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If Walls Could Talk: Find Your Weird

M.H. Norris

A couple of years ago, I was getting ready to take a roadtrip when I discovered that Felicia Day had written an autobiography. Seeing that the audiobook was almost the length of my drive, I grabbed it and on that trip I listened. She was already an actress I liked, and I was excited to hear her story. After all, this was the point where I was really starting to embrace my inner nerd and she was known for embracing her weird.

After listening to her and hearing the similarities between our stories, I realized something. If she could make it, then maybe there was hope I could make it.

So how does one make their way into this field?

You do what Felicia Day did, and I try to: forge your own path, create your own place and don’t settle until you found it.

1. Find What Works for You

There are thousands, if not millions, of writing advice books, blogs, magazines–all of them telling you their thoughts and opinions on this craft. Anyone and everyone can tell you what works best for them. But you have to figure out what works best for you. That’s one reason I like the premise of this blog. I’m more or less telling you my thoughts and musings week to week with the intention that you know that that’s what it is.

I can tell you a lot of things about writing. But I can also tell you this. I’m still figuring out what’s best for me and sometimes it varies project to project.

2. Don’t Settle

Write what speaks to you. Chances are, it will speak to someone else.

Don’t let what you write be influenced by what “experts” say is selling, or won’t sell, or what they think is the next big thing. Here’s a fun fact that I don’t mention often these days, when I first started writing more seriously, I thought I was going to write Young Adult. I’m still not opposed to the idea of revisiting that idea some day. When I wandered into the field of murder mysteries, I honestly didn’t expect to find the home I’ve found in this genre.  But if you’re not embracing what you love to write, and are doing it because someone told that something was “in,” then you are failing yourself and your potential. That would be settling.

But, both Felicia Day and I have learned that things don’t always go according to the plans we make for our lives.

This is going to be one of those times where I’m very honest with you all. Over the last couple of years, I’ve struggled with figuring out just what it is I’m supposed to be doing.

Ultimately the dream, the goal, is to be able to write and what not full time. But until M.H. Norris can pay the bills, Mary Helen has to somehow. And while it may seem odd to refer to two different sides of me like that, sometimes they do feel miles apart. Maybe that’s part of me learning to “embrace the weird” and not stick to the status quo. Figuring out how to make the two mesh a little better. If you haven’t had the chance to read Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost) by (or listened to her read the audiobook), that is something I suggest you pick up and read.

Especially, if you’re like me and wondering where your place in the world is. Maybe her story can encourage you like it did me.

At Awesome Con last weekend, I had the privilege of finally meeting Felicia Day and I told her how she had been an encouragement to me, and that even though I was still trying to figure it out and find my way–her story encouraged me that I would. figure it out.

Let me leave you with her advice.

She told me to always be proactive, to try new things and to always be doing something.

So, what did my meeting with Felicia Day teach me about writing?

It told me to keep doing what I’m doing and to find my place in the crazy world of publishing. Felicia Day has seen the good and bad sides of the internet and I’ve seen the good and bad sides of the publishing industry.

But I’m finding my place. Mystery Maven, Sci-Fi Sorceress. Award-winning author and co-host of the Raconteur Roundtable. Titles I never imagined holding but now are ones I hold dear. Embrace your weird. Even if it’s not the one you expected.

Literary Archaeology: Food for Thought

Jon Black

As writers of historical fiction, we are always looking for tools which provide information about settings by showing rather than telling and that allow us to engage a readers’ other senses when bringing worlds to life.

The First Thanksgiving, an example of the powerful connection between food and history.

Food is distinctive by time and place, but eating is universal. All of us require sustenance. That means that eating is something readers can relate to … which is important in a genre like HistFic where relatable events and activities cannot always be taken for granted. At the same, because eating is universal but what is eaten and how it’s eaten are not, food allows HistFic writers pair the familiar with the exotic. In addition, I think there’s at least a little bit of a foodie in all of us and, therefore, we are fascinated by descriptions of what and how people at in the past.

As long as it is not overdone, descriptions of food and eating offer writers a very powerful tool. While not HistFic, consider the scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo and the Dwarves meet for the first time as an example of how a meal can powerfully set mood and atmosphere.

Below, I’ve expounded on a few thoughts about using food in HistFic.

The Columbian Exchange

For most of history, many foodstuffs we today think of as universal were known only to the Eastern or Western hemisphere. And those barriers did not instantly come down in 1492. Except as rare novelties, it is not realistic to have a food from one hemisphere impacting large swaths of society across the ocean until (generously) 1500 or (more conservatively) 1525 or even 1550. Potatoes and tomatoes, two of the ultimately most successful, took centuries to catch on after being labeled poisonous, un-Christian, or actively satanic.

