Life’s rarely predictable. Just when you get used to a routine, everything seems to change and it’s all systems go on several fronts at once.
Back in 2007, when me and the wife gave up ‘normal’ life to go off and be teachers in Portugal, we rented out our house in Cornwall. Since returning to the UK last September, we’ve been renting a flat in Hampshire – roughly four hours drive away.
Didn’t take us long to realise that the only people profiting from this situation are the rental agents and the taxman. (Being self-employed, I have to declare my income from renting out my house – regardless of the fact that all it’s doing is paying my rent up here and if I lived in the house myself I’d be no better but would pay no tax!)
Also, we’ve got intention of returning to Cornwall in the near future – we’re much closer to family here and there’s a lot more work to be had. So, we’ve decided to sell our house and I took five days at the end of April to go down to Cornwall and do some painting and decorating before putting the house on the market.
I’d thought it might be a sad experience but we haven’t lived in the house for more than six years so the emotional attachment is long gone. Plus, having spent the entire time in Cornwall lost in either cloud or sea fog, my desire to linger wasn’t that strong.
I must have found a good estate agent (realtor), though, as within four days of the first viewing we got an offer of the asking price! (Who said the property market was in the doldrums?)
Of course, that means we’re now busy scouring property listings in the Bournemouth area wondering what to buy up here.
On top of that, spring has finally arrived. Big sighs of relief all round. However, apart from making life generally much more pleasant, it also means more work. Apart from being an English teacher and a writer, I’m also a gardener and, now that things are finally growing, my phone’s starting to ring with people wanting work done.
Good in many ways: more work equals more money and you can’t really beat getting paid to do something that you also do for pleasure.
Trouble is, I haven’t done any more work on White Rabbits for over a week and I’m getting so close to the end too!
It’s been a three-day weekend here but that hasn’t helped. I look out of the window, see the sunshine and the prospect of sitting down in front of a keyboard suddenly palls: which is why we spent today riding through the New Forest on our tandem, admiring spring flowers, trees bursting into life and just generally appreciating the strange feeling of warmth on our skins.
Things are unlikely to improve radically in the near future either. Next week I’ve got pretty much a full gardening schedule. Then we’re off on holiday to Slovenia for two weeks (I’m not complaining about that!) and when we come back I’ve got a six week teaching contract that, combined with keeping on top of the gardening work, is unlikely to leave me much free time.
Oh well, plenty of time for those plot lines and characters to ferment further…
It’s time for another guest post – and today I’m welcoming back fellow author Jessica Lave with her thoughts on research. Take it away, Jessica:
Stop Procrastinating & Dig In
Why Research Matters
Writers make things up on a daily basis. We’re professional make-believers, compulsive liars, and spend substantial time in a fictionalized version of reality. Why research when we can just as easily make something up?
Readers can only be asked to push their imaginations so far. If a writer constructs a contemporary story in a real city, the history, intersections, colloquialisms, and landmarks had all better match up, or the locals will be after blood.
Even in science fiction or fantasy, the laws of physics and bounds of reality still apply. The writer must set up exceptions throughout the story so the reader can keep up with the “rules” of the fictional world. It’s easy to make up an explanation for why something happens in a book, but a reader has to buy the explanation, and that’s where research comes in.
Research keeps a story balanced with a good blend of fact and fiction.
When to Research
Writers sometimes struggle to separate imagination from reality. It’s hard to experience the story from a reader’s perspective. But, whether it’s science fiction, historical romance, or contemporary crime fiction, there’s a point at which readers will buy into the story’s premises, and a point at which they’ll put the book down, shake their heads, and write a two-star review saying, ‘It just wasn’t very realistic/believable/good.’
Beta readers are invaluable when it comes to research – they’ll tell you what is or isn’t believable and ask questions if something was confusing. However, a good writer thinks a few steps ahead – while writing, or at least during the editing process – about the research needed to make the story work.
If you as the writer have to stop and ask yourself about something in the story, you need to research it. How long does it take to fly from London to New York? Did people still send telegrams in 1968? How do I write about a mathematician when I barely understood high school algebra? You don’t need to be a frequent flier, over the age of 60, or understand advanced mathematics to write these things into your story. You just need to investigate.
Good Research Strategies
Strategy depends on your work style. If you work best without interruptions, it’s best to make notes as you go and research later on. Vocalizing your questions and thought process – yes, talking to yourself about your book – can help you identify the parts of the story that need more research.
If you prefer a little background noise while you write, some movies or even books on tape (ones in your genre!) can be a great way to research style and dialogue. Connecting with settings, action, and dialogue similar to your story fuels the imagination.
If you are a multi-tasker and flit around while you write – checking your email or Facebook or getting up for a snack or a drink on a regular basis – then keeping a few “research tabs” in your browser may work for you.
Some good starter pages:
- A dictionary/thesaurus website: for that perfect word
- A name generator or baby names website: for character names
- Google Maps: for cities, street names, travel times, etc.
