Breaking Storytelling with Process

I started writing when I was eight.  I loved writing adventures.  Before class, I’d get a sheet of notebook paper and write my stories (and sometimes when I was bored during class).

My friends loved reading the stories, and I had several who got involved by drawing pictures.  That was just too cool.  Pictures can add another layer to the story.

I didn’t think much about any writing technique when I was doing it.  I was just imitating what I saw in the many mystery novels I was reading.  I wrote mysteries like Nancy Drew and Trixie Beldon, with my own character Sharon McCall.

So I was horrified when I read this article by a well-meaning teacher who thinks schools should teach children storytelling.

It’s this paragraph that I have the most problems with:

We shouldn’t be asking children about fronted adverbs, but about act structures, character arcs, reversals and the qualities of protagonists (and antagonists). What is the difference between real speech and fictional dialogue? What constitutes a dramatic event? The list goes on and on.

Craft is character, setting, plot, story.

Process is three act structure, character arcs, and reversals.

I would not want to be a student in her class.  She would have sucked the joy right out of storytelling trying to teach how she thought I should write.

What is this obsession with trying to force people into a certain way of writing? Wouldn’t it be much simpler to encourage the students to read lots of books and write stories that those books inspire?

I’ve been trying a research technique mentioned in a book called Becoming an Every Day Novelist.  One of the important things about writing fiction is to do a lot of reading of history.  But that’s been difficult for me.  I don’t always like the book–a lot of the books feel dry.  Plus, sometimes I get a book that interested me when I got and then doesn’t a few days later.

But J. Daniel Sawyer suggests starting with Wikipedia and reading something every day and following the links.  I’m finding it’s fun because if I don’t like a topic, I can wander onto another.

These are the topics I checked out this week.

  • Richard Oakes
  • Zenobia
  • Quintus Publilius Philo
  • plebs
  • praetor
  • super user
  • stalagmites
  • U.S. Route 113
  • Thunder River
  • Powell Expedition
  • Naked Woman Climbing a Staircase (a painting)
  • Ballet Technique
  • Scots Monastery
  • Umbrella
  • Elephant
  • EIN
  • Star Wars
  • Golden Gate Bridge
  • Bridges
  • Dams

I’m only doing about half an hour a day, following whatever catches my interest.

How This Pantser Does Research

Research came up as a topic on Facebook, one of those things where the writers want to know how you keep your research notes.  I suppose I’m an oddity, because I don’t keep any research notes.

To start with, I don’t plan out my stories at all.  I have no idea what will happen in them, or how they will end.  Consequently, I also wouldn’t know what I needed to research.

I could try, but I would waste a considerable amount of time.  I learned that on one of my book projects.  I researched several subjects to death, dutifully wrote down cool things that caught my interest.  Even went to a college campus, hit their library and looked stuff up, took notes.

Then I made first contact with the story.  Used none of that research.

So what do I do instead?

Most of it is long before I write the story, and it’s not for any specific story.  I go to some place like Old Towne, Alexandria, Virginia and wander around.  Enjoy myself.  Look at stuff.  Smelled the malt of beer being made at a distillery. Be horrified at the cobblestone alleyways—how did people walk on them things? 

Then, when I come with an idea, I do the reverse of what I think a lot of writers do. They get the idea and shape the research around the idea.  If the idea involves a doctor doing surgery, they go out and learn everything about that type of surgery.

On the other hand, I start with the setting, which is where most of my research would be needed, so I can pick some place that I’m well familiar with and intersect other elements, then plop an idea there.  I’m also not going to pick occupations for characters where I have to do research just to do the character.   

As I write, the details filter into the story through my subconscious.  I think that’s because I had fun at these places.  Fun leaves an imprint.

I’m working on a story that started with Old Town as a basis, and I added bits from a fascinating lecture on Civil War maps I attended ten years ago, and  the visit of a three masted sailing ship (isn’t the ship below glorious?).   Oh, and also a Civil War fashion show from a few years back.  Clothes are always interesting.

18th century replica ship

After that, it’s the writing.  It’s a fantasy, so some of it is made up (magic and swords; no repeating rifles or muzzle loaders). Still some research, but it’s on the spot, as I discover what I need while I’m writing the story.  For the story, that’s been food.  I just look it up and put what I need directly into the story.

On the plate for the future is to visit the masted ship in Baltimore.  I really want to walk on board and see what it was like to live there.  Some of my ancestors came over on sailing ships like that.  And it would be really cool to write a pirate story one day…

Research when something doesn’t exist

This was an interesting question that came over one of the writing lists I’m on. I write fantasy and science, so some of the elements don’t actually exist, or isn’t possible for me to see it. How to do research then?

What I do is take other similar things and make the connection from that.

