storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 8

Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Sources

Details - letters written in beautiful boxes on white backgroundAdding details to your fictional scenes can take time to research, but it can be well worth your efforts. Curious about what your characters would pay for lunch at a restaurant in the 1940s? A search online finds a 1943 Harvey House menu listing Roast Long Island Duckling, Special Dressing, Spiced Crab Apple with sides of Candied Yam, Vegetable, Salad, Rolls, and Sherbet for . . . $1.25. (Wow!) Four years later, your characters might board a train in San Francisco at 7:00 Sunday evening headed for Washington, D.C.—but don’t make them in too much of a hurry, because they won’t arrive in Washington until 7:30 a.m. Thursday morning according to the 1947 Through Coast to Coast Pullman Service schedule. And if your character is in orbit, how will she brush her teeth in the morning? NASA’s A Day in the Life Aboard the International Space Station would have that information—and a video to go with it.

Sprinkling your fiction with fact can make your story come alive for the reader, and there is no better place to find the facts than in primary sources. But just what is meant by a “primary” source?

Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Documents . . . and Accuracy

In my days as a librarian, I helped a lot of students find primary documents for their research, but they are really not as scary as they may sound to the uninitiated, particularly now that we have the Internet. A document is a primary source if it is written and/or published by the person who was there at the time the content was created. For example, I found the menu and price above online off the scanned image of a 1943 Harvey House menu. I also found online the original Pullman timetable from 1947, which would have been the actual timetable used by travelers in 1947. Diaries, journals, menus, timetables, maps; videos of interviews with a veteran, a doctor, or an astronaut—all these would be viewed as primary sources, because your source was there, at that time, doing whatever it is you want your character to do when you want them to do it. The use of primary sources allows you to know exactly what it was like, what happened, as told by a witness to an event or action.

Secondary sources are written by writers who have done research using the primary documents. Secondary sources can be easier to get, they can have the added benefit of additional commentary to help clarify the information, and generally they will be easier to read. A “tertiary” document is a piece written using secondary documents for information sources, rather than digging into the primary sources.

For example, an actual scientific psychological study published in a scholarly journal would be a primary document. It will also be challenging for a layperson to read and understand. But an article from a professional, subject-specific journal, such as Psychology Today, will both make the information comprehensible to the average reader and add a plain-language “translation” of the scientific data. The writer of this secondary article used the primary source—the study presented in the scholarly journal—as the foundation for his article, lending it credibility. For a popular article on the same subject—such as found in a newspaper or general-reader magazine—a writer will usually go to the secondary source, because the “translation” of the data will have already been done, making the writing of the popular article much easier. Less useful to us would be an article or paper for which the writer depended entirely on the tertiary source, and so on.

The problem for us as storytellers is that with each level of separation from the primary source comes more commentary and bias to muddy up the facts, and if we are not familiar with the topic, we could get something wrong simply because we relied on the writer of a tertiary source for our information. (See my October 9th comment on depending on Hollywood for our information.) Will this be a problem for our story? It depends entirely upon our readers’ knowledge base, but since we can’t know who is reading our stories, I think it is important to get our facts as close to the truth—the primary source—as possible, because that “suspension of disbelief” we fiction writers depend upon requires it.

Video Sources—The Ultimate Primary Sources for “Show, Don’t Tell” 

Today’s storytellers are so lucky when it comes to digital resources. Forty years ago, a character in one of our stories might have been present for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, or perhaps she’s standing in the crowd as Hitler admonished his people to go to war, and we would have needed to find a film library with a copy of the film in order to describe it accurately. Today, we can simply go to the Internet and search for videos, so we can hear these speeches for ourselves, see the crowds, witness their reactions to the speeches.

And videos are the ultimate resource for that “show, don’t tell” admonition for our fiction. Say you have an elderly man who wants to connect with his young grandson by building something together. You have only to search the Internet for videos on building a tree house, or a bird house, or maybe a soapbox derby car to learn how it’s done. Watch multiple videos, and write what you see. Add in your own characters and fictional scene details and voila!  The scene will practically write itself!

