Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Process of Writing, Part 2: Research and Development

You've got your concept now. The idea that will let you play in the gardens of your own mind. That's just great, isn't it? A wonderful feeling. But an idea isn't enough; it's a nice beginning, but it's not going to suffice to make a book out of. Because an idea isn't enough to hang all those thousands of words on. "What if a white boy and a black slave escaped from their home and went on a journey" works just fine as an idea, but it needs context. Who are they? Where did they live, and when? Where do they go? This is where research and development come in, the first hard part of writing a book.

Ideas, you see, are easy. You can come up with a dozen in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. But you'll go through a lot of grounds and filters and cream and sugar getting those ideas sketched out.

Who are your characters? Clever or foolish, young or old, male or female, friendless or social, there are so many details to be considered that it can seem overwhelming. And where are your characters? In Chicago, or Australia, or on a plane, or in a magical kingdom? And when? Right now, or 1840, or "a long time ago", or the future? Is is winter with the snow falling, or the start of fall when the nights are just getting crisp but the days are still warm and lazy? Wow, that's a lot to think about, isn't it?

But as writers, we're all very fortunate. We don't need to know all of that. A writer can figure out much of this stuff as they go along, after doing just a little work to begin with. Your main character might be a 12 year old girl, generally good natured and a little put upon by her family, who lived in a little hamlet out in the country. It might be winter, and the exact time period might be vague: it could be the late 19th century, maybe? And then I can get started, as long as I know enough about those things that I've chosen to proceed. I don't need anything more.

Note that word, though: need. We may want to know more. In the example above, it would be good if I, as the writer, knew that it's not really the late 19th century, but instead the present day of an alternate version of our own world. It would be good for the girl to have a name, and a background, and I should know a thing or two about her family. But a lot of the detail work I can make up on the fly.

That's not to say it works that way for every writer, or for every book, even. Historical fiction will need much more research. So will a novel about sailing, or a pilot, or set in a city you've never visited. And this is where we get to research.

There are a number of ways to approach research. Some people (including me) are minimalists. It's possible to establish a veneer of accuracy and let the reader fill in the blanks. Get the basics down, and the rest will be good enough. It doesn't really matter if I know who the mayor of Savannah was in 1872, though if I'm setting the book there and then, I'd better have a decent reason if I don't use the fellow history tells us was in that office. However, if I do use him, I probably don't have to be too concerned with who he was meeting on the day of June 5th, if that's the day I want my main character to run into him. There are only so many details you need to care about. So I should find out who he was, a little about his personality and positions if I can, and that's fine. Or, as I'm really very much given to minimal research, I can just make up stuff as I need to.

But if you like a little more authenticity, you can follow a great number of options. The internet is full of material, of greater or lesser reliability, ranging from lowly Wikipedia (great if you like to play and loose with your details, bad if you want certainty) to Project Gutenberg's library of scanned documents and books, to scholarly articles and city websites and a great many other things. But I think most of us writers being book people, in the end we fall back on books. Library books, reference books, other novels, travel guides, any number of things. A tall stack of such things really establish that you are Quite Serious about this research thing, as do note cards, flow charts and the like. I am not, in fact Quite Serious, so I can't tell you much more than this: figure out what story you want to tell, and extract about 10% more information that you could ever think of using in the story. Then actually use (as opposed to thinking of using) only about half of the total. The fact that you, as the author, are aware of more than the reader means the world/setting/scenario/what have you, that you're constructing will feel more real. Every story is better when you know there's more to it than you're being shown.

There are other resources that can be brought to bear. Maps, of real or imagined places, of house and work spaces and trips taken by your characters, can be of use to you for descriptive purposes (it's good to keep the kitchen always in the same relation to the living room and the hallway). Some can even make a visit into the book, common for fantasy novels and historical fiction, but occasionally popping up just about anywhere. Family trees can be handy for multi-generational sagas, and again, for historical fiction and fantasy. Drawings of your characters and settings, if you're artistically minded (lucky duck, you!) or have a friend who's the same, can be a great tool.

So now you've got your research notes, your books to reference later, your maps, index cards, genealogies, and flow charts. You've pretty much almost got a book already. Isn't that exciting?

Except for, you know, the writing part. We haven't done that yet. But at least now, we're pretty much ready to do so. And in the next post, I'll talk about getting started on the novel: where to begin, how to begin, and perhaps more importantly, how not to.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Process of Writing, Part 1: Concept

In which the author discusses how one comes up with a book.

Writers always get asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" It's a really good question that, unfortunately, we all hate. Ideas are strange and mysterious things, you see. They can come from events that happened in your life, from dreams, from another book, from a random Wikipedia search.  Most writers, I think, have far more ideas than they will ever use. We go through scores a year, some so thin and wispy we can't make them work, some so bulky and meaty we don't dare try them at all, and some just perfect for consideration.

For me, at least, the best way to describe an idea before it's written is often with a question. "What if?" something is a good one, or something very similar, like "What would happen if?" Since I write mostly speculative fiction, what if questions are probably the best way to work. But such questions can work for mainstream fiction as well: "What if a white boy and a black slave escaped from their home and went on a journey?" (for example, that being the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

So for my books, the questions that could be asked to sum them up might be: What happened to the children of Cleopatra and Marc Antony? What would happen if Michael Darling from Peter Pan was a real person? What if God decided to end the world with a whimper not a bang?

