storytelling

Research Is Your Friend, Part 3

First things first: Thinking Critically about Information

As I sat down to write this week’s post, I realized I had planned to dive into the deep end of the pool—that is, talk about research on cultural subjects—without first dealing with the very important question of how to swim. Since the 1990s, we have been living in what information and computer science specialists have called “the information age,” as though more is always better when it comes to this thing we call information. As a professional researcher for many years, however, I have learned that our age can be better described as the age of “misinformation” or the age of “information overload.”

Finding Truth Among LiesI consider the Internet the best example of a mixed blessing man has ever invented. On the one hand, there is a whole lot of really good information out there that people can access and use—often for free. On the other hand, there is even more misinformation, which the researcher has to sift through to get to the good stuff. Some of that misinformation is accidental and some is intentional, but all of it is useless when we’re looking for the truth.

On the daily news over the past week or so, there have been all sorts of talk about political bias in Google’s search algorithms, but this problem of bias in information can be, frankly, no less prevalent in print resources—even those that have been historically labeled scholarly. The fact is, misleading information has been around since long before the Internet was created. It is only that now, with nothing standing between the user and the information found out there on the World Wide Web, it is up to us, the users, to figure out the good from the bad, fact from fiction, useful from harmful. The number one rule in doing research online is to remember that literally anyone can put anything on the Internet and call it truth. There are no filters—no editors, no publishers, no critics—to help the user discern the truth in what he or she reads.

So what do we do?

The rules really haven’t changed when it comes to doing research. Whether using print or electronic sources, the one thing the user must do is think critically about information.

Criteria for Evaluating Web Resources

For the interest of this blog, I’m going to apply these criteria specifically to free Internet sources, since most of us are spending a lot more time researching online than in print these days, but these criteria can and should be applied to print resources as well. If you can learn to always filter your information use using these four evaluation criteria, you’ll have a pretty good shot at getting to good information.

There are four main criteria for evaluating information sources: Purpose, Authority, Accuracy, and Currency. Today, we’ll look at Purpose.

#1 – Purpose:

It is sometimes surprisingly difficult to figure out just what the purpose of a website is, but you can ask yourselves some basic questions to help guide you. Is the site designed to inform or educate in an unbiased manner? Does the site support a particular political position or point of view? Does the site attempt to sell a product or service? Is the site intended to entertain?

Answering yes to any of these questions does not necessarily mean you can’t or shouldn’t use the information found therein, but it does mean you should “get a second opinion” somewhere else, preferably from a neutral, or even opposing viewpoint, site.

A Website’s domain type can sometimes reveal the site’s purpose, although this is less true now than it used to be. These are the most common domain types:

.org         nonprofit organization

.com       commercial organization

.net         network or association

.edu        educational institution

.gov        governmental agency (U.S.)

.mil         branch of the military (U.S.)

As anyone who owns a domain can tell you, however, once you purchase a .com, you are offered the .org and the .net (for additional fees, of course), so there’s really nothing to differentiate these first three domain types today. The latter three, on the other hand, are certain, but you still have to be careful. I once had an undergraduate student cite a paper from an .edu site, thinking it was authoritative because it came from an educational institution. Unfortunately, when I checked it out, I learned it was from a junior high school—not a college or university—and the paper had actually been written by an eighth grade student—hardly an appropriate source for a college-level research paper!

If you want to practice applying this “purpose criteria” to a website—and perhaps have some fun along the way—see if you can find the purpose behind www.DHMO.org. It might surprise you!

Next week we’ll look at evaluating Web resources’ Authority, Accuracy, and Currency.

by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing Services and Find Christian Links

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storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 2

Maps, Maps, Maps! A Tool to Help Your Readers Visualize the “Where” of Your Story

Travel concept with flag pushpins and world mapI have always loved maps. In my office I have a whole drawer full of them from all over the U.S. and around the world—places where I’ve been, where I’ve lived, where I’d like to travel some day—and on the wall behind my desk is the classic color poster-size map of Narnia created by Pauline Baynes for C. S. Lewis, which was published by Penguin Books back in 1972.

