The Joys of Research

Joe’s Post #176

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

For me, I have a love-hate relationship with research. Like I have a love-hate relationship with Tom Cruise movies or hot curry.

But I come from an age when if you wanted to find something out, you had to go to a library or have a super knowledgeable friend or just make it up. It was an age long ago, an age of encyclopedias, and age long forgotten now.

Because today, we have the internet.

Now if I want to find something, the internet usually has the answer. How cool is that?

radioAnd it has answers for some pretty esoteric stuff. Like, what radio sets did the Germans use in 1940? I mean, seriously, someone has a website about this?

Well, yes, yes someone does.

Or using google maps to figure out how long it takes to get from the Rijksmuseum to the Oud Kerk in Amsterdam.

Or finding pictures of streetcars in 1930s Rotterdam.

Good lord, you wouldn’t believe the stuff you can find. Sure, it’s not always right there in front of you, and I am far from the best search-word user, but the internet is an amazing thing and before Skynet takes over and limits my access, I intend to use the hell out of it.

The only downside is, though, (and this is where the ‘hate’ part of the relationship comes in), it can become a MASSIVE distraction to the actual task of writing. How many hours have I spent looking up small details that would make my story better? Police call boxes in Chicago, 1930. The Red Light District in Amsterdam (ok, I may have gotten seriously sidetracked with pictures of this one). Uniforms of the Dutch army 1939. Hitler’s paintings.

Anne Frank's pictures

Anne Frank’s pictures

It’s fun, even if it is time-consuming.

But without such access, how would I ever be able to make my setting come to life, make my characters interact with proper historical items, or have the correct music playing on the correct device and using the appropriate speakers?

For any novel written in the time I’m living, I don’t really need to look up those things, but for a historical fiction, it’s an absolute necessity.

I am thankful for the age that I live in.


The tricky art of mixing fact and fiction

Silk’s Post #124 — What do writers of historical novels and writers of modern, ripped-from-the-headlines stories have in common? Not much, you might think. But, surprisingly, two books whose story worlds may be separated by oceans of space and centuries of time often share a unique challenge – and it’s a big one.

Historical novelists must accurately, or at least believably, write about the no-longer-observable past. Depending on how far back in time the novel is set, the story world may be entirely alien to the author and reader, requiring as much imagination to envision as a science fiction setting on another planet. But at least history is documented. All it takes is research – albeit sometimes a lot of laborious research – to recreate the story world.

Writers of ripped-from-the-headlines novels have the advantage of writing about a world in which they actually live – or at least can visit in person, research through contemporaneous reporting, and learn about through interviews with living people. This can still take a lot of time and effort, but it’s a very different exercise.

Here’s where the writers in these two different genres find themselves in exactly the same boat: their stories are set in real places, at real times, referencing real events, where real people play roles side-by-side with fictional characters.

The happy part: the writers can find out all the facts that make their story worlds “real” through research and/or direct experience.

The scary part: so can everyone else.

In other words, writing that mixes the imaginary with the actual will be checked. Whether it’s religious scholars debunking the authenticity of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code historical religious references, or military spook experts nitpicking Tom Clancy’s gizmo-laden weaponry and black-ops tactics, stories that deeply depend on a framework of real-world fact to support their fictional narrative and characters must tread a fine line.

a-million-little-piecesThe proportion of reality to fiction is probably the first deliberate decision that must be made. The spectrum is wide. On the literal end of the scale is the newly-named genre “creative non-fiction,” which tells a “true” story but tinkers with inconvenient facts for dramatic purposes. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah Book Club selection, was famously slammed for being a memoire with undeclared fictional elements. More recently, the Oscar-nominated film Selma, which chronicles the recent (and still sensitive) history of minority voting rights, upset some critics when its narrative strayed from the true sequence of events.