The next time, we’ll look at types of online resources, when you might want to use them, and how to use them effectively.

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storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 7

The Details That Help Build a Story: Time-sensitive topics—legal, medical, and technical stuff.

researchThere are some details you simply have to get right when you’re writing fiction in order to keep your readers engaged in your story. That does not mean you need to become a legal scholar, a medical doctor, or a computer geek in order to include such things in your story—you are, after all, writing fiction—but it does mean you need to get the obvious things right, or at least close enough to right so only a licensed attorney, an M.D., or a computer geek will notice where you come up short. (And if you are any of those things, your story will be much easier to write!)

 All three of these general areas are what librarians call “time-sensitive.” That is, if your story requires current information—or information from a specific historic period—then you need to be doubly aware of the publication date of the resource you use. Like those nineteenth-century matches I mentioned in my last post, you need to know via your research whether something in your story is possible during the time period during which your story takes place.

 But it’s more than just “getting it right” when it comes to research and fiction. Doing your research can also enrich your story in significant ways. For example, in my novel, A Chance For Life, there is an embittered woman with an unwanted pregnancy who wants to force my protagonist to adopt her unborn baby. She wants the adoption all signed, sealed, and delivered before the baby comes, so I had to do a little research to be certain this was even possible. It turned out there is no state that allows the birth mother to sign over her baby until after the baby is actually born, and the time varies between state jurisdictions from just after birth to several weeks or even months. So my fictitious New England town was moved to Maryland, where the papers could be signed as soon as the baby was born. I also learned while adoption laws vary, every state requires an official interview with the prospective parent(s). This is where I hit the jackpot, because I found an online resource that not only explained the interview process and cost but also provided the actual questions asked during the interview. Using this list made the writing of this scene the easiest in the entire book!

 Medical information can be a bit trickier, if only because pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals, and other various entities are out to get your money. Yes, there are a ton of medical resources online, from webMD.com to Healthline.com, but you will also find articles by physicians warning against using these sources exclusively, either because they are inaccurate or because they are simply incomplete. In my mind, a writer’s best bet is to “get a second opinion,” either from another general medical website or from a hospital. And if your story is entirely dependent upon a medical issue, think about finding a nearby university library where you can do scholarly research on a given topic—or even find a local doctor or specialist to interview.

 You can often find enough medical information to make your story realistic via a Google search—for example, I was able to find a historical document on the Oregon Trail that gave me information on treating burns back then, which I used in one of my Oregon Trail romances—but do double check any medical information with another source for accuracy.

Technical details, like medical and legal, can trip writers up. Just last week my mom was reading a book set in the early 1800s in which a child was comforted by her Teddy bear. Of course, she might have had a stuffed bear back then, but since Teddy bears were named after Teddy Roosevelt (president from 1901-1909), this early 18th-century child did not have a Teddy bear!

 Communication and transportation are the trickiest when it comes to research and time-sensitivity. I love watching movies in which the characters have to find a pay phone and a nickel—or a dime or a quarter—before they can make a call. Maybe your cop has a pager? Or can she whip out a cell phone? Is it the size of a brick, or is it a tiny flip phone? Do they have to use a key to open the car door, or can they unlock it with a key fob?

 Larry D. Sweazy has recently written a delightful series of books set in the early 1960s about a woman who is a farmer’s wife in North Dakota who also works as a book indexer (See Also Murder: A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery, Seventh Street Books). Here the technology limitations provide a wonderful historical setting for these mysteries, because Marjorie is still using index cards (no computers!), and her telephone interactions with her New York editor are complicated by the fact that though she has a home telephone, she is on a party line! (Those were the days, right?) These technical difficulties prove major impediments to Marjorie, enriching the story’s plot line, but they also add oodles of suspense to the story.

 Just remember to double check the date of your story setting before you have your grandparents meeting their incoming grandchild at the airport—which was a lot easier to do prior to 2001 . . .

