Tag Archives: novel research

History Is Something That Happens To Other People

19 May

Two quick announcements from Shannon before today’s guest blogger takes over:

I have joined Tumblr, so please join me by clicking here. Also, my headshot pictures have changed. I recently did a photo shoot with Colt Coan Photography. Check out his website by clicking here!

Today’s guest blogger is Misha Burnett, author of the Catskinner’s Book and Cannibal Hearts, science fiction/urban fantasy novels. He will also mention his co-author, Jessika O’Sullivan. Please click on their names to visit their websites.   

I have always been intimidated by historical research for fiction. One of my favorite authors is Tim Powers, who writes an unique form of historical fantasy, blending real events with fantastic elements so seamlessly that you finish his books wondering just what the hell really happened.

I would read something like The Anubis Gates (about a secret society of Egyptian magicians in early 19th Century London) or Declare (the career of Soviet spy Kim Philby explained as a cold world battle over the control of a colony of djin in the Arabian desert) and be utterly blown away—and completely convinced that I could never attempt anything like that.

Recently however, I found myself having started a historical novel. It’s kind of a funny story. An indie writer friend of mine invited me to join a Google+ group called “Legendary Author Battles”. The purpose of the group was to writers working together on short stories. One would pick the setting, the other the characters, and they would take turns adding to the story. These “battles” weren’t intended to be serious, they were simply a writing exercise.

However, a writer named Jessika O’Sullivan and I found ourselves with the beginning of a very interesting story, with characters that we cared about, and both of us decided that it really ought to be given a change to become a novel.

Fortunately Jessika is well educated and willing to shoulder the brunt of the research. However, as I was going I found myself needing to know things in order to figure out how events would unfold.

Our novel is set in East Berlin, in 1947. We have a diverse mix of characters, English, German, Russian, ranging in age from their early 20’s to their mid 50’s. Suddenly I have to know things like what was going on in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1917 or how extensive was the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in February of 1945.

Thank God for Wikipedia. Not only do they have pages on everything, they have links to actual source materials and archive pictures. Did you know that you can get lists of articles that appeared in The Lancet magazine going back to the 19th Century?

Translating the cold data into a character’s experiences, however, I have begun to realize that looking up facts is only the first half. There is a phrase used by military writers; “Ground Truth”. They use it to refer to the difference between knowing something because your intelligence agencies tell you so, and getting physically into an area and seeing it with your own eyes.

Obviously, I cannot physically walk the streets of East Berlin in 1947. I wouldn’t even be able to swing the airfare to visit Berlin today. I’m a writer, though, I travel via my imagination. Looking at the photographs of the devastation wrought by the war, I can project myself into the shoes of the figures dwarfed by those piles of rubble. Those lucky enough to have shoes, that is.

That’s when I realized that history isn’t history to the people who live there. It’s obvious in retrospect, but that’s what I think is the key to writing historical fiction—the characters don’t know they are characters in historical fiction.

To take just one example, our character Helmut doesn’t know anything about The German Revolution as a historical event. What he knows is that one day his father went to a political rally and never came back, and he had to become the sole support of his mother and brothers at seventeen.

It isn’t the things that make headlines or chapters in history books that make up a life, those are things that are only seen afterward, by people who hadn’t been there. Helmut reads in the paper that the UN is voting on the establishment of the state of Israel, and he mentions it in conversation, but what his wife Amalia is going to make for dinner that evening is a thousand times more important to him.

I am realizing that I have to keep asking myself not only, “What was going on in that place, at that time?” but also “What effect, if any, would those events have on my characters?”

What is the Ground Truth? To a young girl in the Bund Deutscher Mädel, National Socialism isn’t an ideology, it’s the thing that makes her work after school making bandages for the troops instead of playing outside with her friends.

Now don’t get me wrong—good research is important, and it’s hard work. If I write that my characters are standing around watching the Soviets build the Berlin Wall, a lot of people are going to point out that construction on the Wall wasn’t begun until 1961. If I’m writing about a character driving a car I need to know what sort of controls that car would have, and how they differ from modern vehicles. Would the car have a radio? Air conditioning? Automatic transmission? What sort of lights, and how are they controlled? Seat belts?