argoAnother Oscar-winning “ripped-from-the-headlines” film, Argo, which was written for the screen, chose a strongly America-centric point of view to tell the story of the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis. The film has been widely criticized for historical inaccuracies, and for downplaying or misrepresenting the roles of the Canadian, British, and New Zealand embassies (the freeing of the American hostages after 444 days in captivity was called “the Canadian Caper” in the media at the time, as well as in a 1981 TV-movie). Not surprisingly, Argo was banned in Iran, where it was reviled as “the hoax of Hollywood”. Subsequent to Argo’s release in 2012, a Canadian documentary, Our Man in Tehran, was produced to “set the record straight.” Thus, while Argo was billed as a true-to-life dramatization, there are a lot of folks who would put it in the “creative non-fiction” category.

But creative non-fiction tells stories of actual people and events – in a more dramatic (and perhaps entertaining) narrative style than straight documentaries. What about placing fictional characters into a historic or contemporary context, and telling their made-up personal stories alongside the real-life stories of actual people and events?

There’s a huge range of fiction-to-fact mixes possible. And this is where it all gets murky.

In part, the choice depends on whether you’re using the real-life context and events mainly to tell the story of a fictional protagonist – or whether the aim is to faithfully tell the story of the real-life events by using a fictional protagonist to be our “eyes”. In the first case, the real people and events are background, while the story of the fictional protagonist is foreground; the protagonist’s point of view is personal, and may or may not be accurate. In the second case, you’re counting on the fictional character to be a reliable narrator, and there’s probably more need to demarcate the fact from the fiction: some things did happen, in exactly the way described, while other things did not happen, but realistically could have.

wolf-hallOr, you could just say the hell with it, and write about the real people in the story as though they were just part of your cast of fictional characters – giving them feelings, thoughts, relationships and actions right out of your imagination (and research). Think Wolf Hall, the Man Booker Prize-winning historical novel by Hilary Mantel, which portrays the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII.

Of course, the closer you get to contemporary times – the ripped-from-the-headlines type of story – the riskier it is to “fictionalize” real people. Especially characters that readers already have a strong personal opinion about – be they heroes or villains. For instance, you probably don’t want to say anything mean about Pope Francis, or anything complimentary about Adolf Hitler. Unless you’ve been really despondent about your empty mailbox.

A poorly conceived mix of fact and fiction in your contemporary, ripped-from-the-headlines novel can also take you to the shores of the stormy Sea of Litigation. For instance, if you’re considering an unauthorized, fictionalized biography of a living person, might as well just go ahead and retain a lawyer right now. The risks include defamation, invasion of privacy and misappropriation of the right of publicity. Check lawyer and writer Helen Sedwick’s website for more on this topic.

In my (possibly paranoid) opinion, it’s also risky to muck about with potentially explosive revelations that cross the line between fiction and fact, whether they appertain to national security, sex habits of the rich and famous, dark corporate secrets, political scandals, or anything else that might make a real, live, super rich, not-too-scrupulous person apoplectic. But perhaps I’ve been watching too much TV.

As novelists, we all mix fact and fiction in our stories. It’s inevitable. Even science fiction and fantasy genres create their worlds on similarities and contrasts with normal old reality. Richly atmospheric novels draw readers into the story world by bringing life, detail and significance to real places, things and circumstances. But there’s a difference between simply bringing realism to the time and place of a story setting, and using real events and people as integral parts of the narrative.

It’s tricky, especially for fiction writers who strive to use imaginary stories to express some essential truth. We want to illuminate, not obscure. Lead, not mislead.

In our overstimulated, chaotic information age – where we’re all force-fed a steady diet of uncurated stories in print, on screen, and online – it seems the line between fact and fiction has become increasingly blurred and contorted. Sometimes I find myself wondering whether that line is in danger of completely disappearing, and what that would mean for the future of concepts like “trust” and “truth”.

So I like to keep track of that line between fact and fiction. Especially in my own writing.

Balancing writing and research

Joe’s Post #123

fireworksOk, here’s the good news. I started my novel. The bad news, it’s still a challenge for me actually writing and not bogging down in research.

