There is an old maxim—“Write what you know.”
True enough, but sooner or later you might want to write about something you do not know anything about. Then what? Give up on the idea? File it away in a dusty filing cabinet with the farewell thought, “Someday”? Or maybe you grab the bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground and command (as a writer friend of mine once said), “You will conform to my wishes!”
Everyone has their own style of research; my style may not be yours, but as long our style works for us that is all that matters.
Okay, let us say you want to write a story about a chimney sweep. Sounds simple, but to make your character and story believable, what exactly does a chimney sweep do? How does the sweep do it? Time to check Wikipedia. Check YouTube. Just Google “chimney sweep” and see what crops up. You will start to develop a database. In the process you will probably uncover details that might have an impact on the plot of your story that you had not foreseen before. And then, it is time for the moment of truth. Go find a real chimney sweep and interview him or her.
Be sure to bring a digital recorder with a lapel microphone—a backup for each is a good idea too. And a pad of paper and working pens.
Preparation for an interview is crucial. After your initial research you now have a far better idea of what questions to ask. Start off with the basics—age, education, hometown, what did the parents do, etc. Married? For how long and what does the spouse think of the chosen vocation? In the early 21st century how does a chimney sweep find work? Internet? Yellow pages? Post notices at rural feed & seed stores? The clothing worn—is that something of a “chimney sweep uniform” or just the person’s chosen clothing?
As the interview progresses do not hesitate to pounce upon an interesting remark or ask the person to clarify a remark. You never know when a stray comment may lead into unexpected and fertile research territory. Be sure to keep your interview to 30-45 minutes, no more than an hour.
And you have it. You conducted your initial research, learned enough to frame proper questions like an old pro, and you conducted an interview. You can now add factual, believable information to your character, to your story.
It will be easier than you think. Tell a person why you want to interview them, buy them a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, and you will discover that people enjoy talking about themselves and their jobs. Your job is to listen.
So, good luck, good research and writing, and enjoy!
PS: You may wonder why I chose a chimney sweep as an example. I read an article in a Colorado Springs newspaper many years ago and was surprised to find such professionals were still around. Since then I have always wanted to include the character of a chimney sweep in one of my stories.
SS Hampton, Sr. is a full-blood Choctaw of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a divorced grandfather to 13 grandchildren, and a veteran of Operations Noble Eagle (2004-2006) and Iraqi Freedom (2006-2007). He has served in the Army National Guard since October 2004, and holds the rank of staff sergeant. He is a published photographer and photojournalist, an aspiring painter, and is studying for a degree in photography and anthropology—hopefully to someday work in underwater archaeology. His writings have appeared as stand-alone stories, and in anthologies from Dark Opus Press, Edge Science Fiction & Fantasy, Melange Books, Musa Publishing, MuseItUp Publishing, Ravenous Romance, and as stand-alone stories in Horror Bound Magazine, Ruthie’s Club, Lucrezia Magazine, The Harrow, and River Walk Journal, among others. As of December 2011, he became the latest homeless Iraq war veteran in Las Vegas, Nevada. You can purchase his books here.
This weekend an unexpected trip out of town without my laptop saw to it that my post didn’t make it from notebook to WordPress until now, and reminded me why I need to have back up posts scheduled here. But today, although having a back up plan is important, I’d like to talk to you about the design of your blog.
Blog design is incredibly important. You want your design to draw people in and to make them want to come back. Think of your blog like an online writing profile: you want it to look friendly and professional but still true to yourself.
Clashing colours, distracting background images and unusual fonts that don’t read well across all browsers can all keep people from coming back to your website. Many colour combinations hurt the eyes, particularly on the computer screen, and it’s important to find something that won’t strain your readers.
It varies from niche to niche, but what’s usually recommended is a white background with black text and only a few graphics on the page. It’s important not to clutter the page and make stuff hard to find. It’s also important to make sure it’s easy to read.
