Researching your Story

This month’s discussion blog post is from Judith Silverthorne, author of many historical fiction books ranging from dinosaurs in the Jurassic to convict ships in 1842 to ghost stories of the 1900s. Here she talks about her favourite ways of finding information.

What about you? What problems have you found in doing research? How has research enlivened your writing? What unique or unusual sources have you discovered?

Here are Judith’s thoughts:

Research for writing projects can take many turns and lead to a variety of unexpected sources. Whether you are writing nonfiction, fiction, or poetry, research is necessary to find information about people, places, societies, settings and even right spellings and connotations of words.

An obvious source for basic information, fact checking and the like is the internet. The internet can be useful in leading you to other great resources, providing ideas and contacts that you might not otherwise have contemplated. However, it is important to check information with primary or other reliable sources to make sure the information is from a reputable authority or knowledgeable professional. Sometimes they’re not easy to find, but be diligent.

Typical research includes names for characters, attributes of personalities, types of clothing or attire, customs, technology, dwellings, geographic descriptions, even the types of weather at a certain time and place in history. Attitudes of society and social context can be found in other books about your topic, while libraries, archives, museum, art galleries, historical societies, and the like are rich resources that can lead you to documents, letters, diaries, and other personal insights.

Connecting personally with experts in the field of your topic is also very useful. Whether about forensics, medicine, the law or sailing tall ships, trudging through a rain forest or dwelling in the artic, contacting those who have relevant knowledge and experience is one of the best ways to get what you need to make your stories accurate and believable. Academics and other specialists often have specific information or knowledge you won’t find in public sources, and can help you add depth and richness of detail to your writing,

One of the single most valuable ways to research a particular location is to travel to it and explore the locales and talk to local people and historians. If you’re fortunate, you may find living history re-enactments or special commemorative situations where you can become involved in the real life adventures you are writing about.

Being informed and understanding your topic fully goes a long way towards discerning which parts of your research are the most valuable for use in your writing. Researching enough to immerse yourself in the culture or milieu of your setting is the best way to write a believable setting and atmosphere. Your readers will thank you for it, or better yet, they won’t even notice, because you’ve done such a fine job of blending and including your research that they become totally engaged in your work.

 

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Revisions: Working with Different Sets of Eyes/I’s

Collapse of the Veil, by Alison Lohans

Collapse of the Veil, by Alison Lohans

Crossings, by Alison Lohans

Crossings, by Alison Lohans

Post by Alison Lohans

I’ve just finished revising my second previously-published book for re-release by a different publisher. The whole process – seeing my work through yet another lens, after having spent well over ten years working the book to a polished draft, and then going through it with the editor of the original publishing house – has been an eye-opening experience. During this time I’ve also seen good friends working hard at their own revisions in fervent hopes of their creative “child” finding its home in the publishing world.

How do we know when a book is finally “ready”? During this process with Timefall (which is the new title for the combined Collapse of the Veil and Crossings), I was shocked on more than a few occasions by things that had slipped past me during those ten-plus years of work, and had also slipped by the first editor. These different sets of eyes (I’s?) all come to a manuscript with subjective lenses, and these multiple perspectives quickly demonstrate the value of critiquing in a writer’s group. We all laugh when caught red-faced: “But isn’t it obvious? I can see it all in my head!”

I’d always figured I was reasonably good with characters, and their motivations and goals, so it was quite a surprise to see in the Track Changes margin:  “Out of character”. Fortunately this mostly happened with the secondary characters. But it’s a clear reminder that ALL of our characters need to be in our story for specific reasons, each with their own agendas, and flaws, that drive the conflict arc of the character-driven novel. “Out of character!” was a useful reminder to examine what a character’s response would actually be, and how long that response would play out – and working out a more realistic response led me to subtle shifts that freshened the protagonist’s response as well.

And … responses? Oops! Character X said/did something. Why didn’t Character Y respond? Caught up in one character’s point of view, and with the scene goal in sight, umm…..maybe things got rushed ahead just a little too fast, without honouring the perspective of Character Y? Definitely worth thinking about…

The choreography within a scene, again in the Track Changes balloon: “And Tyler is where?” This round of re-revisions got me looking long and hard at the mother-instinct not only in my teen mom protagonist, but also in her mother. The baby is a pivotal character in the book, and needed to be accounted for in all the scenes where he is present. Oops…. And lo and behold, in a high drama scene where (this time around) I caught myself on two giant faux pas that the present (excellent) editor didn’t catch…whoa!