Beware the “Devil’s Fruit.”

Select List of Foods Exclusive to One Hemisphere, Pre-1492

Eastern Hemisphere Foods: barley, cattle, chickens, coffee, cultivated honey, goats, millet, oats, okra, olives, onions, oranges, peaches, pears, peas, pigs, rice, sheep, sorghum, sugar cane, wheat.

Western-Hemisphere Foods: beans, coca, chilies, maize (corn), manioc, paprika, peanuts, pumpkins, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turkeys.

It should be noted the above lists are somewhat deceptive. In the century and millennia before the Columbian exchange, a given food was not necessarily known throughout its hemisphere. For example, the potato was unknown to North American groups and coffee generally unfamiliar outside of Arabia and parts of Africa. A regional breakdown of foods is, however, beyond the scope of this humble blog post.

Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?

Descriptions of food and dining in HistFic are often portray opulence or at least variety. Conversely, they can be shorthand for poverty, privation, or oppression. Consider the weevil-infested hardtack and salt pork (skin and hair often still attached) of the pre-industrial sailor. Or Oliver Twist’s celebrated gruel. Or the perpetually simmering porridge (“peas porridge hot”) that was standard fare for medieval peasantry.   

Eating Local

For most of history, food has been an intensely local affair except for the very wealthy. Refrigeration and improved transportation have conspired to gradually change that, making foods from around the around available to most people. For we who take such things for granted, therefore, it is worth briefly examining the history of refrigeration and transportation.

Ice harvesting in Massachusetts, circa 1850.

Refrigeration

The use of snow cellars and iceboxes used to preserved food dates back at least 3,000 years, with the earliest discovered examples coming from northern China. The systemic, widespread use of this process (known as ice harvesting) dates from the 1830s in North America. Inefficient and a largely experimental refrigeration machines, actually predate ice harvesting back to 1755. Such machines did not achieve commercial viability until the 1850s and didn’t really take off until the turn of the 20th century, when costs came down and concerns about pollution in naturally harvested ice grew.

Transportation

An expansive global shipping industry begins in the 18th century and accelerates drastically with the industrialization and advent of the steam ship in the 19th century. Effective inland transportation networks date from the construction of country-wide rail systems in the mid-19th century (slightly earlier in Britain, slightly later in some other locations) and enhanced by the emergence of comprehensive highway systems in the 1930s.

Home Cooking

On a practical level, what did all this mean for food before refrigeration and effective transportation? Canning and other forms of preservation like smoking and salting were practiced nearly ubiquitously. During winter months, such preserves could represent a significant portion of local diets. Unless preserved, meats and, especially, seafood were very much localized. The old maxim about “Only eating shellfish in months with an ‘R’ in them,” was not a quaint bit of folk wisdom. It was good way to avoid getting potentially lethal food poisoning (notice that months with ‘R’ tend to cluster in cold months and scrupulously avoid summer).

Resources

Let’s admit it, part of the fun of using food in HistFic is researching the recipes, drooling over them, and wondering “Hey, could I make that at home?” I’ll conclude with three good online resources for historical cooking.

The Historic American Cookbook Project: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/html/browse.html

Historic Cookbooks Online: http://www.angelfire.com/md3/openhearthcooking/aaCookbookindex.html

Savoring the Past: https://savoringthepast.net/2014/08/28/18th-and-early-19th-century-cookbooks-digital-searchable-and-free/

If Walls Could Talk: Why Wandering Characters Aren’t So Bad

M.H. Norris

There’s a perk to working with a character over the course of multiple stories.

The Experience of Writing Rosella [(c) Bill Keane]

Yes, I do believe you can really get to know a character over the course of a single story. But to go beyond that, to start a series, there is just something extra about developing a character. It’s one thing to do it from start to finish and not necessarily worry about the repercussions of whatever fun things you have awaiting your protagonist in the climax.

With a sequel, with a series even, you have to take that into consideration. How does whatever happened affect them from that point further? How does it help them grow their character?

There’s different circumstances from story to story and as a result, the character might react different or show a different side of themselves.

I experienced that with Rosella this week.

Writing a scene, I had an idea of something I wanted to do and I thought she would react one way. And then, she surprised me and acted in a way I didn’t expect. Now whether that was to stick it to me and prove she does what she wants, that remains to be seen.

But I found it fun, and it does oddly fit her.

I think I’ve discussed it before, but it’s been awhile so I’m going to mention it again. Characters can take over your story and gain a life of their own.

And they like to wander.

And it’s annoying.

Rosella did that to me, she wandered off on a rabbit trail and I didn’t know what she was doing, and why she went there, and what she could see that had caught her attention.

