Friday, March 16, 2018

Writing With Your World Rocked

Research is a little like an iceberg. A lot of it doesn’t show. How do you decide how much research to put into your work?

I love facts and figures. It's been a thing of mine since I would read a volume of our partial set of World Book Encyclopedias in the kitchen as I ate cereal. I was the kid who held up the field trip because I read everything—and I mean everything—posted at the exhibits. That, and I was probably explaining it to some girl I liked. This is pre-World Wide Web so I would make a note to look up unfamiliar elements whenever I was back in front of resource materials in the library. Even today, my recall of even the most innocuous details about a person, place, or thing is so fast and yet complete, I sometimes look up things I already know just to make certain I'm not making it up. I never am. I usually can't remember what day it is, but I can tell you all sorts of shit about the Carnegie Library System, or what sort of relationship Herbert Hoover had with Harry Truman. If I wasn't handsome and a good dancer, folks would figure me a dork.

Admittedly, my grades always sucked, as I never did the work that was assigned to me. I'd make an earnest start, but then something within the research would interest me more than what we were working on in class. Back in the day, teachers would write cute little love notes to my parents in progress reports such as, "Easily distracted," and my personal favorite, "Refuses to finish what he starts." At a parent/teacher conference, Mrs. Nicholas, my 4th-grade teacher, told Rosalita, "Danny is brilliant, so much sometimes it's frightening, but he only studies what he wants to."

I'd get incompletes on all my homework, drop comedic gems from the back of the classroom, fail all the quizzes, yet ace all the tests, offering additional notes and sources in the side margin of my papers. I thought math word problems were opportunities for discourse. I was a mess and, aside from the occasional beatdown which held my attention only as long as the welts stung, I really gave no f*cks about it. I didn't have any learning disorders. I wasn't bored. I wasn't self-destructive. Teacher assigns me this, I study it, and my research uncovers that. The that feels more important, so I go with it, winding up wherever it takes me. I look up and the rest of the class is on a completely new chapter of the textbook. I remark how nothing in that chapter is relevant because the current chapter is really about x.

Boom. Ruler strikes on the palm. Hallpass issued. Assistant principal calls the hospital where my old G works. I may have a chance if she answers. If not, they call the firehouse where, for the old man, everything is life or death. Either way, I'll be taking that slow, long walk from the bus stop. Hey, an ass-whippin' only lasts so long, but knowledge is forever.

I'm not the sort of writer who takes offense as those who eschew research in favor of making it up as they go along. I just wonder if folks get how solid research really fuels a story. I once heard a peer on a panel say something to the effect of "Just make it up. No one knows what's really at that address, or where some such street really takes you." Actually, homie. I know. Plenty of folks know.

Making it up is harder, not easier. I leverage highly detailed research to reserve my creativity for plotting, dialogue and moments of exposition that illuminate the subject matter for the reader. If I'm not spending time and energy recreating what already exists crystalized in history, I'm free to explore thoughts, feeling, motivation, relationship, throughlines. If I'm burning up all my coal on world-building because I couldn't be bothered to research the setting, people, language, and customs, what mojo do I have for the fat meat of the story that makes the work stand out? No one over at Publisher's Weekly or Kirkus is going to write, "The story was flat, and the characters were thin, but where this book really shines is in the fictitious world created atop the perfectly good world that already existed." Making it up is like leaving the pot meat out of the beans. All that work and still no flavor.

Often, my research tells me what I'm really writing. I'm currently finishing my follow-up to A Negro and an Ofay. In it, Elliot Caprice returns to Bronzeville in Chicago, a neighborhood that is vital to the way America understands itself in the present day, except Google any location where our shared history placed a pin, click on satellite view, and you'll find a parking lot, vacant lot, or a pile of rubble. That led me to a deeper understanding of redlining, restrictive covenants, and local municipal ordinances. I'm writing a mystery thriller and I'm stopping to read a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago titled "The Effects of the 1930s HOLC “Redlining” Maps" authored by Daniel Aaronson, Daniel Hartley, and Bhashkar Mazumder. I'm just trying to get my facts straight before I start a new chapter. Then I read the abstract:

In the wake of the Great Depression, the Federal government created new institutions such as the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to stabilize housing markets. As part of that effort, the HOLC created residential security maps for over 200 cities to grade the riskiness of lending to neighborhoods. We trace out the effects of these maps over the course of the 20th and into the early 21st century by linking geocoded HOLC maps to both Census and modern credit bureau data.

You may find these words dry and boring, but the hair on my neck stood up. Perhaps it was the word 'geocoded.'

Our analysis looks at the difference in outcomes between residents living on a lower graded side versus a higher graded side of an HOLC boundary within highly close proximity to one another.