Next time we’ll continue by looking at primary documents and other useful resources for enriching your storytelling. 


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
Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com

Christian ghostwriter · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 6

The Details That Help Build a Story: Historical Stuff

This is a great time to be a writer of historical fiction because of the mass of historical documents being digitized and put up on the Internet every year. Historical societies, historynational historic sites, associations, colleges and university libraries, museums, and other organizations all seem to be adopting the new technology in order to put their collections online. Some require membership to access, but many of them are free to use by anyone.

One of my personal favorites for American history items is the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/collections). So much of this rich collection has been digitized, from photographs and documents that go back centuries to audio recordings from as far back as World War I. WARNING: If you are a history buff, you can get lost in these collections and spend hours perusing American History, Performing Arts, War & Military history . . . and so much more.

Another useful tool, the Google Advanced Search (see my October 5 post), can be a big help in locating digitized images of original historical documents. I’ve talked about historical maps before, but there are also early books, diaries, timetables—there doesn’t seem to be any limit to what you can find, if you can build the search to find it.

I once worked as a ghostwriter on a series of Christian romances set on the Oregon Trail between 1836 and 1861. As someone who grew up in Washington State, I knew something about the topic from my school years, but I needed factual details to add realism to my stories. The good news is there are Oregon Trail historic sites all along the 2,200-mile trail, and many of these are digitizing their collections. I was able to find maps of the trail as it developed over the years, railroad maps showing how people traveled from points east to Independence, Missouri, photographs of camps, labeled drawings of  covered wagons, and even the text of a nineteenth century Oregon Trail travel guide, which covered what to take and how to pack it, including how many pounds of bacon, flour, coffee, etc., so when my characters headed west, they had what they needed and nothing more.

Another ghostwriting job I did was about a late nineteenth century mail order bride. My client had a city in Colorado she wanted me to use, and she wanted her character to travel there in a specific year by rail. There was only one problem: The Union Pacific went as far as Denver that year, but the line farther south had not been built  yet. How did I know? My research on historic rail lines not only netted me nineteenth century railroad maps showing where they went by decade, it also found another gem: a railroad timetable for just a year before my client wanted her story set. So I not only knew where the railroad went, but I also knew when and where it stopped, how long it took to get from point A to point B, and how my character could connect to a stagecoach line to make that last leg of her journey.

So you can find a treasure among digitized historical documents to help bolster your story, and though you sometimes just need a simple historical fact, however simple an item sounds, as I’ve said before, you still need to get it right, or you will lose your audience. For example, one of my science fiction novels is about a pilot from a Commonwealth of Planets who crash lands in the Sierra Nevada in 1873. The first half of the book reads like a time travel story, as my character struggles to fit in on primitive Earth. Historical research was necessary to keep the setting realistic. For example, did they have matches in 1873? Yes, they had been invented, but no, they would not have been using them yet in the American West, so as I edited my first draft, I replaced matches with flint and steel.

Language, especially, can be tricky. I don’t know anything that turns me off faster from a historical novel or movie than the characters speaking modern American English. If you have a word that is either slang or has to do with technology, be sure to look it up! For example, a quick plain-language Google search o, “When was the word gadget first used?” finds the word is a late nineteenth century (1884) nautical term from the French word gâche. So my 1873 characters do not use it—at least not until they leave Earth and return to the Commonwealth!

The old adage, “never assume,” is never more true than when dealing with historical information, and as was true with the cultural stuff, don’t depend on Hollywood to teach you what you need to know about an unfamiliar historical period.  For example, though the prairie schooners used on the Oregon Trail were built by the Conestoga Company, they were not “Conestoga wagons,” which were much larger and heavier freight wagons that proved too heavy for the rugged Oregon Trail. And despite what you see in the movies, most pioneers used oxen to pull their wagons, not the more romantic horses or even mules, because (1) oxen could survive on poorer feed; (2) oxen could travel farther in a day than horses; and (3) the natives were less apt to try to steal oxen. So I hitched oxen to all the covered wagons in all four of my Oregon Trail stories!

