Tag: Getting started

That Research Thing

That Research Thing

Ashes and Light - coverReaders of my books set in Afghanistan or Portugal and Burma often ask me how I got the details right. Of course the answer is research, and in all truth I can’t say that I got all the details right, but for me to write I have to have a sense that I have enough knowledge of the place and the culture to write it correctly, or as close to correctly, as I know how. Same goes for a particular time period or a specific piece of technical knowledge. This blog is about how I go about building the knowledge so that when I sit down to write it flows out of my hands.

1. Reading: I read about what I want to write about. I read fiction that gives me a flavor of how other people write about a location. I read non-fiction accounts, memoirs, biographies and histories. These both allow me to pick up the nuggets these writers gleaned about the place or culture. I’ll pick up cheap coffee table books from remainder tables at book stores just so I can look at the photos. This often fuels my sense of place. I haunt the history and geography sections of used book stores like Powell’s to find relevant writing about the place or timeframe, like for 1400’s Portugal for my upcoming book, The Cartographer’s Daughter. I’ll read the coffee table book if something captures my imagination. For example, I was living in Thailand and saw a small coffee-table book about Burmese Puppets. I picked it up and what I read spurred me to want to write a story about the puppets – I know, it’s a ridiculously esoteric subject – but I read that book from cover to cover and used it as a jumping off place to identify other information I needed to know.

2. Maps: I’m a huge fan of maps. Maps give a me a sense of location and perspective. I recall traipsing around Venice, and it was the maps with the bird’s eye view that I first looked at when I arrived, that stopped me from ever getting totally lost in the maze of streets, canals and alleys. The same map put into perspective where Marco Polo’s house was and how that location within Venice might impact his view of the world. Maps let you identify potentialities in the location and they also show specific locations for events in your stories. Maps, I find, are an inspiration.

This is especially the case in writing historical stories, because maps not only show you the landscape back then, but they also tell you a lot about the culture, belief system and world view of the people. I’ll talk more about maps in a later blog.

Similar to historical fiction, when the story is a fantasy set in a fantasy landscape, I make maps up. Knowing where things are located and having place names in your head, allows you to build histories around those landscapes which are so important to making fantastical places real. It also forces you to think how long it would take to get from point A to B and about how the landscape would impact the characters who live or travel there.

3. Talking to people: Talking to people who are experts in their fields can help to get the details right. It can also be a source of inspiration with those odd facts that are so obvious to the experts, but no one else is aware of. These are jewels for writers, because they let readers in on the secret language of whatever this specialty is.

When I was writing about the Burmese puppets I had the good fortune to travel in Burma(Myanmar) and made a point of going to every puppet show in every town I travelled through. I made arrangements to interview the owner of one of the shows in Mandalay who spoke moderately good English and he referred me on to another man who made the puppets. It turned out this kind man was an ex-surgeon and spoke excellent English. He had been instrumental in providing information to anthropologists doing research on the puppets and kindly showed me how they were made, demonstrated some of them for me and even gave me a precious manuscript he had received from the anthropologists so that I could photocopy it for myself. You have to understand that at the time Burma was almost a closed country and that he was taking a risk even talking to me, a writer. Those items I treasure to this day and those unbound pages still have a place of honor on my bookshelves. They were also critical to a couple of fantasies and Karen L. McKee’s Paranormal Romance, Shades of Moonlight.

If you can’t talk to the people, you might be able to get in touch via e-mail. When I was writing my Afghan novel I was in touch with past foreign correspondents, and members of the military that friends helped me locate.

Writing about other cultures, it’s also important to talk to people of that culture. For my Afghanistan book I spent a number of coffee and lunches interviewing a lovely Afghani woman who was brave and interested enough to talk to me about woman in her culture, about her faith and about what was happening in her country, as well attitudes amongst her people towards the foreigners ‘liberating’ her country. These attitudes shaped my characters. She also provided me with small phrases and legends that are common in her country. These are also gold because they allow you to build in the real words and beliefs of the people.

4. Old Newspapers: If you are writing about a historical period where there were newspapers, or you are writing about another part of the world and can get newspapers in a language you can read from that time period, this can be an invaluable way to get a sense of the background events that were occurring in the location at the time you are writing about. Nowadays many major newspapers have their archives available on line. Reading the old papers can also spur inspiration regarding events that are reported and how your characters might have been involved or touched by the event, and can also give you a sense of fashion and language used ‘back in the day’. For example, a story about how bats had taken over the old Regina City library back in the 1920s led to an opening chapter of the first adult novel I ever wrote.