What can you do when they do that? When they take over a scene rather rudely and without permission and wander off on their own adventure within the carefully constructed tale you’ve put together.

There isn’t much you can besides follow along. Let them take you where they are going and see where it leads you. Because, sometimes they can have a lot of fun and take you in a direction you didn’t notice previously.

Following Rosella’s rabbit trail helped me to set-up something earlier than I originally thought I would be able to.

Developing characters to use over multiple stories brings challenges you don’t see with one offs and those are what sometimes pushes you to work just a bit harder.

One thing I hate is when a character goes through this fantastic adventure and grows and learns something and then the next time you see them, it’s like it never happened and they haven’t changed a bit.

It drives me mad.

People are the sum of their experiences. Characters are no different. These moments make them who they are. Two roads diverged in a road…

Sorry, the Robert Frost cliche does actually fit here.

And with writing a series character, you get to explore that in a way you normally couldn’t can. There’s all the experience that led them to the point of the beginning of the series. But then each and every story in the series builds them more. Giving them more opportunities to show who they are, and wonder off away from your plans.

It’s a good thing. Embrace it.

Worthy of Stories: Filles a la Casquette

J Patrick Allen

The Casket Girls

In the early eighteenth century, New Orleans was experiencing a population crisis. A request was sent to the king of France for women of a wholesome persuasion. In 1728, a ship docked bearing blessings courtesy of the Bishop of Quebec. I imagine that the men of New Orleans, licking their chops at the hope of finding a wife, were stunned by what walked off the gangplank. Thirteen emaciated, sickly women walked onto the dock, bearing all they owned in the world in thirteen casquettes—the equivalent of a trunk or luggage.

Alas, the nature of the men of the colony of Louisiana, harbored an ill fate for the girls. Though they were under the watchful protection of the local Ursuline nuns, many were placed into abusive marriages or forced into prostitution. New Orleans, it seems, had no use for women of virtue. Insulted and horrified, King Louis demanded their return at once.

The girls were being kept at this time on the third floor of the Ursuline convent on Rue Chartres. They were protected behind sealed windows and a sealed door lest—I assume—they flee to a sinful life. The casquettes, still full of the womens’ possessions, were left in the room for the women to collect their belongings for the journey back home. When the nuns returned for the girls, the casquettes were present but their owners—and the contents within—were not.

The third floor attic has since been supposedly sealed—by locks, by blessings, with the shutters closed with holy nails blessed by the Pope. Despite this, local legend frequently has the Casquette girls breaking free of their bound windows to stalk the night for fresh victims.

Stories tell of paranormal investigators caught in their sleep while watching the convent. Supposedly, the tapes caught a window on the third floor of the convent opening. The next morning there was hardly anything left of the investigators but a greasy smear. Of course, there are no official records of a murder of this kind. It may all be sensationalism invented by New Orleans’ very healthy tourism industry.

Still, the Filles a la Casquette are certainly worthy of stories.

Further Reading:

http://www.historiaobscura.com/tag/casket-girls/

http://wgno.com/2015/10/30/casket-girls-ursuline-nuns-how-did-vampires-come-to-new-orleans/

If Walls Could Talk: Polishing Your Pitch ‘Til It’s Perfect

M.H. Norris

“Canada Water Library Shelves” by Barney Moss

Sometimes, writers have to go back to basics. It’s been awhile since I pitched a short story idea cold turkey without having been asked to pitch an idea and I found myself a bit rusty. What do I say in a pitch? What details do I include? Seriously? Just a page?

Let’s preface this post with this, pitches and outlines are two of my least favorite parts of writing but they are necessary.

James, stop chuckling.

Let’s talk about the all-important pitch. You see a short story anthology, you want to be in said anthology. They ask for a one-page summary.

What do you do?

Don’t panic.

Yes, the bottom of that single page can and will feel extremely close.

Yes, you will be forced to cut things and you’ll hate everything because you think the things you are cutting are vitally important and the editor can’t possibly do without and how dare they expect you to limit your brilliance to just one page.

Yes, yes they do.

This pitch is your chance to show the editor, or curator, just what you can do. In approximately 500 words, you must convey a story that will span several thousand.

So here are some tricks.

1) Do include information about the ending

Especially with a mystery. This may seem obvious, but trust me when I say it isn’t. They want a synopsis from start to finish.It should feature every major plot point.

If you’re writing a mystery, be sure to include who did it, maybe insight into the motive (let’s be honest if you have a good long idea for motive you won’t be able to fit it into the pitch – tease them, give them a hint at least, as much as you can).

Part of it is they want to make sure you can finish the story once you start.

2) Do not go over the limit

Yes, yes, I know. You think one or two lines over won’t make a difference.

It will.

Especially if you are trying to break into a franchise anthology or with a bigger publishing house, they are sticklers for the rules.

