Tag Archives: research

Writing Goals for 2010

As we approach 2010 I have an opportunity to reflect on my goals. It’s been a month since I wrote anything in my blog here – and what a busy month it’s been. My last post here was about my new writing group hosted at my interactive fiction/collaborative writing & role-play site Pan Historia called Write Together. I’m here to report that even in the middle of switching jobs and surviving the crazy holidays it’s been a great success for me so far. I re-committed myself to a writing regime and am currently twenty pages into a new novel. Not only have I written several chapters but I have been enjoying a great deal of inspiring research for the project. The novel is fiction, but it’s set in a very specific time period (mostly 1926) with lots of exciting historical characters that need to be authentic to make the story work.

With the holidays over (I don’t count New Years and intend to spend it sedately as always) I am recommitting myself to my blog as well. My New Year’s resolution, if you will, is to complete my novel in 2010 but also to maintain a steady stream of collaborative fiction and blog posts. Now I just have to remember all the good ideas I have had over the past month that I have been too busy to realize. I have a far better note taking system with the audio and notebook functions on my Blackberry as well as a nice little pocket Moleskin notebook, but somehow I still have to get ideas from brain to my devices, whatever they may be. I’ve been pretty diligent when it comes to the new novel but less so when it comes to other ideas, including poetry ideas, I have been slacking. Developing new habits is a matter of practice however and with all the ways that I can take down my thoughts for later I have no excuses this year for not improving.

My new job is going to help a lot. I haven’t really posted much personal stuff in my blog and that remains my intention, but I can share that when you are in a negative place, worried about finances and bullied by bosses that are less qualified than yourself, it sure can handicap your ability to be creative and productive in other spheres. My new job was a step back on the hierarchal ladder since my move across country, but it is a return to the sector that I excel in and where I have opportunities for advancement. My new bosses and coworkers all seem to be people I can respect, and I look forward to relaxing into my new position. My primary ambition in life is as an artist. Whether it is with paints, pens, or pixels, I have to remember that my job is not my career and sweat the small stuff a little less. I think 2010 promises me that freedom.

Write Together

I’ve been even more quiet than usual when it comes to my blog and twitter but I have an excellent excuse. I had a brainstorm of an idea – one that helps to make Pan Historia an even better destination for writers as well as one that is helping motivate me to write my own novel. I started a writing group at Pan for those of us who want to move from just writing ongoing collaborative fiction to finally finishing and publishing a novel of our own. This concept does not exclude collaborative projects (I hope to include a version of my zombie novel in this mix one day) but does focus on story structure, discipline, craft, and actually sitting down regularly and making time to write.

For those of you who know me or know me through my blog you’ll be aware of my intention to write a novel and how I have been working on one based on the life of Wyatt Earp for just about forever. Mostly it’s been in the endless research phase with a sort of Mobius strip of trying to work out my new ‘fresh’ angle on this particular subject. When I started the new writing group Write Together at Pan I fully intended to finally write and complete this work. Our group is really fortunate to have a published author of a sort of mentor consultant and the first thing she asked me is “why am I writing this particular story” and I could no longer answer the question. I got some good feedback from my fellow writers and had worked out some possible interesting twists on the Wyatt Earp story and how to tell it in an engaging way, but there was no real purpose for me. I ended up answering that question with “I’ve been researching it? I have a book case full of books on the topic?”

Beep. Not good enough.

So I decided to shelve the project and immediately begun work on another novel idea that had been flitting around my mind for a while. This time I jumped into a genre that I have come to love writing in: horror. I’ve started work on a sort of supernatural thriller set in the 1920’s full of glamorous characters, many of whom are historical, and dark sinister magic. I’m very excited about the story and using all the resources of my novel writing group as well as the many great resources I have found since using twitter and blogging, I have already got a good working synopsis, a stable of interesting rich characters, and the beginning of an outline using a classic story structure. The basic storyline and characters has been something I have been working on for quite a long time on Pan as a collaborative novel, but my focus will be on my own ideas and characters and developing a plot that has not been told in the collaborative forum so it’s all original.

