The Joys of Research

Joe’s Post #176

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

For me, I have a love-hate relationship with research. Like I have a love-hate relationship with Tom Cruise movies or hot curry.

But I come from an age when if you wanted to find something out, you had to go to a library or have a super knowledgeable friend or just make it up. It was an age long ago, an age of encyclopedias, and age long forgotten now.

Because today, we have the internet.

Now if I want to find something, the internet usually has the answer. How cool is that?

radioAnd it has answers for some pretty esoteric stuff. Like, what radio sets did the Germans use in 1940? I mean, seriously, someone has a website about this?

Well, yes, yes someone does.

Or using google maps to figure out how long it takes to get from the Rijksmuseum to the Oud Kerk in Amsterdam.

Or finding pictures of streetcars in 1930s Rotterdam.

Good lord, you wouldn’t believe the stuff you can find. Sure, it’s not always right there in front of you, and I am far from the best search-word user, but the internet is an amazing thing and before Skynet takes over and limits my access, I intend to use the hell out of it.

The only downside is, though, (and this is where the ‘hate’ part of the relationship comes in), it can become a MASSIVE distraction to the actual task of writing. How many hours have I spent looking up small details that would make my story better? Police call boxes in Chicago, 1930. The Red Light District in Amsterdam (ok, I may have gotten seriously sidetracked with pictures of this one). Uniforms of the Dutch army 1939. Hitler’s paintings.

Anne Frank's pictures

Anne Frank’s pictures

It’s fun, even if it is time-consuming.

But without such access, how would I ever be able to make my setting come to life, make my characters interact with proper historical items, or have the correct music playing on the correct device and using the appropriate speakers?

For any novel written in the time I’m living, I don’t really need to look up those things, but for a historical fiction, it’s an absolute necessity.

I am thankful for the age that I live in.

 

Twist your plot. Can your characters escape?

Karalee’s Post #133

twisterOne can spend a lifetime surfing the web and hanging out on social media. I’m choosing to cut back (I can actually choose how to spend all of my time) and I’m spending those minutes that often stretch into hours being more productive by reading books and working on my new business.

But every once in awhile a gem pops out from Facebook or Twitter. It happened today when I scrolled through my FB feed and I paused on a UTube that a friend posted. For some reason I clicked on it. Thanks Randy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sBoyS4wHPTc&sns=em

This tickled my murder mystery writing funny bone. The site is called Spy Escape & Evasion and subjects like this are good to jump-start your imagination and “what if…”

A few examples from this site are:

  • airplane survival secrets
  • how to become a human lie detector
  • how to escape handcuffs
  • how to escape zip ties
  • how to pick locks
  • how to disappear
  • how to escape rope
  • stun flashlight

Of course once you become immersed in discovery and contemplating how you might use new ideas in different ways in your fiction writing, you can spend all day surfing again.

Outliers

 

The internet easily becomes a circular web, catching the curious, the bored, the procrastinators, the blocked, the (put any excuse here….). It’s easy to go back to the first line in this blog:

One can spend a lifetime surfing the web and hanging out on social media.

The trick is to break the circle, use the internet with purpose and focus – and then get off.

 

Become an Outlier.

Can you?

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Perspective Photos:

grouse ice rink

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

Making it up vs. making it real

research-key

Silk’s Post #139 — As the 5writers and friends dive into our second write-a-book-in-five-months challenge, we will all (at some point) come face to face with The Research Conflict.

I’m dramatizing, of course – isn’t that what writers do? But especially at the beginning of a fiction project, research certainly can feel like a conflict. It keeps insistently horning in, begging for attention just when we’re trying to lay down some narrative riffs, slowing our progress and often carrying our attention off in far-flung directions.

How to manage simultaneous research and writing is a topic we’ve talked about before in this blog (search this site for “research” and you’ll see how many posts pop up), but it all came rushing back to me last week when I tried to get off to a quick start and pile on some wordage. For me, early progress is the critical push I need to keep momentum going. As Karalee noted in her recent post, “Commit to finish”, most of us are much better starters than we are finishers.

The last thing a writer needs is to get bogged down at the starting line, dragging a heavy load of research references along.

