Tip Cauldron Writing Advice by Jane & Mari

Welcome to the Tip Cauldron, a monthly writing column by Jane Barnaby and Maria Killjoy! In here, we take questions from the Wacky Writers forum and put them into our cauldron. We have sufficiently brewed them and poured a goblet full of tips. Be warned, they may or may not work as advertised…


Introduce yourselves. What is your writing process like?

Heya! I’m Jane and I’m mainly a Fantasy author. My writing process is a strange combination of following the rule of cool and holding up strict discipline as I write. Let me start with the beginning. Before I start a new project, I always have a handful of ideas running through my mind, with more appearing if I let my mind wander. If nothing comes up or seems to fit, I search for prompts (though that rarely works) or use my own prompts, which are story ideas I never got to write. After that? Well, the writing starts! What did you expect? Planning? I often barely know more than my MC’s name when I get started.

However, once I start, that duality comes up again. On one hand, I do whatever I feel works best for the story, or whatever the story feels is best for itself. When I write, the words simply flow. Sometimes like a slow stream, other times like a flash flood, but often somewhere in between. On the other hand, I also ensure to always hit my weekly word goals, and I track my word count on a spreadsheet. I try for daily goals, but since that sometimes fails, the weekly progress often make up for it. Being able to look back and see all the process I’ve made really helps motivate me.

I could go on and on about my writing process, but this will have to do for today.

Hi, I’m Mari and Jane says I’m a romance writer. Personally, I don’t disagree, but I also can’t agree. Maybe it’s because I’m an indecisive Libra. Or maybe it’s because, aside from basic grammar, I don’t know any writing rules (totally qualified to give y’all advice, though!). So I can’t fully gauge genres, unless it’s something obvious like historical fiction or sci-fi. I write with my gut and my process looks something like this:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Does it read well?
  • Does it feel right?

If the answer is three times yes, then I go full steam ahead. If not, then I work on whatever blocks my path until it makes sense, reads well and feels right, regardless of genre tropes or conventions. I will read just about anything and am open to writing just about anything, as long as I can pull it off. So I don’t think I’m a romance writer… yet.

After over ten years of this writing-on-the-Internet thing, I’ve discovered that humans being horrible to each other is my favourite source of story conflict, which pairs well with my fascination for the dark underbelly of everything. You can never get the light without the darkness, the good without the bad, the beautiful without the ugly. Morally grey is what I usually aim for and I hope that sharing my experiences will help broaden your perspectives.


How do you write people that are drastically different than you?

You mean… besides researching the heck out of it?

Joking aside, though, we’ve managed to narrow it down to 3 essential pointers to keep in mind when building characters:

  1. Write people.
  2. Most people are more similar to you than you might think.
  3. Each “villain” is a hero in their own story.

Which ultimately serve to:

  1. Encourage diversity
  2. Remind you that diversity does not equal otherness
  3. Prompt you to consider the unique circumstances which make a person who they are

The first thing you have to remember when it comes to writing different points of view is that the narrator is a person first and foremost, no matter their gender, orientation, race, or skin colour. If you strip away all those things, you’ll find that most people are more similar than you might think.

So rather than going “I am writing a Buddhist character, so what would a Buddhist do in this situation?”

Try “What would I do in this situation?” If you were to be faced with all the same circumstances, how would you react and why?

Once you break that down for yourself, you will be better able to then apply it to your characters. It will give you a more nuanced perspective than just ‘good’ or ‘bad’. There’s no such thing as black-and-white morals, most of us exist in shades of grey and depending on perspective, the ‘grey’ can look closer to either ‘black’ or ‘white’.

After that, you research. Location, language, culture, religion, history, and so much more. What food, books, music, and films was your character exposed to? What happened in their past? Were they rich or poor? Did they have experiences that made them distrust people? Are they spontaneous or do they think things through first? What are things they love and things they strongly dislike? How were they raised? Are they religious?

Even if you are writing from the POV of a cat, that cat still has both good and bad traits that affect the way they act, react, think, and speak. Let’s take Simba from the Lion King, for example. Simba was raised to be the future king. His father tried his best to instill good morals and a sense of justice and responsibility into him. But after the little crown prince grew up the Hakuna Matata way, he gained a more laidback, relaxed attitude to life, shirking his duties. This then conflicts with the expectations imposed on him by his childhood friend who’d always known him as the ‘future king’. Resolving this conflict is what ultimately restores balance in the film’s universe.


What are some gender-neutral terms you could use in your writing?

‘They/them’ as a gender-neutral pronoun is pretty well-known and established in English, along with terms like ‘Mx.’ instead of Mr/Ms. Thankfully, English isn’t as reliant on gender in its grammar as other languages like German or French, making it quite easy to replace she/he with they/them.

We did some digging and here are some terms from a few other languages you could maybe use in your writing:


Swedish & Finnish

The Swedes have taken to using hen as a gender-neutral pronoun, instead of either han (h) or hon (she). It was borrowed from the Finnish hän which means both ‘he’ and ‘she’.



All German nouns have a grammatical ‘gender’ (masculine, feminine, neutral) by default. A way to bypass the masculine/feminine distinction when referring to people in writing is by including both gender-specific suffixes – such as ‘liebe FreundInnen/Freund_innen/Freund*innen’. That’s ‘friends’, plural, Freund = male friend, Freundin = female friend.

Spanish & Portuguese

Just like German, Spanish and Portuguese differentiate between masculine and feminine nouns. Generally, if it ends in ‘a’, it’s feminine, if it ends in ‘o’, it’s masculine. This word ending can be replaced with @x or e (especially popular in Argentina), like for instance Latinx instead of Latina or Latino.



French is in a similar situation as above (thanks, Latin!) and it even has gendered terms for the pronoun they – ils is male, elles is female. The solution: iel, which is a combination of il (he) and elle (she).



It seems like the gender-neutral pronoun ono is catching on in Russian, a mix between on (he) and ona (she). Russian grammar, however, relies heavily on gender and one innovative workaround we found here suggests ‘making up’ your own gender-neutral suffixes. For instance, instead of ya chital/chitala (I was reading said by a man or a woman, respectively), try using something like ya chitakhshi .


In a fantasy world, what’s a good way to decide how money works?

Money, or currency in general, relies heavily on several things. The currency has to be portable, durable, easily recognisable, valuable, and difficult to copy. This is why coins were commonly used in the past. However, other forms of currency were used as well, such as rare seashells and salt. You can also use more fantasy-esque currency such as dragon scales, crystals filled with mana, or even memories.

What’s important is that you have a system set up for how the currency works. How much is everything worth, and how much is it worth in relation to one another? How and where is the currency made? Can it be checked to ensure it’s real? How is the currency stored? Are there several different kinds of currency in the same area due to different cultures or lack of faith in the main currency?

When it comes to deciding how much a currency is worth, you’ll have to keep the region you’re working with in mind. For example, ore would be cheap in a mining town, while it’d be expensive elsewhere. And sheep’s wool would be a staple in a region full of shepherds, while it’s considered fancy in areas with no sheep in sight. This disparity also opens up way for trade, which is a whole other can of worms I can’t get into right now.


And that will be all for this month. If you have any writing questions, be sure to drop them in our cauldron. Who knows, we might have just the brew for you on the first Friday of the next month.