Research and Socializing at Pan Historia

One of the distinctive features at the Pan Historia collaborative writing site that I haven’t covered too much in my blogs is the section that we like to call the ‘Reference Library’. Back when Pan was created the theme was definitely of a library. We even used a color scheme that was vellum for interior pages and a green leather background for dust jacket style pages. Eventually the theme loosened up due to the way that the members used the site, but there are still many remnants of the library scheme remaining – like the ‘reference books’ that populate the reference section of Pan.

Reference books are a collection of bulletin boards similar in design to our ‘novels’ but devoted to the discussion of various topics, as well as the dissemination of links, books, and ideas from around the internet. They are a place to kick back with friends and talk about some of the stuff that fascinates you. For instance I am a member of Black & Blue for the discussion of true crime, crime drama, and forensics because I like to write my cop character Red King. I’m also a member of Wild West for the discussion of western history. This book is very handy. When I’m looking for info for one of my posts I might pop over there, but I often find myself posting to share something I have found that I figure will be of interest to other writers. Of course writers can also find more than just reference. We have The Writer’s Block and The Tenth Muse for discussing writing and for poetry respectively.

I recently joined in our Fleur-de-lis reference book to talk about my adventures in gardening. Theoretically I can see that on occasion, as a fiction writer, I might want to find out about a garden plant, but honestly I just joined so I could talk about my plants and hang out with other people in the community that like to garden. There are other books to talk about movies or music, or various periods in history. Our reference books round out the activities on Pan Historia in a very meaningful way: from the purely social to the scholarly, to just being a handy tool for fleshing out your fiction writing.

Not all the people that are drawn to Pan Historia as a community are fiction writers. The Reference Library is a way for them to read and discussion things that interest them, along with the games and general chit chat that is often a signature of the site’s central hub pages. It’s not really a surprise considering how many people first start browsing the internet and using it for more than email by researching a question they have or a topic they are fascinated with. The community at Pan Historia gives them a social aspect to their interests.

Top it all off with an instant messaging system and you’ll never be alone or lacking in things to do or read at Pan Historia. Of course no site is ever perfect and Pan Historia is not excluded from that rule. It’s an ongoing work of social media art as far as I’m concerned and one of the things I would like to see happen is MORE in the Reference Library. Pan also has a blog section but after several years of seeing it in action I realize that blogs, being sort of solitary, are not really the most effective method of interactive at Pan. One of the things I used to include in my blog there was my gardening adventures, but it was sort of static, and static is not what I sign on to Pan for so I moved my focus to the Fleur-de-lis reference book and I’m already have more fun because I’m getting into discussions about my passions.

Don’t Lose It in the Details

Reading some sound advice in another blog about getting the details right caused me to think about those things in your writing that can rip your reader right out of the reality you’re trying to create for them.

I remember, as a kid and inelegant teen, how I would often bring my author parent a sample of my latest creation. I was eager for praise and generally disappointed in my expectations. My parents were never like that, regardless of the occasion. I had to earn my praise. Every time I turned in a short story or a poem it was subject to a scathing critique which always began with comments about the grammar and structure.

“But the idea‚Ķ do you like the idea?”

After a while I stopped bringing my little mangled mouse offerings of juvenile writing to leave on the parental doorstep. My ego had been wounded too many times. For a number of years I didn’t even write – why bother?

Now I’m here to tell you that all those little comments that drive you crazy when you ask for critiques are necessary. Bad grammar and structure will thwart your readers. Typos will exasperate them. Getting details wrong will wrench them from your world. If a sentence doesn’t agree with itself or you forget to tell the reader who is talking you will lose their focus. Do your research. Nothing irritates readers and fans so much as a faulty detail.

