Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lesson 5: Rev Up Your Search Engine

We’ve all watched the Behind The Scenes footage at the end of a DVD. Sometimes the footage can be just as long as the movie: especially if there’s a lot of costuming and special effects. But we all know that the massive amounts of extra footage is just a tiny nutshell of what really happened during the filming process. For every minute we see on-screen, there are thousands of man hours prepping for that scene. So it should be with our writing. Sometimes, the most important words are the ones that don’t make it on the page.

Yes, I’m talking about RESEARCH!

For each book I write, I have a binder full of information. (Not women. Ha ha. Oh wait, that joke is too old? Sorry.) Each notebook is full of research on history, setting, and character development, including a very detailed character bio. Most of this information never makes it into the novel. Remember how we talked about weaving? All the research done for a novel should be carefully disbursed throughout the novel, like leaving a trail of crumbs (preferably chocolate cake crumbs, because those are always the best) for the reader.

I’ve currently been researching the Gilded Age and more specifically, Newport, RI. In addition to reading non-fiction books about the locale and time-period, I’ve been reading novels set in that time period as well. One modern novel I read used large chunks of description that, I kid you not, came straight out of one of the non-fiction books. The description of the house in the novel (an imaginary house) was almost the exact description of one of the Vanderbilt mansions. I understand that the author wanted her readers to sense the ornate world of the Gilded Age, but there are a few things wrong with letting research (and in this case--near plagiarism) show up on pages of your manuscript.
1. It shows a lack of creativity and originality.
2. It can make the author seem like a know it all
3. And related to #2: it makes the author visible on her pages. It’s a form of AUTHOR INTRUSION. What is author intrusion? It’s any time the reader is pulled out of the story and reminded that an author is there, pulling the strings on each of her character puppets. Don't be rude: never intrude!

If research shows up on the pages of your novel, it’s going to distract readers because it will be an INFO DUMP and it will likely not be in the author’s voice. An oversimplified way to think of how to bring your research to light is the Kid History videos. Children are retelling—in their own voices—a story they have heard their parents talk about. As an author, you will take little tidbits you have learned and disburse them throughout your story in your own unique author voice. But remember: if it’s not information your POV character would know, it should not be there. (Again, that’s author intrusion.)

So far, I’ve given research a bad name. Let me clarify:  research is NOT bad! On the contrary: it’s crucial to your success as an author. Like I said in the first paragraph, just as much time—if not more—should be spent researching before a single sentence is typed. If you are writing a historical, this is especially important. You want your reader to feel as if they are living in the same world your characters are, and this can only be done if the author is intimately aware of the time period. For my last novel, The Reign of Trees, I looked up thousands of words to make certain they were in usage in the 1500’s. (Simple words like billowy) Most of them weren’t and needed to be replaced. An author must be meticulous if she is going to immerse her reader in the story.

I wasn’t always so meticulous though. Several times in The Seasons of Mae, it was obvious I didn’t do my research. For example, one character mentions listening to Bach. This would imply listening to a phonograph, but guess what? The phonograph wasn’t invented until 1877. My book takes place in the early 1880’s in Montana. Do you think the phonograph would have been in mass production in just a few years AND available to people who lived beyond the edge of civilization? No, probably not.

Another mistake I made several times throughout the novel was not understanding social decorum of the day. Unmarried men and women weren’t allowed to fraternize without a chaperone, yet this happens frequently in Mae. One scene that stands out under such circumstances involves a muddy road and a carriage that becomes lodged in said mud. As the characters work to free the trapped carriage, the male character, Reese, uses the backside of Mae’s dress to wipe his muddy hands, and therefore leaving intentional muddy hand-prints, making it look as if he had goosed her. Even if Reese is from backwards Montana, no respectable 1880’s man would have ever done that to a woman, let alone to a society debutant. Writing scenes that don’t fit in a particular time period make an author (in this case, moi,) lose all credibility. 

Research isn’t just for writers of historical fiction. Your novel may be set in a place you’ve never been to, or have only visited once. Make certain you spend hours studying the area, including using Google maps street view so you can get a better feel for the area. I recently read a novella which took place in Montana, and I happen to know a thing or two about Montana. However, the author had not done enough research. She referred to our beloved University of Montana as the UM. UM, that’s not right. It’s the U of M. Yes, readers will be that nitpicky if you get your facts wrong! It’s your job to fact check everything in your novel. Get it right, or the readers won’t buy it!

Before you write, make sure you READ, READ, READ. You should become completely immersed in the genre you are writing in before you ever type a word. It is through prolific reading that a writer becomes an author.


  1. It's funny--what you said about the UM vs. U of M mistake. The University of Oregon can be called both U of O as well as UO (just not OU, which is a different school in the same state). Maybe she was from Oregon and thought all places used both titles.

    Your Reign of Trees book was so fantastic, your research really paid off. I don't know any different than what you reported, but one thing's for sure--you had me engrossed in that era without any doubts about its authenticity :).

    The sad thing is, I quit my minor in college (I got so close) because I couldn't bear to write another research paper. So, if there's one thing I'll never write, it's a historical novel! But now I'll certainly appreciate them more :)!

  2. Jenna: aw, shucks. You are too kind! Sorry that you got burned out on research papers, but I understand: there's a huge difference between researching and writing something you WANT to write vs. something you are assigned to write. Maybe you could do a research paper on Hugh Jackman's career and that would cure you of your dislike of research papers. :)


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