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

The Warrior Mindset – How to Write Compelling Action

Futuristic warrior
Depiction of a warrior from the near future. Talking about kick-ass heroines…

Have you ever fired a gun? Oh, you have- good for you. If you haven’t, find a shooting range near you or ask the local hunting club to let you tag along. Just smelling gunpowder and hearing the blast noises (through quality headphones which protect your hearing) will give you a sense of the real thing. The rest is up to your imagination…

If you are writing about military action like me, you face a tougher challenge to get the facts right. The army uses unique terminology, and the warriors have a certain mindset forged through endless drills and hard work. The NATO and European armies have slightly different rank systems.

Add in The Russian Federation, and you’re officially in the same grievous trap where I found myself when writing The Unholy Warrior. I decided to take things methodologically: I researched until my butt hurt from sitting and my fingers were raw from tapping on my keyboard.

Join a writer’s site like The Write Practice where you publish one piece a week and get critique from other writers in exchange for you doing the same for them:  www.thewritepractice.com

You can also ask some of your beta-readers to point out flaws and factual errors. There’s always someone who knows specific things because he has a military background or just because he is interested in such stuff.

Getting the facts right is essential for gaining your readers’ respect!

You can also keep a memo on things which bother you and tackle the mistakes one by one. That way you can continue writing but know your weak spots need tending to.

When you’re wicked famous like John LeCarre, you can create your own terms and expect the spy professionals to start using them. LeCarre devised terms like “babysitters” and “lamplighters” to describe different guilds of the spy profession.

Different Calibers

Writing about guns and ammo is so much easier if you have some first-hand experience. Organizations such as the NRA and various hunting magazines offer advice on shooting positions, the common aiming errors and using the best ammo to kill big game. They have some excellent info graphs online.

On shooting positions, visit: https://tpwd.texas.gov/education/hunter-education/online-course/shooting-skills/rifle-positions

Do you know what a large- caliber rifle recoil feels like? If not, chances are that a relative of yours is a passionate hunter. Go along. You might be a pest to begin with, but the odds are that he loves to ramble about duck or moose hunting forever. You’ll learn something as you sit by the campfire and drink soot pan coffee. If you’re lucky, he’ll let you shoot under his supervision. I fired my first load of shotgun pellets towards a pinetree when I was fourteen years old.

The lighter caliber .22 is the best one to start target practice with. .22 LR is found in pistol and rifle ammo.

Read about different caliber ammo and what they are used for. The numbering isn’t linear or very informative. A bigger number doesn’t automatically mean a bigger bullet! Using the wrong caliber will jam the weapon and you risk serious injury or death. In addition to numbering, the ammunition manufacturer uses a short code. For example .Win means Winchester. Your rifle carries a carved text to signify the type of correct ammunition. Perhaps “win .308” like my Tikka T1 Tactical from Sako, a Finnish company which belongs to the Beretta conglomerate.

Finnish Hunting

Three-hundred thousand people are registered hunters in Finland, and ours is a small population with six million citizens. The government demands that each hunter undergoes a series of lectures and passes the final examination before gaining a hunting license. Gun laws are strict in the European Union and especially in Finland. Yet, commercial shooting ranges offer you a chance to shoot pistols and revolvers in the heart of Helsinki, our capital. In the countryside, almost every considerable village has a shooting range nearby for rifle training. People do hunt and are passionate about it.

Recoil

“Recoil (often called knockback, kickback or merely kick) is the backward movement of a gun when it is discharged. In technical terms, the recoil momentum acquired by the gun exactly balances the forward momentum of the projectile and exhaust gases (ejecta), according to Newton’s third law, known as conservation of momentum. In hand-held small arms, the recoil momentum is transferred to the ground through the body of the shooter; while in heavier guns such as mounted machine guns or cannons, recoil momentum is transferred to the ground through the mount.”

Source: Wikipedia.

Basically, the energy of ignited gunpowder has to go somewhere. It propels the bullet out of the barrel but an equal amount of energy kicks back towards the shooter. A heavy rifle absorbs some of the energy just lessening the force which hits the shooter. That’s why sniper rifles are usually bulky. They need to be accurate. Hunting rifles, which you drag around in the forest all day through the f***ng foliage and bush, are light and thus kick you harder during firing.

In Hollywood movies, we see a pistol bullet traveling far and hitting the opponent. In real life, it’s almost impossible to hit a moving target which is running zig-zag hundred-and-sixty feet away from you. Movie heroines hardly ever flinch at explosions. In real life, the sound of a .9 causes ear-splitting pain. Not flinching (as in shutting one’s eyes tight and grimacing not so sexy-looking) takes some heavy-duty training, not to mention a possible hearing loss.

As a writer, you can decide how much reality you want to embed. If you write fantasy, just come up with impossible things. Your readers will love them. If you’re writing a spy thriller which happens in the 21st century, do some serious research.

Have you received a blow to the head delivered by a powerful opponent?

You don’t have to tackle a man, or a woman, with a black belt. You can gain a lot of information by taking some newbie-sissy-level classes in self-defense arts like Defendo, Karate of Krav Maga. Ask your instructor to teach you what happens if you drop your defenses. One (gentle) blow to the head, and you’ll never forget that lesson.

It amazes me how short real-life fights are. Just a few seconds and a severe injury with long-time consequences has been inflicted. The winner and looser are found out in a blink of an eye.

Writing near combat scenes usually demands some bending of reality. We writers cannot disappoint our readers by a few lines, and that’s that. No, we must write different phases, evasion moves, near escapes and grabbing makeshift things like rocks to be used as weapons.

Attending writer’s festivals and happenings can link you with your thriller writer idols:

http://thrillerfest.com/

You can always learn from the best!

And remember, this advice contains just my humble, personal opinion.