Tag Archives: Writing Advice

Writers Group: The Hook

25 Sep

My fellow group of writers met last week for our monthly meeting. I was so glad to go because I’ve been forced to miss meetings for one reason or another the past two months and I’m glad we are back at it! Our topic this month was the hook, the first sentence (or paragraph) of the story that draws the reader into the book.

We looked at two writing coaches and their advice on the hook. K.M Weiland suggests that there are five elements.

  1. It asks an inherent question. This may be explicit or, more likely, implicit. It should make the writer wonder. The reader should be left wondering ‘Why?’
  2. Introduce a character. One is ideal, but sometimes more. Sometimes a name is given, other times it’s more general.
  3. Provide a sense of setting. This helps place the story in the reader’s mind and makes the first scene more interesting.
  4. Establish a voice. This may take more than one sentence to develop, but it can be done in a single sentence. This is more important in first person narration but is necessary for other POVs as well.
  5. Make a sweeping declaration. Some will say never to do this, but if done well, it can be great.

Some say you need to pack this into one sentence, others that you have a paragraph or page or chapter to do it. It depends on your audience and genre as well.

The other coach we looked to for advice was Suzannah Windsor Freeman. There were a few ‘don’ts’ she provided.

  • No dialogue. The reader doesn’t know who’s talking or what is being talked about.
  • Avoid excessive description.
  • Avoid irrelevant information.
  • Don’t introduce too many characters. Each one will not be memorable.

Freeman has six ways to hook a reader and some of them are similar to Weiland’s.

  1. Make the reader wonder.
  2. Begin at a pivotal moment.
  3. Create an interesting picture.
  4. Introduce and intriguing character.
  5. Start in an unusual situation.
  6. Begin with a compelling narrative voice.

Some other advice included asking questions as the story goes along, but not answering all questions before asking more. This builds tension and plot. All questions should be answered by the end of the story.

We spent the remainder of our time looking at famous first lines and seeing how they covered these elements. We also looked at the books we were currently reading to see if they fit the mold. I really liked this exercise and it has me feeling good about my opening line.

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!

Library Writers Group: Writing Concisely

24 Jan

My writers’ group (four strong at the moment!) met last week and one of our members discussed writing concisely. At first, I was wondering where she would go with this topic but we talked about wanting to write concisely to get to our points faster and be as succinct as possible while still being comprehensive. With these ideas below, I took a piece at 500 words and cut down another 80!

The first is to obviously try to cut words. There are many lists available of words different writers recommend cutting. These can include look, feel, so, just, even, really, finally, only, and many others. Words like see, feel, think, and know usually can’t be cut themselves, but are an indication that there’s a way to cut words around these words. There are phrases known as redundant pairs that can always be cut such as sit down (sit) and stood up (stood).

Rephrasing is another way to cut words. Passive voice is usually wordier than its active alternative. Phrases can be shortened altogether, taking ‘the chair with brown legs’ to ‘the brown legged chair’ (5->4). Clauses starting with that, who, and which, can be turned to phrases. ‘My teacher, who I respect very much, likes hiking’ becomes ‘my well-respected teacher likes hiking’ (9->7). Sentences that start with There/It are/is can usually be shortened as well. ‘There are three bookshelves in my living room’ becomes ‘I have three bookshelves in my living room’ (8->7). The final thing we covered was a new term for all of us. Nominalization refers to turning a verb into a noun and makes sentences a lot longer. ‘The reconciling of monthly statements is Mary’s job’ becomes ‘Mary’s job is to reconcile monthly statements’ (8->7).

Many times, sentences become redundant. We were given the example ‘Some ideas can be incorporated into another sentence. This will make the writing simpler.’ I got this 14-word idea into 5: Combining ideas makes writing simpler. Combining can be done at both a sentence and paragraph level. I find myself repeating things within a paragraph from time to time.

