Researching Your Book

Medieval Woman with the Finger on the Lips Holding a Lamp

We, the writers, come up with imaginary worlds of the future. We also weave intricate plots which take place in ancient Rome or in the silk-clad Victorian England. We describe the bloody battlefields of the US Civil War and the chaos of the French Revolution. Heads roll and limbs must be amputated.

Each period in history offers a fascinating set of dresses, customs, and geographical variation. Google Maps is an excellent tool if you write about a faraway land, but you need a time machine to visit the battle of Gaines’ Mill.

To set your novel in The US Civil War, you must master the way of speech during the era and you must know how to reload the weaponry and… The list is long.  When you dip into the deep well of history, a new danger arises. You’ll be tempted to infodump because you’ve become quite the expert! You know each footstep the famous general took in the battle of Gaines’ Mill, but:

“The historical novels I admire inhabit their worlds so fully that as a reader I feel I’m breathing the air of that distant place or time. This has less to do with historical detail than with a freshness of language, tone, and incident that makes the concerns of the characters so recognizably human that they feel almost contemporary. The ability to transport us into different minds is a hallmark of good literature generally; the bar is set even higher when a story’s setting is truly foreign. Lots of period detail does not necessarily make a compelling story; many of my favorites in this list are short distillations that transport us poetically to another world.”

Source: https://www.publishersweekly.com/

The secret is the delicate balance between solid facts and skillful fiction. The right amount of authenticity depends on the genre and the reader. You might have to rewrite multiple times to get into fabulous world-building.

Choose your battle

The readers who are inclined to buy your book are interested in the:

  • Theme
  • Era
  • Setting
  • Characters
  • Or plot of your book.

Or they just like the cover image, or find out about you from Amazon or blogs or…

Chances are that your reader knows something about the world of your book.  If the reader notices that you got the weapons or the family background of the hero wrong, you lose their trust.

Bang!

That’s the sound your book makes when it hits the floor and shall never be picked up again.

The secret is choosing your battles. Master the rules and you can bend them. There’s no harm in removing historical details as you go along and decide that each bit isn’t necessary for the drama. But don’t make a mistake with the essential stuff! Your hero/heroine should be an exceptional character, but relatable.

For example, a Victorian woman’s place was in the home: being a well-behaved mistress of the house and giving birth to babies- preferably burly sons. Dracula is a British-American television series, a reimagining of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The character of Mina is cast as a doctor. The education of women in medicine was a new idea in the Victorian era and the source of joking. It wasn’t impossible though. See, research pays. A female doctor isn’t against the rules of Victorian worldbuilding, but a pioneer whose profession gives you a chance to write conflict.

The Ideal Reader

Surely you have imagined him or her: the person who enjoys your book so much that she tells all her friends about you? I’m going to use simple stereotypes now. Don’t be offended.

If your ideal reader is a single woman in her twenties; she lives in the big city and wolfs down romantic & historical literature, chances are that she expects romance and adventure when she picks up your book. This buyer is willing to accept that you bend the borders of social class. The charming baron blazing down the hillside riding his white stallion to grab the peasant girl is plausible if you’re within the genre expectations. If the ideal reader is a fifty-something naval veteran, you’d better get the military details of the battle of Potomac right.

It’s entirely possible that your audience ranges from ages 20 to 65 and represents both female and male readers, but something binds together the people who would enjoy your book: the features of the ideal reader connect them.

The Dust of History

Chances are that you hated the dry dust of history in school. Let go of that thought. Finding out about history will cause your writing to soar with new ideas. You don’t have to come up with everything: the information is already there for you to grab.

“If you’re writing non-fiction, research will most likely be the basis of your book. For fiction, it can provide ideas on which to build your characters and plot.”

Source: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2017/01/18/research-a-novel/

I like to base my characters, especially the villain, on somebody who existed. Historical figures are great baselines for fictional characters. Reading a memoir will give you insight into the thought models, religions and aspirations which people had during that era.

“Books are made out of books” – Cormac McCarthy

Read other people’s books. Find out how they’ve come up with the right balance between fact and fiction.

But I Write About The Future

You might think that you’re safe from researching history because your setting is imaginary and the plot takes place in the future.

The fictional future of mankind is:

  • The gleaming steel world manned by people dressed in sterile white. Here, the most deadly weapon is science.
  • Or the grim post-apocalyptic desert with wandering tribes and murderous warlords. Here, the most deadly weapon in the hand of the new caveman is an old rifle or an ax.

Both of them have their foundation in historical eras. When the race to the moon was on during the Cold War, writers grabbed the theme of alien invasions and space wars. When the threat of the nuclear holocaust became evident to the masses, the writers offered visions of radiation-ridden wastelands roamed by a handful of smart and resilient survivors. If I were to write the latter version, I’d study the dark Middle Ages.

Science Fiction experienced a boom during the decades of rebuilding and technological optimism after WWII. We’d fill Mars with colonies and abandon the earth before the doomsday clock ticked into 2000 AD. Of course, we didn’t. We stayed pretty much the same but we enjoy 3D movies depicting that very theme!

History is inevitably linked to the future.

The reader will find the future more plausible when it derives from the politics of today

We relate to something we witness with our own eyes. Fears of today form the future monsters. Think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She wrote the book in 1985, but the misogynistic Gilead state is plausible to us because of the features in US politics.

To envision the worst case scenario is human nature.

We littered the earth with trash and we invented digital devices, but humanity remained the same. We feel empathy for the future character who could be us.