Now, we’re all writing different stories in the 5/5/5 challenge, with some projects still to be confirmed, but it looks like at least four of us are writing real-world fiction in which settings, topics and context will require a high level of accuracy and authenticity. Two of us have added the extra challenge of writing historical fiction, and at least two of us have chosen settings in places we don’t live – and perhaps have never even seen.

All to say that most of us are embarking on a research journey as an integral part of our story development. We’re not necessarily starting on a blank page, however. A lot of homework has already been done in preparation, and there may even be some outline-ish story plans lying around. Most of us also have early chapters drafted (some of these written quite a while ago and pulled out of the drawer again on September 5th).

But regardless of conceptual story plans, or background reading, or research notes … you know what happens when we sit down to actually write a scene. A ton of fresh questions suddenly materialize, demanding answers before we can confidently craft that next paragraph.

For example, I have an opening scene in a prison visiting area. Yeah, I know. What was I thinking? I’ll probably lose eight out of 10 readers in the first three pages (and the two that read on will be weirdos), but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m happy to say I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting in a prison visiting area, but as a writer that’s now a problem. I’ve seen lots of them on TV and in movies, but since this is a specific prison, I need to describe a specific visiting area, not a generic one.

My choices: 1) go there (not now, thanks); 2) search for information online (did that for half a day, didn’t find a visual representation); 3) call and request a photo or description (maybe later); or 4) make it up.

I chose to make it up, and that was okay.

Until curiosity got the best of me and I made another foray online, dug deeper, and deeper, and actually came up with some footage of the visiting area in that particular prison. Woohoo! I couldn’t have been more excited if I’d discovered a forgotten winning lottery ticket in the back pocket of my jeans. And all it required was, oh let’s see, about 8 hours of research.

Wow, this book is going to take a loooooong time to write at that pace.

There are lots of strategies writers use to work around this research vs. writing time/distraction conflict. Some dedicate a significant preparation period to research and outlining, then barrel on through their first draft without interruption. This doesn’t work so well for “organic” writers (sometimes called NOPs or pantsers), however. Others flag unresearched items with a “check later” note, and just keep their writing pace up without breaking stride – not a bad idea.

Most of us probably do a bit of everything: some basic research in preparation for writing, some interruptive side-trips while writing the first draft to research critical points that affect context or plot points, some good old making it up as we go, and some clarifying research at second draft stage.

But while that’s all well and good, it may also be worth thinking ahead about the level of detail and accuracy really required to tell a particular story authentically, and engagingly.

That’s my challenge to the writers on our 5/5/5 journey: stop now and consider the most congenial balance between making it up vs. making it real.

It is fiction, after all. It just needs to feel true, to be authentic enough to suspend disbelief. Yes, inaccuracies will be picked up by readers who are more intimate with your topic, or setting, or context than you are. It would be nice to make everyone happy, but the majority of readers really won’t know whether there are 15 cubicles in the prison visiting area, or 20.

And there’s another, even more important, consideration: the story flow. All the details that make a book “authentic” are really there to set the stage for your play. Story is king. The factual details should add texture, context and sometimes meaning – but not distract.

Inaccurate details or lazy generic writing distract. Have you ever read a book that made you mentally chew out the author for “obvious” blunders or frustratingly vague or clichéd descriptions? Of course you have. Even famous authors can be guilty of this. Tsk tsk.

But equally distracting is an avalanche of carefully researched, totally accurate details that are entirely irrelevant or unnecessary for telling the story. It’s just show-offy. Look how much research I did! When I encounter this, I want to scream I don’t care, just get to the point for crying out loud.

If I may repurpose the sly quotes Stephen King chose to open his wonderful book, On WritingI think they perfectly frame The Research Conflict …

Honesty’s the best policy.   — Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.   — Anonymous


Word count:  5,658

Rewrote:  Prologue

Blog posts written:  1

Research done:  2 days’ worth

Best new thing:  A weekend of harvesting the apples in our orchardapple-harvestjonagolds

Thought of the week:  Like so many other aspects of modern life, politics has now fully metamorphosed into a reality show. What’s next?

Clearing roadblocks to writing

roadblock

Silk’s Post #120 — As I promised in my last post, I’m on a mission to find useful tactics to help overcome my (and maybe your) self-imposed obstacles to progress on the writer’s journey.

