Cara Langston

Historical Fiction Novelist. Reader. Traveler. Coffee Addict.

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Why I’m writing under a pen name


The above photo is a modification of this work

If you read Freakonomics back in the day (because 2005 was ten years ago and at the threshold for being considered “back in the day”), you’ll remember there was a chapter on nominative determinism–that is (quoting Wikipedia), “the theory that a person’s name can have a significant role in determining key aspects of job, profession, or even character.” The study focused mainly on racial and socioeconomic factors, but at an aggregate level, it succeeded in highlighting the importance of a person’s name. People judge us based on what we are called–employers, colleagues, readers.

Our legal names are generally chosen by our parents. Mine was a last-minute choice after I was born, because the doctors assured my parents that they were going to have a baby boy. I guess they could’ve jumped onto the androgynous name train and called me Craig (I’m personally glad they didn’t).

But whereas my parents had the responsibility of choosing my legal name, I had the sole responsibility of choosing my pen name. Cara Langston is not my real name. It’s a pen name I chose to use for my writing endeavors.

Why did I choose to use a pen name? And out of all the names in the universe, how did I pick this one? Everyone has their own reasons, but I’ll share mine.

Part I:  Do you need a pen name?

Short answer: Of course you don’t need one. You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to do.

However, here are the reasons I chose to use a pen name:

1. I have a successful career outside of my writing — I pay the bills working as a senior strategy analyst at a large healthcare organization. I doubt I’ll be able to quit that career for a writing career anytime soon, so in the interim, I’d rather not have my name associated with my writing while I’m still climbing the corporate ladder. For example, I don’t want potential employers to be concerned that I may be writing on company time (of which I’m . . . ahem . . . guilty).

2. Everyone misspells my name — Both first and last names. Coworkers, friends, family members. Maybe (hopefully!) it’s their spell check, but every time someone spells my name incorrectly, I think, “Seriously? The correct spelling was in my email address just above this greeting.” And if by chance I’m one day successful enough that someone is actively looking for my books, I’d rather they be able to spell it correctly in Google or Amazon searches. On the flip side, there are plenty of successful authors with crazy last names–Chuck Palahniuk, anyone? So it could be a differentiating factor.

3. It’s a cushion for failure — I almost didn’t include this, but it’s the ugly truth. There’s some relief in knowing that if I’m really bad at writing or have some kind of terrible experience, I can shed the name and put it all behind me. That’s a really pessimistic view, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

Part II: How do you pick a pen name?

Now once you’ve decided that a pen name is for you, you can go through the process of picking your name. There’s so much riding on this decision! Your pen name will be emblazoned on the cover of that bestseller you’ll eventually write, so choose wisely. :)

If you do a quick Google search on this process, you’ll find plenty of articles about strategic positioning on bookshelves, the use of acronyms if you’re a woman trying to cater toward a male audience (*rolls eyes that it needs to be a consideration at all*), and fashioning a name to match your genre.

I disregarded those opinions. Instead, I based my name choice on the following:

1. Availability of website & social media handles — It’s so much easier if or @yourchosenpenname is available. Unless you absolutely have your heart set on a specific name, you may want to do a search to see if anyone else already owns the website address and Twitter handle. Checking to see if your pen name is already claimed by a semi-famous author or other celebrity falls into this category as well.

2. Ability to write the name — Think of those future book signings! Unless your real name is Elizabeth Jingleheimer Schmidt and you’re already used to writing it, it might be long name to jot down over and over again. I chose “Cara” because I can get away with a “C” and a short squiggle. Yes, I’m lazy.

3. Association to your real name / heritage — The initials I was born with are CL, so I came up with a name that had those same initials. My maiden name is Italian, so I chose a slightly Italian first name. I picked my last name from the “L” last names on my family tree. “Langston” was my third choice, as the first two were already widely used by two authors.

So there it is. Why I chose to write under a pen name and how I chose the one I have. Mom, I hope this answers all the questions you’ve been asked by friends and family. Thanks for fielding those questions for me!

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Why I don’t read my reviews

A few years ago, I found an amazing Twitter account called Don’t Read Comments (@AvoidComments). It was a great reminder of what reading the comments section of blogs, news articles, etc. can do to your psyche. Surely we’ve all been there: A certain politician says something controversial. A certain celebrity makes anti-vaccination claims. A certain bill goes to the House floor. You read the article and suddenly find yourself scrolling down to the comments section. What are other people thinking? Is my stance in the majority or the minority? This almost always ends badly, especially for more controversial issues. I get angry by what I feel to be an ignorant comment, and the outrage fuels me to keep reading other people’s opinions until my once good mood has been obliterated.

I feel the same way about reading reviews of my writing.