It’s hard, I know. Trust me, I’m working on a pitch right now for something and I’ve already cut once and I probably have to go cut again (I’m writing this and trying to avoid the fate that awaits me – sigh this reprieve won’t last for long).

But do it. You need to follow the instructions. That doesn’t mean these details are cut from the story; they’re only your synopsis for this pitch.

3) Don’t be afraid to repurpose ideas

Two stories on this one. Because yes, I made it this far without storytime this week. I pitched a short story idea and got rejected. I loved the idea of the idea and found a potential second home for it, but the idea needed to be repurposed. We’ll see if I get to use it this time.

Second story is actually one you can find on the commentary for the pilot of Psych. Steve Franks talks about a scene near the end where Shawn actually calls the cops on himself (yes, he does have a reason but it’s funny to pretend he doesn’t). According to Franks, he’d been trying to fit that gag in to projects for years but it never stuck and he was so happy he actually got to do it.

Sometimes, a story you think is perfect for one thing, actually belongs somewhere else, slightly different.

That has to go with the keep trying and don’t give up advice that I should put in here somewhere.

4) Make sure all your pieces connect and it makes sense

This is hard and a place where I struggle. Especially if I’m limited to something like one page. Badge City: Notches’ pitch was 2-3 pages if memory serves and I could get away with that. But often, that isn’t the case and you have to adapt.

That being said, trying to throw a mystery into a few words and include the who, what, where, when, why, and how is very tricky. Keeping that all intact and staying inside the word limit is even harder.

But it needs to make sense because if it doesn’t, you’re killing your story before it has a chance to shine.

So A goes to B goes to C and when you cut stuff due to space make sure you don’t cut something that makes your plot suddenly not make sense.

It’s a balancing act. Have someone read it over before you send it in to make sure it still makes sense.

5) Do have other details that don’t make it in

Keep in mind, that once accepted, you have to write this story. You cannot give away everything in a pitch. Those gems you cut? Keep them tucked away, just in case. You might get the chance to use them.

6) Do your research

There’s a good chance you’ll have to have some basic knowledge of whatever you happen to be talking about to make your pitch make sense. Granted, I’m one to talk since I pitched for Badge City: Notches using the information I’d learned on Psych about police procedure and murder.

Luckily for me, Steve Franks’ father was a cop. He knew his stuff. And it tended to slot in with my interviews with members of the police force and my stack of reference books.

If you’re writing a historical, those little details can make or break you. This is also the point where I once again point you in the direction of Jon Black’s fabulous blog here on the 18thWall site.

Hint hint, wink wink.

Pitches, synopsis, and outlines aren’t going anywhere in writing. Sad but true facts. Hopefully the things I shared here help you as you search for the perfect place for your idea.

Good luck!

Literary Archeology: Forgotten Festivals

 

Jon Black

“Frost Fair of 1814” by Luke Clenell

Last fortnight’s post dealt with, in part, the Frost Fairs … periodic London revelries occurring whenever the Thames froze solid. A semi-regular part of London life in the 16th – 19th centuries, the Frost Fairs stopped when the global climate warmed and the Thames stopped freezing. Since writing that post, I’ve been curious about other lost or forgotten holidays and festivals that might make a colorful backdrop for historical fiction. Here are five:

Akitu/Zagmuk (Ancient Mesopotamia)

Marduk and Tiamat

The Mesopotamian New Year Celebration, it was known as Akitu in Akkad and Zagmuk in Babylon, its celebration is attested to at least 4,000 years ago. Lasting 12 days and culminating on the Spring Equinox, Zagmuk celebrated the victory of Marduk, god of the city and civilization, over Tiamat, the embodiment of primordial chaos. The centerpiece of Zagmuk was a passion play reenacting Marduk’s triumph, with the role of Marduk played by city-state’s king. In some versions, Marduk was slain by Tiamat on the festival’s first day and resurrected on the 12th day (with obvious similarities to the story of Osiris in Egyptian mythology).

This passion play was accompanied by daily religious rites and pageantry as well as feasting and drinking by the rest of the populace.

Traditionally, planting began on the first day after the conclusion of Zagmuk. Some scholars have suggested that aspects of Zagmuk/Akitu can still be found today in Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Festival of Drunkenness (Ancient Egypt)

Harvesting Grain for Beer

This annual (or possibly biennial) revelry gets points for honesty and cutting to the heart of things. At the end of the day, isn’t this is a big part of what most festivals are really about?

