M is for Mistakes

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This will be a short post, because I need to ice my knee before I go to bed.  Yes, I apparently hurt myself–the doctor said I pulled a muscle.  No, I don’t know how.  And, he said no stair-climbing before I go to London.  Of course, the elevator at work is broken.

What mistakes can you make while researching?

Not starting early enough

If you have a deadline, this is the kiss of death. Your work will suffer.  You won’t be able to produce your best work.  Anyone who has pulled an all-nighter to write a paper that’s due the next day knows what I mean.


Image:  Stuart Miles / freedigitalphotos.net

Even if you don’t have a deadline, writing a book takes time.  You don’t want to be sick of it before you even finish.

Wasting time with the wrong sources

Figure out who you need to talk to or what you need to read before you get started.  I’m having trouble with this because the background for my protagonists is so broad.

  • The 1960s (I was alive but too teeny to remember it)
  • American Midwest (this part is easy)
  • England (not so easy but not so hard)
  • Wealthy English people (I don’t know any so I’ll have to fake it)
  • Theater and film in London and Hollywood (waaaaaaay too much information)

Taking your sources at face value

Anecdotal research is fun–who doesn’t like sitting round with your sources, perhaps drinking and eating, and recording their tales and stories?  In some cases, you’ll only have the anecdote and nothing else.  For fiction, you might get away with a tall tale or two.  You can adapt the story and plop that thing right into your narrative, and if it’s believable, it makes no difference.

Thanks for the beer, mate; everything I just told you was a huge lie.

Thanks for the beer, mate; everything I just told you was a huge lie.

Image:  stockimages / freedigitalphotos.net

You should absolutely double check what anyone tells you.  That person might have it wrong themselves, and worse, one or more of your readers could know it.  They will not hesitate to tell you that you’ve got it wrong.

Not verifying information

Verily, this goeth with the previous admonition.  Get thee hence and check out thine info, lest ye make a fool of thyself.

Sorry, I was reading about Elizabethan theater earlier and I got carried away.

Not using enough sources

Don’t just use one book or website.  You’ll miss a ton of good information, and you won’t get the whole picture.  No single source can ever cover every nuance of a subject.  Besides, different perspectives may give you a whole new angle for your story.

Not knowing when to stop

You stop when you feel as though you can write your scene and it will come off as authentic.

How the hell do I recognize when it’s authentic?

How the hell do I recognize when it’s authentic?

Image:  stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

You’ll know.  It will make sense, and your characters’ actions, dialogue, and motivations will have a realistic feel.

Besides, if you spend all your time doing research, you won’t have any left for writing.


Related link:

The 10 Stuff-ups We All Make When Interpreting Research

L is for Libraries

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The library!

When I was a child, this was my favorite place to be ever.  I’ve always been a reader.  Some kids freak out when you punish them by taking away their TV (internet) privileges, but if you wanted to get me where I lived, you said no library.

This huge building is the British Library, the national library of the United Kingdom, located in London.  I’m quite certain a good reason exists for me to go there.

Shortest URL ever, for a building full of words:  www.bl.uk

Shortest URL ever, for a building full of words:  http://www.bl.uk

 Image:  Jack1956 / Wikimedia Commons

 Not only does this magnificent place hold thousands of books and reference materials, it houses collections of historical significance.  I am such a museum nerd; if one lurks nearby, I’ll go see it.  The Treasures of the British Library exhibition has been on my list for a while.  I think I should combine a visit with a little looky-uppy action, don’t you?

I’m sorry I missed this:  today is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and they had a special tribute to Anne Frank, who died there along with her sister Margot.

Today also marks 103 years since the sinking of everybody’s favorite ocean liner, Titanic. Normally, I would watch the film tonight, but one of the main reasons I’m going back to London so soon is to watch it at the Royal Albert Hall, along with a live orchestra playing the score along with the film.

Let us pause for a moment to remember the lost souls of both Bergen-Belsen and the Titanic.


 Image:  unknown / Wikimedia Commons


Image F.G.O.Stuart/Wikimedia Commons


Image:  phanlop88 / freedigitalphotos.net

Okay, now that we has a sad, back to libraries.  All different types abound.  I’ve listed some of them.

