Research What You Write

Along with "Show, don't tell," comes the all time great writer advice hit: "Write what you know." Too often, this is taken as a restriction to mean you can only write about what you know. But the reverse should also be true: "Research what you want to write about." A writer should not live in a bubble, writing about whatever passes by. A writer should explore.

Since stories are about people, writers should explore people and all the many places they are encountered. I like to do something I call field work. Field work for a writer means going out to environments I'm not all that familiar with and observing human reactions and interactions. Which of these places are you familiar with? A church, grocery store, a traffic court room, the field at a little league game, a mall, a homeless shelter, a coffee shop, a hospital waiting room, a popular park playground, a political rally... think of all the public places you could go to observe human behavior. Now bring your notepad with you, and try and observe the goals of each person there. Does everyone have the same goal? Who are the people that participate the most? Who holds back? Can you observe a difference?

As a writer, you need to start training yourself to pick up details about people. If you're not used to doing this, your first attempt at field work might not produce much. But as you get better at it, you'll observe quite a lot. These details you pick up will really make your writing come alive.

Hopefully, you either went after a college degree or are considering one. Many writers naturally gravitated towards an English degree. If that's your choice, I would strongly recommend at least taking some classes in Psychology and / or social behavior of some kind. As a Sci Fi / Fantasy writer, I chose to get my BA in Anthropology because I wanted to be able to create fiction cultures from the ground up without having to base them on a pre-existing Earth culture.

Speaking of SFF cultures, how about next week I talk about how to create a fantasy culture from the ground up.

Narrative Voice

One thing that's pounded into the heads of us writers is the phrase "Show, don't tell." When I first started writing, I increasingly took this to such an extreme that I never mentioned what the characters were feeling, but rather described their facial features and body language. The problem I had with this, is that my audience didn't always share the same level of attention to such things as I do, and thus, might not be able to relate to what I was trying to say.

As such, I've had to experiment a lot with the right narrative voice that accomplished what I wanted. Interestingly enough, I've found that some stories are best suited with different writing styles, so you should never feel limited by picking one and using it for all your stories. Let's go through some styles and talk about how they might best be used.

Third Person, Observant is the style I first described. This can be effective for short stories, prologues, or other disconnected scenes where the audience is not meant to get too attached to the characters. It's rare you, as an author would actually desire this effect, but it does have its places.

Third Person, Omniscient is the most powerful. The author jumps from character to character, describing what is important to the story at the time. I called this powerful because the author can stay with a single character or group for a while, then switch over to somewhere else, advance that for a while, etc. This is primarily how tv shows, movies, and most novels work.

Third Person, Limited is where you stick with just one person. As the name suggests, it's far more limiting, but let me explain why I like it better. If you stick with one character, the reader will better connect with and feel invested in that character. The reader learns what the main character learns at the same time. This can create a bond between protagonist and reader. Both Omniscient and Limited allows mention of the moods and feelings of the characters where Observant does not.

Lastly, I'll mention First Person. It's a style I recently started vigorously using. What I like about it, is it gives me incredible control over the telling of emotional reactions the protagonist has. This is very helpful for stories that spend a significant chunk of time taking place in the main character's mind. A big disadvantage of this style is the protagonist, being the narrator, can only describe what they know, and through the prism that they understand it. This can be good in that the reader can get a sense of the character in how they see the world, but it can be bad if you need to tell the reader something that the narrator wouldn't know or care enough to think about.

I sometimes get around this problem by mentioning observant things(similar to the first narration style I mentioned), that the narrator observes and describes in a way that the reader would understand, even if the narrator doesn't. This can sometimes even be done quite humorously. For example, if a young child is the narrator and walks in on his or her parents and decides the parents are wrestling on the bed. We, the readers, know what's happening. The author knows what's happening. But the narrator does not.

Let's look at a story about Claire and see what might work best for it. So far, I've used Third Person, Limited in all the short examples I've given on this blog. But as she feels alone in the cafe from the last example, I could chose to write about a nice guy sitting on the other side of the cafe, that Claire is not yet aware of. I could jump to his perspective and describe what he's also feeling alone. This would be Omniscient instead of Limited. What I could do with this, is build tension in that the reader, if sympathetic to Claire, will hope the two meet. When they miss a connection, we have the makings of what could be an interesting love story. If Claire isn't aware of this nice young man, such a story would be incredibly difficult to write unless I wrote it from the man's perspective, or through Third Person, Omniscient.

Lastly, it's important that you pick one style and use it consistently throughout your story. Some novelists, myself included, break this rule with regards to Prologues and Epilogues. I will often write my Prologues in Third Person, Observant to get a basic setting down through a short story. I won't use the main characters in the Prologue again as main characters for the rest of my novel, if at all. As such, I use Observant perspective so the reader feels disconnected from them.

