Fiction isn’t all made up: researching the facts and knowing how to use them #writing #amwriting #fiction #books

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Research is vital – even when making stuff up

In my post a couple of weeks ago I shared where I get my ideas for my novels from and how my characters and their stories come to me. Then last week I wrote about how tricky it can be to come up with a fictional location even when the book is contemporary and set in the real world. In today’s post I’m sharing some of the research I’ve had to when writing my novels.

Not all down to imagination

Yes, fiction is, by definition, made up. The characters aren’t real people, the story is invented, and the settings maybe don’t actually exist. But writing a made-up story isn’t solely imaginative.

In order to flesh out the characters – their lives and the places they live – lots of credible details have to be included. Details such as jobs, workplaces, hobbies, lifestyles, health issues and politics – to name only a few. And that’s where research is essential.

Life experience isn’t enough

As an author, I can, of course, draw on my own life experience and fictionalise events etc. But this can only get me so far. It would all get rather dull rather quickly if everything was just a variation on the theme of me.  So I have to research all sorts of stuff to give my novels credibility and interest.

Below are just some of the areas I’ve had to explore. And some of it probably makes for an ‘interesting’ internet research history …

Things I needed to research

For my first novel Change of Life, although I shared the profession of primary school teacher with Rosie and had, like her, had a cancer diagnosis, I knew nothing about the profession of her husband Tom. So I had to a fair bit of research on the work of a heart surgeon. Other areas I had to investigate for that first story included adoption, drug addiction and the life of a photo-journalist.

When I wrote my (to date) only children’s novel The Silver Locket, I had, amongst other things, to check up on the historical details of the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

But the amount of research requiring to be done ramped up significantly when I was writing my Skye series.

For Displacement, although, like my main characters, I lived in crofting township on the Scottish island of Skye, I wasn’t working on a croft (in case you don’t know, a croft is a small subsistence farm common in parts of the Scottish Highlands and Islands). So I had to research various types of animal husbandry and how crofting works. I also had to research the organisation and ways of working of Police Scotland, the job of a children’s book illustrator, possible complications of pregnancy and the current political situation in the Middle East.

When I was writing Settlement, the second book in the series, I had to look into organised crime, gunshot wounds and how to treat them, as well as the likelihood of surviving a bullet in the chest. The finer points of producing watercolour and oil paintings was another area I had to investigate. And I also had to update my knowledge of both Police Scotland and the work of those on all sides who are working for peace and justice in Israel-Palestine.

Then for my latest book, Fulfilment – the third and final part of the Skye series, to be published next month – there was yet more research to be done. This time it included the use of polytunnels to grow fruit and vegetables, the use of quad bikes on hill farms, the adaptation of quad bikes to hand controls only, how to photograph the night sky, advanced sheep care, PTSD – its nature and treatment, the health implications for those who use a prosthetic leg following amputation, and the work of various social enterprises and charities.

And, as I say, the above list of topics contains just some of the stuff I’ve had to research in the course of my writing.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

But all this investigation of a wide range of topics doesn’t make me an expert in any of them. I hope I’ve done enough to add to the interest, credibility and level of entertainment that I hope my books contain. However, I can’t perform heart surgery, provide mental health therapy, deliver a lamb or treat a sick sheep. Neither can I paint beautiful pictures or photograph the Milky Way. I don’t need to do any of those things, I just have to know enough to convince my readers that my characters can do them.

The perils of research for an author

The downside of doing lots of research as an author is the temptation to justify the time spent doing it by including way too much of it in the story. So it’s a bit of a balancing act when deciding what to include and what to leave out. I know I have to be ruthless and only include what enhances the story or risk boring my readers with a load of irrelevant detail.

Disclaimer

I apologise now if I’ve made any factual errors in spite of my research and constant fact-checking. Any mistakes are most definitely mine and not those of the real experts I asked – or indeed of Mr Google. So don’t treat any of my novels as manuals 😊

I don’t profess to be an expert in everything included in my novels. But I do hope my research has been good enough. Thank you to everyone who has personally and patiently shared their true expertise with me. Respect to you all. I hope I’ve used my research appropriately and understood and interpreted correctly.

But, most of all, I do believe that the time I’ve devoted to my research has been well spent – and that my stories are better for it.

World Building When Writing Fiction #writing #writerscraft, #fiction #books #reading

The nitty-gritty of writing – it’s not all glamorous

In my previous post I talked about how when I’m writing a book it begins with a character – a character that comes to me out of the blue usually when I’m busy doing something completely unrelated to writing. And it’s in getting to know that character that the plot begins to develop, as does the idea of where it should be set.