Science Fiction and Fantasy writers have often employed maps to assist their readers in visualizing where a story is taking place. Robert Louis Stevenson, Ursula K. Le Guin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon—all these writers and more employed maps to help take their readers into the story. Are maps necessary? Not at all. But if you have ever run your finger from Hobbiton in The Shire along the Great East Road and across the Misty Mountains to the Mirkwood to see where Bilbo Baggins traveled, you will understand how much it adds to the story to be able to “see” how the characters get from point A to point B.

Maps are not just for fantasy, of course. Contemporary stories, too, will benefit from the use of maps. Using maps when writing fiction serves two main purposes: First, it helps readers visualize locations and character movement, and second, it helps writers remain consistent when telling a story. The latter is particularly important, so whether you provide a map for your readers or not, you, the writer, should always keep a map handy so you can refer to it often and thus avoid inconsistencies, because your readers will notice if your character turns left at the courthouse to get home in Chapter 1 but turns right at the courthouse in Chapter 6. Sketch a map for yourself, mark buildings, street names, traffic lights, etc., so when your character runs into town, you’ll know where she’s going and how she gets there.

Contemporary Maps

As I mentioned above, I have a lot of contemporary maps in my drawer, and I will pull one out when necessary.  Just yesterday, I needed to find an Amtrak station in South Carolina, and using my print United States Railroads map (MapLink, 1995) was a lot faster than wading through the Amtrak Website. This map also gives me a nationwide look at all rail lines, both passenger and freight, which can come in handy if I ever need a town that has a railroad crossing in it.

Most days when I’m writing, I simply use Google maps, because you can search on an actual address or named place and view it as either a street map or a satellite image, zooming in as close as necessary. I am currently in the middle of a detective mystery e-book series, which I set in Seattle (my Cat & Mac Mysteries). I put these stories in Seattle, because though I haven’t been there in twenty years, it is the only big city I spent any time in. If you know anything about Seattle, however, you know it has changed a lot in the past twenty years, so it’s good to have up-to-date information.

And this leads me to a third very good reason to use maps—at least online maps with satellite images. While I have not actually been to the Seattle waterfront in twenty years, I have been there virtually many times this past year while writing Cat & Mac. The coolest part about using Google maps is once you change from street view to satellite image, you can also click on the place you’re interested in, and like magic you are there on the street, walking around, making setting descriptions a breeze. This is how I learned you can no longer drive all the way down the Seattle waterfront on Alaskan Way, but not only do I now know how the Seattle waterfront works, I can describe it accurately. These street images are anywhere from one to five years old, but they are still a better bet than a twenty-year-old memory!

Historical Maps

Most of us don’t have access to a library of print historical maps, so the Internet can once again come through for us thanks to the many, many educational institutions, government agencies, and historical societies who post images online today. I will talk more about historical resources later, but if you are writing a story that takes place in a particular place or time, do go online with your favorite browser and look for historical maps of the area about which you’re writing.

I haven’t used these maps so much for my own writing, which tends to be either contemporary or science fiction, but I did ghost write a series of Christian romances set on the Oregon Trail a few years ago for which various Oregon Trail historical societies provided a plethora of maps from various dates between 1836 and 1865.  These maps helped me tremendously not only on the Oregon Trail, giving me the names and locations of forts and other landmarks, but they also helped me get my characters to the jump off point at Independence, Missouri, from various points east.

Next week, we’ll look at doing research when writing stories set in a culture not our own.

by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing Services and Find Christian Links

Christian ghostwriter · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend: Part 1

researchFor writers, research is NOT an option—even when writing fiction. Why not? Because it is the thing that puts reality into a story, that allows your readers to participate in the “suspension of disbelief” we, as authors, need for our stories to work.

