This month’s “From the Author’s Desk” is a long post about researching for your novel that I wrote for another blog meant to help other writers. I wanted to post it here too, so I could include it in my For Writer’s Tab. I hope you’ll find it an interesting look a the practical side of preparing for a novel.
Research: Love It or Hate It, You Gotta Do It!
Research. You either dread it or love it. Regardless of your sentiment, as a diligent writer, you have to do it and do it right. Whether new at the researching game or old hat, it is my prayer that this post will give you a little bit of guidance, a few resources, and a “whole lotta” inspiration.
I will be tackling this from the historical fiction angle, but anything written here can be applied to any genre’s research needs.
Where do I start researching?
Think of the act of researching as similar to drawing a tornado—you start with wide broad spirals that narrow down to a very focused point the closer you get to the ground, or in this case, your story.
With this in mind, I recommend starting wide and shallow before you ever write the first word of your story. Get a feel for what the politics, economy, culture, major events, fashion, etiquette, industries, technology, and social constructs were like for the setting of your story. These could have potentially content-altering information that can cripple a story if you find out too late.
Honestly, my favorite way to get a broad overview is to find children’s history books on the topics. They often have lots of interesting tidbits while giving you a broad sense of what is going on. It also helps to guide you in to more narrow and deeper research.
Once you have a general understanding of the times, then you can really narrow in on the specifics of your character and situation. Below I’ve listed some topics for consideration and some guiding questions to help you determine what is going to matter most to your character.
Major Topics for Consideration:
Each story is going to have unique needs, so you need to gauge your research based on those needs. If your story isn’t going to have a huge political influence, stop researching politics after you have a general feel for your story’s need. If your story has a rich socialite and a poor man, you are going to need to know the intricacies of upper-class society’s expectations and how they differ from someone who has never experienced it. I think you probably get the idea. 😉
Politics: What major political events were going on during the setting of your story? How might they affect your characters? Most of us don’t live in a bubble, and what is going on in the world filters into our lives and our discussions. Take that into consideration to be sure that there isn’t something that would greatly impact your story’s plot.
For example, if you have your character’s father the owner of a railroad during the railroad strikes, that is going to affect your character in at least some manner. If your heroine lives during the era of growing awareness of women’s rights (a much longer period than you might realize), how will this influence what your character believes, thinks, and says?
Culture: This means looking at the region and locale of your story. What foods, activities, and sayings are common to that area? Are there certain expectations that aren’t included elsewhere? Do they have certain fashions? Are there certain people groups common to that area that would influence the culture of that city?
Cincinnati is heavily German. When I moved here, I experience lots of new-to-me foods, building styles, and a TON of Catholic schools. There were two for the area I’d grown up in. Do your research and you’ll be surprised about what will really add richness to your story.
Economics and Social Status: Different social classes have different expectations and behaviors. How are those going to affect your character? What obstacles will that create? Consider the careers they would be likely to have. What industry do your characters rely on? What is going on in those industries which could affect their lives? The more you know about these things, the stronger your story will be.
When researching my manuscript Counterfeit Love, I discovered there was a “Long Depression” lasting from 1873 to 1896. At the time, they called it the “Great Depression.” What I learned changed and set the baseline for the struggles my heroine faced, even though I never directly connected the two for my reader.
Organizing the Research
As much as I hate to admit it, taking notes which are easy to reference is critical. It is really important to keep a running bibliography so that you can back up your research when questions, and you can reference something if you get confused as you look over your notes.
I use a program called Scrivener, and under the research tab, I create folders. My “big folders” are named by the topic: Setting, Etiquette, Fashion, Gardening, etc. My broad needs are labeled for quick reference.
Inside each folder, I break it down to it’s smaller component topics. My current character is a master gardener, and I am a black thumb, so under my gardening folder I have topics like Master Gardener (which will include examples, requirements, real people, and their gardens which I can reference), Plants Heroine Works With, etc.
Beyond that, each book resource will get its own folder. Each website gets a single text document. I name these text documents and book folders by the name of the resource, and also by the topic if the resource is focused on a single topic. I take my notes in a table format:
Personal Notes/ Observations
Possible Plot Points
It’s the alphabet
A letter goes missing
It is a bit tedious, but I do find that it has been invaluable in brainstorming, reviewing information, and finding a specific fact quickly.