The devil is in the detail – timelines, events & maps

But whereas I don’t do much in the way of detailed planning for the development of the story itself, preferring to see where my characters take me, I’ve learned the hard way that I absolutely must have a detailed record of the timescales involved, of the factual biographies of the characters, and of the locations where the action will take place. This is particularly important when writing a series as there’s only so much detail I can hold in my memory.

Timing is crucial

Therefore I’ll have a time frame for the duration of the action – be that over a year, a month, a week – whatever. And even if I don’t say it’s all taking place in, for example, 2017, I’ll make sure I have a definite year or period in mind, so that the continuity of the action works.

Character biographies

Linked to that I’ll also have the birth dates and ages of all the main characters decided on and noted – again no matter whether those details are mentioned in the novel. But as well as dates of birth, I also make sure to note all the relevant background details of the characters that might influence their actions and reactions in the novel – yes, regardless of whether these details are directly mentioned in the telling of the story. For example what their parents did for a living and what their names were, where the character grew up, their siblings if any, perhaps their health history or educational record. And most importantly I make a note of their physical characteristics – again – you guessed it – whether or not they’re directly referred to in the telling of the tale. This all helps bring the characters fully to life in my head and, as with the timeline, helps me check continuity.

Made-up places

And, although I use real world settings in my novels I do also apply some fictionalising to those real places. That way I get the best of both worlds and my already hard-working imagination doesn’t get overstretched.

So, for example in my Skye-set novels – the Scottish island is of course real. The main town of Portree, the famous mountains and other scenic sites are all places that exist, but the township of Halladale where my main character Rachel loves is entirely fictional – as are its hills and the local mountain, Ben Halla.

I made up Halladale because I wanted the freedom to include whatever houses, landscape and other features that I needed for my story to work. As for the houses where Jack, Rachel and other characters live – whether on Skye, or in the other locations the story takes them – they, too are all made up. However, although some are completely made-up, some are based on real places. Halladale is based on the place where I lived in north Skye. Rachel’s house is loosely based on my own Skye house. And the Jerusalem flat where Rachel’s brother lives is based on the apartment where a friend of mine lived when she was growing up there and which I visited.

Using made up or fictionalised places means that I draw out floorplans of the houses and note what direction they face and what can be seen from various windows and so on. I also draw maps – for example I drew a map of Halladale and noted how far it was (in my mind) from the real main town of Portree and where on the island’s northern peninsula I have placed it. That way I can have them leave their driveways and head in the right direction every time, and I can have them gaze out of their front room window at the same view of the loch as they had in a previous chapter.

All of these background details are essential. Shared with my readers or not, they help ensure consistency and credibility in my storytelling and having them written down saves me so much time as I edit, proofread and check my manuscript before publication.

Not all about channelling the muse

So, this writer’s life is not just a case of sitting down and having the inspired and wonderful prose flow effortlessly from brain to computer screen. A lot of effort goes into producing a novel – oh yes, it does – and there’s a lot goes on in the background that the reader never gets to see but is a nevertheless necessary part of the writer’s craft.

Which brings me to research – another essential item in the build-a-novel toolkit. But that’s a post for another day.

 

Writer’s Block: How to bash through #amwriting #writing

Writing is hard work – just like a proper job …

I used to think that being a writer was a pretty cushy job. After all a writer is their own boss, they can go to work in their pyjamas, drink as many cups of tea as they like, and all they have to do is bash out a few thousand words each day and within months – maybe even weeks – they have a best-selling novel and millions of pounds in the bank.

Of course that was before I actually became a writer. Now before I go any further, I should say that I know there are countless worse jobs – in terms of conditions, physical and emotional demands, and sense of achievement – than that of book writer. But I know that for me – and many fellow authors – it came as a bit of surprise to discover that actually it has a lot in common with other ways of earning a living.

And one of the main factors that working as a writer has in common with any other occupation is that you have to turn up – whether in pyjamas or a pin stripe suit – with or without liquid refreshment, and you have to be productive. You can’t be all precious and sit there sighing as you wait for your inspirational muse. Oh no, you just have to get on and write. You have to hit the daily word count target and keep the publishing schedules and deadlines firmly in sight at all times.

So when the dreaded writers’ block hits – and it inevitably does at some stage – it’s important to find ways around it and to get back up and running without too much delay. And so I thought that in today’s post I’d share some of the things that help me demolish or at least get round this most horrible obstacle to creativity.

