Friday, May 23, 2014

The Answer, My Friend, is Waitin' on the Web
(w/ apologies to Bob Dylan)

How important is research in your stories, and has an error ever made it into print?

By Paul D. Marks

How important is research:

They say "write what you know," but we can't know everything we write about. Hemingway may have experienced bullfights and African safaris, but we often write about things that either we haven't experienced directly or, if we're writing sci-fi, things that might not even exist yet. Or we might be writing about the past – a past we never personally experienced.

I'm not 100% sure, but I doubt George Lucas has ever left this planet, and if he ever has, I again doubt that he went to a place called Tatooine. Still, he managed to come up with Star Wars and created a whole universe around it. How did he do that without ever leaving Earth?

Of course, that's where research comes in. Research is both fun and necessary to much of what we write. Without it how could we ever write about anything that we never directly experienced? So in answer to the question, research is monumentally important to writers.

It gives our stories verisimilitude, a sense of time, place and character that rings true.

Even though I lived through the "Rodney King" riots I couldn't see everything, be everywhere, experience every experience, nor was I a cop or rioter. So in writing my novel White Heat I turned to newspapers, magazines and the net, and since people are still alive who were there in the thick of it, I talked to them too, cops, and others.

I have a new novel I'm shopping now, a World War II homefront mystery set in L.A., based on a character that's been in three published stories. But that era is before my time, before any personal memories of mine. Still, I think I captured it pretty well because of all the research I did. On the internet, via old magazines, articles, movies, music, and maps. Maps are a great research tool and can be used in a lot of ways. But I also turned to first person resources. People who were there. My family goes back in Los Angeles well before the war, so I talked to relatives and friends of theirs. Plus I do have memories from after the war when things hadn't changed all that much, unlike today, so I could draw on them too.

Has an error ever made it into print:

There's always errors that make it into print. Some are innocuous, like typos or an out of place comma, some are big and make you feel stupid, especially when they're things you know but just got away from you. And then someone reads it and points it out and you feel like an idiot and think they think you're an idiot and will share your idiocy with the world. Makes you want to duck and cover.

But sometimes you might make a calculated choice to put something in that isn't quite right because it works dramatically – poetic license. For example, I might fudge it with a song that came out a year after an event took place, but that just works so well for a scene. But then there's always that know-it-all who sat in the front of the class and knows that that song came out three days after the date of your scene. So sometimes you just have to throw a slapstick pie in their face and fudge things a little.

So research is extremely important to just about anything we write. But it does have one major drawback: it's just too much fun. Especially in the internet age when you can just bounce from hyperlink to hyperlink and spend all day researching instead of writing. In the ye olde olden days you had to go to libraries or have tons of research books, which are fine, but today it's so much easier. And it's not only educational and important for your story, but it's the best procrastination tool ever invented because you can pretend to be doing work while you're really just having fun.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"She was listening to the wireless in her cocktail dress ..."

... not in August of 1923 she wasn't. These are two mistakes that made it into the published version of my second book, THE BURRY MAN'S DAY. One of them is really bad: I had the characters listening to dance music on the Light Programme from the BBC months before it broadcast for the first time. There's no getting away from that.

The other mistake is one I can talk my way out of, if I have to.  BMD is set two years before the Oxford English Dictionary's first citation of the expression "cocktail dress" in print.  But it's highly unlikely that a phrase is used in print before or even soon after it's first used in speech and so there's nothing to say that Buttercup de Cassilis couldn't have used it that day, the second Thursday in August in 1923.

Except that BMD is set in Queensferry, the village where I was born (in fact the jacket image is the view from the room I was born in)

and I know from my schooldays that no one in Queensferry beat anyone to a fashion coup by two years. We didn't get punk until 1998. Okay, slight exaggeration but it's not Soho.

The question of first citations is one that I think about a lot, given my background as a linguist. It's easy enough to avoid out-and-out anachronisms - they do clang so in the middle of a historical story - but there are some words and phrases, perfectly contemporary for the time, with a dated entry in the OED to back them up, that nevertheless seem too modern. I've cut "death-ray", "cash and carry" and "homo-erotic" (not from the same sentence - although what a sentence it would be) because, although they are all fine, they have to strike the reader as fine and my copy-editor reckoned none of these would.

So much for dictionary work.  When it comes to general physical research, probably some of the above tells you how important it is to me. On the one hand, I didn't check the radio history but on the other hand I know exactly what date the book is set and I know that I've got the moon in the right quarter and the tide doing what it would have done on that day.