- IMDb: for movie buff characters, or to research films to watch while you write
- A news source: for current events. Current events can inform your characters’ surroundings and worldviews, and can even be a good source for plot development.
- And, it’s not necessarily research, but pull up a music player and tune in. It’ll make all that “homework” go by in no time!
I love research and learning new things, but when I’m in the middle of a story, it’s a battle to say “no” to the little devil on my shoulder who wants to throw stuff at the wall and hope it sticks, and say “yes” to the pulsing cursor nagging at me in the search engine bar.
Why research? Because without it, you’re just a liar. With it, you’re a novelist.
By day, I work in a cubicle tending to an e-commerce website. By night, I blog, I review television shows and films, and occasionally I settle down long enough to write a novel. I’ve always had a diverse set of interests, which has led me to study everything from ethics to yoga to film, but the one thing that has stayed consistent is my enthusiasm for writing.
Writing is my way of bringing my interests together—I may not be able to speak six languages, pick the lock on a door, or cook a five-course meal without a recipe, but I can write about a character who can, and that’s the next best thing!
Visit me on my website at JessicaLave.com, follow me on Twitter @jessinsists, or check out my other books on Goodreads. My new book, Quiet on the Set, is available in paperback and as an ebook on Amazon.
Why is it the best ideas always come when it’s impossible to write them down?
In the past I used to take an MP3 player when I went running or to the gym. Like many people, I found something fast, with a good rhythm – and sometimes a dash of aggression – helped spur me on when otherwise I might have given up.
These days, for some reason, I seem to have fallen out of the habit of having a music player with me. Now when I go running, cycling or walking I find my mind wandering with no music on which to concentrate.
My ‘forebrain’ is busy with the basic stuff like where to put my feet and which way to turn, leaving the rest of my head free to go where it pleases. Sometimes the mental ramblings are inconsequential stuff about work/life/food etc. Quite often, though, I’m thinking about plot lines for my writing and inspiration seems to strike frequently enough to make the process quite productive. Many times, I can run through entire scenes – dialogue and all – in my head.
But I never have any paper or a pen with me! The trouble is, I know that I have good ideas for my stories and sometimes I remember them. My fear is that I can’t remember them all or in their entirety.
And if I don’t remember everything, what happens to my great ideas? Will all those neat solutions for plot twists that have been bothering me just evaporate and go back into the ether? Or will they re-emerge as ‘new’ ideas another day?
I think I’m going to have to get a Dictaphone. That way I might not lose so many ideas. Or do I need to learn some new memory techniques for recalling my thoughts?
Taking a Dictaphone out running might seem a bit odd. Once upon a time the locals might have thought me mad if they saw me running the local paths talking to myself, nowadays they’ll probably just think I’m some sad individual who can’t live without their mobile phone. (Not sure which scenario is worse.)
Personally, I’m not too hot on planning what I write. I’m too lazy/impatient/easily distracted by alternative story lines (delete as appropriate).
In other parts of my life – when it comes to holidays or what’s for dinner for example – I’m happy thinking ahead. But spending hours (weeks) working out the structure for a novel? Nah. What’s the point?
I’m currently getting close to the end of my next book. Well, the first draft anyway. I reckon that I’m about four chapters or 25,000 words away from the finish.
But I’d come to a bit of a halt recently so I shoved it to one side for a few days while I got on with a different project (something non-fiction I’m working on). Then, the other evening, I decided it was time to pick up the novel again so I just sat down and started writing.
I had no idea what was going to come out and found myself writing a scene involving three teenage boys throwing a dead jellyfish around. I liked the scene but it had no obvious connection with anything that had gone before or that might lead the book forwards.
The next day, though, I was off on a bike ride and it suddenly came to me – for some reason I find my brain is at its most productive when I’m walking or cycling. The new scene leads neatly into a situation that needs to be resolved and also helps set up something else that I need to work into the climax of the novel.
Planning? Pah. Throw away all those self-help, ‘how to write a novel’ books. Just sit down and write. You might have no idea what’s going to come out but you might be pleasantly surprised.
When it comes to the final edit, the scene with the dead jellyfish might get cut (probably not) but that doesn’t matter. It got me moving and on to the next phase. To my mind it’s a lot easier to sit down, write and then edit. By that stage at least you’ve got something to work with.
To me, planning seems like going about it backwards. You’re editing the book and then writing. Where’s the fun and spontaneity in that?
I have ideas in my head but one of the best parts about writing a book is discovering how I’m going to get there. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it comes completely out of the blue. What would I do with a plan? What happens if I come up with an idea for a scene or plot line that just doesn’t fit in?
I may not be the greatest novelist ever but that’s not the point. I’m a writer because I love writing and I love imagining and I love seeing what happens. I say no to planning. Just sit down and let the subconscious steer.