Right before I published Battle Hymns last year, I was so excited! My novel that took over five years to complete was finally going to debut. Then I sent it to reviewers for my blog tour, and that excitement transformed into anxiety (I’m an anxious person already, so Spring 2014 was an interesting time for me). What if it was terrible? What if no one else ever wanted to read it? I forced myself to read the reviews from professional reviewers, and by and large, they were positive, 3-4 stars. It eased some of my concerns over whether or not I was an awful writer.

Since then, though, I’ve read my reviews only a couple of times. I haven’t checked Goodreads in 7+ months. If I have to go into my Author Dashboard for whatever reason, I literally cover the rating with the palm of my hand. My mother asked me to buy a couple of my books on Amazon and sign them for her friends, and I almost refused because I didn’t want to see what my Amazon reviews looked like (I did it in the end, and it hasn’t changed–a few 4-star reviews, which I’m more than happy with right now). I also will not Google myself.

Advantages to reading your reviews:

  • If any criticism is constructive, you can obviously try to fix whatever didn’t work
  • If you prepare yourself, you can note your physical symptoms upon first viewing bad reviews and use them in your writing. My palms grow sweaty. My stomach plunges. My head begins to spin a bit. So I definitely know how to write anxiety into my fictional characters

Disadvantages to reading your reviews:

  • Your self-confidence can plummet, which makes writing difficult when you doubt yourself
  • You’ll never be able to change what people think
  • Not everyone will like what you write; tastes will always differ
  • If you ever become a popular writer, you won’t be able to read all your reviews anyway; why start now?

To me, the disadvantages win out over the advantages, especially when I’m writing something new. It’s more important right now that I get through the second draft of my WIP without self-doubt than it is to know what strangers think of my first novel. And when I do finally check those reviews, I’ll be halfway through a bottle of wine :)

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Around the world in 10 days: Maldives and Shanghai

Last summer, my husband and I were brainstorming for our next big vacation. We’re both of the mindset that, being young and childless, we should go to the far-away places on our wish list while we have (1) the frequent flyer miles, (2) our health, and (3) fewer responsibilities. After all, we can go to Europe and do one of those bus tours or river cruises when we’re much older.

So we scoured some world maps and Pinterest, and we each chose our dream destination. I wanted to go to New Zealand and do a road trip around the South Island. We started determining an initial itinerary–what time of year is best, how long would it take, etc. I even got on the TripAdvisor boards and researched which cities we should stop in. However, my husband wanted to use his many American Airlines miles to get upgraded, and it turns out they rarely give out business/first award tickets on that route.

With the New Zealand option no longer viable (until we want to fly economy), my husband said, “What about the Maldives?” I thought he was joking. “We can’t afford the Maldives,” I replied. But I humored him, and he planned our fabulous trip from which we just returned.

On the way to the Maldives, we flew Etihad Airways in first class, direct from Dallas to Abu Dhabi. They were award tickets that we were able to redeem through a combination of my husband’s business travel and putting nearly every household expense on an American Airlines credit card.

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2015-02-05 03.07.24Fourteen hours after departing DFW, we arrived in Abu Dhabi, where we had an overnight layover. Even though we used the Etihad chauffeur service in Dallas and were technically not allowed to use it again, we went to the chauffeur counter in AUH and confidently told them we needed a chauffeur to our hotel. They gave us a voucher without further question, and we continued on our way to the Crowne Plaza at Yas Island.

Jetlagged, we woke up at 3 A.M. and decided we’d rather spend the morning in the Etihad Premium Lounge as opposed to lounging in the hotel room for another 4 hours. In the lounge, we ate breakfast, booked one of the free, 15-minute massages in the Six Senses Spa, and waited for our flight to Male.

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From Abu Dhabi to Male, we flew Etihad business class. It was an uneventful, 3.5-hour flight, during which I watched Boyhood. Good film, but long and uneventful enough that I’ll probably never watch it again.



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Finally, after more than a day of travel, we arrived in Male, the capital city of the Maldives. Male is located in the northern swath of atolls. The resort we selected–Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa–was located in the southern atolls. So we were shuttled to a lounge in the airport to wait for a 1-hour regional flight on Maldivian Airlines.

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After our arrival in Koodhoo, we were met by Park Hyatt employees and taken via golf cart to a speedboat. It was a 30-minute journey to the resort, by which time it was dark, so I have no photos.

To summarize our entire stay into one paragraph: The resort was gorgeous. It was like living in a high-definition desktop background for 5 nights. The snorkeling was incredible, and the amenities were great. There were some examples of less-than-stellar service in the dining room and the food was certainly expensive, but overall, it was paradise.

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Eventually, we had to bid the resort farewell. With 20 mosquito bites on my legs and the beginnings of a sunburn, I was honestly ready to be in less tropical climates.