There’s more cutting to be done. Taking out weak words and adding strong ones can make something shorter by avoiding repetitive description, adjectives, or adverbs. Prepositional phrases can often be cut. We read an article that recommended outlining after finishing the first draft. It can show pacing to show the author where to cut and any subplots that weren’t finished and can be taken out. Another suggestion was to look at each scene and break down the elements of a scene within it. This can also show pacing and show which elements might be over-done and could use some cutting.

We covered some ways to practice concise writing. My favorite is tweeting. When you’re limited to 140 characters, you have to make each one count. A fun exercise we did was taking the first part of a Wikipedia article and cutting the word count in half. This was really fun to do and I highly recommend it.

We’ll be back next month with more. I’m excited I won’t have to miss this group while my class is in session. 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!

Library Writers Group: Dialogue

5 Oct

A post about writing! These seem to be harder and harder to come across on my blog and I apologize for that. My class ends in mid-November and I want to use the second half of NaNo to get a jump-start on editing my YA novel. I’ve got a guide-book that I’m going to go through to help me and I’m excited to get back to it.

ANYWAY. Writing group. Before I get into our topic, I wanted to share some advice. Our library offers courses through Gale Courses that you can take for free (because libraries are awesome) online. One of our members said she was looking through them and saw one for writing fiction. She’d paid money to take the same class at a local community college! Just a reminder to ALWAYS look at your library resources first.

This month’s discussion was about dialogue. We’ve all read bad dialogue and good dialogue but there’s not a great way to define what’s good and bad. ‘You know it when you read it.’ Real dialogue is not fun to read. When we speak, we use a lot of filler words (“um, like, so, hm,” etc.) and there’s a lot of fluff that we add to make for polite conversation and small talk. In fiction, no one wants to read this! Our characters should be perfectly spoken and never bother to start a conversation asking about the weather unless it moves the plot forward.

Our moderator gave us a list of ten tips to help write better dialogue. You can read the full list here. I wanted to highlight a few in this post.

1.   Read dialogue aloud. I do this a lot! My husband probably thinks I’m crazy but it helps me so much. I get inflection, tone, and a good sense of pacing. I know when my characters are going to pause in their speech. Even when a conversation is supposed to be staccato, I know where breaks would be and it helps me visualise how they’ll stop and re-start the conversation.

2.   Don’t use dialogue to convey exposition. We felt this was overdone in internal dialogues more than anything else. Relying on internal dialogue to let the reader know how the character feels is a sign of weak writing and I’m very guilty of this. It’s the biggest ‘telling’ thing I can think of. My general rule is to avoid internal dialogue as much as possible.

5.   Having a character stumble over words, leave off sentences, and repeat him/herself is realistic but use it sparingly! It adds emotion to a moment well. In addition to the tip on this list, we also thought a well-placed ellipsis can add a nice effect.

7.   Using ‘said’ is fine. This one was debated. Some stood by that using words other than ‘said’ as dialogue tags make the writing more interesting. Some said to use other tags more sparingly as it can weigh down the text. People tend to read over ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ with no problem and it doesn’t distract from the flow of the story. We talked about using names to help mix up a conversation of ‘he said’ and ‘she saids.’ Even using paragraph breaks in a dialogue helps you avoid the ‘saids.’ Though we were warned away from using too many epithets. No one wants to hear about the ‘reddening blonde’ for pages and pages.

8.   Use arguments to create tension. One piece of advice we talked related to this one is that each character should have a goal in a conversation and should pursue that goal. If they’re not pursuing their objective, the character and plot are not developing and the scene should be cut.

 

 

9.   Think about how a character sounds. A non-native speaker might have a small bit of an accent or misuse a grammatical rule. As long as it’s legible and accurate (don’t perpetuate any false stereotypes!), it can help add depth to the character. Another part of this is making sure your own speech quirks don’t end up in every character of your novel. The characters should all sound different!

10.   Characters don’t have to answer each other. Sometimes, it’s best to let the reader figure out what should have been said or what was left out. Sometimes a question needs to be asked but not answered.