Alternate History Fiction

A whole subdivision of dystopian literature is Alternate History. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle is a brilliant example. C. J . Sansom represents the new wave of alternate history fiction with his Dominion (one of my favorite books).

The plots of C. J. Sansom’s other novels take place during Tudor times. Sansom is a researcher of history and his books are excellent entertainment.

Even if you don’t want to be the dusty hermit, Google a few search terms. Read, read and read. The strange world of your next book starts to grow and breathe around you. Once, there was a time when writers had to drag themselves to the library to study. Today, we just open a laptop or a mobile phone. Who said that humanity couldn’t evolve?

Hashtags: #history #books #writing #writingadvice #howtowrite #research #future #novel #fiction #dystopian #utopian #historical #adventure

Give Your Characters Hell- A Crash-course in World Building

Screaming beauty Model with American Indian Makeup

The world of my first book is dystopian, as some of you might know. In Sci-Fi and post-apocalyptic literature, world-building must start from page one. The same goes with historical fiction, but I continue with the beginning of George Orwell’s 1984:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week. The flat was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.”

An excellent example of world-building from page one without going into excess detail and losing the journey of the Main Character. You want the occasional browser of Amazon or the lunch-time walker who strands into the local bookstore to get on with the reading, don’t you? When you read the first chapter of this classic book, you know what you get into.

You must let the reader know what he is buying.

I’m sure you have read your share of writing advice on the beginning aka the Inciting Incident. I know I have.

“The inciting incident is an episode, plot point or event that hooks the reader into the story. This particular moment is when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story.”

Source: www.nownovel.com

You’ll start your book in the middle of the action, and you’ll yank the Main Character out of his daily life. Someone or something drags the hero into dangerous territory, and you’ll give the MC hell to raise the stakes. You make his goal crystal clear to the anonymous reader who comes from a variety of backgrounds.

By doing this, you are world-building.

You describe the thunder outside the MC’s window when fate comes knocking on his door dressed as Gandalf The Grey or explosions or… You tell us what kind of bedsheets the heroine casts aside to answer the call of duty. When she gets dressed and fetches her weapons, you give us laser guns or the bow and arrow of Katniss Everdeen.

If you’re writing about basically anything which is alien to the person who buys your book- hunting or lace weaving – you need to immerse him/her into your world. You use the five senses which give us the most cited rule in the history of fiction, from the campfire stories of the hunter-gatherers to the time of widespread Indie-publishing:

Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description.”

Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell

What the MC:

  • Tastes
  • Sees
  • Touches
  • Smells
  • Hears

The five senses immerse the reader into your book’s setting. Scientific studies of human senses go far out. If you’re interested in the over fifty ways of sensing, check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sense

My personal favorites are the sense of your own body position and pressure.

If you write historical fiction, you do a ton of research to give the accurate details of the world around the one doing the sensing.

World-building and exposition

Google overflows with checklists on world-building. I suggest you use one because it functions as a framework while you expose the imaginary setting.

Remember, an exhibition of the setting mustn’t become an info dump of backstory!

World-building is a tough art. Be stealth and embed the environment into everything the Main Character does. You can use supporting characters to bring forth a piece of history. In my opinion, the only thing that can seriously deal with the problems of effective world-building is REWRITING.

grandma rewriting

I use an Excel sheet for Scene Tracking. World- building has a column of its own which lists the exposition assigned to that particular scene. I keep track of what I’ve already exposed.  And I’ve told all the significant sensory bits when I get to the ending.

Example: http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/2013/10/track-your-scenes-on-scene-tracker.html

Maslow’s basic needs hierarchy in world building

Here we dive into character psychology again. When you read the list of needs below, remember to make the fury of hell rain down on your MC. Think of hardship, battle, desperation- you need to build conflict which is the core of each great story.

Without conflict, you have only exposition and no story.

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.”

Source: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

A list of needs according to Maslow:

  • Physical demands: where does your MC acquire food or water? Who manufactures/sells it and what does he want? The hard-core motivation of satisfying one’s bodily needs is a great way to expose your world. Think of the role of gasoline in Mad Max. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Max
  • Safety needs: How to find safety from the elements? Who can offer security among numbers and what’s the price?
  • Belongingness needs: family, friends, clan and culture. This need offers you a rich possibility of describing the rules of birth, marriage, and death. How to raise kids during a specific era? Belongingness can tell the reader so much about the society the MC lives in.
  • Esteem needs: What the MC sees when she catches her own reflection while passing a shop window? How far up the ladder of the hierarchy is the pauper or the princess? This need offers the writer a beautiful opportunity for character development.
  • Cognitive needs: Education, knowledge, being right or wrong. This need addresses the goal of the MC.
  • Aesthetic needs: What people consider beautiful or relaxing? No matter how scorched the post-apocalyptic landscape is, people find aesthetically pleasing things. Music, fashion, booze… Does the MC manufacture some objects herself? The things which please her tell a story. A gunsmith or a soldier reveres his weapon, and a princess loves her silk.
  • Self-actualization: character ARC, change in the person between the beginning and end.
  • Transcendence: Religion, beliefs, mysticism. Does your MC find peace in the end? Remember to develop your character ARC.

“Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.” Find out more here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

maslow_pyramid.jpg

This is the framework I use to create dystopian world twenty-five years after the nuclear war. You must weave world-building into everything you put in your book. The setting isn’t a separate entity.

Good luck!

My Website: www.rebeckajager.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rebeckajagerwriter/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rebeckajager/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/@JagerWriter