Food Research!

Ever wondered when ice cream was invented? Or mayonnaise? Were those characters you have for your historical romance really allowed to eat Thousand Island dressing on a salad in 1807?

The Food Timeline can help answer these questions! I hereby share this fun and helpful research site with you.


Write What You Know

It’s a cliche of writing, just like ‘show don’t tell’ and others. But like most cliches, if you unpack it, there’s a lot to it.

If you write within your comfort zone, meaning things you really do know about, you might feel a bit limited. I, for example, know about a few things: being diabetic and overweight, bad love affairs, raising children, music, various religions, camping, certain areas of the United States, lots about the internet, many things about long distance relationships, sex good bad and indifferent, close friendships–okay, I’ll stop there. I meant to show that I’ve had something of a boring life and don’t know about much, but the list got kinda long on me. Which, backward, brings me to one of my points: you know more than you realize you know.

Now, if I set out to write a government thriller about nuclear scares in the Congo, I’d be hugely undereducated. But what if I wanted to anyway? This is where research comes in. If I were to read other people’s works of fiction about it… and study nonfiction works about the various subjects… and watch travel documentaries about the locations… and hunt down anecdotal private experiences, possibly even witnesses… I’d have a much better idea of how to write the thing. I’d also have done a lot of work, learned a lot, and increased my general fund of knowledge, which for many (including me, often) is the whole point. If I were a big-name writer, I could even justify an expense off my taxes for the travel and actually go there.

So today’s lesson is, yeah, write what you know. But 1) you already know a lot and 2) you can find out more. So write what you know… but learn to know what you want to write.

Word Count: 3264

What to Do When You’re Not Writing

If, as I seem to find is true in my own life, starting a story is a matter of listening for the character to come up and start telling me it, then there are sometimes spaces of time in between, where I’m not actually writing. (Could there be a more convoluted sentence?) So what do you do, to fill the time, to prime the pump, to stay in a state of ready-to-write?

Well, for a start, you could write. I know that sounds weird, but keeping those muscles in practice is a good thing. In between real stories, I tend to write a lot of openings that end up losing steam. You could also keep a journal or a weblog, heh heh, or do practice exercises like writing character descriptions, practicing your settings, synopses of novels you’ve read by other people, even your resume. Anything that is getting words on paper will help.

Then there’s reading. Reading is part of writing: you absolutely must read a lot if you want to be a good writer. This might be a good time, while you’re trying to dislodge ideas, to read something outside your usual genre, or start a brand new author. Or it might be a good time to read a bad novel, so as to motivate yourself. “I can do better than this!”

Research, anyone? If you don’t have fun just wandering through research subjects and learning stuff for its own sake, then you might be in the wrong profession. I recommend a brisk game of Chase the Wiki, or a wander through the world of fan-media-tv-sf tropes. Warning, they’re both addictive.

Inspiration needed? I like to look through artwork at great length; it gives me ideas. I often find silly name or idea generators to be inspirational as well. And then there’s this.

And if all else fails, you could always play World of Warcraft. 😀

Depth of Field

This is about worldbuilding. Primarily useful for fantasy or sf novels, worldbuilding is the process of creating and detailing a world or situation for the characters to move about in. However, the following also applies to the amount of research you do on a historical time, or even your current time and place for more contemporary novels. It can apply to any setting.

It’s my contention that the writer should know much more about the world he builds than ever really reaches the story. Now, you might say that’s wasted work, but for many reasons, I don’t think it is.

The main reason is that it gives the story itself a powerful depth and strength. The difference between fantasy and high fantasy is whether the world itself can be considered a character, or is deeply affected by the action of the tale. Now, the ‘world’ here can be the land, the culture, the political situation, not just the rocks and trees. If you have done enough creation or research to really know how things work, it will give the story depth, even if all those details don’t make it into the text. And they probably shouldn’t. It’s very tempting, if you’ve gone to great lengths to make sure the religious systems have a long detailed history, and the political situation has a background spanning years, to want to shove all that in there someplace. But don’t just put it in as a huge infodump; that will lose the reader entirely. It will show in the deep, burnished gleam the story has, don’t worry.

Besides, when you become hugely famous and readers are clamoring to know more about the worlds you’ve created, you can edit your notes and publish them as a concordance.

Also, doing more research or worldbuilding than necessary can lead to further novels. You might need the far continent you put together on the other side of the planet for a different but related story. You might need the political history for a prequel. It will make future stories written in the same world much more coherent with the first.

So do the research–whether it involves looking things up, or building it yourself. It’s worth it!