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Welcome to my website & blog! If you’ve come over from the Pikes Peak Blog, we’ll get to the topic of research in just a minute. Either way, I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog. If you like what you find here, make sure to share on your own social media platforms.
Over at Pikes Peak I wrote that you should do your research before you write your book. I want to pars this out, if I may. Research is really important, now. In the past, genre’s like historical fiction, science fiction and political thrillers had to get the details right, or else lose the readers. However, times have changed. Thanks to authors like George R R Martin, even fantasy have to get the basics of their world correct or else it just won’t make sense.
However, you can go too far.
I have heard stories in the dark recesses of the internet, about amateur writers who spend every waking moment doing research. If they right science fiction, they order that large, high school Periodic Table poster made out of vellum, so they can look up atomic weights at their leisure.
If they write, Historical Romance, they find and save hundreds of pictures of horses and horse tack so their description is spot on in that one scene.
Don’t be either of these people.
What I mean by doing your research, is have a general familiarity with the time period, the social conventions, and the political landscape of your story. I want you to do this so you don’t find out that your book is implausible because of a basic historical fact. (While it’s real cool to write a story about British SAS troops fighting in World War I, it will probably never get published. The SAS weren’t formed until World War II.)
Once you’ve done that research, then write your book. Do whatever you want to do in that story. When you are done, then go back and research the minutia.
Research the appropriate colors manufactured in clothes. Research the kinds of handles and cross guards used in swords. Research the way food was prepared, or how women put on corsets. Research, research, research.
But if you try and do all the research upfront, there is a very good chance you will never finish your book. I know from experience that a flawed book draft in my hand can be fixed faster than a book that was never written. Don’t be that guy who never writes their book.
Author Susan Spann has a great system for research. She writes the Hiro Hattori Novels, set in 16th century Japan. When she’s writing her draft and needs the name of a place, or object, she doesn’t stop writing and go research for an afternoon. She leaves it blank and places a note in her digital copy reminding her to look this stuff up later. When she’s done with the draft, Susan goes back and researches the specifics and puts them in her book. Her system is efficient and effective.
Whew. Glad I got that off my chest. Remember kids, before you start writing, get the basics down. Then when you’re done writing your draft, go back, at some point in the editing process, and find all of the minutia we readers of Historical Fiction love to nitpick about!
Now let’s talk more about research. Real research.
On the Pikes Peak blog I wrote that Wikipedia is a good way to get some general information about a time period if you’re a little sketchy. I still believe that. But what other sources can you use once you’ve exhausted Wikipedia?
1.) Your local professor and college. If you live in a major metropolitan center there is usually a college of some sort in your area. It doesn’t have to be a major research institution like Stanford or Yale. It can be a community college. Whatever it is, visit the colleges website. Find the history department webpage and browse. They should have a list of their faculty and their expertise. If they don’t, then call the department and ask. Part of the department secretary’s job is to help answer questions like this. Once you’ve got a hold of the right person, email or call them. Be honest and tell them you’re writing a book and want to ask them a few questions.
I know this can be awkward, but remember these people have dedicated their lived to the study of History. They would probably love to make an appointment to talk about something they love. (Don’t we all?)
If you can’t find what you need in the history department, check out the ethnic studies department, gender studies, English, or even the psychology department. Some universities also have thriving drama departments where people practice choreographed sword fights, make costumes for plays, and set design. These people could be great resources for your book.
2.) Historical Reenactors. I put this here because I used to be a reenactor for ten years during my misspent youth. Many of these people have the same dedication and work ethic of the professors above, but are much easier to approach.
They’ve also got an experience with history that the professional historian may not have. The reenactor has also worn the clothes, fired the weapons, made the tools . . . you get the idea. Their perspective will be unique. They are also very colorful people. You can find reenactors everywhere. From Chicano kids who wear 1940s pachuco fashions and swing dance, to guys who make and wear Roman legionnaire costumes.
I will have to caution you though. These are not professional historians. Sometimes they have their own agendas, like all of us, and will push a perspective on history you may disagree with. It doesn’t happen often, but you should be aware. (I once had a fellow reenactor tell me that Ireland was an independent nation during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. Yeah, read a book dude.)