Why? Because I’ve sworn off writing about why I haven’t made progress on my writing.

Last week, I explored the tactic of using milestones – points in the process where the writer reaches some new level that marks progress in the writer’s journey – in order to break up the daunting task of writing a novel into manageable “legs”.

Here’s another tactic I’ve been thinking about …

Writer’s Journey Tactic #2: Notes to Self

Did you ever start writing a scene – a scene you’ve already outlined, or at least imagined – and found yourself dead in the water before you even get started because you keep running into research roadblocks?

Your protagonist, a bounty hunter, is running down an alley in a dodgy part of, let’s say, Seattle, with a couple of enforcers from a biker gang in pursuit after he tried, unsuccessfully, to take the gang’s leader into custody for jumping bail. (How did he get himself into this mess? Don’t ask me, I’m making this up as I go along, so just roll with it).

Okay, so he hears the rumble of the bikes approaching, ducks behind a dumpster, and pulls his Glock out of his holster, and then …

Wait. Would he be carrying a Glock, or something else? What kind of holster would he have, or would he have one at all? What kind of weapons would the pursuers be carrying? And what neighbourhood is this, anyway? Where would you find dodgy alleys in Seattle? Would it be in a neighbourhood with steep hills? Near the waterfront, or maybe a highway, or an unlit park?

It sounded so simple in outline. Guy gets chased into an alley and makes a narrow escape.

But now you’re actually in the alley and, although you feel like you’ve already researched this story to death, you realize that you need to know a lot more details to make that escape work in a believable way. Details that need yet more research at a nitty gritty level. And your writing flow … comes … to … a … frustrating … halt.

You have three choices:

  1. Stop writing and research the weapons and specific location, or
  2. Make it generic enough that the details won’t really matter, or
  3. Make it up in as much vivid detail as you can milk out of your own writer’s imagination, and flag it with a NOTE TO SELF that reminds you to check the details later

I don’t know about you, but I’ve bogged myself down by choosing Door #1 too many times to count. And I’ve read too many lazy, mediocre scenes where the author obviously chose Door #2 and never revisited the results.

Door #3 seems like a logical way to go. You don’t interrupt your writing flow, but you don’t compromise the authenticity of the scene by filling in the unknown blanks with familiar, generic clichés.

Of course, you could just “sketch” the scene and deal with it in rewrite, rather than exercise your full imagination and creativity. Either way, you’ll have to come back to it later and do the work.

But I think generic, flabby writing is habit-forming and should be avoided. It’s one thing to write a great scene that has a few details wrong and needs to be fixed later. It’s a completely different thing to write a flat, dead scene and then try to come back later and breathe life into it.

The main thing is to keep the writing fire going – give it the oxygen of imagination. Don’t interrupt your flow with an hour of research when you’re hot … or douse it with cold, lifeless prose because you’re afraid you’re going to get a detail wrong.

Of course, you do have to do your research – we’ve all been told over and over. But you’ll never be able to research every life-like detail of every scene in advance. That would mean you’d have to anticipate every single thing you’ll put in your book before you sit down to write it. Maybe this would work for extremely conscientious – not to say obsessive – planners and outliners. But for pantsers? Forget it!

The NOTES TO SELF tactic also works for other writing roadblocks. I recently read a good, short post on flagging areas with style problems that someone sent me a link to (unfortunately I can’t find it now, wouldn’t you know). The basic premise was that when you get stuck on a description, or a grammatical issue, or you aren’t happy with the way a paragraph is working, just flag the roadblock with the word FIX, and keep on writing. The only thing I’d worry about is using style flags as a kind of crutch, because I think it’s hard to pump up a story with a lot of stylistic “flat tires” by applying patches later on.

This NOTES TO SELF tactic also raises a perennial research issue: how much advance research is enough research?

I wish there was a simple rule of thumb on research, but I suspect there is not. So much depends on your genre, topic, setting and other elements. Historical fiction necessarily demands more research, for instance, while fantasy gives authors permission to build their storyworlds mostly out of their own imaginations.