5. Library and Internet research: Having a local librarian as an ally can be a boon, because a librarian can suggest you try looking at books in areas you might not have even thought of. University libraries are also superb resources. When I was writing about Burma I wanted a specific book about the magic systems and the animistic spirit worship. There’s been very little written on the subject at the time, but there was one fairly comprehensive anthropological study. I found the book (a very old, falling apart version) and ended up photocopying the whole thing so I could have it available as a resource.

The internet can be helpful in finding old journals and photos of locations taken by other travelers. Blogs can be a wonderful source of information, both about the place and about the traveler’s reactions to it. I used old articles in The Economist and old travel journals about a very rough ride through northern Afghanistan to bring realism to my novel set in that country.

6. Travel: I try to travel every few years and I don’t go to resorts and I don’t do tours. I go to places I think I might want to write about and I spend my time poking around the back streets and absorbing the feel of the place. I spend time talking to people to get a sense of people’s attitudes. I’ll sit in a park and let people come to me. I talk to waiters and taxi drivers and vendors on the street – often with very limited communication skills because we speak different languages, but enough to get a sense of small bits of their realities—like the

Carmelita of Puno, Arequipa (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Carmelita of Puno, on the Arequipa streets (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

woman who worked in one city in Peru, but who had left her children behind in another city because there was better money to be earned where she was – a hard economic choice the country’s situation had forced on her.

Before I travel I think about where I want to go and what I want to see and a plan a general itinerary around that, but I also let fate take me where it will. There have been times when a chance meeting, or a wander off the beaten path, has allowed me to find something wonderful that takes the potential writing in a whole new direction.

So research for writing isn’t so much simply gathering facts and then writing about them, it’s about immersing yourself in a location or situation (even if you’ve never been there), so that when you sit down to write the place itself inspires what you are writing. I recall my Afghan book as one of the most difficult books I have ever written. Why? Because I had so many false starts on the book. I would start and get a chapter in and realize I wasn’t ready to write that story yet because I wasn’t filled with the sense of place and the culture. So I kept on researching and wrote other books and then one day I sat down and the book poured out wiht all the wonderful details in just the right places. And yes, there are probably errors in the book, because in a war-torn country there are places so remote that you just can’t get the information. So you know what? There are things in that book that arose purely from my imagination.

Because it’s fiction, folks. Remember that. Fiction.

Routine, Flexibility and Permission (oh my)

Routine, Flexibility and Permission (oh my)

I broke routine this morning and slept in until almost seven a.m. The weird thing is, the cats broke routine, too, and let me. Usually they are right there, yelling, or pouncing on me (see here for a wonderful cartoon of the experience), or else Ben will go into the kitchen and bang cupboards or otherwise wreak destruction to get me up. After all, cat tummies are far more important than my beauty sleep.

But this morning they broke routine. Actually they’ve ‘broken’ routine for the past week or so, ever since the corner of my bedroom started to seriously collect things for my trip. Last night I actually began the task of inventorying and packing. I think I have them nervous. I think they know I’m going somewhere soon. After all, they’re far from stupid. But the simple act of letting me sleep is consistent with other behavioral changes they are showing. For example Ben actually managed to crowd onto my lap and fall asleep while I was typing yesterday afternoon, when usually he just plants himself on top of my desk and pushes everything else to the floor. He also made a point of sleeping on my lap last evening. Definitely things are up.

We all know cats have routines and heaven help us if we vary from anything that impacts their feeding, brushing or taking them for walks. (Yes, mine go for walks on leashes.)

Shiva wanting to catch a fly (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Shiva wanting to catch a fly (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

As writers we need those routines, too. For me it has always been a routine to get up at 5:30 and write for two hours before I have to turn to work. I’ve done that for the past ten years and produced about four books a year, until this January when I was ‘forced’ to give it up.

Okay, not forced. I chose to give up. There I was in the middle of manuscript revisions and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was over my head with work and preparing for this trip and had started having nightmares. So something had to give. It was a horrible choice. The guilt was enormous and so was the feeling of failure. But it was also a relief because I was hating everything I was doing because I didn’t have the time to do it well.

A friend of mine recently went through a similar experience for totally different reasons. He moved, due to a job change and then had to spend his time moving in and focusing on the new job. Time passed. He didn’t write. He blogged (here) about the challenge that posed for him because he, like myself, has been regimented about his writing and is a spectacular writer who recently sold his first four book series. His pain is that during his move he hasn’t written a word.

