal Journey, The W Plot | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lines between Past and Present Fade



Today I read in the news that, “Several days of civil unrest have rocked Poland as hundreds of thousands of people across the country protest the government’s bid to replace Supreme Court judges and the EU threatens to intervene.


My YA historical fiction novel, Rising Hope, tells the story of six Polish teens who find hope, despite great loss, when their Boy Scout and Girl Guides troops fight alongside the Polish Underground Army against the Germans during WWII, culminating in the 1944 Warsaw Rising. Book two will follow the book’s fictional characters as they join a spy network NIE, during the Cold War, a resistance effort against the newly installed Communist government in Poland.

For the sake of Poland and its long struggle for freedom, I hope the current leaders listen to the protestors. After Poland overthrow Communism, it created a new constitution that called for courts and tribunals to constitute a separation of power, independent of other branches of power (Chapter VIII, Article 173). Political opponents, rights groups and the EU say that the changes the current ruling party has proposed will “undermine the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, a fundamental democratic principle” (UK’s Express).

For those wanting more background, the Express explains, “Since being elected in 2015, PiS [meaning Law and Justice, the current majority party in Poland] has tightened government control over courts and prosecutors, as well as state media, and introduced restrictions on public gatherings and the activity of non-governmental organisations.

“Last week, parliament passed another bill that ends the terms of current members of the National Council of the Judiciary, one of the main judicial bodies, and gives parliament powers to choose 15 of its 25 members.

“Political opponents, rights groups and the EU say the changes undermine the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, a fundamental democratic principle.”

What do you think? Let me know.

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Sleuthing & Subtext

I just read two thought-provoking articles that shared gems I hope to employ in writing the first draft of my next novel’s first chapter – hopefully by this weekend!


One article discussed what the mantra of “show don’t tell” actually means. The writer boiled it down to the concept of “sleuthing” – creating scenes where readers must conduct a bit of detective work in order to figure out what’s going on with the characters. This makes readers feel more engaged in the story, helps them feel as though they’ve come to know the characters better, and provides them with a sense of ownership of the people and the scene. “Since the reader did some work to figure out what was going on, they now feel included, emotionally invested.”



The second article illustrates how we can create subtext in dialogue by taking into account all of the forces acting upon a character at a particular moment. Using the illustration of a crumpled ball of paper getting thrown into a trash can, she shows that, while the goal of the shot is to make the ball enter the receptacle, more forces come into play than just the person’s goal of making the shot. Other forces, such as the pull of gravity, the friction of the air, the breeze from the ceiling fan also come into play. The person making the shot makes an assessment (albeit subconsciously) of all those forces before taking the shot. In the same way, “With each line, we [need to] take into account all of the forces acting upon a character.” The protagonist’s goal “is not the only force acting upon the character, it is simply the most dominant. Like the fan breeze that bends the path of the paper ball, other forces will bend the behavior of a character. This is the source of subtext.”

I’m looking forward to creating scenes that invite my readers to do some sleuthing in order to discover my characters’ wants and needs. I also hope to take into account all of the forces acting upon my characters at a given moment in order to create plot points that utilize subtext. Sleuthing and subtext will add layers of dimension to my characters while also deepening my readers’ emotional connection to the characters and the story.


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Reunion and Research Trip

CA Room MLK library SJI’m back in CA for a short trip to attend a reunion, and thought I’d do some more research for my next novel while here. Yesterday I spent several hours at San Jose CA’s MLK library in the California Room. I hunted down more information regarding one of the historical characters that will appear in my next novel about the gold rush – Jim Savage. He led the battalion that routed out the Yosemite Indians from Yosemite in 1851. The men in this battalion were the first whites to witness the majesty of what we now call Yosemite National Park.

Reed street namesMy young fictional character travels with Jim Savage on a wagon train West in 1846. On this wagon train he also meets 13-year-old Virginia Reed. She and her family broke off from Savage’s group, resulting in her party spending the severe winter in the Sierras. My fictional character later meets up with Virginia again in San Jose, CA. Stay tuned!

Pics of San Jose streets named after Reed family members. In 1849, Reed purchased a square mile of open acreage south and east of  San Jose’s market plaza. Margaret Keyes Reed was Virginia’s mother, wife of James Reed.

Margaret Keyes ReedReed_Margaret_St_pic

Reed street very sml


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Cracked Vessels – Pursuing Kintsugi Art in my Life


Can you find any imperfections in this Japanese plate?


How about now?



The Japanese art known as Kintsugi, or Kintsukuroi (meaning “golden repair”), according to Wikipedia,  is “the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum…. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.”


Wow! My husband, Mark, recently shared this tidbit with me after reading a daily devotional. We talked about how, in our society, we want to ignore or disguise our imperfections. Lately, I’ve taken a closer look at my spiritual, emotional and physical states. I’ve also taken a closer look at my work as an author. I see areas where I’m chipped or cracked – pieces are broken off that I want repaired.


