Writing Research

We often hear writers talk about researching something for hours, maybe even days, just so one character can say one, off-hand comment naturally, like an expert. And trust me, that is a true thing. If you’re a writer and haven’t had to do that yet, just wait.

When I was writing the last book in my apocalyptic trilogy, I was lucky enough to be Twitter friendly with a cool scientist chick who I messaged to ask a few science questions and she was kind enough to loop me into a group email with other scientists to were willing to answer my laundry list of Science-For-Dummies questions (and subsequent follow ups because, I was definitely an English major) so I could figure out the cure for the plague in my story.

But that’s what a dedicated writer should do. Whatever it takes to make the non-fiction in the book as correct as possible. Readers who are familiar with subject matters know when a writer screws up and gets something wrong. There’s nothing worse that being absorbed by a book or other media only to have the creators get something obviously wrong to throw you out of the magical fiction trance.

There’s an art to naturally threading references into your narration so the reader becomes familiar with the characters’ vocation, expertise, etc.

For myself, I’m doing something new for a potential character. I have this creature in my head. She’s interesting and intriguing. She has magic and skills. I’m trying to get to know her so I can get her to tell me her story so I can write it down. I see her, walking in her boning and brocade and frock. But I also hear the tap of her cane on the cobbles. And I can see her using that cane for more than support.

I always say the two most impressive things a writer can do well is to write something scary or something funny. But, if I’m honest, another incredibly difficult thing to write well is fight scenes. They can be so boring. Almost like reading a complicated, dry math problem.

Which is why I’ve always, when I could, actually acted out my fight scenes. I’m incredibly lucky that my husband is a weapons expert and self-defense instructor. So I can go to him and ask if something is realistic. If a particular wound would be fatal or not. And for him to let me act out a fight scene on him. That way, when I go to write the scene, I can describe it in more than just fists and blows. I can describe the whirlwind feeling, the false sense of time, the confusion. There’s always more to physicality than you realize.

So I’m going back to that well and I’m going to be taking cane fighting lessons from him. We’ll no doubt add in sword and dagger and some other fun things, but I’m really looking forward to learning this almost-lost art. Even just talking about it unlocked some ideas in my head about this new, possible story.

Writing research, real, dedicated research is so important to creating a rich, detailed world for you and your readers. It’s a another way to refill your well when you think you’ve run out of ideas. I know my well has run dry and I’ve had difficulty thinking of something new and fresh to write, so if you’ve found yourself in the same boat, it may be time to start researching, learning something new–you never know what it may trigger for you.

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Characters: Creation or Inspiration

Most writers will admit that their characters are, in some ways, mirrors of themselves. You’ll give your main character (MC) your likes and dislikes, like, say your preference for how they take their coffee, a distaste for foods you hate, their clothing choices reflect your own, etc. etc. Many author’s first books’ MCs are basically their ideal version of themselves.

Then, as your writing progresses, you’ll branch out and make your MC’s tastes the opposite of your own. Do you like cream and sugar in your coffee? Well, then your MC takes theirs as black as their bitter heart. So deep, so different.

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But really, it’s totally cool to let your characters like the things you like and hate the things you hate because you can really put some real feeling and depth into those descriptions. But have you ever found yourself being influenced by your characters rather than the other way around?

If you’re doing your job, you’re creating fully formed, fleshed out people when you develop characters. Which means giving them preferences, skills, and hobbies that maybe–probably–you don’t have. But to make it real, to make it good and believable you need to learn a lot about those skills and hobbies.

I have done this with a fair share of my books. I know a lot about how vaccines are made now that I had to research it for my Ash & Ruin Trilogy. I know quite a bit more about different magic systems as I developed my own for the Matilda Kavanagh Novels. I learned a lot about ancient Judaic beliefs as I wrote The Brimstone War Novels for my pen name. When I write a witchy book in winter, they inevitably brew hot chocolate and bake goodies and you know, within hours of a writing session, I’ll be in my kitchen doing the same even though I don’t really like to bake. But somehow, these characters make me do these things.

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And now, with the New Book, research has turned to cards.

