Researching Setting for Fiction Writers

I remember when, in the midst of finishing up my thesis (a labor of love), someone said that doing a creative thesis must be easy because it didn’t require any research.

What? I was floored. I’d done a lot of research for that manuscript, and I continue to. Even writing a fantasy novel requires research. I’ve studied everything from mythology to martial arts to swords to types of knots. But since I write urban fantasy that bridges our world and other worlds, much of my research is setting specific.

We can’t always write novels based in places we’ve lived. I love where I grew up (Western PA) and where I live now (Virginia), but I’m not prepared to base every story in those places. Sometimes, the story dictates a different setting.

When you create your own world, it’s coming from your head (or the creative ether, however you look at it), so you don’t have to worry which highway a character would take to get from point A to point B or how long the drive is. As long as your world is clear and consistent within a story or series, you’re good to go.

But place is a strong and emotional thing. It’s not just a matter of fact-checking. We form deep, emotional connections to places we love and live in, and those seemingly tiny details can draw readers out of a story if they’re not correct.

What kinds of details do we need to worry about when researching a setting?

Geography: It’s not the most exciting stuff, but we need to know the highways and byways. If your characters take Route 101 and there isn’t any such road in that region, people familiar with that place will know. The names of districts, famous landmarks, parks, rivers, etc. are important to people from the area (or who simply love that place), so doing research–even if it’s just a thorough use of Google Maps or Earth–is essential. Looking at pictures can also help you capture the essence of a place. The Shenandoah Valley and the Great Smokies feel and look different, for example.

Flora and fauna: I grew up in the country, so this kind of thing is important to me. I want to hear about the cherry blossoms, the daffodils, the white-tailed deer, the birdsongs, the coyote yelps, or the jack-o-pines. I highly recommend books like “The North American Wildlife Guide.” It’s helpful to know the range of a given species, for example. But we also need to know about things like the seasons (my hometown in PA frequently gets snow in late March and April; where a friend lives in New Mexico, it was 100 degrees last week) or the common types of birds, wildlife, and trees (lots of pines in one place, a plethora of birches in another).

Local flavor: I love to travel, and my favorite part is that every place has its own unique flair. I love tiny beach towns with their hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurants, big cities with everything to offer and their famous locales, college towns where even the license plates have school spirit. The setting should never overwhelm the story. (If we’re in San Francisco, you don’t have to shout it. Ubiquitous references to the Golden Gate Bridge aren’t necessary.) Subtle is necessary, but authenticity in tiny details is key. It’s everything from architecture (the houses in a Western PA mining town are not the same style you’d find in New Hampshire, for example) to roadways (PA is in an unending state of road construction) to food. Keep it authentic, but be sure to avoid cliches and stereotypes. If you’re going to go for colloquialisms, keep them subtle and remember that not everyone from a region uses them, or uses them frequently. (Personal disclaimer: My cousins used to knock my accent, so, though I’m proud of my heritage, I’m a bit sensitive about this subject.)

Making it up: It’s okay to make up a shop, a hotel, or a restaurant. A made-up street or address is useful to avoid using a real address. There’s nothing wrong with inventing a new-age shop or a burger joint to insert into your story, as long as it fits into that town.

The law: Every state (and country, if you’re going global) not only has its own unique flavor, but its own set of laws. Some states (or cities) are stricter about enforcing speed limits. Certain types of weapons are illegal in some states. Pennsylvania doesn’t have a law requiring bikers to wear motorcycle helmets, but many states do. Everything from traffic laws to marriage laws to statutes of limitations varies from one state to another. Legal intricacies mostly come into play if you’re writing suspense or a legal thriller, but knowing the law in your chosen location is important.

Tiny details: There are other details that require research. For example, in MADE OF SHADOWS, the heroine, Zoe, played rugby in college. I had to make sure that the school I chose as her alma mater actually had a women’s rugby team. (Not every school does.) If your character works in or has studied a specialized field, making sure that university actually offers the degree is a must. If your character has a specialization in ceramics, biomedical engineering, or Celtic studies, it’s best to make sure that university offers that degree program. If we goof on the minutiae, our readers might start to question other parts of the story.

