Monday, January 21, 2019

How's Your Credibility?

I once asked a friend for her best tip on researching. She said, “Find someone who likes doing it and give them money.” That’s not always possible, and sometimes it takes the fun out of putting a story together, although her answer did get a chuckle out of me.

Why is research important? The answer is simple. Your credibility as an author is at stake. People read books, listen to a presentation or watch a television show and walk away believing what they’ve read, seen or heard. As a writer, you’re supposed to be an expert, right? Readers depend on you to know what you’re talking about, and that doesn’t just apply to non-fiction. Many people believe fiction, too.

I’m sure you’ve heard stories about viewers walking up to a soap opera star and slapping her because they believed what they’d watched her do in her role as a bad girl. Fiction is exactly that – fiction. So, no slapping! However, there’s generally a thread of truth somewhere in your story unless it’s total fantasy.

Let’s make up a fictional town. We’ll call it Big Buck City which is located in Northern Nevada and lies somewhere near Reno or Carson City. Here’s the information you gave in your book:

            Palm trees line the streets
            The terrain is flat, barren desert
            It almost never snows and the temperatures are mild
            You refer to Reno (or Las Vegas) as the state capitol
            You mention that casinos don’t allow smoking anymore
            There’s a house of ill repute on every corner

What’s wrong with this picture? Everything. Palm trees don’t grow well in a cold climate. Northern Nevada is mountainous, and it can be very cold with fairly frequent snow. By the way, Carson City is the state capitol. Casinos may not allow smoking in their restaurants, but most casinos allow smoking in the gaming areas. At the very least, most of them have smoking sections. If you write about casinos, you’d better know about casinos. A house of ill repute on every corner? While there are such places, you won’t find them on every corner.

If you created this description in your story, you’ve just lost the readers who live in Northern Nevada. They realize you’re not familiar with their favorite place – home. When a couple from Podunk, Ohio, visits Reno, they’re not going to find anything they were expecting. You let the tourist down, too. In general, you’ve let your entire audience down.

Don’t make up facts as you go along unless one of your characters is a pathological liar, or someone’s trying to lie their way out of a fix.

Another hint? Don’t rely on one source for accuracy. The Internet is so convenient, but what you find isn’t always correct. Check out more than one site, and there are great sources at the library, too. Talk to “old timers” and locals. Talk to experts. If your protagonist discusses the weather in Colorado, you’d better know what the weather I like in Colorado.

Have any of you worked on your family genealogy? You’ve probably found names, dates, locations and stories, along with other information. Maybe you researched Great-Uncle Fred and discovered he had a fifth child the family never talked about. Hmm. This could be interesting. Why wasn’t the fifth child discussed? Did Number Five rob a bank? Run away from home when he was sixteen to become an actor? Commit a murder? (Okay, don’t forget, I am a mystery writer.)

I discovered quite by accident that I enjoy researching. It’s like solving a mystery. You follow leads to come to informed conclusions. A number of my books contain cold cases. I had to find out what things were really like during the time periods I wrote about.

Organize your information and keep a record of where and when you found it. You might need to refer back to the same source.

Do you enjoy research, and if not, how do you keep your facts straight? What are some of your favorite sources to find pertinent information for your books?

Until next week, try researching something you’ve always wondered about but you’ve never taken the time to check it out. You might be surprised at what you find.

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Monday, January 14, 2019

I Wish I'd Written that Book

I enjoy writing mysteries more than anything I’ve ever done before. Initially people called it my “hobby,” and I smiled politely while trying not to voice my thoughts. However, after about the time my fifth book came out, those who knew me decided it wasn’t a hobby after all. (It’s nice to feel understood.)

However, I’m also an avid reader, or at least I was until I started writing. Now I don’t have enough time to read everything I’d like to. For purposes of this post, though, I’m going to remain a reader.

Beginning with my mother’s Honey Bunch books, and moving on to the Oz books, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys books, and finally real honest-to-goodness adult books, I’ve enjoyed the freedom to go places and do things vicariously through the characters and the stories.

All of that reading and all of those characters and storylines (along with a gentle push from a friend) are what prompted me to write mysteries. Some of the ideas of other writers are so unique that when I finish reading a book I sit back and wish I’d written it. As a reader, have you ever felt that way?

When To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee came out, even though I’d never given a thought to writing a novel, I read the last page and wished I’d written that book. The characters were so real to me – Atticus, Jem and Scout. The storyline reminded me of what times and people were like in the thirties. (Although I wasn’t even a sparkle in my mother’s eyes in the thirties, I’ve heard things.) And Boo Radley – oh, what a guy. I think every small town has had someone whom people talked about and who was highly misunderstood. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the book. You’ll be glad you did.