Each person has their own method, this is just mine, so do not feel like you HAVE to do it my way. Do be sure to keep track of your resources though. You never know when you will have to justify something you wrote.
When it comes to conducting research, it is easy to get lost in the mire of possibilities. You can visit museums, websites, historical societies, read history books or primary sources, travel, or even search satellite maps.
Most of my research is done from home and online. To find my resources, I usually start with a search of my local library’s catalog or a Google search to find some reputable resources. Yes, I even go to Wikipedia—but only as a starting point to direct me somewhere else. I get what information I can, and then I look at their bibliographies. This is how I narrow down what I am going to read.
I prefer diaries, books, and newspapers written during the era I’m writing. This can be difficult and expensive if I’m not careful. I highly recommend seeing if your public library has a subscription to Historic Newspapers websites. Mine has several. From home, I can read newspapers and search for topics in those newspapers for free. It is marvelous.
For books, there has been a wonderful movement to digitalize old books and most of them are free to read. Below I’ve given you a list of my favorites. You can search by title, year, subject, or even keywords. It has been a lifesaver, especially during these strange times which makes research extra difficult.
While finding books from eh 1880s can be expensive and difficult, there are a lot of books that have been digitalized and can be searched for free. Below, I’ve given you some of my favorites.
https://babel.hathitrust.org/ – This is my favorite resource. It can take some weeding through, and you’d definitely want a specific title, but I have found countless resources here.
https://books.google.com/ – They list them all, whether you can read them or not, so just make sure they say Free E-book when you click on it.
https://archive.org/ – This one has gotten in trouble lately for pirating current books, so make sure you are only looking at books printed before WWI. Generally, I only go to this website once I have a specific title in mind. There are usually multiple copies of the same book and it does take some weeding through.
Search for the historical society of the area you are researching. Some of them have online resources, some will be thrilled to talk to you and help you out, and some will never answer back. Either way, they are a go-to resource for information you would never have imagined.
How to Avoid Rabbit Trails
Oh, the wonderful things you can find when researching! And oh how much time you can waste. What helps me to not waste hours down a rabbit trail (and I still do often), is to keep the specific thing I am researching in mind.
When I come across something else that strikes my fancy but isn’t what I need at that particular moment, I add a note and the website link to a folder I title “Research This Later.” 90% of the time I don’t go back to it, but having it tucked away for later helps me to release the rabbit trail and stay focused.
It’s a simple trick, but it works well. You could also set a timer for how long you are going to research this topic, but I find I turn those off and just keep going.
While writing your actual manuscript, I recommend you do not go and research something the moment you find you need it. Just make a note in your manuscript like this: [RESEARCH FASHION]. The primary concern with drafting is getting the story down as quickly as you can. Research can cause you to lose that momentum.
How do you decide what to use?
Throw all you want or find interesting in your first draft. This is your place to just see where the story takes you. Once you begin the revision process you can decide what needs cut. To make that decision, ask yourself: “What does my read absolutely need to see and understand the story?” and “Does this slow my story down?”
If it is needed AND slows your story down, see if you can change up the presentation of the information. Can it be communicated briefly through fascinating dialogue?
If it isn’t needed, even if it doesn’t slow your story down, you’ll probably need to cut it. You can always leave it and see what beta readers think. However, what I’ve observed in today’s readers is the more concise you can be, the better.
Cutting that beloved material from your first draft can be hard, but you can still use those materials in blog posts, social media posts, and promotional opportunities later on. You already have the content, and readers may find it interesting.
There is really is so much more that could be said about research, but I have surpassed my word count. If you have questions or want to learn more, feel free to contact me.
Have you ever wondered about how authors come up with characters? I’m sure every author has their own process, but I can guarantee you, it is similar to making new friends. In the beginning, you don’t really know much about them. Sometimes you’ll have a name, sometimes not. The same goes for descriptions, personalities, jobs, etc. They are just this person that is sort of an enigma, and it takes work to get to know them.
While I struggle to make friends with people existing outside of fiction–I can’t say real people because my fiction characters DO become real to me–I always get very excited when it comes time to meet my newest characters. I thought it might be fun to take you through a little bit of my process as I get to know a character I’m developing for a short story. At this point, I know VERY little about my character. I’ve already brainstormed a few ideas with my critique partner, but Harriet is still very flat on the paper.