3.) Documentaries. If reading through dry Wikipedia entries aren’t your thang, then try to find a documentary. There are some lovely ones out there right now. Clearly, we are living in an information renaissance. Amazon Prime has some, as does HULU. However, for my money you can’t be Netflix and PBS. Both make great independent documentaries. They also show documentaries produced by National Geographic and the BBC. The added benefit is that you get the visuals. You see the way the fabric moves, or the cloud of gunpowder. You also get to listen to professional historians, archeologists, anthropologists and many other experts get right to the point.
4.) Youtube. I LOVE Youtube. I have spent entire days just watching Youtube. Youtube you to be about cat videos and funny vines. Now it’s about everything. I watched a guy install a medicine cabinet in his bathroom on Youtube. He gave me the courage to try in mine. I learned a dozen food recipes on Youtube and found them all delicious. I even watched a video on how to change your car’s lightbulb on youtube and then changed my own.
Whatever questions you have about history can probably be answered by a Youtube search. I have found pages that go into weapon metallurgy, discuss sword based martial arts, 18th century American cooking, and more.
The benefit of Youtube is that the creators of these videos usually make more, in depth, videos. It’s like a documentary that has new segments every time you return.
Now there can also be misinformation on Youtube. People with agendas. But it is a resource for your research.
I truly hope this has been helpful. If you have any questions, leave a comment below. Or, sign up for my email list. Like and share, too!
Next month, we talk about actually writing your book!
Have a GREAT February!
Jason Henry Evans
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Wow. 2016 is OVER.
I know for a lot of my friends in the Denver writing community 2016 was awful, just awful. Professional setbacks, personal loss and a lot of fear for the future. I too, had my setbacks, professionally and personally. Some of my relationships frayed.
I even stopped talking to a dear friend and mentor in January of 2016 and haven’t heard from that person since. This doesn’t even begin to talk about all the talented people we lost last year, either.
Remember though, darkness is not the negation of light, but its absence. If you look for them, you’ll find little points of
light illuminating the way.
For me, 2016 was a very good year for my writing career. I made some wonderful acquaintances and had some great experiences. But enough vagaries. Let’s review.
At the end of 2015 I wrote on this blog that my goal for 2016 was to write four 85,000+ word novels for the year. I also said I would write four short stories and get one of those books published. I did not complete any of those goals.
This is what I did do:
Did a complete re-write of my first novel, The Gallowglass (pronounced gallowglauw). It was 109,100 words long.
I wrote a second novel. This one a thriller set during the Crusades. I call it Jerusalem’s Menace. It was 99,000 long.
I wrote three short stories. Of those three, two got published in anthologies.
So that’s pretty good, right? I completed about half my goals. Not bad, but not great.
As I was going through all of my writing this year, I started adding up words. Here is what I realized.
|WRITING PROJECTS||WORD TOTAL|
|The Setting Sun of Empire Short Story (pre-edits)||12,147|
|Answering the Bell Short Story (pre-edits)||10,462|
|Hero Maker Short Story (pre-edits)||6,822|
|Failed Nanowrimo Novel||3012|
Grand Total of words written in 2016 248,671 words
I know I’m under about 1,500 words but I’ll take it. I wrote around a quarter of a million words in 2016. That is HUGE! When I added the numbers up I kept double checking and still came up with this. I was simply blown away.
But this was just the beginning of my successes in 2016. Here are a list of the others:
- I joined Belmar Critique Group.
- I taught a class called How to Write Authentic African-American Characters for both the Pike Peak Writers summer Write Brain program and the RMFW Gold Conference.
- Lead or sat on seven panels at Denver ComicCon this year.
- I had two agents request two full manuscripts and a third agent ask for three chapters of each novel.
- Had a class on Renaissance costuming accepted for the 2017 Historical Novel Society Convention in Portland.
- I became a regular blogger for Pikespeakwriters.blogspot.com.
- Had The Setting Sun of Empire accepted into Penny Dread V Anthology by RuneWright Press.
