Sunday, June 29, 2014

Research - A Writer's Homework

Research is a kind of homework that comes with writing. Rarely, a writer knows already everything about his story, and then again there is always a dimension that needs research. 

Dimensions or Research
Every dimension is different with regards to sources. However, some sources are almost omnipotent, or rather do have a portal function to different sources. The best example would be Google, but I would also count the library or Wikipedia to this category. In any case it is beneficial to read books, that had the same topic or similar ideas. For example, if you write about time travel, you probably want to read The Time Traveler's Wife, Up the line, or Timequake or watch the movie A Sound of Thunder.

I see the following dimensions, that affects the most of the stories

  • Geography
  • History
  • Psychology/Anthropology
  • Physics/Chemistry
  • Other Areas

You have to know where your story plays. My first novel was playing in Burlington, VT in the near future. I had to use several sources in order to have a picture in my mind. Mostly, I used google maps and its street view, but I also browsed through an extensive number of photos on the web. I did the same with other locations or in order to estimate travel time by car between locations. Of course, the best would have been to visit and spend some time there, but you will probably not be able to do this for all your locations.

However, geography is more than just the location. Depending on scenes you might need to know if one can see a certain mountain or where in spring the sun rises. Additionally, in Fantasy and Science Fiction, the world you build must be cohesive. For example on an ice planet like Hoth in Star Wars, you might want to think about how a food chain could look like. Food chain would also be a topic in Pitch Black. You may not want to build in all research in the book, but for sure you want to have an explanation in the back of your head (and give away some glimpses here and there).

Main sources for geography: 

  • For a present-day view: Google maps/street-view, Wikipedia, Google (pictures), or Pinterest
  • For a deeper understanding of the context: National Geographic or similar geography specific resources, or the good old geography high-school book (or call up your old teacher - he might be happy to hear from you)
  • Special resources: If necessary and available, first hand information is always a good idea, such as calling up the local tourist office or similar. Sometimes, I go very deep and even look-up crime related websites in order to gain a feeling for how secure a certain area is.

History is another topic that affects most of the stories we write. In order to know why things happened, we want to consult history books or online sources, such as Wikipedia or Best History Websites. Again, the various history school books from the library are an excellent resource.

If you are writing a historic novel, the history research becomes crucial. To be honest, I've never written a historic novel, but I would suggest the best resources to start with are the library and historic films/tv shows. You might think the later is too much stereotype, but it will give you a good basis for your further research. Going from there you also might consider visiting a museum in order to get a feeling for the epoch and eventually talk to people who deal with it professionally. Have you ever talked with somebody, who survived a concentration camp, or with somebody who lived in East Berlin when the wall came down. You will understand much more than you could get from any other source.

Main sources for History: 

  • Wikipedia
  • Library (fiction and non-fiction, I'm sure the librarian is happy to help you)
  • Specialized Internet pages: history channel, Best History Websites, etc.
  • Museums
  • Professionals (history teacher/ -professor, museum curator etc.)
  • Contemporary witnesses

The same as with the two first dimensions, the third dimension is again relevant for most stories. Although I suggest to not overdo it, unless you write a novel like Kafka's The Trial.

Still, I think it is key to know some basics about the motivation in human behavior as well as the behavior of the different type in groups. It makes your writing more real, if you are aware of the human nature.

However, if you write a novel where psychology has a main stake, e.g. one of your characters is autistic or a serial killer you need to do in-depth research about this specific part. Outside the usual Internet research and some specialized books ( fiction and non-fiction), I definitively suggest to talk to a psychiatrist or even somebody who suffers from a specific mental illness.

One word to forums: I would stay away from them. Usually, you will receive generalized personal experiences, mixed with answers from non-professionals. It is very hard to filter them out.

Main sources for Psychology/Anthropology: 

  • Wikipedia
  • Library (again, the librarian can be better than google)
  • Professionals (ask your doctor if he knows somebody who can help you)
  • Specialized websites: American Anthropological Association etc.

Outside of the very basic knowledge you might need in stories, especially Science Fiction stories need more background know-how in physics. How far away are the next stars and how long would it take to get there at the speed of light? Why is it, by the way, that with the current knowledge it's impossible to travel at the speed of light?

Some basic knowledge might be found on Wikipedia, but I think the best source might be the SiFi-Forums on the Internet. There are also very good (i.E. digestible) books, such as A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. 