I’ve mentioned before that old adage, “Write what you know.” What you need to remember is how you know what you know can vary with what you’re writing. Stories are quicker and easier to write if our characters work at a job we’ve had or live in a city where we’ve lived, but that doesn’t mean we can’t write about what we don’t know right this minute, as long as we do the research so we do know it before we write the story.

Albert Camus once wrote, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” I couldn’t agree more, but it’s critical to get the facts right within the lie so as to capture and keep the attention of our readers. It really is all about the details, because if you get the details wrong, you’ll lose your audience.

Case in Point

I once attempted to read a book that managed to keep my attention only until somewhere in Chapter 2, at which point the author proved herself to be as much of an airhead as her heroine was. It was a dark and stormy night, and said heroine was frightened by the thunder and lightning. She attempted to figure out how close the storm was by counting the seconds between—wait for it!—the thunder and the lightning. I kid you not! The character listened for the thunder clap then attempted to count the seconds until the lightning flashed.  I used to think everyone knew that light travels much faster than sound, but . . .

A friend of mine used the same scenario in one of her books, and unfortunately she also got it wrong. She did have her character counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, but she had her character count two seconds between the flash and the boom and estimated the lightning was two miles away. The problem, of course, is that her calculation was wrong, and the lightning was really less than a half-mile away—which can make a big difference when your character is running across an open field in the middle of a thunderstorm.

How do I know? Well, besides counting the seconds between flashes and booms all my life, and knowing that approximately every five seconds is a mile between the lightning and me, for my story, I did the research! I did a quick Google search and found this: (1) the speed of light is 186,282 miles per second; (2) the speed of sound within our atmosphere is 1,125 feet per second; and (3) a mile is 5,280 feet. Doing the math, we learn sound travels one mile in 4.69 seconds, so if your character is counting, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi . . .” and the “boom” comes at about “five,” the lightning is about a mile away.

I used this in one of my own novels. My librarian and a bunch of kids are cut off from town by a horrific thunderstorm, and she sends two of the older boys out to her car to get the groceries she’d bought on her lunch break because flash flood warnings were up, and it didn’t look as though anyone was going home that night. I let my librarian and the geeky teen count the seconds together following a flash of lightning, so they knew they had a little time. I used this not only as a plot device—it was safe for the kids to run out to the car if they hurried—but also to develop my characters, because when the librarian and the geek together come up with the distance, the other kid—a not-so-studious athlete—asks, “How do you know that?” and my geek explains it in detail as they head out the door. I did not do this to brag about my own accurate research but rather to help establish the boys’ relationship with the librarian—she had a whole lot more in common with the geek than with the athlete—and with one another—the athlete gained a measure of respect for the geek via this encounter.

Why It Matters

Now, you might ask, “What difference does it really make if you don’t get it exactly right? After all, it’s just a story.” But it does matter, because if you get the details wrong, somebody—some reader—is going to notice, and a factual error can (1) pull a reader out of your story, and (2) damage your credibility as a writer.

With the ready availability of the Internet, we writers really don’t have any excuse for getting the facts wrong. Look it up. Get it right. Always confirm what you think you know. Even when I was working as a reference librarian, I never gave a fact to a patron that I hadn’t first looked up in a reliable source, so I could give the patron both the information and the source. Don’t disappoint your readers. Have the same respect for both them and your story.

Next week, we’ll start to look at some of the details that can help build a story’s reality—and some of my favorite research tools with which to find them.

Please visit Christian Editing Services. Laura is a ghostwriter on the CES team.

motivation for writers · writing tips

It’s Time for a Pep Talk!

Quote on notepaper “THE TIME IS NOW”If you want to write, then write—and don’t let anyone tell you you’re wasting your time. As William Faulkner once said, “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” Talking about writing a book “someday” won’t get it done. You have to put pen or pencil to paper, or fingers to a keyboard, in order to turn your dreams, your fantasies into stories. Remember, you don’t have to try to attempt to publish everything you write—and probably shouldn’t. You don’t even have to show it to anybody. But if you believe there’s a writer inside you, you have to start writing.