I didn't really think of them in exactly that fashion. Ideas aren't often that neat and tidy. They slouch about in the head, sprawling over one's mental furniture and making nuisances of themselves and a mess of the place. But those questions adequately express something of what the books are about. I will say that in the case of Daughter of Cleopatra, the question of what happened to the children was in fact the cause of the novel. The other two came about a bit more vaguely, one from a notion of updating fairy tales, the other from one image: a snowbound house, and a girl inside it whose mother was dead under the kitchen table.

That's my experience, then.

As to another writer, a person who might think they could tell a story but isn't sure what story to tell or how to tell it, the question is a good way to go about it. Try to find that question that sums up the story: What if Queen Victoria had devoted the resources of her Empire to achieving immortality? What if D. W. Griffith had continued making films glorifying the KKK after Birth of a Nation and then ran for President on an overtly racist platform? What if two people met and fell in love on the day that one of them died; how would the other's life progress?

With varying degrees of difficulty and probabilities of success, any of those could be a book. And all three were conceptualized just this moment. Any idea, any question, can work. Even a thin slip of a question can turn into a novel, though there's more work to be done to get it to that point.

So now there's a concept. In the next post, I'll talk about ways to flesh out the concept by looking at things like setting, genre and style, and by thinking about outlining and doing your research.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

How to Be Slightly Inaccurate, Historically; and Why

I'm spending a lot of time trying to be a good person as a writer. I'm trying to make sure my writing is at least a little representative of the world as I'd like to have it. Stronger women, gentler men, more minorities, that sort of thing. It's not very hard to do, and not something that is often out of place. But there are moments when I grow a bit concerned, as with my current work in progress.

I'm writing historical dark fairy tale stuff, set in 16th Century rural Austria. Women had rather limited roles there and then, and so I'm reasonably limited in what I can have my female characters do. I know of course that women in real history did all sorts of remarkable things all the time: ruled countries, fought in battles, ran their estates, things that are often overlooked or forgotten. So I can have all that happen, but it doesn't seem like quite enough to me.

Then of course I think about the writing of the last century or two, by men especially. Where women seldom appeared in anything but a moral or supporting role, and did little or nothing of note for the story. Only in dramatic pieces could women be real characters, and then their actions were still strongly limited and curtailed. They might feel real, but they were just as evidently trapped, caged by society. And while this is predominantly historically true, it wasn't always so.

So I think about it, and I realize that if I just keep the characters interesting, and on the edge of the "historically" possible, I'm doing pretty well. I'll do more in other places, other works. History sets limits that can't really be contravened entirely, and I'm not going to. But I will make every effort to step right up to the boundary, and possible slip a toe across now and then. I'd feel bad if I did anything less, and like I was failing as a writer. It seems a small thing, but I have a platform, and I'd rather use it to try to change attitudes than to support a worn out status quo.

Friday, January 6, 2012

We Are Shaped By Where We Are

It's winter in my writing. The current project, I mean, not always. But as I look over my body of work, I do notice that there's a lot of rain, a lot of snow, a lot of cold weather and unpleasantness. It's not always the case, but it's winter far more often than it's summer. I don't know if it's because it's more dramatic than summer (which in general it is) or if it's just because of Seattle.

Not that it snows here much or often at all. But winter, as a concept, just keeps on going. From some time in October, most often, to some time in April, give or take, not much changes. It's chilly and wet and grey, and in general stays that way through the whole period. And I can only think that my writing mindset has been shaped by that, by the notion that it is always winter, that summer will be a brief and wonderful thing that vanishes completely and is almost forgotten.

So it's winter where I'm writing. And almost always will be, I think.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Novel Experience

I wrote a book for National Novel Writing Month, which I'm having read by people just now. That's not new: I pretty much always write a book in November, and most of them are complete, and read, and in many cases ready to go for publishing, if not already published.

All well and good, but that seems to be a bad habit to have gotten in to. I seem to be fixated on the notion of writing books in November: while I can do short stories, and editing, and that sort of thing, I have had very limited success in writing novels at other times of the year in a very long while. But I'm feeling a little confident right now. I'm about half way through another novel that I started eighteen days ago, 34000 words almost, and I think that I'm liking it, and that it's a pretty decent thing as well. With luck, with good effort, and with positive feedback I might finish the thing, which would delightful.

Another new thing, this one completely new, is that I'm having people read the book as I write it. I don't do this. I don't ever do this. Every time I've ever done this, it's resulted in me not finishing the book. I don't know why. Possibly it's because I like to talk, and like to talk about what I'm writing, and don't like to know how things I'm writing will end up. That's a bad combination, because I'll talk, and then talk about the book, and then tell people how I think it will go. And then I will stop writing. This time, though, I'm managing to let people read it, and even field a few questions, offer a few hints, and not completely lose the interest in work.

It's a new feeling for me. I needed to get used to doing it, though, as I'm about to start editing my novel for my publisher, and when that happens, I'm going to need to not lose interest in the work because someone's reading it. So this is good practice.

It's also kind of scary. The book, I mean, not the process. Though there's some of that, too.