If there is a common sense principle to follow, it’s probably this: research the basic, critical elements that will support the foundation of a story in advance. This will help avoid major authenticity blunders that could kill the story premise or necessitate large chunks of rewriting. This kind of research is largely left-brain work.

When it comes to writing “colour”, though, I think the right brain does most of the heavy lifting. The kind of experiential detail that really puts the reader in the scene comes from the writer’s five senses and imagination. It doesn’t benefit from description that sounds like a Wikipedia dump.

Once you’re in the heat of writing, don’t let research roadblocks get in your way. Flag what needs checking and keep on going. Because nothing kills the joy of writing quicker than a stop-and-go traffic jam of needless interruptions.

Research thoughts

Joe’s Post #128

Research Insights … OMG, not ‘research’, again, right?

sharpeWell, I decided to take a look at some books that I loved. You know, historical books. I didn’t read through them, again, but just took a look at the first pages and a few chapters. And it gave me a few insights I’d like to share. The books I looked at were Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwall, the Brother Cadfael series by Edith Parteger (Ellis Petters), and Dorothy Dunnett’s books (Lymond, Niccolo series).

So, are you ready?

  1. Jamie Fraser from Outlander

    I read them all for the characters. Yup, that’s right, the characters. So if you’re going to get anything right, get the characters right, right?

  2. Setting is a character. I know I just said that I read them for the characters, and now I say setting is a character, but with these writers, it’s not just a place to set a scene, it’s an active part of the story (like a chase across the red-tiles roofs of Venice.)
  3. None of them bog us down with details. A few writers that I’ve read (and honestly couldn’t finish) had vast swaths of information about the period they researched, like they wanted to show us how much research they’d done.
  4. The characters live and breathe in their world. By this I mean the world for them is not a collection of facts, but a real place, with real smells, and sounds, and all of that seen THROUGH the character’s eyes.
  5. spoonDetails are (mostly) added sparingly. Like a sprinkling of salt. “Picked up the wooden spoon”, vs “picked up the wooden spoon carved from a spruce branch that was cut in the summer which was, in fact, the best time to cut such things”.
  6. windowsWhen they spend time on details, it’s because it matters to the character. Like the first time they see something or when it’s a wow moment for them. I mean, hey, the first time I saw Chartres Cathedral in all its glory, I was gobsmacked (yes, that’s a word). That we, as human beings, took hundreds of years to create perfection in stone and glass and wood, that every detail, every window, every carving had a purpose, made me stare in wonder at what we could do when we put our minds to it.
  7. food hollandFood, dammit, food. That Don Maass guy know his stuff when he talked about food being a vital part of taking someone back in time. Why? Because we are all linked to food. But all these masters of writing do way more than just sit someone down with a nice cup of tea, they add tension, smarty-pants dialogue, mood, and even suspense in that scene as well.
  8. Story is key. Outlander, for example, is a time-traveling story, perhaps more science fiction than historical fiction, but the tale she tells of Claire and Jamie is one that’s hard to put down. I honestly can’t remember if she got the kilts right, but damn, she nailed the romance.

So, that’s all for today. Just a few insights into research while I work away on my novel. Now I’m going to bug my Netherlands experts on what they would have eaten.

So what makes a good historical novel for you? Come on, I really want to know!

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Best show last week – Being sick for most of the week, I watched a bit more TV than normal. The Killing is perhaps the most depressing show I’ve seen in a long while. It’s unrelentingly grey. Brilliant, but grey.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Alan Furst’s, Mission to Paris. Nope, still not sold on this. It’s going to be a slog to finish. Not that there isn’t interesting stuff happening, but it’s happening to other people. His protagonist is not the hero of the story, or even the narrator.

Pages written on new book  40 (Could be more, I did a lot of rewriting this week.)

Social Media update – Trying to do a bit more on this blog. Have you seen the changes?

Health  Still sick. Dammit.

Best thing last week  Down 10 lbs now. Awesome. Forget that it was due to sickness.

Worst thing  The flu. Yup, still the worst thing. Yuck.

The BEST book he's written so far IMHO.

Lastly, again, my favourite author, Sean Slater, had his newest book released in Canada. I honestly believe it’s his best book he’s written, and he got virtually no support from the publisher, so if you see it anywhere, buy it. Or hit the Amazon link below.

