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Posts from the ‘interviews’ Category

The Research – Write what you know OR know what you write: Novel Writing Prep Series

I love research!  As a little girl, I used to dream of being locked in a library overnight surrounded by all of my favorite books – fiction and non-fiction.  The makings of a horror movie, I know.  But I was confident that as long as I had light and no scary spirits or monsters, I could indulge my love of reading and research all night. Along with hours spent at the swimming pool and playing “Smear the Queer” with my older brother, I spent my summers writing reports.  Nerdy! I know.  I prefer the term “Intellectual Badass” when referencing my self-admitted nerdiness.  The reports were handwritten pages filled with facts about unicorns or Armenia (not sure where that idea came from) or the humpbacked whale.  I got great satisfaction out of popping my dime into the Xerox copy machine and watching the green-glowing light glide slowly underneath the lid. I’d cut out my grainy black-and-white pictures of medieval triptychs depicting unicorns and paste them on my lined notebook paper.  The final step was gathering up my fact-filled pages and inserting them into the acetate report cover.  Ahhh… such satisfaction for a nerd intellectual badass.

My love of useless and useful facts has continued as an adult. It benefits me greatly in my non-fiction writing life.  Digging up remote facts about the mountain goat pictographs in the Sierra del Presidio area of Mexico, is often just what I need to bring interest to a magazine or newspaper article.

The realm of fiction is where research gets a little dicey.  Many writing teachers and writers will tell you to, “Write what you know.”  If I only wrote what I know, my stories would be populated with 30-something mothers who attend endless PTA meetings, shuttle their kids back and forth to ski lessons and have ongoing battles with their treadmills.  Oh… and maybe sneak in a few hours to write after everyone else is in bed.  Not the makings of a best-selling novel.

I’m a firm believer that knowing what you write is just as beneficial as writing what you know – and more interesting.  Research can give you a solid backdrop against which your novel unfolds.  However, knowing when to say when is the key.  You can spend months searching for just one more fact, but in the end all the facts in the world won’t get that novel written.

With that said, I believe some research is vital to any good fiction writer’s repertoire. In knowing what you write, you can write what you know. Here are a few of my favorite research methods:

1.  Interviews: Maybe it’s my background as a journalist, but whenever I need to know something, I go straight to the source.  Maybe you can’t always write what you know, but you can write what other people know intimately.  My historical fiction novel takes place in St. Louis in 1949.  A dear friend’s mother grew up in the late-30s and early-40s in St. Louis.  An hour spent on the phone with Mrs. W. gave me a notebook full of recollections that I couldn’t find online or in any books.  I spent hours poring over history books, but none had information about the horserace track which was two blocks from my character’s house in University City, Missouri.  Mrs. W. not only recalled the details of the racetrack, but she could describe the ice cream cones she used to buy at the corner drug store on her way to the races. Through interviews with others I was transported back to a time almost 25 years before I was born.

2.  Social Security and Census Records: Did you know that the Social Security Adminstration and the U.S. Census Bureau make their records available online? These are great resources for placing you squarely in a particular time or place.  Let’s say your story takes place in New Orleans.  Your protagonist’s father needs a job. You could guess at iron worker or musician.  OR, you could visit the U.S. Census Bureau’s records for 1932.  The records will give you population, nationality and employment statistics for each ward of the city.  You might stumble upon the one person, an Italian immigrant who was the city’s agricultural manager, supervising the shipments of soybeans and hogs that were exported out of New Orleans to Asia.  What a fascinating job! Just what you need to bring your story to life.

Maybe you need a name for a main character.  Your story takes place in 2012, but your antagonist was born in 1983.  Visit the Social Security Administration’s records and sort by birth year.  You’ll discover lists of the top 20 names for boys and girls in 1983.  Jennifer or Jessica might be just the name you need for your snooty retail clerk who is sucking up for the management position.

3. Newspapers: My favorite!  Newspapers chronicle the daily life of people, providing a glimpse into the everyday minutiae that make our world interesting.  If it were possible to preserve microfiche for millions of years, future anthropologists will have riotous fun studying our daily and weekly newspapers.  Head out to a library and dig in to some issues from the correct time or location.  My 2010 NaNoWriMo novel takes place in a small farm town in central Illinois.  In reading local newspapers, I discovered a pumpkin carving contest that was the perfect setting for my MC’s first paranormal experience.  Thanks to one photo published in the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Illinois, an entire scene took shape within minutes.

Newspapers are good for more than just the articles.  I needed products to populate the shelves of my corner drug store in my historical fiction novel.  Old copies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided plenty of advertisements for Amident Toothpaste and the introduction of Cheer no-rinse washing detergent which helped bring my MC’s place of employment to life.

4.  Prospector: My inter-library loan uses Prospector. This program provides access to over 10 million titles from around the U.S.  Books that I can often have shipped right to my local library.  And true to its title, Prospector really is like digging for gold.  Searching by keyword might only produce 40 or 50 titles on a particular subject at my local library.  However, when I push that Prospector button, it’s like waiting for Christmas morning.  I have been rewarded with some of the most obscure titles – dusty, old books read by only a few and shelved away for years.  Those are the books that give me insight into particular time periods or cultures.

5.  Library Archives: Sometimes books and records are too precious (or flimsy) to survive the transport of inter-library or cross-country loan.  that’s when a trip might be in order. We’ll talk about that more in Part 12 of the Novel Writing Prep Series (“The Setting – To trip or not to trip?”).  There’s nothing more fun than squirreling yourself away in library stacks for a day and discovering hidden gems for your story.