You think I kid? I would have LOVED the movie 3:10 to Yuma only the movie makers insulted my intelligence and the intelligence of everyone that had ever gone to Bisbee, Arizona. In the movie they went for the old spaghetti western trope of the windswept and isolated dusty town in the middle of a flat bleak nowhere whereas Bisbee is built in a wooded gulch with crazy steep streets and houses clinging to the mountainside. All they had to do is name the town something else and I would have been happy. Because they called it Bisbee I was annoyed and then angry. It broke the spell. The movie became a mere movie.

A lot of things can destroy the illusion you are seeking to create when you write so pay attention to the little things, to make sure your sentence makes sense, to those stupid typos that creep in everywhere (he grabbed her by the waste is disgusting and will break the mood), to the details that reveal you know what you are talking about or you simply don’t. When you are the author, you are the authority, so don’t lose it in the details.

My Love/Hate Affair with Research

I came up against the great Research problem yesterday. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing fantasy, historical fiction, westerns, or like now science fiction, eventually I always come up against that wall where I know something but not enough, or even that I know nothing at all. That means taking the time, and I rarely have enough of that nowadays, to do a little digging. But even if I groan with frustration at my lack of complete and instant knowledge of everything and anything, in the end I always cave in and do the leg work.

In order to create believable fictional worlds (that are not entirely self-indulgent) it is essential to get the facts right – or at least plausible.

I was having a discussion with a friend just the other day about terrible movies (I was loathing Sweeny Todd because of the Stephen Sodenhiem score, amongst other things) and he started mocking The Lady in the Water. One of his major beefs with the movie was the scene where Paul Giametti spends ten minutes underwater swimming around without needing to breathe. Now this scene really really pisses him off. He was quite vocal, maybe even for ten minutes about how ludicrous this is. Now you need to remember or be aware (if you haven’t seen the movie) that the premise of The Lady in the Water is fantasy. She’s some otherworld creature that’s been stranded and there are monsters trying to get her.

None of this bothers my friend – and it shouldn’t. What bothers him is the character of an ordinary human guy swimming around and around not needing to breathe with nary a sound byte of explanation. It broke the believability and took him out of the magic. Ok, potential magic, because we are talking about The Lady in the Water here which has far more flaws than a few logical discrepancies. It broke the rhythm and ripped dear viewer out of the illusion the movie makers were trying to create. By comparison it all became silly. That is what you really don’t want to do when you writing fiction.

They say “write what you know” and that’s a bit misunderstood at times. Obviously you can’t just write what you know experientially in this life or we wouldn’t have Jules Verne or J.R.R. Tolkien. Verne never went to the moon and Tolkien probably never met an elf, but in either case these writers went to great lengths to create something believable for their readers. Verne may seem dated now but to his Victorian readers his science seemed magical but perhaps plausible in a world that was rapidly changing faster than it ever had before, and with that he was able to draw them along into imagining the fantasy, strongly enough that people still enjoy reading Verne today. Tolkien went even further. It wasn’t just the magic of his words and the consistency of his vision, but the amount of erudition he added to it, from his creation of new languages as a master of linguistics to his knowledge of the folklore of Europe. In the background of his own stories were copious amounts of back-story crafted from his imagination wedded to existing traditions.

Yesterday, for my latest vision, a science fiction story set not to far in the future that asks what happens if we were plunged into a nuclear winter for twenty or so years, had me spending two hours reading about the Coldstream Guards so that I could create a believable character who is a Lt. Colonel in the Coldstream in this grim London landscape that I and my fellow collaborative writers are working on. If I just fudged it, using my limited knowledge of the British military, at least one of my fellow writers (British of course!) would find my stories to be unbelievable. Lord knows how many potential readers I would put off and alienate. I might never use more than ten percent of what I have read about the Coldstream Guards, but the important thing is that I know what my character would or would not do, what rank is reasonable, whether it was likely that Coldstream Guards would have survived as a regiment, etc.

There is no single story I can think of that I have ever written where I haven’t had to dip into at least a smidgeon of research. Even for contemporary stories I need to research law, forensics, the cultures of other ethnic groups from my own, or how to site a good well. My most casual story will include me look up medical facts, how a hospital runs, or even how long it takes for a person to die of thirst.

It is all in the details.