I know, big surprise, right?

I did, however, come up with a solution, but first, let me give you an idea of the problem.

bridgeSo my character crosses a bridge in Amsterdam. What did the bridge look like? I looked up maps of Amsterdam, then old maps, then 1940’s maps, then I tried to find pictures, then I tried to find pictures from 1940, then I tried to find a detail that I could haul out, then I tried to link that detail to my character’s past which lead to looking up bridges in Chicago, which led to pictures of bridges in Chicago, which led to looking for 1940’s pictures, which somehow led to research on the districts and areas the gangs controlled.

After about 2 hours, I wrote a sentence.

Next week, I’ll talk a bit about research and details, or how much is too much, but it was clear after writing that one sentence in 2 hours (and not even an amazing sentence at that), if I ever hoped to get this novel done, I would have to find way to balance off research and writing.

A part of it was that I was rusty at writing. Yup, flaking-orange-rust-rusty. It happens. It’s like anything. You don’t practice enough, and it’s all kinds of hard to get restarted. Like getting back to exercise. Or getting up at 5am for morning hockey practice.

rustyThe only way to get over being rusty is, wait for it…. Practice. Again, big surprise right?

Sounds like I have a serious case of Captain Obvious, but it’s something that’s easy to forget. It’s like you know you used to be able to run around a football field chasing a ball and god bless us, but we think we can do that again after 20 years of sitting on the couch. Or think of starting a car after it has sat in a field looking picturesque.

So I’ve dedicated myself to writing every day, again. Even at the expense of research. I’m going to try to get that flow back. I’m going to bang off the rust.

It won’t be pretty. And that research-Gollum still clears its throat when it thinks I need to stop and look something up.

Hey, it’s fun to look stuff up. Oh sure, it can be frustrating at times (due to either lack of skill on my part or lack of information in general), but it’s so cool when you find pictures of an old Kirk (not captain Kirk, an old church) that could be a part of your story.

It’s a reward. And we do love rewards. Even us writers.

Hence my new strategy has a twist, a way of not bogging down – I underline something and leave it for later.

So what if I write ‘bridge’? I can look up the details later. If it’s even needed. Hey, sometimes it’s ok to just write ‘bridge’. With that in mind, I can underline cigarettes and look up what the Dutch smoked in the 1930s. I don’t have to know right now. I can plunder pinterest at a later date to find pictures of Dutch prostitutes.

It can all wait.

Really, it can.

It’s all about discipline and focus. I need to get a well-written story done. All I need to do that is to understand and know the basic details of the time. The rest I will have to stuff in a sack, throw that sack in the canal and come to get it at a later date.

Otherwise this novel will never get written.

And I so want to tell this story.


A few questions

Does anyone have a recommendation for a translation program?

How do you decide when to keep researching and when to write?

Best show last week – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. OMG it’s worth seeing for the special effects!

Book that I’m reading at the moment – In The Shadow of the Cathedral, by Titia Bozuwa. A good book for researching the Netherlands.

Outlines done 0

Pages written on new book  15 (ok, nothing to jump up and down at, but better than 0).

# of new friends made on Twitter  5. Despite the fact I didn’t post anything. I did write 5 posts, so it’s kind of one for one.

Health Mental health took a hit while I dealt with a very painful anniversary.

Best thing last week  Honestly, it was that I got started writing again.

Worst thing – translations of larger Dutch documents is eluding me at the moment. All the programs I’ve tried so far crash my system and make me sad.

And hey, if you like this post, please share it on facebook or twitter or linkedin or just tell a friend.

Research – what inspires you to write?

Joe’s Post #122

History is People

soylant greenThe idea that history is people came as a shock to my oldest boy. Sort of like Soylent Green is people came as a shock to Charlton Heston. He (my boy, not CH) thought history was terrible. He hated it.

In part, this is because in school history is about facts. When did the beaver traders first invent beaver pelts? What year did the Romulans build Rome? Where did the Egyptians build the pyramids?

