Sunday, February 28, 2010

10 Research Tips for Fiction Writers

If you'd asked me ten years ago how much research I did for my fiction writing, I probably would've said "Not much at all". I guess back then a lot of what I wrote was based on my own experiences, or my imagination, and what I didn't know, I made up. Then I got hooked on a pirate story which was based on a real person who lived back in 1717, and research became my new passion! Over the past nine years, I think I've gathered more material on pirates than I ever thought possible, but the supporting information has been as detailed, if not more so.

Some of the things I've researched include: money in the southern US - what currencies were used, how they were compared for value, what one guinea or one shilling would buy; sailing ships, with a particular interest in brigantines; clothing, food, houses, drinks; medicinals and diseases; what books were published back then; what language was used - I've had a great deal of fun with all 13 volumes of the Greater Oxford Dictionary! Along the way, as well as pirate stuff, for other novels and stories I've researched horses and horse riding, ballet, tunnels and underground houses, country policemen, city homicide detectives, remand centres, and various types of head injuries, to name just a few topics.

So the tips I'm offering come from experience, and are aimed at fiction writers who need to obtain good background information that is as accurate as it can be.

* no matter what information you find or where it is, record the source. I keep a big notebook and I put book titles and authors in it, as well as websites and journals. You never know when you might need it again, or might need to verify where you found it.

* don't rely on the internet for everything. Yes, it's handy and you can find heaps of things there, but it should only be one of your sources. Wikipedia is a starting point - I look at it because these days it comes up first in a search half the time - but from there I branch out and look at at least ten sites. There are many, many websites that are created by people with a specific interest in a subject. That doesn't mean they're an expert. I've found many sites with inaccurate information, or pushing a certain point of view. I like to find sites maintained by government departments (in the US many states have a department of history and/or conservation, for example), universities and/or academics with specific knowledge, and local history sites.

* even books can be wrong, often because new knowledge or evidence has been discovered. Check the publication date, and compare with other books. I try to verify important information I want to use in my book by finding two other sources that confirm it. Not always possible, though.

* interview people, if you can, and if it's relevant (no one who was alive in 1717 was available for me). But I have done interviews that have enlightened me on ballet, horse riding, frogs, injuries and country policing, for example. Prepare good questions beforehand, tape the interview, and take good notes. I've had two occasions where the tape recorder has died halfway through.

* collect anything and everything. I particularly love stories about the people who lived in my era (the tour guide at Como was an amazing resource - thanks, Betty!), and how they lived. Odd little snippets can become part of your novel and add more interest - and sometimes more humour. You never know when a tidbit can come in useful. Again, I keep all this kind of stuff in my notebook, either as notes or pasting it in.

* go to the places you are writing about, or something similar (see my previous post about Ripponlea). I have a friend who writes fantasy for whom a particular beach is the beach in her novel, and walking along it helps her to write those scenes with more authenticity. I'm excited to be going to South and North Carolina in a couple of months to research more about pirates.

* use the libraries all around you. Not just your own public library but all the others. For example, I went to Hawthorn Library the other day to look at some things in their local history section, and the librarian informed me that as long as I lived in Victoria, I could join their library for free and take out books. We also have State libraries with huge collections, and often you can access the collections at university libraries. And don't forget that libraries these days have more than books - they have newspapers on microfiche, photographs and ephemera.

* don't think that if you're not writing historical fiction then you don't need to research. I think every book benefits from good background research. My horse stories really came alive for me (and, I hope, the reader) after I'd had a riding lesson.

* don't forget movies. Yes, I've watched all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies! But I've also watched a lot of old pirate movies, all the Hornblower TV series, and anything with old sailing ships or set in my era (for the clothing and houses). A lot of movies aren't exactly accurate with their costumes and architecture, but they help to give you the 'feel' of the time, at least.

* you can also read published novels set in your era, to see how other writers deal with inserting the fact into the fiction. It's a skill, to weave the setting and background and historical information in without lapsing into info dumps. We can learn by reading the best and the worst.

