storytelling · writing tips

WRITING THE STORY, PART 2 (continued)

More “Who”: Secondary Characters

"WHO?" Vector Overlapping Letters IconWhile you have to pay special attention to your primary characters, secondary characters are equally important to a story. If you’re not certain of what I mean, pull out a DVD of a movie you think is particularly good, watch the movie, then study the credits at the end of the film. (For this exercise, you will probably need to watch something produced since the mid-1970s, because earlier films did not include every Tom, Dick, and Sally in the credits.) As you watch the credits run, note the characters identified only by the role they played: “Boy on the Bus,” “Checkout Girl,” “Dog Groomer,” “Man on the Corner.” Think about these characters for a moment and try to picture what they contributed to the story. Did an interaction with this “extra” character tell you anything about the main characters? Did their actions contribute to the plot? Was it important that your high-paid lawyer put some money into that scruffy guy’s cup, or did he just brush the beggar off? How did this interaction contribute to your understanding of this major character and the story?

I once edited a story about a princess, and one of the things that struck me while reading it was how empty the castle was. The princess had only one lady-in-waiting; no one brought her bath water, no one laid her fire, the halls were empty as she moved from her rooms to the front door and stepped into a waiting carriage. No one accompanied her into the city on her errand—not a lady-in-waiting or a groom. The story felt empty because while the writer had done well in developing her main characters, she’d skipped the “extras”—those characters that add reality to a story, not necessarily by something they say or do but rather by just being there, helping to define the time, the place, the action, and the behavior of your main characters.

 How Many, and How to Keep Track of All of Them?

There is no set number of characters or “extras” required for a story, of course. The entire story might contain only one little boy in a sand box. It might be a cast of thousands in a space opera. The number that is “right” is the number it takes to tell your story—not one more or one less. And every one of them, like every object or action, must contribute to the story, even if only to point out a main character’s personality or set the mood for a scene.

The trick, if you’re like me, is keeping track of all those characters you write about, what they look like, and how they are related to one another. For this, I always create a “cast list” for my stories. I probably started doing this because my writing began in theater, but for me, keeping a separate file open as I write that contains a cast list is critical to keeping the characters in my stories straight in my head. It also works as a time-saving reference as I write.

Here’s an excerpt from my Cat & Mac Mysteries cast of characters:

Catherine (“Cat”) O’Sullivan (28): (pure and clean; descendant of the black/hawk-eyed one); a shapeshifter (black cat); an artist/gallery manager; born on the Queen Charlotte Islands to a Haida mother and white father; her aunt, cousin, grandmother, and great-grandmother are all shapeshifters. [green eyes; black hair]

Cahal (Mac) MacAlastair (33): (from “Cathal,” meaning “a great warrior”; son of Alastair, meaning “defender of the people”) homicide detective who’s burning out fast [hazel/brown eyes; dark brown hair]

Charlie Chang’s China Buffet

Aunt Charlotte (Trimble) Owens (shapeshifter – owl), Uncle Jack Owens (non-shifter, white): Owners of Dreamscape Gallery; Cat moved in with them as a child so Charlotte could help her to live with her shape-shifting nature; lived with them throughout her university years before going to work for them at Dreamscape.

Lucy: Cat’s cousin (also a shapeshifter – black bird); lives with husband in Nanaimo

Tommy: Lucy’s brother (not a shapeshifter); brilliant computer geek who created Dreamscape Gallery’s extensive security system

Náan: Cat’s grandmother; shapeshifter (cougar or lynx)

Tina (Trimble) O’Sullivan: Cat’s mom; Haida; an art teacher (doesn’t shift)

Mike O’Sullivan: Cat’s dad; a white teacher who, like Cat’s Uncle Jack, paid back his student loans by teaching in a Haida village school in the Queen Charlotte Islands, fell in love, and stayed

Mike, Jr., Carl, Matt: Cat’s older brothers; none are shapeshifters

Notice that I give more information for my main characters, including eye and hair color, so when I get to Episode 6 or 7, my green-eyed heroine won’t suddenly have brown eyes. I also threw in Charlie Chang’s China Buffet, a fictional restaurant I put in Seattle’s International District because I knew my characters would eat from there often, and I didn’t want the restaurant changing names along the way.

So try creating a cast list—and don’t forget to add every new character as they first appear in your story. You may be surprised by a seemingly incidental character from Chapter 1 who suddenly pops up again in Chapter 12—and how much time you’ll save when you can simply go to your cast list to find out what his name is.