So besides this wonderful thing called the Internet and our stacks of books, how do we ensure that we’re getting it right? Any suggestions? As for me, I might not be the most adventurous person out there, but I’m always game for a road trip.

The Tax Man Cometh, Writer’s Edition

ImageAs we scratch our heads to recall the difference between a 1098 and a 1099, the writing life adds a whole other layer of complexity to filing our taxes. We’ve slaved away, dreaming of the day we’d see our darling stories in print. And then the day comes. And with it, comes the taxes.

As a disclaimer, I’m a writer by trade—whether writing feature articles or romance novels. This article is intended to be food for thought. Definitely, definitely consult a tax professional before you take any steps tax-wise. I spoke with my tax-preparer about preparing for the days when I’m actually earning an income as a writer, and I thought I’d share some of what I learned with my fellow writers.

A few tax caveats for writers:

1.)    Quarterly taxes. In the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, most writers are self-employed. And as if filing annually wasn’t stressful enough, you may be required to file quarterly. If you don’t, you could be stuck with penalties when you finally do file. According to the IRS, “As a self-employed individual, generally you are required to file an annual return and pay estimated tax quarterly.” Visit the IRS’s website for the self-employed to see where you fall and read the guidelines.

2.)    Hobby vs. business. The IRS is skeptical about people trying to pass off a hobby as a business. One of the criteria is that you must earn a profit three out of five years. So if you write off expenses for your writing career before you actually have an income stream, in a few years, your writing career could be relegated to the hobby category—at least, for tax purposes. To determine if your writing career currently qualifies as a business, click here.

3.)    Business expenses. Being a writer is an expensive business. Paying for trade publications, professional membership dues, conference registration and travel expenses, advertising expenses, or website design and maintenance could all legitimately be written off as business expenses, but in the event of an audit, be prepared to prove how it benefited your business. Keep careful track of your expenses in case you’re audited, and make sure to note how a given expense directly benefited your career. It’s a really complex process, so consulting a tax professional could definitely be to your advantage.

4.)    The home office pitfall. Most writers work from home, so it’s tempting to write off the expenses associated with a home office. But if your office isn’t used exclusively as an office for your writing, you might want to steer clear. Rooms that double as a guest room, living room, or dining space don’t count, in the eyes of the IRS.

I’m not yet ready to declare my writing a business for tax purposes, but I’d like to be prepared when I get there. For those of you who are published, what tips do you have for managing your taxes as a writer?

A snow-covered ROW80 check-in

I’m writing to you from Southwest Virginia, where I’m currently trapped in a snow globe–I mean, uh, snowstorm. And not really trapped, since the weather has been so mild and thus, the ground is fairly warm. So, from the sort-of winter wonderland, here’s my check-in for the week.

Spent most of the week writing and combing through Chapter 2 and part of Chapter 3 of Made of Shadows. My initial rewrite of the “meet cute” for Zoe and Blake posed some problems (i.e., messed up the following parts of the plot, which were actually working just fine). Thanks to some stewing today, I’ve located the problem. Then I’m off!

I’ve been reading some of the 43 Light Street books by Rebecca York. I saw her speak at a Virginia Romance Writers meeting last year and learned a lot from her talk. Her books are really addictive and her plots are very character driven, so I’ve been reading some of her work (currently, Guarding Grace) to study how she allows the suspense element of the plot to drive the story forward, while providing plenty of space for romance. This approach actually helped me find the flaw in my meet-cute scene because I realized that’s not how a given character would react to a particular development.

My ROW80 goals:

  • I revised Chapter 2 and part of Chapter 3. I revised Chapter 2 a few times and am proud to have worked the kinks out before I move forward.
  • I’m spending more time on Twitter, taking breaks in the morning at work and before I write in the afternoon, but I haven’t carved out a space for Facebook check-ins yet.
  • Read a lot of awesome blogs this week, but always on the run, so I haven’t started doing regular “mash-ups of awesomeness” yet.
  • Need to work on bio critiques for my Team WANA1011 peeps and immerse myself in a few manuscripts I need to critique as well.