 

We did a short prompt to practice what we were learning. It was fun and I encourage any of you who want to try it to link back here so I can read it!

Write two quick character sketches (age, occupation, gender, general personality and emotional state). Write a few lines of dialogue with no tags and no narration. See if a reader can guess the character sketch from your writing.

That’s all I’ve got this time around. Let me know if you have any additional tips.

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!

Library Writers’ Group: THE HORROR!

30 Sep

A lot awaited post about writing! I know it’s been a long time since I was able to put one of these together and I apologize to those who like my writing posts. Please don’t panic (Douglas Adams anyone?) as there should be some more of these coming up.

In keeping with the Halloween season, our group talked about horror writing this month. The obvious question is why do people read horror? Personally, I don’t read a lot of books I would consider horrific (or didn’t before this meeting, more on that later). When I do read, it’s an escapism. I want to experience something different from my daily life and books help me do that. But a horror book isn’t exactly the place I want to go. The horror readers among us weren’t as escapist as I am. Not many people want to live in a world saturated with killers and ghosts. Many didn’t consider themselves pure horror readers, but commented that the horror they’ve read is blended with other genres, especially SciFi and fantasy.

Horror writing has existed for longer than it has been considered its own genre. It began to come into its own with Gothic literature, but we can see traces of it as far back as Beowulf and classic fairy tales. In the 80s, the modern horror genre emerged with Stephen King being a prime example of the resulting genre.

We read an article which you can find here on the ten elements of horror. We went through them and talked about situations in books we’ve read and enjoyed which could fit into these characters. For example, some story lines that fall into ‘helplessness and isolation’ could be a new family situation or being stranded at sea. For ‘urgency,’ persecution and war are good examples.

Reading through these elements, I realized that a lot of recent dystopian fantasy have similar themes and situations. When I thought about it, they seem to fit the horror genre really well. It hooked back to the comment about genre being combined with other genres and I’ve come to see that I might not mind horrific literature after all.

We reviewed again why our horror readers liked horror books. Mostly, it was for the thrill they got from reading it. But also, it helped them not be as afraid of the unknown, unexpected, and unnatural.

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!

Meeting David Sedaris. A story of lines and chairs.

24 Jun

I’ve never gone to meet someone before and known what their voice sounds like but not what they look like. It was a little strange. But ultimately awesome. Here’s my saga.

The signing was 11 June in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is about 40 minutes from home. Fortunately, I was visiting the Sunday before and stopped in the bookstore to ask what time general signing started. I knew the reading was at 5PM and I didn’t have tickets for that. They said it should start around 7, but to get there at 5. “Bring a chair and book,” one of the employees advised. Don’t mind if I do.

So I went straight from work and got there just after five. I was fourth in line! Win. I settled in, thinking I’d sit there till seven and then get my book signed and be on with life. And by settled in, I want to specify that I bought and brought a folding lawn chair to sit in on the sidewalk. And I was the only one. So yeah, that was fun.

About 6:30, people with ‘Waiting List’ tickets showed up. They’d gone to the story the day reading tickets were sold and didn’t get one so they got a ‘middle ground’ option of cutting in the signing line. My 4th in line was reduced to 20th. Dang. About the same time, it started raining so we were moved to the bottom floor of the bookstore to wait. David was still signing books from the people who attended the reading.

He is so generous with his time that it created a Catch-22. He spent about five minutes with each person. So if you think about it, that would mean I should get to meet him about 8. However, there were the people from the reading as well and they pushed that out another hour, so I finally met David around 9PM after being in line for four hours. Yep. And remember, I’m toting a folding chair this whole time.

He’s everything you’d think he would be: friendly, quirky, sarcastic, and random as hell. He had a box of chocolates that he was offering to everyone. I choose a coconut flavored one.

I had two books for him to sign. The first was a copy of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim that I found at a used book store. It’s a little beat up but the biggest problem was that it was already signed! It was bought at B&N that way by the original owner. So, David personalized it for me.

