Researching and Writing

There’s plenty of useful information out there about how writers conduct research for their stories.  Still, I suspect it’s a question many beginning writers still wonder about.  I’m one of them, and I still wonder about it!  I won’t repeat much of what is said here or here (both full of great advice) but instead I’ll just mention how I do my research.

If I had to name the two phases of my research, I’d call them “mood” research and “bracket” research. Before I began writing a story, I conduct some general research on my topic time period, geographical setting, etc.  This is to let the world of the story percolate in my mind for a while, to put me in the mood of the story, to immerse me in being there (and then).

This research is online for the most part, though I often supplement it with books from the local library.  The usual caution about the accuracy of information available on the internet applies here.  I’ve never made a trip to the area where my stories are set, but I really should, and someday I’ll do that.  Sometimes I’ve set my stories in regions where I have already been, so some of the mood research is already done.

After I’ve done my mood research and begin writing the story, I always come up against some question not answered by any of my previous research.  This is often some little thing, some detail I’m not sure of.   This lack of knowledge comes at a time when I’m in the zone, writing along and I really don’t want to be distracted by stopping to conduct further research.  Time for bracket research.  For example, say I’m writing about two women in Switzerland chatting in a house, and it’s about the year 1600 or so.  What would they be drinking?  Coffee?  Tea?  Wine?  Rather than puzzling too long about it, or stopping the flow of words to surf for the answer, I just put the question in brackets:  [What are they drinking?] and continue on.  The story might end up being littered by many of these bracketed questions.  Later I just search for the brackets, research each question, and edit the manuscript accordingly.

Some writers hate research and have to force themselves to do it.  Not me.  I love it and will gladly spend time doing that rather than write.  I call it the suction problem.  It’s the same effect I experience when walking through a shopping mall in the vicinity of a bookstore.  A localized variation in the gravity vector causes me to slip along the floor toward and into the bookstore.  I sure get strange stares from other shoppers as I slide along backwards or sideways in the grip of this suction force.  Only by an extraordinary effort is it possible for me to resist.  (It helps to wear rubber-soled shoes for traction, and to find building support columns I can grab.)

It’s the same way with research, both the mood and bracket types.   I have to force myself to stop researching and return to writing.  After all, the end goal is to submit a reasonably good story while I’m still alive, not spend my remaining years combing through every bit of reference material on the subject.  Recognizing that end goal and being aware of my preference for eternal researching helps me focus.

So that’s how Poseidon’s Scribe does his research.  How do you do yours?  Write to me here with your comments.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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January 30, 2011Permalink

Why Write about History—Isn’t it Past?

When I was a kid, I wasn’t much interested in history.  It seemed just a bunch of old stuff—old music, ancient buildings, incomprehensible books, crumbling artwork—all irrelevant to modern life.  I wanted new things, modern stuff, the best of my own time.  I couldn’t understand some people’s fascination with people long dead.

I’m not really sure when the transition happened or if there was a single tipping point.  Maybe some of those boring history classes made an impression along the way.  Maybe some of the fiction I read or movies I watched fired some previously inactive neurons.  Maybe my attraction to the novels of Jules Verne had something to do with it.  For those of us reading science fiction in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it was hard to ignore the flourishing subgenre of alternate history.

In a parallel thread of my life, I had become captivated by submarines, and while learning more about them I soon found out about their history too.  That history includes brave men daring to submerge in rickety craft made of inferior materials, with insufficient understanding of the dangers.  It is a history of bitter failures, tragic disasters, and rare successes.  Some of the men involved are famous, some obscure: Alexander the Great, de Son, Cornelius van Drebbel, David Bushnell, Robert Fulton, Wilhelm Bauer, Horace Hunley, and others.

When my muse first urged me to write, it didn’t take me long to start writing stories with historical settings. As you can see from my ‘Stories’ page, I’ve written a few of them, mostly tales involving the sea and various vessels.

But I want to get back to the ‘why’ of all this.  Why do readers read historical stories?  Why do authors write them?  First, for both reader and writer, the setting and some of the characters come ready made.  The author doesn’t need to spend much time creating the world of the story, and in many cases need not describe some characters beyond stating their names.  So there’s a comfortable sense of familiarity with historical stories.  We can already picture the setting and characters in our minds.

Also, I think there can be—really should be—a sense of relevance to these stories, a sense they share with stories set in the modern day.  We all know we’re connected to history by vast chains of cause and effect; our world is a product of what happened before.  So there’s an attraction to reading about characters in the past grappling with problems, when we know how it all ends up, and when we know what effects linger from that time to ours.  At least we know what the history books say about the events of the time.  The trick for the writer is to bring these characters to life, give them real dimension, and to make a point about life for us today, to relate the story to a modern dilemma.