Main sources for physics/chemistry: 

  • Wikipedia
  • MinutePhysics (podcast or facebook page: Complex concepts, explained in an easy way)
  • The Classroom Physics in case you need to start with the basics
  • CERN
  • Hard Sience Fiction literature - these guy did their research

Other Areas
Additional fields of research might include medicine or botanics, for example when you write about the Spanish Flu or the next pandemic. It all depends on your story.

But let me loose some words about economics at the end. Even if you are not writing the next John Grisham, certain parts of economics are relevant for every story. Even if you are creating a new magic system, basic economics applies, such as magic has to come with a cost, or else, why not using it for everything.

Another example would be the Star Trek Holodecks - there must be a cost, otherwise I would enter and happily die in there decades later.

Note: I am aware of the fact, that Wikipedia is a semi-reliable source. While I think it is a good and reliable source in most of the topics, you still have to see it as a POV-library, rather than a reviewed source.

Note 2: My experience with professionals has mostly been very positive. The explanation, that you are writing a novel and need some help to get the background right, has opened many doors.

Happy researching,

Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Comma, A Fierce Creature

I have to admit, one of the things I struggle most, are commas. I'm even not sure if the commas in the sentence before are correct. In German, comma rules are quite clear and you usually have much more commas than in English. When writing, I probably still have these rules in the back of my head. 

Having said that, I can't put enough emphasize on the importance of having the commas right. On the one hand it is pure writer's honor to have the will to get it right. But on the other hand, in not seldom cases, the comma is crucial for the meaning of the sentence. I love the example that I found on the web:

Let's eat, Grandpa. 
Let's eat Grandpa.

Browsing through the web, I found the following rules on different sites:

Rule 1
Three or more words or phrases are separated by a comma.

Example: Jack brought wine, cheese, and bread.

This is the same in German, where it is called itemization, but there is the is already my first confusion. That last comma is new to me. Where I come from, the "and" replaces the comma. Ok, point taken, lessons learned.

Rule 2
Commas separate independent clauses, if joint by and, but, or, nor, so, yet, or for.

Example: I went to school, but my brother remained sick at home.

Both clauses could stay independently. I went to school. My brother remained sick at home. If connected with the word but, a comma is required.

Here is another difference I had to learn. In German, you can separate any two independent clauses without the need for a coordinating conjunction. "I was sick at home, the weather was nice"is a perfectly correct sentence in German, however, wrong in English. An extreme example is the experimental novella "The Assignment" by Friedrich Durenmatt. The novella is written in 24 sentences, of which most go over several pages, using this rule a lot (the novella is still 129 pages long).

Rule 3 
Between an introductory clause and the main clause.

Example: While I am writing, my father is watching the game.

In difference to the rule above, the term "While I am writing" can't stand alone.

Rule 4
Separate an inserted clause at the beginning and the end. This rule also applies to inserted names or titles, when you address somebody as well as for interruptors, such as however or therefore.

Examples: You may have notices, occasionally you can be quite observant, I am on the phone right now. You may have notices, boss, I am on the phone right now. In your opinion, professor, what should we do? I would, however, go live with the product right now.

The main clauses, can exist without the inserted clause, e.g. "You may have noticed, I am on the phone right now". 

Rule 4a
The exception to above rule is, that the inserted clause or phrase is not essential, i.E. it is not necessary to clarify the meaning of the sentence. If it is essential, there shall no commas be used.

Example: The short story you submitted to the New York publisher go accepted.

The inserted part " submitted to the New York publisher..." is grammatically not necessary for the sentence, but it is essential for its meaning.

This is another area I struggle a lot. In German, every subordinate clause is separated from the main clause - irrespective if it is essential or not. I would have placed commas at the beginning and the end.

Rule 6
To separate two or more adjectives that describe a noun. This comma replaces an and. Hence, if the to adjectives are opposites, they have to be connected with a but.

Example: He was a smart, disciplined writer. 

He was a smart but lazy writer. He was a smart, lazy writer - this doesn't work.

Rule 7
Commas are also used to separate dialog tags from the dialog part. I already laid that out in my first dialog blog post in more detail.

Example: I said, "Forget about it." "I can't," he replied.

Now, here is the question; what to do when it is a question? "Forget about what," she asked, "Forget about what?" she said, or "Forget about what?," she said. The last one would be very odd, but with the first two options I'm still struggling. Is there an English master out there who could help me with this?

Rule 8
To separate the tag questions.

Example: I can't do that, can I? I look good, don't I?