The women in my family have always read Tarot, but I never seemed to get the hang of it. I read a few spreads for friends in high school and didn’t do too bad, but the idea that I with BOTH dyslexia and dyscalculia could ever memorize the meanings of 78 cards–upright and inverted–and all the different types of spreads and what the card placement in any given spread means was just too impossible a task. But I knew, in my gut, that this MC was going to be a gifted Tarot reader. So it was time to pull my decks back out and try again.

It took a few weeks but I finally gave myself permission to not memorize 156 card meanings and just use my books and note pads to keep track so I could interpret the spreads without the added stress. And you know what? It works for me. And I don’t think I would have tried again had it not been for this character. Which is kinda cool. I’d always wanted to carry on this tradition and felt crappy that I hadn’t. But here I am, thanks to a character influencing me rather than the other way around.

Of course this witchy chick is also going to be pretty good at playing cards too, which, if I do say so myself, I happen to be. So, it’s definitely a two way street.

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How about you? Have you ever created a character so real that you find yourself taking on their hobbies beyond just research? Have your characters changed some aspect of you life you weren’t expecting?

Ten Years to Refill My Well

I got married in 2007 and, with a determination I wasn’t sure I had, in the year leading up to our wedding, I saved enough money to get us a two week honeymoon in Paris.

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It was magical and fun and beautiful and funny and exhausting, like most long trips tend to be. But any frustrating or disappointing moments in the trip have, over time, turned into the funny stories we tell at parties.

I promised myself that we would do something just as awesome and fun every five years for our anniversary because we both love to travel and see new places so much. And five years is a long enough time to save up for trips by doing it slowly.

Unfortunately in 2011 we both were laid off from our jobs within a week of each other. Any fun, overseas trip in the following year immediately vanished. Fortunately I had an idea the lay offs were coming and that’s why I started self-publishing in 2011–hoping to create a passive income that would help us. It took a long time for that plan to come to fruition, but eventually it did. But not in time for our five year anniversary, only in time to help carry us as my husband also built his business, which helps me run this one during the lean times.

So, you know, giving up a trip on our five-year-anniversary was worth it since we got to become our own bosses and work from home. But one does miss Paid Time Off and a boss telling you, “take your vacation days or we’re going to cancel them.”

But last year, just after our nine-year-anniversary we started talking about how long it had been since we’d taken more than a long weekend for ourselves. The more we talked about it the more desperate we were to make it happen. Our ten-year was one year away. I’d done it once before (of course then we both had corporate jobs with steady, reliable incomes and PTO), maybe I could do it again and get us somewhere for that big 1-0.

It took saving every dollar we got from Christmas gifts and birthdays (specifically telling family not to buy us “things” unless they were from our travel wish-list) and scraping every penny we could spare from income, giving up going out, shopping, and often saying “no, not this time/year” to friends many, many times. But as we saved up enough for plane tickets and accommodations and the lost income from taking time off, we knew it was worth the cabin fever.

And last month, we went to Ireland for two weeks.

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Now, this wasn’t just a vacation. I’ve been struggling for a while to think of a new story, to find new characters and new settings for a long while. I have my open series that I work on, but I want something new. Something witchy. Something darker. Something magical.

I know, Celtic influence and Ireland especially isn’t breaking any molds, but I wanted to go to the land of (some) of my ancestors and touch the ground they walked on, touch the stones they prayed on, breathe the air they once breathed. I wanted it to inspire me. To fill my well.

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We kept a travel journal along the way, taking time every evening to detail everything that happened each day. When I had access to WiFi, I posted updates with photos so I could recall everything that I loved so the exhaustion and jet lag (and sinus infection whomp-whomp) we would undoubtedly suffer wouldn’t muddle our memories or make me forget anything important.

I got to touch those magic stones and walk through the portals. I got to pick acorns from Druid trees and eat wild blackberries growing around stone circles. I got to climb hills to stand at the seat of kings. I withstood gale force winds to walk the ancient Celtic settlements. I braved the edge of the world as my fear of falling knotted the muscles in my back. I dipped my hands in holy wells, letting the water cling to my fingers.