So, like, the thinnest of borders between black and white Chicago neighborhoods where death to a black person is a guarantee. The source of hostilities carried forward through generations although no one remembers why everyone is big mad. Aight. Aight.

We compare these differences to “counterfactual” boundaries…"

"Counterfactual boundaries." Oh, shit. Turf wars. Lenard Clark. "I ever catch you anywhere near Bridgeport and I'll kill you myself." Whooooah...

And just like that, my January writing retreat was a research retreat.

For the next few mornings, I became an expert on the reasons why Bronzeville is dead and gone. In a nutshell, once black folk entered the northern urban middle-class and did what was customary (get married, have plenty of children, educate them in preparation of entering the workforce,) the black population of Chicago grew, same as the Irish, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian, etc. Except when those populations grew, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a Federal agency, didn't erase the red lines around their neighborhoods and redraw them farther and wider. "Does a black family live there? Oh, then that must be the ghetto. Give me that pencil." Yeah, it's as arbitrary and cavalier as it seems. That's why places vital to the growth, stability, and promise of America turn up as wastelands on Google Earth. Am I writing about redlining or ghetto creation? Am I attempting an allegory about the dangers of government overreach? Man, I'm just trying to get to the next car chase or shootout. Still, I just can't help it. Danny wants to learn only what he wants to learn, and I learned where I take Elliot in the future is far different than where I wanted him to go.

So how much or how little my research shows depends upon how much work it gets done for me. The more it accomplishes, the less I actually have to write. For example, all that research on discriminatory housing practices endorsed and supported by the Federal government amounted to a half-page of dialogue. Good dialogue, but that's it. So does the research shape the work? Maybe. I know it shapes me. That's likely the point. 


For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Too Much of a Good Thing

From Jim

Research is a little like an iceberg. A lot of it doesn’t show. How do you decide how much research to put into your work?

I love the bite of black pepper. But, let’s face it, too much of it will ruin whatever you’re cooking. I feel the same way about historical research in books. Any research, really. Unless the subject is history itself, the fruits of research should be the spice, not the flavor, of the story.

I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series set in the early 1960s. That requires a good amount of research. A lot of research. But much of that research is destined to remain below the surface, like an iceberg.

Historical details help set the scene and create a sense of time. They are essential to my stories. But how much of a good thing is too much?

I consider three things when deciding whether or not to include historical detail in my stories: accuracy, measure, and effectiveness

The historical reference must be accurate or, let’s face it, it’s wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t take liberties with certain details. As the writer, I can blur the focus or omit outright anything I’m not sure of. Imagine my heroine, Ellie, is driving her car and stops to fill up the gas tank. What if I don’t know which oil companies were around at that time? (I do, but let’s say for the sake of an argument that I don’t.) For something as commonplace as filling up, nothing requires me to identify the brand of gasoline or the price per gallon. Unless I want to make it a significant plot point, e.g. the murder took place at the Esso station or Ellie only has enough money for a gallon of gas. But I’d better get some details right. For instance, there was no self-service in 1960, so there must be an attendant to pump the gas and check Ellie’s oil.

Consider these two descriptions.
A.  I pulled into the Esso station, ran over the Milton service gas station signal bell hose,
and stopped in front of the high test pump. Using the dash-mounted gear lever of my 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer, I shifted into park, then I switched off the ignition. Drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, I waited for the attendant.

B. I pulled to a stop at the gas pump and, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, waited for the attendant to answer the bell.

(I think we’ll all agree that “Milton service gas station signal bell hose and the gear shift information are more than is required. B is better.) 


In my research, I may have stumbled over some fascinating information that strikes me as very cool. But that doesn’t mean I should necessarily include it in my book. You can easily bore the reader with too much detail that stinks of research. Everything in good measure.

Here’s an example from my upcoming release, A STONE’S THROW (June 5, 2018). 
A. The Soviets had launched two different cosmonauts into space twenty-four hours apart. The first one was the third cosmonaut ever in space. The second was the fourth, and they were at that very moment orbiting Earth at the same time.

B. The Soviets had launched two different cosmonauts into space twenty-four hours apart, and they were at that very moment orbiting Earth in something resembling a couple of dented Volkswagens. Putting aside my worries that we would never catch the Russians in the space race, I set about plotting my day.

(Example B sets the period and also shows Ellie reacting to what was news in 1962, all the while continuing with her daily routine. Plus it’s less confusing.)


The reference must be effective.

I sometimes use historical details to create more than just plot points. I can evoke the period in just a word or two. I call these words “madeleines” after the nostalgic triggers in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. If my heroine asks the gas station attendant to fill the tank with Ethyl or high test or Good Gulf, the reader will probably know we’re not in 2018 anymore. And older readers might feel immediately transported back in time. That’s gold for a writer of historical fiction.