Rule 9
Use commas in order to separate introductory words or clauses (including participial, long prepositional, or infinitive phrases, subordinate clauses.

Examples: Yes, I will. However, we shouldn't leave now. Well, who would? Still wearing her pajama, Susan opened the door. Running carefully, still feeling the pain in his leg, Tom tried to catch the train.

Rule 10
Commas are also used in order to parts that express contrast.

Example: It was your fault, not mine.

Rule 11, the elastic clause
Use a comma whenever necessary in order to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

Example: Inside the dog was barking vs. inside, the dog was barking. 

Well, thank you very much for this rule. This is probably one of the main reasons why I might place to many commas. 

So, if you read through my posts and I find a comma mistake, you can either smile and think, well pal, still not there yet, or just send me an e-mail and point it out. 

Happy comma placing

Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Character Voice - Examples

Last week I scratched the broad topic of character voice and at the end I realized I need to follow up with some examples.

A) In Dialog
Manny was late to the reunion. 
"Hey Chavon, I know everybody is late in Argentina, but you just set a new record," shouted Miguel with a grin when Manny walked in for breakfast. 
"I'm sorry, man, I couldn't leave." 
"No worries, we still have two days left to party. God didn't invent carnival for one day. Cheers." Miguel raised his Prosecco to welcome his mate.
"I don't know if I can stay the whole time." Manny turned away, nodded a "hi guys" to the others and sat down at the only free seat on the other side of the table.

This little scene presents two characters Manny and Miguel. Miguel seems to be a guy which has always a joke or a witty comment - outgoing, festive. Manny seems to be a more silent kind of person. In this scene he seem to have an issue or he is per se a grumpy person. Two distinct voices, which allows us to see different characters and without knowing more, we can see real people.

B) In Reaction
Daniel and Tim chased the thief through half the zoo. From far they saw him running into a building. Daniel was catching up, but as soon as was in the door of that building he froze. 

Spiders scared him. They really scared - not like the most of the people feel uncomfortable. He got petrified; already the thought of spider let him freeze. When they were kids, Tim had always mocked him about that. Once he even had eaten a small spider, just to nab Daniel.

The thief had demolished all terrariums with the exotic spiders. Daniel slowly turned around and watched the walls next to him - just to make sure there was no spider next to him.
"I don't go in there," he heard Tim saying. 
We have to, said Daniel's brain, but his feet wouldn't obey. On the other side of the hall he heard the other door going. "We can't leave him with it. We loose everything. I loose Mary." That thought convinced his legs and he started running. 

Tim did not follow him.

Again we have to characters with different reactions on the same situation. Daniel overcomes his fears, while Tim couldn't. With regards to character voice we attribute a special courage to Daniel. Tim on the other hand leaves us in with the impression of somebody with a loud mouth, but chickens out when it is for real. 

Disclaimer (for my honor): Usually I would include more dialog in these kind of scenes in order to show instead of telling, but I wanted to put the emphasize on the internal view of the characters. Additionally I would foreshadow Daniel's arachnophobia earlier in the story so I don't have to interrupt the suspense of the scene.

C) Appearance
First time I saw him, I was disgusted. He was walking down the sidewalk, the cowboy shirt outside the jeans, except in front, so everybody could see his belt buckle. His steps were far too large for his height, as is he wanted to imitate John Wayne. I could hear his boots on the wooden planks followed by a clatter from his spurs. The air was scintillating and my throat got dry.

"Hi babe, you are that new kid in town, right. Want me to show you around?"

I had thousands of excellent answers ready, from snotty to witty. I wasn't able to pull one of them.

This time we see one character through the eyes on another. Still we get a very clear picture of both of them. 

All these examples show clearly how important character voice is. After knowing a character's voice in his entire completeness, consistency along the development of the character is key.

Last but not least I want to bring up one issue or fear I am facing with my own writing. Coming from another language I sometimes have the impression you hear this underlying in the character's voice - especially the dialogs. My character's should sound like Argentinians and not like Germans emigrated to Argentina. Knowing this, I will have to put more emphasize on this during review and maybe ask my beta readers for feedback.

Happy writing.

Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Character Voice

During my dialog trilogy I tapped a couple of times into character voice. So, I thought it might be a good time to pick it up in a own post.

You can define character voice as the way a character speaks. In my opinion, this definition is too narrow. In communication, the vast majority is based on non-verbal or vocal elements. I like to see character voice on a broader angle and include the way a character expresses himself in general; how he acts, his underlying emotions, his reactions and ultimately his decisions. Let me go into more into detail.

