Tag Archives: Research

Writers Group: Symbolism, Copyrights, and Research

28 Jan

My lovely writers’ group met again a few weeks ago. We had a number of new faces and I hope they were intrigued by our unusual format. We all prepare 5-10 minutes of material to share with the group over an aspect of writing that we are interested in or are working through at the moment. This month, we were able to go through three different topics in our time.

First, Rachel talked about symbolism. A symbol represents something other than what it is. Symbols are usually universal or can carry meaning for a smaller group. They are a concise way to communicate an idea. She gave the example of a national flag and all that the symbols on a flag represent about people and what they find important. There are two types of symbolism, figurative and literal. Literal symbolism isn’t exactly symbolism as I’ve described it. It’s something that only has one other meaning. For example, if I type the word ‘tree,’ those characters are symbols that represent a wooden plant with leaves. Writers more often focus on figurative symbolism, where one thing represents the idea of something else. Good symbolism is usually less obvious and takes a deeper read to find it. It avoids clichés and obvious symbols (a rose for love). Instead, it has a lighter touch and can be open to interpretation. A figurative symbol usually takes some building so that it’s clear to readers that there is symbolism. It must be repeated, given a position of importance, and emphasized so that the reader can gather that the symbol has a meaning different from itself.

Another writer, Jason, is pursuing self-publication and shared with us what he’d learned about copyrights while trying to get ready to publish. Copyright attaches the author’s name to the work in the public record. This allows you to defend your created work should someone try to lay claim to it later. This can be done via a form online with a small fee. Some writers warned against copyrighting your work if you plan to pursue traditional publication as many will not accept work that has been copyrighted. For self-publication, it’s a good move. We cautioned that posting writing on a blog can count as ‘published’ for some literary magazines and publishers, so to be careful what you share of your work. Jason shared a sample permission form that he’d used to try to obtain some permissions for statistics in his book. You can avoid using permission forms if you use work that is fair use or public domain, such as government publications.

Finally, Gary shared some of his research on research. Doing research on a topic or setting adds accuracy and credibility to a writer’s work. Doing research from books or articles that were published through a university of college press usually means that an academic wrote the work and is likely an expert in his or her field (not always true, though!). Doing research is harder the farther back in time a person reaches. Visiting the location where something happens can be very helpful as many times atmosphere is hard to gather through reading alone. Research should include the genre you are writing in which will help with publication ultimately. Also, consider the perspective of the character and if it could be different from your own, research differing opinions or views on that topic.

We’ll be back at it again next month! I’m glad I don’t have a conflicting class anymore. Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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Library Writers’ Group: Research

3 Nov

We had yet another lovely meeting of my local library’s writers group. I do enjoy getting together with this group. Our leader is stepping down because she’s gotten a job at another library recently so the format of this group might change soon but for now, we’re continuing on talk about different aspects of writing at each meeting. This time, we talked about research.

As a historical fiction writer, I tend to think of research as taking on the image of pouring over texts and looking up pictures of vintage clothes, but that’s not always the case. Creative non-fiction and memoir also require research, but a different type. Our moderator directed us to a few resources for this

But, as I’m a fiction writer, I wanted to focus this post more on the research needed to write fiction. But we’re all types so I hope someone can find the above links useful!

As much as we’re told to ‘write what we know,’ we don’t always do it. Not everything I write is set in suburban Detroit and not all of us involves a young married couple. When it comes to setting, there is a lot of research you need to do in order to set a novel in a place you might have never visited (or at lease in a time you’ve never visited). We were given a great article by Tricia Goyer about how to place your story in a setting. You do have to research the place and looking at maps and photos is a great start. I’ve had to do this for both of my full manuscripts and it can sometimes help me add new elements to my plot. It helps to meet and interview people who have lived or visited the place you’re talking about. (This can, granted, be hard for historical settings depending on how far back you’re going.)

This article by Kim van Alkemade gave some great tips about researching for historical fiction. My favorites include ‘Study old pictures’ (I started my 1920s board on Pinterest) and ‘Read old books.’ I hadn’t thought about reading books from the 20s, but it would give me a good idea of voice in that time.