What I do know:
Harriet Carmichael is a bit of an outsider to the upper-class society in which her family partakes. She goes beyond avid gardener to more of the botanist level, and she relates better to the plants than people. In fact, most people find her odd even though gardening was a perfectly acceptable hobby for upper-class women of the time.
She is forced to attend the Christmas party of a woman who is skilled at double-edged compliments and making Harriet feel even more insignificant than before. However, while at this party, she receives a note or a gift (not sure which yet) from a secret admirer. No matter how much she wishes it were true, she can’t believe its authenticity. However, something happens (again, don’t know what yet) will send her on a hunt to discover the true identity of the letter writer. Was it another cruel joke of the woman, or had someone really seen her and wanted to get to know her better?
That’s it, that’s all I really know right now, but I’m really excited about writing this brief story. Depending on how it turns out, it may be my Christmas gift to my newsletter subscribers. But I digress…
After attending the Online Character Summit this weekend, I am determined to take some of what I have learned and carve Harriet into a deeper more human character that we can all relate to on some level. So here we go:
Getting to Know Harriet
This portrait by George Clausen is how I physically envision Harriet at the moment. She’s nothing extraordinary, and her clothes are rather dull. She tends to wear browns in order to disguise her constant work in the soil. From here, it becomes sort of an interview process.
Me: So Harriet, who are you? Why do you feel you that you don’t fit in? It can’t just be your love of plants.
Harriet (rubbing hands together and then tucking them behind her when she finds dirt under her nails): I don’t really know much about people, and honestly, I don’t understand them. People are unpredictable. Plants follow certain rules, I know what they need to coax them into vibrancy, which ones to pair together, and which ones to plant in order to entice or repel certain insects or animals. I love being able to create and work within God’s creation. Plants are exactly what they are supposed to be. People? Not so much.
It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s that I don’t know what to make of them. Some are genuinely who they appear to be, others opposite from what they present to the world. I have a few friends, but mostly, I am uncomfortable around people. I don’t know what to say. I don’t enjoy the same things as my peers.
I like books about gardening, plant life, and even scientific articles about altering plants to be more sturdy against the elements. Miss Austen, Mr. Dickens, and the such leave me baffled. I can play cards, play piano, and embroider as required, but why would anyone want to do those when you can be outside? In fact, I hate winter. I spend most of it planning my next garden or tinkering in the greenhouse/conservatory. The best days are the days I can go to the university and work in the botany department (need to check that was a thing then).
Oh, thought! Have her compare different people/personalities to different types of plants!
And so it will go for a few days. Harriet and I will be having some deep conversations and some lighter-hearted ones. What are the things she likes? The things she fears? What does she want more than anything? What does she believe about herself? What does she need to learn? etc. These are hard questions to draw out, but I love the excitement of it.
Just so you don’t think Harriet is fully developed before I put words on paper, this initial examination is rarely what she ends up looking like as I actually write. Harriet will grow and define herself, shedding some of the things I thought we decided in the beginning. She will develop her own voice and become a real person. Even scarier, she will start making her own decisions and direct my story in ways I never envisioned.
I hope you enjoyed a little sneak peek of my process in developing characters, now I really am going to get off here and dive into uninterrupted conversation with Harriet. I’m starting to get caught up on reading, so look for more steady book reviews in the coming months. 🙂
Do you like gardening? What things do you think Harriet will need in order to rightly portray someone who loves plants, maybe even more than people?
Okay, so I’m really breaking away from my normal routine of posting about historical fiction. I still haven’t gotten back into reading anything new (and I’m really really really tempted to revisit some old favorites), but I DID read an awesome writing craft book which was written like a fiction story.
How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, is an entertaining read whether you are an author or not. Using characters from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as other fairy tale stories, Randy Ingermanson explains his method of preparing for a story in an incredibly entertaining way.
How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson
Plot: Goldilocks has always wanted to write a novel, but everyone told her it was an impractical dream. So she followed the practical route of life only to pursue writing once her kids began school. To learn what it takes, she attends a writing conference where Baby Bear introduces her to the Snowflake method. On her journey through plotting her story, she makes friends with a wolf with a bad reputation, investigates a murder, and is placed in mortal danger when the answer is revealed.
