Weekly Musing: How Much Research is Too Much Research?

For the past few months I have been deep in once again revising a historical fiction novel I’ve been working on and off for years. While I put in months researching before even drafting a single word, with every subsequent draft I’ve found myself continuing to conduct research. At first the research was to ground myself in the history of the events, the people involved, and give myself a general idea of the culture of the time period.

One of the challenges for me with research has been to figure out how to restrain myself from putting in every detail I come across I find interesting. For example, when buttons were introduced in late Middle Ages Europe they caused a minor scandal as clothing was now easier to put on and take off. Another challenge is how much my own pre-conceived notions change from learning the facts. I go into my writing wanting to correct all the relatively little falsehoods I’ve read and seen in movies. But then I realize in order to move the scene along it may very well just be easier to cut corners. I’m sure there is a way of doing it both correctly and in narratively smooth way.

But the biggest challenge is when to know to back off on over research. Getting tripped up over mundane details which no one will care about yet I’ve somehow convinced myself someone out will be paying attention. For example, I got wrapped up in trying to figure out what was the specific breakdown of the late 14th century currency in England for one scene where one character pays a fee to get his brother out of jail. Luckily I stopped myself from taking it further and trying to find a schedule of fees for such a thing because I’m sure it exists in a library collection. This type of research is a waste of time.

I should be focusing my time on are the different types of castles which factor massively into the story as well as armor and weaponry and battle formations. Things such as landscape and other setting details like food, clothing, building materials are important but not as much. These are the types of details a savvy reader are apt to call an author out on for bungling up not if I said 10 pennies made up 1 shilling in 1403 England. Most importantly the research I should be paying attention to are the things which the characters would care about.

What I must constantly tell myself is a phrase I saw a few years ago: “Don’t overdo the research, don’t overthink the research.” See my brain, which is still so used writing research papers, wants to write in a style of throwing in facts. It wars with the artistic side which constantly reminds me what I now work on is fiction written within the confines of history or whatever reality the story is based on. The fiction is what ultimately should win out. Until I somehow get that through my head, the research struggle shall continue and I shall continue to clog my brain up with curiously wonderful facts that maybe I’ll be use to scream out while playing Jeopardy at home.

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Weekly Musing: Diversify Your Portfolio

Diversity in reading and writing has always been an issue. In recent years it has rightly gained more traction and become the source of debate and discussion within the publishing community and amongst readers. Readers want books from different voices not only in the characters on the pages, but those who write. The publishing world is listening and working to give readers what they want. This is fantastic and is something which is very overdue.

As I’ve mentioned a few times I am a firm believer in expanding one’s reading. This can be accomplished not only by exploring other genres, but by also trying new authors. But when I take a look at my library I notice a trend. The authors on the self are overwhelming white. The protagonists and antagonists within the pages are white. To get even more finite, the characters are straight, not disabled, and if they are religious, fall more in line with the Christian faith. You get the idea. Take a look at your own library and you’ll more than likely find a similar trend or if not necessarily white, you’ll find you fall into some kind of pattern.

This isn’t based on any inherent bias I have nor do I think there is any inherent bias the publishing industry has. At least I hope the publishing industry doesn’t have one. A lot of it is based upon what is available and what sells. I do, though, shoulder the responsibility for what I choose to read and realize I need to do a better job of diversifying my library. This is something I have slowly started to work on. One great resource has been my book club. The leader of it picks books set in different parts of the world as well as choosing non-white, non-Western authors. Another resource has been going to book festivals and conferences. This allows me to meet and speak with authors about their work. And finally, yes, looking at that photo but only if the story sounds fascinating.

But one area when it comes to encouraging diversity in literature is in how books are marketed. Marketing is tricky no matter what, but factoring in such selling points as race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender, it makes things even messier, in my opinion. While it makes sense to market books based upon genre, why is it okay to market using labels based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion of the characters or the author? I understand these are underserved markets but whereas a label like Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, or Western is based upon the story, labeling a section based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion seems bizarre.

As a reader I find this troubling. To me it doesn’t actually help with diversity in fiction, it hampers it. Does it help the average reader discover new and more diverse voices? I don’t think it does and instead this type of labeling reduces an author’s audience into a niche. This has the potential to hamstring an author’s ability to attract new readers. A diverse audience of readers which is what I think all authors desire. We want our stories to connect with people of all backgrounds because we hope something in that story, be it the plot or the character, will resonate.

One of the most beautiful things about literature is the ability for a story to transcend race, religion, culture, time, age, gender, sexual orientation, and genre. A well-told story connects with readers regardless of barriers. It’s why someone who never reads fantasy may fall in love with Harry Potter. Or someone who never reads westerns may love Lonesome Dove. Or why someone who is white can feel the pain and strength expressed in Maya Angelou’s poetry. Literature can teach us about people’s lives and make us better people by forcing us to see the world through another’s eyes. That metaphorical walk in another person’s shoes.

As a writer I am working to better incorporate diversity in my characters. I admit it is a struggle since the characters who come to me are white, straight, and not disabled. Unfortunately any characters who don’t fall into these categories tend to be supporting players. My biggest quandary is do I try to force changes which don’t fit a character purely for the sake of diversity? My hopes this will change as my own reading habits evolve as I am frequently inspired by what I read. Again, it’s the power of literature to show me something outside myself and I am hopeful it will come through in my writing. Everyone’s voice deserves to be heard.

Weekly Musing: NaNoWriMo 2016

2013 was the year I not only started this blog but also the first year I participated in National Novel Writing Month aka NaNoWriMo. Each year since then I’ve participated and won meaning I accomplished the goal of 50,000 words written during the month of November. No small task under normal circumstances and really difficult a couple of years due to coordinating a cross country move and dealing with family matters.

This year, though, I’m not participating. Not for lack of an idea. I’ve got ideas and characters galore, many of which have been nosily rattling around in my head for over a decade. I should probably deal with the backlog at some point. Nor is it because I no longer believe in the idea of NaNoWriMo. I still do and still think it’s a great idea for writers at any stage in their development to try it at least once. It’s a way to work to shake off the wretched gremlins and just accept a crappy rough draft. It’s also great to accept that one doesn’t have to complete the novel in the month of November. Like I mentioned, I’ve used it to start novels and technically last year’s novel isn’t done. I’m not alone in using it as a springboard.

My reason for not participating is I have been focusing the last couple of months on revising a historical fiction book I’ve been working on and off for the past several years. It has a connection to NaNoWriMo because in 2014 I took the opportunity to sit down and start a true rough draft. The first rough draft wound up being well beyond 100,000 words but the first 50,000 to 60,000 words were written during NaNoWriMo 2014. Instead of stressing my brain out with trying to work on something completely new and killing momentum with my current project, I’ve decided to stick with revising my novel.

It is odd not being involved this year. While I’m not participating, I’m still keeping abreast of those in my local writers group who are and have shared on Facebook when my local library is having write-ins. I will miss the rewards you earn on the NaNoWriMo website for earning milestones. I will miss the community which comes together for the month to share frustrations and successes. I will how it encourages me to set up my own rewards both the daily candy, thank you Halloween, and non-food rewards as I each hit target. It’s probably something I should think about whenever I draft a novel regardless of time of year.

So to everyone out there who is participating in NaNoWriMo this year, whether as a veteran or for the first time, good luck and have fun! You will face frustrations and stumbles and staring at walls, but it can be done. Remember, the book doesn’t have to be finished in 50,000 words, just have 50,000 words down by November 30th. Hopefully I’ll be joining you next year in all the nervousness and excitement of a new world.