Public libraries

In most municipalities, anyone who lives in the area can get a library card, free of charge, and check out materials.  Books, DVDs, sometimes even CDs and record albums, though the last two may have gone the way of the dodo.  Here you’ll find fiction, non-fiction, and general reference.

The library where I live has several branches; one of them, built in 1905 in the midtown area, is an original Carnegie library.  Click the link to find out more about those.  A few years ago, they restored it to its former glory.

Academic libraries

You will find most of these at universities and colleges.  Usually, you have to be a student, alumni, or faculty to check books out, but it may be possible for residents to use the reference sections.  These libraries contain mostly periodicals, journals, and scholarly works.

School libraries

Despite the evil librarian, I spent many happy hours in my primary school library.  I remember particular books, including one collection of sci-fi stories that I would kill to find, but I can’t recall the name of it.  I only remember one of the stories–about a kid who found this crystal and there was a spaceship with a weird crablike alien.  I can see the cover in my head, but I don’t remember the name.

Maybe I should try hypnosis.

Image:  justananimefreak123 / deviantart.com

Research or special libraries

The British Library is one of the former, in addition to being the largest library in the world by items catalogued.  These libraries may specialize in particular subjects, such as military history, science / technology, or medicine.

National libraries have extensive works relating to the history and development of their respective countries.  Presidential libraries are archives of records and artifacts of one particular president and his/her administration, so that people may study them.

The Library of Congress in the US, another special collection, houses the world’s largest law library and the Copyright office in addition to being the US national library.

Anything you need to find, you will probably locate it at a library.  In addition to books and other materials, public libraries these days have many resources you can use for your work:

  • Computers with internet access (you’ll have to sign in and wait your turn)
  • Study rooms with a door you can close
  • Copy/scan/fax machines (bring your change)
  • Free or very low-cost wireless–you might need to visit the information desk for a password
  • Gift shops–buy a tote bag to carry your loot
  • Some large libraries have cafés, tearooms, or coffee shops where you can refresh yourself. Don’t spill anything on your book, or you might end up owning it!
I don’t understand.  How did haggis get in between the pages? 

I don’t understand.  How did haggis get in between the pages?

Image:  Stuart Miles / freedigitalphotos.net

Links of library stuff:

The 10 Biggest Libraries in the World

British Library

Library of Congress

Learning to research in the library  (this site is for teens but very informative)

Now go on out there and book!

K is for Kicking (and Screaming)

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My field research may be over before it starts.  Apparently, the relative I’m staying with thinks I’m leaving five days sooner than I am.

Thanks to a credit card company called Worldpay, who took money unauthorized out of my account, I have NO money to book alternative accommodation through 4 May, which is a bank holiday weekend in Britain.  Every hostel I look at has ZOMG ONE BED LEFT.  By the time I get the money back, or get paid this Friday, everything is going to be taken.



Image:  Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If Relative and her returning housemate is okay with putting up with me for those days, then fine.  But if she turfs me out, I’m pretty much screwed, and/or will have to pay a change fee to come back sooner.  Which sucks even more, because I lose five whole days of research time.

So I am kicking and screaming tonight.  Not literally; just figuratively, until I can call her and see what’s up.


What do you do when this happens?  You have to suck it up, obviously.  If you were doing research in a tropical area and a cyclone decided to come through, then you would have to adapt, right?  Same here.

Of course, it’s a bit more difficult when a payment vendor can’t be arsed to clear a pre-authorization from last year and then dings you for the money anyway.  And then takes five to seven business days to put money back that it took two seconds to remove.

Oh, longing for a lovely one of these that I cannot get.

Oh, longing for a lovely one of these that I cannot get.

Image:  phanlop88 / freedigitalphotos.net

Maybe I’ll get lucky.  I do get paid the actual day I leave, so if I don’t have to pay in full up front for lodging, I can fudge things.  Meanwhile, I will assume I cannot do what I need to do so I will make the most of the first few days.

What had I planned on doing?  Well, several things.

  • Looking at places my characters might have hung out, if they are still there
  • If not, finding similar places and getting a feel for them
  • Museums with exhibits from the time period
  • A bit of library work, if applicable (next post will deal with libraries)

I’ll keep you updated.  Fingers crossed that everything works out.  Thanks.

Ah, the life of a broke writer….

Ah, the life of a broke writer….

