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.)
Excellent insight into some dodgy manoeuvrings in the publishing world.
I was at the London Book Fair last week – and I’ll be blogging about that soon – when the news broke that David Mamet is to self-publish his next book.
His reasons? “Publishing is like Hollywood—nobody ever does the marketing they promise.”
While I think it’s great that someone as high-profile as David Mamet is self-publishing, I was very disappointed to find out the way he’s doing it.
Self-publishing is big business. By my estimates, self-publishers have captured 25% of the US ebook market. It can be lucrative on the individual author level too, with writers getting up to 70% royalties if they publish themselves.
The reason why those percentages are so high is that self-publishing allows you to bypass the traditional middlemen (agents, publishers, distributors) who each took their own slice of the pie before the author saw any money.
Literary agents in particular must be worried…
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It’s amazing how one person – Margaret Thatcher – can cause such division in death as in life.
On the other, the song Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead is soaring up the charts and may reach the No 1 slot by the weekend thanks to a Facebook campaign by some of those who still loathe the woman and everything she did to this country.
I was a teenager when Thatcher became prime minister and it’s fair to say that the British economy was not in a good state, the unions had too much power (and weren’t using it responsibly) and that the previous Labour government hadn’t exactly done a great job of running the country.
There was so much media coverage from politicians and others glorifying what a great leader she was and how she fundamentally changed this country.
I think too many people have short memories. By the time she was kicked out – by her own political party – Thatcher had very few supporters. The majority of the British public hated her and everything she stood for.
Remember the ‘poll tax’, the destruction of our mining industry (as a way of defeating the unions), selling off our nationalised industries, getting rid of council housing, savage cuts to education and health budgets, etc, etc.
Yes, she transformed this country but for the better? I’d be fascinated to see a balanced study that looks at things like how much – in real terms – we pay now for our water, gas, electricity and phones compared to when we had nationalised industries. We should also include a comparison of how efficient/effective the supply of these services is/was and the number of people they employed.
Any study should also look at where the profits now go. One of Thatcher’s mantras was to do with distributing shares in the privatised industries to the whole country. But how many people now own (or benefit from) shares in BT or the water companies? Who benefits from the revenue from these companies now – the British taxpayer, private individuals, foreign companies…?
She did play a major role in supporting Mikhail Gorbachev and thereby bringing about the break-up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. She did stick up for the people of the Falklands against Argentine aggression.
But she was also the person who did most to destroy old notions of public service and society, replacing it with the ‘what’s in it for me’ ethos. The gap between rich and poor widened enormously under Maggie Thatcher.
Some might point to her ‘landslide’ election victory in 1983. But that’s a fallacy. Our ‘first past the post’ electoral system is not always democratic. Thatcher won even more seats in 1983 than in 1979 – but she actually got less votes. Far more people voted against Thatcher than voted for her.
So is the campaign to make Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead a good thing? Yes, because as Adam Jung writes here in the Huffington Post, it’s one way to counterbalance the revisionist tirade from the rest of the media who are too busy eulogising Thatcher to remember what her legacy really is.
On Wednesday, when the British House of Commons was recalled to debate her legacy, the MP Glenda Jackson went against convention with a spirited and detailed reminder of what she felt Thatcher had done:
I’ve got a little bit of respect for Maggie on the basis that she at least had convictions. But… Ding Dong… I’m one of many who won’t be mourning her passing.
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.
Some very sad news today – Scottish author Iain Banks has announced he has terminal cancer and is unlikely to live for another year.
I first discovered Iain Banks in 1984 when I picked up his debut literary novel The Wasp Factory in my local library. What drew my attention were all the reviews quoted inside the front cover.
Normally, publishers pick out all the best bits to persuade people how good a book is. Not with The Wasp Factory. The reviews alternated: one saying this was the best thing in decades, the next saying how terrible it was.
I don’t have a copy but I seem to remember that one review summed it all up. It went something like: “This is a wonderful book but enjoy it I did not.”
After that warning, I couldn’t fail to pick it up. I did enjoy the book – although some some of it was fairly disturbing and there’s one moment that is quite stomach-churning. But all written with wonderful panache and just the right level of black humour to appeal to my own slightly warped sense of what’s amusing.
I went on to read practically everything else produced by Iain Banks – including the sweeping sci-fi epics written under the name of Iain M Banks.
He’s probably one of the writers who has most inspired my own attempts to be an author and if I could produce just one book to stand next to all of his I’d be a proud man.
Iain Banks is a hugely talented writer and will be sorely missed.
Oh yes, if you’re wondering about the title of this post, it’s a quote from Banks’s own announcement and a reflection of his wonderful dark humour. Apparently, having learnt that what he thought was backache is in fact terminal cancer, he proposed to his partner, asking her to do him the honour of becoming his widow.
As the man himself said, sometimes a bit of ghoulish humour helps to deal with those things that can’t be laughed away.