Interesting stuff if you like learning about facts. Certainly valuable in trivial pursuit-type games. But history can be inspiring, and inspiring because of the people in it.

Which leads me to my post this week.

I usually research people by reading about them. I have dozens and dozens of books in my library about historical figures, interesting comedians and odd whackadoodles. But this last week, I spent some time with real people who have actually LIVED history.

It was a transformative moment for me.


I’ll get to that in a minute.

rotterdamSo, yeah, here I am, writing a historical novel set in the Netherlands, circa 1940, and I’ve been gleeful to find old photos, gather up books written about the time (mostly during the German occupation), and find the odd link that reveals some amazing fact I didn’t know.

But the real fun has been talking (or emailing) people who’ve experienced it. Not being a journalist, I’m a little rusty at interviewing. It probably takes me a bit longer to get to the stories and details than someone more skilled or socially awesome.

And, I’ve been surprised that there are people who would rather not talk about what happened. Intellectually, I can understand, like I can understand why some people like cats more than dogs. But deep down, I don’t get it. Good or bad, it’s history. It’s part of their story. If you asked me to talk about my childhood, I would bore you to tears for hours. However, I didn’t see people beaten to death before my eyes or have my house bombed.

So I’m sensitive when someone says they’d rather not talk about something.

anne frankBut what people have talked to me about has made me think about this story in a whole different way. It’s one thing to read Anne Frank. It’s another to talk to someone who’s actually hidden people from the Nazis.

Think about this for a moment. You risked everything. If you were caught, you could be shot, maybe tortured, and your entire family would be sent to a concentration camp (even your children) where they would probably die a very bad death. All it would take would be one wrong sound at the wrong time, a light left on when everyone should be asleep, a traitor speaking to the Germans.

How many of us would risk ourselves today?

For me, it’s that simple bravery that moves me. Not that any of the people I’ve spoken to would think of themselves as brave. In fact, they’d be embarrassed to be called that. But they are.

They risked everything to do something good. Everything.

And that’s transformed my thinking about this book.

dutchThose stories need to be heard. They need to be told.

Because history is not just about the famous people. Hitler. Churchill. Matt Damon. It’s about the lives of regular people as well.



Best show last week – Walking Dead wins again. Spoiler alert. Something bad happens. Wait, that happens every week.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – In The Shadow of the Cathedral, by Titia Bozuwa. A good book for researching the Netherlands.

Outlines done – 0

Pages written on new book  0

# of new friends made on Twitter – 3 (but did manage to create a lively discussion on Linkedin about if research was even necessary – based on my blog of the same title.)

# books ordered for research – They’ve all come in. But I found a great site for finding more information. World History at KMLA

Health – Still hanging in there. Cold gone. Happy to breath again.

Best thing last week – Meet with the 5/5/5 Thursday. Set some serious goals. I’ll write more about that next week.

Worst thing – remains largely untouched and this site needs a bit of work. One more thing to do on a very long list of things to do.

Deconstructing research

Helga’s Post # 94:   I was intrigued with Joe’s last post ‘Researching Research’. I can totally relate to his challenges as he plans his WWII novel set in Holland. He has neatly outlined all the possible sources for doing research: books, workshops, librarians, personal interviews, Internet, and so forth.

All have their usefulness, to a point. Any one of these tools, or taken together, can be a formidable arsenal to a writer of historical fiction.

But the most powerful tool by far an author can use is to ‘walk the location’ just as Joe did for his previous novel set in the California desert. To actually experience a place first-hand will yield information that none of the other sources would be ever be able to yield.

What about the time difference, you may ask. How can a place, a location, yield ‘authentic’ information when the story takes place fifty years ago? Is the location still relevant?