Image:  Daniel St.Pierre / freedigitalphotos.net


J is for Junk

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I love online research.  It’s so convenient to sit on the futon and surf the Web under a blanket, a cup of tea within easy reach.

Unfortunately, the Internet doesn’t have any quality control.  Information I find there could be legit or it could be as bogus as a three-dollar bill.

Awwh, why you always pickin on me?

Awwh, why you always pickin on me?

You can look for these things to decide if you’ve reached a credible website.

Date–when was the website last updated? 

Is the last update of the website recent?  For papers in grad school, any research older than three to five years wouldn’t fly.  I try to keep this in mind when I’m checking facts for anything else.  It depends on the subject, of course; medical and technology info becomes dated fast.  You can safely dismiss most information older than ten years.

Check external links. If most of them are broken, the site may not be up-to-date.

Extensions–what kind of website is it?

Universities use .edu, businesses and regular websites use .com, and organizations such as non-profits often use .org.  Governments tend to use .gov, at least in the US.  Websites outside the US often have a country extension in them, such as .uk (United Kingdom), .au (Australia), or .jp (Japan).  A website in England might be www.reallyhotbritishguys.co.uk.

Don’t bother, love; she made that one up.

Don’t bother checking, love; she made that one up.

Image:  photostock / freedigitalphotos.net

Students who don’t know anything might have created.edu pages, though this is less likely at a respected institution.  And anyone can make an .org page.  Beware also of wikis with no listed authors that anyone can edit.  On Wikipedia, you’ll find information that can give you a rough overview of the topic.  Most entries will also have links at the bottom that will send you to better sources.

Ownership–who does the website belong to?

You’ll find the world-famous Mayo Clinic at www.mayoclinic.org. Go to the bottom of their home page and read what it says there.  I’ll wait.

Finished?  What did you see?  I saw these:

  • A copyright: © 1998-2015 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All rights reserved.  You can google the Mayo Foundation, and you’ll find this link at gov, which is the US Department of Health and Human Services.
  • A contact link: The organization provides phone numbers, a physical address for each of its clinics, fax numbers, and emails.  You can easily reach someone there if you have questions.
  • An About page: Here, you’ll find a ton of information about the organization, its mission, and its people.
I’m guessing this page is probably okay. 

I’m guessing this page is probably okay.

Image:  stockimages / freedigitalphotos.net

Content–is it biased, or does it appear to steer you toward one conclusion? 

None of these things necessarily mean that a site is legit; the most important bit is verifying the organization’s credibility through separate searches.  One of the best examples we were given in school was a website that looked very professional and had contact and updated information.

The entire site, which belonged to a racist organization, contained very reasonably written and even-toned rants against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Once you started reading it, you realized pretty quickly that this was probably not a website you could use in your paper on Dr. King.  But it came up in searches as though it were legitimate.

If you’re reading about athlete’s foot, and the website has a .com extension, you might be on a site that is selling something.  Any information there is probably going to be somewhat biased.  Read it carefully–does it sound too good to be true?  Are there links or sidebars with product information?

Documentation–are sources properly cited, or listed at all?

A legitimate site containing research will cite its sources–author names, where they got the research, etc.  You should be able to verify all the information yourself.

Find more tips on avoiding web junk at these links.

The OWL (Online Writing Lab) at Purdue University:  Using Research and Evidence

Harvard Guide to Using Sources



I is for Interviews

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Thank you for your patience.  My knee feels better today.  It’s still a bit shaky and painful, but not as much as yesterday.  I still have no idea why it decided to be an asshole yesterday.  I’ll post the J post tomorrow.

Interviewing means asking questions of subjects.  You find someone who has the knowledge you seek and you quiz them relentlessly until they writhe, twitching, on the floor and beg for mercy.

Haha, just kidding.  Had you going there for a minute, didn’t I? 

Haha, just kidding.  Had you going there for a minute, didn’t I?

Image:  stockimages / freedigitalphotos.net

I found some great definitions for this subject from the Education Commission of the States’glossary of educational research terms for policymakers.

interview:  A data-collection method in which the researcher asks questions of individuals or groups and records the participants’ answers.  The interviewer usually asks the questions orally in a face-to-face interaction or over the telephone, but electronic interviews administered through e-mail also are possible.

interview protocol:  The planned questions and accompanying probes asked during an interview. Structured interview protocols ask specific objective questions in a predetermined order. Unstructured interview protocols ask open-ended questions and the order depends on interviewees’ answers.

focus group:  A group of participants who are interviewed together and encouraged to share their opinions on a particular topic.