I'm sure other writers can add to this list, so please do!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fun Research Time

I'm currently working on a project that requires me to know a lot of stuff about Melbourne in 1900 or thereabouts, so I've read books, been to the State Library for more books and newspapers, hunted down photos and very old film footage and borrowed materials. But every now and then, it's great to simply find a place that helps me to imagine what life was like then - life in the domestic sense. Beds, mirrors, wallpaper, kitchens, sculleries, windows, fireplaces, hats, toys. On Sunday, we visited Ripponlea, which is a property in Melbourne with wonderful gardens. Although some parts of the house have been modernised to the 1930s, there was still plenty there to help sweep me back into a hundred + years ago.

Now I can add all kinds of small details to my story (in the right places, without an info dump!) to make it really "real".

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Likeable Character

The Two Pearls of Wisdom In the past week, the question has arisen several times about the main character of your novel - how likeable do they have to be? Is it possible to have an unlikeable mc? What will make your reader like your character from the first couple of pages? Is this important?
I'd say yes. Very important. It rates up there with voice and story questions. When someone picks up your book and reads the first couple of pages, what is going to keep them engaged? Voice and tone play a big part, and more particularly, creating confidence in the reader that you can tell a good story. Story questions create hooks - the reader wants to know the answers, wants to be intrigued.

But the character element is vital. We often talk about "going on the journey" with the main character, and how if the reader doesn't care about the mc, then they won't keep reading. How do you create the caring? An overly sarcastic narrator might put a lot of readers off. A wimpy, passive character may well do the same. We often read with the hope that events will change the character for the better, but we don't want to wait too long for the first positive signs.

Some of the character traits that personally put me off a book from the first couple of pages include: the whiny YA narrator who feels life is totally unfair and everything sucks; the character who is a total victim with not even a smidgin of guts showing; the twisted character who promises nothing but gore and blood and no empathy; the twee character for whom everything is full of light. Mostly I want to see some clue as to how this character is going to deal with the disasters the writer is going to inflict on them. Some sign of intelligence and gumption, even if it's only through thoughts at the beginning.

Which brings me to the book I'm reading right now. Reading so fast (because it's really good) that I'll probably finish it tonight and then be sorry I was such a glutton and couldn't slow down. It's The Two Pearls of Wisdom by Alison Goodman. (It's called "Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye" in the US, though why they'd want to create confusion with Eragon, I don't know.) The main character of this book is, firstly, a cripple. A boy who is about to compete with eleven able-bodied boys for the role of apprentice dragoneye.

What immediately engaged me with this book was that this character is no wimp. Despite obvious disadvantages, obvious fear and obvious lack of skills, we know straight away that Eon is not a wimp. He's going to give it his best shot. People are relying on him. And he's spurred on by the reality of what he'll be sent back to if he fails. He grits his teeth against the pain and keeps going. But most of all, Alison Goodman gives us a deep insight into his thoughts and emotions in such a way that Eon springs from the page and into our minds. We're on his side.

Then we very quickly discover that Eon is a girl. I'm not doing a big spoiler here - you're told this quite quickly, and then it becomes an even stronger reason to cheer for her. She really is going against all odds. No girl has ever even attempted to compete for the dragoneye. But she has special talents that you know will either make all the difference or be the death of her. The stakes are raised to higher and higher levels, and each time it serves to connect you more to the character.
Even if you insist you don't like fantasy (and this is based on Chinese mythology more than anything), you might want to read this just for the characters.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Quantity or Quality?

Over January I had my own mini-Nano (or that's what it felt like), writing 35,000 words in four weeks. I didn't set out to - I was just aiming for 5,000 a week and the words kept coming. On the other hand, I was working on three different projects. One was a contracted book, one was my secret vice (a crime novel) and one was an experiment. Out of these, two may never be read by anyone other than me. But if you are a writer, what do you do with all the stuff you write that isn't actually publishable? And what does "publishable" mean anyway?

I was reminded of these questions when I read Dee White's blog post this week about how not to scare off publishers and editors. You're right, Dee, telling a publisher you have 80 or 90 manuscripts at home is not a good idea! I guess it suggests that you might well be a "first draft fanatic" and unable to revise. The quantity is there but most publishers would assume the quality is not. Otherwise you'd have 90 published books.