Next time we’ll continue by looking at online resources for time-sensitive topics: the legal, medical, and technical stuff.


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 
storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 5

The Details That Help Build a Story: Cultural Stuff

The devil really is in the details when it comes to storytelling. As I’ve mentioned before, if we as writers do not get those pesky details right, then our readers will notice, and we will lose credibility. Perhaps the trickiest area of all is the cultural stuff.

There is a reason creative writing instructors admonish their students to “write what you know.” This is especially true of cultural things, because if we are writing about our own culture, we already know it inside and out, so we won’t make any mistakes. Writing of another culture, however, requires us to really do our research.

Using an Online Advanced Search Option

Businessman pushing virtual search barFinding good information on the Internet can be like that proverbial search for a needle in a haystack, but you can help yourself by using available advanced search options. I’ll use Google Advanced Search for an example, here:

https://www.google.com/advanced_search), though other browsers also have this feature. (You can do a simple search on “advanced search” plus a browser name to find them.)

The Google Advanced Search allows you to do two things very well. First, it allows you to combine search terms effectively by searching on “all these words” or “this exact word or phrase” or “any of these words” or “none of these words.”  In the library we call these “Boolean operators” (named for the nineteenth century English mathematician and logician George Boole), but you are simply using andor, and not to either narrow (and, not) or broaden (or) your search.

Second, the Advanced Search allows you to set limits like language and, the one I find most useful, “terms appearing: in the text of the page,” which will put your terms within the content of the page rather than just in the title or within a series of links to other pages.

When you get good at this, you won’t need to go to the Advance Search screen, because you’ll know how to write an effective “search string” without it. See below for an example.

Case in Point

One good example of doing cultural research online in support of writing fiction is the need to find quality reliable information on the Amish. There are a plethora of Amish stories out there today, because for whatever reason, the Amish fascinate the “English,” and writers—particularly romance writers—are trying to cash in on that popularity. My own experience with writing about the Amish was with a series of Old Order Amish romances I penned as a ghostwriter a few years back. I had no personal experience with these people, and the only guidelines I received from my client were (1) the stories had to be about Old Order Amish people, and (2) they had to take place in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This is where I used those tools I’ve written about over the past couple of weeks, which I sometimes call the A, B, C’s of Resource Evaluation: Authority, Bias, and Currency are the criteria you should use to evaluate any resource you find. This was particularly important in my research on the Old Order Amish, because there is a lot of misinformation about the Amish online.  I was, however, able to find authoritative official sites from Lancaster County. But I also found—and used—two websites by former Amish who have been shunned by their families and communities.  The latter provided useful insight into the culture, though I had to be careful using these obviously negative resources. Currency was also critical for this topic in as much as I needed to find out how the Old Order Amish use technology today—such as refrigeration, telephones, and transportation—and why.

To find these sites, I entered terms into the Advanced Search Screen and clicked “Advanced Search.” The resulting search string looked like this:

allintext: Amish Lancaster County culture OR history OR lifestyle OR tradition OR marriage OR family OR belief “Old Order”

 My trickiest question came up at the end of one of my stories, and I could not find the answer anywhere on the official sites. In this story, a young widowed mother of three finds herself pregnant with her late husband’s last child. There is a romance, and she falls in love with a very good man who wants to marry her and raise all her children. I had originally written a scene in which the family was sitting around the dinner table talking about the expected child, but I suddenly had a red flag go up in my mind, and I had to ask myself, “Do the Amish talk about expectant motherhood in a mixed group of men, women, and children as we do?”

It turns out the answer is an unequivocal NO! I did a search online for information on the Amish and childbirth and found . . . wait for it . . . a blog by a midwife who regularly served Lancaster County Amish expectant mothers! This midwife had years of experience working with the Amish people, and one of the things she wrote about was this very subject: Apparently, among the Amish, no one talks about the impending birth of a child except mothers with one another. This fact was epitomized by one incident this midwife described in her blog. Once, when she arrived at a house, one of the children looked into her medical bag to find the new baby he thought she was bringing!