So don’t forget to spice the dish, but go easy on the pepper. Too much of a good thing is no good at all. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

There is a line

Research is a little like an iceberg. A lot of it doesn’t show. How do you decide how much research to put into your work?

by Dietrich Kalteis

Depending on the story I’m writing I may go about the research differently from book to book. I look for interesting facts and details that lend authenticity and accuracy, which allows the reader to believe the settings and what’s going on in the story. When I wrote House of Blazes, set during San Francisco’s earthquake and fire of 1906, I found a wealth of historical information: archives, newspaper articles from the time, first hand accounts and diaries, historical books, archives, web pages. I also found hundreds of photos from the times. There was so much, I had to put blinders on, being careful not to turn the novel into a history lesson. The photos alone gave me fantastic descriptive images, and I picked up some great expressions of the times from the first-hand accounts and diaries. 

One of the best parts of researching a story is going to the location I’m writing about. Of course, it’s not always possible, but it helps to experience the where, as well as to meet the people, see the architecture and so on.

I didn’t have to work as hard or go as far when I researched for Zero Avenue, which is set during the early days of the Vancouver punk music scene. Although I didn’t live in Vancouver right at the time, it’s home now, and I know it well, along with most of the locations I wrote about. I’m also a longtime fan of the music which helped make it easier. And the same went for the next novel, Poughkeepsie Shuffle, (Sept. 2018), set in Toronto in the mid-eighties, where I lived at the time.

The folly of including too much information is a writer can step all over the story’s pace. The details are important, sure, but the story also needs that flow to hold the reader’s attention. So, it’s important to include the strongest images for the reader to paint the scenes I’m describing, all without slowing the story.

And the descriptions have to suit my voice. And more often they have to suit the voices of my characters if something is told from their point of view. Sometimes the details are just snippets and they get tossed around quite casually.

Accuracy is key in any research, so I try to cross-check the reliability of any information I find. If the details end up in the narrative then they have to be right; not so much if it’s coming from a character. They’re allowed to be flawed, the writer isn’t.

Surrounding and immersing myself with a sea of research, sketching diagrams, writing notes to myself, listening to music from a particular period, talking with people who experienced what I’m writing about, all of it helps get me into the setting, imagining what a different time or place was like.

And since I don’t usually plot ahead, it’s amazing what comes along via the research. Sometimes an account, fact or news story comes along and adds a subplot, lending another layer to the whole thing.

When I think of William Faulkner writing the outline for A Fable across his office walls, I appreciate how working on a computer makes the whole process easier and faster these days. I can edit or Google something in mere moments without even getting up. But there is something to the organic process, and I like to go to a library and look things up, and I like to write first drafts in longhand.

So how much research to put into the work? I go for details that paint the best visuals for the reader. It’s key to never let any detail slow the pace. The whole thing to move along with interesting visuals created through the help of careful research. Above all, the writing has to sound authentic.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Tricky Balance

By R.J. Harlick

Research is a little like an iceberg. A lot of it doesn’t show. How do you decide how much research to put into your work?

Though I’m writing fiction and could invent a world as fanciful as my imagination will conjure up, I do try to be as accurate as possible when it comes to writing aspects of the story that reflect the real world. I want my readers to be able to immerse themselves in my stories, without being rudely brought back to the real world by inconsistencies they know aren’t true, inconsistencies like wrongly placed streets in a well-known town or police procedures that don’t conform to those seen in the many cop shows we all watch

Sometimes these untruths can ruin a book. I remember a mystery written by a popular French writer who had set her story in my home town. She caused a great uproar on the part of Ottawa readers, when she incorrectly located the RCMP headquarters. It seemed to overshadow any positive views the book might have garnered. And might have even discouraged Ottawa readers from reading others by this author.

Research is critical to the success of a good crime novel and I quite enjoy doing it. Maybe it takes me back to my university days, when I’d spend many an hour in the library searching for golden nuggets of information. Except today I use the internet more than I do the library. Plus, I travel to get the touch and feel of the place I will be writing about and I spend many hours talking to people who have the knowledge I seek.

But I end up with reams of information, all of which I feel is absolutely critical for my story, particularly when it pertains to the indigenous community I am writing about. So the big challenge is what to include and what to leave out. It’s a tricky balance. 

When I start writing the new book, I feel the reader needs to know everything I now know in order to understand the story. But, I am terrified about putting them to sleep with too much information. Invariably the first draft includes too much. Once I sit back and read it in its entirety, I bring the red pen out and start slashing.

I keep reminding myself that the reader doesn’t need to know everything. They only need to know enough to understand and get a sense of the story and the people and location I am writing about. But the knowledge I have gained through my research helps me shape the story and give it life.

