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Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 05, 2015 8:35 am

This week’s lesson (and next week’s) will cover how to include research in your writing without sounding like a Wikipedia article. This week I’ll be talking about incorporating your research into fiction, and next week I’ll cover nonfiction.

In fiction:

If your fiction is set in a historical time or place or uses characters from real life, you’ll certainly have to do some research to be sure the settings and people are depicted accurately. If you don’t, someone who’s an expert will read it, and will point out every factual error. It’s important, however, to introduce that information to your reader in a natural way.

A few months ago, I had an editing job (the writer is not on FW, so she will not see this) for a novel in which two characters had a rendezvous in a historical place. I’ll change the place and put it in my own words, but the writing went something like this:

“I can’t believe we’re in the actual room where Lizzie Borden killed her father,” said John. He looked around the two-story house located at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts.

“Yes, I know,” said Mary. “And that is the very sofa on which he was murdered.” She pointed to an antique piece of furniture that was stained and torn. “Did you know that Lizzie was thirty-two years old when the murders happened? That’s the same age as I am.”

John shook his head. “I hope you aren’t going to give me forty whacks.”

“Actually, that old poem is inaccurate. Mr. Borden received only ten or eleven blows and his wife received nineteen. Mrs. Borden was probably killed first.”


You get the idea. This is wrong on a few levels: first, people just don’t talk that way. That dialogue was stilted and unnatural and does not aid in character development.

Second, that sort of recitation of facts is not the way to provide atmosphere. Let’s assume that this is about to be a thriller—maybe there’s an actual ax murderer lurking in the drapes. A dry conversation about the facts of the Borden murders does nothing to set a suspenseful mood.

Finally, even if it’s necessary for the reader to know some of those facts, there are better ways to introduce them into the narrative:

• You could write a flashback, in which the reader actually sees the Borden murders (or whatever factual information you need for your readers to know) occurring
• You could introduce the facts in a more organic way within both the narrative and the dialogue, a bit at a time when it would naturally occur
• If you’re worried that your readers won’t get all of the facts, you can include an end note with a summary of the important events or information about the time or place of your story. This might not be a good idea for the Writing Challenge, where end notes are often a distraction, but I’ve often seen this sort of information included at the end of a novel.

By the way, even if you have researched your facts thoroughly and have some sources to cite, footnotes are very rarely used in fiction. Occasionally you see annotated versions of classic novels, but generally, footnotes bring the reader out of the story and into the real world. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to do, so if you have sources to cite (and you certainly should cite your sources), put them in end notes.

And I think that’s enough for this lesson; next week’s lesson will cover including research in your nonfiction writing without sounding like an encyclopedia.

Comments? Questions? Observations? Additions?

If you’d like to do some homework, take the above situation and re-write it in a more natural way. You don’t have to include every fact that I included—just write a few hundred words with two characters in that setting. Make it more atmospheric, and make their dialogue more compelling. Work in at least one fact.

Or if you feel queasy about ax murders, write a few hundred words with another historical or factual setting, working in at least one researched fact in a natural way.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby KatKane » Sat Sep 05, 2015 5:47 pm

"Are you sure this is it?"

John consulted his GPS. "Yep. This is it, alright: 92 Second Street, Fall River, Massachusets. Looks just like every other house here, except..."

Mary pulled her coat round her tighter. The thought of what had happened in that house made her blood run cold. I What is it with John and the macabre? I wish he'd stop dragging me out to these places. They creep me out--

"C'mon!" John's tugging her sleeve interrupted her reverie. "Let's go look inside. D'you reckon the sofa where she killed her father's still there?"

"I neither know nor care!" It may have been a lost cause, but Mary was still determined to stop John from dragging her into the house. "And I think you meant she 'allegedly' killed him. You know she was acquitted of the murders, right?"

'Well, if she didn't do it, who did?"


That's my attempt - I changed the location to the outside as that would be more natural for the introduction of the address. The age I left out for now, although that's the sort of thing that could be brought in quite naturally in the sitting room. One thing I did write different to your version, Jan - I brought in the fact that Lizzie Borden was acquitted and so it's not true to say she definitely did it - nobody knows for sure.