Our return journey consisted of the 30-minute speedboat ride, the 1-hour flight to Male, a 1.5-hour flight to Sri Lanka, a 4-hour flight to Hong Kong, an 8-hour layover in Hong Kong (during which we visited all Cathay Pacific lounges), and a 2-hour flight to Shanghai, where we had a full day before our flight to the U.S.

This was my first time in mainland China. Given our arrival the week before Chinese New Year, it was supposedly less crowded than normal. There was also pretty good visibility for a city normally oppressed by air pollution. My husband has been to Shanghai numerous times on business, so he was my guide. We stuck to the touristy areas–walking along Nanjing Road, visiting Yu Garden, and getting a photo in front of the TV tower.

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We were due to leave Shanghai on the American Airlines flight to Dallas on Friday evening. American’s first class on that route is nowhere near as nice as Etihad’s or Cathay Pacific’s. The seats are aged, and the entertainment system was terrible. But hey, it’s still a hell of a lot better than sitting in a middle seat in economy for 12+ hours. Perspective.

Unfortunately, after a 2-hour delay due to Chinese military exercises and air traffic congestion, one of the pilots went illegal and our flight was cancelled. So we sat on the plane for a couple more hours, were taken back to the terminal, had our departure stamps cancelled by immigration officers, retrieved our luggage from baggage claim, and returned to China. They bussed us to a Sheraton in the middle of nowhere, where I was able to get this lovely photo:

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They brought us back to the airport the next morning, and we finally made it out of China, 16 hours behind schedule.


All in all, the Maldives was beautiful. Would I return? Absolutely. But in 10+ years and at a resort closer to the international airport.


The Balinese Honeymoon: Part 4

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to finish the reviews for my honeymoon to Bali in November 2013. So here we go with Part 4 so I can check it off my to-do list. Also, we’re going to the Maldives next month and I don’t want a backlog when it comes time to sharing photos on here!

You can view my previous posts here:

Part 1 – Cathay Pacific First Class LAX to HKG
Part 2 – The Maya Ubud Resort & Spa
Part 3 – W Resort & Hotel Seminyak

After a glorious week in Ubud and Seminyak, we journeyed to the Ayana Resort & Spa perched on the cliffs above Jimbaran Bay. While the Maya in Ubud had its isolated jungle charm and the W in Seminyak had its lively atmosphere, the Ayana was by far the most luxurious. The property used to belong to Ritz-Carlton. I’ve never been to a Ritz-Carlton so you’ll get no comparisons from me on that.

We arrived mid-afternoon and had to wait about three hours before we could check in. So we had some lunch in the Club lounge, changed into swimsuits and lounged by the pool, and two hours later the room was still not made up. We were given the option to immediately be taken to a normal Club room (as booked) or we could wait an extra hour for a two-room suite upgrade. We obviously chose to wait for the suite.

I don’t have much more to say on the hotel. The views were beautiful, the food was delicious, and the Rock Bar was amazing. I’ll let the photos speak for me.

Ayana Jimbaran

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Writing Weaknesses & Editing Checklist


I have favorite words and phrases I tend to use over and over again–a recent overused description involves a lump growing in my character’s throat when she’s feeling emotional. And then there are weird grammar rules I can never remember while I’m writing–is it backwards or backward when you’re writing as an American?

So about a year and a half ago, when I was editing Battle Hymns, I started a checklist in Evernote called “Writing Weaknesses” that includes grammar rules, some of my writing quirks, and other things to look for while I’m editing. Since I’m in the midst of the complicated process of editing my WIP, I figured I’d share my list with the hope that it will help others who are in the same stages of editing/writing as me.

Cara’s Writing Weaknesses & Editing Checklist:

  • Overuse of “that” between clauses
  • Check dialogue tags that aren’t “said”–warned, admitted, insisted, and suggested are NOT dialogue tags!
  • Too many sentences start with “But” or “Before”
  • “Smirk” does not mean what I think it means
  • Avoid “going to” instead of “will”
  • Avoid “at which” instead of “where”
  • Too much detail into minutia, such as walking down hallways, dressing, etc. And per my copy editor: “We don’t need an accounting of every move they make to get from point A to point B.”
  • Don’t reach out a hand to do something–just do it!
  • “Good-bye” is always hyphenated; “Good-night” is hyphenated when used as a noun or adjective; Use “good night” for a parting used at night; “Goodnight” is always incorrect
  • American English typically drops the s on toward, backward, and forward. Afterwards is the exception to this rule.
  • Check for overuse of useless words, including: about, just, really, started, began, all, again, very, that, so, then, rather, some, only, almost, like, close, even, somehow, sort, pretty, well, back, up, down, anyway, real, already, own, over, ever, be able to, still, bit, -ly
  • Check for emotional telling (v. showing) words, including: anger, angry, relieved, relief, felt, despair, anxious, doubt, fear, nervous, panic, scared, shock, upset, worry, worried, uncertain, excited, excitement, confident, sure, certain, happy, glad, mirth, joy, elated, elation, pleased, satisfied, concern, depressed, dread, sorrow, distress, hope

A list of weaknesses can vary from writer to writer. These are some of mine. What are yours?