Speaking of phrases being pounded into us, how about "Write what you know"? Next week, I'll talk about what to do if what you know is not what you want to write about.

Character Sketches

So last week I said a writer should never suffer from writer's block. Writers that do, do so because they focus too much on the story and how to advance it. This is the wrong approach. In my first post, I said that stories are about people. This is so true, that writing the characters should come before writing the story.

So put on hold that story idea you've been kicking around in your head, and think of a character. Let's use Claire. I think of her as a college student. Maybe she's in art school, but she has some other secret ambition. Hmm, contradiction can often make very compelling characters. Maybe she's a good person, but her mom drank, and she's scared of ending up like her. Like a lot of young adults, she'd like to change the world for the better, but she's not sure how to start. Ok, we have a basic personality, a little background, and a life long goal.

Now let's make another character. Let's call him Bob. Bob can be a little obnoxious, but he uses it as a defense mechanism. He's a college student too, working towards his MBA. He feels pressured to be a corporate heavy weight just like the old man and he tells everyone, including himself, that he wants that too. He tells people how he's going to take over the world. But deep down inside, what he really wants to do is _______.

These two characters might actually get along if both are patient in getting to know the other, but very likely they won't at first. Now, we can put them in a scene together where there's bound to be some conflict and just write what we think would happen. Can you picture Bob saying something obnoxious and Claire being put off by it? Maybe Claire says something idealistic and Bob rolls his eyes at her. We already have some tension. See how easy that was?

One of the things I found useful, I started writing down unusual physical and behavior traits of real people I knew. It can be fun to mix and match characteristics from people you observe or know in real life.

Next week, I'll talk about tone and point of view styles. In the meantime, it's not a bad idea to make list of character sketches, even if you don't have a story in mind to plop them in yet.

Poetic Devices

Poetry, like art, is difficult to define. My definition of poetry is to call it an indirect telling of an idea through imagery and emotions rather than direct and simple communication. A poetic device could be rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, simile, or a vast other number of things. But for this week, let’s just focus on those last two, and how to use them effectively outside of poetry and put them in prose.

Let’s take poor Claire out of that dark alleyway and put her some place more pleasant.

"Claire entered the open air cafe. The scent of oven baked strudel and imported Dusseldorf flour wrapped around her like a blanket in the mid morning air. She plopped herself down at the only available table.

To her right, a young couple held hands. The man brushed his thumbs back and forth across the woman’s pale skin while he stared into her caramel eyes. Beside them, two children giggled as their father told stories and made faces. To her left, a young woman cradled her swollen belly in her arms as she sat. A man rested his hand on her belly and smiled at her.

Claire twirled her finger through her Washington Apple red hair as she looked at her table. Three empty chairs stared back at her."

Let’s start with the poetic devices I used. Air isn’t a blanket, but with this simile, I’m telling you that Claire feels comfortable and safe here. I have no idea if they make flour in Dusseldorf, but it puts in the reader’s mind some far away place. Of course, I might use a different place if I was selling this article to a German based publication. Right after, I use the carefree verb “plop” to let you know her mood is a pleasant one. The next paragraph is all about pleasant things without any tension or intrigue. This is where I can start to lose readers if I don't start making things interesting. Most people can only take so much warmth and fuzziness before they get bored. The hook I use is to throw in some contrast to this happy image.

I compare her hair to Washington Apples in the next paragraph. What exact shade of red is a Washington Apple? I don’t know. It’s not important. I used it because it does a couple things for me. One, apples are pleasant and gives us a good feeling about Claire. And two, it contrasts the name of a German city with an American symbol. What I’m saying here is that Claire is an American in a foreign environment. She might be in a foreign country or just down the block from her apartment. So far, it doesn’t matter. It’s the contrast that she doesn’t quite fit in. And although she’s content with that at first, her mood starts to change.

If I’ve done my job as a writer, this will really hit home when I mentioned the chairs are empty. Chairs can’t stare at anything. This is a sort of metaphor in that I’m personifying the chairs at the same time calling them empty and devoid of life or companionship. The table was available, so we already knew the chairs would be empty, but the fact that I said so, should let the reader know how alone Claire suddenly feels despite being around so many happy people. I chose to describe the other people as in various cycles of romantic life: a couple in love, a pregnant woman excited about her future, and a father with his children. Claire is feeling left out.

I could have easily just said Claire went to a cafe, saw other people in love, and felt lonely. But this really short opening scene has a lot more impact because of the imagery. The two poetic devices I used also packed a lot of meaning into very few words--and right where I needed them.

Now, none of this matters if you, as a fellow writer, don’t know what you want to write about. Next week, I’ll go over why writer’s block is something no writer should ever have to suffer with and how to get writing immediately without stopping.