All writers face a huge challenge when they embark on a novel—research. Love stories, mysteries, adventure novels, they all have at least some research behind them. For those writers who work in worlds that are a little—or a lot—removed from everyday life, research can prove to be tricky. Science fiction, fantasy and paranormal novels pose interesting questions. Should I research? If so, how much should I research?
The answer to the first is easy. Yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes!!! Your world, whatever it is, needs a framework, and research is the beginning of the frame.
How much research? Now that’s tricky. The answer is “enough”. How much is enough? I tend to err on the side of too much. I might not ever use that lovely tidbit I discovered about some archaeological find in Northern Europe and how it ties into my mythology. Or I learn more than is really needed about the physics of how my spaceships might travel though the void (as my poor ex-physics professor can attest). I need to know these things for me to make the world whole. The point to all the work is to make your worlds come alive for your readers. To let your characters move in a world founded on solid bedrock and not on shifting sand.
There is always the issue that there is someone out there who is a specialist in something you are writing about and will find a major flaw and pick at it—something a tiny bit of research would have fixed. On a TV show I watch, the characters spotted wormwood on a wall. All I could think was “you’d think a television production office would have a good enough research team to know that vine is NOT wormwood.” It still drives me nuts because the amount of effort it would have taken to get it right would have been so small.
Am I being too picky? Maybe. The problem is I am not the only one who is that nit-picky.
So, you’ve done your research, you know your history, or physics or the natural history of the lost species of the somethingasaurus—now what? Now you can settle into writing, referring to your research when needed. When you choose to deviate from the facts, you are making a conscious choice and one you can point to and say it was deliberate. Knowing your world and the framework it is built on is key in creating believability. Just don’t go overboard. I tend to find myself removing pages of really exciting research (to me) from stories because they really aren’t needed for the story, I just loved those little tidbits so much.
I still sneak a few in, and that’s the fun of it, the final pay-off of the research. Adding in one little thing that is off-the-wall but just so delicious it has to be there—and your readers will love you for it.
To outline or not to outline, that is the question.
It’s a question I am asked a lot. “Do you use an outline?” The answer? Yes and no. I tend to have a very vague outline in my head when I set out to write a story, blog or novel. I have an idea of what points and pieces I want to hit—action, character development, beginning, middle, and ending, but I don’t lay it out on paper. I tend to let the story evolve organically while keeping those points I want in the back of my mind.
I have compared writing to music before, and this is another time I think the comparison is apropos. When a writer begins, like a musician learning an instrument, there is a lot of practice involved. You don’t pick up a violin and magically begin to play Mozart. You practice, you run scales, you learn music by rote, often bar by bar until you have learned an entire piece. Then you set out on another and another, until one day you can sit down and pick up the violin, open music you’ve never seen before and “hear” how it should be played, catch the nuances on the first or second time, then refine from there.
Writing is very much like that, you can’t sit down the first time at a computer and magically produce Pride and Prejudice. It takes time. First the scales—practice pieces focusing on one aspect of writing, character, action, dialogue. Once you are gaining mastery there, it’s time to branch out and open that first piece of “music”—a major project of some kind. A multi-chapter story or novella, perhaps even a novel. The first time, consciously—even physically—outline the work. Sketch out the details (like the bars in a piece of music) then write each as you go.
After working through several stories, you’ll find that the pieces are starting to develop more organically. The outlines will become more and more vague—from spelling out each major point and action to just an idea of where the story will begin and how it will end. The characters won’t need to be fully described before you begin, they will build their own melody as you write.
One of the hardest parts of writing is the idea that you must practice before you can “play” a major piece. It seems so simple, you communicate every day, you write emails, SMS and texts, you might even compose letters as part of your job. You read books and stories, so it is easy to not practice, to not learn the scales, before attempting to write a piece without that hard work in place. But, as easy as it seems, tt’s also not something to ignore. Practice is important, very important. Giving yourself a day or two a week (or month depending on time/how much you write) to write stories that you never intend to publish—ones that are to hone your skills, help you build characters into believable people—is vital. It’s not a waste of time, it’s just like running scales and using practice pieces before working on that performance piece. In music you do it every day, in writing you should as well.
To outline or not to outline? The answer is yes—to both.