"To Sam, I see you picnicing on chocolate with multiracial friends with birthdays falling on weekends"

“To Sam,
I see you picnicking on chocolate with multiracial friends with birthdays falling on weekends”

The other one was an (again) used copy of ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day,’ the only Sedaris book I’ve read so far. I wasn’t going to buy it, but it was in pristine condition so I’ll have a nice one to hang on to. He drew me a pretty picture.

photo 2Because, of course, he carries a bag of multi-colored sharpies so he can draw bloody scissors in books. Why would you think anything differently?

Of course, I asked David the same question I ask all writers. “I want to be you. What advice can you give me?”

He said with a smile, “Write every day. Write on Christmas, write on your birthday, but write every day. And, of course, read.” I’ve heard this advice before but it was still great to have it reaffirmed. Writing every day is the reason I started this blog. Even if I’m not working on fiction, I’m working on my voice: my familiarity with words and commitment to style. It’s been a great practice. David said, “You might be okay now, but you’ll never be good unless you write every day.” And if you follow me here, you know I read every chance I can get. I love to take reading as a chance to develop myself as a writer.

Unfortunately David doesn’t do pictures so I don’t have one to share. It was awesome to meet him and I want to publicly thank Katherine for waiting an hour and a half for me to get through the line so we could have dinner together. That was too kind of you.

As I’m shaking David’s hand and walking out the door, he asked me, “What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Writing.”

Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Poetry, slang, and likable characters

26 May

We had a Novel Girls meeting back on May 1st and it’s just being published today. That should tell you how much I’ve had to blog about! I love sharing with you all.

Katherine and I both shared a poetry piece this time. I’m not much of a poet so I was really curious how this would go. We raised a few questions about poetry critiques and how that would go. I like to write very structured poetry with rhyme schemes and certain numbers of syllables. I like to keep to conventional grammar and use periods and commas. Katherine wondered if I needed periods. Was capitalizing the next line enough to tell the reader that the phrase ended? I’m a stickler for punctuation so I want to keep them, but does it take away from the poetic flow of the poem? With commas, the reader will pause while reading, which is the same thing many will do with a line break. In a structure that’s more rigid, I can’t use line breaks where I would want my reader to pause, but does that mean I can’t use them? Are commas within a line awkward or a good guide for the flow of the poem? Nicole had said she’d like to bring some of her poetry in as well, but that her poetry is a very personal thing for her and she writes about her own emotions in a very raw sense. If something is that personal, can it still be critiqued? If something is very raw and personal, how much can you critique content? You can always suggest structure and spelling changes, but telling someone you don’t like their emotions, feelings, or reactions doesn’t feel right.

Nicole’s piece had a character that used slang words like ‘Gunna’ in his speech. As a reader, I’m very distracted by characters who speak in slang and I think it says something about their education level and intelligence. Katherine wasn’t bothered at all. I write characters who don’t use shortened words or slang and it sticks out to me when someone does. Does slang in prose bother you? What does it make you think about the character who uses it?

Sometimes the character we want the reader to like is overshadowed by another character who has a big personality. While it’s great that a character stick out because he or she is well written, you don’t want your protagonist to be overshadowed. We ran into a situation where I knew very little about the main character and more about a side character and in comparison, I didn’t really care about the protagonist. I needed something to latch on to, some level to relate to her on, in order to care about her change. In the premise of a short story, this can be really hard to do. My suggestion was to make the main character like something, be it a color or a sports team or a jacket, so that I can like her. If a character appears dispassionate about the world around them, I’m not inclined to like the character. Even if a character likes the Pittsburgh Penguins and idolizes Sydney Crosby (shudder), I can still like the character because he or she is passionate. Do you know other tricks to make a character likable?

There were a few other things we touched on that are worth sharing. Katherine had a wonderful quote which was “Titles are rudders of intentionality,” which she believed she had read somewhere. I just Googled it and couldn’t find anything, so if that is original, copyright to Katherine!

