It’s Research, Dear

When I plan a trip, one of the first things I think about is what kind of research I can do there. Not because I’m looking for a tax write-off (because, hey, I still have to pay for the trip even if I can write some of it off later), but because I want to make sure I know where to go and what to do to get the most bang for my hard-earned bucks. It doesn’t matter if I’m by myself or with family. It might mean I plan some alone time for when they want to do something I don’t, or I look especially hard for places to do research that I think they’ll enjoy. I hate sitting in a hotel room, so I go out of my way to find something to do.

I was in New Orleans a year ago and took a walk after lunch, just to stretch my legs. I headed south, away from the French Quarter, and found myself in a not-really-nice part of town, but not scary. About the time I decided to turn around, I came across this amazing old Civil War Museum that had a ton of information I was able to incorporate into an historical romance I was working on. The next morning I got up at 5 a.m. so I could walk two miles to a huge outdoor market in the French Quarter and had hot beignets for breakfast—I can now accurately describe the sights and sounds, the tastes and smells. I rented a bike and rode around the French Quarter residential district, photographing beautiful old homes with mansard roofs, ironwork, gingerbread trim, and walled gardens. I visited the building that housed the New Orleans Mint during the Civil War (which gets robbed in my story) and I could describe the different rooms, the door lintels, the stonework—it was fantastic. A work trip to Philadelphia let me see what the Founding Fathers saw, read what they wrote, and see a pop-up Stevie Wonder concert (only because I’d taken a walk and turned down a street).

If I’d wasted these times in new places, what a loss it would have been for me. Yes, I was often alone as I wandered around, but it didn’t matter. There were people everywhere. I could ask questions, get directions. Waiters, bartenders, hotel staff—they all knew places for me to visit. I had only to ask.

I’m headed to Las Vegas this week to visit my son. But I have to admit, going to a Barrett Jackson classic car auction holds almost as much attraction (but don’t tell my son). I want to see the layout, hear the talk, see the cars, the people who attend, the booths and what they sell—all for my Bad Carma series. Yes, I could fake it. I’ve been to auctions before and I’m not using the Barrett Jackson name in my story, but I like realism, even in fiction. I think readers like it, too.

So if you’re planning a trip, even to the next town, think about what kind of research you could squeeze in. Is there a museum you haven’t visited? A road that leads to an interesting canyon? A building you could take a photo of and use somewhere, sometime? Don’t just think of current WIPs; plan for what might come later. File this information away for when you need it, even if you never do (you won’t know, though, will you?). After all, it’s research, dear.

I’m off to do some research, and to Write On!

Contests and Competitions

Tis the Season

NEW YORK - APRIL 29: Atmosphere at the 2010 Edgar Awards banquet at Grand Hyatt Hotel on April 29, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Peyton/Getty Images)

Now is a unique time for writers. In the mystery world, early in the year is the time when judging is beginning, nominations are being requested for a number of prize awards or Awards are being announced. Probably because the awards are for books published in the previous year. That said, RMFW's call for judges got me thinking—what is it about awards that make them so important? Who nominates your books for awards? Should you submit your own book? How does it all work?

Unpublished

Clearly there's a difference. The competitions for the unpublished are geared toward evaluating manuscripts and proposals for submission to editors and agents. The plus for entering is, in nearly all the contests held today, your work has a chance of getting into the hands of an editor and/or agent—once it passes the hurdle of the published writers who are judging most of these competitions.

Traditionally vs. Independently Published

For anyone published, honors are awarded based on any number of criteria, and they're usually readers' choice or judges' choice (including librarians, readers, writers, reviewers, etc.). Sometimes they are for best overall, sometimes they are for best in a genre, they can be given by any number of writers' groups and organizations, and who is eligible to enter varies.

I know the mystery genre, so I'll speak to that. For the Edgar Awards (the Oscar for Mystery Awards), up until now, entries must be traditionally published. Even so, judges receive hundreds of books in a number of categories. I have judged the Edgars twice in the Best Novel category, and both times we had over 500 submissions. There are also awards given at many of the conferences: The Anthony Awards at Bouchercon, The Lefty Awards at Left Coast Crime, the Agatha Awards at Malice Domestic. Writers' organizations also offer award opportunities. The Private Eye Writers of America have the Shamus Awards. There are the Barry Awards, the Macavity Awards, etc., etc. Many states have individual book awards, like the Colorado Book Awards, and then there are also a number of national awards, such as the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize Award, etc. Just know, as long as you meet the criteria, all of these are available for you to enter.

