Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Intriguing Observations: Maximizing Research

The Intriguing Observations series was created to gather some of the greatest supporters and bloggers to provide their own insight on all things creative both in their ventures and their techniques. This week on the guest series is another all-star supporter and an outstanding wordsmith K.M. Weiland.


Research is vital no matter what kind of fiction you write. I spent almost as much time researching modern-day Chicago for my fantasy novel Dreamers Come as I did the Third Crusade for my historical novel Behold the Dawn (scheduled for release October 1). I’ve always found it odd that some authors approach research as if it were the bane of their craft. Since most of us write fiction in an urge to learn and grow, research is a natural extension of that. On average, I spend three months researching any given novel before diving into the writing. And I love it. I love discovering the solid facts—the bricks—that will turn the imagined walls of my story into something solid. That said, I’m very much aware that research can be both overwhelming and frustrating. Following are some of the tricks I’ve adopted for my own use.

Photo Credit
1. Know the Questions. Usually, I decide to set a story during a particular period or place because I already possess some interest in and at least a basic knowledge about it. Using that foundational knowledge, I’m able to complete my sketches and story outlines. By the time I officially begin my research, my story is already almost fully formed in my head, and I have a very good idea of what questions I need to answer during my research phase. For instance, in Behold, I knew I needed to spend a lot time learning about not only the Crusade itself, but also the world of the tourneys—the huge mock battles that were loved by the knights and banned by the church.

2. Find the Resources. The first thing I do is run several searches through my libraries’ online card catalogs. My goal is to pick up every book my libraries have available on my subject, so I try to be as thorough in my keywords as possible. After evaluating whatever I’ve come up with, I’ll complete my research library with the necessary purchases. If I have any blanks remaining once I’ve finished my books, I’ll utilize the Internet—although it should go without saying that you have to be careful about the reliability of Internet sources. (Check out my links page for some great research resources.)

3. File the Gems. Research notes aren’t worth much in the long run if they aren’t easily accessible, so I’ve constructed a system of note keeping that, although a bit time-intensive in the beginning, pays huge dividends over the course of the novel. Whenever I run into a snippet of information that I think might prove useful to my story, I either highlight it (if I own the book) or pull out a notebook and mark down the page and paragraph numbers and the first and last three words of the information I want. For example, if I want to remember something on a book’s thirty-first page and second paragraph, my shorthand note looks like this: 31:2 “First three words… last three words.”

The next day, before settling in for more reading, I take my books to the computer and use my notebook to find the passages I marked the day before. I type them up in a Word document, which I divide into appropriate headings. For Behold, I used headings such as “Animals,” “Children,” “Home Life,” “Tournaments,” “Warfare,” etc.

This may initially look like a lot of extra work, but it’s not. When I’m in the middle of a scene and I need to know what kind of food an earl would serve at a banquet, my elaborate note system keeps me from having to dig through piles of dog-eared books in search of a minute detail. Instead, I can either look through my research document’s headers in search of “Food & Dining,” or I can simply hit the Find button and run a search for “banquet.” Either way, it takes seconds to find the information and continue writing my scene.

4. Add the Visuals. Something else I find extremely helpful is a folder of images. Maps and landscape pictures are particularly valuable when I’m writing about a place (such as Syria—or Chicago) with which I am totally unfamiliar. But it’s also nice to have pictures of period clothing, diagrams of weapons and machinery, and maybe even a collection of people pictures for character inspiration.

5. Take the Responsibility. Very probably the single most important facet of portraying authenticity is chutzpah. If you act like you know what you’re talking about, most readers will buy it, whether it’s true or not. But hand in hand with that understanding goes a realization of the responsibility we have for giving our readers truth in exchange for their trust. None of us are ever going to get the facts one hundred percent correct, but checking and double-checking our sources is important lest we convey an incorrect fact or impression. The line between learning as many facts as possible and using our imaginations to fill in the blanks is a delicate one. If, for whatever reason, I ever intentionally depart from the facts (as I did once or twice in Behold, in regard to dates and such), I always make note of it in an afterword.

As writers, our fertile imaginations are what allow us to create something out of nothing. But it’s as researchers, that we’re able to make that something into a solid delivery of facts that will keep readers from blinking twice at suspending their disbelief.


K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, her book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.

Blog: WordPlay
Twitter: KMWeiland 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lost in Development

I'll open this post by saying that this will be the last post on this platform as everything including the Surveillance Report have been migrated to I would like to thank everyone for their contributions to this blog and continued support. Over the course of the last year this platformed has obtained more than 10,000 unique visitors and over 15,000 page views.

Platform, platform, platform.

As you're first diving into the writing world, you hear a lot about developing your writing for publication and developing your writing platform. There is a lot of discussion about what the first move is towards publication, do you join writing groups or develop your personal brand? While that is more of a personal argument, there is strength in establishing a primary platform after you have cover-art.