We talked about a technique that we’re calling ’emotional blocking.’ In theater, blocking is how a character gets from stage right to stage left. In literature, emotional blocking explains how a character gets from happy and smiling to angry and screaming. There are steps in between to get to the destination and it’s important that the writer gives the progression of these emotions to explain the change to the reader.

Out final quick topic was convenience. It’s convenient that I have a knife in my sock and want to stab the shop clerk’s neck. It’s convenient that I can find the receipt I need in my cluttered purse in a split second. If something is too convenient, there needs to be a reason. If too many things fall out of the sky into your characters’ waiting hands, you need to start explaining why. Go back a few pages, add something in that will make this less convenient. I went to the store with the intention of killing the clerk. I knew I would be returning the ugly socks my husband picked out so I had the receipt ready. Adding these things in can help make your story seem more real.

That’s all from the Novel Girls this time. Go check out Nicole and Katherine‘s blogs to see what they have to say.

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!

Book Club Discussion and Meeting the Author: Walking the Bible by Bruce Feiler

4 Nov

I had a very Bruce Feiler-filled week last week. My book club met Monday to discuss his book, Walking the Bible, and on Tuesday Nicole and I went to hear him speak about his latest release, The Secrets of Happy Families. I’ll cover Book Club first.

I was surprised that many people in our group didn’t finish the book. Because it’s not a work of fiction, this didn’t hinder our discussion too much and we were able to discuss the majority of the text and explain the last 100 pages or so. This was a book that really made us all re-think our religion. One woman in our group is Jewish and she said that learning so much about the ‘stories’ she had been reading since her childhood really helped her connect with them. She’d traveled through Israel as well and had the same feelings Feiler felt, that there was a connection with the physical place. Feiler’s continuation of this journey, into Egypt and Jordan helped us all connect.

One of the greatest messages of Feiler’s book is that the Bible isn’t a bunch of stories; a lot of them happened. What we’re dealing with is history, not fable. He was able to find evidence of many of the events that seem so fantastical at first glance. Water from a rock? Yep, it could happen.

Two of our overall observances were that Feiler was very well received throughout the lands he traveled. Maybe it was his guide Abner, who we all felt was his most interesting acquaintance. Without the formal title of many other people Feiler met, Abner knew more about the desert than (I think) even Feiler expected.

I was able to categorize the rest of our comments into three groups. The first is the amazement of the Bible we felt while reading Feiler’s words.  With all the fact and history Feiler found in the Bible, we were amazed that this history had been preserved for so long. One member of our group pointed out that many people don’t know what happened three generations back in their families because things were not as well recorded before universal education, yet these stories have lasted thousands of years. The animal skins the stories could have been written on have crumbled, but a combination of record keeping and oral history has allowed the stories to last through the ages. Because of the time gap between event and reading, we feel a sense of skepticism that these things couldn’t have happened, but Feiler’s evidence and account of the physical locations makes them seem even more real. It makes one wonder, is being in the desert the only way to fully connect with the Bible? One of our members argued that the topography of the Near East made the stories and their players into who they are. Had the land been a wooded forest, different things would have happened and those of us visiting Northern Michigan would be able to feel the Bible close at hand much easier. The struggles of surviving in a desert are not something many Americans and Europeans can relate to. One story that resonated with many of us was about a woman from New York City who moved her family back to Israel as a part of the Zionist movement. She said that in New York, her children would go on field trips to the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. This was how they got a first hand account of their national identity. In Israel, they go wonder the desert for a few hours.

Our next group of comments revolved around what we learned about religion from Feiler’s book. When God reached out to the Israelites, it was the first example of a monotheistic God as the center of a religion. The rules that this tribe followed helped unite them to each other and to their God. Kosher, for example, was a rule that the Israelites followed that God proclaimed and that kept them safe from forborne illness. People would (and still do) look beyond themselves to a higher power to survive. This is highlighted when the Israelites wonder the desert for 40 years. They had to learn to trust in God to reach the promised land. The first generation betrayed God and the tribe had to wait for that first generation to die off before they could get what had been promised to them. Along the way they learned to trust in God. One of our group members said that faith is accepting what you’re taught to believe, that which you are told but cannot see. To be part of the church, you have to succumb to your doubts and believe.

