Research? What kind of research?

It doesn’t seem to matter what the task is, unless it’s something I’ve done before, research has to come first.

  • Changing the needle on the sewing machine? Check the manual.
  • Removing a stain from delicate fabric? Google my options.
  • Bake a special dessert? Get out the cookbook.
  • Refinish deck furniture? Find a YouTube video and follow the steps.

My current project — creating a family tree — has been a major research project. Once I made a start, I found lots of formerly unknown sources of information.

An old family bible provided pages of family births, deaths and marriages from the mid-1800s.

Other distant relatives had information to share, such as their discovery of an abandoned cemetery and lost family gravestones.

I’m accumulating details from birth, marriage and death registration certificates that, in addition to cause of death — a surprise to me — often included names and birthplaces of parents, residence at time of death, religious denomination, and occupation.

I mentioned in an earlier post my excitement over locating forty pages of my father-in-law’s WWI military service records. I’ve gleaned all sorts of interesting albeit irrelevant tidbits, like the name of the ships he sailed on between Canada and Europe.

It’s such seemingly irrelevant information that can make the research fascinating and bring an ancestor to life again.

~

For writers, it’s those details that can make our stories appealing to readers. The little bits of personal trivia that help readers ‘see’ the setting and get to ‘know’ the characters. They make the story more intimate, more meaningful.

I know this. I just have to remember to implement it in my writing!

What kind of research do you undertake in preparation for (or during) the writing of your stories?

~  ~  ~

 

The not-so-Common Loon

At one time it would prickle the back of my neck — an eerie wail from out of the dark somewhere on the lake. Now it’s the first thing I listen for each time we arrive. The call of our Loons.

DSC06123

Our rustic little cabin is situated on a very small unpopulated lake in BC’s Cariboo country. Loons are territorial, and in the sixty-plus years of my summer and autumn visits, only once have I seen more than the one pair on the lake. That was decades ago, and I wondered at the time if the other pair were adults or juveniles, but they were never close enough for a photo, even with my zoom lens. Every year since then there have been just these two, piercing the lake’s solitude with their haunting calls.

Until this summer. One evening early in August I heard the familiar wails and warbles … a clamouring of assorted calls coming from the creek mouth just below our cabin. Thinking there might be a chance of some closer photos, I crept down the path to the shore just in time to see a whole group of loons moving out onto the lake — six of them!

I apologize for the shaky video, but I was shaking myself!

One seemed to be a slightly different colour, but the rest were alike, and I wondered once again if some were juveniles. Once away from the creek mouth, they drifted, circled and flapped, their various tremolo and yodelling sounds suggesting concern over an intruder. Then they slowly paired off and dispersed. I didn’t see them together again.

DSC06117

There’s a mystique associated with loons. They are often featured in First Nations myths and art, and associated with legends of the North. I have a modest collection of them in assorted forms that range from a switch plate cover to candle holders, paintings, and sculptures, including a wood carving. They intrigue me!

DSC04418 - Version 2

 

I’ve learned a number of facts about them:

  • they are larger and longer-bodied than a Mallard Duck, but smaller and shorter-necked than a Canada Goose;
  • unlike most avians, they have solid bones rather than hollow ones, which assist them in diving and staying as deep as sixty metres underwater for several minutes;
  • because of the placement of their legs far back on their bodies, they are clumsy on land but efficient in water and air;
  • they require a relatively long distance to gain momentum when taking off, and when landing will skim the surface on their bellies to slow down;
  • during migration they may fly for hundreds of kilometres at up to 120 kilometres per hour;
  • they produce a variety of vocalizations, but there are four main types of calls: the tremolo, the yodel, the wail, and the hoot. Each one communicates a distinct message.

I could get carried away with Loon trivia, but I’d better not. If you’d like to know more, Living Bird Magazine has a good article on loons reprinted on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website: Spirit of the North, the Common Loon. The Cornell site also has additional information.