A million details, and there’s a temptation, when researching, to include everything. On the 12th of November, 1947, the writer Emma Orczy, creater of The Scarlet Pimpernil, died. As a writer and a lover of esoterica, I find that a significant event, given Orczy’s influence on popular adventure and mystery stories.

Honestly, though, it’s not something that my characters would have noticed at all. So I resist the temptation to put it in the book. It’s not my story, it’s my character’s story.

What matters most about people isn’t when they lived or where they were born or what language they spoke. What matters most about people is that they are people.

History is something that happens to other people. When it’s happening, it’s not history, it’s just life. One of the themes that Jessika and I have discussed is how in the midst of these huge upheavals, wars and revolutions and reconstructions, life somehow still goes on. People still fall in and out of love, work and struggle, argue and make up, wake up each morning and go to bed each night.

The fundamental things apply.

Misha

Why Writers Should Watch “Authors Anonymous”

25 Apr

Two announcements before we begin:

An exclusive excerpt from Seconds Before Sunrise can be read on Making My Mark as well as a review. “The first book, Minutes before Sunset was a great hook to the series and I couldn’t wait for the second book to be released.” Read the rest of the review and excerpt by clicking here. You can also check out Minutes Before Sunset and Seconds Before Sunrise.

Speaking of my novels, I asked you all on my Facebook page if you wanted me to have a progress bar for my future projects. Since you said yes, I have added a progress bar which you can see on the right side of my website. (And below this paragraph.) I’ll update it every two weeks. Once “TMT” is turned into my final editor, I will release more information on the name and what it is about. “Death Before Daylight” will be released after TMT, so the order shows the order of the releases.

mynext

It will make you laugh. It will make you nod. And it might even push some of your writer pet peeves – which is exactly why you should take 93 minutes out of your day to watch it.

“Authors Anonymous” is a mockumentary about aspiring writers.

Before I explain in detail (without spoilers, believe it or not. Never mind, I’m using spoilers, but they aren’t awful) about why I think you should watch it, here is the synopsis and trailer from IMDB:

“When a dysfunctional group of unpublished writers accept Hannah into their fold, the last thing they expect is her overnight success. Can these lovable misfits achieve their artistic dreams and avoid killing one another in the process?”

Yes. That is the girl from The Big Bang Theory. Her name is Kaley Cuoco, and she does a good job.

If you think this movie is going to be a serious, deep discussion of a writer’s life, this isn’t for you. This movie is for the writer who just wants to laugh at all the ridiculousness that happens in this writing world. I am one of those writers. I even giggled in delight at the things that normally make my blood pressure rise.

Being able to laugh at myself is how I stay sane (to the best of my ability anyway.) Being able to laugh at this is how I remind myself that we are – in fact – in this together. Even then, the film is simple, light-hearted, and not to be taken too seriously, but…

“Authors Anonymous” tackles a lot of clichés, stereotypes, and exceptions in the publishing world, which is why it’s so fantastic. In fact, I AM some of these clichés, and I think it’s okay to be some of these stereotypical writers. The sad part is when writers try to hurt one another. The good part is that we can be honest about these things, and we can laugh, knowing that we’ve faced many of these issues together. 

Here are just some of my favorites:

Writer Groups:

We hear about them. We attend them. We love them. Then, we hate them. (In private, of course – and not all of the time. Only when we have been judged too harshly or someone else’s work was too perfect. And we only tell our “non-writer” friends how we secretly feel about this confliction.)

It’s a cliché we all know.

Writers help other writers until one writer gets too good. Then, shit jealousy hits the fan, and no one knows who “deserves” to be published more. It’s all a game of luck anyway…wait, did we seriously just say that out loud?

Note: I love you Kansas City Writers Meetup Group

“Who is your favorite writer?”

If you’re a writer, you’ve definitely been asked this. It’s one of those top five questions you find yourself explaining over and over because you answered it once and you’re too afraid a dedicated reader will see you contradict yourself in a new interview. So you have this script, and you are now forced to keep for LIFE. Unless you get a new pen name and start all over.