I really enjoyed this homework. I'm going to try to take part more frequently from now on. I've missed taking part in your excellent lessons :)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 05, 2015 7:20 pm

Excellent, Kat. For the purposes of this exercise, you did exactly what I asked--more natural dialogue, more atmosphere, less recitation of facts.

If this was part of a full-length novel, I'd say that the concentration of facts in this short selection was perhaps still too strong. But for what I asked, you did a superb job.

I hope a few more folks will give this a try! Anyone?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby Sibermom65 » Sun Sep 06, 2015 9:16 pm

I have a question closely related to this topic: The research I've been doing for a historical fiction (?) has dead-ended without a piece of important information - just where did it happen. While I can narrow it down to within a hundred miles, the terrain affects the development of action. Do I just imagine the location where it could have happened or pick one of the possibilities and go from there? How historically accurate does historical fiction need to be?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby glorybee » Sun Sep 06, 2015 9:47 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I have a question closely related to this topic: The research I've been doing for a historical fiction (?) has dead-ended without a piece of important information - just where did it happen. While I can narrow it down to within a hundred miles, the terrain affects the development of action. Do I just imagine the location where it could have happened or pick one of the possibilities and go from there? How historically accurate does historical fiction need to be?


I can give you my thoughts on this, but I don't know anything definitive here. Maybe someone else will jump in with a better answer.

My first thought is to keep researching, if at all possible. I feel that if you decided to go with "close enough," it's inevitable that a reader will contact you with "Don't you know that happened in this place, not in that place?" Worse, they might leave a negative review somewhere, saying that your book wasn't adequately researched.

If you've absolutely researched in every way that you can think of, and you still can't find it, then you might have to go with "close enough." If you're going to do that, then you'll need to explain to your reader what you've done, either as an end note or a preface--telling your reader that you've taken some liberties with the facts because you're writing historical fiction.

Does anyone else have some advice for Sibermom?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Mon Sep 07, 2015 9:40 am

glorybee wrote:Does anyone else have some advice for Sibermom?


Sibermom, give us more specifics of the historical period you are writing about.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby KatKane » Mon Sep 07, 2015 4:16 pm

Sibermom - this might seem like a daft question, but what places have you gone to for your research?

Kat
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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby Sibermom65 » Tue Sep 08, 2015 9:54 pm

The story revolves around an incident in my family history. Jonas Williams, crippled since childhood when he had escaped from Indians who took him captive, had settled on a stream feeding into the Susquehanna River and operated a tannery and a grist mill. It was late June 1778 when the Indians, stirred up by the French, began killing the white settlers in the Wyoming Valley. Jonas used a dugout trough being made for the tanning operation as a canoe to float himself, his young wife and their newborn son to safety in a fort some distance away (at least one overnight as they hid along the shore at night) Looking back the first evening they saw the smoke as their home was burned. A younger brother of Jonas - 17 year old Isaac or 12 year old Benjamin (family histories differ as to which one it was) drove the cattle along the land trail to the for. Along the way, the boy rescued a neighbor woman whom the Indians has scalped and left for dead.
This incident was written up in my father's genealogy work. Before he died he told me his efforts to learn which brother, which stream, and which fort had been dead-ended. Another distant family member had written some of the details down before he passed, but a house fire destroyed all the records. When I have tried to research about it, I kept coming up with references to my father's work as the most complete resource.
I want to write it up as a middle grades story, using Benjamin as the brother, making it his story.
Last edited by Sibermom65 on Wed Sep 09, 2015 11:49 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 08, 2015 10:03 pm

Ah! Well, that's a little bit different; although you're basing your fiction on a historical event in that it took place in the past, it's not an event that's likely to be found in any history books. Although the Indian uprising in Wyoming might be known by historians of the region, you'd be fine with writing the main incident of your book using speculation, based on your best guess, based on your research.

I also still think that a note of explanation to your readers would be a good idea.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby Sibermom65 » Wed Sep 09, 2015 11:47 am

I'm concerned that in today's world the events and attitudes of that era will be considered too violent and politically incorrect. Is that a problem when writing historically based fiction?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby glorybee » Wed Sep 09, 2015 12:02 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I'm concerned that in today's world the events and attitudes of that era will be considered too violent and politically incorrect. Is that a problem when writing historically based fiction?