Honestly, it is the FIRST non-fiction book EVER for me to read in two days. I probably would have read it in one, had I the time. So whether you are a reader or a writer, I actually recommend reading it.
It’s not my typical blog post, but hey! It’s Thanksgiving craziness and I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction in preparation for another story. Next week I am going to post the top ten books I am thankful for, so be thinking about your top ten. I may or may not have a giveaway in mind. 😉
I am so incredibly blessed to have Erica Vetsch as a guest today to whet your appetite for a wonderful writing resource written by her and nine other award-winning authors. You won’t want to miss Writing from the Trenches or Erica’s answer to the question, Am I done yet?
And since I haven’t done a giveaway in a couple months (sorry, moving has interrupted life), check out the Rafflecopter Giveaway at the end.
Am I Done Yet?
Guest post by Erica Vetsch
In a recent edition of Writer’s Digest, I read an article about Writer’s Block, and what causes it. The author posed the theory that there are three basic causes of Writer’s Block, and they are all related to fear.
Fear of Failure.
Fear of Success.
Perfectionism. (Fear of not getting it perfect.)
Most writer’s have faced these fears on more than one occasion, but today, I’d like to address the third fear, perfectionism.
When I’m painting a room, I know when I start and when I’m done. When I’m mopping the floor, I know when I’ve reached the end of the chore. When I run a marathon (Okay, who am I kidding, I don’t run.) but if I did, you can be certain I would know where that finish line was so I could stop.
We can sit, staring at the blinking cursor on the blank page, too afraid to put down a word because we know in our hearts it won’t be the PERFECT word. But here’s the thing.
You can’t edit a blank page.
Give yourself permission to write a bad first line, bad first page, bad first chapter, bad first draft. Anything can be improved upon by editing, and if you’re aiming to be a professional writer, editing is a MUST. Nothing is best-written the first time around. So just write. I’ve been known to type in “WRITE THE BEST FIRST LINE EVER IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND” at the top of the first chapter, just so I can get over that hurdle and get into the story without worrying about crafting the perfect opening line before I even know my characters and story that well. Just write, not searching for perfection, but searching for your story.
Eventually, you will type the words “The End.” That’s when a different type of work begins. The editing. The polishing. The tweaking.
And because writing is a unique art form where the possibilities are endless, you can tweak and polish and edit forever in the search for perfection.
So, how can you know when enough is enough, how can you know when you’re done? Here are a few guidelines:
- When your deadline arrives. There’s nothing like a ticking clock to let you know when it’s time to hit send on that manuscript.
- When you find yourself changing the manuscript but not improving it. When you change the heroine’s off-white shoes to ecru, beige, sandstone, ivory, winter white, taupe, etc. You’re not improving the manuscript, you’re just changing words here and there, a process that you can go through forever.
- When you’ve read and reread it so many times, it all sounds like dreck and you’re sure it’s awful.
The search for perfection is an illusion when it comes to fiction. Because fiction is art, because it is a creative thing, and because perfection is in the eye of the beholder. We can obsess and fixate and drive ourselves crazy searching for an impossible measure of perfection, dampening our enthusiasm for the project and sucking the joy out of being a writer.
When your deadline arrives. Hit Send! When you’re merely swapping words around and making changes that don’t improve the manuscript, call it done! When you have read and reread to the point of numbing your mind, stop!
Perfection is impossible, but excellence is not. Write your story, edit it to the best of your ability, send it out into the world…and then get to work on the next story in your heart.
And to help you on your way with that next great American novel, I’ve teamed up with some other writers to share our years of experience. Pick up your copy of Writing From The Trenches: Tips & Techniques From Ten Award-Winning Authors. Here’s a blurb:
TEN-HUT! Gear up for your writing with tried-and-true tips from the trenches. Ten award-winning authors share invaluable tips and secrets they’ve gleaned the hard way, offering a broad range of insights and opinions on the best way to tackle subjects such as the following:
Villains We Love to Hate
The Right Heroine for the Job
Hooking Your Reader in the First Chapter
Scene Endings to Lead Your Readers On
Creating a Movie Set
Making your Readers Cry
Copyediting your Manuscript
Indie Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing
Marketing for Those Who Hate Marketing
At last … a writer’s tool that provides the experience and expertise of ten authors who’ve been on the front lines of publishing and lived to teach about it: Connie Almony, Lynnette Bonner, Hallee Bridgeman, Louise Gouge, Michelle Griep, Julie Lessman, Elizabeth Ludwig, Ane Mulligan, MaryLu Tyndall, and Erica Vetsch.
