It’s A Mystery: Research and The Evolution of A Writer’s Method

One thing I never really imagined changing was my writing routine. I write pretty consistently (every day, in fact, unless I’m in the midst of a massive editing project, and even then I try to squeeze a few hundred words in just to say that I did), but the level of planning and preparation I need for a new writing project — aka the “pre-writing” work — has never been that much.

For science fiction (like my recent release, The Last Acolyte), I usually come up with a list of all of the major alien races, planets and pieces of technology, and if necessary I’ll write a few paragraphs about the major concepts in the setting in order to maintain consistency. Once that’s done, I create a rough outline, and then jump right into writing.

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For fantasy and epic fantasy I tend to do less outlining and more world building, since that really is the bread and butter of that sort of work. I go overboard drawing maps, writing timelines, (badly) sketching new weapons, writing up bios for major characters and monsters, etc. I absolutely LOVE world building, and with as much effort as I put into building, say, Malzaria (from The Skullborn Trilogy) or Earth After the Black (from Blood Skies), the actual stories practically wrote themselves.

Basically, in both cases I was able to do lots of world-building and very little advanced plotting, but the world building was so detailed and complete I had no trouble writing the actual novels from the seat of my pants (aka “pantsing”, for those of you playing the home game).

Now, I’m writing a mystery novel…and it’s an entirely different ball park.

Sport

I’m still doing quite a bit of “world” building for this project (in this case it’s “setting” building), though not as much as usual. My as yet unnamed novel is set on the fictional island of Raven’s Gate, a community north of the San Juan Islands and off the western coast of Washington State (an area I know pretty well), but since I based the place on an amalgam of a few different very real locations I spent a great deal of time researching realistic weather patterns, temperatures, fauna, tree life, history, etc.  I had to come up with a believable demographic, determine what would be the size and make-up of an appropriate police force, and tried to calculate what sorts of resources an island that size would have available.

But wait, there’s more! Since it’s a murder mystery and the world has grown so savvy with CSI-fu, I, too, have been pouring through Crime Scene and Forensic texts and learning all about securing a crime scene, the shortcomings of fingerprints, how to take a mold from a shoe print and other fun stuff I’d never really thought about before. I’ve learned a lot about illegal drugs, which prisons are the worst, the truth about the modern mafia and how hard life would be as a cop in Philadelphia.

Oh, and since one of the main characters is Black (which, I shamefully admit, I am not) and the other is a German hacker (which I also am not), I did yet more research to try and make sure I present realistic characters.

Malcolm StoneLara Richter

(My main characters, Malcolm Stone and Lara Richter, kindly portrayed by Idris Elba and Antje Traue. Hawt.  Check out my Mystery Project Pinterest Board to see more inspirational images for the new project.)

Finally, prior to starting this project I hadn’t actually read a lot of mysteries, so guess who’s been binge-reading novels about Matt Scudder, Walt Longmire, Cormoran Strike and Inspector Gamache?

Oh, and the whole “plot as you go” thing I was able to do with science-fiction and fantasy? Not going to fly with a mystery novel. Dropping random bits and details I can tie together later isn’t going to work so much, because when writing a mystery you have to know exactly where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and why you’re going there in the first place. For the first time in my writing “career”, such as it’s been (this will be my 12th fully written novel), I’ve had to lay out a fully detailed plot before I even sat down to write, complete with thorough notes.

Now, there’s still room for pantsing (especially with character details and interactions, subplots, stuff like that), but the amount of work I’ve had to do prior to even starting this novel has been, in a word, insane.

But I’m loving it.

Research

So maybe I need a shove every now and again to get out of my wheelhouse. Maybe I needed to take on something I never thought I’d actually do (which, in this case, is writing something totally out of my normal genre). My writing routine was starting to feel a little stale – I was still enjoying the work, but I felt like something was missing for me personally in the act of the actual writing. Maybe this is just what I needed to spice it up.

Will I completely change my writing routine now that I’ve tried things the “Prepare and Plot” way versus using the diploma I acquired at Pantsers University? We’ll see. But writing has become fun for me again, and that’s got to be worth something.