Note : Independently published authors are sometimes barred from entering some of the organizational awards, but they have their own list of opportunities. Some indie-pub only awards include: ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year Award, the Independent Publisher Book Awards, the Natilus Book Awards, and here at home the Colorado Independent Publishers Association Evvy Awards.

So why enter?

For the unpublished, the most important thing is feedback. I am constantly amazed at how many people don't request critiques on their work. The fee for a critique when entering these contests is so nominal. Don't pass up the chance to learn what works and what doesn't work in your manuscript, something crucial to your ultimate success as a writer. Plus, I'm blown away by how quick we are to discount criticism of our work. As unpleasant as the message can sometimes be, we should be grateful that someone (almost always a volunteer) cares enough to tell us what works and what doesn't work for them—for them being the key words. You're bound to get some bad or conflicting advice, or advice that just doesn't resonate with you. However, never forget, the intent of the judge is to help you in your quest for publication. This isn't about them showing off their own skills, or about anyone trying to change your work or your vision. They just want to offer assistance to you in reaching your goals. In my opinion, it should be welcomed.

For the traditionally and independently published, awards are all about increasing exposure for your work. Nearly every award receives some media attention, which results in additional book signings, which means more sales, and that's what it's all about—at least for most publishers. Winning an award (even being nominated) is also a sign that others love your work, and that's invaluable to the author who writes alone and wonders what type of reception their work will receive. Last, awards can open doors!

Which award contests are worth entering?

This is where you have to do your research. You need to be cautious. All of the awards are run differently, and certain awards are more prestigious than others. It depends on your interest what will serve you best. There are hundreds of literary awards given yearly in the United States.

Be sure and weigh the costs. Many charge a fee for entry. In Colorado, the Colorado Book Award's entry fee is $53. They accept ALL published works. Plus, some competitions pay prizes. The National Book Awards has an entry fee of $125, but the winner in each category receives $10,000.

If you win, milk it!

Get as much mileage out of being nominated and/or winning as you can. Get the word out early. Tell your publisher, your agent, your family and friends. Shout it out through social media, on your website. Attend any and all scheduled signings in relation to the awards.

Many organizations will give you stickers for your books. Use them.

Make bookmarks, stickers, flyers.

Leverage solo appearances at bookstores that may not normally welcome you to sign and get in touch with your local library. Consumers like to read books that have hit the bestsellers list and/or won awards. It signals that the book is worth their time to read it.

Send out press releases.

Remember the rule of three. It takes at least three times of someone hearing about your book or reading about your book before it sticks in their memory. Make sure to use every avenue you have to get the word out multiple times in multiple ways.

So, how do you create a winning book or proposal?

The correct answer is: write a great book. But even with a great book, you may need to generate some buzz to make it successful. Buzz garners attention. Buzz drives book sales. Awards help create buzz.

All Those Potential Stories

One of the most frequent questions writers hear is “where do you get your story ideas?”

Well, to be honest, where don’t we?

A couple nights ago, we were clicking through channels and landed on a PBS program about nineteenth century unsolved crimes. The episode was about a string of murders in Austin, Texas in 1885. I was immediately hooked, scribbling notes with vital information so I could later look up the crimes and explore the details again. My head kept telling me there was a story there. Well, it was actually a bit like alarm bells.

I’m not sure what it was…the historical period, the unsolved nature of the crimes or that they likely the work of a single person (an early serial killer), the fact that law enforcement never connected them, or perhaps the potential to create my own plot around them…something reached out and grabbed me.

It isn’t the first time that’s happened watching TV.

The same thing occurs when reading travel or history magazines—a lot. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve torn out pages and filed them away because I see the spark of a plot or core of a character within them.

Special news sections in papers are just as hard to resist. When I lived in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I used to look forward to Frontier Days and the multi-page spread with stories of life and events of the early community.

I’ve bought more books than I can count for the same reason. Book stores with large regional history sections are tempt me. Book sections within historic site visitor centers or museum gift shops seem to have tentacles that grab me and suck me in. I leave with a bag and an empty purse, story ideas shouting at me all the way home.

