Bittersweet! It’s finally cooled off a little here in our part of the world. From eighties to this morning’s mid-forties, we have weather whiplash at the Smith Creative Headquarters. But no matter how balmy or breezy, it’s still Preptober! And as we cruise toward the midpoint of this month, we’ll pick up speed and hit NaNoWriMo in just a matter of days, friends! Are you ready?! How will you research your novel? Here’s how I’m creating my NaNo novel this year:
Location, location, location… My novel is set on a farm in western West Virginia (my backyard) so you might think I’m skipping the research for my setting, but no! I’m creating a fictional farm and taking great pains to get it specific in my mind. The better I can see my setting, the richer it will be for my readers. I want them to see the barn (teal, not red!), smell the sweet grass swaying in the humid summer sunshine, and hear the cry of the locusts in the canopy surrounding the family farm.
I always enjoy reading books that create a strong sense of place, that feature the setting as a vital character in the plot, one that holds all the others in their unique web of connectedness. Think about your favorite stories. What part does place play?
I’ve taken numerous drives along the mountain ridge that inspired my story. When I found a view that I liked, I pulled off the road (when there’s room–it’s narrow!) and took photos, uploading them to an inspiration board. I chose different elements of different properties and combined them into an ideal. I also made a secret pinterest board for my novel, pinning barns, houses, fences, and other farmy images that capture my imagination.
I think time is tricky. I mean, I want my stories to seem fresh even ten or twenty years from now. But if all my characters are using flip phones, the story’s already dated. Technology is evolving so quickly now, it’s hard to imagine how integrated we’ll be in even five years. For that reason, I try to focus on the timeless qualities of my characters. Like King Solomon said, there’s nothing new under the sun. People always struggle with the big questions, with their own purpose, with relationships. I dive deep into those themes.
But even though my novel is set in the country, with spotty cell service, they still own and use cell phones. It would be odd to omit such necessary devices. That said, I mention cell phones as little as possible, and only when it moves my plot toward its conclusion.
Consider your time period carefully. If my story was set on the same farm in the fifties, it would look and sound different. If I chose the late 1800s, even more so. Same characters, same setting–drastically different story.
Especially if you’re writing historical fiction, spend some time browsing photos, newspapers, ads, and anything else you can find from your story’s time period. Save the best images to your secret Pinterest board.
Now, look, even though I’m Appalachian, born and raised, I don’t know a durn thing about farming. I’ve got a backyard full of tomatoes, peppers, and herbs like every other West Virginian, but when it comes to actual farming? Nope, don’t ask me. Luckily I’ve got cousins who own a beef farm and I’m going to pick their brain about all I don’t know concerning raising beeves (<—The plural of beef, doncha know! I’ve been waiting forever to use that word…). And I located another semi-local farm that grows wholesale flowers–ooh, flower farm. Definite field trip! (Field trip, get it?)
And did you know there’s a difference between hay and straw? And the reason they wrap hay bales with that white plastic?
What You Know vs. What Your Characters Know
My characters have to know this stuff, even if it’s only hinted at in the book. It’s a lot of work, but I find it all interesting. And my cast of characters rely on the info every day.
I search for interesting portraits, then save the images to — you guessed it — the secret Pinterest board. I know I’ll need protagonist, antagonist(s), love interest, sidekick, mentor/fool, and a pack of rich, well-developed secondary characters. For book-length fiction, I aim for about 20 characters. That seems like a lot, but once you start setting up your framework of friends and family, you’ll get there quicker that you think.
For at least the main characters and the antagonist, I conduct character interviews. This allows me to know their motivations, greatest desires and fears, secrets, and hopes. I also assign an MTBI personality type to each of the major players in the plot. (I know, Big Five is more accurate. But this is fiction so I’m good with MTBI.)
Keep track of your research!
Whether you decide to record your research in a writer’s journal, on a legal pad, or tucked away in Evernote or a secret Pinterest board, make sure you save your hard work somewhere safe. Once I got an ephiphany about a story while driving. It was a neat resolution to a problem I’d been working on for years and many drafts. Since it was so important, I was sure I’d remember it when I arrived home … but I didn’t. I think I’ve obsessed about it enough since then to recover the gist of it, but don’t make my mistake. Keep your revelations somewhere safe and central.
Now you: Let me know how your Preptober is going so far. Are you up to the eyeballs in character studies and plot points or are you waiting to research your novel?