A major challenge for the writer of historical tales is to get the details right.  Any anachronism or other incorrect detail in the story can make a reader lose interest in the story, and respect for the author, in an instant.

Before I close, I’d like to mention the types of historical stories, at least the types I write.  First is the alternate history, where the story takes place in a world where things proceeded differently than our own.  This website contains some great discussions about alternate history.  In these stories, it is necessary to describe the world of the story so the reader knows which event triggered the split from our world.  But the author need not worry as much about getting details right because, after all, he’s not writing about actual history.  The other type of historical tale, one I actually prefer, is the ‘might have been.’ Here that type is called ‘Secret History.’  In this type, the author uses an actual historical setting and characters, creates a situation for the characters, and resolves it in a way consistent with how history books record the outcome.  In other words, everything in the story might really have occurred.

I’d love to hear what you think about this.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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January 23, 2011Permalink

Writing of seas and ships

What makes stories of the sea different from stories taking place in other settings?  Wikipedia has a nice, short entry touching on this question and I agree with its authors about the themes common to such stories and I won’t rehash those here.  By their very nature, sea stories create interest because the setting is different from most readers’ land-dominated lives.  People who have never been to sea are curious about what life is like out there.  Those who have been to sea enjoy relating to the experiences of the story’s characters.

The ocean makes for a paradoxical setting in that it is always in motion, but never really changing.  For the most part, the land just sits there, but the surface of the sea moves in a restless, rippling, chaos of crests and troughs.  The characters look out from their vessel and see a continuous display of nature’s power.  In general, this cannot be said about stories set on land or in outer space.  However, despite all this motion, water has a dull sameness to it.  Other than varieties of waves and some differences in water color, there’s little to distinguish one patch of ocean from another.  The sea shares this characteristic with outer space.  However, land provides a much wider variation in appearance, giving a descriptive writer more paints and textures for his word palette.  I think that’s why sea stories tend to skip over descriptions of the traveling part, compared to stories set on land.

I regard the ocean as a setting more illustrative of man’s creative powers.  We can stand up and move about on dry ground without any special assistance at all; we possessed from birth everything necessary to do that.  But the only way we can survive for long at sea, or travel through it, is through an act of creation—we must first build a vessel.  So stories based at sea must intrinsically involve a demonstration of our tool making skills and our exploratory urges.  The ship itself shows man’s genius and his desire to conquer nature, to test its limits.

I said I wouldn’t rehash the Wikipedia article, but I can’t resist emphasizing what it states its description—how stories set at sea possess a crucible aspect.  The characters have limited contact with the rest of humanity and must deal with each other in a confined vessel from which there is no easy exit.  They must confront their problems using their own personal attributes and whatever materials they have on hand, without the assistance of outsiders.  The reader can easily see their plight and focus on it.

Please don’t think I’m disparaging stories set in locales other than the sea.  I write and enjoy reading those tales too.  My purpose was only to explore what marks the sea story as different and unique.  Feel free to contact Poseidon’s Scribe with your comments!
Poseidon’s Scribe
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January 16, 2011Permalink

Why I am Poseidon’s Scribe

I write fiction, and most of the time the setting for my stories is the ocean.  When you grow up in the Midwest, the sea is so distant and seems very exotic.  You can only imagine the smell of the salt air, the wind-whipped spray, and the mountainous wave cressets.  Saying the words “ocean” or “sea” is akin to screaming the word “adventure.”

You might read some Jules Verne and some Tom Swift, and become even more enthused about the mysterious depths, and man’s ever-advancing technologies for exploring and living in the sea.  Maybe when you grow up, you might join the submarine service.  That dose of reality might just take the magic out of the ocean, but in your case it doesn’t.  At some point, you realized a muse is begging you to write down all the stories in your head.

Maybe it’s not a muse, though.  Perhaps it’s the ocean itself I hear, the watery echoes of wakes left by all the ships down through history that sailed there, or ripples sent back to our time somehow from future vessels.  If it’s the ocean’s mighty voice I hear, then that makes me Poseidon’s Scribe.

Well, let us say Apprentice Scribe, since I’m still learning the craft.  After all, I’m trying to convert eddies and surf and currents into prose.  Something’s bound to get lost in translation.

The sea is omni-faceted, as it turns out, and my stories now span several genres.  These include historical, science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, and horror.  Not all of my stories take place in a seawater setting, but most do.

I’m glad you’re here.  Look around the shop.  Read some of the results of my scribbling.  I’ll use this space to share thoughts about reading, writing, and the sea.  So long as the ocean keeps whispering in my ear, I’ll keep writing it all down, because I’m…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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