Source:  http://www.ecs.org/html/educationissues/research/primer/glossary.asp

Most of mine have been one-on-one interviews.  I think I would need recording equipment for any focus group discussions.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t take notes that fast.

Back when I restarted college, I did one for bonehead English class–as a criminology major, I chose to interview the county deputy medical examiner.  He must have been used to such things, because he had a spiel.  We discussed how the system worked, the surprising reasons many people are murdered (hint: it’s usually really idiotic, stupid stuff), and I viewed a couple of photographs most people don’t get to see.

Interviewing can be fun, but some writers find it nerve-wracking and even disappointing.  It’s not so bad, if you adhere to a few best practices.

Prepare your questions ahead of time

You have a pretty good idea of what you want to know, so you can wing it, right?  Well, yes and no.  A random, spontaneous conversation is really nice if you connect with your subject, but most people don’t have time for that (and you probably don’t either).  You might even leave the interview having forgotten to ask your most important question.


Image: Matt Groening / simpsons.wikia.com

Make a list of your most pressing questions.  How to do that?  I keep track of anything I think I might want to ask someone in my book notes.  When it’s time to make the list, I go back through those.  Before the interview, I add anything else I think of to my list.

Keep the list short and focused.  Try to think of questions you can’t find the answers to online.  Check for answers before your meeting, so you don’t end up wasting their time and yours.

Contacting your subject

If it’s someone you don’t know, you can write, email, or call them.  Introduce yourself and explain that you’re a writer and you’re doing research on X.  This is important for two reasons:

  • It’s respectful to introduce yourself. They will want to know who you are and what you want with them.
  • Explaining why you have questions shows them you are not just some random weirdo asking about autopsies or police procedures.  Law enforcement in particular is very wary of freaky stuff.  Don’t give them reason to be suspicious.  Be patient if they want to put you off long enough to check you out.

Don’t just launch into your questions right away; ask them if you can arrange a time for the two of you to speak.  If you’re lucky, they might say, “Oh, I have time now; what did you want to discuss?”  In that case, you can ask a couple of basic questions.  You might get all you need from that, or you can suggest an appointment or a meeting over coffee (which of course you should buy).

Arrange a place to meet where you can talk

Much like a first date, a noisy, crowded venue does not lend itself well to conversation.  If you’re treating your subject to lunch or a drink, try to find a somewhat quiet place.  Choose a place where you can linger and not get turfed out in a hurry, in case conversation flows and the interview lasts longer than you anticipated.

Make it public, for the safety of you both.

I know YOU’RE not an ax murderer, but I’m not so sure about me….

I know YOU’RE not an ax murderer, but I’m not so sure about me….

Image:  graur codrin / freedigitalphotos.net

To record or not to record?

In Research for Writers, Ann Hoffman says some people become very nervous about being recorded.  They might not want to talk.  She suggests you wait a bit until the interview gets going, and then you ask if you can use the recorder to assist you so you don’t miss any of the really great info you’re getting. (Hoffman 2003, p. 32)

The book talks about microphones and digital recorders, but as with most technology these days, there’s an app for that.  Google around; whether you’re an iPhone owner or an Android devotee, you should find something that will suffice.  Test it out, maybe with a friend at a restaurant or pub, before you go on your interview.

If you don’t record, make sure you transcribe your notes and/or your recollections of the conversation as soon as possible, to maintain accuracy.

When you’re finished, don’t forget the niceties

Always, always thank your subject.  It’s nice to send an email or a note, saying “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me the other day about your time as a ninja assassin for my book.  I enjoyed speaking with you.”

Let them know they are welcome to inspect any quotes you might use before you publish them.  If they want a copy of your book, it’s nice to give them one.  You might explain to them that there are no guarantees it will ever come out.  Disregard this if you have a book contract or you’re self-publishing.

If you have a book contract, disregard my jealousy.

If you have a book contract, disregard my jealousy.

Image:  stockimages / freedigitalphotos.net

Don’t be discouraged if your first few interviews are awkward.  It just takes practice.