The act of writing can be cathartic, it can be comforting, it can be entertaining, and at times it can be downright fun. It can also be really frustrating and a lot of hard work—don’t let anyone tell you differently—but finally finishing up a story can be a kick, and when you do get something published and decide to share it with the world, I can tell you there’s nothing quite like logging into Kindle Direct Publishing to check your monthly report and learning someone in Germany or Great Britain or even Japan has bought your e-book.

Do learn to write well, if you don’t already. Not writing well shouldn’t keep you from writing stories, but I have edited a number of books by writers who are not proficient it their craft, and the unfortunate fact is, it doesn’t matter how good your story is, if you can’t communicate that story to readers, because the basics of grammar, syntax, and punctuation get in the way. Take an online course through a local community college, work with a tutor, but learn your craft well. It will save you a lot of headaches—and dollars—in the long run.

Ask people you trust to read your work and give you honest feedback—and be open-minded enough to listen to what they have to say. You don’t necessarily have to make the changes they suggest, but you should at least listen, because even rejecting a suggestion from a reader can teach you something about your writing. Do find a good proof reader. Even best-selling authors make mistakes—which I find in every book I read—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make our manuscripts as perfect as possible. Be willing to put down a manuscript for days or even weeks then pick it back up again. I can absolutely guarantee you will find something—a typo in a word, a missing quotation mark, a misused comma—you didn’t see the last time you read it. Fresh eyes—even your own—find mistakes.

And finally, read, read, READ! I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. If you want to write Romance, read Romance. If you want to write Sci-fi, read Sci-fi. If your interest is in writing Mysteries and Thrillers, read Mysteries and Thrillers. It’s not that you want to read a specific genre in order to get ideas for your own stories—trust me, once you start writing, you won’t need other people’s ideas. Rather you need to read them in order to learn what your potential audience expects. People who read certain genres all the time expect certain things to happen in these stories, and if you don’t deliver, they won’t want to buy and read your work. It’s a simple as that. Don’t be afraid to try something different on occasion, but be aware that readers read what they read for a reason, and if you want to connect with them, you need to deliver.

Now you’ve read a lot about writing, so what are you waiting for! Sit down, and start writing!

 

Next week, I’ll be starting a new series on research strategies and tools for writers.

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing Services and Find Christian Links

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Questions Writers Ask, Part 3

Do I need an agent to get a publisher or should I just self-publish?

This is one of those “it depends” questions. It depends on your priorities for yourself as a writer and your aspirations for your work. If it’s important to you to be published by a known, commercial publisher, then yes, you do need an agent, because very few—if any—of today’s publishers will accept an unsolicited manuscript submission without agent representation.

I personally have never had any luck finding an agent, though I’ve spoken with a number of them at various writers’ conferences and submitted to others I’ve found through online research. I find today’s publishing world something of a disappointment, as agents assure me that no publisher will even consider my work if I do not have, at the time of my submission, (1) an active blog with X number of followers; (2) a successful webpage with X number of followers; (3) an active Twitter/Instagram/whatever account with X number of followers, and . . . Well, it goes on from there as the technology develops. Basically, what an agent will tell you is that in today’s publishing world, the author must do all the marketing preparation for his or her book before it is even considered by a publisher. In fact, in my experience, even an agent won’t look at your book, unless you can show you already have a marketing plan ready to roll.

Gone are the days when a publisher pays an writer for a book they want to publish and then goes on to market and sell it for the author. Bummer! On the other hand, this is a great time to self-publish, as all sorts of opportunities are currently available, with new ones cropping up all the time. And if nothing else, you, the writer—unless you’re already a best-selling author or a famous personality who can sign a lucrative contract—will earn a lot more per copy sold if you self-publish than you will with a commercial publisher. Most of us who self-publish have decided that if we’re going to have to do all the marketing work, anyway, we might as well get a higher percentage of the sales!

