March 28, 2012

How I Write A Novel: Post Two, Research

Okay, so today we will talk about the next step in my novel writing process. Once I've gotten my folder, pens, notepads and character studies out of the way, I start kicking around ideas for the actual scenes and events that might make their way into my rough draft. This process doesn't always happen during a formal writing period. I usually brainstorm these things while I'm in the shower or driving kids to and from school, or sitting in bed waiting to fall asleep. Basically anytime that I am doing something other than writing, I am working things out in my head. I am asking myself questions and trying at the answers (I say trying because I end up with a lot of go nowhere thoughts at first). It's almost like wading into a deep pool. I can see the story floating out there somewhere in the water, but I can't get to it properly until I acclimate myself to the pool's temperature and slowly sink in up to my chin so to speak.

 I would say that from the very onset of nailing down my characters and the general set up of the story, the "what if" of it, I have at least a vague sense of how it'll end and some idea of the pathway there--it's just cloaked in fog. What is usually tougher for me is where it starts...but that isn't always true. My last manuscript, the one that is getting published, was the first one where the beginning line jumped out at me as soon as I knew what the story was about. That whole first chapter, although it changed a bit with time, basically is what it was in the first very, very rough draft. But that said, most of the time, including right now for the novel I'm working on this minute, I have no idea where to begin and have to write my way in--vomiting up vast amounts of back story and practice tries as I go that will NEVER MAKE IT INTO THE FINAL ROUGH DRAFT LET ALONE THE FINISHED PRODUCT.

 I'm getting ahead of myself, though, so let's back up.

While I'm brainstorming ideas for my book, I keep a pad of paper or a journal handy everywhere I go. I jot down notes whenever something comes to me. I literally meditate on the character and the original situation.Then after a day or so, I usually have a good start and I also have a good sense of what kinds of things I need to know in order to write these scenes. This is where the research comes in. Again, I can't get uber specific with my current WIP because it's a sequel so I'm going to use an old WIP that won't get published ever in it's current form (but whose idea, I think is still a good one and could be tweaked to work).

The idea started this way: I had a sort of vision of a girl sitting on a grouping of rocks by a waterfall and a mysterious boy standing on the riverbank opposite her. He was magnetic and mysterious and she was shy and awkward and very guarded. The boy wasn't from this world. He'd come from a passage beneath the waterfall. I knew that it would be a love story.

I knew that there would be huge insurmountable odds that these two would face and I knew that somehow this girl had ties of her own to this world the boy came from. But this is basically all I knew when I started drafting. I named my character--Jenna Peters--because she is ultimately sensible and grounded and so not into anything fanciful or otherworldly and I thought Jenna Peters reflected those traits nicely. Then I brainstormed. I kicked ideas around. I asked myself questions like: Why is this boy in our world? What is Jenna's connection to this other place? How do the rules of the passage work? What will this other world be like? What is Jenna's family life like? How does she come to be at this waterfall in the first place? How will the attraction that they feel for each other drive the plot? Where is the best place to set the story? And the thing is, I usually don't have everything nailed down and all these questions answered by the time I start drafting. I just know that these questions have to get answered.

Now that I have my questions list, I decide what I'll need to research. In this case, the story is mostly fanciful, but will still require hours of intense research to get it right(no matter what story I write, I research A LOT. By now I've decided that the waterfall is in a remote area, near a small town and should be in a very dense forest. So I have to find a real geographical place that meets this criteria. I want it to be on the East Coast somewhere because honestly, that's where I've always lived and I figured that maybe I might be able to actually visit my chosen site at some point without breaking the bank. I did some googling and landed on Highlands, North Carolina--a very small, but quaint and scenic town located by several waterfalls and situated on a plateau in the middle of a huge forest.