This Writers Digest article talks more about research in general. There is great advice on how to find experts in an area you are trying to research.

Another quote we talked about (from an article I’m unable to locate) talked about the nature of research. When I’ve researched, I’ve found myself digging into historical files and then connected articles and then a book that’s slightly related etc. This is when research can become a dangerous time suck. It’s important to ‘go deep but stay narrow.’ We need to go deep into certain topics that are most applicable to our story, but it’s important to choose carefully the topics that will involve the deep knowledge. Choose them carefully and don’t stray too far away.

I hope this has been helpful for my fellow writers. I thought this was a great topic for our group to do and I hope we can touch on it again in the future with more insight.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

My Research Process: Making the 1920s Come Alive

31 Oct

Happy Halloween! I’m dressed as a flapper today, a passion that grew out of my research of the Roaring 20s.

KK suggested I write this post. If you want to make suggestions, please leave a comment here or on my Facebook Fan Page.

My first WIP is a YA novel that takes place in the 1920s. KK asked how I did my research for the time period and thought it would be some good information to share. I’m still in the middle of the process so I’ll share what I’ve done, but I know there’s still a long way to go!

  1. Watch movies and read books from that era. This is easier for some time periods than others. For me, it wasn’t bad. I’ve watched The Untouchables twice and called it research. I read another 20s YA novel called Vixin to see what extent of flapper life was YA friendly, and I’m reading another book now that covers the south in the 20s. Documentaries are also great, if you can stand them. These books and films will give you a good general feeling of the era and help you find a place to ‘put your head’ when you’re writing it.
  2. Find historical books and website (with plenty of pictures!). This is a must. Movies and books tend to stretch the truth a little. They are fictional, after all! Historical books will help you connect the mental image you’ve created with the facts you’re going to be dealing with. For example, The Untouchables shows Ness as a man of strong morals when history shows he had a drinking problem. The Great Gatsby movie might show flappers with headbands, but cloche hats were much more popular. Find some truth behind the fiction before you create your own and it becomes unbelievably fantastical.
  3. Research pop culture from that era. Was golf popular? How about cultural heroes? For my research, it’s bomber jackets and Lincolns, Lindbergh and Hemingway. Find out who it is for your characters. Also know what kind of vocabulary was used in your time period. Things weren’t ‘cool’ in the medieval era unless they had a colder temperature. No one comes ‘hither’ in the 1960s!
  4. Have a brief knowledge of what happened for the 20 years before yours takes place. The twenty years or so before your story will have a huge effect on your characters who likely grew up in that time (unless all of your characters are infants). Was there a war, a great tragedy, a change in government? I had to be careful of World War I because the father of my protagonist fought in it. I had to be sure her younger brother was born after the father returned. In my first draft, he wasn’t and I had to re-write to make him younger. Bomber jackets are popular because of the WWI style. The Volsted Act, prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the US, was set in place in 1920 so my characters in the mid teens don’t remember life before prohibition. It’s a good thing I did my research.
  5. Know if something big is happening in the rest of the world. You might be writing far enough back in history that this is moot due to the lack of international information but for those of us writing with any kind of radio or horse news transfer, it’s important. If there’s something going on in Europe, it will affect products, attitudes, and attentions in the US or vice versa.

From this starting point, you’re in a good position to start writing! There will be a ton of ‘one-off’ things to look up (how big were imported beer bottles from Canada in 1929?), but those can be solved with a quick Google search. Your friends and family will be wondering why you’re looking up ethnic immigration to Chicago in the late 1920s and watching a documentary on Tommy guns, but you can pass it off as research. (For the record, my best research was having a bartender make prohibition drinks for me at my brother-in-law’s wedding.)

Reader, please leave me a comment. How do you do research for historical fiction? Have any of these techniques worked for you? What more would you recommend?

Until next time, write on.