I am still looking for a place of balance, where day job, writing, social media, household management, relationships, social life, exercise/nutrition can all coexist. Looking at that list, LOL, it doesn’t look good. By year’s end, I plan to have not one but two manuscripts ready for query. I will get there. Whether I’ll find a sense of calm within the chaos…well, that remains to be seen. 🙂

Since tomorrow is President’s Day, I’m hoping to spend the day at home, doing a few random things for day job and plunging into Made of Shadows. We’ll see if my boss forces me to clean the snow off my car tomorrow.

How are your writing goals going?

Looking Forward in 2012 and New ROW80 Goals

 

“I have desired, like every artist, to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world.” –W.B. Yeats

In light of some of the developments in so far in 2012, I’ve decided to revise my goals for the first round of ROW80. After writing my first set, I realized that I had a lot of goals that I hadn’t actually written down. And, since I’ll be attending the Virginia Romance Writers’ For the Love of Writing Conference in May, I also need to set Pierce My Heart aside for a while so I have enough time to polish up Made of Shadows for the conference.

Halfway through February, I’m not sure how I’m doing on my New Year’s resolution. My resolution isn’t so much a personal challenge as it is a necessary lifestyle change. I realize I’ve been letting go of the some elements of life that are core to who I am: my artistic, creative side and my spiritual side. My stories come from a deep well within, and it’s hard to hear them when I listen to the voices that insist I’m better off using my creative energies in other ways. I like public relations writing, but I need to write stories.

Storytelling is a lot like gardening. You plant seeds, nurture them throughout the year, and have faith that your hard work will produce a bountiful harvest. That harvest won’t just provide sustenance for the winter. It will also provide seeds for next spring. I’ve yet to find another line of work that provides me with that fulfillment.

There’s a post-it stuck to my refrigerator bearing this quote from Buddha:

“Your work is to discover your work and then, with all your heart, give yourself to it.”

Whatever our art, whether it’s cooking, gardening, programming, nursing, writing, or painting, each of us has a dharma, a path in life that fits us best. We become the best possible versions of ourselves when we find and live our dharma. What have you, with all of your heart, given yourself to? What bold steps have you taken in life to achieve your dreams?

The worst thing we can do is to do things in life because we think they are what others expect of us or because we want to prove something. I realized late last year that I’d spent too much time trying to prove something to myself. I’d moved away from what really mattered. 2012 is all about giving myself to my life’s work: my stories.

My goal for 2012 is to complete query-ready drafts of my two WIPs, Made of Shadows and Pierce My Heart. I’d also like to draft another story as well, but if by December, I’m querying those two pieces, I’ll be satisfied with that. I’d also like to continue building my author platform.

In light of those developments and revelations, here are my new ROW80 goals:

1.)    Revise three chapters of Made of Shadows per week, so this manuscript is ready to go for the writing conference in May.

2.)    Blog at least twice per week. (I might up this to three times per week later in the year.)

3.)    Stop by Twitter once or twice per day, excluding Sundays.

4.)    Check in on Facebook once a day, except Sundays.

5.)    Read three blog posts per day, except Sundays.

6.)    Complete two bio critiques per week for my fellow Team WANA1011 members.

Well, here it goes. How are everyone else’s writing goals coming along?

Stranger than Fiction: Imbolc and lessons from winter

Today the Wiccan community celebrates Imbolc. Though we’re still in the midst of winter, with the potential for Nor’easters and cold days ahead, and though Punxsutawney Phil hasn’t emerged to peek at his shadow yet, we can still catch a glimpse of spring.

The cold days teach us to be grateful for the warm ones. The long nights teach us to be grateful for the sunrise. The days are steadily getting longer, preparing us once more for the equinox, with its equal day and equal night.

I’ve had one of those stranger-than-fiction weeks, a series of strange occurrences that I never could’ve imagined. As a journalist, I also call these moments “man bites dog.” (Because, when a dog bites a man, that is not news. But when a man bites a dog, that is news.)