I would like to say a resounding ‘Yes’. Take Holland. (Especially Holland). Do you think the Dutch have changed their innate personality, their characteristics, in fifty years? I don’t think so. Talk to any Dutchman or Dutchwoman and you will find a uniqueness that they got from their parents or grandparents long ago. Traits they will keep for the rest of their lives. Not just Dutch people, of course.

And they still get around mainly by bicycles. Just as they did 50 years ago.

Holland's main transportation - today as always

Holland’s main transportation – today as always

Younger generations of any culture are forever becoming more homogeneous thanks (or perhaps regrettably) to the evolution of technology, especially the Internet. Still, in the end, you can take a Dutch out of Holland, but you can’t take Holland out of a Dutch. None of the tools we talked about – books, libraries, the Internet, etc. – will let a writer glean the subtle differences that will make his or her novel truly authentic. For that, our writer better pack his bags and get to visit the location of his choice.

Easier said than done. Depending on the setting, it could well be unaffordable. Most writers (or first time authors) are not as well-heeled as American bestselling mystery writer Elizabeth George! While she lives in California, her research takes her to Britain on extensive trips, time and again.

But there is still another choice, one that Joe also alluded to in his post: Older family members. I believe that is the next-best thing to actually setting foot on the novel’s location.

I well remember my dad’s stories of WWII. He often repeated the same ones, time and again. No use telling him, ‘dad you already told us’. He didn’t need an audience as much as satisfy his own need to verbalize his experience and in so doing, re-live it over and over. So, while I never was in Russia (well, except for a short trip to touristy St. Petersburg, which doesn’t count), I learned much about the country, seeing it through my dad’s eyes, feeling it through his story-telling in the most minute details.

It also helps if the writer actually grew up or lived extensively in the setting of her novel. My motivation for writing my first novel ‘Closing Time’ was the setting: Vienna. Not only the setting, but the time too – the Cold War era of the late Fifties. That’s where I grew up and I remember much of that period. Come to think of it, I should give Closing Time another try, especially since some time has passed since the sting of the last rejection letter.

Vienna's wine gardens 'Heurigen' today like 100 years ago

Vienna’s wine gardens ‘Heurigen’

But this time there won’t be any more rejection letters. Self-publishing can do that.

Research is the love of learning

Karalee’s Post #87

For me, researching a topic  often pulls me in so many interesting directions that it can be difficult to refocus on the details that really matter. I don’t want to get lost in the milieu of research, rather I need just enough information and details to enrich my story to keep it exciting, or to convince readers that my details and characters are authentic, or to keep my plot line progressing at the proper pace.

Building stories and the world that one’s characters live in is a fun challenge whether it takes place on Earth or on some made-up planet or anywhere else for that matter. Today the internet is the go-to place to search for anything imaginable. It’s a magical place that can entice a person to explore forever and not stop when you’ve found what you were looking for because “everything” is interesting. This can be fun, but not always. It can be a time sucker and prevent real progress, and one can get lost in places never intended to go to in the first place, like Hansel and Gretel.

Focusing on the task in hand can seem almost impossible.

photo by Joanne SmithLast Friday my friend Joanne and I were running  around Burnaby Lake. The sun had caught this spider web, bringing into focus what is often nearly invisible, and we couldn’t help but stop and admire it. Call me crazy, but it made me think of story building and how this spider had to both start and finish somewhere. Not only that, but the purpose of the web itself is to catch food for survival.

Now unless you as a writer have given up your day job and risked everything in order to make a living at writing, the purpose of your story as a writer isn’t literally for survival.

We write because we love to tell stories and build our story worlds and have them make a difference in our reader’s lives, whether for sheer entertainment or for teachable moments when we view our worlds in unique ways.

Research can provide our stories with anything from the foundation up, but it must all be built from the author’s story ideas and  knowledge of this craft called writing. I’m sure spiders learn along the way too and build better webs with practice.

I read this great blog post about research by Tosca Lee on the blog The Kill Zone. Check it out as I feel her method not only makes sense, it is also a good use of one’s time and energy.  Now that’s worth researching.

Happy writing!