Yet at its heart was the serious purpose of commemorating humanity’s salvation from destruction. To make a long myth as short as possible: the gods were angry with humans (again) and sent the goddess Hathor (in some versions, Sekhmet) to wipe them out. At the last minute, Ra took pity on humanity. He commanded 7,000 jars of beer to be brewed and mixed with hematite so it resembled human blood. Seeing the ruddy beer poured out in a field, Hathor mistook it for human blood (Why? Who knows?) and consumed it all. Becoming intoxicated, she fell asleep and humanity was saved.

To commemorate their deliverance, at the festival Ancient Egyptians would emulate the goddess by getting absolutely sloshed and falling asleep. Other participants would dance wildly with torches in hopes of receiving an ecstatic vision from Hathor. The following morning, revelers were awoken by musicians playing drums and horns (not, I expect, to everyone’s great delight).

Some scholars suggest the festival has its roots in an older agricultural celebration; its biennial occurrence corresponding to the harvesting of summer and winter crops along the Nile.

Plough Monday (England)

Plough Monday

Up through the early 19th century, Plough Monday, celebrated on the Monday of the first full week in January, marked the beginning of the English agricultural calendar. While that might sound relatively dull, many traditions surrounding Plough Monday were not. Villages hosted processions led by a young boy dressed as an old woman (called Bessy) and an old man dressed as an animal (simply known as The Fool). Accompanied by musicians, Bessy and the Fool dragged a plow from house to house while asking for gifts and money for the harvest (It has been suggested that, originally, such gifts were intended as offerings to secure a bountiful harvest).  Celebrations continued until the next morning with drinking and dancing. Some dancing was ritual, in the fashion of Morris Dancing, including a very specific variation, Sword Dancing.

St. Crispin’s Day (England)

Now known primarily through Shakespeare’s Henry V, St. Crispin’s Day (October 25th) once served as a vehicle for social sanction in communities throughout England. In traditions persisting until the 1880s in some areas, on St. Crispin’s day villages fashioned an effigy in the image of a resident who was particularly ill-behaved or notorious over the past year. The dummy would then be hung from a tree, signpost, or other high point as way of expressing communal displeasure with that individual. The effigy was left hanging until November 5th (which happens to be a Guy Fawkes Day, another holiday in which an effigy plays a significant role … so I can’t help wondering if there is a connection).

Evacuation Day (New York and Surrounding Areas)

Let Your Freak Flag Fly (Evacuation Day 1783)

The curiously named Evacuation Day was an annual celebration of British soldiers’ November 25, 1783 withdrawal from New York at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. Evacuation Day was celebrated with parades, martial displays, flying flags, formal dinners, and speeches by local officials.

A more unusual aspect of Evacuation Day, flagpole climbing contests, had its roots in an apocryphal story that the British had left their flag flying over New York but greased the flagpole in hopes of making it impossible for the Americans to remove their banner. After several failed attempts by others, a young man succeeded in shimming up the pole, removing the Union Jack, and raising the Stars and Stripes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Evacuation Day waxed in direct proportion to the increasing popularity of Thanksgiving, another late November holiday. It’s a shame about the flagpole climbing contests, though.

If Walls Could Talk: Remember Why You Write

M.H. Norris

Grab a cup of tea and let me start this week off by telling you a story about a young girl who would one day become your favorite mystery maven.

But at this point, where our story is set, I wasn’t there quite yet. In fact, I hadn’t really written my first mystery at this point. We’re coming around to the point where I maybe was starting to work on “Puzzle Pieces” for The Lemon Herberts.

June 2012

Some of you who follow me on Facebook, or have caught me talking about my writing, might know the significance of that month. That was the month my grandfather passed away. In case you don’t know the significance of that, he is one of the reasons I fell in love with writing. He read everything he could get his hands on. That’s saying something, because he went legally blind and was still reading large print.

His love of reading was contagious. We would read together–especially mysteries.

My love of the genre was already there.

A few weeks after his passing, I discovered the USA Network show, Psych. It became one of my absolute favorite shows. For those of you who haven’t had the privilege, Psych is a show about Shawn Spencer,  a hyper-observant guy with a photographic memory (and was trained by his father his entire childhood) who solves crimes in Santa Barbara California all while posing as a Psychic Detective. Because Shawn has the attention span of the average five-year-old, they tended to only work on murder cases; those were the only cases shiny enough to keep his attention.

January 2014

Fast forward about 19 months. I had the opportunity to write a police procedural, but needed a case. This is also around the time Psych‘s seventh season was airing, and the big announcement that they were closing on their eighth and final season.

While making the decision, I turned to my favorite crime fighting team and saw them solving murders. After spending as much time as I have watching them at work, I thought a murder case was where I would be the most familiar–and thus at least have a foundation between it and my grandfather, the two things that made writing a police procedural even appeal to me.

So there it is, I also talk about this in this week’s episode of The Raconteur Roundtable!