Slater

Balancing writing and research

Joe’s Post #123

fireworksOk, here’s the good news. I started my novel. The bad news, it’s still a challenge for me actually writing and not bogging down in research.

I know, big surprise, right?

I did, however, come up with a solution, but first, let me give you an idea of the problem.

bridgeSo my character crosses a bridge in Amsterdam. What did the bridge look like? I looked up maps of Amsterdam, then old maps, then 1940’s maps, then I tried to find pictures, then I tried to find pictures from 1940, then I tried to find a detail that I could haul out, then I tried to link that detail to my character’s past which lead to looking up bridges in Chicago, which led to pictures of bridges in Chicago, which led to looking for 1940’s pictures, which somehow led to research on the districts and areas the gangs controlled.

After about 2 hours, I wrote a sentence.

Next week, I’ll talk a bit about research and details, or how much is too much, but it was clear after writing that one sentence in 2 hours (and not even an amazing sentence at that), if I ever hoped to get this novel done, I would have to find way to balance off research and writing.

A part of it was that I was rusty at writing. Yup, flaking-orange-rust-rusty. It happens. It’s like anything. You don’t practice enough, and it’s all kinds of hard to get restarted. Like getting back to exercise. Or getting up at 5am for morning hockey practice.

rustyThe only way to get over being rusty is, wait for it…. Practice. Again, big surprise right?

Sounds like I have a serious case of Captain Obvious, but it’s something that’s easy to forget. It’s like you know you used to be able to run around a football field chasing a ball and god bless us, but we think we can do that again after 20 years of sitting on the couch. Or think of starting a car after it has sat in a field looking picturesque.

So I’ve dedicated myself to writing every day, again. Even at the expense of research. I’m going to try to get that flow back. I’m going to bang off the rust.

It won’t be pretty. And that research-Gollum still clears its throat when it thinks I need to stop and look something up.

Hey, it’s fun to look stuff up. Oh sure, it can be frustrating at times (due to either lack of skill on my part or lack of information in general), but it’s so cool when you find pictures of an old Kirk (not captain Kirk, an old church) that could be a part of your story.

It’s a reward. And we do love rewards. Even us writers.

Hence my new strategy has a twist, a way of not bogging down – I underline something and leave it for later.

So what if I write ‘bridge’? I can look up the details later. If it’s even needed. Hey, sometimes it’s ok to just write ‘bridge’. With that in mind, I can underline cigarettes and look up what the Dutch smoked in the 1930s. I don’t have to know right now. I can plunder pinterest at a later date to find pictures of Dutch prostitutes.

It can all wait.

Really, it can.

It’s all about discipline and focus. I need to get a well-written story done. All I need to do that is to understand and know the basic details of the time. The rest I will have to stuff in a sack, throw that sack in the canal and come to get it at a later date.

Otherwise this novel will never get written.

And I so want to tell this story.

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A few questions

Does anyone have a recommendation for a translation program?

How do you decide when to keep researching and when to write?

Best show last week – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. OMG it’s worth seeing for the special effects!

Book that I’m reading at the moment – In The Shadow of the Cathedral, by Titia Bozuwa. A good book for researching the Netherlands.

Outlines done 0

Pages written on new book  15 (ok, nothing to jump up and down at, but better than 0).

# of new friends made on Twitter  5. Despite the fact I didn’t post anything. I did write 5 posts, so it’s kind of one for one.

Health Mental health took a hit while I dealt with a very painful anniversary.

Best thing last week  Honestly, it was that I got started writing again.

Worst thing – translations of larger Dutch documents is eluding me at the moment. All the programs I’ve tried so far crash my system and make me sad.

And hey, if you like this post, please share it on facebook or twitter or linkedin or just tell a friend.

Researching no research

Joe’s Post #121

Research – is it even necessary?

Ok, here’s the thing. I’ve always believed in making sure you got it right. Like measuring twice before banging your finger with the hammer. Or ensuring the porn you download doesn’t have a virus.

You know, the important things.