These images of Kintsugi art serve as a reminder that I’m far from perfect in any area. Rather than run from or cover up inadequacies, I want to embrace them and look for the gold in their repair. I recently had an editor review my work in progress. Her feedback showed that I needed to totally restructure the entire novel. Ouch.


In my spiritual life, I recently saw that I needed to ask forgiveness from a few families members. Another “ouch”. I want to pursue all of my life’s avenues with passion, embrace the cracks, and seek healing. I can’t do it on my own. For me, this is where my motivation and strength come from to pursue Kintsugi art in my life and in my writing:


“But we have this treasure in earthen (cracked!) vessels, that the excellency of the power (the gold) may be of God, and not of us” (2Corinthians 4:7, AKJV).

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Story Structure – The Virgin’s Archetypal Journey

I recent posted about a Webinar I attended that focused on story structure. The presenter, Beth Barany, has graciously provided a link to the Webinar that also included helpful slides. I highly recommend you take time to view it.

nail down.jpegI’ve recently struggled to nail down the proper structure for my current work in progress. After the Webinar, however, I resonated with a form Beth called “The Virgin’s Archetypal Journey”. Several of the structure categories Beth discussed were ones I’d never heard of before, including this one. Beth emphasized that the word “virgin” in this structure’s title doesn’t refer to a lack of sexual encounters. Rather, it describes a main character who experiences an internal change because he confronts the story’s conflicts and obstacles. These challenges cause the protagonist to discover a dormant, unproven potential that lies within. As the main character acts on this discovery, it changes not only the protagonist, but also the world  he inhabits. This structure differs from the Hero’s Journey where the central figure overcomes obstacles that lead to an inner change, resulting in the hero selflessly saving the community.

The differences between these two structures illuminated the darkness of my writer’s block as I realized that I was trying to make my protagonist a hero, when in reality, he was a virgin!

Beth outlined and described a list of thirteen beats that formulate the world of a character whose storyline fits the virgin’s archetypal structure. The originator of the Virgin’s Archetypal Structure, Kim Hudson, explains her understanding of this construct in an article titled,  “The Virgin’s Promise, a New Archetypal Structure“. I’m still trying to digest all of this new information and would love to hear your take on it!

Categories: authors, books, historical middle grade fiction, inspiration, links, Story Structure, Structure, The Virgin's Archetypal Journey | Leave a comment

How to Choose Your Story’s Structure

rolling up sleeves right.pngNow that I’ve agreed to value lessons more than successes, I’m rolling up my sleeves to make major revisions on my current work in progress. I participated in a Webinar last night titled “How to Choose Your Story’s Structure” (recommended by my writing coach).  The presentation opened up a whole new area of thought for me regarding “structure”.

Hopefully I’ll devote subsequent posts to topics covered in the Webinar, (you can email Beth Barany to ask if she’ll repeat this Webinar in the future) but I’m going to focus first on material Beth referenced from a book titled The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.

recumbent bike left.jpgToday I watched the first of five (free) YouTube videos regarding Coyne’s Story Grid. They were easy to watch while I huffed away on my exercise bike for eight minutes. (No judging here – I’m slowly building up my stamina!). The material filled in knowledge gaps that I realize will make my WIP stronger. I just ordered Coyne’s book and will read that in conjunction with watching the videos.

One of Coyne’s major points that hit me over the head is the idea of creating “obligatory scenes”. This concept proposes that different genre readers have specific scenes they look for when reading a particular genre. If these scene types are not included, the reader will feel disappointed and probably not read more of your work (or may put the book down before finishing}! I never heard the idea  of “obligatory scenes” before. I asked Beth during the Webinar if Coyne covered obligatory scenes for historical fiction, and she did not think so since historical fiction can include either romance, adventure, mystery, or other specific genres. I believe historical fiction, despite its inclusion of some of these other genres, DOES have some specific elements of its own. I’m looking to discuss this further with other historical fiction writers. Any takers?

Categories: authors, books, inspiration, obligatory scenes, Story Structure, Structure | 8 Comments

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That Ranch Life

A Donkumentary of City-Turned-Country Livin'

Blissful Scribbles

Musings through the journey of writing my first novel

ACFW - DFW CHAPTER a.k.a. DFW Ready Writers

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

Bay Area Writing Group

Northern California Chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers

Letters to Noah

Spoken words are fleeting, but written words last beyond a lifetime.

Sontag Writing Dreams

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

marsha ottum owen

I make Children's Books

Under His Wings

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

Cathleen Armstrong

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

A Writer's Diary

Author, Educator, Consultant

That Ranch Life

A Donkumentary of City-Turned-Country Livin'

Blissful Scribbles

Musings through the journey of writing my first novel

ACFW - DFW CHAPTER a.k.a. DFW Ready Writers

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

Bay Area Writing Group

Northern California Chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers

Letters to Noah

Spoken words are fleeting, but written words last beyond a lifetime.

Sontag Writing Dreams

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

marsha ottum owen

I make Children's Books

Under His Wings

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

Cathleen Armstrong

"Nothing happens unless first a dream." Carl Sandburg

A Writer's Diary

Author, Educator, Consultant