Monday, October 29, 2007

The Importance of Research

No one can deny the amount of research required to write non-fiction. Fiction sometimes takes just as much research. Yes, there's such a thing as artistic license, but without research the realism necessary for a good book just won't be there. I regularly do research for my writing, since I tend to write about what interests me rather than what I'm knowledgeable about. I love to learn new things and doing research for a story gives me a good excuse to learn about a subject I might not otherwise come across. Like citizenship and naturalization. I have a teenage character who is adopted by an American family. I've been looking through various resources to find the exact procedure for her to become American. During the course of that research, I realized I had two other characters affected by citizenship laws, including dual citizenship. I'm always amazed by the way one piece of research leads to another and eventually I have a usable knowledge of the subject. Occasionally, I've been able to answer the question of another writer because of something I learned for my own work.

There are many ways to do research, from library books to the internet to talking to experts in the field. I usually start with the internet since I'm already at the computer for my writing. Depending on what I find, a book may be my next step or my critique group. The members of my critique group come from diverse backgrounds and have been invaluable in helping me improve my writing and get things right. Especially when it comes to the military. Two men in particular, one who was in the Air Force and one who is in the Army Reserves, have helped me with a book that has several interactions with military personnel. I still have things to fix that sounded realistic to me but turned out to be flawed, but thanks to these two writers I have some idea of how to fix the errors.

Another reason for research is inspiration. Sometimes I'll start learning about something out of curiosity, and during the course of the research come up with a plot idea or the vague beginning of a character. This leads to more research on specific areas of the subject as well as a lot of thinking about the plot and characters.

Just thinking about all this research reminds me of something. I still have more learning to do about citizenship laws.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The curse, er, BLESSING of technology

Technology is a wonderful thing, allowing us access to people, places, and information we never would have been able to reach before the age of the internet. It can also be one of the biggest headaches known to man.

The modem in our computer died Wednesday evening, leaving me wondering how I was going to get any work done. I spend a lot of time online in the course of writing and submitting. Our computer was sadly obsolete (the poor thing had Windows ME), so replacing it made more sense than trying to help it limp along a little longer. We bought a new computer yesterday evening, one with Windows Vista. Talk about technology culture shock! I'm so used to being able to figure things out quickly, since I commonly use Windows 98, ME, and 2000, which are all similar. Vista is completely different. I'm still trying to get it figured out, though I'm getting over the shock now and discovering some nifty features of Vista, including one of the most awesome screensavers I've ever seen.

This experience got me thinking. If I'm this intimidated by a new operating system, how must an immigrant feel coming to a new country? Or a person going from a tiny backwoods community where no one has a cell phone to a big city? I've written a couple of novels dealing with culture shock, because the way people adapt fascinates me. I know that getting a new computer can't really compare to living in an unfamiliar society, but it did get me thinking. And thinking is always a good think when you're a writer.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Reality and Fiction: Kings of Mimicry

We all know that fiction imitates reality. As a fiction writer, I constantly look for ways to make my characters, and the situations they’re in, more realistic. And yet, real people constantly imitate what they read in books and see on television and in movies. So where does the line between fiction and reality stop blurring and become clear again?
It doesn’t. Fiction is a major part of popular culture and popular culture is a major part of fiction. Advertisers and marketing firms go a long way toward dictating what reality should be, but authors wield the same power. We can either continue to perpetuate what the media tells us is real or we can use our words to change the real world for the better.
Think about where you live. If it’s anything like my town, there’s prejudice based on ignorance. Why not combat that prejudice by using novels to teach? With just a few well-developed characters in a realistic setting, opinion can be swayed and people informed about cultural differences. Once they understand the differences and look past them to the people, that’s what they’ll see: people. Not skin color, religion, or country of origin; just people like everyone else.
There have been a flurry of reports in recent weeks concerning the low self-esteem of teen and pre-teen girls. They’ve traced this epidemic back to the media kids are exposed to. Why not write a book with a well-adjusted size twelve girl as the main character instead of a size four who’s worried about getting fat? With enough characters who are comfortable in their own skin and not concerned with looking like the airbrushed models in magazines, there’s a good chance girls will start seeing themselves as valuable regardless of their looks.
A lot of fiction has a habit of perpetuating the myth that you have to look and be perfect to be happy and successful. It also perpetuates stereotypes. If authors used the power of their pens (or keyboards in this age of computers) to combat stereotypes and fight back against what Hollywood tells us we should be, we could change the reality of the country. It won’t be a fast change. Most likely it will take years. But if we change the face of fiction in the publishing industry, filmmakers and musicians will follow our lead. When that happens, popular culture will metamorphose into a better thing.
Fiction imitates reality but to a lesser degree than reality imitates fiction. Walk into any middle or high school and you’ll see kids imitating their favorite movie or television character. Change the face of the big and small screens, and you’ll change the face of the country. Since many movies are based on books, and television series based on books are becoming more popular, the change needs to start in the fiction section of the bookstore.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Inspriation comes in all sizes

I occasionally wonder where the inspiration for my writing comes from. Sometimes the idea comes from a dream; other times I'm inspired by something I see on TV, in a movie, or in a book (no, I'm not talking about stealing a plot. Just being struck by an idea or comment and taking it in an entirely different direction.). I've been inspired by conversations with friends and family, and occasionally I'll have no idea where the story came from. It was just there and demanded to be written.