So getting the research right on any novel is very important to me. For my mystery in the California desert, I went down there, stood in the baking sun, tasted the dust, smelled the creosote, listened to how people spoke and even talked to a cop or two.

veniceFor my fantasy novel, I drew on Venice’s amazing history and deliberately stole all the details I remember (or imagined) from when I visited the place.

Easy stuff, really.

This new novel, though, I have some work to do. Holland. 1940. Gosh. The list of what I don’t know is massive. So my research began.

As part of it, I began to read books written about that time. Tamar was one of them, the book I’m currently reading.

Here’s the thing.

It has no world building. It could be England. It could be the 50s or 60s (except for the fact the hero is parachuting into Holland and is afraid of being killed by Germans). The extent of the details are things like, he saw a rook. He went to the Maartin’s farm. She put on a coat. They went into the barn. He turned on the wireless.

Are the German uniforms described? The bikes they ride? The feel of heat after a cold night?

Is anything described through the eyes of the character?

No, not really. He’s almost comatose.

And this book became a best-seller?

Why?

Maybe it was the characters.

Nope, pretty standard fare. Nothing outstanding. No real personalities, just, you know, normal people (which is very accurate, historically, but boring as hell).

So, if you pardon my language, what the fuck?

This one is a complete mystery to me. I’d like to show this to Don Maass and say, for the love of God, why did this one sell? I want to know. I really want to know.

But, in the end, it’s a lesson in book publishing. I must remember, I must have this tattooed to some part of my body normally covered by a bathing suit, that this is a subjective business. Someone, somewhere, loved this book, bought it, edited it, marketed it and sold it. Readers loved it. Or at least enough of them for it to do well.

tamarIf someone has read Tamar, please let me know what you thought. Maybe it was something I missed. Like a secret code or something.

For me, however, books like this bother me. I’ve been told that I have to build a world that my readers can immerse themselves in, that take them to another time and place. And that’s why this one bugs me. It breaks that rule in a big way.

It’s like you’ve been told if you’re good, Santa will bring presents. Then you see someone who’s peed on the teacher’s cat and set fire to the Smokey the Bear sign, and HE got a present from Santa, too???

WTF?

So, let me ask you, is it really necessary?

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Best Show Last Week – “Interstellar”. However, it was a movie too complex for my small brain. Event horizons. Black holes. Time dilation. Still, it had moments of sheer brilliance and I hate to say it, but Matthew McConaughey acts his balls off.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Tamar – In a perfect world, I would set this aside and read something else, but my OCD is bad when it comes to my need to finish a book (or movie.)

Outlines done – 0

Pages written on new book  0

#Class taken on blogging 3

# of new friends made on Twitter – 7 (hmmm, have I neglected twitter? She is such a needy thing, she is.)

# books ordered for research – 1

Health – Better.

Best thing last week – Connecting with people who have been in Holland during the war. More of that this week, and I’ll be writing about that experience next week.

Worst thing – Still be massively confused about wordpress.org. It is a serious time-sink to get all the widgets and plugins and and SEOs and themes all figured out.

The facts in fiction

Karalee’s Post #97

Research is a necessary part of a writer’s journey. It’s often a major part of developing/designing our characters and it gives depth to our settings and ideas for our plots. As writers we use research to:

  • get facts straight.
  • know our characters’ world enough to be true to the characters’ behaviors and understanding of their world.
  • be authentic to the time era chosen for the story.

This can sound scary and it was for me when I first started writing. What if I got a fact wrong or didn’t describe something the way it really is? My reputation would be ruined before it was even made….

Now I’m more relaxed and don’t panic if I don’t know something when I’m writing. I can make a note of it and even research it later for exactly what I need and not read the entire encyclopedia of information on that subject (like I did before). Like most writers I can easily get lost in research. It’s often  a lot of fun, but it can also be a friend of the procrastinator. See Silk’s post on that subject! Above all else, it can be a huge time eater, consuming oodles and oodles of time.

One of my characters in my murder mystery has family connections to South Africa. I referred to a Kudu horn this week so I did a quick research on the internet to get a good picture of it in my mind. Of course I also read other information regarding Kudu horns and I now know that there is a Kudu poo spitting contest that more than likely I  won’t use in my story, but it still amuses me days later. This is one of the reasons that research eats time. Writers love to read and learn about stuff.

