Unearth story gems
Ever wondered how authors gather all the fascinating information you see in their stories? Is it fact or fiction? Well, put your ballet-flats on, because we’re going to sneak up on a few authors in action and peer over their shoulders to discover the truth.
Previously — in Artistic licence: from tweek a little to utter balderdash — I spoke about just how far an author can stretch reality and still get buy-in from readers. This time I’m going to investigate how to mine the truth from obscure sources, and use it like a smattering of diamonds to make your story sparkle.
Many authors expend a great deal of effort seeking the truth. (Some even utilise the librarian gene as a tool for procrastination.) Often gems of wisdom and previously un-thought-of details and subplots can emerge from the fascinating facts uncovered during research ventures. Still, there is a fine line to walk between adding authenticity and an information dump.
Nothing sends me in search of a cup of tea faster than the obvious injection of mind-numbing facts into a fictional story. I want to be transported to an exciting and emotionally anguished story with my new imaginary friends. So, it’s time to break out the old ice-berg principal. An author may unearth an enormous chunk of cold hard facts, but it’s advisable to only sprinkle 10% of them into the story. Just enough to make the story real to the reader.
Luckily, authors use research material in all sorts of ways, so from a single research bender ideas may stem for multiple stories, characters, underlying themes, or just details to add to existing plots.
Now that we know the truth is out there (sorry couldn’t help this X-files reference), how do authors find it? An author needs to be her own private investigator, to track mere traces of interest and root out the cause and effect. By collecting copious amounts of subject matter the author can understand it thoroughly, but just because she knows how to select the best gun, field strip and fire it, doesn’t mean the reader needs to.
Many authors build a library of information that is relevant to their genre. (Being able to lay her hands on the right piece of information at the appropriate time is another blog all together, where organisational and cataloguing techniques come into play.) All kinds of good stuff is buried deep, and these are the facts you want. Everyone else can Google the same subject and come up with the same initial list of resources and facts. What authors want is to scrape the icing off the cake to find out what the flavour is underneath. To dig deep for gems of fruit and chocolate chips that will make their story stand out from the rest.
Knowing which trails to follow and which to disregard is a skill honed over time, but gut feeling and a dash of speed reading will help no end. It’s a gift to be able to see unlikely subject connections and where apparently unrelated ideas intersect.
For example, you may be researching bathing habits of the 1400’s when you stumble across a newspaper article about a gentleman who drowned in his bath tub and wet foot prints that were too small to be his, were found at the scene. As you follow this research trail you discover hearsay about a female serial murderer, whose MO is drowning. Now there’s a great story waiting to be told.
This is the most obvious and prolific tool for seeking information, but not everything out there is fact. An astute author will always double-check important facts. When using search engines remember, less is more with key words. Although, more specific words will help reduce the white noise of irrelevant information.
Seek out experts in the subject matter and interview them. Make sure you prepare some questions and know what you want to get out of the exchange, because the interviewees time is as precious as yours. One of the benefits of face-to-face interviews is that you can explain what you are trying to achieve in your book. Often these discussions bring forth tangents of information that you didn’t know existed.
Ask your friends and acquaintances if they can help. You’ll be surprised what obscure subjects they know about, from sports to musical instruments, operating a back hoe to yoga.
Remember those heavy paper things that smell a bit musty and woody? Visit a library and rediscover them, because there’s a book on every topic you can think of. Come to think of it, there’s probably a magazine and a club too. Don’t stop there, delve into science and scholarly journals.
Time to peek over shoulders
Carla Caruso had to do research for her Astonvale cosy suspense series with Harper Collins. Carla read a newspaper article about some local women who worked in the industry and how they often became ‘accidental counsellors’, because going through people’s possessions can also mean dealing with a tonne of emotional baggage. From that, the idea for a mystery series just took hold and wouldn’t let go. What other job would have you going through the deep, dark corners of another person’s closet, under their bed and beyond?
Before she started writing, Carla interviewed a few professional organisers to find out about the nitty-gritty of their day jobs. She also read Gail Blanke’s book, “Throw Out Fifty Things”, which encouraged Carla to do a bit of a clean-out of her own!
Rowena Holloway undertook a time consuming language study for her latest release ‘All That’s Left Unsaid’. Now that’s dedication! She wanted to capture the cadence of the language so that her Italian characters sounded authentic and didn’t slip into cliché accents or overused Italian phrases. What Rowena discovered was so much more than verb drills. Her teacher explained the language through examples of Italian culture: “I learned that cappuccino is only consumed at breakfast, that when meeting it is customary to shake hands over the phrase ‘piacere’, and that when first names are exchanged a native Italian will say ‘now we speak to each other as friends’—a sign to use the less formal ‘tu’ forms of verbs when speaking. I also learned it takes more than a year of weekly lessons to master the language!”
Sandy Vaile (yes that's me). I interviewed a detective, coroner and fireman for my latest book, as well as drawing on my own experience as a cook, motorbike enthusiast, and with the devastation of alcoholism on families. Check out 'Inheriting Fear' here.