For a fantasy that was set in an abandoned town, I used the ghost town of Bodie as a basis. I’d never been there, but I had grown up in California, so I was already familiar with the landscape. I looked at photos of Bodie, which are eerie and scary.

Then, for the place the character lived, I went to Fort Ward. That’s a local historical site. It’s an intact Civil War fort. There’s also a mock up of an officer’s hut. I saw things like how the officers strung rope across corners and then hung clothes from them. I also stood next to a barrel and compared my height to it.

For a science fiction story with a UFO, the problem, of course, is that I’ve never seen a UFO, except in the movies. I don’t want to use movies as a basis for any kind of research, because this is my story, not someone else’s movie.

The connection became jets.

A few weeks ago, the Blue Angels were doing a photo shoot, so we had several flyovers. The first time they flew over, I heard the sounds of the jets roaring in my direction. By the time I realized what it was and got to the window, the sound was moving away. No sign of them!

The second time I heard it, I got to the window just in time to see them flying off. That’s how fast they were, so a UFO would be that fast.

Then there’s Theodore Roosevelt Island. That’s a park in a tributary of the Potomac River. A lot of joggers like to go there because it has a lot of paths, trees, water. Really pretty.

Theodore Roosevelt Island surrounded by the Potomac River
The green stuff on the water looked like it was some kind of algae. We don’t usually get that growing unless there’s been no rain for a while, which has been the case.

It’s also on the flight path at Reagan Airport, about 7 miles away. That’s spitting distance for a plane. So when the planes are overhead, they are low.

So that experience becomes the UFO.

And think about writers like Robert Heinlein, who wrote about space travel before we had actually traveled in space.

How I edit as I write without an outline

Land ho!  I just blew past my book’s halfway point.  Now I’m on the side where the story has the potential to suddenly start moving very fast (writing-wise).  Sometimes that gets it’s own momentum.  With luck, three more weeks, maybe less.

I’m constantly moving around in the story, making changes.   Everyone tends to say, “Don’t edit/revise as you write,” but really, it’s the most natural thing for me to do because it’s part of the creation process.  It’s part of how I discover the story as I write, since I don’t know where everything is going.

And yeah, I did follow the “Don’t edit/revise as you write” for a while because it’s one of those pieces of advice that makes sense, which is what made it bad — the common sense feeling of it is why I did it.  It’s actually unnatural for me to write straight through to the end of the story, because I end up with a messed up book.

Now I do have some ground rules for the changes:

  1. No happy to glad. I’m not tweaking words to make them perfect.  I used to work with a writer who worried about whether women readers would read the book or put it down because of a particular word choice.  I don’t worry about that kind of stuff.
  2. No moving around if I’m stuck. One of the things that became an issue was if I got stuck, I’d go back and make tweeks instead of trying to fix the problem.  The tweeks were often happy to glad, rather than useful, so if I get stuck, I have to focus on moving forward.
  3. Changing anything has to have really legitimate reasons. It can’t be because I’m stuck, or a vague “something is wrong.”  Left brain is always going to scream, “Ack! Ack!  The story is broken!  Fix!  Fix!” even when it really isn’t.

More typical of what I move back to is taking care of a section that needed more research, or that I’d discovered some research that shows me a better way of what I was trying to do.  Nearly most of this involves setting, because that’s a huge chunk of the character’s perception of the world around him.

It’s kind of like I’m just making sure all the parts are connected together.

And I also check for typos.  I always find those. 😦

All of this sound simple, but in some respects it is, and in other respects it isn’t.  It’s just what my process is.  The first rule is really to always trust the process, and that often gets forgotten with other rules.

Pantser Process Stage 2: I have a setting for my story. Now what?

A mirror-like lake in Yosemite, with the Sierra Mountains in the background.
Yosemite National Park, with the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the background. Is this gorgeous?

My next step is to identify some details I might be able to use.

My list of what I look for is pretty basic:

  1. What kind of common plants and trees does the area have?
  2. What kind of animals does the area have?
  3. What kind of birds does the area have?
  4. What’s the weather like?

It’s all the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  The trees are going to be the same whether it’s in Sonora or Nevada City.  So I grab a stack of Northern California books at the library and scan through fast.  I find that I have to move around resources to get what I’m looking for.  Off the Beaten Trail California was great for my last story, but here, it doesn’t have what I need.  Most of the tour books are not helpful, though I do find a section on how to pan for gold.  I decide to return to the book if I need it later and move on with my original questions.  The Moon California Waterfalls gives me a wealth of information.

For the last question, I’ll look online for historical weather.  I may not be able to get weather for that time period, so I’ll pick something that’s as far back as I can go.  But why research weather?  Does it matter?  For me, it’s just a way to simply make sure I pay attention to it.