For more information on interviewing, you can check out these resources.

The Renegade Writer:  The Ultimate Freelance Writers Guide to Recording Interviews

Informational interviews for job seekers, but many of the same principles apply:

life@work:   How to Get the Most Out of an Informational Interview



A Slight Delay

Hey everyone, I will post the Blogging from A-Z Challenge I post along with J for tomorrow (Saturday).  An old knee injury has reared an ugly and vindictive head (of course, less than two weeks before I need to sprint through airports!), and I’m just too woozed up on Tylenol-3 to do a proper post today.

blargh i am ded

I hope it will clear itself up soon.*  For the I post, which will be Interviewing, I might have a Part 2 at a later date, after the Challenge.

See you tomorrow.



*How about NAOW.

H is for Human

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We naked apes have been telling stories to each other since the world began.  The old tell stories to the young, mothers to children, friends to each other.  People love to talk about themselves and their experiences.

“As I was saying, then he bumped into me on the bus, and you should have SEEN the look he gave me!  As if it were my fault!  So then I said….”

“So, like, then he noped on out of that swamp and left me to deal with the anaconda alone!  And he glared at me like it was my fault!  When we got back to camp, I pulled out my Tazer and….”

Image:  Serge Bertasius Photography / freedigitalphotos.net

I’ve listed three ways you can do research for your book by mining the great resource that is other people.  I’m only talking about fiction—non-fiction research involves much more fact-checking and digging.  Fiction doesn’t have to be true, or even realistic, to entertain.

1–Talk to your peeps

Your fellow meatspace inhabitants can provide you with all kinds of anecdotes and verifications.  Does your protagonist need to know how to change out a carburetor?  Know someone who does it for a living?  See if they’ll sit down with you and answer some questions.

Family members and older friends who like to reminisce will probably have tons of fascinating glimpses into a vintage era.  Did Uncle Harry live on a commune back in the day?  Ask him about it.

Better catch him now; he’s off to another protest.

Better catch him now; he’s off to another protest.

Image:  David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons

TIPBe very careful asking people about wartime experiences, surviving disasters, and other traumatic memories.  They might not want to recall those things, and you don’t want to revive old nightmares.  You can find plenty of info on things like WWII, the Vietnam War, or cruise ship disasters by googling and reading.

Chat with people.  In the course of small talk, you might hit on something fascinating.  Ask lots of questions and listen.  One blogger did this and found out some really cool stuff.  (But in general, don’t bother people on the Tube.)

2–Don’t forget your cyberpeeps

Join forums and follow pages devoted to your interest.  I mentioned that Facebook page I follow about London; commenters there drop tons of little details.  I’ve even friended a couple of them.

TIPBe careful who you friend or contact on social media.  Before Internet, I once phoned an author to ask about something in his book about drugs and psychiatry (he welcomed questions), and he turned out to be completely paranoid.

Try a website like Quora.com.  Sign up and get an account–then you can ask questions, comment on other questions, etc.  This link contains more info about the site.  I get a regular email from them, customized to particular subjects in which I have an interest.  Some of the questions are goofy as hell, but I’ve found enough good information that it’s worth the occasional junk posts.

3–Find some expert peeps

You may need to pay experts for their time.  I sourced a local medical professional for Tunerville’s pivotal scene; I was already a client of hers.  I scheduled an appointment and totally would have paid for it to get the information I needed, but she thought the whole book idea was cool and didn’t charge me for her expertise.

Check local universities.  Subject matter experts (SMEs) abound–again, for Tunerville, I had a chat with a physics professor at my alma mater.  I knew him from attending a film club he ran on campus (which I actually heard about through a coworker).

Your connections matter!  So network any time you can.  Talk about your work to people you meet.  They might have tidbits you can use, or even know an SME who can help.

Commence schmoozing in….three…two…one….

Commence schmoozing in….three…two…one….

Image:  stockimages / freedigitalphotos.net

The FBI Office of Public Affairs exists specifically for SME inquiries from media professionals.  This includes filmmakers, journalists, and fiction writers.  I sent a registered letter asking to speak with someone for Rose’s Hostage.  They put me in touch with a Special Agent in Charge (SAC–law enforcement loves acronyms) in a city near mine and he patiently answered all my questions via email.

Now that I have all this juicy peep stuff, what do I do with it?