I still think about Marley & Me by John Grogan. The book made me laugh aloud, and then the story made me cry. I wished I’d written it because it was so entertaining. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t quite believe the story and ended up with two yellow Labrador Retrievers, Sugar and Murphy. Believe me, Grogan’s story hit the mark. These dogs have a bit of screwy mixed in with intelligence, and sometimes… Well, you’d have to live with a Lab to understand.

Sometimes I read one simple idea in a story – and wish I’d thought of it first. Oh,well… I do my best.

I could tell you about my books, but that would take too much time. There are now nineteen, with Number Twenty in the works. Maybe one day someone will read one of my books and say, “I wish I’d written that.” One can always hope.

Think of a book you wish you’d written, or that contained an idea you wish you’d thought of first. Maybe you’ll provide me with some new books to read.

Until next time, I hope you read a book that leaves you in awe of the story – a book that will live forever in your memory.

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Monday, January 7, 2019

Rainy Sunday

 I really need an updated picture. One of these days...

It’s a dark, rainy Sunday as I write this, and it's a perfect day for snuggling up on the couch with a good mystery. Unfortunately, instead of that I’m writing a story that takes place during a major heatwave. It’s a bit difficult to write about the heat when I’m sitting at my desk, thinking I should get up and start the fireplace. I moved to Washington from Arizona, and I have to think back to what it was like during the summer in Arizona. Plus, the story takes place in Los Angeles.

Location is so important in a book. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve written enough to help the reader “visit” the location. Arizona, Washington and Los Angeles are so vastly different from each other. I can picture the location in my mind, but can the reader?

A lot of things depend on location, location, location: setting up a business, buying a home, planning a vacation, the setting for a fictional story. And when planning where a story will take place, you also have to think of regional issues such as earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, monsoon storms and snow, rain or heat. Even a volcanic eruption can be an issue, depending on where the story takes place.

Last night was quite windy here, and it was pouring rain. I’d just gone to bed when the wind picked up and the roof on the patio began lifting just enough to bang loudly when it dropped. At first I thought someone was trying to break into the house, but, surprisingly, the dogs didn’t react. I hadn’t noticed the wind when I had the television on. I couldn’t sleep and if my characters were in this situation, they wouldn’t get any sleep either. (Lucky dogs slept right through it.)

Your characters are in the middle of a thunder storm? Are there dogs or cats in the story? How do they react to the situation?

Have you ever lived through an earthquake? A hurricane? Don’t write about these things unless you have experience or a good “go to” witness to these disasters.

So it’s more than just location. It’s what the location is like if there’s an emergency. What’s possible at the location you’ve chosen for the story? There are so many details to consider when writing a story. You can research a blizzard, but if you haven’t lived through one you’re liable to get it wrong. At least talk to someone who’s lived through a blizzard, earthquake or something that could be devastating.

Of course, what if it’s just an average day and the weather is great, the air is clear and there’s a pleasant breeze? Be sure to let the reader know that’s what the day is like, but don’t tell them, show them. Let them figuratively walk in your character’s shoes. Maybe it’s nighttime and the weather is comfortable and clear. What might set this evening apart? Maybe the sound of hundreds of frogs croaking. There’s always something to remark on.

The book I’m currently working on involves some homeless people. It’s an extremely hot summer. It’s so hot out you could cook eggs on the sidewalk. In Oatman, Arizona, an historic tourist town, they actually have a contest involving cooking eggs on the sidewalk. Now that’s hot!

Right now I can look out the window and watch the rain fall. I’ve got the fireplace going and the three dogs are lying around the house, sleeping. It’s so quiet – except for the ticking of a clock. If the phone rang right now it would probably scare me out of a year’s growth. Okay, I stopped growing a long time ago, but you get the idea.

I started out talking about location, location, location, but it’s really about details, details, details. Sometimes the little things count, as long as you don’t go overboard with those details.

Now I’m chuckling. Rereading this post tells me that I’m running out of ideas. Or am I?

As a writer or as a reader, do you want those little details to enhance the story? Do you want to feel like you’re walking through a blizzard with the character in the book?

Until next time, think about where you live and the types of things that go on around you. Maybe you’re not a writer, but can you use your imagination and come up with a story about your day (in the rain, snow, or whatever)?

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