Saturday 26 June 2021

Writing Historical Fiction - Research and the immersive experience


Only two posts ago I wrote about walking away from stories because they didn't feel right and giving it a rest for a while. I wasn't going to write. I was just going to focus on the edits to Safe when they came in. What a silly thing to state. I should have placed a bet on what happened next as I could have almost guaranteed it. 

Within a few days, an idea for a story came to me in the middle of the night. It was so demanding it woke me up! And the idea wouldn't shut up as a basic plot began to form in my head. I couldn't go back to sleep until it was done. I had no idea if it had legs. I thought maybe if I still remembered it in the morning, it would be a go-er. I did, so I wrote down the basics the following morning. This was going against everything I had said I would do. See writers never do what they say they are going to do! My writing never goes to plan.

But I am having a wonderful time. I am playing with this new story idea. It is historical again. Before I start writing it though, I have to read myself into the period. What this means is I have to do some basic background research. I spend a couple of days reading what I can about the period and the place at the time. Reading around the general history, the country, the culture, and the people. Enough to give me a sense and a feel for the place. A brief immersive experience. The more detailed research will be done when I do the editing and I will add more colour - it is all about the writing cold/edit hot process. I wrote about it here.

It is important to limit this background research because it is easy to find yourself going down many a rabbit hole as things spark your interest. There is a risk you could spend so long doing research that you avoid writing or actually forget to write the book. It is great for procrastination.

Illustration from US 
edition of Flight
by Zach Myers

However, when I am doing this research what I love the most is finding those small details. Nuggets of information that make my spine tingle. They are all very small minutiae, but I know when I use them to inspire my writing, or I include them in the narrative they will add depth to the writing and make it sing. Hopefully giving the writing a richness and a sense of verisimilitude. It is important that research despite adding richness is there with only a light touch.

This is because what I mustn’t do is overload my writing with too much detail and information in order to prove how much research I have done to the reader. Such a rookie mistake. All that does is make the writing inaccessible and boring for the reader. The quickest way to switch any reader, particularly a child reader off. It is all about leaving just enough hints on the page that help the reader paint a picture in their mind as they read, but not lecturing them or slapping them around the face with information.

The other thing I do a lot of when I am doing all this research is think. There is a lot of visualisation going on. It is once again all about the latent processing – I have written about this before too in the same place. As a writer, I see my story as a film in my head as I write and my process is all about getting those images from my brain on to the page. At the beginning of the story, as I start to create it, odd scenes appear in no particular order. They frequently give me a vague sense of the direction of the story as images from the beginning, middle and end appear.

Quite often some of the research I may include will mean nothing to the child reader, but it might do to any adult readers – of which I have quite a few. Also, there is a chance that the child reader might take it in and remember, which is why I try to do as much research as I can and do my best to get it right. I remember Imogen Cooper saying to me, it is important not to get it wrong. I've heard of people being put off a text because they found mistakes. For me, particularly when I am writing historical fiction, I am aware that I am influencing someone's perception of history even if it is fictional. A reader may take it as truth, which is why I try to do as much research as I can. 

Having said that, I do remember a time when a man thought I hadn't done my research. They accused me of basing my representation of General Patton on the actor who had played him rather than the actual person. This really stung. I had spent days and days researching General Patton as he was key to my story. I had read his memoir, war correspondence, anything I could about him, but most importantly spent hours staring at photos of him. I didn't watch the film, watching films are a last resort for me when looking at real life characters. Unfortunately, I highlighted in my novel the one facial characteristic that both he and the actor, George.C Scott, who played him in the film had - a prounounced cleft in the chin! I knew I'd never convince this person otherwise. He'd made his mind up about my researching capabilities and my book, a children's book. There are times when it doesn't matter how much research you do, someone will find fault. Be warned.

I spoke about needing the 'feel' when writing and I am definitely getting that with this story. These little nuggets of information I am finding are helping to create a truly wonderful story in my head. The emotions are there already. I hope they stay. For the moment, I am enjoying the process. Writing is the best job in the world. 

Monday 14 June 2021

Social Media - My love-hate relationship


Fabulous social media friends
Candy Gourlay and Kathy Evans
At my book launch

I very definitely have a love-hate relationship with social media. Probably about ten years ago somebody I knew had a go at me because I used social media. They said 'you know the friendships you make on there are not real?' Well, those friendships I had made via social media then are still some of my greatest friends now. Many of them I've met in real life, and they have been with me through the highs and lows of the last ten-plus years. Proving that somebody very wrong.

I love social media because it is a wonderful place to celebrate the great news. When you shout about your book deals and publications. The wave of support is incredible. It is a wonderful way to keep in contact with friends and family too. With Facebook, I have a closed account for privacy so that my students can't access it, I am able to post things I want to share with my siblings. They can see photos of my children and grandchildren as they appeared. Plus family in Australia and the US can also catch up with what is going on here. Social media can be great for connectivity and communication. I should add, it is not just for the good times. It can be a great source of comfort during difficult times. Being like a huge hug as friends swoop around to support you.

I said I have a love-hate relationship. The hate element is because I am very aware that social media can have a negative impact on my mental health. Social media is fantastic if you are feeling positive. But if you are not having a great day, it can suck the life out of you. It can make you feel you are a total failure. You are not the one visiting all those schools, you haven't got all those events planned, you haven't got another book/film/tv deal. This is when you have to remind yourself that social media is the edited version of someone's life. Nobody shows their true life on there. You don't know know what is going on behind the scenes, what struggles they might be facing, and everyone's journey is a personal one. Plus you need to remember Matt Haig's brilliant words from Notes on a Nervous Planet: 

This phrase is my mantra!

Also, I should mention at this point an element that I have not personally, so far, had to deal with and that is trolls. There are some people out there who seem to think that because they are behind a screen it doesn’t matter what they say. It gives them a right to say whatever they want regardless of how offensive and inappropriate it is because it is 'only on social media' and therefore doesn’t count. Yes, it does! You should never write anything on social media unless it is something you would be prepared to say to somebody face to face.  You do not have a right to pass comment on somebody’s decisions, looks, children, careers, anything come to that. Don’t say anything unless it is supportive. Be kind.

KL Kettle -
brilliant author

It is also easy to become overwhelmed by social media particularly if you try to do all of them. There is not enough time in the day to do them all. Focus on what makes you happy. I confess I have taken a bit of a step back from Twitter as I find it rather shouty. I post some bits and any articles that I find interesting. More recently I have focused on Instagram. I find it a friendlier place at the moment. I have an author page on Facebook and as I said a closed personal page for the family. I am watching TikTok, in particular, K L Kettle and Kathryn Evans who are doing brilliant things on there. It is something I might explore soon. What I try to do is schedule things. I use Tweetdeck to schedule my tweets, so I don’t have to worry about those during the week. I have an Excel spreadsheet with potential tweets listed that I might use, so I do a single brainstorming session that covers a few weeks, then I just dip into the spreadsheet when I am scheduling.  I plan my Instagram – particularly if I have a campaign I want to do. I then sort out my content and save it ready to post. I might spend a Sunday morning doing that, so it is ready. I do though have times when I step right away from social media to give myself and my mental health a break. It gives me a chance to decide what I want to include next in my social media and refocus my life. Remembering what my priorities are. 

The important thing with social media is that you do what is right for YOU and what YOU feel comfortable with. There is no right or wrong (other than being kind and not abusive obviously). There is an expectation if you want to be published that you will have some social media engagement, but you have to mediate between their expectations and your needs whilst being aware of your mental health. Be social media savvy.