As I write this, I’m already thinking about how to reuse what I’ve already found for a second story.  After all, I just got a story accepted, so now I have to get another one done and out. 🙂 Maybe I could get started on a modern day story while I dig around the history a little more.

By the way, while I grew up in California, I’ve never been to Gold Rush territory.  So I’m being a book and online tourist here.

Furlough Friday: On the grading curve for fiction research

Sculpture of mermaid
Mermaids like this were all over Norfolk.

Not going anywhere today.  It’s been a record-breaking heat week — heat combined with humidity.  Last night when I walked out of the critique group at 9:30 p.m., it was 93, and the air felt like a hot, wet blanket.  This morning at 6:30, the heat and humidity are already moving in for a stay.  Today is supposed to be the worst day of the week heat-wise.

So I’m doing online research for a potential story, and it’s got me thinking about the research and accuracy of it in regards to fiction.  I’ve generally not enjoyed research, and some of that is because it often gets treated as if we were all still in school and worried about getting a bad grade.  Writers will research every single detail, right down to the precise size of a grate to avoid having a reader pick up on the obscure fact and say, “YOU GOT IT WRONG!”

I’ve heard some say that having inaccuracies instantly ruins the credibility of the story.  I’ve certainly run into those, but they’ve usually been bigger.  I read a romantic thriller about a woman who was Vice President of the United States.  That was probably the selling point to the publisher, but the character needed to be in her 20s.  I had a lot of trouble with that because anyone who’s been to school in U.S. knows the minimum age is 35 (from the DC perspective, the women who get that high up are in their 50s; not a popular age for romance novels).

Yet, the TV series NCIS also gets DC wrong a lot and that doesn’t bother me, other than a laugh at some of the stuff.  You cannot drive to Norfolk from the Washington Naval Yard in 30 minutes.  I went there last year for a conference, and it was 4 hours.  But the show also does something that other shows set in DC like Covert Affairs, Criminal Minds, and Bones don’t even bother to do: They get the big picture details right.  We get the names of the cities and places here: Arlington, Arlington Cemetery, Annandale, Norfolk.  If I was still living in California, I would think this feels like Washington, DC and have no idea that they got the distances wrong.

And the truth is that if they tried to accurate for accuracy’s sake, it would not make a good story.  There’s nothing interesting about saying that the character’s got stuck in traffic (or at least more than once), even though that’s a daily part of DC life.  It’s not interesting saying it took 4 hours to get to Norfolk.  It’s about the story.

So what’s your take on research for fiction?  Does it have to be 100% accurate?  Or are some kinds of details better to be accurate on others?

How to find details for a story when you’re not good at them

Sunlight showing through the trees
The trees hadn’t quite bloomed when I visited Mason Neck Park for research.

I admit it.  I’m terrible with details. 

I can look at a place, see all the details, come back, and not remember a single one of them.  They all merge with the big picture.  So all the things I see at the beach turns into beach, sand, and water, and I forget about a bunch of stuff I did see.

So I’ve learned these three work arounds:

1. Ask questions about the place

No matter the location, I ask questions about specifics.  If we’re in the woods, then the questions might be:

  • What kind of trees are here?
  • What kind of birds live in these woods?
  • What sounds do they make?

Which leads to the second workaround:

2. Take notes live at the site

Visit the location with a notebook and write down everything.  I went to Mason Neck Park, which is located on Pohick Bay and noted all kinds of things:

  • Flies buzzing past.
  • Warmth of sun
  • Long ago fallen tree being gnawed away

Mason Neck Park was a substitution.  I couldn’t go to the actual location of the setting, which is in Hawaii, so I had to make do.  Woods are pretty universal in how to they operate.  I’m planning on going to Virginia Beach for the beach experience (yes, pictures!).

After I get back, I pretty them up in notes.  I plan to do these trips at different times of the year, since Spring is different than Winter.

3. Research

The library is my friend for looking up specific names of plants.  I usually just make a note in the manuscript with something like:

(Name of tree) towered overhead.

Then I can hit the library once I have enough details to research, preferably ones in the same detail family.

I’ve mentioned some of the things I do in passing and have had people pop up in surprise and say, “That’s what I do!”  So we’re not alone.  If you have trouble with details, what do you do?

Related Posts:

6 fun reasons to go to a library book sale

Girl reaches up to get a book off the top shelf in a library
Books! Really, do I need to say more?

My county library had their semi-annual book sale this weekend.

In the weeks before the sale, they start storing the books behind a fence in the parking lot, and it looks like it’s about to burst.

If you haven’t been to one, it’s time to go.

Reason #1: The books are cheap

Paperbacks at .50 cents each; books that would run $20 at a bookstore going for $3.  Seriously, how can you resist with prices like that?

When you go though, bring your own bags.  Use those ubiquitous canvas bags everyone gives out.  They’ll hold up under the weight of all the books you put into the bag.