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I won’t lie, some things did break my heart. Seeing the misappropriation of Celtic goddesses, them turned into Catholic nuns, hurt. Seeing their holy places over-run, twisted and diminished hurt. But who knows, maybe that will help me in my story.

I’m still not sure what the story is going to be. I am torn by the idea of creating a new world or sending a character into a strange world or what. But my mind is starting to race with possibilities and possibilities are exciting. I’m actually looking forward to brainstorming as I go back over the travel log and photos and see what speaks to me.

And I really hope it won’t be another ten years before we get to do something like this again.

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Feeding the Creative Beast

 

Beast (comics)
I imagine my beast like THIS Beast. (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us around these parts are here because we are, on some level, creative people.

 

That could mean making things with your hands, creating worlds from your mind, or any other number of avenues of expression. Or many of them.

 

This week as Kristin and I gear up to launch the Magetech RPG for my other lover website, Searching for SuperWomen, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about creativity. Being between projects with one out on submission has left me without a lot of fiction to work on. I wrote two and a half books in 2012, and it feels strange to not be frantically typing away at something.

 

I’ve also noticed a certain kind of ebb and flow when it comes to my fiction writing. I’ll go through periods where I don’t read much — and during those periods I don’t write much. When the itch to read comes along, I know I’m coming back up on a bout of writing. I’ve noticed, in the decade or so I’ve been writing seriously, that reading is almost a direct conduit to my writing. It’s like fuel.

 

Even if I’m reading a thriller and writing urban fantasy. Reading epic fantasy or classics. It doesn’t matter what I’m reading, only that when I read a lot, I write more.

 

Perhaps it’s the opening up of my mind to absorb new ideas. Maybe it’s actively engaging with another world and giving my brain permission and leeway to critically analyze what’s on the page and assess what it does for me. Either way, the synapses firing seem to spark others to carry on in their place once the pages are closed again.

 

I won’t rehash Stephen King’s famous admonition to writers. But I do think that consuming media in your field is the best way to get those creative juices flowing.

 

As we’ve been building the world for our Magetech RPG, I’ve felt that we’re dangling tidbits under our WordBeast’s nose. I can almost hear the saliva dribbling down its chin and the throaty purr that says it knows we’re about to give it a meal. Sometimes having guidelines within which to create a thing help free a character you might never have given life in the first place.

 

Bográcsgulyás, készült a fegyverneki gulyásfes...
(Ooh, this caption is in Hungarian) Bográcsgulyás, készült a fegyverneki gulyásfesztiválon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I had to write up a recipe to get your Beast’s engine revving, this might be it:

 

1. Gather ingredients. These could be books, movies, paintings, comics, sunsets, tree leaves, a splash in the pool, getting whacked on the head with a stick. Experiences, whether your own or those of fictional characters or those told through an artist’s lens — these are the meat of your recipe.

 

2. Engage. You can’t just throw whole carrots and hunks of onion (or a whole chicken, for that matter) into a pot and hope to have a good stew. You need to engage with each ingredient you have, wash it of dirt (or feathers and beaks), prune the inedible bits away, and season it until it sings.

 

3. Turn on the stove. You can have all your ingredients lined up and organized by color, but nothing will ever get started if you don’t start the pot boiling. Your creative beast needs to eat, and looking at prettily arranged, carefully chosen ingredients will do nothing but make it stagnate.

 

The Beast is hungry, and while it might feel like you’re losing something to put all that effort into feeding it, the output you get is worth the toil. And I’m not going to continue with the food and digestive metaphor with that, because erm…no crap is going to sound enticing unless it’s dipped in gold. And even then, it’s just gilded poo. So…let’s say that your Beast instead creates heat. That heat powers your creations.

 

Will there be elements of the initial ingredients? Probably. But if you engaged properly and trimmed, bathed, and de-beaked them from the get-go, they’ll look like you and not like the original chicken.

 

The best thing about feeding the creative beast is that you get more out the more you put in.

 

Some people like the idea of having a muse, but I’ve always thought of muses as a fickle, passive sort of thing. Makes a great excuse when you can blame your muse for not creating. But feeding a beast? It requires action. It requires agency.

 

And the whole basis of “creative” implies a creator.

 

That’s you.

 

Feed your beast.