  • First, figure out what will work in your narrative and what won’t. Your auntie Myrtle’s racy story of the time she snuck into the crypt at St. August’s Church in the 1940s and made out with the assistant vicar probably won’t fit in a tight thriller about mercenaries on the high seas.
  • Make sure you get permission to use the information. Auntie Myrtle might tell you about the vicar when she’s tiddly in the living room, but the thought of her indiscretions in a book could have her clutching her pearls.
  • If you do get permission, change details or names that could identify people. Not everyone wants to end up on Buzzfeed* if your book goes nova.
  • Buy them lunch or a drink if you can manage it, thank them for their time, offer them a copy of the book, etc.
  • Some people might be happy with a mention on the acknowledgements. They can point to it in their copy and tell their friends, “I helped with this!”  You can email them or ask if they’re okay with being included.

Be polite when you ask for people’s time.  Work around their schedules.  Keep your inquiries short so you don’t tire them out or bore them to death.  You can choose to tell them your plot or only reveal certain details.

Remember, people want to help.  It’s a human thing.

Related articles:  How to Find Expert Sources for Articles, by Cindi Myers at www.fundsforwriters.com


*Warning: stay off Buzzfeed if you’re working. It’s a huge time suck!

G is for Geography

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So you’ve decided to set your book in a faraway place, one to which you’ve never been.

Are you MAD?

Are you MAD?

Image: graur razvan ionut / freedigitalphotos.net

Perhaps, or maybe your imagination conjured up a story that doesn’t fit in the cozy suburb you’re used to.  If you want your setting to seem authentic, you’ll have to learn a bit about it.


Does your location have mountains? If so, are they craggy peaks with snow and alpine meadows, or are they lower and tree-covered?  Or is it flat, with views for miles around?  Can your characters see that huge tornado coming?

It’s that time again.

It’s that time again.

Image:  imdb.com


Speaking of tornadoes, if you set a story in the Midwest in the spring, you might want to consider this.  A perfect March and April?  Just doesn’t happen here.  Summers are hot and humid; winters tend toward cold, damp, and blustery.

The weather affects your characters.  What they wear will depend on it.  They’ll probably check the radar before they decide to drive up to the hunting cabin.   You can build the weather into your conflict.  Maybe brothers Randy and Art have been circling around an issue for a long time.  A snowstorm strands them in the cabin for a few days?  Perfect time for a confrontation!

Distance and transportation

Distances have to make sense.  In Danse Macabre, Stephen King pointed out one of his own mistakes, something he did in his novel ‘Salem’s Lot.  He said he had Ben and Susan hop in the car and go to a film in a particular real-life location, coming back that same night.  From where he had located his fictional town, they would have had a three-hour drive one way.

Hey, nobody’s perfect. 

Hey, nobody’s perfect.

Image:  Mike Segar/Reuters via The Atlantic

Many smaller U.S. cities don’t have great public transport either.  A poverty-stricken character won’t have a car; you’ll have to work out the logistics of where she works (if she’s working) and how she gets there.  Her finances will affect her transport issues, which will affect how far she can go from home.

Things to do

Where would your characters go for an evening out?  If you put them in Freeport, Kansas (population 5), they’re not likely to find the opportunity to glam up for a theater date downtown.  Characters who grew up in a cosmopolitan area of London probably never learned how to feed chickens.

You’ve got the basis for a fish-out-of-water story if you want to move a Londoner to Freeport.



Image:  Vitolef / freedigitalphotos.net

If you’re going to make up a place, you’ll still have to consider these elements and more.  Layout, neighborhoods, proximity to other locations–all will have to be solid in your head so that when you move people around, you’ll avoid putting them in impossible positions.

Get your geography sorted so your characters can stretch their legs.

F is for Fantasical

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I spent all day trying to think of an F word (snicker) for this post.  I kept hitting on fantasy, but the intellectual brain said, “Don’t be silly; fantasy has nothing to do with research.”

The lizard brain said, “Sure it does!  If you’re writing about fantastical creatures, wouldn’t it make sense for you to research their origins?”

It’s thin, I know.

You must know about us, so that you do not sully our reputation with sparkly bullshit.

You must know about us, so that you do not sully our reputation with sparkly bullshit.