Next time, we’ll look at developing plots and ask the age-old writer’s question, “To outline or not to outline?”


team.Laura.120x140

 

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 ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com

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Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · Uncategorized · writing tips

Writing the Story, Part 2 continued

More on the “Who?”: Developing Characters

"WHO?" Vector Overlapping Letters IconCharacters are the heart of every story, and writing characters can be one of the joys—and headaches—of storytelling. For me, once the characters come to me, they stay in my head until their story is finished. They don’t always agree with me, either! Sometimes they will stop right in the middle of a scene I’m wrestling with, turn to me, and say, “I wouldn’t do that.” (And yes, thanks to my theater background, my characters do often stop to talk to me.)

The important thing for a writer to remember is that characters must evolve throughout a story. They can’t be wholly good or wholly bad all the time. Even really good people have flaws—doubts, uncertainties, petty complaints, anxiety, irritability—and even characters who are truly evil weren’t born that way and will have something from their past worth exploring. If we want our characters to be realistic for our readers, they must be fully-developed, three-dimensional personalities. Otherwise, they won’t be believable. And they must change from the first page to the last, or there won’t be any story.

Naming of Characters: Does It Matter?

I have been known to spend a lot of time looking for just the right name for a character, but sometimes it’s just a matter of what sounds right at the moment of creation. To me, the only really important things to think about are that each name should “fit” the character (is he an “Ed” or an “Edward”?), and each should be unique enough for the reader to easily keep the characters straight. For example, I personally don’t like reading a story in which Pam and Cam are best friends (unless, of course, mistaking them for one another is part of the story). It would be much easier to keep the characters straight if it were Pam and Cindy.

Sometimes a name’s meaning can also weigh in on my decision. I actually like to search the Internet for baby names, their meanings and origins. I’ll do the same for surnames, if I want a character to be of a specific nationality. For example, in my Cat & Mac Mysteries, I did both. Cat is Catherine O’Sullivan. She was born to a Haida mother and a white father in the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia. She also happens to be a shapeshifter who becomes a cat. The name Catherine means “pure and clean,” while O’Sullivan means “descendent of the black/hawk-eyed one.” These definitions helped me define her personality and character. I named Mac in the same way. He is a man who spends his life finding and protecting the innocent. His full name is Cahal (from Cathal, meaning “a great warrior”) MacAlastair (meaning “defender of the people”). Again, his name helps to define his character.

Do I go through this in-depth naming exercise with all my characters? No, because sometimes it doesn’t matter so much. For example, I used Samantha for my heroine in A Chance for Life, simply because she was supposed to have grown up a tomboy, and I thought “Sam” or “Sammie” would be a good nickname for her. Names, like story ideas, can literally come from anywhere.

When Describing Characters, Show . . . Don’t Tell!

Readers want to know what your characters look like, and we have all read books in which the narrator simply provides a physical description of the characters. But describing a character can be more than just giving their basic “five-two, brown, and black.” If that’s all you give your readers, then you are missing a great opportunity to flex your “show, don’t tell” muscles and really tell your readers about your character while describing his or her appearance. A character description can do more for the readers than simply tell them what a character looks like. For example . . .

You could simply tell your reader what your character looks like:

 Jane was short, with brown eyes and curly black hair.

Or you can show your reader what your character looks like—and a lot more…

 Jane gave up on getting the brush through her wildly curly black tangles and settled for pulling her hair back in a scrunchie. She had to stand on her toes so she could see her entire face in the bathroom mirror she shared with her older sisters, who had both been blessed with their Scandinavian mother’s tall, willowy build, striking blue eyes and silky, easily-tamed blond locks. Only Jane had inherited their father’s Mediterranean olive complexion, boring brown eyes, wild black hair, and short, skinny build. On a good day, she was thankful that, unlike the other women in her family, she didn’t have to trowel sunscreen on whenever she took a walk on the beach. On a bad day, she avoided going to the beach at all, since she didn’t have anything to fill out a bathing suit with, something her sisters wouldn’t hesitate to point out to their friends.

Short, brown, and black, sure, but now we also know (1) she has a dark complexion; (2) she’s envious of her sisters’ contrasting appearance; (3) she resents her sisters’ teasing her about her own appearance; (4) she has a boyish figure (doesn’t like to wear a bathing suit in public); and (5) she thinks her life would be better—or least less stressful—if she looked more like her mother and sisters.

So be creative! What can you character’s appearance tell the audience about his or her personality and lifestyle? Character descriptions can really add a lot to the story, if you’re willing to take the time to go beyond just the facts.