Today I’d like you to do some research. Look at the most popular blogs in your niche and evaluate their layouts. Answer the following questions about each blog you look at:
- What are the most prominent colours?
- How many graphics are there on the sidebars?
- Is it easy to find everything?
- What font is used?
- How large are the images on the site?
- What about this blog works for you?
- What about this blog doesn’t work for you?
Once you’ve figured out what elements of design make you want to come back to any given blog, create a mind map and display all the elements you might like to have on your blog. Bear in mind that you can list anything you can daydream of, but if it’s a design tactic used rarely in your niche, it might turn people off rather than excite them. Your ultimate goal is to have a blog layout that stands out from the others in your niche, but not in a way that turns readers off or confuses them about the topic.
For example, if you’re writing a blog focused strictly on fantasy writing and mythology, you might not want the solar system for your background–but if your blog is where you plan on sharing your science fiction stories, it’s a great idea. Often the best background picture is no background picture, but if you can find something that’s not too distracting and that works with your topic, use it to your advantage.
Once you’ve created your mind map, cross out all the elements you think wouldn’t fit well with your blog’s intended topic and feel. Don’t start creating it right away. First, spend this week deciding if you’re going to code it yourself, use a pre-made template for your blogging software, or pay someone else to design it. Give yourself time to consider all the options and do some research into website design services. And while you’re weighing the options, try to keep writing one back up blog post per day so you’ll have even more by the time you get started.
Next week we’re going to discuss creating a detailed marketing plan for your blog. In the mean time, get cracking on those blog posts.
The mountain of biology homework I’ve been slowly climbing out from underneath may or may not have driven me completely off the deep end. In order to dig my way out from under the mountain, one of the things I had to do was research Toxoplasmosis, a lovely parasite spread by cats with world-wide influence.
Somewhere along the line, as I was wrapping up this research, my highly caffeinated brain went ‘aha! Writers are like parasites!’
Now, before you call me crazy, here’s my reasoning:
1. Writers take inspiration from other people. Just like parasites feed off of the organisms they live inside, writers feed off of the society they live inside. How many writers do you know who have based novels off of a sentence or phrase they heard in passing? Writers take their nourishment, in the form of inspiration, from others, sometimes directly and other times indirectly. Continuing with the biology analogy, fanfiction writers are like viruses, which cannot survive on their own because they can’t make their own food. These writers, more so than any others, need access to other writers’ playgrounds in order to flourish.
2. Writers cannot survive without society. I can almost feel your resistance on this one. You might be thinking ‘hell, if the apocalypse came tomorrow I’d be fine, I’m prepared’. Perhaps I should have said that writers cannot thrive without society, because that’s more honest. Without society, there is no one to read our work. Without society, there is no one to listen to our stories. Without a host, parasites die–how long it takes varies greatly from parasite to parasite, but they all need hosts. Writers, like parasites, cannot be completely independent. We need the readers to provide us with income and reviews, and we all live for the moment when a random person comes up to us and says “hi, I read your book and I loved it”.
3. Writers are all different. You might not realize it, but there are hundreds, probably thousands of kinds of parasites. Each one has its own unique features and lifespan. Different parasites prefer different hosts. Just like parasites, there are all different kinds of writers. Writers can be divided along the lines of genre, then again along the lines of sub-genre, and sometimes even along the lines of sub-sub-genre. Writers also come in all different shapes and sizes, ages and genders. Finally, just like parasites, each of us has our own unique quirks, in our voice and our writing process as well as in our more general lives.
Finally, a writer is like a parasite because it’s one tiny individual in a much larger world. A parasite may be one out of every hundred cells; a writer may be one out of every hundred people. While sometimes we think we are the most important people in the world, we need to remember that we’re just one part of the big, clinking machine that is society, and even more importantly that we’re just one part of this world. Parasites probably think they’re important too–and who knows, maybe they are.
