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.


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 characters

Joe’s Post #120 

William "Wild Bill" Donovan, future head of CIA

William “Wild Bill” Donovan, future head of CIA

Researching characters? Say what?

Has anyone ever done research to help create a character?

Well, that’s what I’m doing. It’s because I’m writing a historical thriller. It’s because a character is built from their past. It’s because of what has happened to them,shapes them. Defines them.

It’s how they see the world. All plot flows from their experiences, training, and personality. All descriptions are seen through their eyes, which has seen so many things before. It’s how they deal with relationships, with adversity, with success or failure.

So how can research help?

Well, once again, I’m just me. But once I have an idea of a character, I need to know their past. For this story, I looked at the Great War and how it affected people. I remember talking to my great-uncle about his experiences. I was 10 and he was, gosh, old, I guess. Really old. He got a funny look on his face when I asked him about it. Like he wasn’t there suddenly.

I thought old age. But he came back and told me a horrific story of being gassed. He told the story with intensity, like it mattered that I know it, like it was yesterday, like it still terrified him. When he was done, he was exhausted, his eyes were wet, and he said, “No one should ever have to experience war.”

That war changed him in a very deep way.

Know this fellow? He was deeply affected by WW1.

Know this fellow? He was deeply affected by WW1.

So for this story, I began to read more about that war to end all wars. I knew I wanted my character to suffer. I wanted that war to transform him. So how could I make a horrific, truly horrific war even worse? What role could he have played in the war? How could he have been scared physically, emotionally?

I came up with a flamerthrower carrier. A man who burned other men alive. A man who every German machine gunner tried to kill over all others. How would THAT affect him?

Or, how would he deal with gas or drowning in the water-filled shell holes? Wait, water-filled, what if he couldn’t swim? What if he fell in with a 50lb tank of gasoline on his back and began to sink in the watery mud, struggling, clawing, tearing at the sides of the hole, sinking deeper, going under once, fighting for breath, going under, twice, terrified…

And who could save him who would later reappear in his life? Or would he save himself? Would he learn he could count on people or learn there was only himself?

But no, dammit, the US army didn’t use flamethrowers. History was against me, this time. Next week I’ll talk a bit about fact vs fiction, but for now, dammit, no flamethrowers.

So what if I replace the flamethrower with a wounded friend he was carrying? Hmmm.

Would his parents have been interned?

Would his parents have been interned?

On to other parts of his life. What defined him as a child? As a young adult? Growing up in Chicago, being the son of emigrant?  How could I make his life tougher? How could I make it a vital part of who he became? What if he grew up in a poor area, an Irish area, where there were only 2 choices in life, gangs or cops? And what if both were equally bad?

Then what would motivate him to go to war? What posters would inspire him? What speeches? What articles read in the newspaper? Ah, wait, newspapers, could he read? Did he go to school or did he have to help his father? What if his father was a blue collar worker through and through, but wanted more for his son and pushed him to read? Would that make his closer to the Irish boys? Or more of an outcast, quoting Byron or Marx or Dickens?

Public Service Announcement, Chicago, 1919

Public Service Announcement, Chicago, 1919

Then, when he got back, how could I make his life worse, still? What if the great flu pandemic killed off his wife, his family? We forget that 50-100 million people died. 50 million people!!! Wouldn’t that affect him?

And what would he vow when he got back home, later than the rest, having missed the parades, his lungs scared by gas? What would he believe in? What would he not? What if he vowed he would never kill again, no wait, that doesn’t quite work, so what if he vowed to save people, save as many as he killed? Would he become a gangster? No, probably not. A cop?

Why not? The last honest man in Chicago? A bull fired with determination to help people, even the dead. Maybe, ESPECIALLY the dead.

Then, how would he find the roaring twenties? How would he get through the Great Depression? How would he deal with Prohibition and the massive corruption it created? How would he deal with raising his sister, the only member of his family to have survived the pandemic? What if she became his world, his anchor?

Brücke Nijmwegen, Sicherung durch holländische SoldatenThen what would happen if she left and got in trouble? What if she sent a message from Holland in 1940 saying she needed his help? And what if he arrived too late to save her?

All of this has to be based on history, HIS history – as influenced by the world around him or the people in it.

This all begins with research. I want to read about the letters they wrote home. I want to read about the details of the battle. I want to read the newspapers of the time. I want to find out if mail got to the front lines (spoiler, it did!). I want to know what they wore, the conflicts between race and religion and social status. EVERYTHING!

All so I can know the world that shaped my character(s).

I love finding this stuff out, I really do, but there’s a trap, isn’t there?

I’m not writing a history book.

At some point, I need to get my character onto the page and torture him some more.


Best Show Last Week – Check out “Chicago PD”.  A fast-paced and driven cop drama.

Book That I’m Reading At the Moment – Tamar – Oh I have some things to say about this one!

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book  0

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

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

# books ordered for research – 0 (But I need to look into Chicago between wars and find me a good WW1 book.)

Health – Better.

Best Thing Last Week – Finding a book about Paris in 1938, a best-selling novel by Alan Furst called Mission to Paris. Who says WW2 books can’t sell?

Worst Thing – Taking classes for the first time in 20 years. Ever had that nightmare about being in class and knowing nothing? Well, that was my experience, but at least I had pants on (unlike my dreams).

How was everyone else’s week?


Researching research – part 2

Joe’s Post #118

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon -

By the way, please check out this site by William Cronon –

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