You do have to be very careful of what used to be called “vanity” presses. There are a lot of them out there, and some do very good work, but I’ve known authors who have spent literally thousands of dollars and waited years for their book to be published by one of these—or found themselves fighting to get their publication rights back from one, so they could publish someplace else.

After being thoroughly cheated by one of the so-called “Christian” publishers, I can say with some authority that before you go with any publishing company that requires money up front from the writer, do your research, both online and among writers you know and trust. My personal experience taught me that it’s a very hard—and very expensive—lesson to learn, if you make a mistake.

That being said, there are free self-publishing services out there, including Amazon’s CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing. The former will be disappearing in the not too distant future, as Kindle takes over Amazon’s entire publishing arm, but I am confident KDP will become as good as CreateSpace at publishing print books before that happens.

The biggest drawback to using either service is you have to do all the work of manuscript preparation, cover design, and uploading—or hire someone who knows what they’re doing to do it for you. On the other hand, the only cost associated with publishing a print book in CreateSpace is the cost of the print proof copy. Since this is a print-on-demand service, the cost of printing remains relatively low, you can order as few or as many copies as you need, and the turnaround is, in my experience, surprisingly quick. You also get access to Amazon’s vast international market for anything you publish with them.

Publishing company staff flying toward an open book and working in it.
Christian Editing Services

Of course there are also companies like Christian Editing Services that can do the more technical aspects of self-publishing for you if you don’t have the experience working with layout and design. It can be quite overwhelming to face doing it all on your own—headers, footers, pagination, notes, chapter headings, tables of contents, indexes, title pages, copyright notices, dedications, cover design, etc.—and depending on your circumstances, it can be worth your while to hire these things out, especially since doing so will leave you free to do what you do best . . . write! At Christian Editing Services we can do everything except the actual printing, and we can prepare a print-ready file for CreateSpace or whatever printer you choose.

 

 

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Questions Writers Ask, Part 2

Who is my audience?

This is a very important question for all writers to ask, because it can make a big difference in what you write and how you write it. Obviously, you need to approach adult, young adult, and children’s books quite differently, but there are other things to think about as well as you sit down to write.

  • Who do I want to read/buy my book/story? A general audience? Women? Men? Teens? People who follow a specific issue or cause?
  • Are there publication/contest submission guidelines to follow?
  • Am I writing a romance or a love story? Will the story start with a wedding or end with one? Will it be a match made by parental decree or a love match? Will the story end in happily ever after or do I want to leave the reader wondering?
  • How knowledgeable about my topic is my audience likely to be? Do I need to do thorough research for a professional publication, or am I only writing to inform the general public?

These are only some of the questions you might ask yourself, and only you can answer them. How important they are depends on what you plan to do with your story. As I mentioned last week, I did some ghost writing of Amish stories. The only direction I received at the beginning was that they had to take place in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and I had to get the details of the religion right. Before I started, I asked my client specifically who my audience would be, and I was told that my stories would be published in a magazine intended for Old Order Amish people! It took a lot of time-consuming research on my part, but I had to get it right, because my audience would see each and every mistake, and it would reflect badly on the publisher. 

Who should I ask to read my work?

I recommend you find one or two people you really trust to read your work before you attempt to publish it, and those you choose should be among your target audience. (For example, you might ask a man to read a general audience novel, but you’d want to ask a woman to read your love story.) Whatever the audience, you need fresh eyes to read what you write, not only to check for grammatical errors but to also check to make certain your content works for a reader. As writers, we are simply too close to our own work to know for sure whether or not it makes sense to someone else. And it is important that you listen to what people have to say about your work. Don’t take constructive criticism personally. Always remember your first draft is not your final draft, and no one publishes without numerous rewrites, so don’t become too attached to your words. You don’t have to follow anyone’s advice once offered, but you should at least listen and consider it, because any thoughtful critique can only help make your writing better.