Next time, we’ll look at secondary, or supporting, characters and what they can add to a story.


team.Laura.120x140

 

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 ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com

 


 

 

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

WRITING THE STORY, PART 2

 Finding the Who? . . . What? . . . When? . . . Where? . . . and Why? of your story.

Whether you write fact or fiction, the traditional “five Ws” of writing must be given to your readers so they can know what the story is all about. Some writers will also add the “How?”—some stories demand it—but the key is getting all that information to your readers in a timely fashion and without boring them, so they keep turning the pages.

questions_framedI used to think short story writers had the real challenge. After all, if I’m writing an 85,000- or 100,000-word novel, I have plenty of time to get everything into the story. I was wrong, of course, because the truth is, if you want your readers to keep turning the pages, you have to give them a reason to continue reading. So the who, what, when, where, and why need to appear somewhere in the first few pages, perhaps even on the first page, in order to let readers know what the story is about and give them a reason to keep turning the page. This doesn’t mean you have to give all the characters’ secrets away right at the beginning, but it does mean you have to at least introduce everyone and let your readers know your characters do, indeed, have secrets.

There is a good reason prospective agents and publishers want only the first five pages or the first +/-5,000 words—no matter how long your story is: They don’t have time to read more if the story isn’t worth their time. So if you want your stories to be read, you have to treat every potential reader as a potential buyer and ask yourself, “What can I give them up front to make them want to read beyond page one?”

Starting with the Who: Major, or Primary, Characters

You may or may not start writing your story with a character—you might think of a place or an event first—but as your story develops, you will eventually—and probably fairly early on—need to examine and evaluate the characters as they come along and ask that defining question: “Who is this story really about?”

This may seem a ridiculous question, but I learned early in my writing career that it is an important one. My first sci fi novel (not published) was about two women, both outcasts for different reasons, who meet at a space academy, become friends, and do well enough to both be assigned to the fleet’s flagship. One of the women disappears while on shore leave, and the other spends the rest of the book convincing her captain that her friend’s disappearance was due to foul play—not a dereliction of duty—and she needs rescuing.

One critique I had from an early reader was, “Whose story is this?” The thing is I had intended it to be a story about both women, but this reader didn’t see that. So if I ever do rewrite the book—and I do plan to rewrite it as one of my Commonwealth Chronicles—I will need to work on that one important point. If I want the story to belong to both characters, I can still write it that way to some extent, but I’m also going to have to decide, which is the primary character? Which character’s story is the one that will keep readers’ interest peaked to the end of the story?

The Challenge of Multiple Major Characters: Beware of “Head-Hopping”

One of the challenges of writing two or more major characters into a story is the danger of “head-hopping,” or switching point of view (POV) within scenes. I don’t know of a major best-selling author today who doesn’t do this—with varying degrees of success—but the writing instructors seem to be adamant: Do not change POV within scenes!  There are popular titles out there whose books I have difficulty reading because of this habit. There are times when I will need to reread a page or two to figure out who’s saying or thinking what. So keep that in mind as you write a multi-character scene. If the story requires a change in POV, give the reader some notice—for example, a double space between paragraphs—so they know you’re doing it intentionally. I mean, if the gal jumps overboard, then you might need to switch to the guy left standing on the deck, but put that extra space in, so your reader understands you’re now in his head. I do recommend against having multiple characters reacting to an action or dialogue within the same scene all the time. It can be very confusing to the reader.

One exercise you can use to break yourself of the habit, if it’s something you do regularly, is to step back for a time and try rewriting the same scene multiple times, each from the POV of a different character. It might surprise you to learn just how different each version reads. You can then go back to the original question, “Whose story is this?” You might be surprised by the answer, but it should help you to rewrite the scene where it belongs.

I personally try to stay in one character’s head throughout an entire chapter. This is particularly true for any romantic or heavy-action scenes, because when emotions run high, it can be difficult to distinguish who’s thinking what in the heat of the moment. In my Cat & Mac Mysteries, I try to give Cat and Mac alternate scenes, so the reader keeps seeing them both fully engaged in the story. Occasionally, I will switch heads within a scene, but I do it only rarely and only when a scene, because of the action, specifically calls for it. And when I do, I always use a space between paragraphs to signal the reader the POV switch is coming.

 The next time we’ll look at more on the Who?: Developing characters.