 

About the Author

Steven Montano is actually a Bond villain, so don’t piss him off.  You can, however, check out his work at http://steven-montano.com/

Perking Things Up

by Chantal Boudreau

I, like many writers, am a lover of coffee. I drink coffee every day, try to get my hands on the best coffee possible for my price range, and I have a cubicle shelf cover dedicated to coffee quotes and cartoons, known as “the coffee wall”. Considering how important coffee is to me, it makes sense that I include it in my writing from time to time, right?

In my recent FOODFIC post, “Flavouring Fantasy,” I discussed the idea of using mundane things like food and drink to enhance fantasy fiction, taking world-building to another level. The same exercise can be applied to most genres, even those not related to speculative fiction.

And while coffee is a mundane thing, it is still something I happen to be passionate about. They say you’re supposed to write about what you know, and I know coffee. Here are a few ways I’ve found to use my passions as fuel and fodder for my writing:

Realism/Research: I have much more enthusiasm for researching something I find fascinating or intriguing to begin with. Incorporating coffee into some of my more realistic, detail-oriented stories means I get to find out new information about something I really like. For example, writing my short story “Waking the Dead,” a tale linking zombies with coffee, required research into types of coffee grown in Haiti as well as rust, a fungal affliction that affects coffee plants. I had the pleasure of increasing my knowledge of coffee while gathering the facts I needed to make my story more believable.

Focus: Especially with short stories, I find having a focal point for my story facilitates the creative process and strengthens the plot. Several people have said the “Waking the Dead” is one of my better zombie stories and I would attribute that the fact that coffee serves as a central theme.

Simile/Metaphor: Sometimes when you need something to explain an extraordinary or supernatural event in a fantasy setting, the best way is to compare it to something else you know very well. Coffee has served as a tool for me, functioning for the sake of comparison in the past. Here’s an example from Magic University, describing Ebon, one of the competitors, drawing sustenance from magic:

He continued onwards, abandoning the map face up in the mud. He had not expected this would happen, and knew it meant that he would have to feed, something he rarely felt the inclination to do. This did not please him. Feeding took time and energy, and he had neither.

Arriving at what he believed was his destination, he began his search. He had no trouble locating the leather wallet that contained the token. He could pick out with ease the two glowing magical auras surrounding the purse, and they smelt absolutely heavenly, like the aroma of fresh bread or strong coffee. He salivated at the thought of absorbing all of that sweet, distinctly different energy. The one reminiscent of coffee was harsh and bitter, but strangely satisfying, the other somewhat bland, but slightly sweet and very substantial. That was the only one he intended to feed off of, absorbing what he could as quickly as he could. This was the plan, but once he started, he could not stop.

He had not recognized his hunger, had not realized just how ravenous he had become. He sucked back the spell’s energies, lost in the instinct to feed and absorb. Before he had realized it, he had completely devoured the first spell and had started in on the second. He had lost all track of time, and as the last drop of energy slipped past his ethereal lips, he stretched out, thoroughly satisfied and replenished.

As you can see, there are several ways to use ordinary but much loved things to spice up your story, allowing you different way of deriving greater satisfaction from your tale – or in my case, ways to perk things up.

And if you are more invested in your story as a writer, chances are, readers will be too.

In Memory of Divot

Writers sometimes end up researching pretty strange things and finding inspiration in the most unusual places as a result. Divot was one of those inspirations and just like many of the things that influence my writing, his presence was fleeting.

I’m assuming it was a him. It could have just as likely been a her, but I’m not exactly an expert of how to tell male and female crows apart from a distance, so I went with my first inclination. Long before I made any sort of connection with Divot, I came up with the idea of exploring a post-apocalyptic tale from the perspective of a crow. The likeliest survivors would be the scavengers, I hypothesized – the clever ones, the most resilient and the most adaptable – right? Better yet, the likeliest survivors would be the misfits who had already manage to thrive despite their inadequacies, so I made my crow smaller and strange-looking but smarter than his brethren.

Then I started my written research, and I found out many incredible facts about crows. Aside from facts about socialization and breeding practices, I discovered just how intelligent they actually are. They use tools, they store food cross seasons and they have episodic memories. They problem-solve and they can vocalize outside of the range of human hearing (like elephants) so who knows what they might be saying to each other. It provided a lot of opportunity for my story.