New writers, especially, can find it difficult to show their work to others. It’s understandable, of course. No one wants to be criticized when they’ve poured their own heart into the words on the page. But if you’ll look at books published by your favorite authors, many of them will include a note somewhere in the front of the book where they thank those who have helped make their book what it is: friends, family, a writers’ group, beta readers, an editor, an agent, or someone else who read, edited, critiqued or made some other contribution to the final product. As writers, we can be very protective of our words, but we have to remember that a book is not our baby, and any criticism from well-meaning individuals should not be taken personally. The goal is, always, to improve the writing.

Do find at least one reader specifically who knows their grammar and syntax. While I don’t think I’ve ever read a commercially published book in which I didn’t find at least one grammatical error, we do need to make the effort to rid our manuscripts of as many of them as possible. Pay someone to proofread your work, if you must, but get it done. It is especially important if you plan to submit your story to an agent, publisher, or contest.

Publishing company staff flying toward an open book and working in it.
Christian Editing Services

Christian Editing Services is one such professional company offering everything from coaching, editing, and proofreading to page formatting and cover design. All these types of services are crucial for all writers at all levels because we all need help getting our books out there.

“But isn’t that what publishers do?” you may ask. Unfortunately, not anymore, unless you’re already a best-selling author or a very famous person, who’s written a book. For the rest of us mortals, we need to depend on a variety of professionals to get our work ready for either submission or self-publishing.

Next week, in Questions writers ask, Part 3, we’ll look at the world of agents, publishers, and self-publishing.


Please visit our websites: Christian Editing Services and Find Christian Links

 

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Questions Writers Ask, Part 1

Writers, especially new writers, have a few common questions, which are actually questions all writers probably should ask from time to time. I don’t have all the answers, and if you decide to attend writers’ conferences, you will probably get different answers from every “expert” you ask, but for what it’s worth, here’s my take on things.

Must I write only what I know?

We’ve all heard from various writing instructors that you should write only what you know, but if that’s all anyone ever wrote about, then there would be nothing in our libraries but autobiographies. What this question always ignores is the other, to my mind more important, half of the question: How do I know what I know?

The thing is, “write what you know” should never mean “write only what you know at the time you sit down to write.” As a former librarian, with over a quarter-century of research under my belt, I can tell you that you can write about literally anything, if you do the research first.

That being said, when you write fiction, it certainly helps if you stick to places or activities or animals or lifestyles with which you are personally familiar. That doesn’t mean you can’t set your story someplace new to you, but if you do, you’re going to have to do a whole lot of research to make sure you get the details right, because if you don’t, some reader is going to point out to you that your character was driving the wrong way down a one-way street!

In my novel Words To Love By, Kate is the director of a small town public library, and Michael teaches at a small liberal arts college. As I mentioned, I was a librarian, and while I didn’t work at a small public library, I did intern at one, so I had a pretty good idea of how things worked there. I did work at a small Christian liberal arts college for a time, so I know that environment pretty well, too. And when I had a young professor who was engaged to a football coach come into the story, I had her volunteering on the chain gang for home football games—which I actually did for my five years at my last college and loved every minute of it.

If I had not been a librarian, I would have given Kate another profession, because placing her in my old job, meant I could describe her daily activities very easily. My own experience made it possible to create a realistic setting and day-to-day action much more easily than it would have had I not lived it myself.

My own experience is also why my Christian characters end up either Anglo-Catholic or Roman Catholic. I have been an Anglican all my life, so I know the continuing church better than any other—I understand a priest’s relationship with his vestry, with his wardens, with his bishop, and I’ve spent enough time in a church office to know how the day-to-day operations work. I have attended other churches over the years but not long enough to learn the day-to-day operations.

So, it just makes sense to use what you know when you write contemporary stories. I have, however, ghost-written a number of Amish and Oregon Trail stories, both of which required a great deal of research, but they turned out just fine, because I did the thorough research before and during the writing process.