NaNoWriMo Pre-Writing Workshop Summary

17 Oct

I can’t believe NaNo is a short seventeen days away (I’m writing this early, 14 when you read it).  In the spirit of being a planner, I went to a pre-writing seminar put on by my local chapter, NaNoWriMowtown.  (How punny is that.)  A lot of the advice was really great and I wanted to share it with you all.  This may be a bit long, but here it goes!

Storyboarding v. Outlining

As a die-hard outliner, it was good for me to see what Storyboarding can do.  The presenter recommended using note cards to write down events, plot points, quotes, and even add pictures.  With these note cards, you can put them in order of how you want your plot to go, rearranging as needed for new cards or to make the flow more logical.  Once your note cards are in the order you want, number them to save the order and then you can put them into a formal typed outline.

I personally start with an outline in Word and slowly add to it as I think more about the story, but this might not work for everyone.

Exercises in Inventing Character, Setting, and Plot Mapping

One of the chapter members is a high school English teacher who every year has his class collectively write the 50K novel.  He went through his lesson plan for the first week of November when the students plan the novel they will write.

(1) Character Invention: with a large group of people, sit around a table with two cups; one for first names and one for last names. Give everyone a note card and have them write a last name on one and a first name on the other.  When everyone’s names are in the cups, draw first-name last-name combinations.  This exercises depends on some people coming up with weird names and some people getting the cups mixed up.  You want to end up with about 30 names.  Choose your 10 favorite.  Write 1-2 paragraphs of back-story for each one giving their job, age, dreams, etc.  After you’ve defined the characters, create relationships between them.  Pick a protagonist and antagonist.  Decide who will stand with each.

(2) Define your scenes: Think of  your story like a play with 3-4 Acts.  In the story, the character wants something, has to overcome an obsticle to get it, and takes actions to get around that obsticle.  Act 1 is exposition where your main character is taken out of the normal and thrown into the action of your story.  Here is where you define the wants and maybe the obsticles as well.  Act II is rising action where the wants are solidified and the obstacles become more obvious. Characters may try some actions that fail or succeed partially.  Act III is the climax where the character completes the action that will give the character what (s)he wants, or close enough to it to satisfy the reader.

(3) Mapping the Plot: Every scene should move your characters forward.  If it’s not, then you don’t need it.  The presenter recommended using a Star Novel Writing Mandala Schema, which I’m unable to find on-line and can hopefully link to in our NaNo forum soon (Link found!).  In essence, it gives you a basic 12 chapter novel and what will happen in each chapter.  You are taking the six star-points of Character, Theme, Action, Craft, Imagination, and Context and using them to create your story through problem, direction, organization, image, connection, and motive.  This will make much more sense if I can link to the visual.

Research for the Fiction Writer

I’m a big researcher so I very much enjoyed this session.  The speaker focused on four settings that will necessitate research.  The first being one I’ve done before, Actual Eras.  This is for all of the historical fiction writers who want to give that historically accurate portrayal of going to the bathroom in 14th century Germany: it’s a lot of details.  She recommended (in addition to libraries and Google) field trips to the place your writing about or going to museums with artifacts from that era.  The second research-worth setting is current places and cultures that the writer has not experienced.  The best way to do this (recommended by the speaker and myself) is to try to talk to people who live in that place or culture.  I’ve done this for my NaNo and it’s worked wonderfully.  People love to talk about themselves, you just have to ask.

The other two settings are not ones I’ve written for before.  One of is somewhat relevant to my WIP2, which is places that never existed.  This is more commonly known as worldbuilding.  When you create a fantasy world, you need to know as much about that world as the characters living in it do.  In essence, you have to write the history book on it.  It’s best not to do a complete carbon copy of Earth.  Add in some flavor which can play a big part of your story.  For example, the ‘What If’ game can lead you to some plot points like, “What if the birds hunted people and even a sparrow could kill?”  The Hunger Games is a good example of this.

The last one kind of ties in to the HG example as well: mythical or imaginary beings.  Like a setting you’ve created, you need to have all of the background story on how these creates have evolved and come to exist.  Collins created the mockingjay with a great back-story.  Your characters should have it, too.  Basing them off of defined mythical beings/real animals can help with this.