I love bookstores. Well, let me rephrase that, I love what bookstores once were. When I was young, there was a bookstore within a fifteen minute bike ride from my house that was the perfect bookstore. It is the bookstore by which all others are measured in fact.
Nestled between a shoe repair shop and a hair salon, it had been there for as long as I could remember. It had everything a bookstore has to have, including a store cat. I have vague memories of sitting on the floor in the back of the shop where they had a children’s area with blocks and puzzles and asking the cat for advice on a puzzle, or reading out loud to him.
As I grew older, of course, my perceptions changed and it became the bookstore.
It boasted a collection of new and used books. The store was full of the tangy scent of fresh ink and the lovely musty odor unique to used books. Not the used books that are so often the staple of used bookstores today—no these were old books, ancient tomes collected at estate sales and other wonderful places. Books with a story to tell—not just what was written in the book, but the book itself told a tale. Some even had the treasure of the former owner’s names and the date it was received.
Then there were the extra special ones—the ones with the notes handwritten in the margins. For me those were always like the original owner was sharing a secret with me, something we had in common. I still treasure those books. My collection of travel books from the Victorian Era started in that book shop and the very first book I purchased had those secret notes. I still remember one on a page about travel to Egypt, the owner of the book had written “camels are not a pleasant creature.” That tiny thing tied me to the original owner. I felt like I knew him and had shared that adventure with him.
One of the wonderful things was the new books were tucked in with the used ones, so you could find a first edition of Arthur C. Clarke next to a new paperback edition of the same book. It was a wondrous way to discover books I didn’t even know existed. I usually went there with a book in mind, and left with three extra spanning everything from history and science fiction to herbalism and cooking.
The sad thing is, bookstores like this one have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur, wiped out by giant asteroids of the big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Nobles. I miss them, I miss sitting on the floor surrounded by a collection of books some dating from the 1800s and some brand new. I miss finding those gems with notes from a secret friend. And I am sad that there are generations that will never be able to discover this magical lost world.
One of my favorite questions to ask writers is “who are your top ten favorite authors”? Before we go further, let me explain, I am not fishing for a compliment, and don’t expect my name on their list—but there is a name I do expect, but rarely hear—their own. If you ask me—amongst the top ten are Patrick O’Brian, Elizabeth Peters, Robert B. Parker, Anne McCaffrey, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, Conan Doyle and, yes, me. Is it an act of enormous ego? Tossing myself in with some of the finest writers of our time? No, and this goes back to why I asked other writers who their favorite authors are and why they aren’t on that list.
I write stories that I want to read. In fact my first adventure into what is now termed “fanfiction” came about when I had finished all forty of the set of Hardy Boys books my father had purchased at the Goodwill. I was devastated. There were no more stories, and I’d read all the books twice—then I realized, I could write my own adventure! It was a moment of true enlightenment and the beginning of a life-long journey to tell stories, to relate the world through my written words.
If I don’t write what I want to read—and reread—how can I ask others to do the same? If I am not enjoying what I have created, how can I ask a reader to purchase a book or spend time reading a short story? Ovid said scribere jussit amor (love bade me write) and that is the place we should all write from. Love. If you are not in love with your own words, how can you expect anyone else to love them?
I have talked to many writers recently who said they don’t read their own stories, novels, or essays. Why? That is always the first thing out of my mouth, usually followed by the insertion of my foot. I don’t mean to be awkward, I am truly curious, if you are not writing something you want to read, why are you writing? I understand sometimes we get stuck in jobs where not everything we write is what we want to be writing. News, columns, even romance novels sometimes are more about the money than creating something to read again—then again—why not? Even that simple hundred-word news brief is going to be read by many people, so why not make it the best it can be?
Writing should always come from a place of love, a place in the heart reserved for words and their expression. It is the place that stores life experiences and lets us tap into those places to create our stories.
If you are not in your top ten favorite writers, ask yourself this hard question—why? Is it that you see flaws, things that you might have done differently? Is it that you don’t like what you have done? Why? Why don’t you have your books or stories loaded onto your Kindle or Nook or PC to read and read again. Not to the exclusion of others, but because you have told a story you wanted to read, and believe me, if you write stories you will love, I guarantee other people will love them too.
Today, take out a story or book you haven’t read since you put the final edit on it and open it again. Read it, and become one of your own favorite authors.