Image:  film4.com

Fantasy literature deals with subjects that are removed from reality.  Many fantasy writers invent elaborate worlds and the creatures that inhabit them, but others mold new versions of those that have gone before.

Horror is a subgenre of fantasy, so let’s discuss vampires, since our dear Count Orlok above suggested it.  This monster shows up in many cultures, but what we think of as a vampire first came to us out of Eastern Europe.  Originally, it was a demonic, reanimated corpse, not the pleasant, even erotic being of later fiction.

Abraham “Bram” Stoker gets most of the credit for bringing the vampire into the world of the Victorian drawing room.  In folklore of the Balkan and Transylvanian area, vampires are generally a peasant myth; Stoker elevated the monster to a station in life in which he could meet and threaten his genteel heroes.

Good evening.  I am here to scare the living piss out of you.  Then I vill drink your blood.  Ahh hahahahaa. 

Good evening.  I am here to scare the living piss out of you.  Then I vill drink your blood.  Ahh hahahahaa.

Image:  immortalephemera.com

Stoker’s decision to make over the monster from a reanimated corpse visiting its family in the night into a wealthy and powerful nobleman changed the vampire tale for years to come.  Dracula, first published in 1897, became a hit even then.  The novel has not been out of print — ever.

I’ve read it; you should too.  For a Victorian book, it kicks ass.

But Stoker wasn’t even the first to do this.  The original creator of a high-born vampire was actually physician Dr. John William Polidori.  His short story The Vampyre contained the first high society bloodsucker.  He loosely based his monster on the fragment of a story written by his most famous patient, the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Even the story of the story fascinates.  Polidori wrote it during the summer of 1816, when he, Byron, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shelley’s fiancée Mary Wollstoncraft Godwin (later Shelley), and Mary’s stepsister Claire Claremont had traveled to Lake Geneva.

Thanks to a huge volcanic eruption, the weather really sucked that year.  In fact, it was actually called “The Year without a Summer.”  It rained so much they had to spend all their time indoors, and one night after reading from a book of ghost stories, Byron suggested they each try their hand at writing one.

I was cocky like that.

I was cocky like that.

Image:  thecultureconcept.com

Byron wrote and discarded the fragment later appropriated and revised by Polidori.  Shelley penned a story as well, and Mary, after a nightmare caused by their earlier reading, produced the first scribblings of what later became Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.

You can read Polidori’s story here, if you like.


I did this research for a paper long ago; that’s how I know so much about vampires.  I shared it with you to show you something.

The vampire has certain characteristics.  No matter how you mix it up, you have to stick with the basics.  It is what is known as an archetype, which is a first form or prototype.  Everyone knows what a vampire is.  If you’re writing a straight archetype and you stray too far from canon, you run the risk of ridicule.

You were saying?

I know the Twilight series made lots of money, but it wasn’t because Meyer’s vampires were scary.  Edward Cullen didn’t even have any fangs.

Anne Rice took the noble vampire a bit further when she turned the creature into a romantic figure in Interview with the Vampire.  But Lestat de Lioncourt, the hapless Louis, the vengeful Armand, and especially the child vampire Claudia were still quite monstrous.

From Nosferatu all the way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, writers have taken the archetypical bloodsucker in all sorts of directions.  But he’s still a thirsty demon at heart.

Speaking of new directions, one of the freshest takes on the Devil I’ve seen recently is Joe Hill’s Horns.  Who is Joe Hill, you ask?

Do you know me?  You might know my dad.

Do you know me?  You might know my dad.

Image: content. time.com

That’d be me. 

That’d be me.

Image: goodreads.com

Horns is about a guy accused of the murder of his former girlfriend.  He wakes up one morning with big horns growing out of his head.  They have the eerie effect of making people tell him stuff he doesn’t want to know — or does he?

If you haven’t read Horns or seen the film with Daniel Radcliffe, and you’re not too squeamish about horror, do it.  DO EET.  In fact, do it anyway, even if you are squeamish.

TIP Breaking rules requires you to know them.  So study up on your monsters, fairies, werewolves, and ghosties.  Before you monkey with the archetype, make sure you aren’t straying too far afield.  Readers like it when you do something new, but they get even more excited when they recognize it first.

E is for Ethics

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

Today’s topic is ethics.  Bear with me, because I took off my funny hat for this one.