Planning for the Seat-of-your-Pants

In summary, you have to plan to fly by the seat of your pants.  Even if you’re winging the whole thing and don’t know where it’s going to end, there are still some steps one can take to mitigate the risks along the way.

The writer should still know a few things about how the plot is going to go. For example, are you going to travel to the moon? You might want to give your character a background or a world that would make this a little more plausible.

A good place to go for some support and to be able to bounce ideas of of people is Write-Ins. I’ve never done one myself, but from what I can figure, it’s a safe place for NaNo writers to come together and play fun word-count related games and bounce ideas off of each other. Not a bad place to be. The speaker recommended trying three write-ins before you pick your favorite. This doesn’t mean three of the same write-in group, but three different groups. Not all write-ins are created equal.

There are a few tips for pantsers.  The first is to know your characters because if you get stuck, your characters are what will push the plot forward.  Try basing one off of yourself.  Then you always know what the character would do next.  While you’re at it, base the other characters off of your friends.  Then, if you need to know what a character would do, you can call your friend and ask him or her.  As mentioned with write-ins, ask other writers what they would consider doing.  Who knows plot development better than other writers?  And lastly, if you don’t know how to move forward, do some back story.  Maybe something there will give you an idea for how to move forward.

Funny Writing

A good way to make people like you book is by making them laugh!  The speaker offered a few tips for quick one-liner jokes.  (1) stick to three characters or the listener will forget the first character.  (2) Keep it short.  (3) Surprise the listener so they’re not anticipating your punch line when you start.

Her other tips serve well for comedy of any type. (1) Be specific.  Don’t allude to your punch line, nail it on the head!  (2) Be relatable.  You don’t want to make a reference so obscure that no one or only a handful of readers think you’re funny.  You also don’t want the reader to feel alienated because they didn’t understand.  (3) Comedy serves a purpose.  Don’t throw comedy in for comedy’s sake; make it move your plot forward.  (4) Opposites attract.  If you can use comedy to set up drama it can be very impactful.

Tips and Tricks

The end of the seminar was past participants giving advice and this was extremely helpful!  The first tip was to find locations and times when you could be most successful.  The ML passed out a spreadsheet to fill in Date, time of day, words/hr, location, background noise, people present, music, food/drink, and WiFi?  If you do this repeatedly, you can find out where and when you are most productive.  Genius!  Some short tips:

  • Don’t write in order, jump around to where you want to write
  • Don’t delete anything (it all counts, just use strike-out)
  • Only edit spellings, nothing else!
  • Back -up often and to multiple places
  • It’s okay to fall behind, weekends are a great time to catch up.
  • Try writing for 20 minutes, watching a movie for 20 minutes repeatedly
  • Tell everyone so they will ask you about it and keep you accountable
  • Stop with something left to say so you have momentum when you next start up again
  • Do not use contractions (more words)
  • Use a font with straight quotes, not smart (curved) quotes.  Smart quotes count funny in the validator.
  • Validate on the 25th when it becomes available to see how far off the NaNo word count is from what you think you have
  • Open Office is good for word count consistence, Word is usually a couple hundred higher than the validator.
  • Pad the 50K by a few thousand for comfort
  • Remember that Thanksgiving is the last weekend of November!  Prepare in advance.
  • Turn your spell-checker off so you aren’t tempted to edit by squiggly lines.

Helpful Links:

Write or Die: $10 download.  Punishes you for not writing to a certain timed goal by deleting what you had written, playing bad music or annoying sounds.

Writing Prompts on Tumblr: Or WordPress or wherever you can find them.  Great things to keep you thinking if your brain is shutting down.

Written? Kitten!: In opposition of Write or Die, Written? Kitten will show you pictures of cats for every set number of words you write.  It didn’t work for me, but several people said it’s a good reward-based approach.

I hope these are helpful to you!  Let me know of your own tips and tricks.