Firstly it’s important to know the possible reason for the block. It might be fatigue, it might be self-doubt either about writing ability or doubts about the worth of the story itself, or it might be a particular scene or chapter that’s proving troublesome.

Procrastination is permitted

If it’s fatigue, then it’s important to give yourself permission to rest. It doesn’t have to mean going off on a world cruise, or even taking a whole day off but it’s okay – indeed it’s essential not to let yourself burn out. Procrastination is sometimes not only permissible it can be vital. So listen to music, indulge in a hobby – be it sewing, gardening or motor-cycling. Or you could have a nap, go for coffee and a cake with a friend, or even curl up with a book by some other writer who’s obviously managed to overcome their own particular blocks.

Doubt is a demon that needs to be kicked off the pitch

If it’s that wicked wee demon known as Doubt that’s getting in the way – then reading part of something you’ve already written and had published can help reassure you that you can do this. Similarly reading positive reviews of your work can be a great way of boosting that fragile belief in your author-self. And if you’re still awaiting publication then taking a minute to recall why you’re writing in the first place can work just as well. For example try recalling who or what it was that first inspired you to write and use it as metaphorical armour to fend off the demonic enemy. Or read over any earlier pieces of work you’re proud of and remind yourself you’ve done it before so you can do it again.

The need to reboot and refresh

And if it’s a particular piece of plotting or characterisation in your work-in-progress that’s giving you grief, getting away from the desk for a good walk can prove helpful. It’s amazing how when your body goes off for a wander, your mind does too. The brain will work away on the problem in the background while you take some deep breaths and take in the views and then when you least expect it will notify you of a possible solution. And if a walk isn’t possible, then any of the above remedies for fatigue can often help with plot-freeze too.

But if diversionary tactics don’t work then it’s quite all right to go round this particular block. So you can leave that particular scene or plot development for later and get on with subsequent chapters for a while. You can always flag up possible continuity issues as you go while the block remains unresolved and sort them out later. And it’s quite possible that by continuing on your way, your brain will again do that thing of going off on its own and solving the problem while you’re looking somewhere else.

And even in the most extreme event – where you and your brain arrive at the conclusion that a major rewrite or indeed abandonment of the book as it is, is what’s required, that’s still progress. And by re-booting the project you will also have kicked the wall over.

Walk round the wall, jump over it, or kick the blighter over

So, in summary, stalling is okay. It happens, it has to happen, and it’s all part of the writing process. The important thing is not to let it be an excuse for giving up. All jobs have their frustrations, but it’s only in the most extreme situations where our health or safety is in doubt that we need to quit.

Most of the time the problems that come with the territory are challenges that can be resolved.

And, as long as the answers to the questions below remain as they are today, I’ve no intention of letting some puny wall get in the way of writing that bestseller.

Is writing an important and vital part of my life? Yes

Do I love my job as a writer? Yes

Can I imagine ever retiring? No

So it’s bah to writer’s block. The show – or in this case the book – must go on!

Playlists for Plotting: How music helps me write #amwriting #writing #mondayblogs

Similar to lots of jobs

Sorry if I’m shattering any illusions here, but being a writer is hard work. In lots of ways it’s a job like many others.

You have to turn up at your post. You have to put in the hours. You have to produce some sort of result.

Sometimes it can be tiring, frustrating and nerve-wracking.

At other times it’s invigorating, rewarding and morale-boosting.

And as long as there are more of those good times than the not so good then you’re motivated to keep going.

A different way of working

But working as a novel writer also has some unique aspects to it – or if not unique then they’re shared by only a few other professions.

Firstly, it’s a job where you have to work on your own. Even if you work in collaboration with another author, it’s still only you who can write your contribution.  You can’t share or delegate.

Secondly, you’re the boss. You’re answerable to you – and so it’s easy to let yourself off the hook. ‘Not in the mood? Don’t feel writing several thousand words today? Rather wash the windows, sort your sock drawer, play around on social media? That’s okay. You’ll easily catch up when you’re in the mood.’ But of course you won’t. You’re procrastinating and the novel won’t write itself.

And thirdly, even when the spirit is willing and you’re at the desk and keen to get going, it can be hard to know how to proceed, hard to shut out the world and hard to stay in the zone.

The magic of music

And that’s where music comes in. I find that background music really helps me both get in the writing zone and helps me stay there. I don’t necessarily even hear or at least actively pay attention to it as I’m writing, but if my concentration does go then it’s the music that brings me back on task.

The plot playlist

That’s why I compile a playlist for each of my books. And it’s amazing how just hearing that first track gets my brain where it needs to be and the fact the tunes continue to play in the background helps to keep the real world at bay.