What does this have to do with my writing? Not much, except perhaps to point out that when doing research for a story, I need to put boundaries on the time I spend doing it! Interesting tidbits can lead to more and more online exploration, until I’ve spent too many hours and collected far more information than I need.

How about you? Are you a disciplined researcher, or do you sometimes get lost in the collection of data, too?

~

DSC06102 copy

(Judging by the grey bill, a juvenile Common Loon … I think!)

Facts or Fiction in Writing a Novel

One of our signs of autumn is the Woolly Bear Caterpillar, which is the larva form of Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella Tiger Moth. It waits out the cold winter, sometimes freezing solid, and thaws out in the spring to pupate and eventually become a moth. (Such interesting tidbits I provide for you on this blog!) The width of its coppery brown stripe is said to be an indication of the severity of the approaching winter  — the thicker it is, the milder the winter. That’s the myth, anyway. 

Furry Fellow

Wikipedia says, “Folklore of the eastern United States and Canada holds that the relative amounts of brown and black on the skin of a Woolly Bear caterpillar (commonly abundant in the fall) are an indication of the severity of the coming winter… In reality, hatchlings from the same clutch of eggs can display considerable variation in their color distribution, and the brown band tends to grow with age; if there is any truth to the tale, it is highly speculative.”

Separating truth from fiction can sometimes be a challenge. When we’re writing non-fiction or memoir, truth matters, but in a novel it’s not so important. At least, that’s what some writers seem to think.

There’s a difference between truth and accuracy. A novel may be fictitious but any details must be accurate for the story to remain credible. But, you say, it’s contemporary fiction. We write what we know. Why do we need to research anything?

Yesterday on the Seekerville blog, author Amanda Cabot‘s post, “So You Want to Write a Contemporary“, asked seven questions writers should consider when deciding whether to write contemporary or historical fiction. In her sixth question she debunks the idea that contemporary doesn’t require research. The reality is, all writing requires research.  It’s true that research for contemporaries is different from historicals, but it’s still essential that your details are correct.  If anything, readers are more critical of contemporary authors who get their facts wrong because it’s so easy to get them right.”

Hopefully our contemporary fiction isn’t devoid of an interesting setting or enriching details just because we’re writing only “what we know”. It’s good to stretch our horizons and venture into a bit of unfamiliar territory once in a while.

What kind of facts do you deal with in your writing? How did you research their accuracy?

~  ~  ~

 

Story lessons from an iceberg

Taking a break from blogging has pros and cons. I’ve returned feeling rested and refreshed, but my mind is still focused on the many sights and sounds that filled my week away. So I’ll apologize in advance. We’re probably doomed to an abundance of cruising analogies here for the next little while.

Cruise 1

This past week provided opportunities for me to experience water in several of its forms. We didn’t get rain in any measurable amount, but there were a few sprinkles, and a morning of fog.

Cruise 6

Most days the ocean was remarkably calm, but there were occasional times of choppy waves and rolling swells.

Cruise 3

 

Cruise 2

The Pacific Ocean can be mighty chilly at times, but in the Gulf of Alaska there are places where it’s downright frigid.

Cruise 4

Alaska’s Hubbard Glacier is located in the northeastern section of Yakutak Bay, extending five miles across the end of Disenchantment Bay. Unlike most other glaciers that are receding, for the past century the face of the Hubbard Glacier has continued to advance. Chunks of ice regularly ‘calve’ from it, filling the water with mid-sized icebergs, along with smaller ‘bergy bits’ and ‘growlers’.

Cruise 7

Apparently the density of ice is less than that of sea water, so only about one-tenth of the volume of an iceberg is visible above the water.

Cruise 8

The seen and the unseen… how could they not bring a writing application to mind??? 😉

So much of the research, background and subtext that go into novel writing will never actually be seen by readers — or shouldn’t be — but will provide the foundation for a good story and give it stability. Whenever we’re tempted to reveal too much ‘fascinating’ information, we need to remember what happens when an iceberg drifts away from its source and warmer waters begin undermining the ice below the surface. When too much of the iceberg’s volume is above the water line, it eventually gets top heavy and flips over!