Failure can be the foundation for success, and pain, the foundation for growth. In fact, as most of us know, we learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. As Jane Hirschfield writes in her poem “Waking the Morning Dreamless After Long Sleep”:

“But with the sentence: ‘Use your failures for paper.’ Meaning, I understood, the backs of failed poems, but also my life.”

Sometimes the winter seems too cold to bear. One lesson I’ve learned from the past week is that, as we walk through our days, we are often blind to how much pain the people around us are holding in. No one can carry that pain for them. No one can bear the winter’s cold but the person outside in the snow. But the flowers emerge following the spring’s thaw. Hirschfield goes on to say:

“I do not know where the words come from, what the millstones, where the turning may lead. I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples, putting pages of ruined paper into a basket, pulling them out again.”

If we didn’t know winter, would we celebrate the spring? The best we can do with our failures is to learn from them, to build a better version of ourselves, to work toward recognizing that, despite pain, loss, and mistakes, we are still whole. I don’t believe we need to become whole. I think we need to realize we already are. The best we can do with the bad weather is to understand its place in the cycle of things and to smile when the sun rises. May your Imbolc hint of spring days to come, a reminder of light, healing, and the cycle of the seasons.

Life is a crazy journey. And you can quote me on that.

Wednesday ROW80 check-in

A short post today. I’ve written 1,302 words so far this week. I’m not blogging in-depth tonight because I’m recovering from a migraine. Hopefully I’ll have a more fun and exciting post for everyone on Friday!

How are your writing goals coming along this week?

And, so I don’t leave anyone empty-handed, a quote:

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” –Richard Wright

Sunday ROW80 and This Week in Review

Friday, I blogged about how nebulous Pierce My Heart, my latest WIP, has been feeling. I can see the potential in this story. I know what it can be, and I know it will get there. So the reason I was stuck felt beyond elusive. And I received some good advice about getting my creativity mojo back.

I started out Saturday with a character Q&A. I didn’t exactly learn anything earth-shattering about the character in question, but I realized that there was a strong theme in this story—one of self-discovery and acceptance—that I’d been overlooking.

The floodgates opened. Saturday’s writing session turned out to be more along the lines of my usual ones. And it brought this week’s writing total way past the goal of 3K. In fact, my word-count this week is more in line with the 4-7K I usually write.

A few of you directed me to some great resources that I want to mention here. First, Matthew Wright, whose most recent blog post about Tolkien provides some insights into contrasting the quiet, pedestrian aspects of life with the more extraordinary, larger-than-life moments. And second, Holly Lisle’s “One-pass Manuscript Revision.” Holly deftly deconstructs the notion that we need to revise our manuscripts 20 times before they’re ready. She writes:

“Doing a seventeenth revision on a project does not make a writer an artist or move him above the writer hoi polloi any more than dressing entirely in black or wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches or big, black drover coats. These are all affectations, and smack of dilettantism. Real writers, and real artists, finish books and move on to the next project.”

And my weekly word-count, in summary:

  • Monday: 958
  • Tuesday: 0
  • Wednesday: 615
  • Thursday: 851
  • Friday: 0
  • Saturday: 2,055
  • Sunday: 0

That’s a total of 4,479 words, well above my goal of 3,000. And I blogged Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, meeting my second goal.

How are your goals going? Are you gaining momentum for 2012?

Finally, here’s a quote to kick off a new week:

“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Out of the Story’s Nebula: Structure in the Second Draft

Every manuscript is its own creature. Some stories are upfront, divulging so much information your fingers can’t type fast enough.

The first draft of Pierce My Heart, a meager 15K, was meant to be a concise introduction to the fae and their world. But my crit group pointed out that I could do one of two things: Scale back the conflict and keep it short, or dig into a more complex plot and expand.

I chose to expand. Pierce My Heart weaves together a dark, gritty who-done-it and a love story. Lithe and Garien’s potential romance is fraught with conflicts, namely, Lithe’s status as an outsider. Lithe’s chief conflict is a struggle within herself to face and accept who she is. The murder that she and Garien must solve serves as an external reminder of that conflict and why she can’t give herself to Garien.

When I sat down to write draft two, something strange happened with this story.