So I quickly went back and rewrote that scene in my story. If I hadn’t, the Old Order Amish women who would be reading it in the magazine that would be publishing it would never have accepted it—and my client would not have been very happy with me!

So do your research. Use your A, B, Cs of Resource Evaluation. Double-check every resource for authority, bias, and currency. And whatever you do, don’t depend on Hollywood to teach you what you need to know about any unfamiliar culture. If you have never personally experienced a culture, find a book, a Website, or a blog written by an expert. You’ll be glad you did.

Next week we’ll continue by looking at online historical resources.


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 

writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 4

First things first: Thinking Critically about Information (cont.)

As I mentioned last week, the criteria for evaluating resources should be used to evaluateresearch all sources of information, both print and online, but you need to be especially careful with online resources because there are no filters—editors, publishers, reviewers, etc.—between you, the user, and the information you find. There are four main criteria for evaluating information sources: Purpose, Authority, Accuracy, and Currency. Today, we’ll look at AuthorityAccuracy, and Currency.

#2 – Authority

Like any print resource, you need to ask questions. Who are the author(s) and/or sponsor(s) of the web site? Are the credentials (education, occupation, experience, etc.) of the author(s) listed? Do these qualify him or her to write about this subject? And most importantly, can you verify the credentials listed? Remember, anyone can post anything on the Internet. If someone claims to be a professor from a university, go to that university’s website and confirm that they are indeed listed on the faculty—in the discipline they claimed on the resource. Anyone can say they are an M.D. It’s up to you to confirm whether or not they are, so check the hospital in which they claim to work to be certain they are.

Another helpful hint is to check the site’s “about” or “contact” information. Does the site list a phone number, physical address, or e-mail link you can use to verify the legitimacy of the author(s) or sponsoring group? This can be important, because there are organizations out there intentionally trying to mislead people. There used to be a website with the address www.martinlutherking.org. Much of the content on Martin Luther King, Jr., was extremely negative, and it wasn’t until you clicked on the sponsor of the page that you learned it was run by a white supremacist group! How did that happen? They simply bought the domain name before The King Center got online. Thankfully, when you enter the above address now, you are redirected to www.thekingcenter.org, which is the official site of The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know if it took a lawsuit or a lot of money to get the other URL back, but I was pleased to see it.

#3 Accuracy

This is the most challenging of the evaluation criteria, because to prove accuracy, you either need to  know and trust the author(s)/sponsor(s), or you need to do a lot of extra research to confirm the information is true. To do the latter, you again need to ask some questions. Can you verify the information you find on one site in another resource? Is the coverage objective? If not, is the bias clearly stated? Has the information been peer-reviewed or refereed?

Always remember, just because something is clearly written from a subjective point of view doesn’t mean you cannot use it, but it does mean you need to keep that bias in mind when you do. Even “peer-reviewed” doesn’t necessarily mean unbiased anymore. I see stories all the time about top U.S. universities or scholarly publications censoring research by scholars who do not follow the politically correct position of the day. Everyone has biases—even scholars. It’s up to the user to recognize that fact and use information accordingly.

#4 Currency

This is the easiest criteria to assess, though it also rates an “it depends,” in terms of usability. To find the currency of a web page, look for a copyright date. What is the date on the web page? How frequently is it updated? Is some of the information obviously out of date?

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. For example, if your story takes place on the Oregon Trail in 1854, you don’t need to worry about when a webpage was last updated. On the other hand, if you’re writing a story about a family facing a hurricane, and you want to know how FEMA responds today, you’ll probably want to find a website that mentions Florence rather than one that only talks about Katrina or Sandy.

One quick warning when looking for really up-to-date information: If a website says it was last updated on the very day you’re looking at it, be wary, and check back again tomorrow. If it is always updated on the day you view it, chances are the webmaster is using an automatic update tool, so it always looks fresh and new.

Next week we’ll start looking at how to find online resources for details that can help build a story by examining special considerations when researching cultural information.


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 

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

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.

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