But I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m telling this story, after all, it’s been awhile since I ranted like this. Over this last weekend, I started to rewatch Psych. I figured, since this is partially what inspired me to write my first mystery, maybe I’d find whatever muse was hiding in those eight seasons.

I’m about halfway through Season 1 and I’m having an absolute blast. It’s like revisiting old friends after a long time away.

So here’s my question for all of your and partially why I’m writing this today. What inspired you to write? Who?

We hit a point in our writing careers, or at least I feel like I have, where we seem to maybe step away from that inspiration. We forget that we decided to do this writing thing because we love it.

Somewhere along the way it becomes all about deadlines and the next project and your writing bucket list and what you want to do and where you want to go.

What about those days where you dreamed of writing, of telling your story and having your voice heard?

When was the last time you wrote for fun?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with all of the above, it’s part of what makes up a writing career.

But sometimes, you need to take a step back and find your muse. Find where you started. Sure, if you’re like me you’ve come a long, long, long, long ways since then.

But it’s your start.

What inspired you? What spoke to you then? Maybe it was two guys who constantly make 80s jokes, eat an obsessive amount of pineapple, and solve murders that might otherwise go unsolved in rather untraditional methods.

What is it?

If you’re like me and feel like you’ve been stuck in a writing rut, maybe you should join me in revisiting it and seeing if you can remember what it was that inspired you.

Normally here I give you advice and tell you my two cents worth on how to fix the problem in question. But not this week.

This week I’m going to issue you a challenge.

Find what inspired you

And maybe, take an hour or two this week and write something for the sake of writing.

I’ve done both this week. I think it’s made the world of difference.

If Walls Could Talk: Do Your Due Diligence: Research What You Write

M.H. Norris

Let’s talk this week about a topic that, in the last few days, has become near and dear to my heart.

When writing, do your research

Seriously, take some time, and do your due diligence and make sure you at least know what you’re talking about.

Otherwise, imagine me staring at you with a glare. And then think about what you’ve done.

Your writing without research.

Jon Black does a fabulous blog every other Thursday–right here–where he give you insight and looks into what it takes to write historical fiction. If you haven’t read any of his posts, I suggest you do, because I find them to be quite interesting and he covers things I wouldn’t necessarily think about.

And while I’m plugging him, keep an eye out for his upcoming book, Bel Nemeton which is due out with 18thWall soon.

When I wrote Badge City: Notches, I came in to it not completely sure what it took to write a standalone book, let alone all the ins and outs of a police procedure. The time when I got the assignment, to the due date the publisher set, was less than 16 weeks.

I had my work cut out for me.

To focus, I narrowed everything down to two questions:

How do I write a police procedural?

And what do I need to know to write it?

This launched me into a month-long mass-research session. I grabbed a couple of books off of Amazon, grabbed FBI papers, another scholarly research article on serial killers, a couple of case studies on some of the more well-known examples, documentaries, anything at hand.

And I also binge-watched about eight seasons of Criminal Minds when I couldn’t handle real research. You might have noticed that if you’ve read my stuff, because my protagonists tend to use the term UnSub. I think Rosella even loosely gives the BAU credit for the term in Midnight.

I still have the books, and I’ve gathered more. I’ve got books on police procedure and investigation, forensics, private eyes, weapons, and a couple other topics. Research for Badge City: Notches was the backbone of research I take with me into every mystery I write. Now when I approach Rosella, I can study things in addition to that.

When I started to begin to develop the idea of Dr. Rosella Tassoni, I grabbed a couple of Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan books. I also watched most of Bones (I need to finish the next to last and last season so no spoilers please and thanks–I’m also behind on Criminal Minds though I know a lot of their spoilers).

I even bought a forensic anthropology textbook. Honestly, I’m eyeing another one and might end up caving and spending the money on it eventually.

This isn’t me saying, I know everything. Because trust me, I don’t know about a lot when it comes to the field, but I learn more and more everyday. Google is my friend and I can easily find articles about various topics.

Do you realize just how small the internet has made the world? I can find a journal article from a British publication with one search and then turn around and go to a university on the West Coast with the next.

Different topics, different insights, all help me to get a well-rounded idea of what I’m talking about.

Every writer knows there’s some things you know about your characters, your world, your subject that your readers may never see. Information that you tuck away in case you revisit them or it just never comes up.

But we know.

And just knowing and feeling confident in what you know shines through in your work.

Because, if you don’t, it could drown out everything else in your writing. No amount of solid character development, no amount of carefully planning your plot can help.

We’d like to think otherwise. Shoot, even I’ve said people come for the plot and stay for the characters.

But if you are consistently getting things wrong. That might be all people notice or remember.

So where are some methods to collection information? Sure, we know the internet’s there. But how do you get great, useful information from it?