Note: Why do we ask questions like this? I can’t fathom having a single favorite of anything, let alone a favorite of something I’m incredibly passionate and borderline obsessed with. Please don’t make me pick my favorite color (merlot) or my favorite drink (merlot.)

The I-never-actually-write writer

“I’ll write a book one day.” “I have a great idea.” “I’ve started something that is going to be a best-seller, but I’m just stuck for now.” “I know what you should write.” Need I explain any further?

Note: I’ll fill in this note later.

Storyboards and other writing methods:

The great part of this movie is how they never come out and say everything. In a couple of scenes, you see one author’s storyboard in the background. It’s little things like that where I found myself laughing (for no apparent reason to my friend in the room who isn’t a writer.) There was also this fantastic moment I wish I could share but it would be too big of a spoiler, but I will say this: there is a limit to “researching” for a novel. I think we’ve all heard of a writer who’s taken research a little too far.

Note: “I may have a restraining order, but it happened when I was doing research” is not a line someone wants to hear from you on a first, second, or thirty-fifth date.

Traditionally published vs. Self-published

I am published. You are published. She is published. We’re all published! Why does there have to be a label in front of “published”? This movie had no fear in exposing that writers are often the worst offenders of this – and sometimes at the expense of their own friends.

Note: This is where I shamelessly link to one of my previous posts about this topic because I just want this publishing world to be a better place: Why Are Authors “Hating” On One Another?

The Awful Author Mills

So, wait. You’ll publish my book, but it’s going to cost me $6,000 and the name of my first born? Oh, you mean my character’s first born…Well…okay. If that’s my only option…It isn’t? You’ll do it for free? But I won’t see any of the earnings or marketing or anything? I…Uh…Okay. That’s better than the first deal. I’ll take it.

Note: We’re sorry. You own no rights now. Ever. And this phone service has been disconnected or is no longer in service.

Sitting in a café, park, etc. sipping on coffee while writing:

There’s a scene where this author is showing her “peaceful” garden that she writes in. At first, it’s this beautiful little couch with a desk, photos, and flowers. And then she puts in ear buds to block out the construction less than one foot away from her. Sitting in public isn’t for everyone. Neither is sitting at home.

Note: I am guilty of this. I totally sit in public when I write, and Instagram is filled with my coffee photos. No shame.

Tom Clancy

That is all.

The showcasing of a successful writer who isn’t “well-read.”

This was my favorite part. I loved this. The writer who is deemed the most successful person in the group doesn’t even know what The Great Gatsby is. I only thought this was funny because – let’s be honest – there is a constant pressure on authors to have not only read all of the classics but to have also read everything that’s ever been released. (Which is ridiculous.)

It’s great to be able to read, and I think we would all agree when I say we wish we had more time to read. But it’s okay to tell people you haven’t read that novel everyone else has read, even though it’s popular, sitting on your bookshelf, or even the best author in the genre you write in. It’s also okay to say you do or do not like something.

Note: “Best” is subjective anyway.

Note 2: I dislike The Great Gatsby novel, mainly because Nick’s narration was as annoying to me as Toby Maguire was in Spider-Man 3. On the other hand, I loved Kristen Stewart as Marylou in On the Road, a movie adaptation of one of my favorite Kerorac novels. This seems to blow everyone’s minds. We are all allowed to say how we feel, aren’t we?

Note 3: No. No, we are not.

Note 4: Did I just participate in the whole “well-read” cliche without realizing it?

Note 5: Yes. Yes, I did.

In the end, this isn’t about a movie. I’m not reviewing a film. I am sharing a movie that reviews some of the very cliché moments that happen in our publishing world every day. But the movie itself is amateur…Wait. No. No, it’s not. It’s absolutely amazing – but again, don’t expect something deep. It’s simply a good story to sit back, relax, and have a good laugh at when you think, “Been there. Done that.” We authors aren’t alone. We’re sitting in parks and coffee shops filled with one another. (Just kidding.)

We’re in this writing adventure together, and we should support one another as we venture along. The publishing world will continue to change, but we can handle any challenge in the future. In fact, we may even have a good laugh as we overcome it.

~SAT

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