Archive for October, 2010

Research, cont.

Assuming we’ve all read enough about the need for research to fill volumes and are convinced of this awesome duty to our craft, this essay will attempt to address research as a career technique rather than an overwhelming gathering of facts that may never see the light of page, our page anyway.

Let’s deal this hand with an honest deck. Many of us disliked history in junior high, hated it in high school and skimmed by by the seat of our pants in college with essay tests we used our considerable talents as writers to pass. Why? The material was offered in dry, factual, third grade English. We were expected to remember stories on a par with Jack and Jill Went Up The Hill. And if that wasn’t too much, we had to know the date they made it to the top as well. Boring? Oh yes! But history isn’t boring, not in the movies. Not in the books we embellish with our characters either. Oh, but here we are again, unlikely historians.



For a writer, there is no escaping the need for careful attention to detail–detail involving research. It doesn’t matter that our setting is imagined, our characters out-of-space aliens or even in-space aliens; if our story does not ring true, does not have elements of credibility anchored to shreds of reality, our tale will fail the audience.

Research can be fun for some of us history buffs, curiosity seekers, gossips, but it is intimidating hard work for the rest of us. Most writers fall somewhere between the three categories who find that research can be fun. Unfortunately, most of us are strapped for time making the need for systematic recording and organization of material a must.

Tools of Setting

Do you always scan your stories with the following tools of setting?

1. Characteristics of Genre.

2. Backstory.

3. Factual information.

4. Advancement of plot.

5. Credible effects on character.

6. Viewpoint.

7. Mood.

Tomorrow we will start a new topic: Research. Oh yeah, you can find all the info you need on the internet. Maybe and maybe not.

Checklist for Setting

____  Have someone else read your story setting chapter by  chapter. Ask them to describe your setting.

____ What feelings did your reader experience while reading your story? Are these emotions those you expected your story to invoke?

____ What general mood should your story convey? Lightly humorous with romance, inspirational, suspenseful? Did your reader come away thus affected?

____ Reread the story yourself. How do your story’s characters’ life-styles, personality traits or experiences color what they see? Does this move your plot in the direction you intended? If not what changes are needed?

____ Is the overall impression of your material in agreement with your original inception? What changed? Is the change acceptable?

____ Have used a prevailing cultural attitude in a history setting? Do diversons from that attitude work? Are they credible–believable?

____ Did you use contrasts in describing setting?

____ Did you find a device to add some recurring aspect of setting to use as a focal point to direct or return your reader’s attention to an imposing event?

____ Whose viewpoint did you use to describe setting? Would a different viewpoint create a better fit for the genre of your interest, or a fuller flush of that plot? (It’s a good exercise to look at our setting from a different character’s point of view. We can discover personality traits in our characters that we may have previously been unaware; ergo, we as writers learn from our characters and may discover elements of our story that even we didn’t know or understand.)

Let us throw out ideas like:

1. Any jolting experience that makes looking at life from some new perspective inevitable.

2. A reason to smell the roses for the first time or again (perhaps we’ve spent some time in confinement, solitary in prison or even the hospital or a nursing home.) Maybe a bite from the love bug, or a tragedy could effectually cause a character change. Just make it credible within that character. Usually, if we are able to live comfortably with the change in our special protege, our readers will too.

3. Everyday things take on new meaning. Having a baby comes to mind as a real harbinger of responsibility.

Sometimes, though, it’s the lack of change in our lives that makes us behave differently and even change personality.

Place and Time are certainly broader subjects than we imagined. In fact, we learned that we can breathe life into our story, move our plot, motivate or change our characters–all with a device called Setting–a powerful tool that exercise and careful attention to detail will make experts of us all.

Example: Sam Gear, former college all-star athlete still frequents the gym religiously and takes pride in his physical fitness. Just three months from his forty-fifth birthday, our story opens with Sam recovering from triple bypass heart surgery. While still in the hospital he’s served divorce papers initiated by his loving, devoted wife of fifteen years. From shock to bewilderment to pain, these sudden turns of events will certainly have some effect on the psyche of our main character.

Pretty old hat, huh? Let us throw out some other ideas.

Setting to Change Character

How about using change of setting to effect a change in character? Can that work? Of course it can as long as the change in both place and character are credible within the plot outline or story and the inner psychology of the character affected. Some research may be involved here.

Most important in this particular device is deciding what event could plausibly unhinge our character enough to create an atmosphere where character change is not just desirable but necessary. This can feasibly be done by moving our character to a new environment or changing, significantly, the one in which he now lives.

What If?

What if someone bombed the Federal Center in Oklahoma City? How would that change lives of loved ones effected? What if peach growers in South Carolina are wiped out because of drought or infestation? How does this event impact Sadie’s jam and jelly business? We can see how calamity can move our plot along even while our main characters are at rest. What if? as a tension builder.

What if?:

1. We change the mood of our story by some happening.

2. We add new and endangering ingredients.

3. We create an unorthodox happening.

In summary, it’s a good idea to scrutinize our story environment or place to effect a desired move in plot.


Setting Again

We’ve looked at Time and Place as image makers or visuals; let’s take our visual one step further. Let us investigate using setting as a device to advance our plot. By emphasizing our setting in a fresh new way, we can engage cause and effect to produce twists and turns in our story. Hmmm, this could become interesting.


Before we proceed let us insert here one unmatchable aid for the writer of any story. The backstory. Time consuming, yes, but worth every moment spent. The backstory can be either a brief or detailed history (depending on character or historical importance) of our main characters and even our lesser characters and historical events (real or imaginary). Think of backstory as character sketches, artistic drawings in words of those important elements in our story that happened before our story opens. Backstory, although never appearing in our story except in brief glimpses sprinkled here and there, is the beginnings of setting. These sketches are the artist’s rendering of sets in the play that begins in our mind. Backstory is invaluable for continuity of character, and unfolding of plot. At least as important as outline, backstory rarely suffers revisions, while outline and plot may go the way of several revisions. Why? Because backstory is most usually, if not always, a cemented foundation from which our story springs.