1) The Internet

Let’s take a moment to note that, yes, using scholarly sources is a good idea. Academic papers or articles are there for free. Others sites built up a reputation or are run by people who compile it into easy to read formats.

These are usually good for quick reference or to get a couple different views on something.

It’s made the world so small and let’s you check out information on far away places. For example, I set Badge City in California and was able to do research on the differences in their laws from what I’m used to and various policies change state to state.

Use the resource. It’s invaluable. Plus, there are other writers who spend their time writing blogs. I keep an eye on a couple, for various things. Here are some James and I especially recommend:

2) Print

Nothing beats an old classic.

And nothing quite beats the smell of books. Trust me, my room is full of them, they’re occupying various nooks and crannies battling it out for space.

But there’s valuable insights to be found and people have taken the time to write reference books on it.

Writer’s Digest has a ton of these resources and I encourage you to take a look. I have a handful of their books that I find to be very useful.

As a crime fiction writer, here are some of my favorites…

  • Police Procedure and Investigation – Lee Lofland
  • Howdunit: Forensics – D.P. Lyle (actually anything by him really – I wander to his blog now and then as well)
  • The Writer’s Guide To Weapons – Bejamin Sobieck
  • The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide – Martin Roth
  • Amateur Detectives – Elaine Raco Chase and Anne Wingate

Sometimes I find stuff at used bookstores, or i pick up other’s from various places. Amazon is your best friend. I once grabbed two books (including an autographed copy of one) for less than 10 bucks (shipping included, if memory serves).

Fiction works along with non-fiction. Like I said above, I grabbed Kathy Reichs and enjoy reading her. Another one I enjoy is Andrew Carmel (see last week’s post).

Another thing that goes hand in hand with this is magazines. Does your character have a specialty with knowledge you might need? Is there a specialized publication for that? Chances are, yes. Then pick up an issue or two or get a subscription. You stay up to date on the field and as a result, so does your character. James’ subscriptions to various archaeology magazines have fed more than a few of my upcoming stories.

3) Ask An Expert

Some have blogs for such a reason as this. Others publish articles for various publications. Maybe you know someone, or the character is inspired after them. I couldn’t have written Badge City: Notches so well without having some friends and family on call to walk me through their day, or answer the questions that come up on a 3AM writing binge.

There’s no source quite like a real person.

And so many professionals would be thrilled to tell you about their work, and answer some basic questions. Just be sure to respect their time–and give them a signed copy of your book when it comes out!

Conclusion

A little research goes a long way when it comes to writing. Just like we strive to grow as writers throughout our careers, we should also strive to know more about our subjects.

After all, writing a novel is a long marathon.

Make sure you train properly. 

Announcement: Meet Our Blog Coordinator, Soph Iles

James Bojaciuk

18thWall Productions is thrilled to announce a new member of our time–the excellent Sophie Iles–who will be taking charge of our blog. She’ll be handling the posts, working with our authors, bringing in new bloggers, and making your 18thyWall blog experience one of your favorite daily website visits!

Get to Know Soph

Sophie Iles is our recent addition to the team as our new Blog Coordinator, and she is British to boot. She’s renowned for constantly wearing odd socks, spiking her short hair to odds-defying heights, and bringing up Doctor Who at any given opportunity.

Lovingly referred to as a ‘Joan of all trades’ by friends, Sophie has been a production assistant, an unqualified teacher, a coffee shop barista, and A Build A Bear mascot—but her real passion is a love of characters, and how they develop in a well-woven tale.

Her worldly knowledge spans a cozylook on animation due to her arts degree to her untamed love of story-telling since she was given a amateur class in mythology by her wizen old grandmother.

Sophie can be reached on her Twitter, Tumblr, and by email. You can also find her currently hiding out in Cardiff, United Kingdom.

Literary Archaeology: Writing the Wind: Weather, Climate, and HistFic

Jon Black

The Frost Fair of 1814 by Luke Clenell

This started out as a post about the promise and peril of writing HisFic in which I used the recent Doctor Who episode “Thin Ice” as a case study. But watching the episode, seeing the Frost Fair over the Thames and the elephant making its way its way across the thick ice, I kept veering off into reflections about the possibilities for using weather and climate in historical fiction. Ultimately, I surrendered to these tangents.

The Frost Fairs, fetes held in concurrence with irregular freezings of the Thames (which largely brought London to a standstill anyway) were a real thing. Even the elephant was liften from the pages of history, homage to an actual pachyderm who bravely crossed river near Blackfriars Bridge in 1814.

Another aspect of the 1814 Frost Far was disappointingly omitted by Dr. Who writers: the production of a commemorative book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State by printer George Davis. As an added gimmick, with modern aficionados of meta will appreciate, all the books were typeset and printed in a stall erected over the frozen river.

