Missed Part Six of this Mini-Workshop? You can find it here.
- Know Your Stuff:
Google is the writer’s best friend. Just as we discussed the fact that too much information can drag a reader out of the story, so can information that is just plain wrong. You can’t assume you know how to do something, you have to research it, because there will always be a reader out there who knows everything about the subject, and when they read a mistake, it distracts them. It becomes an irritation. Some will email you to tell you it was wrong, and that it ruined the story for them. Wouldn’t you rather have an email from a reader thanking you for doing justice to something? I’ve had a few of those and they are the most wonderful compliments! So even if it’s only a small detail that takes up a couple of lines in your manuscript you have to be sure you’ve got it right.
This is where the old adage of ‘write what you know’ can be an easier option for the beginner writer. In my first book, The Bridal Bet, the heroine was a photographer who worked part-time in a gift shop she ran with her friend. I’ve done a fair amount of photography from High School upwards and know the basics of how to use a camera. But it’s been over a decade since I’ve developed a film in a dark room. As it turned out, there wasn’t a scene when I needed to know it step by step, and in this modern age the easiest option would be a digital camera and for the photograph to be edited with software. I can do that too (because I spend a lot of time doing that kind of thing for my website), so I could walk someone through the process if I needed to. It was something I was familiar with, I could write what I knew, and if I needed to I could Google details – or I could send an email to someone who is a professional photographer. But since then I’ve had many, many characters with professions I know virtually nothing about; architects, war correspondents, helicopter pilots, software designers, firefighters...
The thing to remember is research isn’t a chore. In fact it can be one of the most fun things a writer does. I know writers who get excited by the prospect of research. I’m one of them. So keeping in mind that the large percentage of the research you do won’t make it onto the page, it’s a safety net when you need to add a detail and you want it to be right, what else can research do? For starters it can bring inspiration your way. One of the most commonly asked questions a published author will get is where do you get your inspiration from? And the answer is ‘everywhere’. During the research process is part of that ‘everywhere’. When I researched firefighters in Ireland for The Firefighter's Chosen Bride, I learned about shift patterns, which allowed me to put my hero into scenes in the middle of the day with my heroine; it allowed long lie-ins if he was switching from day shifts to night shifts, so I could use that after a love scene. What it also did, was bring a small detail I could use at the end of the book: One of my heroine’s greatest fears was losing the hero if something happened to him while he was ‘on the job’. She had lost her father that way so it was a natural fear that made sense. So as part of my research I looked up firefighter fatality statistics in Ireland. And you know what? They were a pain in the ass to find. Plus when I did find them, I discovered they were minimal. That did two things. Not only did it mean that my heroine’s fear wasn’t grounded in fact - it was more emotional reaction - it also meant when my hero looked them up to make his point he had the same difficulty I did. There’s even a line in the book where he tells her they were a pain in the ass to find…
Research about a specific career can also effect small things like the age of your characters. In the book I’ve been fighting the good fight with of late I have a heroine who is a corporate lawyer. I had to check to see how long someone studied to be a lawyer in the States. Because if I make her twenty-five and it takes eight years to do all her studying and pass the bar then she can’t have been at the firm she works for, for two years, can she? A small detail, but someone who has trained to be a lawyer will catch that when they read the book. It will irritate them because it’s incorrect. And if it irritates them, then it drags them out of the story and the story stalls. Because once you’ve found one mistake, the tendency is to look for more. You become a proof reader rather than someone who is reading for the enjoyment.
This is equally important when it comes to locations. If your story is set somewhere you have never been before then you need to thoroughly research that area, or better still – take a trip there. Again, this is why beginner writers will stick with ‘write what you know’. What might seem boring to you because you see it every day, is an interesting International location to someone who lives half a planet away. But that someone who lives half a planet away will know everything there is to know about where they live. So if you set your story there and get something wrong…
Harlequin is known as an International publisher, not just because they publish books world-wide and have books whose settings are world-wide, but because they have an author base who live world-wide. Every one of those authors has a different VOICE, and part of that voice will stem from where they are in the world. I’ve had several people comment that my books set in Ireland are very Irish. Is that because I work extra hard at making them Irish? No. It’s because I am Irish and I live in Ireland and I’ve visited every one of the thirty-two counties. I know my subject. I write it as it is. Complete with that nice soft rain we’re famous for. An Irish reader might not find that particularly ‘International’, but readers in America and Australia and Canada and New Zealand and Italy and France and Japan will. And the truth is that some readers have what is almost a sense of ‘national pride’ about reading authors and books set in their own country. In Australia for instance, all the Harlequin Mills & Boon authors who are Australian have their books flagged. It’s a hugely successful marketing ploy. Even as I type, I'm part of a three-in-one book with fellow Irish authors Lynne Graham and Abby Green called His Irish Bride - the first time all three authors have been in print together. So setting a book in your own area or country or even with characters from your own country in unfamiliar surroundings can be a good way of utilizing knowledge you already have while appealing to several markets.
