Pencil to Paper

The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

Research: If, When, How? July 18, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 8:07 AM
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Yesterday I was watching the news when a brief clip about urban vehicle auctions came up. It turns out that the government doesn’t really want unclaimed, stolen, abandoned, or seized cars. Instead, they auction them off, sometimes at extremely low prices. Many independent buyers and dealership owners frequent these auctions looking for a good deal. The car you get could come from anywhere, be owned by anyone.

It’s probably a testament to my writer’s (and slightly crazy) mind that my thought process immediately flowed this way:

Someone could get a car that was used in something illegal. Or owned by someone illegal. What if they were some spy hunted by a gang? Or someone on a mobster’s hit list? What if the people going after them recognized the car and came after the new owner?

Whoops. Plot idea.

Most stories – whether fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, romance, or whatever – need some element of research. It might be simply understanding how urban vehicle auctions work. Or it might be working out the subtleties of an entire counterpart culture. No matter what, I usually need to pull up Wikipedia (don’t tell my teachers) at least once while writing a rough draft. That brings me to the point of this post. When is the best time to do research?

Chris Baty’s guide to NaNo – No Plot? No Problem! – suggests leaving a space to come back and fill in later. That’s all very well if you’re rushing to the end of the month and 50,000 words. Otherwise, you’ll probably not want to leave important facts hanging. The answers to simple questions like “What do Frenchmen eat for breakfast?” might become vital plot points.

When not NaNoing, there are three major schools of thought on research. The first write until they reach a point where they need to know something. Then they stop and look it up before continuing on their merry way.

The second group researches intensely beforehand, finding out everything they can. Then they plug the information in as they need it.

The third group mixes these two ideas together. They research broad ideas and important facts beforehand, but discover new areas that need study later. I tend to operate this way. If I’m working on a counterpart culture for a fantasy novel – building the customs and geography of an entire country – I’ll do heavy research beforehand. I spend most of my research time working on world-building. Other minor details – how many stories in the average skyscraper, how vaccines are made, etc – come up and are resolved while I’m writing.

How many stories? Let’s get counting.

What about you? Which type of research works the best? Are there ways you think are more or less efficient?


Backstory Headaches July 1, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 10:32 AM
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Character back story can be a pain.

Some people chart out extensive histories and genealogies for every bit part. (Tolkien, I’m looking at you.) Others simply conjure characters out of empty air, making them up as they go along. That’s probably unwise, but I tend to operate that way.

The problem is that characters are supposed to be people. People don’t blip out of existence when we turn our backs. They have their own lives, interests, problems… their own stories. Some awareness of this gives characters a touch more realism.

I’m very bad at this. To try to fix it, I forced myself to imagine a scrapbook of sorts of characters’ lives. What moments do they cherish, blush at, move beyond? What events shaped them? Sometimes, some detail stands out and I work it in. Other times, I tweak their background to explain their behavior in-story.

Back story building can be a thankless task because most of it won’t factor in to the story. What’s the point? I’ve been frustrated many times after constructing an elaborate personal history of a character that gives great insight into their mind and actions, only to realize there’s no place to add it in. I explained why the villain did a lot of what he did… and I couldn’t fit it in! Having someone launch into a speech about their childhood traumas in the middle of a fight scene doesn’t really work. At the other end of the spectrum, minor clues and comments scattered throughout the text might be misinterpreted or glossed over entirely. I can’t write a prologue entitled The Life and Times of Every Important Character Including Important Defining Moments That Will Come Into Play Later.

This is easiest to get around in third person omniscient point of view. Then the narration can include offhand comments about so and so’s past. Otherwise, you’re pretty much stuck with soul-baring rants. If you can’t fit one of those in… you’re in trouble. Maybe you should rethink tying so many important plot points to the main character’s sixth birthday party….


Let Me Check My Calendar May 28, 2011

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 6:31 PM
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Let’s admit it. No matter how well thought out your ideas, how carefully mapped your storylines, how cohesive your conversations… stories always seem to veer off into a hopeless mess at one point or another. You need to squeeze in an extra scene. You accidentally skipped a couple of days. Or, worst of all, one of your characters is in two places at the same time.

When that happens, you’re going to wish you had some way to see everything clearly – to have your whole story laid out before you in an easily understandable way.

That, my friends, is where the calendar comes in.

This method is most helpful when your story stretches over several weeks. To make sure your characters are in only one place and that events happen at their proper times, you can map everything out. Then you won’t fall into the sticky predicament of characters referring to the same event on different days, which happened to me:

Character one: Yeah, I accidentally attacked this girl on Wednesday.

Character two: And this person just jumped me for no reason at all Thursday night!

Yeah… not a good thing. If you have the patience for it (which I don’t) you can assign each character a color and track their movements throughout the days to make sure everything matches up as it should. That’s really only for OCD people with time on their hands… but isn’t that just another term for writers?


Forget Snowmageddon – The Plot-ocalypse is Upon Me February 2, 2011

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 10:32 AM
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If you live in the US, either you’ve probably seen footage of whole states crushed under feet of snow, or you can look out the window and get the view for yourself. I’m one of the latter, and I’m not looking forward to the shoveling that will soon be mandatory – or the second avalanche of make up work that the IB will force upon us if I ever find my way back to organized education. But the sea of white  has moved indoors, at least for me. Behold:

This is most of, but not all, of my NaNoWriMo novel. Most of, because I couldn’t get all of the notecards to fit into one frame. These said notecards have taken up residence on my bedroom floor, and will probably remain there for a week or so, resulting in an awkward tap dance being necessary whenever I want to reach my closet for a change of clothes. But it’s worth it – I hope.

See, I think I’ve mentioned notecards before in another post. They’re helpful for tracking things – plots, characters, important themes – in a more visual way. You can pick up your story, move it around, play with it… without the fear of messing anything up. I’ve only used them once before, but they’re more helpful for the type of story I’m doing now. Before I get into that, however, here’s the way to make them:

Get a pack of index cards. Label them all like this:

Point of View (if split):                                                                                                               Chapter #:      Scene #:




Role in the story:

Making all of these will take a while. But once you’re done, there are lots of cool things you can do with them. First of all, by looking at the ‘role’ section, you can decide what scenes to cut. After all, if a scene doesn’t advance the story, it’s not worth it, no matter how deathless the prose. Next, check characters and locations. If a few characters and locations only pop up once or twice, think about either cutting them or weaving them into the story more. Sometimes you’ll have even forgotten a character, or added one in the middle. The notecards will help you figure out who’s missing, or who’s around in the wrong place.

Now, the tricky stuff – plot. Since generally a full-blown book has more than one plot, I found it helpful to color code them. You can’t see it in the abysmally blurry picture, but every notecard  has colored dots on it, telling me which plot or plots ties into that particular scene. That way I can figure out what plots are over or underdeveloped.

Finally, the most helpful use of the notecards of all, at least for me. Sometimes only after you finish do you realize there are scenes you should have added. When your story has a single narrator, you can pop the scene in whenever. If it’s split… it’s a lot harder. (I think I talked about this in another post.)  What I’ve been doing is making another notecard for each extra scene, complete with POV, characters, and location. Then, like searching for that elusive space where the puzzle piece fits, I look for a spot where all those factors mesh. Sometimes I find the perfect place, and everything’s great. But sometimes I have to accept I’ll have to rewrite whole sections in order to squeeze an extra scene in.

Notecards aren’t for everyone, but they can be great tools, especially if you want to step back and take a big picture look at your story. So if you have some notecards and some time to kill, try it out.