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 ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com

 

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing tips

WRITING THE STORY, PART 1

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be looking at the process of writing a story, from conception to submission. Today, we’ll ask the question, “How does a writer begin a story?” This is, of course, much like asking an artist how he paints what he paints or how she sculpts what she sculpts. Where do songwriters begin—with the music or the lyric? Creativity comes from many sources, and for most writers I know, a story can come from any number of places, with most writers citing more than one, depending upon the story.

 Planning vs. Inspiration 

Birth of IDEA. Concept background.These two concepts are not necessarily mutually exclusive when it comes to storytelling, and for many writers, they often overlap. Writers who write for publications, such as newspapers and magazines, will often be assigned stories, whether nonfiction or fiction. Some writers are particularly good at taking an assigned topic or theme and running with it. Even assigned academic writing can be inspired by personal interest in a related topic. Don’t let the “assignment” get in the way of your creativity!

For me, an assignment is a mixed blessing in both nonfiction and fiction writing. While it can be stifling if the topic really holds no interest for me, it can also open a window to a whole world of interesting research and writing. As a ghostwriter, I’ve often been assigned a topic or scenario. I have ghostwritten a romance series set in a contemporary Old Order Amish community, on the nineteenth century Oregon Trail, and in a fantastical world of shapeshifters—all assigned scenarios for short stories, yes, but I was able to create original characters and plots, letting my imagination free within each assignment.

5183gwhjx6l._sy346_If you are having trouble getting started writing a story, sometimes the best thing to do is to go ahead and assign yourself a general topic or scenario and see where it takes you. My Cat & Mac Mysteries came from a practical desire to write an e-book series I could quickly put up and sell in Kindle Direct Publishing. I’d never written mysteries before, but my research found the best-selling Kindle e-books were short mysteries written in a series, so that’s what I set out to do. From there I picked a city I knew fairly well and let my imagination run free, writing a single murder mystery which has led to four more episodes and counting. Each new story in the series has required an inspirational spark to get it going, but I’m happily continuing to play in my Cat & Mac universe.

 Places to Start

If you are having difficulty getting started writing stories, search the Internet on “writing prompts.” There are hundreds of them available at any number of Web sites for writers. Do some searching, and “assign” yourself a prompt, then let your imagination carry you to wherever it wants to go. Browse through a magazine and study the images. Ignore any captions, and see if you can find a story in any of the pictures you find. I, personally, have written the first 58,000+ words of a novel inspired by a single image I saw on television one evening almost two years ago. The story has a long way to go, but that image remains clear in my mind and continues to inspire the story whenever I sit down to work on it.

 Inspiration Is Everywhere

Pure inspiration can come from anything, so go for it! Either think of what you want to write, and keep your eyes open for inspiration, or start exploring the world around you with an eye for story ideas. You can literally start anywhere: a photo, a real-life news story, something you overhear on the bus, a personal experience, a movie, an odd dream . . . the possibilities are endless. The key is to think like a writer, that is to continuously consider the story potential of everyone and everything you encounter.

The next time we’ll look at the importance of identifying the Who? What? When? Where? and Why? of your story.



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 ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com

Christian editors · storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 10

Some Handy Print Resources I Still Use on Occasion.

researchI have spent the last several weeks blogging about doing research online, and while that is certainly where most of my research takes place these days, especially when I’m caught up in writing fictional stories, there remain a number of print resources on my shelf that I continue to use. A few of these I have purchased new over the years, but many of the better titles have been found in library book sales, particularly those following a major weeding of a college or university library collection. I won’t list them all here, but I wanted to give you some good examples, in no particular order of importance.

 Word Dictionaries

I still like to use a print dictionary, because I find browsing through such a resource always snags something I might miss if I simply look up a word in an e-dictionary.

The RandomHouse College Dictionary, Revised Edition (Random House, Inc., 1975): Okay, I’m dating myself, now, but this was the dictionary I used in college the first time around, and while it is over 40 years old, it still allows me to comfortably browse multiple word meanings.

Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Jeff Prucher, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2007): If you write science fiction, this is a book for you. When I first became serious about my sci-fi writing, I often found myself wondering if the language I was using was too strongly influenced by Star Trek. This dictionary told me, however, that it was okay to use the word “starship” to describe the interstellar ships in my stories, because the word was first used in a story published in Astounding Stories in December of 1934—in all likelihood, the same place Gene Roddenberry acquired it!