It sort of, well, opened up, and blew apart. It went from a tight little story to this nebulous creature I can’t pin down.

And strangest of all, I can’t shake the feeling that my characters—or the story itself—are hiding something from me.

There are several things of which I am sure:

1. This is a good story with plenty of potential. The pieces are there, even if I can’t figure out how they fit together.

2. The issue is one of form and structure.

3. I am overlooking something, and it will drive me crazy until I figure out what.

4. I am capable of figuring out what that something is.

So, fellow writers, have you been there? What do you do when a story enters the nebula, when you feel like you’re missing something but you don’t know what? How do you help the manuscript find or retake its shape?

A few days ago, I mentioned on Twitter that my “creative mojo” appeared to be missing. Debra Krager (@debrakristi) sagely advised: “You need a mojo lifter? Maybe a weekend off. Do something different and fun to find it.” She also blogged about this very subject here. (Timing really is everything.)

Somehow I have to work this weekend (day-job stuff). I’m not thrilled, but deadlines are deadlines, and no one’s going to hold the presses so I can have some fun.

But heck, maybe I’ll squeeze it in anyway. Perhaps a dose of silly creativity will give me the jolt I need to put the pieces together.

How to Evoke the 5 Senses and Create a Meditation Space

Meditation can take our lives from drowning in deadlines to sailing on a sea of tranquility. Carving out a special space for the practice, which can take the shape of anything from a simple yoga sequence to guided imagery to reflection on a religious passage, means we’re more likely to take a few minutes each day to ground ourselves and reflect. The practice allows us to cultivate relaxation, gratitude, and awareness.

I take my own life as the perfect example: I’ve spent this week on a tight deadline for an article for work. I know as soon as I finish this story, several more will emerge from the sidelines to take its place. Between dog-walking, doctor’s appointments, paying the cell phone bill, and cooking dinner, how do we find time to focus on nurturing our deeper selves? Between jobs and hobbies, friends and family members, eating and exercising, how do we make a space to reflect?

The first step can be a small one. We simply make a place for that reflection. What better way to ensure we meditate than to create a space in our home–whether it’s a small corner or an entire room–especially for this practice? Here’s a guide to creating a meditation space, one sense at a time.

Floor pillows, available at www.westelm.com.

Floor pillows, available at http://www.westelm.com.

1.)  Touch: For meditation, comfort is key. Few of us can meditate while seated in an uncomfortable high-backed dining chair. Meditation requires a mix of focus and relaxation. Touch means comfortable surroundings. A floor cushion, folded blanket, or yoga mat provides the necessary foundation for good practice. Add comfy clothes (my go-to is yoga pants and a tank top) and just say “om.”

2.)  Smell: Scent is powerful. It can ignite the first spark of attraction or trigger a memory. Lightly scented candles can set the scene for a meditation, though overwhelming smells or chemical fragrances can trigger migraines or asthma attacks for some. If the smoke of incense isn’t your thing, consider a much more subtle alternative: an aroma diffuser, such as these, sold at Mountain Rose Herbs, which also offers an assortment of essential oils. Add a few drops of the essential oil of your choice–anything from eucalyptus to bergamot to lavender–and allow the scent to waft through the room. Electric diffusers that use a light bulb instead of a tea-light candle are also available from other retailers.

3.)  Sound: Few things are as personal as our taste in music or the sounds that produce a sense of relaxation. This can be a Tibetan singing bowl or a gong, so that you’re in charge of the sound; a podcast of nature sounds, anything from bird songs to ocean waves; the soft strains of Vivaldi; or complete and utter silence. Even if you’re in a space that’s normally full of the hustle and bustle of the household, try to make it as quiet and serene as possible. Not even the most disciplined of us can truly focus on a meditation exercise when surrounded by a cacophony of car horns and crying children. Having music or nature sounds also gives us something to focus on. That way, if our minds wander, we have something to draw us back into our practice.