All those mottled and melted bits from the underside don’t have a lot of interest or substance. Imagine similar ramifications for a story. If you need more of a visual, drop an ice cube into a glass of water and then consider the importance of a good solid base.

I know, I know… I sometimes give my imagination too much free rein, but it bugs me when a writer top-dresses a story with too many details that were obviously gleaned during the research stage. How would you suggest utilizing interesting tidbits you’ve discovered, if they’re not going to add significantly to your plot?

~  ~  ~

Book Review & Giveaway: REBELLIOUS HEART by Jody Hedlund

Author Jody Hedlund

Author Jody Hedlund

When I first encountered Jody Hedlund back in mid-2009, she was a new blogger seeking representation and publication for her writing. She often used examples from PILGRIM’S PROGRESS in her posts, and admitted a passion for John Bunyan. So it was no surprise when her first published novel was a story loosely based on the second marriage of John Bunyan. (THE PREACHER’S BRIDE, Bethany House, 2010)

In that book Jody’s writing transported me right into the story’s mid-1600s setting… something that rarely happens unless an author has done a remarkable amount of research and used the information effectively.

In each of her successive books, Jody’s knowledge of historical times – i.e., 1836 Oregon, 1880s Michigan, and 1763 Massachusetts – evoked the same reaction, and I’ve been drawn into reading a genre that previously had never appealed to me. I eagerly devoured her newest book, REBELLIOUS HEART, when it was released in September by Bethany House.

At the end of this post you can leave a comment and be entered in the draw for a copy of REBELLIOUS HEART. 🙂

 ~

Rebellious-HeartREBELLIOUS HEART takes us into the lives of two people from vastly different backgrounds. Susanna Smith is a bright young woman of good social status who, despite being denied the education she desires, displays her intelligence and asserts her independence as she works for social justice. When she seeks to aid a runaway indentured slave, she is assisted by the son of a farmer, country lawyer Benjamin Ross, who is also involved in the pre-Revolutionary discontent of the time. Their developing friendship places Susanna and her family in great danger.

Inspired by the unique friendship of US president John Adams and his wife Abigail, the story places richly detailed and believable characters into historically correct settings while playing out a fascinating and fast-paced plot.

I asked Jody which scene in the story she found the most challenging to write…

“Which scene in Rebellious Heart was the most challenging to write? I’d have to say the first scene in the courtroom where Ben is defending Hermit Crab Joe. I always want the first chapter to accomplish many goals. But often that’s hard to do without being wordy (and potentially boring the reader!).

“My original version of the scene was MUCH too long. And once I’d written it, I realized right away that I would need to pare it down quite a bit. But at the same time, I was told I needed to add more period detail to the scene so that readers could understand right away that they were in Colonial Times. So essentially I had to cut AND add at the same time!

“Fortunately, I’m not married to my words and I can usually cut and chop without mortally wounding myself. The hard part was trying to figure out exactly what was necessary for the scene and setting and what was overkill.

“Once I had eliminated as much as I possibly could, then I had a Colonial “expert” give me advice on where I could add a little more period detail to make the chapter/book more authentic.”

That authenticity stands out in all Jody’s writing, but especially in REBELLIOUS HEART. If you enjoy good historical fiction, you’ll want to add this book to your list of must-reads!

 ~

If you’d like to have your name included in the draw for a free copy of REBELLIOUS HEART, please leave a comment below and be sure to provide your e-mail addy when prompted. The draw will close at 11:59 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Tuesday, December 24th. I’ll be taking a blogging break during Christmas week, but will post the name of the winner on Friday, December 27th.

~

You can find out more about Jody and her books on her website: jodyhedlund.com

She hangs out on Facebook here: Author Jody Hedlund and also loves to chat on Twitter: @JodyHedlund

She is represented by Rachelle Gardener at Books and Such Literary Agency.