The Frost Fairs occurred, in years the Thames froze solidly, across a broad swath of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Unsurprisingly, these dates coincide with a period known as the Little Ice Age when mean seasonal temperatures in most parts of the globe fell significantly.

That makes Frost Fairs the kind of exotic yet specific element that brings historical fiction to life for readers … and is fun for authors to write. The Little Ice Age is hardly the only distinctive weather/climate event with potential for writing HistFic. I have expanded on it, and provided a few others, below.

Event of 535 A.D.

What remains of the Ilopango Volcano today

A brief but devastating period of global cooling and violent weather that is now tied by many scientists to a Volcanic Winter caused by the catastrophic eruption of either El Salvador’s Ilopango Volcano or Indonesia’s Krakatoa.  Consistent cloud cover and cooler temperatures created famine in locations as diverse as China, Ireland, Mesoamerica, and Peru. Famines begat plague as well as touching off a wave of often violent migrations as hungry populations went off en masse search of sustenance. Among the civilizations believed to have fallen or been weakened at least in part by the Event of 535 A.D. are the Byzantine Empire (largely from the Plague of Justinian), India’s Gupta Dynasty, Mexico’s Teotihuacan, sub-Roman Britain (as consequence of the movement of hungry Saxons and Vikings), and the Sassanid Persians.

The Little Ice Age

Depending on the specific location, the Little Ice Age might have begun as early as 1300 or ended as late as 1850.  Several explanations have been advanced for the age and, operating over so long a period, it likely resulted from multiple interrelated factors. Whatever the causes, the effects were dramatic.

That one could sometimes walk from Manhattan to Staten Island over the ice seems unremarkable when the parts of the Bosporus and the Bay of Galveston occasionally froze solid. Snow was taken for granted in Lisbon, Portugal.

Further north, effects were more serious. Frequent flooding altered coastlines and river courses in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. Iceland was isolated, famished, and lost half its population. Norse populations in Greenland vanished entirely. In Asia, China saw its agricultural zones shift southward and its coastal regions battered by intense typhoon activity.

Blame it on the Rain.

All this had profound social consequences. The hungry, displaced, and weary populations of the Little Ice Age have been linked with everything from increased political radicalization (English Civil War, American Revolution, French Revolution, Revolutions of 1848, etc.) to witch hunting panics stretching from Salem to the Harz Mountains.

Of course, every Little Ice Age has its silver lining. A number of musicologists have suggested that that the old, dense woods of Little Ice Age forests may explain (at least in part) the superlative acoustic properties of instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius.

Year Without a Summer (1816)

As with the Event of 535 A.D., the Year without a Summer was caused by a Volcanic Winter, in this case resulting from the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora. Piggybacking on the effects of the Little Ice Age, it overtaxed already strained agricultural systems. Europe saw shortages and food riots in France, Switzerland, and the UK. A typhus outbreak occurred in Ireland. Freezes occurred as late as August while severe storms and torrential rain flooded major rivers. In North America, crops in New England and Canada failed. While there was no widespread famine there, food prices (and social unrest) rose sharply. China saw regional famines accompanied by widespread desertion from the army.

William Turner’s sunset paintings were made possible by a disaster half a world away.

Conversely, the dense atmospheric particulates of the Year Without a Summer led to brilliant sunrises and sunsets, captured in landscape paintings of the period. It also stimulated widespread interest in scientific agriculture such as mechanization and chemical fertilizers.

A few parting thoughts about how climate might play into historical fiction:

First, as the above examples indicate, climate has a significant impact on the rise and fall of civilizations, cultures, and nations. This is true of gradual long term change as well as cataclysmic occurrences like the Event of 535 A.D. or Year without a Summer. With the glacial (see what I did there?) pace of climate change, land is often settled which is cultivatable under favorable climate conditions. When climate shifts again, however, the land proves to be inhospitable. This kind of sudden decline in carrying capacity has been pointed to as a factor in the fall of the Anasazi (or, if you prefer, Ancestral Puebloans), classical Mayan civilization, and civilization’s first blush in Mesopotamia (possibly catalyzed by widespread deforestation).

Don’t Have to Be a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind is Blowing.

Second, humans have always understood weather … but they haven’t always understood meteorology. A Neolithic farmer might actually be a better weather prognosticator over his or her little bit of dirt than a trained 21st century meteorologist. But the Neolithic farmer (and, indeed, most humans until the early 20th century) don’t really see the big picture and don’t understand what drives weather. For much of history, extreme weather is likely to be viewed as divine omen, direct evidence of God’s/gods’ displeasure, or the work of the black magic or infernal forces.