To me the ‘not writing’ has been a lot like what going through nicotine withdrawal must be like. I still find myself at the computer early in the morning, I know I should write (and I do—on work), but the most I’ve been able to write creatively has been these blogs. I tell myself it’s okay, but I know it’s not because it’s very easy to fall out of a habit that’s good for you and very easy to fall into a habit that’s not –like sleeping in.

On Thursday I received a phone call from the airline that is taking me to Peru. They advised that the flight times had changed and therefore I have to leave a day early and layover in Toronto overnight. Thanks goodness my schedule as a consultant is a little flexible. I was able to do it, even if it’s going to be tight for work. Be flexible, I said.

So I’ve decided that writers need to follow my cat’s lead and give themselves permission. Instead of being rigid and getting anxious about not writing, writers need to assess their situation and give themselves permission to not write. Occasionally the world intervenes, like my friend’s move, like another friend’s illness, like another friend dealing with a death in the family. I know all of them are back at the keyboard.

And I know I’m a writer, so I’ll be blogging while I’m travelling and writing when I get back from Peru. That’s promise, just as surely as I know Ben and Shiva will be back to caterwauling in the morning.

Shiva, imposing himself on thanksgiving dinner (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Shiva, imposing himself on thanksgiving dinner (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Wiggle Room – the Chinese army and finding the time for a creative life

Wiggle Room – the Chinese army and finding the time for a creative life

I’ve heard it said that if you want something done, ask the busiest person you know and they will accomplish it. Somehow these people have the ability to stretch a little more out of a minute or hour to get the conference planned, or the new report written. These people amaze me. Actually, I think they intimidate the heck out of me, because I am constantly finding myself scrambling trying to get things done and regretting my inability to say ‘no’ to new work. Of course, too much work impacts my ability to find time for my writing.

How do these people do it? Do they really have the magical ability to expand time?

Yak at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Yak at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Of course the answer is ‘no’ (at least I don’t think too many of us have Hermoine’s magic watch), but these people have tricks that help them get things done. I figure I must have a few as well as I am frequently being asked where I find the time to write, or travel , or blog.

The first thing one must do is decide if writing or travel is something you really want to do. For me, there were years of frustration about finding the time to write and the time to market my writing until a friend and mentor made the suggestion that I treat myself as a one of my clients. You see, I work for myself as a consultant and I schedule my time based on the work a client has asked me to do. The suggestion was helpful to me because it did two things:

1. It got me to schedule time;

2. It legitimized my writing and got me to take it as seriously as I take my paying work.

The first of these points speaks to organization, a key point if you are trying to fit writing into your life. Along with organizing your life to allow writing time, you must obtain the buy-in from significant others like spouses and friends – otherwise expect writing time to be a constant source of relationship friction.

The second of these points is probably the most important. Taking my writing seriously gave me permission to make it a priority to write. I can’t tell you how many people I know who say they want to write a book or are working on a book and yet they never sit down to write. The first job of a writer is to write – not to talk about it. Not even to blog about it. But to write. Bum in chair folks, and no matter what else is going on in my life, I always find time to be there.

You have to decide the writing/travel/whatever is a priority because it will hurt you more not to do the activity, than to do it.

I’ve also had people tell me that part of their trouble is the challenge of moving from creative to mundane (e.g. work) projects and back again. This is an issue of multitasking. So how do people manage this shift from project to project?

I know people who work on two or three novel projects at the same time. I admire them greatly, but I don’t think I can do it. These folk can literally be writing one manuscript in the morning and another at night. For some it’s a matter of compartmentalizing their writing, so writing a certain type of book is associated with a certain time of day. I suppose I do something similar when I get up early in the morning and write creatively, and then turn to my work computer at eight a.m.

Having separate computers can help, as well. Having one computer for work and one that is strictly for creative endeavors allows your brain to associate a certain place with a certain type of thinking. Keeping your creative space separate from the internet has also helped some writers, and definitely removing all games from the creative computer. For me, I have to keep my photography on a separate computer because that is a time sink I frequently get stuck in, because it also feeds my creativity.

Other issues fledgling writers run into include knowing what to write and just getting started. I’ve talked previously about inspiration, but sometimes it’s just the fear of getting started. There are wonderful books out there that can help. I fondly recall Natalie Goldberg’s Wildmind, and the wonderful book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Both helped me explore my voice and passions and taught me that my voice was valid. Books can teach you how to deal with the anxiety of starting through cleansing breaths, or meditation . Each writer has to find their own way to deal with the critics in their heads.