When you establish a writing platform, it's not only about creating a medium for your voice, it's about branding yourself and your work. This is where things can get interesting. Personal branding is not only about developing a tone for your work but a distinct style that is identifiable with you. This is the very definition of branding, distinctive style, iconic images and specific tag lines that convey everything that is the brand.

So, when I first launched my platform last year I hoped it would be effective and I had no idea if I would write anything anyone wanted to read or if it would be a representation of my style, my brand. Writing Files and now The Surveillance Report have been very effective both at establishing my voice and presenting my persona, my style and brand. While a blog is essential for any writer's platform, even more essential at challenging your writing skills, it is only a piece of a true platform.

If a blog is the core, the heart of any writer's platform, then the website would be the actual body.

A website presents a unified brand, there are continual updates, video, photo, and easy to use links that tie together all of the author's platform elements. This is where things can now become very confusing. In the past it was as simple as choosing to build a website to represent yourself, today a blog can carry all of the same functions. So, what are the advantages of a website over a blog? Is there even a distinction today? Many websites are actually built using blogging platforms, wordpress, blogger, etc.

As a designer that can also develop I found myself in quite a bit of a conundrum. I had to pull myself away from writing and editing the sequel to Nightfall just to develop a platform that suited my current needs and answer all of the fundamental requirements by readers. Jody and Roni have great insights here and here.

I started scrounging around looking for inspiration, what should an author site have? What are the essential elements, what do the best author sites have in common? Well, to my dismay as a designer, I was absolutely horrified by what I found. Not only do authors violate branding rules, but also every internet marketing premise when it comes to their websites. I could only find the Huffington Post's article on the top Author websites. It was very telling, even top named authors have atrociously bad websites. It's clear that some of these authors would never make it as fresh-blood today.

So, avoiding the mistakes and aiming for a very savvy site, I wasted an entire week building a website that still didn't turn out the way I had envisioned. It was all too easy to stop and call it done, but as a writer today either just starting out or a fresh-blood author platform and branding are just as integral as the writing that you produce. This first effort cost me two weeks and it was a complete waste of time. I did not want to waste my time any further and I certainly did not want to be another of the authors where you stumble across the site and say "Wow, when was THAT built?"

It was about this time I stumbled across an article by fellow wordsmith Roni Loren that discussed her new website and how she put it together with a new platform. So, I followed her advice and gave this platform called 'squarespace' a chance. I gave it a couple of hours and thought it was terrible, I couldn't get it to do anything I wanted. Then it clicked. After perusing the squarespace boards I could get the site to do anything I wanted it to with a few clicks.

I devoted a couple hours to designing the site and with only a bit of fussing I had the entire site built and not one but two blogs constructed (including pulling in all of the Surveillance Report and comments). It was clean, modern and matches all of the needs. While it's not revolutionary in layout or styling, I love the look of it and it is me. It was completed in just a few short hours and now I'm back on track.

-Side note - Particularly proud of the design with the headers. -

 So what is the takeaway? Well, if you're a writer then you need something that defines and presents your brand but you also need something that won't hurt your writing time. Writers are some of the best individuals, and the last thing anyone wants is to hear laughter because of their heinously bad website. A website is the very structure of a writing platform it needs to be built well and it needs to cater to a host of needs including your blog.

In short, writers have precious little time. While you might be able to build, design and orchestrate a platform from scratch, it doesn't mean that you should.

Join me on my new platform and remember to subscribe to the new Surveillance Report there. :-)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Intriguing Observations: Live. Write. Thrive.

The Intriguing Observations series was created to gather some of the greatest supporters and bloggers to provide their own insight on all things creative both in their ventures and their techniques. This week on the guest series is another all-star supporter and NY Times Bestselling author, Bob Mayer.


No Matter the Genre, All Great Books Start With a Great Idea

The kernel idea is the Alpha and the Omega of your book, no matter what genre you are writing in.  By that I mean a single idea starts your creative process and it completes it.  It’s what you begin with and at the end of the manuscript, everything in the book points toward it.

The kernel idea is the foundation of your novel.  When I say idea, I don't necessarily mean the theme, although it can be.  Or the most important incident, although it can be.  But it can also be a setting.  It can be a scene.  It can be a character.

It is simply the first idea you had that was the seed of your novel.  All else can change, but the idea can’t.  It might be a place; a person; an event; a moral; whatever.  But you did have it before you began writing and you must remember it as you write.  If you don't, your story and style will suffer terribly.  You should be able to tell your idea in one sentence.  And repeat it to yourself every morning when you wake up and prior to writing.  Knowing it will keep you on track.

Every new book I begin, I write out this one sentence on a word document as the very first writing I do.  I print it out and put it where I can constantly see it. If you can't do remember this one sentence, then you need to backtrack through your thought processes and find it, because you had to have had it.  Everything starts from something.  Idea is not story.  Because every idea has been done, but every story hasn't.  The kernel idea is the one thing in your manuscript that cannot change.