For example, one of my characters, Ivy, was taking a train from St. Louis to New York City in 1949.  I could stick her on any old train, but what did I really know about trains and routes in the late 40s.  Instead I was lucky enough to visit the John W. Barringer III National Railroad Library within the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.  I stumbled upon an old issue of a railroad magazine.  As a result I could put Ivy on the NY-STL Express (Train #11 which left St. Louis at 7:40 a.m.) or  I could put her on the STL-NY “National Limited” with air-conditioned carrier sleeper cars.  These facts might not be important to some, but I never would have assumed that sleeper cars had air-conditioning in 1949.  This fact turned out to be key to the scene.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t make the research trip just to determine which train Ivy should take.  Two days at the Merc Library gave me pages of facts and figures and the base of research I needed to launch Ivy’s story.  It is this type of research that helps me feel like I know what I’m writing so that I can write what I know.

What about you?  Do you research your subject matter or your characters before you sit down to write? How do you conduct your research? How do you know when enough is enough?

The Most Important Question a Writer Can Ask

I’m an introvert.  I think that many writers are.  I sit back and watch the world, process what’s happening around me and spit it back out through the written word.  I write much better than I speak.  Cocktail parties are my nightmare because I don’t do small talk well.  But even my best friends will disagree with that statement.  The reason?  Although I’m naturally shy, I can carry on a conversation with a wall.  How? I’m an excellent questioner.

My motto has always been, “Live Curious.”  This motto manifests itself in my constant need to learn far-fetched facts about our world.  It also surfaces in my constant need to know more about people.  I’ve always been a natural interviewer. I just have a knack for getting people to talk… sometimes about things they don’t even want to talk about.

After years of “interviewing” people in order to learn more about them and deflect attention away from having to talk about myself, I finally got my big break.  I was offered the opportunity to start writing newspaper and magazine articles professionally.  No problem.  I’m a natural interviewer. Right? WRONG!  My first story was about a German Shepherd named Hercules who was discovered locked in a basement closet of an abandoned house.  I was scheduled to talk to the realtor who discovered Hercules and the veterinary assistant who cared for him in the first twelve hours after his rescue.  I was also assigned four other interviews to round out the story – local law enforcement, the veterinarian who ran the clinic, the lawyer who prosecuted the individual who abandoned the dog and Hercules’ new owner – the woman who adopted him after his intense rehabilitation.

I jumped in with both feet and spent no less than twelve hours on the phone with my six sources.  As is my natural tendency, I asked A LOT of questions – too many questions.  When it was over I found myself with pages of notes and the impossible task of organizing the information into a 1,000-word article.  The editor loved the final article, but my sources were less than thrilled that I’d spent two hours on the phone with each of them and their contributions boiled down to few lines each in the story.

After years of interviews and articles, I’ve learned that it is imperative to guide an interview so that the source’s time invested is equal to the coverage on the page.  This takes practice.  People love to talk about themselves, and too many open ended questions will leave you with cramped fingers.  Three hours later, you’ll still be  typing frantically in a desperate attempt to keep up with this source’s life story.  My advice is this:

  1. Do your research: Knowing your article topic inside and out will allow you to pose carefully crafted questions.  Flailing about with generality-filled questions won’t get you to the heart of your article’s topic.
  2. Plan your questions:  See above.  Approach every interview with a plan.  What do you need to know from this person and what is the most efficient way to glean that information?
  3. Guide the conversation: People love to talk about themselves.  Be two steps ahead of your interviewee. As they are pontificating about the joys of offshore gambling boats, be prepared with the next question which can guide them back to the topic – the cruise ships’ effects on coral colonies in the area.
  4. Keep your ears open for other storylines: Just because you need to keep your interviewee focused doesn’t mean you can’t be open to tangential story ideas.  My ears perk up when Bob starts talking about the mafia contingent woven through the underbelly of the offshore gambling boat industry.  But my editor expects me to write about the dying coral colonies.  I quickly tell Bob that I would love to table this discussion and ask if he would be open to discussing it at another time.  If his answer is yes, I refocus him on the plight of Caribbean coral polyps and finish the interview.  As soon as I hang up, I save my aquatic sealife interview, do my research, write my next article proposal “Al Capone Isn’t Dead! Just Hiding in the Bowels of an Offshore Gambling Boat,” and schedule a second interview with Bob.
  5. Ask the ever important Last Question: The final question I ask in every interview is “Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that I need to know?”  I know I just scolded you for open-ended questions, but this particular open-ended gem is magical. Often sources will sit quietly for a beat and then launch into the perfectly crafted conclusion to my article.  The source’s brain will subconsciously summarize the “heart of the matter” and spit it back out back out in a well-crafted sound bite.  If I worked in radio, the interviewee’s answer to the Last Question would be the final quotation that puts a shiny red bow around the end of my story.  However, be forewarned.  You, as the writer, still need to do the work because sometimes… there’s no shiny bow.  Upon hearing the Last Question, Bob might launch right back into his story about a stellar round of Texas Hold ‘Em on seas with 16-foot waves.  If that’s the case see Step 3, and think twice about that Al Capone story.  Maybe another three hours on the phone with Bob just isn’t worth it!

Happy questioning and writing!

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