Dictionary of Word Origins: The Histories of More Than 8,000 English-Language Words (John Ayto. Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1990): There is actually a 2011 edition of this title available in Amazon.com today. As I’ve mentioned before, the history of word origins can be particularly important when writing historical fiction. Contemporary jargon does not belong in a historical story, and if you can’t find the history of a word in the free, online edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, you may want to have a copy of this book on the shelf.

Biographical Dictionaries

New biography reference sources rarely include complete lists of historical names you might need if you’re writing in the past, either fiction or nonfiction. The four biographical dictionaries I have were all found in library sales, and while I don’t use them often, I am still glad to keep room for them on my office shelf.

Webster’s American Biographies (1975) and Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary (1988): These books are my first stop when I can’t find someone any other way. The former has expanded articles on 3,000 notable Americans, and the latter provides the “essential information on more than 30,000 deceased men and women from all parts of the world, all eras, and all fields of endeavor.” Like most reference resources, these books provide a place to start if you have a name and nothing else.

The Dictionary of National Biography Founded in 1882 by George Smith: The Concise Dictionary From the Beginnings to 1921 (London: Oxford University Press,1930): This is a historical treasure, which I rarely use but enjoy browsing on occasion. It can also be a fascinating source of historical names. I find myself perusing this volume when I’m looking for interesting names for new characters in one of my books.

Dictionary of Saints (John J. Delaney. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980): Billed as “an up-to-date, easy-to-use compendium of factual information” on 5,000 saints, the entries range from basic facts to column-long articles. This is a very handy reference for those who write anything about Church history, especially if you want to research a less famous saint.

 Quotation Dictionaries

We all like to quote famous people, and while there are a plethora of online sources with quotations, this is one instance where you will want to use a print volume that (a) has some authority and (b) provides the actual source of the quotation. Far too many online writers wrongly quote famous individuals!

Familiar Quotations, Thirteenth Edition(John Bartlett. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1955): Bartlett is probably the best known collector and publisher of quotation books. This particular collection is organized by both person and topic.

 Timelines

These resources can put any person, place, thing, or event in historical context, making them extremely helpful to historical writers.

The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies (1990): Organized by topic from Explorers and Exploration to Sports, this reference gives limited timelines per heading under subheadings. The section on technology is particularly helpful.

The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events, 3rd Revised Ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975):  I find this volume more useful for my writing than the above, because this one is organized by year. For each year, significant people, places, and events are given under the headings of History, Politics; Literature, Theater; Religion, Philosophy, Learning; Visual Arts; Music; Science, Technology, and Growth; and Daily Life. So, if you have set your story in 1965, you can look up that year and see what was going on in the world around your story. A revised 2005 edition is available.

 Style Guides

“Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.” When writing for academia or publishing, you do, of course, need to use the writing style guide required by your discipline or a publisher. While I have years of experience writing in MLA Style (Modern Language Association) and APA Style (American Psychological Association) due to my eclectic academic background, these days I stick with the two style guides used and recommended by Christian Editing Services.

The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press): Used by writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, copywriters, designers, and publishers world-wide, unless someone specifically requires another writing style, I would recommend sticking with Chicago, which is up to its 17th edition now and is available online in both print and ebook format.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, 4th Edition (Zondervan, 2016): This manual fills in all the holes found in Chicago and other style manuals concerning Christian writing. There are simply terms, ideas, and other nuances used by Christians that need clarification for Christian writers.

 Biblical References

Though I value greatly what BibleGateway.com has to offer, sometimes keyword searching in a humongous database just doesn’t work. Simply searching in the wrong Bible translation may make it impossible for you to find a passage you need.

Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1949, 1966): Alexander Cruden (1701-1770) has been the standard in English language biblical studies for over 250 years. I found my edition, once again, at a college library used book sale, but this one is still in print and can be found in Amazon as well as Christian book stores everywhere.

The King James Study Bible, 2nd Edition (Thomas Nelson, 2013): Whichever translation you use, be sure to acquire a good study Bible. Thomas Nelson puts out a really good one that includes multiple topical indices, references (color maps; monies, weights, and measures; an illustrated Jewish Calendar; etc.), a brief concordance, and footnotes all through.

Whatever you do as a writer, you should never underestimate the usefulness of a print reference book. Looking up facts online might be the quickest way to find needed information, but there’s something to be said for browsing entries in a reference book and the occasional serendipitous encounter with information you didn’t know you needed. As writers, we can never know what we might stumble across along the way.

This completes our series on research. The next time, we’ll look at some New Year’s writing resolutions and how you might go about planning your 2019 at the keyboard.


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 ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com

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.

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. 

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