Historic hotels or bed and breakfast inns that have unique histories hook me, too. Next thing you know, I’m chatting with the manager about the past and where I might find more information.

Maybe it’s the penchant for research that lives within me. Maybe it’s the writer. Put them both together and I’m pretty much doomed.

So, all you writers out there…where do you get YOUR ideas?

Don’t Listen to Mr. Scrooge

By Lucinda Stein

Lucinda SteinHistory. Research. “Bah, humbug!” some might say. But as an author, I’ve found writing historical fiction brings surprising benefits.

A writer needs a good understanding of the time period, including clothing and hairstyles, transportation, customs, lifestyles, political and social trends, architecture, etc. Whew! Research takes time and effort. But like writing a book, take it one day at a time, bit by bit. The good news? Ideas for characters and scenes will constantly spring to life.

I’m currently working on a rough draft for a novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma. There’s a wealth of information available on this time period. But I need information specific to a particular state. Writers can access state historical society websites rich in old photos, documents, and researched articles. Many states also maintain online digital historical newspapers.

My protagonist is a Comanche woman, so I need to explore the unique aspect of a Native American living during this time. While searching online for the tribal website, I serendipitously came across haunting photographs of abandoned three-story buildings. Turned out it was a boarding school dating back to 1883 with students in attendance for over a century. Bingo! I “enrolled” my protagonist in the school. Added bonus—the website referred readers to a nonfiction book published by the University of Nebraska.

This leads me to the subject of resources. As a retired librarian, I like to use primary sources of information for authenticity and a definite sense of the time period. I purchased the aforementioned book and discovered it included interviews with former students. What a wealth of ideas for the chapters in which my protagonist attends the school. I also located a biography about a Native American man from Oklahoma. I wanted the book for two reasons—it was the same time period that takes place in my novel, and it included the man’s experiences growing up on an Oklahoma farm, something I had decided would be my book’s initial setting.

Stein_Tattered CoversI also found a historical novel set in Oklahoma during the Depression. Why use fiction to write fiction? This resource was valuable since the novel was written by a reputable author who knows the state well. The author is a university professor from Oklahoma whose family dates back to this time period. I took special note of the natural landscape described in the book and paid close attention to references on life during the Depression. Of course, this book is only one of many resources used to gather information.

In the beginning, I create several lists for information I’ll need in my story. As I continue to research, I add new details to my digital file. For example, I have a list for Prohibition. One list includes native plants of Oklahoma. Another list contains specifics about the Depression such as shanty towns, hopping trains, and the plight of the homeless.

I also create a timeline for my story. It’s important to know what was going on in the country and even the world during that time. Noteworthy items are included in my timeline. In the process of writing my rough draft, I frequently refer to my timeline for additional ideas for new scenes and plot points.

In writing fiction, the writer enjoys exploration of his/her protagonist and the challenge of navigating through a plot. On top of that, the creator of historical fiction weaves history into the dramatic life of a believable character. As in reading any well-written novel, the reader learns new things along the way, so it is as a writer of historical fiction. I come away with a new perspective on history—just as I hope my readers will.

Sometimes I feel my research practically writes the novel for me. In reality, it’s more like continual brainstorming. For example, I discovered popular bands of the era and—voilà—a scene with a speakeasy hidden at the rear of a building came to life. Another illustration of research inspiring story ideas: During the Depression, movies proved a popular diversion from difficult times. One movie of this era was Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. I created a scene in which I compare crude surgical practices for tuberculosis patients to Dr. Frankenstein’s bizarre experiments. Amazing where research will lead you. Even Bonnie Parker (as in Bonnie and Clyde) makes a brief debut in my novel. Who said historical fiction can’t be fun?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Lucinda Stein lives on the Western Slope of Colorado with her husband and her shelter-rescue dog, Opie. Her novel, Three Threads Woven, was a 2010 WILLA Finalist and her short story, Sulfur Springs, won the 2011 LAURA Short Fiction Award judged by Pam Houston. Her short stories have appeared in Fine Lines, The South Dakota Review, and Women Writing the West online. Her recent novel, Tattered Covers, is a mix of contemporary and historical fiction.

Enter to win a free copy of Tattered Covers. Place “free copy” in the subject field of your email and send to: lucinda (at) lucindastein (dot) com.