There those Big Issues were, staring me in the face. By honouring each character’s integrity in the height of the emergency, the way unfolded to show both characters in realistic action together; this, in turn, also served to reinforce a tentative reconciliation. The shifts needed to play this out were amazingly simple to work in and, better yet, had all my characters accounted for. It is so easy for characters to fade out of a scene before they’ve actually exited.

So this was another wake-up call:  Characters are in a scene for a reason. If we’ve put them there, they need to have a tangible role to play whether it’s a speaking part or an action part. If they’re a secondary character, their presence has to have some kind of impact on what the protagonist is doing. And if the secondary characters happen to be more articulate/active than a more-reserved protagonist, our protagonist still must be truly “present” in a sensory and mental way, rather than simply to listen to what the other guys are all talking about.

When is a manuscript truly ready? Such a tough question! Sometimes deadlines will get us up and hopping, maybe with a hint of panic. If we stop and second-guess ourselves too many times, searching for the right word, the most evocative image, we can take the proverbial “forever” to get done – and too much of this can kill the spark that ignited earlier drafts. Yikes…we don’t want to do that!

When considering this question nearly forty years ago I used certain criteria, and for the most part I still adhere to them:

  • If it’s as good as I can possibly make it
  • if I still get excited (re)reading it (for the umpteenth time!)
  • if I can experience my narrative through the emotional lens of my protagonist and in a sensory way
  • if I’ve read chunks of it aloud to my computer monitor and the words sound pleasing and have a good feel on my tongue

Then yes, maybe it’s okay to let it go. That is, of course, after careful scrutiny:

  • Are the characters believable, and consistent?
  • Is the plot believable, and the goal worthwhile?
  • Is there strong enough motivation, with further conflict arising from the interplay of the characters’ diverse goals and motivations?
  • Is there a satisfying resolution that resonates beyond “The End”?

Yes? Then maybe it’s okay to hit send.

But maybe a book is never truly finished. For once it’s out there in the world, it will be re-created every time a reader plunges into our story – through yet another set of eyes.

Join the Discussion:

What is your revision process like? How do you know when your manuscript is finished and ready to send to a publisher? What have you learned about your writing style from your revisions?

Ending the Drought

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Prairie people know about drought. They’ve either experienced it or heard about it. “It’s so dry the trees are whistlin’ for the dogs.”  Writers also know about drought. Some people call it “writer’s block”, but to me a block is a temporary obstacle – something you need to find a way around or over and then you can continue on your way. A drought is a prolonged lack of inspiration, or desire to write, or both.

I’m in a drought. No new ideas have formed in my skies and no showers of words have fallen onto paper or screen for over a year. My drought began when my husband died, but drought can happen for a lot of reasons. I’ve tinkered with things I’ve written in the past, but I haven’t written anything new. And it’s time.

So, I’m looking for suggestions. How do you end a drought? If you’ve gone through it yourself, what did you do to get back to writing? If you haven’t gone through it, what do you think might work if you did?

I’m hoping this brainstorm will bring much needed rain. Thanks in advance!

Dianne Young is (was?) a picture book writer and poet and a soon-to-be retired educational assistant who lives in Martensville, SK.

 

Potential Workshop Presenters: Who and What?

Paula Jane Remlinger talking about "Rhyme Crimes: What Makes Good Children's Poetry"

Paula Jane Remlinger talking about “Rhyme Crimes: What Makes Good Children’s Poetry”

The good news is…

that CANSCAIP Sask Horizons qualified to receive a writing groups grant from the Saskatchewan Writers Guild this year. We plan to use it to bring in two speakers to do workshops for us at the SWG office in Regina, on topics of interest to our Sask CANSCAIP members.

You don’t live in Regina? No worries–they will also be broadcast live right to your computer, AND recorded and put on YouTube afterwards so you can watch them any time you like.

We did one workshop like this last spring, with Paula Jane Remlinger talking about writing good children’s poetry. If you haven’t seen it, why not watch it now? (It takes about 45 minutes.) The point is, we know the technology works.

The question is…

who should we invite to do workshops, and what should they talk about? (Okay, that’s two questions.)