The less obvious lesson I’d like to leave you with is that analogies can come from anywhere. Blog posts can come from anywhere. Novel ideas can come from anywhere. So the next time you’re buried under a pile of paperwork, look through it and ask yourself “how can I use this experience in my writing?”
Today I’m very excited to announce the first ever guest post here at Dianna’s Writing Den. I thought this would be a great way to bring in the new year. Today’s guest poster is Emma Lane, author of a series called ‘The Vicar’s Daughters Three’, published by Aurora Regency, Musa’s regency imprint.
Researching a Regency Novel by Emma Lane
Writing historical can be a challenge. My first suggestion to any would-be author is to read (and enjoy) first what you are deciding to write. The genre of Regency (1811-1820) is widely represented by well-known and respected authors such as G. Heyer, Jo Ann Ferguson, Jo Beverly, Mary Balough, Edith Layton and many, many more. Some readers are fans of B. Cartland who had a successful string of winners for years. My vote will always go to G. Heyer as the contemporary queen of the Regency Romance.
A first and foremost task would be to read and reread a few times any of the books by Jane Austen. Who doesn’t love the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth? Her other books are fascinating, but I think ‘Pride & Prejudice’ is the very best. All are excellent sources of historical accuracy( albeit fictional) since when they were written, they would have been called ‘contemporary.’ Here the acerbic wit by which the period is known is clearly available to the reader. Elizabeth’s father Mr. Bennet is notorious for his enjoyment of his neighbor’s follies. Of course, in the end, he pays dearly for his objective stance when his own family reputation goes awry. Family reputation was very important; all could be ostracized for the mistakes of one member. Is that very different today?
RWA has a subchapter called Beau Monde which is strictly for the study and interaction of Regency authors. These members are studious and savvy on the details of the period in question. There are many, many postings available for research. On line search engines are a wealth of information as well. Recently I researched early 1800 carriages and came away with thirty printed pages of historical facts complete with photographs and illustrations.
On-line sites which discuss the clothing fashions of the era often give illustrated examples for the researcher. It was a time of many societal rules for dress. Young girls making their debut into society were censored for wearing gowns that were too bold in color. Conversely the necklines of their gowns were little short of scandalous. The material was often a thin muslin that clung to a young lady’s frame.
Napoleon figured prominently in this period and there is a wealth of information available about the Napoleonic Wars. The English Regency king was a story by himself. He was appointed king or regent while his father was still alive but unable to rule his country. This one is an easy research.
Some simple rules for writing Traditional Regency would be: no overt sex. Lots of romance, but no four star heat ratings. Careful with the language. If uncertain, look it up. Women were expected to marry, have children and keep house. Period. One of the fun tasks of a Regency author is finding a story line that allows the heroines to ‘jump out of the box’ without getting caught and scandalizing their friends and relatives. Jane Austen would be a case in point as an author. The heroines are not insipid and are usually strong-minded women. Regency Romances are happily ever after. No cruel twists in the end. These are romances designed to entertain. They are fun to write and fun to read. That’s the genre and we like it that way.
Happy Regency researching. The worse problem an author might face is getting lost in too much information. It is all fascinating and interesting to read. Right now I’m stuck on finding out about gypsies who are really Roma. They have an elected leader and a woman is one of the leaders. But I digress.
Bio:Ms Lane lives in Western NY on a few acres with her husband. She is part owner of an Herbtique which keeps her busy in summer. In between she writes (and avidly reads) Regency Romances (A Series called The Vicar’s Daughters 3: SCANDALOUS DESIGN(2), MY PASSIONATE LOVE(1), BELINDA, MY LOVE(3), Epubbed @Musa Publishing) and ocassionally a Contemporary Romance (SANDPIPER AFFAIR, Epubbed @Desert Breeze Publishing). She loves nature, books, her two children and her two precious grandchildren.
I’d just like to say a big thank you to Emma for sharing this with us. If you’d like to buy one of her books, you can do so here.
