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.

 

Looting your life

Joe’s Post #134

timmiesSo there I was, sitting at my computer, drinking a Timmies double-double, trying to add a few characteristics to my character (to, you know, flesh him out a bit), when three things occurred to me.

1) Timmies coffee is brain food. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

2) Creating amazing fictional characters is hard. It may not seem like it, but avoiding shallow, cliched characters takes time, some thinking and a lot of work.

3) Why create fictional characters at all when you can draw from people in your own life (or even other fictional ones, but that’s another blog entirely.)

It was the #3 that really got me thinking. Since I have lived a life of utter normality, I had to look farther afield. But if you lived an amazing life, use that. I know some of our 5/5/5 have had extraordinary lives that they could easily draw upon. Just not me.

So, I looked back to someone in my life who I really admired, someone who I dearly wish was still alive today. My dad.

battling dragonsI was pretty young when he passed so I never got a chance to really hear about his life from him. Sadly, at 13, you just don’t care that much about what your parents did or didn’t do. They exist only as your parents. They never had sex. They never had their hearts broken. They never went on adventures or committed crimes or battled dragons.

Now my dad never battled dragons, at least that I know about, but he did have a life, and it’s sometimes not the large things that make up a life, but the small. My dad had lost his sense of smell after working in a slaughter house for 2 years. He could only smell a few things and those things he could smell, he loved. Like the smell of hot tar.

Who loves the smell of hot tar?

I looked back at what foods he loved, at what he did as a young man (he played the bass in big bands), at who he hated and why. I looked at the mementos he kept and the pictures that were taken of him.

london burningSure, his experience in WWII shaped a lot of who he became, but there were so many other little things that made up who he was as a person. He took in homeless boarders, lost souls who needed guidance, young men who just needed someone to believe in them. He felt he was repaying a debt to someone who had taken him in when he’d come to Canada, penniless and desperate. He’d write ‘Grandma Ag’ (Agnes) every week like he wrote his mom.

Such things great characters are made of. The debts, the loves, the hates, the small joys, the big laughs, the things he would keep in a cluttered desk drawer.

So, I’ll mine a few things from my dad’s life, as much to honor him as to make a really good character. When you read about Kurt Yager, or any of my male protagonists, know that there is a little bit of my dad in them.

*****

Best show last week – Went and saw a movie with the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world –  Something we haven’t done for a long while. We saw the Kingsmen. Wow. I mean, wow. Imagine if Quentin Jerome Tarantino made a Bond movie. Violent. Funny. Massively engaging.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Shadow’s Edge. Brent Weeks. About half way through. The stakes are rising, but as a writer, the interesting thing is that he’s now spending about 1/2-1/3 of the book on other POV characters. Not a bad move, but interesting. I mean, why get tied down to just one?

Pages written on new book  Worked on my main character. Hence the blog. From character flows plot, right?

Social media update – Still blogging on my step-dad site about my experience as a chaperone on a grade 7 camping trip.  I have to blog about something terrifying today.

Health  Functionally deaf at the moment due to another ear infection. F*ing hell.

Best thing last week  Date night and movie with the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world.

Worst thing  My laptop being fixed. Damn you Word. Why won’t you work properly?

Links to other writers and bloggers to check out….

marieMarie Lavander – A very well done site, and only 1 of 3 she has running! http://marielavenderbooks.blogspot.ca

 

jodiJodie Llewellynwho really doesn’t need my help with promotion as she has an amazing 75,000 page views, 8,000 comments, and 6,000 followers!!!!! Wow!!! http://www.wordsreadandwritten.com.

 

 

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 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

 

 

Researching research

Joe’s Post #117

So how do you do all this research stuff? I’d love to hear from other writers, especially ones who have worked on a historical novel.

holland 1940For me, this one has become a bit of a challenge. It’s set in WW2. In Holland. I need to know the details if I’m going to bring my book to life. It’s what I got from Don Maass. What’s their favourite hot drink? What do they mix in it? What was the weather like and how did they dress? Were air raid sirens sounding before the war? Did the canals stink at times? What was their form of bread (everyone seems to have a favourite form). How were the Jews treated before the war? Blah, blah, blah.

And there doesn’t seem to be much on the subject.

So let’s look at the options.

First, in this day and age, it’s the internet. Simple searches can reveal links to books, sites and forums that have good information. Find a good one and they’ll lead you to other sources. You can even post on a good board asking for help.

To date, I’ve found a PhD dissertation on Holland from 1850-1950, and that was kinda cool, but lacked the details I need. I guess when you’re writing a PhD paper, you don’t mention how the coffee tasted.

I even wrote 3 emails to experts in Holland, but so far have received one, “I can’t help you,” and 2 no replies.

Sigh.

anne frankNext are books. I had great success with this when I wrote my last book. I found all sorts of great books on serial killers, on brainwashing, on profiling and even on route 66. I have a whole shelf now.

However, here, again, I ran into problems. I ordered a half dozen books online in an effort to get an idea of what life was like. Anne Frank-like books. A pair of histories of life under the German occupation. One on tanks, cuz, you know, I like tanks. And one on the politics between the UK and Holland from 1940-1945 (a text book!)

I know I’ll get some more details, but I’m still thinking it’s not quite enough.

Next step – visit a library. Them librarian-folks gots some big brains on dem so I’m going to tap into their experience and data base and see if they can find any books. Thanks to a suggestion from my amazing brother, I’m also going to go to UBC and bug them there. Who knows if someone else wrote a paper on the toiletries of 1940s Holland.

Lastly, and by far the toughest step, is to actually go and talk to people or walk the location.

I did that in the last book and it made a HUGE difference for me being able to bring the California setting to life. I could see all the little details that my writer’s eye gobbled up (wait, did I mix a metaphor there? Can eyes gobble?) From clothes to salt shakers to ruined gas stations, I was able to mine a ton of great details.

I also talked to people to get a feel for them. Each place has a character and the people in the California desert are no exception. San Francisco is to the desert towns what Rome is to a village in the Cotswolds.

But both those options for this book are limited. However, I’ve reached out to my friends to see if they know people who have lived in that time or who are Dutch or who are just plain interested in helping me. So far, I have recommendations to go and talk to 3 people.

Then I remembered talking to my great-great uncle about WW1. He didn’t much want to talk about some of the details, but I was 10 and loved war in the way that only a 10-year-old can and bothered him until he was able to tell me some of his stories. Most were horrific and fascinating, and form the basis of my character’s experience in WW1.

Huh. People. Talking to them. Yeah. I need to do that. There’s nothing like talking to someone first hand, and talking to several someones may actually give me an idea of what life was like.

heinekenBut it’s all going to take time. More time than I thought it would. I know I can make stuff up if I have to, but depth in setting, real depth, comes from being able to build a world that my readers will want to live in.

So today my books arrive. Today I’ll contact the 3 people to see if I can meet with them.

Any suggestions on what more I could do?

*****

Best Show Last Week. Walking Dead, again. Very few people on the planet could make a lollipop a symbol of oppression.

Outlines Done – 0

Pages written on New Book – 10 (yup took a stab at the opening scene. It sucked.

# turkeys eaten – 0!!! Not a one. Nada. So sad.

# of new friends made on Twitter – 73

#books ordered for research – 7

# of people spoken to – 0

# of days I doubted I can actually write this book – 7