So, today I thought I’d share a sample of five tracks from each of the playlists I used for the first two books in my Skye series of novels as well as some from the one I’m currently using as I write the third book in that series.

Displacement Playlist

And I love you so – Don McLean

Lon-dubh (Blackbird) – Julie Fowlis

Meadowlarks – Fleet Foxes

You are the best thing – Ray LaMontagne

I’m gonna do it all – Karine Polwart

 

Settlement Playlist

Mad World – Michael Andrews

I still care for you – Ray LaMontagne

Your Ghost – Greg Laswell

Wherever you are – Military Wives

The sound of silence – Disturbed

 

Fulfilment Playlist

Wicked Game – Chris Isaak

It’s always been you – Ray LaMontagne

I could never say goodbye – Enya

Fuel to fire – Agnes Obel

In our tears – Secret Garden

 

All the tracks on my playlists are atmospheric, evocative and appropriate for the feelings, moods and ideas I write about. These are just some of them.

If you click on a song title you’ll be taken to the track on Youtube where you can listen to the song for yourself and see what you think.

Do you find music helpful when you want to concentrate on something? Or is it distracting – if so what does help you focus?

 

Writing Fiction: Made Up Places

In my last post I wrote about five favourite real-life places that have featured in my books. So in this one I thought I’d share some other places that feature in my fiction but that are entirely made-up.

Now, you might be wondering why I felt the need to invent places. After all, my books are contemporary fiction and are set in real geographical locations with plenty of actual distinctive and exciting settings to choose from. Even my children’s book with its historical and fantasy elements is based in the real world settings of Edinburgh and the north of Scotland.

There are various reasons why I invented some additional settings as well as making full use of the real ones. Some were practical and some were just part of the fun of using my imagination. After all as an author I get to enjoy making up characters and their stories, so why not add in some pretend places too.

Imagined Houses

One of my favourite sorts of places to invent is a character’s home.

The house I created for Caitlin in my children’s novel The Silver Locket was based on a real house. Caitlin lives in Edinburgh with her father and her siblings in a large Victorian villa. And the house I used as a starting point was the one my piano teacher lived in – a house I visited regularly as a child. Another house familiar to me from childhood was the seaside one where one of my friends lived and this gave me a starting point for Rosie’s house in Change of Life.

For both Rachel and Jack in Displacement and its sequel Settlement I spent a fair bit of time creating their houses.

Jack’s house is a former croft house and although it’s over a hundred years old, he renovates, modernises and extends it. One of the outcomes of the work he puts in is lots of large windows that make the most of the light and the views. He also knocks down interior walls to make larger more open rooms.

Rachel’s cottage is on a working croft. It too is over a hundred years old. It’s the house she grew up in and has not had any recent modernisation work done to it.

For Jack’s house especially I trawled through magazines such as Ideal Homes and House Beautiful to get ideas. I also based some of the exteriors and interiors on actual houses including ones I’d lived in myself.

Once I had some starting point pictures in my head I then drew out the floor plans for the houses. I put in as much detail as possible – including the location of doors, windows and stairs as well as the layout of the furniture. I also made a note of the direction in which the houses faced and what could be seen from the windows. And these plans were important – not because I intended to include every detail of these dwellings in their respective novels – but in order to maintain clarity for myself when I imagined my characters moving around in these spaces. But not only that, it was also in order to maintain consistency for my readers who I hoped would be able to imagine these spaces for themselves.

Imagined Streets, Villages and Towns

Almost all the outdoor settings I’ve used so far in my novels are real. The walks taken by the characters, the towns and cities and villages they live in exist – even if their actual address doesn’t.

But I did make up one place and that is Halladale the crofting township where Displacement‘s (and its follow-up books) Jack and Rachel live on the real Isle of Skye. I located Halladale on the (real) Waternish peninsula at the northern end of the island but I decided to go for a made up community. The reason I did so was to give me freedom to lay it out as I chose to for the purposes of the story – and also so that nobody in the relatively small island community could possibly mistake it for their township or their house.

However, having opted for this made-up location meant that once again I had to some detailed drawing to do. After all I couldn’t have a character’s house facing the loch on one page and then have it turning through 180 degrees to face the hill a few pages later. So the whole township was committed to paper and stuck up on the wall.

Freedom to Create

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed making up all those places. The houses in particular were great fun to do.

And that’s part of the joy of being a writer – having the freedom to just make things up – people, stories and places.

If you’re a writer do you use real locations in your writing? As a reader do you prefer real world settings or made-up ones – or a bit of a mixture?