We can afford to bring in one speaker from out of Regina and one from inside Regina. Who they are will depend on what you are interested in hearing.

We had some suggestions at the General Meeting after the Prairie Horizons 2015 conference. I won’t put speakers’ names here, just topics:

  • Giving presentations to groups of different ages
  • How to create and pitch an illustrators’ portfolio for a publisher
  • The first five pages
  • Publishing your e-book
  • Using social media for marketing your book
  • How to do virtual readings

We need to have both presentations by the end of June. The first step is to figure out what we want to hear, and who should talk about them. So what do you think?

Rebooting the Online Discussion Group

Rutabaga raisin cookies

Rutabaga raisin cookies

I thought that picture would get your attention! But sorry, this isn’t a recipe page. It’s a New Year’s new beginnings page.

Yup, it’s time to pick up those good and productive activities that got left by the wayside sometime in the busyness of the last year (or so). In particular, the SK CANSCAIP online discussion blog posts. At the General Meeting after the Prairie Horizons 2015 conference there was general consensus that they were useful and should be re-started.

Just to refresh everyone’s memory, this is how it works.

  • Every month, someone volunteers to host the discussion. The host chooses a topic and writes a blog post on this website, then monitors the comments for a week or so and keeps the discussion going.
  • Any topic of interest to children’s writers, illustrators or performers is fine. Writing about your publishing experience is fine too, or a report about a conference or workshop that was helpful to you, or a question you have that others might be able to help with.
  • When your month comes, I will give you instructions to log in and post your topic. I will help if you need help.
  • Posts should go up around the 15th of the month.
  • That’s it!

Last time, we had discussions about research, libraries, publishing e-books, and more.

If you are willing to host a discussion, comment on this post or at the FB group link or email me at canscaip@gmail.com. I will make a list on the Moderators page so everyone knows which months are still free.

I will host the January topic, which will go up probably tomorrow. Talk to you there!

Sharon

Why Goodreads?

Goodreads logo

The place to build your audience…

What do you do when you want to read a good book? Ask a friend for a recommendation? Ask your book club? Check out the library? Browse the local bookstore? Google the book title to find a review? Check your list of books to read? If you want to do all of these in one place without leaving your computer, Goodreads is where you go.

For readers, Goodreads is like a Facebook devoted to books. You make friend and trade recommendations, everyone shares reviews, and the site itself recommends books based on books you say you’ve liked. You can rate books,  discuss them with other readers, join book clubs, set reading goals and track your progress, become fans or friends of authors, download free books, enter contests, set reading goals, find out about new books, and find out where to buy them. Buy some of them on the site. And no doubt more I haven’t discovered yet!

So what’s in it for authors? In a word, publicity. Goodreads claims to have 25 million readers, all of whom are interested in books. Through the author program you can find and interact with the ones that like the kind of books you write. You can do this in many ways:

  • set up an author profile
  • write a blog on Goodreads
  • publicize upcoming launches and other events
  • post excerpts of your books, or book trailers
  • start a discussion group about your book
  • create a poll or a quiz
  • add one of several ready-to-go widgets, highlighting you or your books, to your own blog or website
  • link your Goodreads activities to your other social media

You’re not on your own doing this either. Goodreads has a very slick author program with detailed instructions and slide shows to tell you things like how to set up your campaign and how to respond to negative comments readers might post about your book.

If you have money to invest, you can even set up an ad campaign on Goodreads and target it to those readers that like your kind of book. Or host a giveaway contest–on average, 825 readers enter to win. That’s pretty good publicity for the price of one book–and a fair chunk of your time to figure this all out and build those relationships with potential readers.

And there is the rub. Connecting with your readers, building an audience through social media–we’re told this is “wildly important”, even essential to selling books today. I recently heard from an agent that without an internet platform, authors can’t hope to get any attention from agents or publishers. But it all takes time. How do I decide which of Facebook, Twitter, blogging, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Goodreads and a host of other possibilities I should spend my time on–time that I would otherwise spend on writing my next book?

I’m very new to Goodreads–in fact, I just joined today. So I can’t tell you how it’s worked for me. But how about you? Do you use Goodreads either to find books to read or to promote your own books? Has it been beneficial? Have you found new readers, or made book-loving friends? Have you hosted a book giveaway or put out a targeted ad? How does it compare with other social media that you use? I’d love to hear, and learn from, your experience.