4.)  Sight: Don’t forget to set the stage for tranquility. Anything from the art on the walls–whether you fancy the pastel hues of Claude Monet or the black-and-white nature photos of Ansel Adams–to the statues and knickknacks we surround ourselves with helps us relax into a receptive state of mind. A small, low table can become a makeshift altar when we add a few meaningful items. Houseplants or fresh-cut flowers, statues of deities, inspiring artwork, and relaxing colors can all play a role in finding our inner zen. If you can paint the walls, bright red probably isn’t the way to go. Cool tones like blues or greens, earth tones like adobe or khaki, or a middle-of-the-road hue like purple whisper (not shout) zen.

5.)  Taste: Taste doesn’t typically come into play when creating a space for tranquility. But consider brewing yourself a pot of green tea to have nearby. At the very least, pour yourself a glass of filtered tap water. (Bottled water consumes more natural resources than water straight from the tap.)

Whether you have an entire floor or a small nook, an hour each morning or a few minutes each evening, setting aside a time and a place for meditation can benefit body, mind, and soul. Creating a space for meditation practice encourages us to carve out that time in our busy lives. The practice can rejuvenate our creativity, alleviate stress and anxiety, and help us head off stress-sensitive conditions like high blood pressure, migraines, and depression. Create your space one breath, one object, and one sense at a time. Then relax and enjoy.

Unwritten Bios: How the Places We Live Shape Us

“These fields stretch out like patchwork on my granny’s quilt. She used to tell me, ‘Life is a series of strange and mysterious things.’” –Jewel, “1,000 Miles Away”

The view from Buffalo Mountain in Southwest Virginia

I’m from western Pennsylvania, a distant and strange land also known as Steelers Country. Two college degrees, countless travels, and a few moves later, those mountains still live inside me. I know people who are ashamed of where they come from. And I can’t be. I’m grateful. My ancestors—who came from Ireland and Germany to settle in Pennsylvania in the mid-19th century—made incredible sacrifices for me to have a shot at my dreams. I’ve always known how hard they worked and how much they gave, and I’ve always given life, love, and art all I’ve got.

My great-grandfather worked in the coal mines; most people in my hometown (which is named after the freakin’ coal company, no lie) can trace their roots to the coal companies in some way. It was a shit job, too. He once walked home on a broken ankle. Another time, his clothes burned off in a fire. He was a coal digger before he finally landed a “safe” job riding the back of the cart that went down into the mines to be loaded up with coal. He had to jump off the cart and flip a switch that determined which set of tracks the cart would go down. One day, not long after landing his “safe” job, he was killed when the cart jumped the tracks and pinned him. He was 40 years old. My grandmother told me, point blank, “He had a horrible, miserable life.” I wish he’d had better. If he sacrificed so his children and children’s children and on down the line could have better, I am eternally grateful for it. I try never to waste a day of it.

Now, I’m glad I don’t live in western PA anymore. There wasn’t anything left for me there. The job market had dried up, and my hometown didn’t have much to offer, not even a bookstore. But I still carry the stories of my ancestors with me. Because of their sacrifices, I’ve had amazing chances. I’ve earned two colleges degrees, taught at a major research university, and, best of all, had the chance to practice the craft of writing. I’m a storyteller, and that is an amazing gift, one for which I am eternally grateful.

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been nearly six years since I left my hometown. It feels like so much longer. Today, my life is full of a new place, the beautiful mountains of Virginia and the small town I currently call home. No matter where I go, this place will stay with me.

The places we live, even if we leave them, remain inside us. They get under our skin, shaping us in ways we can’t understand until we’re away. I learned about magic and possibilities in the mountains surrounding my family’s farm. I also saw firsthand how fragile the land is, how irreplaceably precious. I’ve seen slag heaps so high they look like mountains themselves and water permanently tainted sulfuric orange thanks to acid mine drainage. But there are many places where the land is not scarred, and unspeakable beauty dwells there: ferns and grapevines, maple and apple trees, and tiny creeks swollen with clear water in the spring.

Today, nature infuses my stories. I can’t help but let it. In so many ways, my stories are born in the natural world. A full moon, a constellation, morning mist at the brow of the mountain, a tree’s gnarled roots, or the ocean’s lullaby—these are the birthplaces of my stories.

What is your unwritten story? How have the places you’ve lived left their traces on your soul?