Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Monday, June 29, 2015
Friday, June 26, 2015
This week's question is a timely one for me: "Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom?"
Just Google any of the keywords above, and you'll find tons of information, of course—but what I've been interested in is a different bit of history: One of the 12 is missing, stolen from the University of Virginia's Alderman Library back in the early 1970s and never recovered.
Here's a glimpse at the research I've done on this—and a thank you to the folks who've helped me:
- Tracking down the original AP coverage, thanks to a librarian at George Mason University, since the library's database for AP articles doesn't go back that far
- Gathering information from U.Va. thanks to a media relations representative who's gone above and beyond the call of duty in answering emails (and who very graciously said he enjoyed my story "The Odds Are Against Us" and invited me to get together with him if I came to Charlottesville)
- Getting information on security issues from such old journals as The American Archivist and Georgia Archive and from the the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (
RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries—and still trying to track down an old copy of Library Journal from 1974 with an inventory of everything that was stolen
- Searching for the 1988 Sotheby's catalogue which detailed the history and condition of the Tamerlane that sold then and also provided information on other copies of pamphlet (I can buy the Sotheby's catalogue for $60, but I haven't gone there yet)
- Reading many, many pages of notes from the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (a tremendous resource)
- And, of course, reading the full contents of Tamerlane itself—including various versions of the title poem (and from elsewhere in the Poe canon: "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "William Wilson" and a little bit of "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-tale Heart" and....)
Overkill maybe on the research... and yet...
And yet: Rather than just providing detailed backstory for me to fold into a conversation, all that reading and research has sparked my imagination toward the plot of my own story and seems to be helping to shape what happens.
Part of this may seem obvious, of course: If I'm fictionalizing a story around a true-life event, then I have to be faithful in some ways to what actually happened. (I feel strongly about this, but others do not; consider, for example, some of the novels built around the Gardner Museum heist in Boston.) But it's more than that too. My story isn't just adhering to the details of what happened, but it's being shaped by possibilities spinning off of those "what ifs" from the brainstorming that goes hand-in-hand with dense research.
I'm hopeful that at least part of that process might work.
Beyond that, I'll simply agree with many of the comments that my colleagues here have mentioned already this week. The way we writers incorporate research into our stories should never bore or burden, and a little goes a long ways.
On the Road with Del & LouiseIn another direction, just a quick bit of news. My forthcoming debut book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, to be published September 15 by Henery Press, is now up for pre-order at many places, including at my own local independent bookstore, One More Page Books and More in Arlington, VA, which will be hosting my book launch on Saturday, September 19.
Click any of the links below to pre-order—or if you want to save your money, you can first try to win an advance copy through my Goodreads giveaway, running now through Sunday at midnight.
One More Page (pick-up): https://squareup.com/market/one-more-page/on-the-road-with-del-and-louise-signed-store-pick-up
One More Page (shipped): https://squareup.com/market/one-more-page/on-the-road-with-del-and-louise-signed-by-art-taylor-to-be-mailed
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom?
Some people, old roommates mostly, call me lazy. I prefer the term efficient. I don’t like waste, be it energy, food, money, brainpower, or time (especially food).
I know a lot of writers enjoy spelunking in the proverbial stacks, unearthing long-forgotten historical tomes. Their jaws drop in wonder at a newly-discovered journal from the 1300’s or a never-before-seen map of the ancient Roman empire.
I’m not one of them. I strive to do exactly as much research as necessary and not one iota more. I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of including too much research in any of my books or stories. Ever. Really, EVER.
Readers don’t need to know how the sausage is made. They just need to know that one of my characters has stopped at a street vendor to get a delicious brat on a bun.
Don’t get me wrong, I work hard to make sure that what I write is as accurate as possible and, in order to do that, research must be conducted. It’s just not my favorite thing. That’s why I rarely worry about bombarding my readers with all kinds of arcane knowledge. I try to give them just what they need to understand whatever is going on in my book.
I operate on a simple plan: if it serves the story, it goes in.
If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Still a few more days left in Amazon’s The Big Deal sale! More than 350 Kindle books for up to 85% off, including RUNNING FROM THE PAST for only $1.99!
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Monday, June 22, 2015
by Meredith Cole
It's easy to get distracted when you're writing. Sometimes, instead of actually fixing a plot point that doesn't work at all, you can find yourself distracted by research. You dig deep to find out everything there is to know about a certain gun or traffic patterns in the city where your book is set. The next thing you know, you have enough for a non-fiction book on the topic and you've completely neglected your fiction altogether.
So how do you show your reader that you know your stuff without boring them completely? I think the secret is in the details you sprinkle throughout your story. If the details that are relevant to your story ring true, your reader will be right there with you. But if you're heavy handed with the details and interrupt the story to explain something for pages and pages (just to show them that you know your stuff) you'll lose them. Eventually, too, you have to leave the research behind and take a leap into the unknown and enter the world you've created.