But everything I found out about crows made me all the more interested in them. Knowing what I now know, I started feeding some of the local ones and they started identifying me as a “good” human. They have facial recognition when it comes to humans and will label the ones they like or dislike – even attacking the ones they learn to dislike.

And that’s how I met Divot. He was a misfit like my narrator, Ash, only with Divot his peculiarity was a gaping gap in his wing. It meant that he was different and easy for me to identify, and he would make a point of showing up when I was outside waiting for the bus or walking the dog – hoping for food. I thought of him whenever I wrote about Ash. Divot was something in my life that made Ash seem more real.

Well, I’m now on the final chapter of the first draft of “Sifting the Ashes.” Ash’s story has almost come to an end for me. Unfortunately, it has also come to an end for poor Divot. My daughter found his body while on an outing and there was no mistaking the old injury that had scarred his wing, leaving that opening in his feathers. He’s going to be buried in our backyard – gone but not forgotten.

I’ve never dedicated a book to an animal before, but I think he deserves his place among the other people I feel deserve acknowledgement for their contribution to my writing. I hope the book gets published someday so he can claim that recognition.

The world is a sad and mysterious place – and I’m going to miss my little friend.

All Speakers Great and Small: The Non-Human Narrator

Having a central character who is not human is certainly not unheard of in genre novels. I can easily think of a few fantasy tales with creature protagonists. Tad Williams “Tailchaser’s Song,” and Richard Adams “Watership Down” and “The Plague Dogs” are the first to come to mind. “Sirius” by Olaf Stapledon is another. While having an animal as a protagonist can be difficult at times when writing in third person, it is an even greater challenge if you choose to present the story in first person.

My latest NaNoWriMo project does exactly that. The story, a post-apocalyptic tale that looks at the world after it has been devastated by a biological warfare agent gone wild, is told from the perspective of one of the few survivors – a crow named Ash. He’s not an ordinary crow, either. His plumage makes him a bit of an outcast because it is a sooty grey rather than black, he is smaller and less imposing than the majority of his brethren, and his role prior to the apocalypse was as “translator” for his murder because he is clever and has developed a talent for understand the human or “no-wings” tongue, English in this case.

Writing from an animal point of view presents a few obstacles. If you write too much from a bestial perspective, the story could become incomprehensible. Your human reader needs something he or she can relate to; otherwise, there’s not much point to reading the story. Sure, it may be novel and surreal at first, but this can get tedious after a point. If you write too much from a humanistic perspective, there’s not much point to choosing an animal narrator to begin with, and you’ll lose that sense of realism, even if the story makes a lot more sense as a result.

I chose to aim for a happy medium. Having my protagonist understand human language, think more in human terms than a typical crow, but still apply very distinct crow nuances to his perspective of the tale, means I can have the best of both worlds. He can make sense of the dialogue of his human companions, but he can’t speak to them directly (he can speak with other crows.) He uses those humans to make sense of what is happening because he would not be able to on his own.

On the other hand, he attributes things “crow” to everything he experiences. Birds are “winged ones”, with crows being “his kind”, other animals are “four-legs” and humans, because they walk on two feet like birds, are “no-wings”. All homes are considered “nests” and he makes references to fledgelings , nestlings and murders. Because he has flight, he can do things that no human narrator could do without magic. Many of his actions are influenced by instinct and he has a clear connection to nature.

All that being said, I think one of the most important things to keep in mind, when making use of a non-human narrator, is that you should do your research. I did significant research on crows before even starting my outline because I wanted my narrator’s behaviour to be as realistic as possible. That meant knowing how crows live, their mating habits, their relationship to their environment and things that are important to their survival in the wild. If you are using a non-human narrator and you are ignorant of these kinds of facts, it will be easy to flub details in your story. If you value realism in your speculative fiction, research will be essential for this narrative approach.

Considering I rarely write in first person and this is my first attempt at a first person novel, this choice is admittedly an unusual one. At the same time, I think it adds a new dimension to the story and provides an extra source of interest for the reader.

After all, doesn’t the idea of a crow’s-eye view of a post-apocalyptic future pique your curiosity?

The Modern Writer: Research

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m writing a series of posts highlighting different aspects of the modern writer. Today, I’m going to talk about research and how it has evolved in the internet era.

