Posts Tagged research
I just read The Fear Index by Robert Harris. Much of the derring-do is in the world of hedge funds. Hedge funds make me feel baffled and not a little cross. Mercifully, Harris is a great storyteller – which means he knows that already.
Instead of baffling us, Harris starts with characters in a situation we can relate to – a man with a mysterious intruder in his house. A good half of the book passes before the reader ever has to grapple with how a hedge fund actually works. When we do it’s a terrific scene – a flashback to how the main characters met, so we want to read it. It’s full of entertaining characterisation – a racy rogue explains to an introverted scientist that it’s like betting on whether the girl at the fridge is wearing black underwear.
If you know about hedge funds, it’s charming enough that you forgive it being explained so basically. If you don’t, you see a bit of character interaction and emerge smugger and wiser.
So many novels derive much of their atmosphere and story from the setting. Whether it’s historical, sci-fi, fantasy, mountaineering, SAS thrillers (or even the world of classical music like My Memories of a Future Life). A lot of the fun of a book like this is the feeling you’ve had an insider view. But it’s easy to overdo the details. Especially if some of your story hinges around something as intricate as how hedge funds work.
I see a lot of novels that judge this wrong. Research-dumps, screeds of stodgy exposition that the writer mistakes for scene-setting. It’s clear that the writer has done admirable amounts of legwork – but they then frogmarch the reader through it too.
This not only holds up the story, it puts the reader on the outside while things are explained to them. In fact, you want them on the inside, immersed in the world as though the distinctive details were a natural part of life.
Wear it lightly
Harris clearly understands that however heavily he has to research, the novel should wear it lightly.
His other thrillers tackle ancient Rome (Imperium, Pompeii, Lustrum), the 1940s wartime code-breaking centre Bletchley Park (Enigma) an alternate 1960s (Fatherland) – to name but a few. They are full of intricate world-building – but he translates them into pressures on characters that generate stories. At the same time, you never feel you’re struggling to understand, or patronised because he’s gone too simple. It’s as if when he sat down to write he tried to say as little as possible about what he knew – and put the story and character first.
In your handling of research you have to be like the definition of a gentleman – a man who knows how to play the banjo but refrains from doing so.
Which authors do you think are gentlemanly with research?
Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon. Not too late to nab a Kindle copy if you’re aiming to be a Wrimo!
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
Today – roughly 24 hours ahead of schedule if you saw the note on the red blog – I’m at Joanna Penn’s online home, The Creative Penn. Joanna’s one of my favourite podcasters and her interviewees run the gamut of book marketing specialists to fiction authors to creativity consultants to anyone else you never knew you needed to know. A recent podcast of hers is on how to write fight scenes – which is cued up on my Creative Muvo to accompany my run today. (If you meet me, don’t get in my way.)
Earlier this year, when she was writing her best-selling religious thriller Pentecost, she interviewed me about my book Nail Your Novel. Now she’s invited me back to quiz me about writing My Memories of a Future Life – and we discuss the differences between literary and genre fiction, developing characters, using research and honing prose style. We also laughed rather a lot.
November is National Novel-Writing Month, when writers everywhere will handcuff themselves
to their keyboards and aim to get a 50,000-word draft finished in 30 days. Apart from clearing
the diary for November and creating a big Do Not Disturb sign, what can you do to prepare?
And is it even possible?
First of all, do established writers do this or is it just a game?
Certainly NaNoWriMo is not just an exercise. Many established writers use it to get their first drafts done. Novelist Sara Gruen wrote her New York Times #1 bestseller Water For Elephants one NaNoWriMo. What you start in NaNo can go on to great things – here’s a list of all the NaNo novels that have made it into print.
How do you do it?
I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because other projects have got in the way, but I have written a lot of novels to tight deadlines – 50,000 words in two months. And not just first draft, but revised and ready for a publisher to see. It was effectively two NaNoWriMos back to back, which I did several times.
I have several friends who are NaNoWriMo winners. Here are their tips. And the key to success is not just what you do in November, but what you do NOW.