I have touched on the idea of fanfiction many times over the past few years. People outside fandoms don’t really understand fanfiction—in short it is writing a story based on someone else’s characters and set in their universe. That’s a little simplistic, but the basic idea. I have been writing fanfiction since I first figured out that I could write stories about my favorite characters, starting with the Hardy boys when I was about eight.
But let’s talk about another aspect of fanfiction.
A lot of authors and movie/TV creators look down on the world of fanfiction. In a way I understand, it is someone else messing with your creation—but in another way it is the highest form of flattery people love your stories so much that they want to stay and play.
But that is not what I am talking about (completely) either.
I am talking about fanfiction as a tool for the writer/creator. Reading fanfiction in the worlds you have created gives you as an author an insight into your own world that you will never find in yourself. Seeing the characters, situations and adventures fans create (for better or worse) allows you to see more deeply into your own work. It’s a scary prospect, venturing out into fanfic in your worlds, but well worth it. Finding out where readers are attracted and how they see a character is an eye-opener.
I personally think every author should find someone to read their work, then write fanfiction. Maybe two—or if you are lucky enough to belong to a writing group, have everyone write fanfiction in everyone else’s universes. The insight is amazing! A minor character might suddenly be in the forefront of four or five stories, a certain character trait you thought was awesome is dismissed, the list goes on. It is a valuable tool and a way to hone your skills.
The greatest inspiration for writing is life. Everything I turn into words comes from life in some way. The thing, for me, is it is not always obvious where I get the inspiration from. People tend to assume you have to have something huge happen in your life to make it worthy to write about, but it’s the small things that make up life. And think about books—it’s the small things that make a book more interesting.
I was talking to someone the other day about the death of an author (Anne McCaffrey). We both loved her, and we were talking about what we loved—and beyond the obvious, dragons, fire lizards and the wonderful worlds she created—what we loved most was the little things. The small details of daily life, the things that made the world real were what we loved most.
I have been accused of taking research too far once or twice—ending up in the ER then writing about it—but it’s not just the big event I use, it’s all the little things that happen while I am there. Things that might not even happen in a hospital setting in my writing but something I remembered from that experience—the way someone spoke, a man’s walk, the silence, or the noise, the music in the background or the pervading smell. Everything is a potential moment in a story.
Every day I watch, I listen, I smell and taste. All of that is translated into writing at some point. While I never duplicate a person in their entirety, I might take a piece of them and use it in a character. The way they brush the hair out of their face, or something they say. Flash, a character in my Custodes Noctis series, is the only character who regularly swears, and yet it is part of his definition as a character and he doesn’t even notice it is so much a part of him. Based on someone? Yes, a little.
I also notice the world at large, the scents of the seasons, the bitter tang of autumn or that only snow produces. Or it can be the heavy scent of a warm damp climate summer, dripping with the weight of the perfume of flowers, or the dry medicinal scent of the southwest on a hot day. Roasting coffee smells a little like skunk, the southwest in autumn smells like roasting chilies. Each little thing makes the world more alive for me and that reality I can pass on to my readers.
Using the things I love and experience are what I think make writing a richer experience for me as the writer and hopefully for the reader as well. Little things make a story live for me, and it is the little things I want to share. Yes, something huge is happening, but everyday life goes on as well.
Every writer has doldrums. I’m not talking about writer’s block, that’s a whole other ball of wax. No, I am talking about the doldrums, those times where we just lay stagnant, unable to move. (The term came from sailing and those latitudes where the winds would suddenly fail and the ships would just flounder.) I know them all too well. I can sense a story, feel it waiting like the breathless wind that never comes, and it just sits. I can toss everything off my personal ship and still it sits. I stare for hours at the computer and the words that should be flowing sit idle, lost in latitudes of the doldrums.
I have to admit a lot of my doldrums get caught up in the “what’s the point.” I get frustrated with my story and wonder if I will ever get it finished. Or I ask that question that haunts every writer from bestsellers to the writer of obituaries on the smallest paper in the smallest town on earth. Does anyone even read this stuff except me?
Then comes the gift of what I call the “Joan Wilder Moment”. For those of you who haven’t seenRomancing the Stone more than once, you might not get the reference, so let me explain. The heroine of the movie is a romance novelist who goes to rescue her sister from evil kidnappers in Columbia, and things go a little less than perfectly when she arrives. Finally she and the erstwhile hero make it to a small village—which turns out to be the stronghold of a drug-lord. As they are about to be shot by said drug lord the hero says, “Write your way out of this one, Joan Wilder.” The drug-lord lowers the gun and says, “Joan Wilder? You are Joan Wilder? The romance novelist? I read your books!” And of course, he becomes their staunch ally.
