March in Washington, DC always bounces around with the weather while spring makes up its mind to decide to stay. It’s like the arrival of the cherry blossoms triggers winter to hang on a little longer. We were in the 60s and 70s the week before. This week? Teens with wind chill. I walked by a fountain and there were icicles hanging off the shrubs blooming around it!
But I spotted this deer while I was out for a walk, nibbling on the few green leaves that had already sprouted.
Earlier this month, my county offered a writing course that got enough of my attention to investigate further. These days, I always view writing courses with partial suspicion. Nearly everything markets to newbies–writers who are starting their very first novel and may never finish.
This course was on how to research the Washington, DC area for a historical novel, along with tips on how to put it into the story.
Cool. I figured the instructor was a historian, thought I might get some new insights.
So I researched the course first before I parted with money or time. The course was $99, and three sessions of 2 hours each, plus driving time.
According to the adult education site, the instructor was a lawyer who’d written historical novels. Hmm. I found that odd. Maybe he’d researched the area as part of studying for the bar? I know someone who did that.
Off to his site. He’d published three novels with a small press publisher. Sample chapters were provided, so I picked the first one. Read the first page. Went to the third book. Read the first page.
Passed on the course.
No setting on the first page to tell me the book was set in Washington, DC. Nothing suggested a historical novel. Only dialogue. I instantly felt myself tuning it out. How do you get to know a character with untethered dialogue?
I think about this a lot. I’m working on a book called Taking Notes: A Guide for Fiction Writers. There’s a lot of discussion on personal acknowledgment management systems (PKMs)–a fancy name for a place to store your notes. Tiago Forte has a book coming out on the topic in a few months (which I’m going to read).
Everyone is racing to scoop up all the information bombarding us on a daily basis into a PKM. Some of it seems to stem from the fear that if you don’t record every single thing down you’ll miss out on the connection that leads to that Big Idea, that Big Innovation, that Big Widget.
One blogger stated that he knew his PKM system was breaking down when he didn’t record notes on every single book he read.
First thing I thought was, “Dude, that’s a sign your Creative Voice is telling your Critical Voice to shut the **** up!”
Because this collecting of information is pure Critical Voice.
But it looks like you’re feeding your Creative Voice.
Until suddenly you realize you’ve done a lot of X–whether it’s taking notes, doing world-building or marketing, or attending a class that doesn’t have much value–and you haven’t done the writing.
The worst part is that this piece of Critical Voice absolutely looks like it’s being productive.
Worse, it’s common writing advice for research!
Just about every site that gives research tips for fiction writers uses what I call the School Standard: research everything, even if you don’t need it.
This is a vestige of the days of taking tests. Where you feared missing something that would be on the test, so you recorded everything.
Screen your resources carefully, like what I did with the historical research class. Ask what immediate value and future you’re going to get from taking the notes.
If you hear, “I might need this,” that’ll be your Critical Voice. Give it a Gibbs head smack.