Prepare your story
Zelah Meyer is a NaNoWriMo powerhouse, having consistently delivered 50,000 words for the last five years. Some years, she even lost a week because real life inconveniently got in the way, but even so, she sailed past the finish line. This year she’s hoping to finish the first draft of her trilogy.
Zelah (left) says: ‘Do a rough brainstorm beforehand of where you want to take at least the first 5,000 words or so. I call it plot scaffolding and I’ll often talk to myself on paper about what could happen and where the story could go. I find it helps to know that so that I can avoid writing myself into a corner – but everybody works differently!
‘I ask myself a lot of questions such as “Why does nobody know that he isn’t really the lost prince/company CEO/etc?” I use the ideas I have to flesh out character back story and sometimes that will give me ideas for the plot.
‘If I decide that I need to go back and add in a scene, I’ll do that – but I never rewrite one. Instead I have a second document that I keep open called Corrections. There I make notes of changes I want to make in the re-writes and then continue as if I’d already done them.
‘I also find it helps to have a third document for any names I need to keep track of. This saves me from wasting ages scanning back through thousands of words trying to find out which town the characters were heading for or what you called the hero’s aunt.’
In real life, Zelah is an improvisational performer, and her experiences on stage have strengthened her approach to storytelling. ‘I ask myself: “If I were in the audience, where would I want the action to go now?” and “Which character do I want to hear from now?” Also, everything that is said changes you – both the person saying and the person listening. Everything evokes some kind of emotional response and that colours how things happen from then on.’
Prepare your targets
Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (left), another NaNoWriMo veteran, says: ‘My one tip is stick to your daily wordcount no matter what – 1,600 words a day even if you’ve been run over by a steamroller. Nothing’s more disheartening than an impossible deadline,’
Zelah’s keen on statistics too. ‘I create a spreadsheet for the 30 days of November with how many words I aim to write on each day. I give myself a contingency of around 5,000 words.’
Prepare your research
If you go and look something up on Google, do you stop there? No; an hour later you can still be happily cyber-faffing. So do all your Googling, Wiki-ing and forum fact-finding before November. Don’t burn through your writing time by looking stuff up. If necessary, put a keyword in the text like [factcheck] and start a file for queries you will Google in December.
You don’t slog through NaNoWriMo on your own. That’s one of the beauties of it. The NaNoWriMo website is, of course, essential, and you’ll find hashtag communities on Twitter, and bloggers who will be wearing NaNo badges and blogging if they have any fingers to spare.
Ann Marie Gamble, another winner, says: ‘The single best non-official resource I used last year was Doyce Testerman’s day-by-day blog posts. He described exactly what he was going through so I could think, ah, everyone feels like they are choking on Day 11 – it’s not just me being pathetic. Plus he has a wife and kid, so his coping strategies are more accessible to me than those of the college students in the local NaNoWriMo groups.’
Remember it’s a first draft
NaNoWriMo is about turning off your inner editor. If your draft sucks that doesn’t matter. All first drafts suck.
It is also about a definite goal. Ann Marie says: ‘Keep your eyes on your prize. NaNoWriMo is a chance to build writing habits and experience in finishing a piece. Don’t get sidetracked by questions of quality, plausibility, readability etc. Let your pen fly during this intense month and analyse later.’
Zelah says: ‘When I’m actually working, I remind myself that I’m not striving for perfection at this stage. I have a strip of paper saying “Quantity not Quality” taped to my monitor.
The message is, prepare, prepare, prepare.
- your story
- your research
- your targets
- your support groups
And that, my friends, is why NaNoWriMo starts now.
With all that sorted, just one thing remains. Simon C Larter (left) of the blog Constant Revisions says: ‘How do I convince my wife it’s okay for me to spend so much time writing?’
Are you doing NaNoWriMo? How are you preparing? Is it your first time? If you’ve done it before, do you have any tips? And if NaNo requires you to ramp up your writing routine, how, like Simon, will you convince your nearest and dearest to indulge you? Share in the comments
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print
Like any genre, historical fiction has expectations and pitfalls. How much detail should you include? If the characters talk and behave differently from the way we do, how will you make that relatable? I put these thorny questions to KM Weiland, author of the medieval novel Behold the Dawn and historical western A Man Called Outlaw.