P.S. Happy new year!

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WIP Update!


I went into the weekend with four chapters partially written. On Saturday, I finished the first two pretty easily. And then on Sunday, with only two chapters and ~2,000 words left, a weird (or not so weird) thing happened: I didn’t want to finish my first draft.

For the past 13 months, I’ve pushed off certain problems with the story. “Cara, don’t worry about it now. This is a first draft. You can figure it out later.” And now later has arrived. It’s terrifying.

I procrastinated. I did four loads of laundry, finished my Christmas shopping, wrapped all the gifts and put them under the tree. But eventually I forced myself back in front of my laptop because I needed to finish the first draft over the weekend, before the holidays and before my parents come into town for a full week (no writing will get done then). So with great reluctance I eked out the final two chapters.

Now what?

  1. Second draft, focusing on inconsistencies, plot changes, and expanding emotion/description. I’ll also take a first pass at going through my writing weaknesses checklist
  2. Send second draft to my fabulous beta reader and hope she doesn’t think it’s awful
  3. Think about themes, etc.
  4. Re-write blurb
  5. Try writing a synopsis (there’s a first time for everything)
  6. See what my beta reader says and make any necessary adjustments

I’ll stop the list there. If I get too far ahead of myself, I may have a panic attack.

Happy holidays to those celebrating!

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Early 20th Century Anachronisms

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writing can be a pain in the ass. Sure, it’s rewarding and sometimes the thought, “I can get some writing done today,” is the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. But writing as a whole can be very difficult. I don’t think anyone would disagree with me on that. And if you’re writing historical fiction, add another layer of complexity, because in addition to developing your characters, creating a thrilling plot, making it unpredictable and original, you also have to veer away from anachronisms.

I have two novels, one set in 1941-1943 and one in 1925, and I’ll venture to say that the early 20th century is both one of the easiest and most difficult periods to write about. It’s easy in that it’s modern, there’s a plethora of information, and you can still find first-hand accounts on the time period. But it can also be the most difficult because you begin to assume modernity as you write.  I find myself assuming various everyday terminology/products existed, when in fact they didn’t.

Catching anachronisms in my work is the primary reason I have such a weird Google search history. So what if I’m looking at the Wikipedia page for popsicles? I need to know when they existed!

People who lived before 1950 had telephones, escalators, automobiles, cameras, and boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese! But do you know what they didn’t have?

  • Teenagers – Though the word technically existed in the 1940s, it wasn’t widely used until the 1950. Think bobbysoxers and Gidget. Before that, they were known as adolescents or youths. [Insert “The New Girl” Schmidt meme here]
  • Rosemary – Do you want your pre-1950 character to be an avid gardener? Why wouldn’t she have the most awesome herb garden ever, with sage and rosemary and thyme? I can think of some delicious recipes she can make! I just discovered this last week and it really made me angry, but although the herbs were widely used in colonial times, they completely lost their popularity until a resurgence the 1960s. In fact, if you look at any cookbooks from the 1920s, there are almost no spices in the recipes. The horror!
  • Sunscreen – In the 21st century, sunscreen has become part of our daily routine, at least for those of us young women who want to avoid wrinkles for as long as possible. But sunscreen wasn’t invented until the 1920s, and even though there were some commercial brands sold during World War II and the late 1940s, usage didn’t become widespread until much later.
  • Girlfriends & boyfriends – As much as I loathe this term as an adult, it’s an apt description for youthful romantic partners. But like “teenager” it wasn’t really used much until the 1950s. Before that, you have to use words like “beau” which almost feels too old-fashioned (picture Gone With The Wind) for the 1940s.
  • Markers – The felt-tipped writing utensil used by children and adults everywhere to draw mustaches on photographs was originally patented in 1910. But they weren’t commonplace until the late 1950s. Alas, my 1925 character cannot mark out words in a document using a marker; she has to use a fountain pen, which seems like really messy work.
  • Fleece – People from an older generation might know this, but for those of born in the 1980s, fleece has always existed! It’s ingrained in our being! But it turns out the synthetic material that makes a lot of our robes, slippers, and scarves wasn’t invented until 1979. Don’t let your 1940s character wear a fleece robe, like I tried to do in a first draft somewhere.

I’m sure there are plenty of others, but these are the six I’ve found during my writing endeavors that I could easily recall. Maybe I’ll update with more as I discover them!

This is an example of an anachronism

Prime example


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