Right now I'm grappling with the question of how much research is enough and how much is too much with my current book. It's set in 1951 in a small town. I've been surprised by how much 1951 was similar to the way we live today (cars, refrigerators, telephones, television...). But the difference really is in the details. The prices of things. The language. The options for women. I've done far more research on bank security and details on life in the 1950's than will ever make it to the final pages. But hopefully when you read it, it will feel right to you and the story will suck you in. And then I can feel like I've done my job.
Friday, June 19, 2015
Those in the writing know often suggest that writers prepare character profiles for each of their major characters. If you follow this approach, what do you tend to highlight? And if not, how do you keep track of your characters as the story progresses?
Before I respond to the question, from the Official Department of BSP:
This blog post was done a couple days ago, ready to be scheduled. So I’m happy I waited on that since I have to add something additional to it: Macavity Award finalists were announced yesterday. I’m thrilled and honored that my short story, “Howling at the Moon,” from Ellery Queen, is one of the nominees in the short story category. And honored to be in the company of Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, Travis Richardson and our own Art Taylor. Yea, Art! But the good news doesn’t stop there, fellow Criminal Mind Catriona McPherson’s novel “A Deadly Measure of Brimstone” is nominated in the Best Historical Novel category and she’s also nominated in the Best Mystery Novel category for “The Day She Died”. Yea, Catriona!
I want to thank Janet Rudolph and everyone who voted. I hope you’ll all read all the nominated stories and books. I believe most of the short stories are online. Here’s a link to the Anthony Award short story nominees, of which four, Art, Craig, Barb and I are also nominated. So if you scroll down to the short story awards, there will be links to our four stories that are also Macavity finalists: http://bouchercon2015.org/anthony-awards/ And you can find Travis’ story in ThugLit issue #13.
By the time I sit down to write, I’ve usually been thinking about the characters and major plot points in my head for some time. And since many of my characters are, at least in part (composites), based on people I know or know of, it’s sort of easy to keep it together. The problem is when you’re working on more than one thing at a time they can all run together.
The main concern with characters is to be consistent. What’s important is to keep track of what you’ve actually said in a work or series so the characters remain true to themselves/consistent. On a very simplistic level if a character likes chocolate at the beginning and hates it at the end, people will be taken out of the moment, out of the “reality” of your story. Unless that’s your character arc, how and why he comes to hate chocolate by the end.
Remember, too, that you don’t have to use every bit of background in your character profile. It’s good for the writer to know all these things, because these traits will make the character act or react in various situations. But maybe it’s not necessary for the reader to know everything – just enough to buy any actions on the part of the character.
Another good tool is Proust’s Questionnaire. Change ‘you’ in the questions to your character’s name and it will really get you thinking about who your character is.
1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
2. What is your greatest fear?
3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
5. Which living person do you most admire?
6. What is your greatest extravagance?
7. What is your current state of mind?
8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
9. On what occasion do you lie?
10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
11. Which living person do you most despise?
12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
16. When and where were you happiest?
17. Which talent would you most like to have?
18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
21. Where would you most like to live?
22. What is your most treasured possession?
23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
24. What is your favorite occupation?
25. What is your most marked characteristic?
26. What do you most value in your friends?
27. Who are your favorite writers?
28. Who is your hero of fiction?
29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
30. Who are your heroes in real life?
31. What are your favorite names?
32. What is it that you most dislike?
33. What is your greatest regret?
34. How would you like to die?
35. What is your motto?
For those who are interested, there are many variations of character profile forms online. Just search “character profile”.
There are more things one can ask about their character or put in their character’s “profile”, but I think this is a good start.
My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was just picked up by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Not sure when it will be published yet. Set on today’s Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, not that other one back East. But the ghosts of Chandler, Fante and Cain are there in force.
And my noir mystery-thriller novella, Vortex, will be out soon. Advance Reader Copies are available if anyone’s interested. Hardcopy. E-version, stone tablets, hieroglyphics, Cuneiform, written on sand, any format. Choose your poison. Contact me at Paul@PaulDMarks.com if you’re interested.
Subscribe to my Newsletter: http://pauldmarks.com/subscribe-to-my-newsletter/
Thursday, June 18, 2015
I'm not a massive fan of character bibles. You know how the book you haven't written yet is perfect and wonderful? And then you get cracking and it gets worse and worse and more and more hopeless until there's nothing for it but to finish it and move on to the next one that's still perfect(ly unwritten)?
Basically every decision you make while you write is slamming closed a door on all the possibilities you didn't choose and so for me a character bible would mean starting the book with quite lot of doors already slammed. Where's the fun in that?
There are still some things about Dandy Gilver I don't know after ten books. In fact, more than not knowing, there are things I'm determined not to find out, because I want to be able to decide when the right moment comes.
And that brings me to my Donald Rumsfeld system of what you do and don't need to know about characters.
I never understood why people gave him a hard time about the (un)known (un)knowns. It struck me as perfectly sensible. Here's how it works for character development.
1. Known knowns. You need to decide pretty early on what your character's name, age, race, gender etc are (unless . . . see 2)
2. Known unknowns. The things you know you don't know and so you don't talk about them. Perhaps very deliberately. For example, the protagonist of Rebecca is nameless. And perhaps because you want to leave breathing room for later developments. Like me with Dandy Gilver.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Friday, June 12, 2015
Here's a confession: I'm addicted to the "likes" on my status updates.