Writing from the Trenches is available for e-book purchase at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Best-selling, award-winning author Erica Vetsch loves Jesus, history, romance, and sports. She’s a transplanted Kansan now living in Minnesota, and she married her total opposite and soul mate! When she’s not writing fiction, she’s planning her next trip to a history museum and cheering on her Kansas Jayhawks and New Zealand All Blacks. You can connect with her at her website, www.ericavetsch.com where you can read about her books and sign up for her newsletter, and you can find her online at https://www.facebook.com/EricaVetschAuthor/ where she spends way too much time!
Writing from the Trenches Giveaway
Now here is your chance to win an e-copy of Writing in the Trenches. For your chance to win, you must do both of the following:
1. Leave a comment with a writing craft questions or a question about the writing process. (In 2019, I am hoping to have a monthly post that will help writer’s on their journey and readers to have a glimpse into the writing world.)
2. Enter using the Rafflecopter link below.
ENTER THE GIVEAWAY HERE
Giveaway opens 9/18/2018 at 12:01AM (EST) and ends 9/24/2018 11:59PM (EST). Winner will be notified by email and on the next blog post.
*Legal Jargon: No Purchase is necessary. This contest is open to all readers in the world, 18 years and older who are legally allowed to participate in such a giveaway as allowed by their local laws. The Write Call does not exchange prizes for reviews. Reviews are appreciated, but not required.*
As I approach the end of editing my first book (EEK!!) I am looking to the next book. What will I write? Will I continue with the next book in the series? Or will I write a different series I already have in mind? Or should I begin something new and completely stand-alone?
I will be honest, my mind creates books in series of three. Each is a stand-alone novel in its own rights, so not a trilogy, but the characters are all connected and revisit one another. Those are the types of books I read and that seems to be how my mind writes as well.
In fact, I have the next two books in the series already outlined and playing in my mind. However, some wise sage of the publishing world recommended that unpublished authors not write the next book in a series until they have a contract to do so. Otherwise, you will have wasted your time.
I am still praying that one through, because ultimately, God lets me know what is a waste of my time, but I am playing around with other new ideas. My current inspiration comes from some fun pictures my family took over Christmas break in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
So here is a peek at the ones that inspire a story in my mind:
Don’t you dare cheat with crack-shot Donovan Marshal at the table. The hardened, undercover Pinkerton agent isn’t fooled by tricks, but when Cassie Granger plays the trick of her life, will they both be fooled by what really is at stake?
Former Confederate soldier, Elias Blake, just wants to put the war behind him and rebuild his farm. Upon returning his ramshackle home, he finds the enemy has moved in and taken claim on his land and possibly his heart.
Escaping the law has always been a challenge she enjoyed… until she accidentally married the law.
After a robbery gone wrong, Emily Hoppe is injured and mistaken for a mail-order bride. Not one to turn away a built-in cover, she intends to go along with the ruse until she is well enough to hightail it out of town.
U.S. Marshal Dirk Burn knows something isn’t quite right about his bride, and his instincts never fail him. Determined to sniff out the truth, he gets more than he bargained for when her outlaw family comes to her rescue.
Okay, so some really high-level ideas, but just maybe one of them will be my next story.
What about you? If you are a writer? How do you choose what to write next? If you are a reader, what makes you decide what to read next? Did any of our goofy pictures inspire you with story ideas? I’d love to hear them!
By the way, the winner of Cynthia Roemer’s signed copy of Under this same sky is:
While we did purchase the rights to these pictures, I want to give credit where credit is due. Out of the 22 Old Time Photo places in that tourist-heavy area, we used Old Time Photo #5. Yes, the number is part of their name. You can visit them here if you are interested in checking them out. Our photographer was great.