I’m reminded of a mantra Kris Rusch and Dean Smith put up at every workshop: DARE TO BE BAD. What this means is that all creativity (and travel, and just plain living, for that matter) is about taking a risk. We have to throw ourselves out there and only by taking those chances will something wonderful arise.

I’m reminded of one of my adventures: In China my travel companion and I decided to visit a remote area called Qinghai Lake. This is a wind-blown steppe in the mountains that has a huge lake that supports the massive migrations of waterfowl from Siberia to South Asia. So we hopped a local bus and travelled up into the mountains and were dumped off in a small group of buildings that were reminiscent of an old west town except there were no horses around, only yaks and monks.

Monks at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Monks at Qinghai Lake (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

So we ventured out to the lake on foot (not an easy hike, because the lake was distant and the wind was high and scoured us constantly with dust). We were met by Tibetan women bringing their children to see Westerners. (I scared the children because I have blue eyes and apparently that’s not a good thing.) We saw massive stone cairns, strings of prayer flags, and wonderful kids who showed off by riding yaks to guard their herds and, in the distance, blue Qinghai Lake. I ended up going back to our room alone and was just washing the dust out of my pores when someone pounded on the door.

Soldiers.

They barged in on me as I stood there dripping. I was shocked, to say the least, and my first reaction was to shoo them right out of the room again and bar the door. It worked. I stood there, heart pounding. Through the door I heard them whispering and laughing. And they went away.

Which proved to me, that if I could deal with the Chinese Army, I could deal with most anything – including anything that dares get in the way of my writing.

Planning for the Long Haul

Planning for the Long Haul

Planning a trip to Machu Picchu means planning for the long trek up hill. It means choosing a guide, choosing equipment, it means readying yourself so you don’t break down on the climb. Planning for a novel is much the same, but that doesn’t mean you have to plan everything step by step. Not in the least.

For the trek, I want to know that I’ll be comfortable and generally where I’m going. Yes, I have a basic equipment list, but whether it will be appropriate for Peruvian weather conditions needs consideration because I’m going  at teh end of the rainy season. For writing, planning means something similar—not a plan that guides every chapter, but a plan that will generally guide me through the arduous process of writing a novel.

Old Moslem Fortress at Sintra, near Lisbon, Portugal (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Old Moslem Fortress at Sintra, near Lisbon, Portugal (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

So how do I do that? I wrote previously about the process of selecting a guide for Machu Picchu (here). To plan for the trek involves gathering information. Who are guides that operate at Machu Picchu? Who is reputable? Before the internet it was much harder to find out. I used to go to my travelers’ bookstore and ask them what they knew, or else talk to other travelers. Those old favorite guidebooks Lonely Planet and Rough Guide provided helpful suggestions that I often took advantage of and often I’d arrive with only a general idea that I needed to find a guide and then would go on a search when for a good one when I arrived.

Finding a guide when planning a book is another thing altogether. I used to plan my books chapter by chapter and used wonderful chapter outline sheets that had been provided by my mentor, Dean Wesley Smith. These helped me focus on the important points of a chapter:

1. Point of view.

2. Where are the characters at the start?

3. Where are the characters at the end?

4. How have things changed?

5. How have things gotten worse?

I wrote many novels based on those chapter sheets. What I found was that often the novel started with those sheets, but gradually the writing took over and the sheets were put away toward the end of the maniscript. If people are relatively new to writing, or if they have a hard time finishing a novel, this can be a helpful tool because the sheets help you outline your novel scene by scene, chapter by chapter. But I found that I gradually outgrew the need for the sheets. I sort of look back at them as training wheels that helped me learn what chapters and scenes are all about.

From there, I began to plan books in large chunks. I knew the characters got from here to there and bad stuff happened, but I didn’t write it down. Or if I did, I just jotted brief notes. I once heard Nancy Kress, the wonderful science fiction writer; speak of writing a list of all the things you know need to happen in the book (or all the scenes you want to put in, or all the events you want to happen). She then suggests that you take this list and put the scenes/events along a story arc, thinking about try/fail sequences (everything always gets worse) climaxes, and the three-act structure. I’ve found this very helpful, not to start a book, but to help clarify my thoughts when I’m lost in the thick of the action.