My boyfriend, apart from being a wonderful guy, happens to be a mover. Sometimes his clients are also trying to get rid of things, because they won’t fit or for whatever other reasons. One day somebody wanted to get rid of a huge box of books. My boyfriend wanted a couple of them, but he was told if he was going to take any of them, he had to take all of them. Imagine my excitement-like a kid in a candy store–when he came home with this big box of books. There were only a couple of titles that grabbed me on my first look through, but now that I’ve finished those, I’ve realized that quite a lot of them interest me.
What does this have to do with getting healthier? Well, one of these books happened to be a book called New Choices in Natural Healing. It says edited by Bill Gottlieb. That’s the only name on the front. The book is several hundred pages long, including an introductory section which briefly discusses each method of natural healing, and remedies for dozens of common health conditions. Most of these remedies are ancient, and they can be good research for us as writers and as people. What we learn in books like these can be applied both to our every day lives and to our writing–that’s part of what makes it so exciting.
This book contains pretty much everything. They discuss acupressure, aromatherapy, massage, yoga, food therapy, herbal therapy, and I’m sure there’s something I’ve missed. So far I’ve only read a couple of the introductory chapters–acupressure, aromatherapy, massage and yoga–but I’m already fascinated. I’ve got some other books on the go, and they’re library books, so this book will be more of a side project than anything else for the time being. But I’ve already started to make it useful in more ways than one.
Somewhere in the five hundreds, they have a series of illustrations for acupressure, relaxation and meditation, yoga, and reflexology. The yoga exercises which have been illustrated are an excellent basic routine for day to day use. I’ve started to do these yoga exercises in the morning when I wake up, although I haven’t been doing them for long enough to notice much of a difference. During the school year, this might become something I do after school (I doubt that I’ll be up for the task of waking up a half hour early to do yoga), but I do hope to continue. Having the book with the illustrations makes me a lot more likely to do it than if I were to look up yoga online-by the time I’m on the computer, I’m very hard to distract from whatever I’m doing.
I already eat fairly well–mostly veggies and whole grains, since I don’t eat meat–but I don’t spend a lot of time exercising or meditating. Yoga for me is a good combination of both, and it’s something I’ve enjoyed in occasional one hour classes. My brain is such that I could never really remember more than a couple of the exercises though, so having this book to guide me will hopefully help me get into a proper yoga routine.
For those of you who, like me, don’t get a lot of exercise and tend to stress about things, yoga’s a great solution. Part of yoga is focusing on your breathing, and this will help calm you during the exercises and throughout the day. It strengthens your mind and your muscles, and helps you learn to live in the moment. Focusing on breathing and keeping your mind clear from worries will help you focus on your writing, too. Let the focus on your breath that started during your yoga follow you throughout the day, and you’ll probably enjoy your day a lot more–and even get more done.
If you can get your hands on a book or a DVD that will guide you through the first poses of yoga, do so. Start doing them every day and learn them well. Yoga is a mix between stretching, relaxation and exercise; it really is something you can do every day if you put your mind to it. If you can afford a class, that’s even better. Someday I hope to take yoga classes, but for now, with no budget to speak of, I’ll stick with this book I happened into.
How do you try to stay healthy? Have you ever tried yoga?
A few weeks ago, I wrote a short story entitled Birth of a Vampire. It takes place in Scotland, around 700 A.D., as the last of Paganism was fading from the country. It’s the first of several stories meant to travel with the vampire-Thomas-around the world and through the ages. This series of short stories is going to be my most research-heavy project yet. I’m not dreading all the legwork though-I’m excited, and I’m getting new inspiration every couple of pages.
I believe that everyone should study history, especially writers. History is a study of humanity, showing our patterns and our ways of thinking. More than the names and dates, the people and the places, it says a lot about humanity as a whole. And basic human nature hasn’t changed much-look at how today’s terrorists die readily for their religion, and then look at the Children’s Crusades, where thousands died on the road to ‘save the holy land’.