In his last post Joe is researching for his historical fiction novel in order to create an awesome character. Writers need to understand what has made their character the person he/she is in his story and how that character will react in different situations. I can picture Joe frantically writing down all his ‘What if…?” questions while surrounded by a roomful of books depicting the era of the war to end all wars. What if’s are so much fun and dig into the creative part of one’s brain.

At what point can research be enough and the writing begin? This is a question without absolutes for an answer since every writer has their own style AND level of knowledge about their subject. Writing about what you know eliminates much of the research regarding some subjects, but it doesn’t negate the process of developing your characters from birth to where they are presently in their lives. All writers need to build back-story for all major characters as well as most minor ones, although to a lesser extent.

 

For me, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the writing process.

Fiction is fiction and there is huge room for creativity, but for sure facts need to be correct or some expert out there will call you on it.

I laughed when I read a well known tourist guidebook when I was in Vegas last week. It says that only one building in Vegas tops 100 storeys and that is the Stratosphere. The entry then encourages tourists to go on the bungee-style SkyJump that drops your 108 storeys from said building. Of course my mind sees a huge SPLAT when I envision the bungee chord being longer than the building is high! Technically the guidebook wasn’t incorrect, but my mind saw 100 for the height of the building and 108 for the drop from the top. Then I wondered if survivors got a special deal on their next jump?? 🙂

This week:

  • No, I didn’t go to a cheap poker table in Vegas. (too chicken) Instead I played blackjack for money for the first time and went through my $100.00 almost too quickly to catch anyone else’s body language!  The fun factor didn’t last long, but I had my own feelings to reflect on and a lesson learned.
  • I consciously people watched in Vegas whenever out and about and at different gambling tables. Lots of sights to see!
  • Words written: 2,000.
  • Desserts eaten at buffet – your guess is as good as mine! Cheesecake and Crème Brule are favorites.
  • lots of walking to counteract above.

Happy writing! If I can write in Vegas, I can write anywhere!

 

 

Researching research – part 2

Joe’s Post #118

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon -   http://www.williamcronon.net/researching/

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon – http://www.williamcronon.net/researching/

kerrSo it’s begun. The researching. Or more accurately, the research has begun to pay off. My first books began to arrive, including a history on Amsterdam. I dug out my old books on WW2 like Anne Frank, The Iron Heel (Jack London), and the Bernie Gunther novels by Philip Kerr (about a German detective before and during the war.)

People have begun to email me back. One amazing gentleman gave me links to the Dutch police during the war. Later in the week, a person at the Dutch Resistance museum led me to a half dozen sites about the resistance.

But the biggest haul was from my friends. They sent me links to look up. They hooked me up with parents or grandparents who had been in Holland during the war. They phoned people on my behalf, brainstormed people or organizations I could contact (like the Dutch consulate!).

Wow. I mean, wow.

I have to say that two weeks ago, I was lost as to how to get the research done. Then I did something us introverted writers hate to do. I talked to people and I asked for help. With the exception of one person, so many people have been keen to help out.

And how cool is that?

So what have I learned?

Without a doubt, an amazingly beautiful woman.

Without a doubt, an amazingly beautiful woman.

Audrey Hepburn was in Holland during the war and that’s super odd since, in my mind, she was the face of the love interest in the book. The policing in Holland was a mess of organizations. That plays well into the story. When the Germans occupied the country, being Germans, they cleaned up who did what, making it all efficient, but before that, it was like the FBI, DEA, state police, local police and the park rangers all trying to figure out who had jurisdiction.

There’s still a lot more to learn. Like I said in my last post, the most important being those details that bring a world to life. Food. Social structure. History, myths and legends. And Helga may be right, the best way to get those is to visit a place. If only I had the money.

If only I had a time machine.

Wait, is there one on Amazon? If not, maybe one of the world traveling 5/5/5 could go in my place!

In the meantime, I have juggle two competing interests. I do love history. Love-Love-LOVE it, but I could spend the next two years looking stuff up, talking to people, following links and get exactly 0 pages written.

So I took another stab at the first 10 pages.

They sucked. AGAIN!!! But at least I’m trying, right? That’s important, right?