Reason #2: They may not just have books

My library sale also has maps, video tapes, DVDs, and music.  Some of the maps are quite old, from vacations past, but if it were needed for a story set in that time frame, it’d be a pretty good reference.

Reason #3: Unexpected Finds

I’m terrible with details, and one valuable resource that has helped me is a visual dictionary.  I found an out of print one at the library sale, then later went to the bookstore and got the newer updated one.  Very valuable discovery.

Reason #4: Research

I used to have an auction in my book.  It came out on revisions, but when I was looking for more information on auctions, I wanted to get an auction book.  New ones are expensive!  They can cost $60.00. I rooted around two separate library sales and found 15 year old auction books, one for paintings and one for coins.

Reason #5: Raises money for the library

I think every library in the country has suffered from budget cuts.  Even when I was in the military, Fort Lewis kept cutting the library’s budget.  It just seems like the bureaucrats don’t really think libraries are an important resource.

So you can contribute two ways: Clean out your bookshelves and give it to library and then fill your shelves again from the sale.

Reason #6: It’s about the books

Seriously, is there no better reason than this?

What’s the most fun thing you’ve found at a library sale?

More stuff to see:

Rule W: Write what you know and write only the stories you can write

Linda’s Rules of Writing

A boy enters a darkened room to the flow of a computer monitor on a pedastal.
Sometimes “write what you know” seems like a mysterious and frightening thing!

We’re onto the letter W in Linda’s Rules of Writing of the A to Z Challenge, with the infamous “Write what you know.”

I think “write what you know” is one of the most interpreted pieces of writing advice out there.  Writers take it too literally, as a member of one of my critique groups did.  He was a human resources manager, so he figured that to “write what you know,” he had to make his character a human resources manager, even though there was no logical reason why such a job would have been involved in the actual story.

Allen Wold (Alien World if it helps to remember his name) said at one of the cons I was at defined”write what you know” as:

  1. What you’ve experienced
  2. What you’ve heard from friends and relatives and acquaintance
  3. What you’ve learned from research

But I also ran across one more, which was from Write Faster, Write Better from David Fryxell.  It’s a book on freelancing, but Fryxell notes “Write only the stories you can write.”

I could research medicine for a medical thriller, but I know so little about the topic that I would have to spend enormous amounts of time on the research to more or less get it right.  Probably more time than even writing the story.  On the other hand, since I was in the army, I could probably write about a medic without having to spend as much time researching.

How do you use the infamous “write what you know” in your writing?

Watch for photos of tulips in Washington, DC on May 3.  They are truly spectacular flowers!

Caption: A to Z Challenge Logo

When You Hate to Research

That’s me, by the way.  I don’t really enjoy research and am never going to get lost in it and forget to write a novel.  In fact, what Advanced Fiction Writing says is absolutely true:

If you hate research, then [you] are probably not doing enough of it and your fiction writing is going to suffer in various ways.

* Sigh * Yup, it’s true.  It also doesn’t help when I see another writer produce a huge list of questions about details to research and all I want to do is hide because I’ve instantly gotten overwhelmed.  Don’t mistake this — I like some of the information I find because it does inspire creativity, like researching Chinaman’s Hat in Hawaii:

Chinaman's Hat

Screen reader: Palm trees and grass frame an island shaped like a hat the Chinese immigrants used to wear.

Butt the process of research is at the opposite end of creativity.  I’d almost rather do proofreading.

Almost.  Proofreading is pretty boring!

So it starts with making the research as efficient as possible.

I have to know exactly what I need.  What I’ve been doing is identifying details in scenes that I need to research.  Like if the scene is set outside, “What are common trees in Hawaii?”


Screen reader: Shot of a monkeypod tree in Hawaii, which resembles an umbrella.

Then all I have to do is bring the list of questions with me and hunt down the information with a fast scan through.  I also have to make sure I take good notes so I don’t have to repeat the research. Been there, didn’t want to do it, but got stuck doing it anyway.  I’ve always had a problem with being able to take useful notes, so I’ve been experimenting with visual note taking.

The time to do the research is also a consideration.  I ran across a reference in a book where a non-fiction writer would do footnotes when he wasn’t feeling particularly inspired.  So I try to do the research when I know I’m probably not going to be writing.  That way, it doesn’t feel like it’s cutting into the writing time.

Do you hate to research?  What do you do to make the process of it less painful?

Cover for A Princess, A Boatman, and a Lizard showing a silhouette of a princess holding a lizard.How do you take these three diverse subject — a princess, a boatman, and a lizard — and make them into a story?  My short story “Six Bullets” turns the princess into a soldier who has to fight an army of warriors of a river.  Check out the Forward Motion anthology, A Princess, a Boatman, and a Lizard.