Buttercup's house - Cassilis Castle - is another mixture of accuracy and fantasy.  It's a real castle
with a roof on and glass in the windows, admittedly, but the rooms, doors, fireplaces, arrowslits, murder hole and oubliette are all accurately placed inside it.  The only tiny little bit of license I took was to drag it a hundred miles north from where the real Cardoness Castle can be found, just outside Gatehouse, to where I wanted Buttercup and Cadwallader de Cassilis to live, just out side the 'Ferry.

I always put a Facts and Fictions page at the back to let people know what I've made up, but one reader who was intrigued by the thought of the castle and lived nearby (she thought) spent quite a long afternoon tramping around looking for it. She was only halfway through reading the book though and hadn't seen the Facts and Fictions page. And it was high summer and therefore raining. She got in touch, quite politely considering.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Note to Tax Preparer: Read the Following, Please

"How important is research in your stories, and has an error ever made it into print?"

Good and timely question for me. I am well into a non-series novel set in rural France in the present. The responses I get from friends when I mention it always include how much they look forward to reading about that part of the country – the wine, the cheese, the medieval towns. Now I’m thinking I’d better include more researched, atmospheric details than I had initially intended or I’ll disappoint the expectations of readers.

I just breezed through three crime novels relished by fans for their inclusion of just this kind of detail: Cara Black’s Murder Below Montparnasse (contemporary 14th Arr. Paris), Charles Todd’s A Pale Horse (early 20th c. Berkshire, England), and Deborah Crombie’s The Sound of Broken Glass (contemporary Crystal Palace area of London). I know the authors and they grin sheepishly when asked, as they always are, if they get to write off their travel expenses to do research!

My Dani O’Rourke series was conceived as a dual-setting one: In each book my San Francisco-based protagonist travels to a different American city or town, where an important part of the story takes place. I chose settings I already knew and loved (Santa Fe, Manhattan, a small New England town so far) and there wasn’t a lot of research of place involved. For the French novel, I have invented a hamlet very much like the one in which my real friends live and which I’ve visited, but it required lots of iPhone photos, cheese sampling, and walking around to get some of the details right.

Other than place, my biggest need for research perennially is how law enforcement agencies operate. It’s quite different from place to place in the U.S., from small towns to big cities, from local police departments to county sheriffs and coroners. I’ve asked working cops for help in each book, but know I may still make a mistake. Alternatively, I may bend a local practice a bit to serve my plot.

So far, I haven’t been called on it, but there’s always a first time. My French novel – not quite a mystery but with a suspicious death – is the hardest by far in that regard. Even with help, I have not yet figured out the intricate bureaucratic thinking that connects the small town “sheriff” to the “mairie” to the “gendarmie” to the national police. It should have made me feel better when a French gendarme admitted it was so confusing he didn’t quite understand the protocols either, but his comment only made me more nervous!


Friday, May 9, 2014

Paperback Writer

What stage in your writing process causes the most angst? Draft, revising, plotting...?

By Paul D. Marks

clip_image002 Hard Day's Night

Every stage of writing causes angst, anxiety and nerves, which is why I used to like eating Red Vines while I wrote. Just chomping on one after another while writing helped with the nerves. But the doctor finally convinced me that three boxes of Red Vines every day while writing maybe wasn't the best plan.

Here Comes the Sun

Coming up with Ideas is pretty easy for me. I have an idea file that's about 65 pages long and has over 700 ideas in it. I don't think I'm gonna run out any time soon. People who want to write often ask me where I get my ideas, as if they're baffled where they come from. It's the kind of thing that if you don't see them there, at every turn, you shouldn't be writing 'cause they're everywhere just floating by in the air.

We Can Work It Out

The First Draft is also pretty easy...because I'm one of those "pantsters" who just writes stream-of-consciousness and whatever comes out comes out – I can always fix it later in the "editing room". I hate outlining, so I just let it all flow and then hone it and polish it in later drafts. clip_image004


Plotting, characters, conflict, suspense, description, can all be difficult because you want them to be right and work and play off each other (you know, plays well with others), but again that can be fixed in the "editing room" and during the revision process. But with each draft you see a clearer picture and everything starts to come into focus.

I Should Have Known Better

And that leads to revising, which is where I start yelling "what did I get into this for – I should have known better". Revising is the most angst-producing phase of writing because this is where it all really starts to come together. And because it's all in the rewriting for me. I've seen other people who labor over each word and sentence as they go along so they probably don't have as much revising to do. But for me, that's where it all really starts to take shape. I pretty much let it fly in the early drafts and the real shaping, honing, fine tuning, polishing, come together in the revising. I might have ten drafts – or more – on a project, but some of them may have only have a handful of changes while others have wholesale changes in plot, character and incidents, all of which need to 'come together' in 'the end'.