For fantasy writers, many of us base our worlds-however loosely-off of historical times and places. We should do the legwork to find out what those places were really like before we take them and change them. And history is one of the greatest places to find new story ideas. Human history is full of happy moments and sad moments; it is full of great, liberating revolutions and dirty, oppressive secrets. Reading the bloody histories of our own countries can help us build new ones with suitably bloody history.
If you’re not working on a world or a novel-length project right now, you should study history anyway. Knowing history can only help you in the long run. It’s helpful in a debate, a great conversation piece, and it generally makes you feel smarter. You can study your own country, and it might be fun to try to trace your ancestry. You’ll probably learn a surprising amount about history from the story of your own family. It’ll help you feel more grounded in who you are, give you something to be proud of. (Or not.)But the best part is that history can be pretty inspirational, and you might stumble into a literary gold mine, full of amazing story ideas.
During my research, I’ve already had to stop to write notes for one character and one story, which looks like it’ll want to be novel-length. If you’re not doing research for a specific project, just for your own enjoyment, then you can jump right into a new story. If it is research for a specific project, then you’ll have something new ready and waiting for you when you finish. Just be careful not to start an entirely new project and abandon the old one.
Where to start? In the country where your story takes place, or in your country of origin, or maybe just someplace that interests you. So far most of my research has been in Scotland-where clan Gunn hails from-and the Byzantine empire, the Eastern half of the Roman empire. I’ve got a book about historical England and tomorrow I’m going to start researching early Spain. I’m going to share a couple of my links with you, and if you have any good links about the history of Spain, please do share.
~Heart O Scotland This has been my primary internet resource for the history of Scotland. It’s almost shameful how little I knew about Scotland three days ago, but this site has a pretty good overview of Scottish history and is pretty reliable.
~National Library of Scotland This page has listings for all the old counties of Scotland, and if you click the links you’ll find literally hundreds of maps of Scotland throughout the ages.
So this week I managed to finish my last essay for school and on top of that, I managed to edit three chapters of Moonshadow’s Guardian-though it seems most of the editing in recent chapters has actually been writing new scenes. I’m pretty pleased with my progress as I’m currently sitting at 51 pages of the new draft and 17, 000 or so words. I’m confident that I can have this draft finished in another three or four weeks.
The only frustrating thing about it is that I know I’m going to have to spend a lot of time editing all the new scenes that I’m writing. They’re well written, but there are always ways to make the work better, and stuff that’s already been looked over and edited once will read better than stuff that hasn’t.
Today I had to do some research on swamps in order to properly write one of my scenes. I discovered that although I have an idea what a swamp looks like, I didn’t really know anything else about them. So I took an hour out of my day and looked through various websites about various swamps. I ended up deciding on something close to the ecosystem of Florida Swamps. I haven’t used a lot of what I learned yet, but it did help a little with the scene I was working on and it will probably help more with the upcoming swamp scenes.
One interesting thing I learned today is that there’s a swamp creature called a Coypu or Nutria and that it’s a little rodent type deal. I’m not spending a lot of time in the swamp, but I’ll probably spend more time there in the next book, so this information will definitely come in useful.
It’s important that you take the time to research things you need to know-to learn about animals you’re not very familiar with, ecosystems, philosophies, ideas. Things you want to include in your book but that you don’t know much about. This is particularly true if you’re trying to mimic a culture or time period other than your own-never assume that you know enough. Always keep studying the world around you the same way you keep studying your craft.
Next week I plan to continue editing my book and to start a new short story. It’ll probably be a lot easier to hit my writing goals now that it’s summer; last summer and the summer before that I partied too much and didn’t write enough, but this summer I’m going to work my behind off-after all, I’m almost 18, a proper adult, and I need to act like it and take my dreams seriously.
How is your editing going? Have you stopped at any point to do research or background work?