Since I’ve started travelling around the States, I’ve begun to set books in the places I’ve visited. And it’s not just because I can claim research expenses. I’m madly and deeply in love with New York, and have explored it at length (I’ve had the blisters to prove it!). But when I write a story set in New York I’ve still got to do my research. Is there a subway stop near to where my heroine lives? How long does it take for the subway to get from Manhattan to that stop? If I have a billionaire hero where is the most expensive real estate? Is he more likely to live in the Lower or Upper East Side? What are the more expensive restaurants? There are hundreds of small details I have to research, and one of the best things I did on my first trip to New York was make contact with a New York City tour guide who doesn’t mind if I send him an email asking questions. Because living in New York is different from visiting New York as a tourist.
Your research would also need to include things like local terminology. In a story set in the UK and Ireland a car has a boot. In the USA and Canada it’s a trunk. In the UK we have pavements. In the USA it’s a sidewalk. In the UK we have nappies. In the USA they’re diapers. So if you set your story somewhere you’re not familiar with, or even if you have a character whose from a different country – you have to research and adjust their terminology accordingly. Because every little detail you get wrong drags the reader out of the story, and the story stalls.
Task Nineteen: Look at the romance novel from a line/category you’re aiming for and think about the SETTING and the characters PROFESSIONS. How much research would you have to do to add the details that are in there? Is the author from the place where they’ve set the book or might they have visited there? (usually you can discover this information in the author Bio or on their website) Now look at how much information they’ve given the reader. Did they give you large chunks of information or was it sprinkled throughout the story as LAYERING? If they’ve used a setting or profession you’re not familiar with, try researching it to see what you would need to learn.
Now think about the story you’re planning to write or working on. Is it set somewhere you know or somewhere you’ve never been before? Remember research is something you do prior to beginning the story and it’s something you should do thoroughly so you know it, but at the same time all the notes you make won’t make it into the text. Your notes then become a REFERENCE for you to dip into as you TELL THE STORY.
Task Twenty: Once the story is told and you’re at the EDITING stage, look for facts and check their accuracy. Have you had the characters use a local terminology that isn’t consistent with who they are and where they live? Are they the right age for their profession? Do you have facts about their profession in the text? Is it accurate? Are details about the setting accurate? If it’s a real place you need to check facts, if it’s a setting you created are the facts consistent?
- The Art Of Observation:
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes says; “You must never stop working on your keenness of observation, honing your ability to observe accurately – and to write down what you’ve noticed – must be part of your lifelong commitment to fiction.”
Writer’s are people watchers. I’ve yet to meet a writer who isn’t. In fact when I was younger and out and about with my friends, we used to play a game where we would pick random people out of the crowd and give them a profession and a name and then try and fill in their conversation as they spoke. So I guess I was in training to be a writer for longer than I’d realized. When it comes to romance writing, I think there’s a very simple reason why the majority of the writers are women. A romance novel is about delving beneath the surface of the characters, it’s about emotional journeys and why people do the things they do, and women delve into all of those things from pretty much the moment they hit their teens. Think back to those first crushes and the number of times you sat down with friends to ask questions like ‘do you think he likes me’ or ‘why does he do that’ or ‘what do you think he’s thinking’. In response we hypothesize; he’s always looking at you, he talks about you all the time, maybe he thinks you’re not interested in him, maybe he doesn’t want to take a chance… We delve beneath the surface and try to understand why people do the things they do.