Today I got stuck working on a young adult novel. I decided to talk to my dad and see if he had any suggestions that would spark my imagination. As we sat on the front porch, enjoying the beautiful (if windy) weather, and my younger brother came out with a guitar. He was playing around with it and suddenly I had the inspiration I needed for my story. Instead of the direction I'd been going, I switched gears and used the guitar I'd mentioned earlier in the story. The ideas are still coming, thanks to that little bit of inspiration.

I've heard it said that everything is fodder for a writer. The longer I write, the more I learn just how true that saying is. An expression on a stranger passing by, the atmosphere of a family dinner, the evening news... All of it can be used in my writing, though it's rarely (if ever) identifiable in its fictional from as coming from a particular place. One of the most important things I've learned about writing is to observe everything. You never know when you'll remember the tiniest, seemingly unimportant thing at just the right time for your story.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Synopses and Me

I can write articles, short stories, and novels without batting an eye. But when it comes to writing a synopsis, I can feel my stress levels going through the roof. I'm sure there are a ton of writers out there who have the same problem. If anyone knows of a cure for synopsis anxiety, please share it with writers everywhere! I know I could use it.
I'm currently trying to write a one-page synopsis for a 58,000 word book. How on earth do you take 58,000 words and condense the story to one page in such a way that everyone wants to read it? Good question. I'm on my sixth version of the synopsis and it still runs onto a second page. I have someone helping me with it, and we're both stumped on how to shorten the thing. Complex plots make great novels, but they're a nightmare for a short synopsis. Of course, if I wrote from an outline, that might help. But I start with a vague idea and usually have no clue where the story's going until it gets there. The main problem I run into is figuring out what counts as the main plot. I learned through critique groups that I'm too close to my writing to look at it objectively, which is why someone who's never read the book is the perfect person to help me with the synopsis. They're able to look at it and say, "This doesn't need to be here." When I see the things they suggest taking out, I'm able to see that the points really don't need to be in the synopsis. Without that objective eye, though, I'd have a fifteen-page synopsis that's filled with unnecessary things.
I've read many resources on synopsis writing, asked other writers a ton of questions, and studied sample synopses. All of that has taught me a lot about what a synopsis should look like, but the main thing I've learned is that the synopsis will always be the bane of my writerly existence.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Welcome to my new blog! I've finally decided to take the plunge and create a blog. I only sort of know what I'm doing, so please bear with me while I learn about blogging through trial and error. To keep you entertained in the meantime, here's an opinion piece I wrote back in August.

We Support the Troops…Or Do We?
We support the troops. This is the familiar cry of politicians and farmers alike. But do these just empty words? It seems to me that a mixed message is being sent. We support you, but not your mission. We support the troops, but this isn’t our war any longer and we should bring all of our troops home. We need to get out of a war we can’t win. To me, that sounds like, “We pretend to support you because it sounds good, but we don’t believe in what you’re doing and think you going to fail. Come home now so we can forget this nasty little incident ever happened and we can continue to feel good because we say we support you.”
How can anyone truly support the troops, but not support them in what they’re doing? Yes, the war in Iraq is a terrible thing, but all war is terrible. The news media keep calling it an unpopular war. Isn’t all war unpopular because it disrupts and destroys so many lives? Yes, thousands of our men and women have died in Iraq, but a study of history shows that number is remarkably small to the number of casualties in past wars. Each life lost is devastating to the family and friends, but in my mind, those men and women are heroes. They paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect my freedom. It makes me proud to say I’m American when I think of their willingness to put their lives on the line to help secure the freedom of another country.
I support the troops. I believe they’re going to win this war and help stop terrorism. I believe in the good they’re doing in a war-torn country on the other side of the world. I also believe we could change the tide of public opinion if the media would show more of the good being done in Iraq and less of the bad. Instead of just giving us the number of people who died, show the school that was opened; the neighborhood that didn’t get bombed because of our troops’ protection; the children playing outside, secure in knowing someone is nearby to keep away the bad guys.
The politicians need to do their job of running the country and let the military do its job of running the war. General Petraeus knows firsthand what’s happening on the ground in Iraq and still believes we have a chance to succeed. The people on Capitol Hill need to listen, truly listen, to him and the other commanders before deciding that the troops should be brought home immediately. By continuing on their current path of insisting on a timeline for troop withdrawal and fostering discontent among the American people, they’re giving the terrorists plenty of propaganda to gain support for their evil cause. If the politicians would begin to speak out in favor of the military and the job they’re doing, and truly support the troops instead of just spouting empty words, I believe the tide of this war could turn.
One phrase comes to mind, one that should be given serious consideration by every American: United we stand, divided we fall. Right now, we’re a pretty divided nation. If we unite together in the cause of stopping terrorism and succeeding in Iraq, I believe we can achieve both of those goals. If we remain divided, our nation loses its strength and we’re at greater risk for more terrorist attacks on our own soil.
Let’s show the world that we’re “one nation, under God, indivisible” like it says in our Pledge of Allegiance, and truly support our troops and the mission we gave them. Let the generals run the war, not the suits in Washington.