So, back to the Joan Wilder Moment.
In making reservations for an upcoming con, there was a “Muffy Morrigan? The Muffy Morrigan? I read your books!” Now, this was not someone who worked for the con, but rather an employee of the hotel that is hosting the con. It was a moment that reminded me why I am writing. Not just because I love my stories, but because I love sharing my stories. When someone is excited by what I’ve written, or is touched or—in the case of my story about gastroparesis—finds a little hope, I am blown away. Each time is like the first and I glow with the same lovely, fuzzy warmth.
I’ve found through the years that the doldrums almost always have a “Joan Wilder Moment” attached. Just like a ship lost in the windless sea finally catching the Trade Winds, so we can find that breathe of fresh air. Look for it. It will give you the joy and the momentum to sail on.
I love words. I collected them like a raven collects shiny bits of things. I horde them, secreting them away to pull out on cold winter nights to look at and savor, to enrich myself with the depth of meaning, the foreign feeling, the difference they offer my life. I love words that are not common, but once were. In fact, I mourn the fact that so many wonderful words have left us to be replaced. For example—zounds as a swear word—once considered out on the edge, it means “by the wounds of God”. Now, just an out of date boring word.
That love of words carries over into my daily life. I love to hear different words, and while I am definitely not adept at learning foreign languages, I do love to have a few little words, small coins in my purse to pull out and trade when I am out of the country. I know how to say thank you in eight or nine languages, hello in seven or eight. And then the odd word that is utterly useless. I know how to say badger in Danish. Which is very useful in almost no conversation ever.
It’s odd, though, that my favorite writers, those that I idolize have very few… “big” words. What I mean is that they write with a simplicity of language, a parcity of words that makes what they have created so much more that mere type on a page. These writers have not fallen into the trap that bigger is better, or even that longer is better. They use a few short phrases and suddenly the beauty or horror, the love or hate they are expressing hits me in the gut and I am there.
One of my idols, Patrick O’Brian, wrote the magnificent Aubrey/Maturin books. The first bookMaster and Commander lacks something, and I know why. He had fallen into the trap he frees himself of later. By book three HMS Surprise, his language is beautiful. Those are books I read as much for the words as I do for the story. I love Jack and Stephen, but the writing is what I truly love. There is a moment in the book where he says “the winds had changed, the song in the rigging dropped by a full octave.” I have no doubt that should I ever sail on a ship is circumstances like that I will know that precise moment. And he does it so simply, so elegantly. No long words, no overblown waxing on. Only fourteen words and you know in your bones what it feels like, what it would be like to be there.
That simplicity is being lost. Of course, there have always been writers that overwrite, but the great writers really don’t. Even during the height of the florid Victorian era, the great writers don’t give you more than you need. Too much sugar ruins the dough, as does too much salt. The balance is difficult.
It’s getting harder for writers to find that balance today. We don’t value words. In a world that blithely accepts words shortened for texting, then allowing them into every day written language we are put to a test. And then we are further faced with the onslaught of new words. Words created merely because someone didn’t know that there was a fabulous word for what they are describing that already existed.
How does this affect me as a writer? It challenges me every time I sit down to write. I want my words to be beautiful. I want the scenes I create to live on, and I want someone to be in a moment and think “this is just like [fill in the blank]”. Will I ever be Patrick O’Brian? Maybe when I am ninety, when I have written hundreds of books and used my “instrument” of writing for many more years, I still doubt it.
Simplicity. As I write I stop myself many times and think “do I really need that word?” I don’t know if it comes from years of writing news and being held to a strict word count, or years of reading O’Brian, Twain, Christie and others, but I look at my work and question every word, every scene. Have I overwritten? Under or over-described? Can a simple word work? And then the biggie—did I just use that word to show off that I know that word whatever it is? For example “mellifluous” do I need to use that word? Or can I say “His voice was like the best chocolate.” It depends, and I need to search myself and decide if I want to use the word for its sake or to show off.
Easy to say, harder to write, but worth the effort every time.