Fixing a Hole

The worst part of the revision phase is that it's an endless process, because every time you read the story, even if it's been published, you find holes that need plugging and things that you want to change, from small things like typos, to major things like plot points and characters.

Good Night

But at some point you just have to say goodbye and good night and close the door, like they do on Diane Keaton at the end of Godfather I. And then you move on to the next phase.

No Reply

You send your baby out into the world and hope that everyone thinks you have a beautiful baby, but, like those people in Casablanca, you wait...and wait and wait for a reply. And then you just have to:

Let It Be

And now for some reason I have this desire to listen to some Beatles music. See you next time.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Five Circles of Hell (+ the edits)

Which bit of the writing process causes the most angst? This bit. This bit right here today.  Which is another way of saying all of it.  Except the bits in [ ... ]

The beginning of the first draft is hell. I write and write and can't let go of the side.

The middle of the first draft is a special kind of hell where I know that the story is hopeless, the characters are flat, the setting is thin, the plot is stupid and there's no way to end it.  The worst thing about this hell is no one believes me and some people (usually married to me) laugh.

The end of the first draft is a new hell.  That's when I see that the story could have worked out because it's got a great shape after all but there's no time to fix it and so I'll just have to embroider this sow's ear and forget the silk I could have been working on if I had a brain.

[I quite like printing out the first draft and dancing around to ELO]

Then comes the second draft and what fresh hell is this?  It's gets bigger and bigger, so unwieldy and paceless - as I cram in notes, half-pages, post-its, markers, cross-references, a lot of blue Bic and highlighter and start to dream about it at night and face the impossibility of wrestling it back into shape again.

[I don't mind turning the big mess into a third draft, because it's grunt work and hard to get wrong.]

But - I usually have some remaining questions so I leave some post-its in there:

Turning the third draft into a fourth draft isn't painful because I'm beyond pain. I'm resigned to the failure and humiliation about rain down on me and, frankly, if it means I never have to write again it's fine with me.

Then I get really disaffected. The fifth draft is the last one before it leaves my hands and at that stage I go in for a lot of cutting. The manuscript  - it's never that bad.  I hate every word of it and could happily carve it down to a haiku without thinking I'd lost anything much.  It's now that I know I have to hand it over. My editors  - Editrix Lestrange at Hodder and Dimples Bischoff at Midnight Ink - are pretty understanding but haikus might stretch them.

[I love putting away all my research materials and drafts and dusting my desk]

Waiting to hear what they think is hell.  But at least it's not writing.

And that's the end of it.  Except for the editing which is sheer hell.

The strange thing is that I love my job and I wouldn't do anything else but be a writer no matter how much you paid me. Go figure.

Addendum! I forgot  - writing this yesterday - that today was going to be a good day.  My new book comes out today. [Don't hate this.]

Monday, May 5, 2014

Hitting the Wall

What stage in your writing process causes the most angst? Drafting, revising, plotting...?

Angst? Foot-dragging, clean refrigerator obsession, chocolate chip consumption? Stormy lectures to myself, depressing insights into my inadequacies, escapes into multi-episode Netflix choices?

I checked and angst apparently can mean anything from anxiety to anguish, which in my dictionary are very different animals. The anxiety end of the spectrum can show up at almost any point in the writing process after I’ve passed the euphoric moment when the entire new story is laid out in front of me like a sparkling vision that merely must be typed via automatic writing.  Anxiety creeps in when there’s one day in which the writing stops flowing easily, or I find the first of many reasons why the plot isn’t hanging together. Anguish is when I can’t climb over the wall in my brain and fix it. I’ve lost the vision, the will, and any shred of confidence I had. Time for a long walk.

Having admitted all of that, I will say that character is the least problematic for me. I like my characters and have no trouble getting inside their skins, even if I’m a little hard on them at times. Language and dialogue don’t stop me, although the first draft can be pretty dodgy, full of repeated words, my favorites at the moment being “just” and “began.” The hardest aspect of writing a good novel for me is untangling the ‘mess in the middle’ at revision time. Little errors and illogical moves that I promised myself at first draft that I’d fix later now have my protagonist – and me – tripping over ourselves in confusion and getting lost in a forest of details. Revisions generally go well until that point and will generally be okay after that. But around page 150, I am overcome with angst.

(Why this illustration? This gull has just discovered that the bag he worked so hard to open smelled like it had a hamburger in it. It only had waxed paper and grease. Hence, his angst.)


I think that my fellow Minds cope better than I, have strings of successful books and stories to show for it, win awards (Congratulations again, Art!), and also have barrels full of self-discipline. I need to stock up on stick-to-it-iveness, get over this Author Drama stuff, and get to work. It’s the best way to keep anxiety, anguish, angst – whatever you want to call it – out of the room. That and chocolate.