 

Sharon Plumb is the author of Draco’s Child. You can find her at sharonplumb.ca and sharonplumb.wordpress.com .

Library Connections

li·brary. Pronunciation: ˈlī-ˌbrer-ē, -ˌbre-rē; British usually & US sometimes -brər-ē; US sometimes -brē, ÷-ˌber-ē, -ˌbe-rē. Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French librarie, Medieval Latin librarium, from Latin, neuter of librarius of books, from libr-, liber inner bark, rind, book. Date: 14th century. a: a place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials (as books, manuscripts, recordings, or films) are kept for use but not for sale b: a collection of such materials.[1]

The popular understanding of the word library has evolved since this definition was published thirteen years ago. Today’s public and educational libraries offer a diversity of materials for a diversity of patrons. Highly trained staff work to expand their services both geographically and digitally. Among corporations and governments, however, the title “Library” has become nearly obsolete. It brings to mind dusty old tomes and card catalogues, an image that unfortunately enables cutbacks and downsizing. Within the space of two years, one small environmental research library I worked for was renamed the Resource Centre, Information Centre, Resource Information Centre, and finally Knowledge Centre. It was a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to escape the government axe.

As libraries have evolved, so has the relationship between writer and library. Throughout our lives, we writers develop a strong bond with these institutions. They have provided us with refuge, with research, and above all with inspiration for our own writing. We were loyal fans of our school, public, and post-secondary libraries. If you were lucky the company you worked for might have a libr–pardon me, an Information Resource Centre of Knowledge.

Libraries didn’t become a solid presence in my life until high school. The children’s section in our small town’s public library was practically nonexistent. Our elementary school’s collection was organized by grade, and we weren’t allowed to sign out books above our grade level. This was frustrating for a fourth grade student who had burned through the entire allotted selection within the first month of school and had to wait another year to access those grade five and six shelves. Perhaps it was this early deprivation that inspired me to switch careers in the late 1990’s. I was working in a techie position at CKTV in Regina. Among libraries it was an era of rapidly expanding collection development and online technology. I began spending so much time in the public library, patrons assumed I worked there and asked me for help. It occurred to me that I might as well get paid for my efforts, so I became a library technician.

People say reading is a disconnect from the every day world, but those of us who use the library on a regular basis know we’re attached to the world in a fundamental way. Beyond the physical act of meeting other people who love books, in the materials we gather there we connect on an emotional and intellectual level to other writers, to the subjects of their writing, and to the readers of their writing. Occasionally I’ll open a library book and a slip of paper will fall out. It’s the list of books signed out by the person who previously borrowed the book. I always examine it to see what else that person was reading, expecting to find we have similar tastes. I spin a little fantasy of discovering a kindred spirit, of bribing the library staff to track down their contact information so we can become BFFs and start our own book club. After a glance at the list I’m taken aback to discover this person is, well, a little strange. How many books does one person need on eating right for their blood type? What is this obsession with lemons?

I was going to compile a list of tips for searching an online library catalogue, but it would have taken up too much space. So I will direct you to the Frequently Asked Questions page of my website, which has the added benefit of shameless self promotion. The examples I show are from the provincial public library, but most online catalogues follow similar design.

OK commenters, it’s time to share your own library stories. What is your earliest or fondest library memory? Do you have any stories about a favourite librarian? How have your experiences with libraries influenced your career as a writer? What’s the silliest thing you’ve done in a library? My personal ongoing silliness during visits to the public library is to sneak my latest novel into any empty space on the display racks.[2] A few days later I’ll check the catalogue to see if it’s gone out on loan, boosting those circulation statistics and convincing the library to order an additional copy.

mdogsatjmcpl

Glenda Goertzen lives in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. After a decade in a multimedia career, Glenda was overwhelmed by a desire to be surrounded by books rather than TV screens. While working on a homework assignment for her Library Technician course, she grabbed a piece of scrap paper and discovered it was a page from an old draft of The Prairie Dogs. She dug up the manuscript, read it, and decided to return to writing and illustrating. She now spends her days, at work and at home, surrounded by books. Those books include the award-nominated Prairie Dogs Adventures series.

www.glendagoertzen.ca


[1] Meriam-Webster, Inc. Meriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (2001). http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/library (27 Aug. 2001)

[2] The library staff allow me to get away with this out of appreciation for my overdue fines revenue.