For me, in my recent endeavors, it’s become important to research how flintlock and percussion cap firearms work, how far an army could march in a day, or how much food would be needed for an extended campaign. Each writer is going to research something different, dependent on the needs of their story and the world in which it lives.

When I started writing I didn’t really do much of any research. All of my works were either highly derivative, or created completely without basis or factual evidence.

As I’ve developed as a writer, however, it’s become more and more obvious to me that in order to write a solid story, some level of research is essential.

“Back in the day” research involved reading other books in the genre of your choosing, or going to the library and finding source material on the subject you wished to research.

Taking classes on a subject at a local college might be one way to study a particular field, including the copious amount of notes that would go along with that.

But those things took time and money. And for some situations, you might not even have a chance to read extensively on your

The Internet has changed the way that writers study. A quick scan of the Amazon categories, a Wikipedia article, or even just a quick Google search will typically render enough reading material to fulfill most research needs. topic. Gunpowder Fantasy wasn’t even a thing when I started reading. If I had tried to read other books in the genre, I would have been out of luck.

Not only does this allow a writer a much wider variety of content to peruse and research (some of my reading for Gunpowder Fantasy comes from authors in the UK and Australia) but it saves tons of times. No longer does a writer need to take a chunk out of their day to drive to the library to look up books and read through them.

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There is, as always, a downside to using the internet as a research tool: the random dredges of society and the sometimes scattershot

approach that Google takes when combing through its massive databases for information.

n-helpful or downright harmful to the honest study of a topic. And if you search for two words, any website with those words anywhere near each other will come back on the results, sometimes creating false positives.Because anyone can have a blog, the search engines will often come up with results from people who are either less-tha

How has the internet changed how you research your work? How has it changed how you find new things to read
?

Those Little Extra Things…

I have to wonder how much thought an author has put into the smallest of details in a short story, now that I’m a writer myself. It’s not something you necessarily think about as a reader. “It’s just a short story” you might think – why would the writer have bothered doing extra research on a character name, a back ground story or have gone as far as to implant “Easter eggs” to connect that short story to some of their other fiction (I had three of these in one of my short stories)? You might expect those things from a novel, but a short story?

I have to admit it. I can get a little obsessive over things like research no matter what I’m writing – I’ve researched turbulence in depth for a flash fiction piece … a humorous one. But, I get an idea, the seed of a story, and I want whatever I weave around that core to be something special and exact. To give you an idea of what I mean, I’ll use my story “Octavia”, published in Crooked Cat’s Fear anthology. I’ve done this with fantasy stories as well, but I think “Octavia” is a great example of the little things I put into a story on many levels that no reader may ever notice is there, but which probably enhances the story to some degree. Or, at least, I hope it does.

I’m not terribly frightened of spiders, but I wanted to write a story about someone attempting to cure another person of arachnophobia with his own carefully calculated (and completely unethical) treatment. The fear for me was not the critters, but the main character’s horrific methodology.

I started by picking the story’s name. I went with “Octavia” because of the association with the number eight, but I decided I wanted to use something historical to pick my protagonist’s name and after some digging into roman history, I found just what I needed. That’s how Augustus got his name, Octavia being his half-sister.

But that wasn’t enough. If I wanted to make the treatment method plausible, I had to research phobia treatments that already existed. I wanted to combine a selection of them, be able to make references to experts in the field and take the new treatment to the next extreme.

Remember, all this was just for a short story. And there was more…

I realized this entire experience would be a traumatic, and made sure to incorporate the phases of mourning as Octavia faced what she felt would be sure death. If you follow her reaction to the steps within the treatment, you can actually see what I mean.

You would think that would be plenty. It still wasn’t enough for my satisfaction. I researched arachnid associations with food, little known facts about spiders and information about their venom. That gave me enough to finish up the tale – a typical short story of standard length, teeming with details that had emerged as a result of my research.

How many people are likely to notice? Very few, I would suspect, but I know everything that went into that story and that effort is important to me, just as it is with most of my stories.

So the next time you are reading a work that’s fictitious in nature and you come across something striking in the narrative, some fact that adds credible structure to the tale or some feature that makes the story seem that much more realistic, consider the extra time and effort the writer likely invested in that story to put that in there. Those things are there in the hope that they’ll be appreciated for what they are – a little something extra.