The last thing I will note here are the facts we learned in Feiler’s book that were memorable to us and that we greatly enjoyed. Translators of the Bible mistranslated the Red Sea (which Moses parts) incorrectly. It is actually the Reed Sea, which does not appear on surviving maps. The body of water many believe it to be is a more shallow marshy land, which may have been parted by a series of waves and tides. (There were many other fun historical facts that Feiler shared and I won’t spoil the story by including them all here.) One member was not very impressed that Abraham’s burial place was known because Cesar’s tomb is known in modern day as well and he lived centuries ago as well. Some of us wondered if the meaning of the word ‘year’ has been changed over time. With Moses’s life span being over 100 years and Sarah giving birth past age 90, maybe a year was measured differently, by cycles of the moon or seasons. Though, of course, these could be divine intervention. Our last point of discussion was on the Bedouin who still to this day life in the desert. With modern conveniences, it’s a conscious decision to live such a lifestyle and in Feiler’s book he makes it clear that for many it is a choice the people are glad to have made. It makes me think how connected they must feel to the desert.

Tuesday I was fortunate enough to attend a speaking event Feiler gave on his latest book, The Secrets of Happy Families. The crowd was relatively small and Feiler chose to speak from the audience level instead of using the stage. I loved the intimate feel. I’ll admit that while what he spoke on was very interesting, insightful, and thought-provoking, I felt like I wasn’t the target audience. My family right now consists of my husband, my turtle and me. I hate to brag, but I don’t have any disciplinary or behavioral problems with my turtle. He has some great advice about raising children from infancy to teenage years. I, however, feel closer to a teen than a parent. (Yes, I know this isn’t true.) So, like any inquisitive mind, I asked a question.

What of your book applies to me?

I told him I was a newlywed and Feiler told me that in his book there’s a section on how to argue. My ears perked up. He rattled off some really interesting facts. Prime arguing time is 6-8 PM so avoid serious conversations with your spouse until after 8. If you’re sitting on a hard surface, you’re more likely to be rigid in your opinions and not come to a compromise. Soft surfaces lend themselves to compromise. Sitting face to face is confrontational while sitting side by side promotes teamwork. When I told my husband he said, “Should we always just argue when we’re in bed right before we fall asleep?” Not a bad idea.

After all the talking and eating baklava (thank you, library!) Nicole and I made our way over to meet Bruce. We waited so that there wouldn’t be anyone behind us so we could ask our question. We introduce ourselves and I might be wrong but I suspect Feiler remembered me from our Twitter interaction (I may have been really excited about this). After he signed our copies of Abraham, we asked our question, “What is your advice to us?” First advice, if you want to be a writer, you have to write. This might sound obvious, but I’ve been given this advice before and it’s not. You need to dedicate time to writing, time to be sitting in a chair. And you have to finish what you start. No one ever published the beginning of a novel; it has to have an end. The other thing he said surprised me a little but the more I think about it, it makes sense. He said to self-publish. Good self-published books can be picked up by traditional publishers and make that jump into print. Even if a book doesn’t, an author’s second novel would have a better chance if it could be shown the first had success as a self-published piece. Feiler recommended publishing on-line to gain followers as well. The site he wanted to recommend escaped him in the moment, but I believe it was Wattpad. This platform gives authors a space to publish their novels chapter-by-chapter and gives them a place to gain a following and get feedback. I’m thinking now I might want to do this with my NaNo!

Feiler had a quote during the night that made Nicole and I look around for pen and paper. It was so beautiful we had to write it down. He said it was the blessing he gave his daughters when they were ten days old.

“May your first word be adventure and your last word be love.”

Until next time, write on.

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.