- Had my first literary story, Answering the Bell, accepted into a charity anthology entitled Shatter Your Image,
- Finally, the thing I am most proud of, Nikki Ebright asked me to join her non-profit, Shiny Gardens. Shiny Gardens will now support Nikki in running Myth & Legends Con, as well as several other events planned for the future.
Looking back, I can honestly say some amazing things happened to me. I made relationships with writers and editors. I reached out and took advantage of opportunities. Most importantly, I tried to give back.
I have found that the more positive I am, the more I am willing to work, and the more I am willing to help, the more successful I will be. I can’t believe I’ve figured this out at 46, instead of 26, but better late than never.
I could be sad or angry or bitter about the things I failed at, or I can learn from them. I can look forwards and see the road to professional writer open in front of me. I can be upset about the things I didn’t do and didn’t get, or I can make a plan and work. I choose the latter.
So what’s going on in 2017? OK, here are my goals for this year:
- Write two novel length projects, 85K+ each.
- Write two 20k-50k novella/short novel length projects.
- Blog once a week on my site.
- Write six short stories, from 3-6K.
There is a saying that you have to write a million words before you get any good at it. Whether it was David Eddings, Jerry Pournelle, or Ray Bradbury who said it, is inconsequential. If it’s true, then I will be half way to a million words by the end of 2017.
I have some other writing-related goals as well. I want to attend the following conferences:
- Historical Novel Society Convention
- Pikes Peak Writers Convention
- Colorado Gold Conference
- Romance Writers of America Conference
Yes. I want to attend RWA Conference this summer. I literally don’t know how this is going to happen, but I am putting it out there. I wanna run with the big dogs and the big dogs run at RWA.
I hope you continue to follow me on my blog. If you can’t come back regularly, then sign up for my email list. If you choose to join, I’ll reach out about once a month with updates on where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing.
2017 looks to be amazing!
Many of my friends know that I am member of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It’s an organization of people who care about writing. Many of them are amateurs, many are professionals, and many of us are somewhere in between.
Every year they hold a competition for writer of the year. On a Saturday afternoon in July, RMFW held a cocktail party to announce who would win the award for 2015. I decided to go because these are great opportunities to meet other writers and network.
This year the winner was another California transplant, like me, named Susan Spann. I was expecting Susan to say what was expected; thank you, I’m so humbled, what a surprise, etc. After doing that she said this.
We all turned to writing because at some point we felt we didn’t belong in this world; so we had to make our own.
Those words hit hard. Harder than almost anything I’ve heard, outside of church, for the last five years. It was so true.
I’m going to admit something; I have never felt like I belonged, anywhere.
In high school I tried playing sports and embarrassed myself.
I joined half a dozen clubs, too, and none of them fit me.
In my early twenties I coached high school sports, tried acting, joined a gym, role-played and got heavy into politics. I enjoyed most of it, but always felt like an outsider.
The closest I got to belonging, really belonging, was acting at the Renaissance Faire.
I was a teacher for 14 years. Every day I walked the halls I felt alienated. I didn’t get along with other teachers or my administrators. I felt closer to the security staff and the custodians than anybody else. I thought they were petty and small people. I thought some of them shunned me because of my politics, or my big mouth, or my weight. In a faculty meeting of 60 people I felt utterly alone.
Now I know it wasn’t any of them; it was me. I wasn’t meant to be there. I was the fish trying to work in a factory; I didn’t fit.
When I compare my teaching days to what I do now, I am overwhelmed by how happy I am. I have created a tribe of people around me. A tribe of writers who understand me, celebrate me, and accept me.
I don’t know where you are in life, but stop worrying about what you’re supposed to do and start figuring out what you want to do. Listen to what your peers say to a point; be open to every opportunity; work hard and what you enjoy; be humble and help others along the way.
I know everyone says this, but I have found it to be true. Don’t wait until you’re 43, like I did. Go out there and take a chance.
In the last six months I’ve been asked to run an online magazine, I sat on panels at Denver Comic Con (more of that in my next blog), did a book pitch which lead to a sample request, and I’m going to teach online classes in writing.
I never thought I would fit in. I never thought I would belong, but I do.
If you’re reading this and you’re unhappy in your life, make changes today. Ask for help, take calculated but bold steps, and move in the direction of your happiness; find your tribe.