I was on the train all morning today – coming home after a long Easter weekend spent with my parents up in Canterbury.
The journey gave me some time for a bit of writing and rough editing but my eye was also caught by a story that’s appeared in a number of the newspapers today. (Like this version from The Telegraph.)
Apparently, a survey of British attitudes has shown that many people get really irritated by complete strangers – particularly those trying to sell us something – using our first names as if we’re old friends. One example that appears to really get up the nose of many is when baristas at Starbucks write our first names on the cups.
So I was wondering, is it really just us Brits being all stuffy or do other people also value a spot of old world courtesy – giving strangers a bit of respect by calling them Mr or Mrs or Ms or… whatever?
Personally, I think ‘British reserve’ is a bit of a stereotype. Yes, there’s truth in it but it’s not universal nor are we the only ones who like to be treated with respect.
A couple of years ago my wife and I were on a trip across the States and we visited Eastland, Texas, to give a talk at the local primary school. One of the pupils was our host’s daughter and she was the sweetest, politest little girl you could imagine. Whenever she spoke to Carolyn it was ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no ma’am’ – said in a wonderful Southern accent!
Now I can’t imagine many British schoolchildren being quite so polite. I’m also one of those dinosaurs that hold doors open for others (men as well as women). I don’t even really think about it – I was brought up to believe in manners.
I know the survey has already been done but I’d be interested to know what others think. Particularly thoughts from around the world and across the ages! Or are there other things that get your goat?
I wonder also – whether we like it or not – how much attitudes are changing. Are these kind of changes and the loss of formality inevitable, particularly when our personal data is so much more readily available?
And – as a writer – how much do these changes in patterns affect our writing? If you’re writing a book set in the 18th century then obviously, to be historically accurate, the author needs to know how people addressed each other in the day and place involved. What about other eras? Technology changes have been radical but how different will the dialogue be for a novel set in the 1980s as one set now?
So many questions! Now that I’ve posed them I need to get back to work – writing dialogue for the next book involving characters ranging in age from five to seventy-five. Another challenge yet again.
Dreams – as mentioned yesterday – can be strange things. But for a writer they can be a rich source of inspiration as well as good entertainment.
*FREE on Kindle for the next five days!
In my dream my wife and I weren’t married and she didn’t even know me – but I knew we’d been married and was trying to convince her we should be together.
Like the other night’s dream about typing crocodiles – yes, really! – I’ve no idea what sparked the dream as my wife and I hadn’t even fallen out.
But it did get me thinking. In my dream, I knew something from an alternative reality (the fact that my wife and I should be married) and I started to wonder: if someone found themselves in a parallel existence what else might they know? Could they use that knowledge to change – or prevent – events in the parallel world.
Initially, I wrote a short story called Fractured Lives – which appears in my short story collection of the same name. To read the original, click Fractured Lives.
Later, when I thought more about the potential implications, I expanded the short story into Thin Ice – the story of young journalist Danny Harper and his bid to not only win back the girl he loves but also halt a serial killer stalking the city where he lives.
Thin Ice is free on Kindle over the Easter weekend. Click on the links below or keep reading for a more detailed synopsis:
Everything is going perfectly for young journalist Danny Harper: a new flat, a career on the up and the girl he loves about to marry him. Then he wakes in hospital to find none of it’s true.
Refusing to admit he’s imagined it all, Harper tries to regain his lost life. But, while his claims are initially dismissed as delusion, he knows secrets that can’t be easily explained.
Thin Ice is the story of what happens when two parallel universes collide – one world where Danny Harper’s life is a success, the other where it’s a mess.
Stuck in the ‘wrong’ life, Harper starts trying to deal with this new, alternative existence. But in the process he has to deal with something that casts a new perspective on his problem – a deranged killer with a fanatical obsession for the ‘sins of woman’.
In Danny Harper’s ‘real’ world, the killer has already been caught. But in this alternative world – due in part to a mistake by the ‘other’ Harper – the killings have so far gone undetected. And the latest victim is a complete innocent.
Sometimes I do worry what’s going on in my head. My dreams are often vivid and usually a bit surreal but last night’s was a corker.
I dreamt that I was at a place where crocodiles were being taught how to use typewriters. It all seemed quite logical at the time – one of the crocs was lying on a beach busy typing while some kids were running past.
But where on earth did that come from? I hadn’t consumed anything I shouldn’t have – not even any alcohol. I hadn’t watched any wildlife documentaries or read anything about any kind of dangerous animals. It does make me wonder what’s going on inside my brain!
The inspiration for my books does come from all sorts of places: Thin Ice is based on a particularly lucid dream I had – but more on that tomorrow when it goes on promotion.
Findo Gask was inspired by a road sign, The Vault started as a single line about a night-time kidnapping attempt and the idea behind Pagan’s Sphinx came from a TV documentary about the origins of the Great Sphinx at Giza.
But typewriting crocodiles? Not sure I’ll get a book out of that one!