There are many ways to convey the information. While the temptation is to do long narrative explanations or descriptive passages, the best way to convey it is through character interactions with each other and with their setting. It can come through as an action scene, like performing a cultural ceremony or police procedure or simply travelling through the setting.  Dialogue is also a good way to convey information, either in words or forms of speech and it can also be conveyed through the internal musings of a character. And I mustn’t forget clothes. How you dress your characters can give your readers a lot of information about that character, particularly if you are writing a book set in another place and time.

The important thing to remember is to keep the detail to a minimum. The trick is understanding what constitutes the minimum. I find because I am too close to the writing, it is not always possible to determine this. So, I often rely on other eyes, editor or otherwise, to tell me when it’s too much.

Like I said. It’s a tricky balance. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Research--How Much Should you Use?

Terry Shames here:

The question this week is how you decide how much of your background research you put into your books. I write a series set in Texas and my basic research was done when I was a child. The town of Jarrett Creek is based on the town where my grandparents lived when I was growing up. The smell, sights, sounds, even the taste are part of my cell structure. That part of Texas can be bone-dry one minute, so that the smell of dust permeates everything, and then it can be drenched with rain for days on end, bringing with it the scent of swampland—earthy and rich. A railroad track runs through town, as does a main state highway, bisecting the town and lending reality to the term “the other side of the tracks.” But in this case, both sides are “the other side.” When I was growing up the Santa Fe railroad came through town. A train whistle and the sound of the great wheels churning down the tracks throws me into the memory of how that sound made me restless and lonesome all at the same time. I dreamed of being the first female hobo, hopping the train for parts unknown. As for the taste, the land around Somerville is full of clay and the water tastes of iron. You can’t find that kind of research on the internet. This series full yembraces the concept “write what you know.” I know this town.


But I do have research to do. Early on, since I was going to be writing about a police chief, I needed to know the details of police departments in small towns in Texas—the personnel, the buildings, the jurisdictions, their uniforms, their vehicles. And I needed to know about guns. That’s a particularly fraught subject, because gun-lovers are alert to anything you get wrong, and gun-haters don’t want to hear about it. Combining the two made it easy—be specific, but don’t dwell on it. I read thrillers in which every single detail of a protagonist’s weapon(s) is given in detail. I suppose some thriller readers care, but I don’t. I want to say to the writer, “Good for you! You did your research, and it shows. Too much.”

But there are other things I include in books that I don’t know so much about. A chief of police in a small town in Texas encounters all kinds of mayhem that I have to know something about. Here’s my secret: I don’t do advance research. I write scenes the way I think they would actually happen—and then I look up the reality. I have read too many books where it was obvious that the writer had done a lot of research and either was determined not to have it go to waste or didn’t know when they gone too far in writing it, so that it became cumbersome to read. When I write it the way I “think” it should be, I concentrate on what my protagonist is experiencing.

Here’s an example: In An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, a prequel set in the early 1980s, Samuel is a newly minted chief of police. He goes to Austin to view an autopsy of burn victims. I thought I ought to read a little something about how that would be done. It turned out not to be necessary. I went on-line and immediately saw a photo of a burn victim on an autopsy table. That’s all I needed. My imagination did the rest—the sight, the sound, the smell—all through Samuel Craddock’s eyes as a young man determined to get through the autopsy without disgracing himself. After the book was published someone asked me how I got the autopsy so accurate. My husband is a retired physician and I asked him if he noticed anything amiss in the autopsy scene. He looked at me in amazement and said it never occurred to him that I had never attended an autopsy—especially of a burn victim. It seemed totally authentic to him. Anybody who watches crime on TV has seen little bits of autopsies, but I focused on the things that someone would focus on who had never attended one.

Sometimes, I do waste writing time when I don’t research in advance. After I wrote the autopsy chapter, I went back to make sure the details of the place it was done were accurate—and discovered that the current building where autopsies are done in Austin is not the one where they were done in the 1980’s. I had to rewrite those descriptions. Another glitch was discovered by my copyeditor (bless her!). I had included the name of an economy motel chain, and she discovered that that motel chain did not have a presence in Texas until the late 1980’s.


Not only is accuracy important to me for my own satisfaction, but people will write you about things you get wrong—or that they think you get wrong. One man wrote to tell me that alfalfa is not actually grown in Texas. I know darned good and well that it is. But who am I to argue with a Texan? I told him that I must have been mistaken and that my daddy called any field of fodder “alfalfa.” Another man wrote to tell me that police chiefs are not appointed by sheriffs in Texas. Thank goodness I had actually done my research early on, and found that in some small towns that is exactly the way it’s done.

I guess my bottom line answer to the question is, I do only the research I need to do, and I only put in what needs to be there.