Now I’m not saying there aren’t men who do that, but women tend to beat it to death. Maybe it stems back to the fact that our traditional role is as a nurturer. In order to nurture we have to understand what is needed and why, so that we can supply those things. Meanwhile men tend to be forming a hierarchy amongst their peers; the leader, the intellect, the warrior, the joker etc. But it’s not just about being observant when it comes to people and why they do the things they do. It’s about being observant in your surroundings too. Writer’s tend to notice the little things, we’re always looking for details that make something stand out in our mind. So let’s see just how observant you are…
Task Twenty-One: Take a quick look around you. Now close your eyes and picture the room. Where everything is, what’s there, what colours you could see, the textures; take a deep breath and think about what you can smell. Then open your eyes and notice the things you missed – the little details that make it more real. Are the books on your bookshelf neatly organized by size or subject or are they all crammed in tight and messy wherever there was a space? Is there a ring on a table where a mug has sat or a coaster to set a mug on? Is the carpet worn or are there colourful rugs or is it a pristine wooden floor?
They may seem like insignificant things, but start to put some of them together and the room gives us clues about the personality of the person who inhabits it.
Task Twenty-Two: Next time you’re out shopping or for lunch or on your way to work, look at the people around you. What do you notice first about them? Because the things you notice first are the things your characters will notice first about each other. Then look at what they’re wearing. Do their clothes suggest a certain profession? Do they give a hint at their personality? Because unless your characters know who the other is and what they do, they’ll make the same kind of assumptions, won’t they? Then look at the way that person moves and the things they do – do they have a particular length of stride that suggests they’re in a hurry or have all the time in the world? Do they look harassed or happy or depressed or nervous or comfortable in their own skin? What gave you that impression? Because whatever the clues were those are the same clues your characters will pick up on…
Everything. And I stress EVERYTHING in real life is grist for the writers mill. LIFE is your study aid.
As the book says; “…you won’t ever take a real person literally from real life and put her in your fiction; real people, no matter how well portrayed, just aren’t big and unusual enough for good fiction. But your work in observing and writing real people or places as vividly as possible will make you a far better writer, and even more interesting when you fictionalize your observations.”
One of the things I do a lot is I carry a small digital camera everywhere with me. Some writers will carry a small notebook. That way, when you see something that you might one day use you can take a picture or jot down a few notes. Even if you’re familiar with the place you’ve set your book and it's somewhere local or you have visited many times, having a visual reference or notes that will jog your memory and make the mental picture more vivid as you write about it can add so much. One of the things about making notes is it forces you to think about the kind of words you use to describe them. Verbs and adverbs. The words that help form a mental picture in your readers mind. And with the lesson we did earlier on keeping things brief – icing your chocolate cake of a love story to make it even more delicious – think about just how MUCH detail you need to describe something. Did you use a long list of verbs and adverbs or were there a few words that could paint the picture? (This is where the Synonym finder or a Thesaurus can be quite useful) Try it out – do a brief description of that room you’re sitting in.
As the book says: “The more you force yourself consciously to observe and note details you can use – and the more you practice actually writing descriptions and factual passages so that they are as striking and evocative as possible – the keener you will become in picking up data, and the better you will become in learning to use I to improve your writing.
It’s a multi-step process, you see:
• First, you stop being passive and actively examine your environment.
• Second, you seek out what makes this tree… this person… unique.
• Third, you go through the formal process of recording your observations so you won’t lose them.
• Fourth, you practice translating your observations into brief, evocative writing.”
Task Twenty-Three: Have a look at that romance novel from the line/category you’re aiming for and see how the author brought a place and people to life with very few words. Ask yourself what made it vivid to you – how much did the author have to supply you with before your imagination ran with it?
Remember when you look at your own manuscript at the editing stage, the amount of observation you’ve put into the story is automatically reflective of how observant your characters are. One may notice more detail in their POV than the other. Is a man as likely to notice the homely little touches in a room the same way a woman would? Is a woman likely to take in the basic necessities of a place the way a man would? Men and women’s brains tend to work differently that way. Like planning a road trip. I always say a man will look for the quickest, most efficient way of getting from A to B whereas a woman will look for the shopping opportunities along the way…
- CHECK BACK LATER for more of this 'mini-workshop' and remember to LET ME KNOW if you're Blogging something for those of us Not At Nationals so I can add a link to the sidebar ! Got questions about anything in the Blog just ask in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them ;)
(You can now Move on to Part Eight of this Mini-Workshop here.)