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 

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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.

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.

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.