It could be. For example, when I was writing that last reply to you, I inwardly cringed at using the word 'Indian' when I knew that 'native American' or 'first nations' are the preferred terms, and I even wondered if a novel in which the first nations people were the bad guys would go over well.

There's a fine line between writing historical truth (some first nations tribes were, in fact, brutal) and balancing that truth with mitigating factors. I won't go into all of those here, because I don't want the thread to take a turn into how white Americans treated or mistreated America's native peoples. But I think you'll have to think carefully about how you portray that in your novel. Perhaps you'll include some chapters from the POV of the native people. Or perhaps you'll include some clarifying information in your end notes, when you explain your research.

This goes for all historically-based fiction, whatever the era. We are looking back at history from our own perspective and the clarity and changes that come over years, decades, and centuries. A writer of historical fiction needs to write in a way that is true to the times--but she also needs to appeal to the sensibilities of contemporary readers.

Re-reading this just now, I realize that I've said two opposing things:

1. Stay true to the time period, to be historically accurate.
2. Appeal to modern readers when it comes to issues that are viewed differently now.

I welcome suggestions from any of you reading this: how does a writer handle this quandary?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Wed Sep 09, 2015 11:20 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:The story revolves around an incident in my family history.


Yes, do what Jan suggests—include an explanation in either the preface or in an end note. It will provide clarification, and also readers will be interested to learn that the story is part of your family history.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Fri Sep 11, 2015 9:15 pm

glorybee wrote:1. Stay true to the time period, to be historically accurate.
2. Appeal to modern readers when it comes to issues that are viewed differently now.

I welcome suggestions from any of you reading this: how does a writer handle this quandary?


Sibermom, you are very brave to write historical fiction for the middle grades. I don't think I could attempt to write historical fiction except for that aimed at adults. Presumably, adults are better at understanding that "that was then and this is now."

That said, some adults may object to things that don't fit the current PC view. For example, I am writing a novel set in the 1930s. A reader wanted me to change the form of address from "Miss" or "Mrs." to "Ms." :x This would, of course, have been an anachronism, so no, I wouldn't change things like that.

One thing, I always keep in mind is that modern society is not nearly as just as we would like to believe. In America today, many groups are discriminated against, ostracized, or maltreated. Just as there are prejudiced, hate-filled individuals in our society today, there were men and women of honor in earlier days.

I think it is easier to write about the 1930s-40s than it would be to write about the 18th century, because the films of the time provide a guide to what was possible. For example, by the 1930s, Americans were already becoming sensitive to race issues. While some films portrayed African Americans in stereotypic roles, there were a few films that portrayed interracial friendships, showed blacks pursuing higher education, and depicted racism as wrong.

Some of my 1930s characters are racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, etc. and aren't afraid to voice their views. But the historical record provides enough support for me to also create characters who believe in the ideals of equality and fairness.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby Sibermom65 » Sat Sep 12, 2015 6:07 pm

I'm not sure how much is brave and how much is stupidity. The more I work on it the more I fear it will never meet a publisher's (or parent's) approval because of the portrayal of the Native Americans, realistic or otherwise.
And yes, they are Indians in the story. Anyone ever hear of the French and Native American Wars or of the First Nation uprisings in the West? It's part of balancing historical accuracy with political correctness. Unfortunately in todays society, the former is often thrown out in the name of the latter.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--USING RESEARCH IN FICTION

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 12, 2015 6:13 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:I'm not sure how much is brave and how much is stupidity. The more I work on it the more I fear it will never meet a publisher's (or parent's) approval because of the portrayal of the Native Americans, realistic or otherwise.
And yes, they are Indians in the story. Anyone ever hear of the French and Native American Wars or of the First Nation uprisings in the West? It's part of balancing historical accuracy with political correctness. Unfortunately in todays society, the former is often thrown out in the name of the latter.


Right.

Just to be clear, when I mentioned the terms "native American" and "first nations," I wasn't saying that you should use them--just that that's where the minds of many people will go when they see the word "Indian."
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