I honestly think that to be any kind of a writer, good or back, fiction or non-fiction—even news, you must first be a reader. It would seem obvious, to write you must read, but I have been surprised by how few writers read beyond the scope of their field. Fantasy writers read fantasy, mystery writers read mystery, paleontologists read dinosaur books. That never really made sense to me. I am a voracious reader and like a kid presented with a new food, I am willing to try almost anything once.
It’s someplace where many writers fall down. They get stuck in their own genre and see themselves as only compared to Joe Guy the greatest Fill In The Blank Author on earth. There is danger there. First, maybe Joe is awesome, maybe you adore his writing and want to write like him. But, he is not to everyone’s tastes, so focusing totally on him might be a mistake. Secondly, you run the risk of ending up in an epic rut that is hard to write your way out of. Then there is the third problem, if you read only in one genre, you tend to think everyone gets it, and will understand you when you reference it; that is not always the case, particularly in genres that are on the outer edges of the fringe.
Actually, I think you should read four books outside whatever genre you write in for every one in your genre you read. For example—you write classic science fiction, and awesome it is, but you shouldn’t just read sci fi. Try a mystery, maybe a romance, perhaps a fantasy and toss in something off-the-wall. Wander into the non-fiction area of the library (or Kindle store in the free section) and get something way out of your usual comfort zone. How about Myth, Ritual and Religion by Andrew Lang available free from Kindle? Or a personal favorite The Hunting of the Snarkby Lewis Carroll, also free on Kindle.
So what did I mean about “aware reading”?
For me, every book I read brings me something new, even just a tiny turn of phrase or a new word. (I love to collect words, even if I never use them.) Whether a novel or a non-fiction, there is something there that adds to my awareness of my own craft. I admit sometimes it is an awareness of something I don’t want to do, or don’t like, but that is a valuable lesson as well.
So what am I talking about? First go out and find something you wouldn’t usually read. Novel, short story, poem, or a book on String Theory, find something. Read it. Then think about it for a minute. While you think, ask yourself:
How does this affect my sense of my writing? Or does it?
Is there something here that I can use?
Does the prose flow in a way I like?
Do I like the words, the very bare bones of the work?
I know that feels a bit like a college class, and it will at first. But after you become aware of reading this way, you will realize you have been reading that way all along; pulling in bits and savoring them, keeping some discarding others. Maybe a scene was particularly vivid because of the way it was described and you unconsciously mimic it in your next work. Perhaps there was a fantastic word, that was just the word for your latest blog, story or article.
Whatever it is, it is there waiting. Just hop out and give it a chance.
I’ve been asked more than once where I find inspiration for my writing. It’s the question I think writers hear the most, and for many it’s the hardest to explain. In the realm of fantasy and science fiction it’s probably even harder, since so much of what we write is outside the pale. Monsters, spaceships, flying beyond the earth or manipulating reality with magic fill our works, but where are those lurking in our world?
I find my “writing self” is always on. When I walk into a store and see the people’s faces, I wonder who they are, what they’ve seen. I imagine their backstory. The cars parked outside the store are also filled with stories, the families that fill them, the dog waiting patiently on the seat. They all have a story waiting to be told.
Yesterday something wonderful arrived in the mail. Something I have wanted for years. A set of RAF sweetheart wings, a real pair from World War II. When the box arrived, I knew what was in it; I knew the brooch was there. I opened the box, pulled away the bubble wrap and carefully unrolled the plastic it had been shipped in and then… Suddenly…
It was a story.
Because who the person who had originally worn these wings? Was she a mother? Sister? Girlfriend or wife? As I held them the story became more. Who was the man who had given them? Was he a Spitfire pilot? Maybe he was a Mosquito pilot in the Pathfinder service? A whole story formed in my head, the handsome pilot standing quietly, the brooch in his hand, waiting for his sweetheart to arrive. Pinning it on her sweater, then gently kissing her cheek before he left to return to his base. I wonder about him now, if he lived, and about her. I wonder how those wings ended up for auction on ebay.
There could be a fantasy story there, or steampunk, or even science fiction because, for example our pilot might have been part of a top secret project…
Inspiration comes from everywhere, even in the mail.
I have been a writing all my life and have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. Recently, I have started working with writers helping them to learn to love their writing, and how we, as writers can learn from musicians and their techniques.