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When I began writing, I came across the statement: “Write what you know.” Wise, but severely limiting if you’ve led a sheltered life. I reversed the adage to read, “Know what you write.” Even if I don’t know something from firsthand knowledge or experience, I can find out about it.

Research is not just for historical works. Even the simplest contemporary story begs those fascinating details and correct terminology. For example, my husband and I used to ride a 1977 Honda Goldwing, but I had to check whether the headlight was automatic or manual before I sent my character through a covered bridge. A mechanic friend told me that our Goldwing was called a “shovel head.” I used that for effect.Honda 77 Scott Francis writes, “Just because you’re writing fiction, it doesn’t give you license to make everything up.”

 

 

photo-1What’s our best source for research? Depends on what we’re looking for. The basic understanding for my stories is derived from books, but when it comes to filling in details or answering specific questions, I use the internet. How far can an average man walk in a day? How far could a horse go, and how fast? Where did the railways run? What points of interest existed in St. Petersburg in 1914? What do they call streets and avenues in China? I had endless questions and found many answers on Google.

Photo Credit Gerald Hildebrand. Appeared in Witness Magazine July 2004.

Photo Credit Gerald Hildebrand. Appeared in Witness Magazine July 2004.

But the best source of research is people. Who lives in the place you’re writing about? Who has memories about historic events? These are the people who will help us make our stories credible, and usually they are more than willing to share their knowledge/experience.

How do we go about researching? Research is an ongoing, step-by-step process. We can’t know all the questions before we get into the story. They’ll keep coming up as we write.

 

 

 

Cautions:

  1. Abraham Lincoln said, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.” Nuff said.
  2. Sources won’t always agree. At times I’ve had four books open on my desk, each one touting a different “truth.” Then it’s up to me to decide on the most probable scenario.
  3. Research is for credibility, not to show off what we know. Only include what’s necessary.
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What part does theme play in fiction writing and how does it come about? Do we manipulate our characters and their actions around a chosen theme or do we allow it to develop organically?

Firstly, let’s settle a question that may make this easier to understand: Are theme and premise the same thing?

For an answer, let’s look at a couple of examples from Rob Parnell’s article “Theme and Premise — What’s the Difference?

romeo and juliet* Take Romeo and Juliet. The premise is two young people from warring families fall in love. The theme is star-crossed love leads to tragedy.

           

 

 

pride and prejudice* Pride and Prejudice: the premise is that a feisty young woman needs to find a husband. The theme? Love conquers all.

 

 

 

LOTR* And my own example from Lord of the Rings: the premise is that a young hobbit finds himself in possession of a ring that can destroy the world. The theme, in my opinion, is courage and self-sacrifice for the greater good.

So our answer is that theme and premise are not the same. Premise is the situation that starts the story, what it’s all about; theme is the subject of the work, the heart of the story.

It’s a chicken and egg question. file271314537113What comes first, the story or the theme? My definitive answer is, it depends. There are relatively few original story themes, but as writers, we may not recognize at the outset that we have a particular theme in mind.

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Let me ask you a question: what’s the theme of your life? Unless you’ve recently done this exercise, you might not be able to pick it out. You’ll need to go back and consider who you are and what you’ve accomplished, how you’ve lived. In other words, you’ll need to review your story.

I think writing is similar. We need story before we can pick out a theme. The theme may be in the back of our minds, mulling around as we develop characters and motivation and conflict. It may be may be an age-old concept but it only comes through once we’ve brought it to life through the story itself.

For more on this “theme,” check out

Theme to Story http://learnedaboutwriting.blogspot.ca/2008/06/revising-novel-theme-to-story.html (by whoever used to write My Writing Life).

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writerPlato said, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”

Kimberly Yuhl suggests you have eight words to capture your reader’s attention.

Rob Weatherhead states in the article, Say it Quick, Say it Well (please excuse the grammar), that the attention span of a modern internet consumer is short. “Studies have shown that 32% of consumers will start abandoning slow sites between one and five seconds.”

Marcia Hoeck, in her article How to Capture Your Reader’s Attention, writes: “You only have a few seconds to capture someone’s attention, so don’t take chances with clever, cute, or insider language or visuals, which are often lost on people.”

Whether or not these statistics apply specifically to fiction writing is immaterial. They apply to today’s readers. Knowing these facts should motivate us to put extra effort into creating captivating openings for our stories.

I find that examples aid my understanding, so let’s take a look at some classic examples of beguiling beginnings:

* (my favorite) “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” This from C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

* “On November the 21st, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went…” The Private Patient, by P.D. James.

* “When the coppers talk about Marsha Morgan, they start with her death—how she fell off the Chesapeake Belle and drowned in the Miles River.” From Ron and Janet Benrey’s Little White Lies.

* Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner begins this way: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”

* Caroline Way’s Confessions from a Farmer’s Wife: “I am the last one. Of those whose lives I will speak of here, I alone remain.”

* Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: “It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door.”

What do these examples have in common?questions

– they are concise

– they raise questions for which we want answers

– they create a mood

– they suggest the kind of story that’s coming (plot driven / character driven)

– they draw us into the story

How can we create a similar effect?

– we must decide what we want to convey; what is the most important aspect of the story?

– we must ask the right questions

– we must decide what the mood of our story will be

– we must know the style of story we are writing

– we must revise and polish until the beginning is irresistible

fascinated reader

Having said all this, remember that you can tweak your beginning many times, especially after the ending has been written. After all, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from” T.S. Eliot.

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In my Fiction Writing 101 series, I often refer to James Scott Bell and his writing books and tools, especially Plot & Structure. My copy is well-marked and highlighted. That’s where I first heard the differentiation between an OP and a NOP.Plot & Structure

OPs are Outline People, NOPs are Non-Outline People. The abbreviations are easy to remember but the meanings tend to merge into one another.

Are you an OP or a NOP? Or is this purely a matter of semantics? Do the NOPs just have an uncanny ability to keep their outlines in their heads while the rest of us have to record ours in black and white? I heard a fellow author on a radio interview recently say she writes the entire book in her head, then does a complete draft before committing it to paper. Whether we do so in our heads or on paper, outlining is essential to continuity, consistency, and the evolution of characters and action.

There are many helpful outlining methods available for use, or we can adapt them and create our own. Bell’s basic formula involves a step-by-step analysis of what you want in your story:

— main character

— what he or she wants

— main story conflict

— strong ending

Bell calls this his LOCK system, and I’ll let you follow up with his book.

I have also used a story analysis system called How to Find Your Story by Jeff Gerke, which has subsequently been revised into a book titled Plot versus Character. If the new volume is anything like the download I picked up some years ago, it will be full of charts and questions to help the writer establish the basic elements of the story and how they fit together.

file000474391001Another approach is the Snowflake Method, created by Randy Ingermanson. This is also available online (free) and is a valuable tool for plot creation and development. It involves recording the basic elements, then gradually filling them out.

di7eGA5i9A plot method I particularly like is The Plot Skeleton by Angela Hunt. My favorite part of this plan is how the “good” and “bad” plot incidents balance each other like the ribs of the skeleton. In a workshop with Angela, we used The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz as templates for the plot skeleton of a story. Both work very well.

I recently asked Marsha Hubler, author of tween horse books and Amish stories (as well as writing in other genres), how she goes about writing her series. She said, “Detailed planning of character development, plot structures, and story arcs for each book in the series is a must.”

So however you choose to create your stories, whether as an OP or a NOP, find a method that works and follow it to make this the best story ever.

 

 

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