~  ~  ~

Writing ‘ho-hum’ fiction

BlogBlank

Vancouver is the city of my birth. Its population today is much larger than it was all those years ago, but even then I considered it big. Still, my parents never hesitated to let me roam our neighbourhood to play with friends in the evening darkness, or as a young teenager to take a city bus into the downtown core by myself for weekly dance and baton lessons.

It wasn’t that crime didn’t exist. I recall hearing of a body being found in a wooded vacant lot next to my primary school — a lot in which most of us regularly played hide-and-seek games during recess and lunch hours. I was in Grade Three, and for the remainder of that school year there were more than the usual reminders not to talk to strangers. The P.A.C. had the lot cleared as a precaution, but the murder was seen as an exception… an isolated event.

Approaching Vcr 2

As I returned to the mainland from Vancouver Island via ferry earlier this week, the setting sun bathed the city in a rosy glow. But no amount of ‘viewing through rose coloured glasses’ can eliminate the statistics that prove how much it has changed over the years. It is now an area of about 2.3 million inhabitants — the third most populated metropolitan area in Canada. While it ranks as one of the top places worldwide for livability, there are also more homicides — to date in 2013 34 of them in the metro Vancouver area — as well as organized crime and drug-related gang activities.

It’s a beautiful city, but high-density living in the twenty-first century has its drawbacks. Many Vancouverites lock their doors even when they are at home, accompany children to and from all their activities, and never go for walks alone in secluded areas, especially at night. Although people don’t live in fear, nevertheless suspicion and caution are frequent bywords of our time. “You can’t be too careful.”

This week I was passing through Vancouver on my way home. I no longer live in the city, but when I consider how much things have changed in half a century, I understand why people are drawn to historical novels, seeing them in an almost nostalgic light. There has always been crime in the world, but we tend to believe earlier generations enjoyed a simpler, safer lifestyle.

Which brings me to my writing application. You knew there would be one, right? My genre isn’t historical fiction, although I occasionally enjoy reading it. Whatever I read, I respect authors who thoroughly research the eras in which their stories take place and whose characters and setting feel authentic.

Unfortunately there are some who are writing contemporary fiction, only because it’s what they know. They might believe no research is necessary, but in my opinion contemporary fiction requires a broad knowledge of present-day lifestyles. For instance, with over fifty percent of Vancouver’s residents having a first language other than English, it is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities in Canada.  Even when our personal lives might be limited in experience and exposure, our characters may need thorough researching to be realistic in today’s society.

If we aren’t careful, writing “what we know” could tell our readers we’re lazy writers!

Do you read or write contemporary fiction? What keeps some stories from coming across as ‘ho-hum’?

~  ~  ~

Doing little and getting behind in everything (aka Multi-tasking)

It’s BC’s newest holiday today — Family Day. I suppose that makes it excusable to take the day off, but truthfully, I wasn’t going to be doing much today anyway. It’s a Monday, after all… my day to tackle whatever appeals to me. I caught up on some necessary correspondence over the weekend and today am back at the history project I mentioned last Friday.

Dr. Alexander Dunn - first Presbyterian minister in BC's Fraser Valley

Dr. Alexander Dunn – first Presbyterian minister in BC’s Fraser Valley

Being “back at it” is misleading. What I’m doing is a little like researching for a novel and never quite getting started on the actual writing. I’m still gathering, sorting, planning and yet not making significant headway towards producing the final album. Digging through fascinating old documents has become an insidious addiction. As I dig, the dust and dirty dishes accumulate. Fortunately the dishes hide in the dishwasher. When we’re almost out of clean ones my hubby hits the switch. (Gotta love modern conveniences and liberated men!)

When I was a working woman I would have said I multitasked quite well. Now that I’m retired I can’t seem to focus on more than one task at a time. If I start more than one, none of them gets finished. I’m resigned to picking just one thing and seeing it through to conclusion. This month’s ‘one thing’ is our church history. St. Valentine’s Day is this week. Last year I baked special goodies for the occasion, but I’m not sure that will happen this time. Depends on how much progress I make on this history thing.

How are you at multitasking? What suffers most when you’re engrossed in a writing/research project?

~  ~  ~