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.
Today I’d like to welcome guest blogger Melissa Bowersock – with a post on what happens when books take control of their authors!
Books That Write Themselves
Some non-writers seem to think authors have cabinets in our brains with complete books filed away, just waiting to flow down our arms and out onto the keyboard. I wish!
We all have an idea when we start writing but it’s usually not even a fraction of the finished book. Mostly it’s an outline or just bullet points of the pivotal action and we create the rest as we go, fleshing out details on the fly. This is the creative process: stringing together the words that move the story along and develop it in a compelling fashion.
Easy, right? In a word: no.
Writing is hard. Aside from the mechanics of grammar, spelling and punctuation, writers must be aware of cadence, nuances of emotion, and choosing the right word to match the action.
I’m the type who hates to rewrite. I’d rather just sit and agonize until I get the word I want. Putting a less-than-exact word in, for me, is like building a wall and putting in an inferior brick, knowing I’m going to have to go back at some point and replace it. I’d much rather sit at the keyboard – or walk away from it – than put in a word that doesn’t serve the story.
The flip side is when it flows. You may have heard some writers say, “This book just wrote itself.” That’s literally what it feels like. When a book flows, the words just come – not just any words, but the right words.
It’s an author’s dream to write like that. When the book comes alive is when the creative process is almost effortless. I wrote one book like that in three months. Most take anywhere from six months to two years, so three months was like speed-writing.
What’s interesting when books “write themselves” is that they don’t always come out as intended!
I’m currently working on a ghost story. After hearing about the ghosts that haunt the London Bridge – and came over with it to Arizona – I thought that would make a good light comedy, something similar to The Canterville Ghost or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
I envisioned a ghost that was comically culture-shocked and helped along in her assimilation by a living human. As I began writing, I established the main living character, a man with a highly developed sense of responsibility, who felt crowded by the demands of his business, his mother and girlfriend.
As such, he was the last person on earth to entertain thoughts of ghosts but of course it’s into this very rational, controlled existence that the female ghost appears. The ghost’s first experience with cars and the man’s efforts to explain them set the stage for the culture shock.
That’s when things started to get surreal. Instead of the light bantering I expected to write, the ghost was genuinely confused and frightened and the man (Mr. Responsibility) very deliberate in his thoughtful, gentle explanations.
Before I knew it, the ghost developed into a sad, downtrodden 19th century girl and the man turned out to be wounded by the abuses of an alcoholic father. Suddenly dark secrets swirled behind both characters as they forged their unlikely friendship.
Separated by centuries of custom and different frames of mind, they struggled to make sense of what life had dealt them – and how they had responded. Certainly not the story I set out to write!
When I talk about this, people ask me, “How can it turn out differently? You’re the one writing it!”
I’m not sure exactly, but let’s go back to the words-as-bricks metaphor. As I lay the second course, I might place them just slightly off, but not enough to notice. The third course goes up and, yup, now there’s a definite lean to the wall.
Trying to write my way back to the original plan would be to change direction again, making the wall wavy and decidedly unsteady. Now my only choices are to continue with the new direction or tear it all down to the foundation and start over.
Usually, I go for option # 2 and delete however many paragraphs or pages comprise the unintended direction change. With this ghost story, though, I found I liked the characters and their dynamic of dark secrets. Unwinding the bandages to reveal the emotional wounds is way more interesting than the light humor I first imagined.
Who knew the book would write its own story?
Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic writer who turns her hand to any kind of story that moves her: contemporary, western, fantasy, romance, action/adventure, spiritual. She thrives in the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona with her husband and an Airedale terrier. She is also a certified hypnotherapist.
Writer’s block can be a terrible thing. Suddenly all your inspiration leaves you, the words won’t flow and the ideas just don’t work.
It’s even more annoying when you’re part way through a novel. The concept seemed fine, the plot was coming together and then… nada.
(Sorry, I know that was a bit of a mean trick to hook your interest and then send you off to another link but hopefully the journey will be worth it!)
Dave Brown’s also posted his own review of The Vault.
I’ve been blogging away from home again – this time about the sheer pleasure involved in being a writer.
To see what I’m on about, click here to hop across and read my guest post on the blog by fellow author Samantha Holt.
Samantha is a medieval romance writer and author of the award-winning The Crimson Castle.
No post here today – instead I’m guesting on Berin Kinsman’s blog – my thoughts on the randomness of inspiration.
Click here to take a look.
Normal service will be restored on this blog shortly – although, having just moved into a new home, I’m still waiting for my phone line and broadband connection to be set up. Back soon!
So, as promised, the first guest post on this blog. And without further ado, I’ll hand you over:
Do You Write First, Think Later or Outline?
There is no wrong way to write a story—either you do it or you don’t. Still, some writers are most productive with a strategy in mind. Thus the debate: start with an outline or get the words down first and rework them later?
What are the merits and drawbacks of outlining and free-writing? Here is a short list:
Pros of Outlining
1) Your story has direction. An outline lays out the important plot points so if you get stuck, you know where you need to go, making it easier to work out a solution to get there.
2) You can develop your characters. With an outline, you can give your characters detailed backgrounds and personalities. It can be hard to keep track of all that in your head if you free-write.
3) You can track your good ideas. We all have those little flashes of brilliance from time to time, and an outline can help you figure out which ones really belong in your story.
Pros of Free-writing
1) You don’t have to be a perfectionist. Free-writing can be really liberating in that respect. A few typos or syntax errors won’t matter: you’ll be editing it later anyway.
2) You don’t feel obligated to stick to a plotline. Characters don’t always do what you expect—they’re funny that way. An outline might make you feel like you have to set them back on course, but free-writing means you can let them sail wherever the winds take them!
3) You can get really creative. You can go off on tangents and write those awesome scenes that may not necessarily fit. It’ll be up to you later to rewrite, cut out, or bulk up any scenes that came out a little rough around the edges.
Cons of Outlining
1) It can lead to formulaic writing. Sometimes outlines make a story sound stiff. If you‘re writing an outline six levels deep with paragraphs for each point, you may be limiting your characters with an overly detailed plot.
2) It might make you want to quit. Sometimes a story based on an outline doesn’t sound as good as the outline sounded on its own. With too many limitations, you might lose interest once you actually start writing.
Cons of Free-writing
1) You might run out of steam. Once all those great scenes and conversations are written, you may have a hard time filling in the gaps to turn it into a cohesive story.
2) You may inadvertently contradict yourself. If you’re free-writing, it’s harder to keep track of subplots and character details as you go. As a result, you may have to spend a lot of time finding and fixing inconsistencies.
There are plusses and minuses to each strategy, so it may take a few trial-and-error runs to figure out which one works for you. However, learning how to tell a story, not just write words on a page, is worth the effort.
Jessica Lave is a freelance writer with experience writing everything from sales copy to full-length novels. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys yoga, going to the movies, and reading crime and horror novels.
Her new book is a fantasy mystery novella entitled A 21st Century Fairy Tale, now available on Amazon.