 Once I saw pictures of the area, I knew it was the right place. I loved the sort of magical quality it already posessed and the unique geographical aspects. I spent hours watching videos of people driving the roads that led in and through town (amazing how much is out there research-wise...God bless the internet). Just watching the videos and reading about the town got me into the story even more. I began to feel the setting which is why I always research my settings (even though I won't always describe it in the manuscript in more than a few sentences, I do the research mostly for me). I began to see it through my character's eyes and figure out how she felt about it. I had also decided that my other world would have a sort of medeival feel to it, so I needed to look at castles and really see how they were situated on the surrounding land. When I saw pictures of La Mont Saint Michel in France, they spoke to me, really got my creative juices flowing. This picture in particular, I loved...and it eventually informed the story because I ultimately decided that this other world's moon cycle would dictate the opening and closing of the passage to our world. I also loved the way the surrounding buildings spun out from around the castle itself and the look and feel of it's streets.

I researched other things as well, mostly setting oriented because with this particular story the setting really does play a big part in getting the tone and feel right. Once I knew that the story would take place in Highlands, I realized how close Highlands was to the Biltmore in Asheville and realized that it's very French and castle-like exterior might serve as a good foil to this other world, a hint of it in our own world (sometimes it's almost scary how many cool coincidences start happening as you're brainstorming or researching, almost like the story is guiding you). By now I had begun to realize that Jenna's connection to this world was her mother. She ran from it and it's king decades before. She stumbled upon the Biltmore as she wandered this world and would ultimately revisit it because it was almost a beacon for her and others like her, a comforting reminder of their home. There would be some echo of her there, some clue for Jenna that her mother had secrets. 

I take at least a week to do my initial research. Now this doesn't mean that I won't do more research as the need crops up. I might need to know about weather conditions in certain months or street names, or I might need to look up certain hobbies--like running, which is Jenna's favorite past time. I just research what I'm sure I'll need to know initially and in turn, that research usually creates new details, events, and scenes in my story. Basically, it helps immerse me in this world I'm creating, in both of them in this case, and I begin to put myself in my character's head which is the only way that I can get ready to draft. I used to feel guilty for spending hours online watching videos or looking up pictures of places, but now I know that it is absolutely necessary. I can't get into the story deeply enough otherwise and nine times out of ten, I will have a much more developed sense of where to begin once I start drafting after I've done my research. And from time to time, I'll revisit some of that research, especially the photos and videos to help keep my head where it needs to be and to reinvigorate my creative juices when I'm stuck. It helps a lot. To me, now, this is actually one of the most critical periods during the early stages of my process.

One Thing That I Don't Do:

I don't read any fiction that even remotely resembles what I'm working on.  I don't want to have any preconceived notions about what I'm trying to create.

So, there you have it. This is the next step in my what's yours?


  1. Interesting!

    The first thing I need to have clear in my mind is my setting. I'll either set the story in a place I've been, or create a town/city based on places I know, because it's really important for me to get the feel of the place right.

    Once I have the feel down, I can leave most of my research to do as I go. For this story I will be researching veterinary procedures, killer whales and myths and legends of the Pacific Northwest.

    In this initial period I will consume a lot of media that either reminds me of my story or is set in a similar location, because it's important for me to know the tropes and what's been done before.

    I've loved reading how you approach writing a novel, Amy. Keep it up!

    1. I think it's neat how your process differs. I do a little research as I go, but sounds like you are able to start your story quicker than me. Loved hearing about your process!

  2. I did comment on the first section of this post. Can't remember what I said - I expect your spam filter detected my waffle and popped it in the spam folder : D

    Anyway, a LOT of this is so similar to what I do it's scary! I constantly think about the story before I write it - most often in the shower or when driving.

    And just two days ago I was doing some research that led to a cool cooincidence that made me feel super smug about some details in my WiP. It's like it's meant to be when stuff like that happens : )

    1. Weirdly, I looked and your last comment showed up in my email, but not here. I think we both probably do the shower/driving thing because it's the only time we get in between: Mom, can you tie my shoe? Mom, she won't leave me alone, and Mom, where are my favorite shorts?

      I love the coincidence thing too. It's almost magical and makes you feel like even the universe wants this story written:-)

    2. It had better want this one written because it's coming out pretty nicely so far!! I <3 my WiP :)