Tag Archives: research

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Library by Guest Author Travis Heermann

Research and Cultural Connections in Fictional Worlds

by Travis Heermann

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation about surgical masks. A member of my family recently was forced to wear a surgical mask for a time to reduce risk of infection due to a compromised immune system. When I was living in Japan a few years ago, I often saw people wearing such masks in public, and during this conversation someone assumed the motivation behind masks in public was fear of infection.

“That’s not why they wear the masks,” I said. “They wear the masks because they’re sick themselves and don’t want to infect other people. They’re protecting the community.” This cultural practice was explained to me while I lived there, probably because I once made a similar assumption.

This is a striking example of behaviors that are similar on the surface, but for which the underlying values are drastically different. In the West, and in the U.S. in particular, the Individual has been elevated to greatest importance, with Community relegated to secondary status to a degree that puzzles natives of the Far East. In the Far East, that dynamic is profoundly reversed, such that Family and Community come first to a degree that mystifies Westerners.

When writing fiction not set in one’s own neighborhood, writers need to realize that we swim through our native culture like fish through water, largely unaware of its effects on our values, on our underlying assumptions about life, on our daily behaviors, on our perceptions of Others, the Outsiders who are intrinsically Scary and Not To Be Trusted. An individual from another culture, whether from a tribe in New Guinea or from Planet 10 Across the Eighth Dimension, may exhibit similar behaviors to someone from middle-class America, but the underlying value system and cultural reasons for those behaviors may be poles apart.

So for writers, the key to getting it right is research. The key to good research is to access the most direct sources you can. By direct sources, I mean museum exhibits of real medieval weapons, letters and documents from the time period, scholarly work, textbooks, etc. I do recommend you don’t use derivative works; for instance, using medieval fantasy novels, or even historical fiction, to learn about medieval culture is a bad idea.

If you find a good resource, search out the research sources that author used. Better still—and I realize this is not always feasible—travel to the locale yourself. If you’re wearing your Writer Eyes and Ears as you should be, you will pick up untold little details in the area, its people, its customs. In a country as big as the U.S., with so many different ethnic groups, even an area across the state—or across town!—can exhibit striking differences culture, dialect and attitudes. Barring the possibility of travel, Google Earth can be an astonishing resource for getting a look at the area, in conjunction with a library card and the will to use it.

The good thing about research it can be recycled over and over. If you’re writing science fiction, paranormal, urban fantasy, anything that requires creation of a non-mundane world, all kinds of research, academic and experiential, is melted into the bottomless, cast-iron cauldron of your subconscious and can be used to season alien worlds with enough verisimilitude that your readers will devour it with relish.

One of the cool things about being a writer is that we have a wide range of disparate knowledge, some of it as thorough and detailed as any academic’s. Fun on the page, fun at parties.

 

Author Bio: Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Shivers VII.

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Getting the Details Right

By Mark Stevens

If I had to pick a favorite prose stylist, it might be John Updike.

(I don’t have to pick, do I?)

Some think his stuff is over-written. I happen to think he was a poet whether he was writing fiction or criticism. Or poetry.

In fact, Updike published eight volumes of poetry in addition to everything else—novels, short stories, and reams of art and literary criticism. Updike died at age 76 and, one of many fascinating tidbits I gleaned from reading Adam Begley’s new biography of the man (Updike), he even wrote his last poem about four weeks before he died.

Prolific? To say the least. David Foster Wallace once asked: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” (I’ve seen that quote without attribution, too. Was it Wallace?)

Updike wrote three hours a day come hell or high water. He was widely hailed for his style and for his ability to elevate ordinary days and ordinary feelings, layered with human depth. He was jaded, wicked, heartfelt, crude, raunchy. And elegant, too.

But he couldn’t rely purely on his imagination. One thing Begley makes clear in his lengthy and highly enjoyable portrait is that John Updike believed in research. Nearly thirty years after he started writing for The New Yorker magazine, after worldwide success and a Pulitzer Prize (the first of two), John Updike still believed in getting the details right.

Stevens_rabbitrichPreparing to to write the third book in his “Rabbit” tetralogy (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), Updike decided to give his hero Harry Angstrom a new job, running a Toyota dealership in Pennsylvania. For the most part, Updike drew stories from the people and situations that were close at hand—either right down the street or at least familiar social circles. (His critics hate this about him.) As such, he knew nothing about car dealerships.

Updike, writes Begley, “rolled up his sleeves and went to work.” He hired help to untangle the “arcane protocols” of automobile finances and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, and paperwork involved in importing cars and more. He visited dealerships in the Boston area. “He aimed for, and achieved, a degree of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to the legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: ‘No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.’ ”

Credibility.

As George Saunders talks about (see this March 4 post by Mark), it’s about making the moments on the page “undeniable.” Even with his flashy style and a vocabulary that seemed like it knew no bounds, Updike started with getting the details right.

Rabbit is Rich, by the way, won another Pulitzer.

Final thought: I wish I had the kind of time a full-time writer would have to do this kind of research, but I recently spent a full day driving around Rio Blanco County with Deputy Sheriff John Scott. We drove for hours talking about life and crime around Meeker and upriver toward the Flat Tops Wilderness. I left with a fresh load of powerful details and many ways to (try and) give my new story another chance to be undeniable.
Stevens_Deputy John Scott (800x600)
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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

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?

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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.