In my mind, these first 10 pages were awesome and amazing and something Hemingway would have said, “Dang, yo, you nailed it.” But somehow, when I actually put pen to paper, it came out all crumply and awkward.

Does that ever happen to anyone?

Check out Chuck Wendig’s funny-ass blog on the subject.

So that was the week. Nothing earth shattering in the way or writing or research, but a good start. With all that’s going on in my busy, amazing new life, a ‘start’ is good.

Anyone who may have links, suggestions, questions, or people I can talk to, please reply, write me an email, give me a call or contact me telepathically.

******

Best Show Last Week – Big Hero 6. We loved it more than the kids. It made me laugh, it made me cry. It made me want to have a balloon-shaped robot.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Gone Girl. Holy sh*t good!

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book minus 10. I consider what I wrote so bad that it actually sucked the life OUT of the book.

# Turkeys eaten – 1 but somehow I forgot the stuffing!!!!!!!!!!!

# of new friends made on Twitter – 21

# books ordered for research – 0 (Books arrived – 2)

Health – so so. Can’t shake this damn cold!

Best Thing Last Week – The information about policing in Holland, but I also got my library mostly done!

Worst Thing – Damn cold

 

 

Deconstructing research

Helga’s Post # 94:   I was intrigued with Joe’s last post ‘Researching Research’. I can totally relate to his challenges as he plans his WWII novel set in Holland. He has neatly outlined all the possible sources for doing research: books, workshops, librarians, personal interviews, Internet, and so forth.

All have their usefulness, to a point. Any one of these tools, or taken together, can be a formidable arsenal to a writer of historical fiction.

But the most powerful tool by far an author can use is to ‘walk the location’ just as Joe did for his previous novel set in the California desert. To actually experience a place first-hand will yield information that none of the other sources would be ever be able to yield.

What about the time difference, you may ask. How can a place, a location, yield ‘authentic’ information when the story takes place fifty years ago? Is the location still relevant?

I would like to say a resounding ‘Yes’. Take Holland. (Especially Holland). Do you think the Dutch have changed their innate personality, their characteristics, in fifty years? I don’t think so. Talk to any Dutchman or Dutchwoman and you will find a uniqueness that they got from their parents or grandparents long ago. Traits they will keep for the rest of their lives. Not just Dutch people, of course.

And they still get around mainly by bicycles. Just as they did 50 years ago.

Holland's main transportation - today as always

Holland’s main transportation – today as always

Younger generations of any culture are forever becoming more homogeneous thanks (or perhaps regrettably) to the evolution of technology, especially the Internet. Still, in the end, you can take a Dutch out of Holland, but you can’t take Holland out of a Dutch. None of the tools we talked about – books, libraries, the Internet, etc. – will let a writer glean the subtle differences that will make his or her novel truly authentic. For that, our writer better pack his bags and get to visit the location of his choice.

Easier said than done. Depending on the setting, it could well be unaffordable. Most writers (or first time authors) are not as well-heeled as American bestselling mystery writer Elizabeth George! While she lives in California, her research takes her to Britain on extensive trips, time and again.

But there is still another choice, one that Joe also alluded to in his post: Older family members. I believe that is the next-best thing to actually setting foot on the novel’s location.

I well remember my dad’s stories of WWII. He often repeated the same ones, time and again. No use telling him, ‘dad you already told us’. He didn’t need an audience as much as satisfy his own need to verbalize his experience and in so doing, re-live it over and over. So, while I never was in Russia (well, except for a short trip to touristy St. Petersburg, which doesn’t count), I learned much about the country, seeing it through my dad’s eyes, feeling it through his story-telling in the most minute details.

It also helps if the writer actually grew up or lived extensively in the setting of her novel. My motivation for writing my first novel ‘Closing Time’ was the setting: Vienna. Not only the setting, but the time too – the Cold War era of the late Fifties. That’s where I grew up and I remember much of that period. Come to think of it, I should give Closing Time another try, especially since some time has passed since the sting of the last rejection letter.

Vienna's wine gardens 'Heurigen' today like 100 years ago

Vienna’s wine gardens ‘Heurigen’

But this time there won’t be any more rejection letters. Self-publishing can do that.