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This is a great time to be a writer of historical fiction because of the mass of historical documents being digitized and put up on the Internet every year.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tool, the Google Advanced Search (see my October 5 post), can be a big help in locating digitized images of original historical documents.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 
Advertisements
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.

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.

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

Where to Begin?

So you’re ready to write a story that will make your point, one that will help your readers to get whatever it is you’re trying to say. Now what?

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are writers—maybe even more, because some writers, like me, write different stories from different starting points. Should your story start with the characters? The setting? The plot? Or from something else altogether? Anything—and I mean anything—can trigger a story in a writer, so don’t be afraid to respond to something that inspires you.

I have at times awakened in the morning with the entire cast, setting, and plot in my mind (as I did for my novel, A Chance for Life), and I have spoken to other writers who, like me, tend to dream quite vividly and wake up with story after story just waiting to be written. (This is a good reason to keep a notepad and pen on your night table!) At any given time, I might have the cast of three or four different novels or stories running around in my head, all trying to get my attention. Sometimes it is just a character, waiting for me to find the right setting, the right plot, in which he/she will find a home. Sometimes I see something on the news to which I simply have to respond with a story.

The truth is, as a writer, I can find ideas and inspiration anywhere—and so can you. You simply need to open your imagination to the possibilities. Some of my own examples include:

  • My sci-fi short story, “Memorandum,” was inspired by the Walt Disney film, The Three Lives of Thomasina (from 1963).
  • My so-far unfinished novel, Unconditional Love, was inspired by the image of a starving dog on one of Animal Planet’s Animal Cops
  • My novella, Voices in the Night, was inspired by a scene in a seriously strange dream I had one night.
  • My novel, The Stars of Home, was inspired by a Star Trek novel I read years ago.

So if you want to write a story, and need ideas or inspiration, just look around you. Images, in particular, can provide a good jumping-off point. Flip through a magazine and find a photograph that strikes you. Ignore the caption, and make up one of your own. The starving dog in that Animal Cops episode I saw that night didn’t survive in real life, so I started to write a novel in which the dog not only survives, but she helps the emotionally troubled main character who rescues her to heal and find love.

If you’re serious about writing, do try to write at least a little every day, even if it’s only a new caption for a picture you have sitting on your desk. You might try some fan fiction—pick a favorite TV show or movie and write a scene with a new character. No, you’ll never be able to publish it, since the rights belong to the show, but it is good practice and can be fun. (I actually submitted a Star Trek: The Next Generation script once, which was a terrific waste of time, business-wise, but it was sure fun to play in the ST universe for awhile!)

Some say start with short stories and work your way up to longer pieces, but since my first fiction was a three-act play and my second was a full-length novel, that doesn’t really work for me. It was years later before I started writing short stuff for quick ghostwriting jobs.

Whatever you do, if you want to write, just start writing, and see where it takes you. Don’t expect a best-seller right out of the gate, but do keep practicing your craft. Don’t be afraid of exploring any tiny creative nugget of an idea. Let go, and let your imagination take you wherever it wants to go.  Writing can be as much of an adventure as a cross-country trip—and can take your imagination a lot farther than your car in both space and time.

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

How to Make Your Point, Part 2

Actions Do Speak Louder than Words

This is an obvious statement, but it is no less true in fiction than it is in real life. You shouldn’t want your characters to preach any more than your narrator. We get plenty of the do-as-I-say-and-not-as-I-do-crowd in real life. Why would we expect readers to want to deal with that kind of hypocrisy in a book? If you have created a character who believes strongly in something, then let them act on it even before they talk about it. A character who speaks out about animal cruelty in a story should definitely have pet of some kind. Let your character who is pro-life or adamantly against child abuse volunteer at a place that provides pregnancy support services or as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Christian characters should behave in a Christian manner toward their neighbors—and if they have to work really hard to be nice to a nasty old man who lives next door, so much the better, because your readers will be able to relate to such a challenging but probable scenario.

Of course, if you have an antagonist who is thwarting your protagonist at every turn, let him be the hypocrite, by all means. It will give your readers even more reason to support your protagonist. It will also provide a nice contrast to your protagonist, who is practicing what she preaches.

 Present Both Sides for Realism

If you really want to make a point, be certain there is an antagonist and that he is as reasonable-sounding as possible. After all, not all of your readers will be on the same side of your issue as you are, and your point will be that much more effective, if your antagonist appears just as reasonable as your protagonist—even though he is wrong, of course. And the more emotionally-charged the issue you’re confronting, the more important it is to have your protagonist behaving and speaking in a logical, well-informed, rational way. But be sure and do her research for her, so she gets the facts right when the confrontation with her antagonist occurs!

The good news is that in fiction, you control the scene and how all your characters respond to what’s happening. You can have a violent confrontation or a quiet, one-on-one meeting or any combination thereof. It’s completely up to you! That’s the beauty of being the writer! Just remember: Let your protagonist do all the talking. Let her words and actions make your point for you.