Serious cat

Image:  knowyourmeme.com 

What does this have to do with research?

More has been written on this subject than I can even attempt to discuss here.  For fiction writers, research colors the work with authentic detail.  It enhances believability.  It helps with world-building.  It also raises questions of responsibility with the dissemination of information that could be used for nefarious purposes.

World-famous author Stephen King has been blamed for inciting violence with his own fiction.  The 1997 Heath High School shooting, in which Michael Carneal opened fire on a group of praying students, is the primary example.  Carneal had a copy of King’s short novel Rage, written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, in his locker.  In the book, student Charlie Decker kills his algebra teacher and holds the students hostage, forcing them to participate in a bizarre social experiment.

King apologized for any contribution his book made to this or other incidents.  The novel fell out of print shortly thereafter and is no longer available in The Bachman Books collection or separately (although you could probably find it used if you really wanted to).

Disclaimer:  I have the original collection.  While the story is very good, I can easily see why the book was allowed to fade out of sight.  It’s basically a how-to for this type of crime.

This 2012 Psychology Today blog post by Joseph Grenny calls for a law restricting inciting speech, especially in the aftermath of school shootings that are the work of copycats, either using Rage or other media to spur them on.

Doubtless, many teenagers read King’s book.  A fair number of them probably identified with Charlie Decker.

I’m not sure I agree with Grenny on this, because as commenter TerryS helpfully pointed out, both the U.S. and England have managed to reduce the harmful consumption of cigarettes and alcohol respectively by education and public awareness campaigns.  Prohibition of alcohol cost the U.S. a great deal (and it didn’t stop anyone from drinking).

But TerryS has another point, and so does Grenny.  Mass media glorification of murderers and serial killers is nothing new; however, with the immediacy of the Internet and the growing inaccuracy of reporting these days, we should be careful what we say and how we say it.

We know that certain types of individuals seek glorification through their acts.  We also know that people have an insatiable appetite for the details of gory or shocking crimes and a deep need to understand why horrible incidents occur.

Take the recent crash of Germanwings Flight 9525, driven nose-first into the French Alps by a suicidal pilot, whose actions killed himself and all 150 others aboard (144 passengers and 6 crew).

If this were a fictional scenario, a writer might research ways to accomplish such a horrific act.  Should he outline every detail of his research in the narrative, including the exact methods, and the safeguards that the pilot overrode in order to carry out his plan?  Because that’s what the media has done, and assuming he had similar access, now the reader knows exactly how to do it.

Notice I am not mentioning his name–not only is it widely available on other media, including the article I linked to, but I don’t wish to give him personally any more attention.  By continually focusing on him, we may feed the starving psyches of other people in a similar state, who might look upon this pilot’s posthumous fame as something to aspire to.

Though caution is widely recommended by experts when these tragedies happen, and the media pays little or no heed every time, thankfully very few suicidal people follow this type of path.

As a writer, what can I do?

Restricting creative speech would hurt writers and other artists.  What would be the result of a law like this?  Would we have to submit our work to a government entity to ensure it won’t unduly influence a very small segment of the population into committing violent acts?  Who gets to decide that?

Damned if I do; damned if I don’t. 

Damned if I do; damned if I don’t.

Image:  David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I don’t think we necessarily have to discontinue writing horror fiction and crime stories, or censor ourselves too much.  But I do think we should be careful what information we put out there, lest we find ourselves accused of undue influence — or worse, the target of a lawsuit.

Most of your investigative results won’t find their way into your work.  A well-researched story works better when not laden by scads of detail.  I’m not including works like Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series — the saga of Cro-Magnon woman Ayla and her lover Jondalar, her Neanderthal Clan, and their Ice Age world are all the better, I think, for the rich and varied minutiae of that era the author included.

Prehistoric fantasy at its finest!  Thank you, Ms. Auel!

Prehistoric fantasy at its finest!  Thank you, Ms. Auel!

Image:  earthschildren.wikia.com

If you’re writing about Ice Age peoples, then weapons construction is probably okay (most people aren’t going to try to construct a flint ax head or an atlatl).  If you’re writing about bank robbers, as I did, it’s probably not a good idea to include a recipe for the flash-bangs they use during heists, though a savvy redditor or 4chan user could probably find one in about two seconds.

Use research responsibly, folks.