My wife makes fun of me for this. "How many likes do you have on that status update now?" she'll ask. "Have you checked in the last three minutes? What are you up to now?" But she's guilty of it too. On those occasions where we've both shared the same bit of news or the same photograph, it becomes like a contest. And then beyond the "likes" themselves comes a different contest: "Well, at least I got more comments than you did."
This is, apparently, a societal problem, an epidemic one even. See the New York Magazine article on it here.
And now that my publisher, Henery Press, has asked me to create a Facebook author page in addition to my personal one... well, that's a whole nother level of neediness and anxiety, right? (I won't invite you to like my new page, since that invitation is clearly implicit here. But I will say I'm giving away an ARC of On the Road with Del & Louise on the page this weekend, so... click, click, clickety-click even if you don't like, like, likety-like!)
Will any of those status updates—or even that ARC giveaway—ultimately, directly, lead to a sale of my book? Who knows? And—frankly—who cares?
By this I'm not saying I don't want people to buy my book when it comes out. I do! And you should! (Yes, you!) But what I don't want is to feel like I'm consistently crafting status updates with an eye toward some marketing, toward some bottom line—because I think that's a mistake.
And I don't think that's at odds with the "like" addiction that I mentioned.
In conjunction with my job at George Mason University, I've overseen social media marketing for the Fall for the Book festival for many years. As part of a small team, we've looked at our FB audience's demographics and the days and times they're most likely to be browsing pages. We've scheduled posts at specific intervals and with a specific range of subjects (general literary news vs. a recent review of one of our authors vs. an update about one of our events). We've crafted FB ads and paid to boost specific posts, often to carefully crafted target audiences (people ages 18-35 within a 30-mile radius who like Neil Gaiman, for example). And there's two things I can tell you:
- I've never seen any proof that someone has read one of those date, time, place of author event updates and then gone to the event itself specifically because of that update.
- No matter how much crafting or boosting we've done, people are more likely to "like" a photo of a couch made out of books than an update about the date, time, and place of the next author event on our schedule. Always.
There's those words again: "like" and "share" and "connect" and—yes—"friend."
Bluntly stated: Those folks—and we all know them—who view social media first and foremost as a marketing tool are doing it wrong. The person who posts only about his new book and where you can buy it. The person who friends you and then immediately asks you to like her author page. Even worse, the person who friends you and then immediately posts on your wall a message about his latest project or author page or buy link.
That's not friendship, is it?
I'm not friends in real life with all of the people I'm friends with on Facebook. Some of them I haven't even met and may never meet. But I do feel a connection with many of them. I've laughed with many of them, and my heart has gone out to many of them, and I've been delighted to find that some of us share the same enthusiasm for hot dogs or Taco Bell or a rare bourbon or that we grew up reading Danny Dunn or that, just today, we're so many of us fans of Ornette Coleman and maybe listening to his music in our separate far-flung offices and apartments and whatever.
Maybe some of those folks will buy my book when it comes out. Maybe not. But in either case, that seems secondary to the connections here—as it should be.
I like them—simple as that—and it makes me glad that they like me.
...though again, maybe I'm a little obsessive about that.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Which of the many different types of social media platforms have you found works best for you in the promotion of your books and why?
I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, LibraryThing, LinkedIn, about.me, Google+, and YouTube (and those are just the ones I can remember). Some I’m more active on than others (actually, I mostly just use Facebook and Twitter).
I blog here and (sometimes) on my personal blog (like R.J., my personal blog has fallen into disuse).
I’m on a bunch of listservs and email loops (mostly as a lurker—who’s got time to do all that commenting?).
I also pester people via Mailchimp (rarely).
I have no idea if any of it really works for selling books. I suspect that all the exposure helps, at least indirectly, if for no other reason than getting some people to remember my name is a good thing. If they ever see it again (say, on a book cover), they may be ever-so-slightly more inclined to investigate further.
That’s okay with me, too, because I’m not trying to generate sales directly. I’m in this for the long haul, so I see my interactions on social media as just that—social. I try to be entertaining and humorous. I try to be interesting. I try not to always talk about my books. Sure, I mention them from time-to-time. After all, many of my friends, followers, and all-around homies are interested in my books and writing career.
Bottom-line, I engage in social media not for the bottom-line. I engage in order to entertain, to stay connected, to interact with my fellow readers and writers, and to participate in the larger book-loving community.
And, boy, has that community has shown me a lot of love. When I participated in the Kindle Scout program (for RUNNING FROM THE PAST), my social networks stepped up big-time. The amount of support I got for that campaign was overwhelming, and I know for a fact that it contributed mightily to the book’s success. (And for that, I’m grateful.)
Of course, let’s be real. My number one purpose for social media?
Posting pictures of food (this is my Killer Tofu, in the, uh, flesh).
And speaking of Goodreads, I’m giving away a signed trade paperback of my horror novel, THE TASTE (actually, I’m giving away two copies). Go here, enter, and good luck!