1. Obviously one of the attractions for readers of historical novels is immersing themselves in the details of that world. But clearly you can’t overload the text with too much detail. How much historical detail do you include, especially of world affairs?
At its heart, historical fiction is no different from any other kind of fiction. The rules of description and backstory that apply to contemporary fiction also apply to historical fic. Love of history or no, historical readers aren’t likely to have the patience to sit through pages upon pages of pontificating about Roman politics or Napoleonic battle tactics or Regency etiquette. They want what every reader wants: a ripping good yarn. The history is just icing on the cake.
So you include only those details that are necessary. Unless your Roman character is interested in or affected by politics, you don’t need to explain Senate procedures. If the Senate procedures are important to the story, then by all means slap them in there. But never flaunt your research in your reader’s face. Give them only what they need to know and make it matter to the story.
2. How much explanation would you give for the small details of everyday life – eg if a character made a cup of tea or brushed their teeth?
The small details are actually some of the most interesting to include, both because they are often little-known factoids and because they contribute so beautifully to the verisimilitude of the story. Fiction is in the details. But, just as with sweeping historical context, you have to be careful to contain your details—your drinking of tea and your brushing of teeth—to what’s pertinent. If you can work in strange and interesting details, it’s often an excellent opportunity to add originality to your scenes. But if the cup of tea is in there merely to show readers how tea was brewed in the early 1700s, it’s extraneous and will only serve to bloat your story and slow it down.
3. How do you find an appropriate idiom for the characters’ dialogue while still sounding natural?
This is a delicate balancing act, since the speech patterns that were acceptable in times past now sound stilted and even pedantic to modern readers. For instance, back in Charles Dickens’s day, contractions were used only by the lower classes. But to write dialogue sans contractions nowadays sticks out like Ebenezer Scrooge at the office Christmas party.
It’s important to develop a good ear for the rhythm and flow of period dialogue, by reading extensively in period literature. Some people have had excellent success mimicking period dialogue (Patrick O’Brian comes to mind), but usually it’s best to find a happy medium. Give your dialogue just enough of an “antique” flavor to keep the reader in the period without bogging him down in alien speech patterns. For example, in the time period in which my recently released medieval novel Behold the Dawn is set, modern-day English was almost entirely unknown, so I had to find a speech pattern that would be intelligible to readers while still grounding them within the setting.
4. With characters’ behaviour and culture, how do you make characters who modern readers can relate to, but don’t behave anachronistically?
Social mores have a way of evolving and devolving in some pretty crazy ways. What used to be perfectly acceptable would now be considered barbaric. Much of Behold the Dawn centers around the tourney games. These gladiatorial mock battles, which were wildly popular at the turn of the 12th century, are shocking in their violence to us in the 21st century.
And yet the wonderful thing about history is that no matter how much the world changes, the basic elements are always the same. Willa Cather wrote, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.” So human nature, in all its tragedy and triumph, remains essentially the same in every time period. We can still find depravity and integrity, guilt and redemption, disappointment and hope—and these elements can translate even the most foreign of situations into something we can all understand.
5. You write fantasy as well. How has writing historical fiction helped?
My first fantasy novel Dreamers Come (due out in 2012) featured a society with a medieval basis, so I got to use much of my historical research as a launch pad. Having taken meticulous notes during my research period for Behold the Dawn, I understand the power of precision in my descriptions of places and battles. But it was an interesting experience being freed of the strict timeline of a historical period. In fantasy, I’m free to create my own timeline, which was both liberating and a little bewildering. I have several ideas for future stories that incorporate fantasy elements into actual historical periods, so I look forward to the melding of the two worlds!
Thanks Katie! As well as writing historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska, KH Weiland blogs at Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors and AuthorCulture. She also has an incredibly useful e-book, Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Guide to Bringing Your Characters to Life, available on her website totally free.