We all have stories and poems, and often novels, that should remain under the bed, or perhaps even used for firestarters, although I like to keep everything I write, which explains a lot about the state of my office. But I know most of this is just for me, either as practice for an idea that eventually evolves into something more substantial, or just plain venting about something and better put away. I have a filing cabinet that holds drafts of stories and beginnings of novels that may some day be revised with an eye to submitting, and I recently fished one of them out and did exactly that.

There are other stories that have been submitted and not yet accepted. I haven't given up on them but I recognise that they probably need another draft. Sometimes what writers struggle with is deciding what is worth working on. Some of my half-finished novels simply ran out of legs. They started well but there wasn't enough in the driving idea to drive it past page 100. Often the idea you might start with is simply not original enough. It's been done plenty of times before and you haven't managed to bring anything new to it. Only you can decide if you have enough passion left for the story concept to wrangle it into a new shape and lift it above the others.

The other aspect of all of this is time and effort. How much dedication are you really giving each idea if you come up with a new one every week? Are you taking the time to think, develop, stretch, push, plan and test your story idea to its limits before you write it? I think of writers who spend three years on one novel, and then other writers who spend six weeks. Can readers tell the difference? Can you write quality so fast? Some would insist that yes, you can. What do you think?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Story Puzzle

I read a lot of crime fiction (as well as heaps of other stuff - just call me a reading addict!) and lately I've been thinking about sub-genres and what makes a good story. Partly this has come from reading the book Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, because I'm teaching Myths & Symbols again this year and it seemed like a good example of a contemporary book that uses Greek mythology. Yet I'm struggling with it a bit, and I'm wondering if the plot is too simple. Don't get me wrong - the fact that it's a kid's book has nothing to do with it. I've read some amazing children's novels that are totally thought-provoking and complex (like The Wednesday Wars). But this one seems a bit ... predictable somehow. Which makes me dread the movie, which opens next Friday here.

What is it that we want from a book? For many readers, it's simply escapism of the most basic kind. Which might explain why takeaway food sales went up last year and book sales went down! It's why so many buy Dan Brown and give Hilary Mantel a miss. Why strain your brain further after a torrid day at work? But a great book doesn't need to be a struggle. It can challenge and excite and get your brain cells jumping around just by being an excellent story with a plot that makes you think a bit more. Which brings me back to crime fiction.

They (the fabled 'they') have been saying for a while now that serial murder fiction is past its use-by date, no longer popular, no longer trendy. That doesn't seem to have stopped a lot of crime writers trying their own version, or continuing the trend. At the moment I'm reading Tami Hoag's new novel, Deeper Than the Dead. It's a serial killer novel, with the added interest of being set back in the mid 1980s, before the explosion in forensics and computer records. But like many others of its kind, it's about one man who tortures and kills a number of women. As I read it, I feel two things.

One is the urge to go and rent the video for Monster (the movie where Charlize Theron plays a woman who murders men). I'm starting to get way past the novel or the movie where women are simply mutilated victims. But the other aspect of the serial killer novel is that the puzzle is so limited. It's one guy, who we know is insane, who has "things" he does as a signature, and it's the job of the main character to figure out which supposedly normal person is the killer. While there is some suspense involved, it's usually of the kind where we wonder how many more will die before they catch him. The puzzle itself is limited by its sub-genre. Hoag is doing a good job of holding my interest through the characters, but not so much with the puzzle.

SlipknotWhich is why I've so totally enjoyed disovering a new writer in the past few weeks, courtesy of my public library. (Yay for libraries!) Actually she's not new, but my discovery of her is. Priscilla Masters. Funnily enough, her website is actually under the name of her principal character, Joanna Piercy, but the books I've been reading are a series where her main character is Martha Gunn, a coroner in the English city of Shrewsbury. Not the gung-ho kind of coroner who breaks every rule and does things to solve the crime that are not credible, but a character who is thoughtful and intelligent and puzzles things out.

River DeepThe best thing about the two books I've read is the complexity of the puzzles. Yes, there are murders, but the links and connections are so skilfully played out or disguised that the books keep you thinking and trying to work things out all the way through. I read Slipknot, the second one, first, and then River Deep. Both are really well-written and kept me engaged the whole time. Martha Gunn's own life, apart from the crime aspect, is interesting and adds to the story, making you feel like she's a real person rather than just the convenient protagonist. I'm now going to search out the Piercy series and see if it provides the same kind of intriguing puzzles and plots.