For my last three novels, I’ve tried something much more spontaneous. I’ve tried the write-into-the-mists form of writing—something romance writers call ‘pantsing’ (writing by the seat of your pants), which is much more akin to how I like to travel. I start out with a general idea of where I want to go and allow the destination to guide me about where I want to go. With writing, I start with a general idea of what the story is about. This allows me to enjoy the experience of the story, much as the potential reader will. A mystery writer friend recently finished drafting a novel and told me she didn’t know who the killer was until the last two chapters. Let’s face it, if the writer is surprised by where the story takes her, no doubt the reader will be, too. To write in this manner I have to let the character speak to me and at any fork in the story I ask myself what would the character do? So the noval arises from the character.

To write this way is an exploration. As I write, events or facts arise that mean I have to go back in the manuscript to insert information. Whether you do that at the time, or wait until the first draft is finished is your choice. I either keep a notebook, or keep a running list, of ideas or things to insert or change at the end of the manuscript. Other people I know, use the comments function to make notes of changes they need to make.

Increasingly, I’m noticing that research is one of the most important aids to my writing. But this is another blog on its own.

So planning for a novel, or a back-packing trip to the Andes, both require you sort out your planning method. Both require you to do your research, and if you are lucky, one will bleed into the other so your trip feeds our writing and your writing feeds your trip.

Biting the Bullet – or the ‘Oh *@#%’ moment

Biting the Bullet – or the ‘Oh *@#%’ moment

The other day, in the midst of planning my trip to Peru I had that old familiar rush of anxiety that I’ve had when planning for every other trip I’ve ever taken. It’s what I call the ‘oh shit’ moment.

I first came across this feeling when I was in my late twenties.  I’d foolishly decided to relive my teen-age years by climbing onto a set of water skis. There I was at the end of a whiplashing line skimming along the water so fast I thought I was flying. Then the ‘oh shit’ moment arrived and all I could think of was ‘what the heck am I doing???????’ and ‘this is going to hurt like heck if I go down’.

And I did. Hard.

But I walked away with most of my pride.  I’d tried it at least.

So planning a trip, or a book for that matter, can be a lot like the anticipation I had waiting to go up on those skis. I want to do it. I need to do it. But darn it, it can be scary.

I knew I was going to be whipping at the end of that line, just like I know I’m going to be stepping off of a plane into some place I’ve never been before. Some place I don’t speak the language or know the culture. Some place I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to get through.

Now that’s deep water.  For a lot of people, that’s when they stop.

But that, to me, is part of what travel is all about. I don’t live in the age of exploration and I don’t have the physical prowess to climb mountains—so I do this. Run off to experience other places and the ways that people live.  So the ‘oh shit’ moment is something to push through to prove myself.

In that way, each time I start a new book I find there’s an ‘oh shit’ moment. That’s when you open the computer to that blank page and say “okay, hands, start typing”. Like with the travel, I don’t really know where I’m going, the culture, or the characters I’ll meet, or if I’m prepared for the geography. Sure, I have plans, but we all know about plans.

I used to plot out everything just like I’d plan a trip, but what I found was it took the spontaneity out of the whole experience. I’ve actually found that I get frustrated when I plan a trip in too much detail, or when someone plans it for me.  Having an itinerary means I can’t stay that extra day or take the time to step off of the beaten path or listen to locals about the road less travelled. The same can be said of a manuscript. Sure, having an outline can give you direction, but does it allow your characters to have adventures you never even imagined?

Travelling alone without any itinerary other than I know I want to go to this list of places (and sometimes I have to choose between them) means that yes, there are frustrations and yes, things might not always go as planned, but you also get some enormous gifts. Like meeting the young woman at Burma’s Schwedagon Pagoda who told me her tragic tale of love gone wrong, or stopping at the side of the road in Cambodia to meet shadow-puppet-making orphans whose story was so sad I ended up crying, or having dinner on the roof of a Rajasthani house with a family I met on the streets of a small Moghul fortress town. I learned so much from those encounters. Things I never would have had if I’d stuck to an itinerary.

And the same thing happens with writing. Yes, there’s the panicked feeling of not knowing where a story is going, and the fear that comes when I think things like ‘Dear god, I have to be coming to a mid-point climax, but I’m not sure what it is’. But I live with the fear and then, suddenly, by magic the driving direction or the climax appears.  And it’s usually better than I ever could have imagined.

So when I feel that ‘oh shit’ moment when planning a trip, or starting a manuscript, or even when I’m caught in the middle, I remind myself that the ‘oh shit’ moment is more like the feeling the race horse must get in the gate: anticipation at the race. And wonder at what might be around the first turn.

The whiplash at the end of the line, or the gift of feeling like you’re flying.

And even if you fall, you had fun while you were trying.

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