In one of my early novels, the original idea was an action:  What if Special Forces soldiers had to destroy an enemy pipeline?  That's it for Dragon Sim-13.  Not very elaborate, you say.  True.  Not exactly a great moral theme.  Right.  But with that original idea there was a lot I could do and eventually had to do.  I had to change the target country after the first draft.  But that was all right because I still had the idea.  I had to change characters, but that was fine too, because it didn't change my idea.  I had to change the reason why they were attacking a pipeline, but again, the original idea was the same.

You will have plenty of latitude for story after you come up with your kernel idea; in fact, I sometimes find the finished manuscript turns out to be different from what I had originally envisioned, but one thing is always true: that kernel idea is still there at the end as the Omega.

For my first kernel idea, I made it as simple as possible to enable me to focus on the writing because when I was in the Special Forces my A-Team had run a similar mission on a pipeline.   Since I had a good idea what would happen in the story, I could concentrate on the actual writing of the novel.
I've sat in graduate literature classes and heard students say:  "The author had to have a moral point in mind when they wrote that book."  I agree, but sometimes it is not at the forefront of the story.  Many authors write simply to tell a story started by that kernel idea, which indeed might be a moral point, but sometimes is a story that they wanted to tell and the theme developed subsequently.

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A moral or theme (screenwriters call it intent) always does appear in a book by the time it’s done.   No matter what conscious expectations or thoughts an author has when they start writing, a lot more appears in the manuscript than they consciously anticipated.

After you have that kernel idea, you should spend a lot of time wrestling with it and consciously uncover your feelings and thoughts about it.  I try to look at my main characters and determine what will happen to them emotionally, physically and spiritually as they go through the story.  Who are they at the beginning of the story and who are they at the end?

This is an example of being aware of what you are doing.  I said above that not all authors have a conscious theme when they write a novel, but experience has taught me that it is better to have your theme in your conscious mind before you start writing.  It might not be your original idea, but it will definitely affect your characters and story.

The reason it is important to have a theme in mind is because people want to care about what they read and the characters.  If there is some moral or emotional relevance to the story they read, they will become more involved in the story and enjoy it more.  Even if the reader doesn't consciously see it either.  
Let me give you more examples of ideas I’ve used and gotten published:

What if the force that destroyed Atlantis ten thousand years ago comes back and threatens our world?  Atlantis series of books.

What if mankind didn’t originate the way we think we did?  Area 51 series.

What if Japan succeeded in its atomic bomb program at the very end of World War II and one of those bombs was hidden at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge?  The Gate

Another way to try to figure out what the core of your novel is this:  What is the climactic scene?  This is when the protagonist and antagonist meet to resolve the primary problem that is the crux of the novel.  This is what the entire book is driving towards.

Where’s the shiver?

What excited you so much that you decided to sit in the dark and writer 100,00 words.  That’s not normal, in case no one’s told you.  What excites people you talk to about your book?  I know I’m on target with an idea if others pick up my excitement when I discuss it.

Remember, as a writer, you are selling emotion and logic.  And Kirk always trumps Spock.
A key to selling your book is being able to communicate this shiver to other people.  To get them as excited as you were when you first began writing.

Bob Mayer is the NY Times Bestselling author of factual thrillers. He steeps his stories in military, historical and scientific facts, then weaves those facts through fiction creating an exciting ride for the reader.  He’s a West Point graduate, former Green Beret, and author of more than 50 books all available in eBook that have sold over 4 million copies.  He’s been on bestseller lists in thriller, science fiction, suspense, action, war, historical fiction and is the only male author on the Romance Writers of America Honor Roll.  He is one of the bestselling indie authors in the country.
Twitter: Bob_Mayer

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Nightfall Reviewers Giveaway

In honor of the anniversary of signing with Astraea Press I would like to thank my supporters and everyone that has had the opportunity to read Nightfall. Starting today and running throughout May, I will be giving away some handy things related to Nightfall.

The giveaway will be a drawing at the end of the month for 3 items.
  • -Kindle (a brand new kindle)
  • -Connor's Pendant (A silver, pewter and hematite pendant)
  • -Allison's Digital Camera (An interesting digital camera/camcorder hybrid)

How to Enter:

  •  Write A Review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Blog for Nightfall
                   - Amazon           - Barnes & Noble              

Writing multiple reviews on different sites counts as additional entries. All of the entries will be reviewed on May 30th and the drawing will be held.

To keep things interesting, the model of the kindle will improve with the number of participants in this giveaway. (If there are enough participants the drawing could be for a Kindle Fire or better...)

*It is important to note that this is not about obtaining positive reviews, I'm looking for honest feedback and want to reward the those who have taken the extra step to help support Nightfall.


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