Usually I come up with a person I know or I've observed. I'll turn 40 this year and I've seen many people, good and bad, nasty and nice. Also I like to observe people and their behavior, and one day I might take one of them as basis for a character.

I haven't reached the situation where this doesn't work, but I might someday - I haven't written yet about a psychopath or somebody with a specific mania or obsession. Then I might reach a limitation and I would have to do some more research. I know of writers who had spent months in prison, with drug addicts or in a mental home simply in order to understand their main character.

There is one risk with my approach. Don't use characters you've seen on TV or in films. They might be real to you, but taking them you run the risk to create a character which is too much of a stereotype. I see this sometimes in books with cops or military. If you are not sure about one of your main characters, try to find somebody who is familiar with the topic, a cop, a psychiatrist, a social worker - usually they are very helpful.

Most of the time I know the underlying character and I start writing. Over time I have to take decisions that refine the character, based on the following background items:

  • Personality: There are several personality models available in order to explain human behavior, e.g. the big 5 model, the four temperament model or Carl Jung's personality types. I usually go with the five temperament model from the Arno Profile System (sanguine, supine, phlegmatic, melancholic or choleric). It is fairly simple and easily applicable.

    Be cautious, when establishing the basic personality type of your characters. Even if you have a development of a character over time, the personality usually doesn't change. However, it is the exception that proves the rule; there are experiences or incidents that can lead to a personality change, for example a brain injury.

  • Origin (time and place): Somebody from Germany, born in 1939 and stayed there will act differently from a German that emigrated to the US in 1939 at an age of 5. The experience of war changes the behavior of a person. Additionally, there is a genetic code embedded in societies, which impacts the character's voice. Somebody who grew up after a society went through a crisis (lost war, great depression, hyper inflation) will be impacted by the way his surroundings react, even though he actually didn't live during the time the crisis hit the society.

  • Origin (social class): My favorite example is The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby's fixation on Daisy can be explained by his desire to belong to the upperclass. In German we say one can not lie where one's cradle stood.

  • Education: A person acts/reacts/talks differently based on his education. No or very limited access to education vs. university degree, impacts vocabulary, grammar, reasoning etc. In my current novel one of my main characters is a smart person with a basic education when he leaves his home town and over time with his growing experience his understanding of the world and his reasoning changes. This change is reflected in his vocabulary, his reasoning and last but not least his self-esteem and confidence.

  • Experience/lived through: The last example about education shows an important piece - a character's voice is not set in stone, it develops over time based on several factors. One of these factors is experience or extreme situation a person went through.
    Examples? I always say an adolescent or young man believes in his own immortality. The whole life is still ahead and nothing to loose triggers a very low risk awareness, until this one experience or incident that changes everything. It might be something like an irreversible injury like or simply a situation that could have gone terribly wrong. Something that planted the seed of fear for one's own life. This experience changes everything and I am sure most of you know of what I'm talking. 

    When it comes to a character, you can use experience to explain why a protagonist acts out of character. You can also build a whole plot and conflict on experience. Drag them through hell to find out how they are when they come out again. A better man? Worse?

  • Situation: My last point is also the most fluid or unstable one, but situation has a great impact on how a person act, reacts or speaks. One model to be considered is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. A protagonist that is in a life threatening situation (aka who fears for his life) would not go into a debate about the meaning of life. Or a society threatened by an asymmetric war on own grounds (safety) might very well be willing to sacrifice certain rights of individuals (self actualization). Sounds familiar? 
    Additionally, when a major incident happens to the the five stages of grief kick-in; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. These stages can take seconds, minutes or weeks. You can easily build in this model into the reaction of your protagonist in order to increase tension.

    Or you let a character be stuck in one of the stages. I learned this in military; people who are stuck in one of the stages react completely unreasonable. They walk out of the trench in the midst of artillery fire and play with stones, like a little kid or when somebody who sees an accident car vs. motorcycle and the first thing he does is put up the motorcycle not paying attention to the insured driver. 

Now I tapped into the huge topic of character voice, impossible to beat it down in one post. Therefore - to be continued.

On word to dialect or accent at the end. Well, actually two - first, only use it when it seems really necessary for a character. Second, if you haven't grown up with this dialect or accent, stay away from it. The risk you have it wrong is far to high. 

Happy writing.

Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Dialog (3 of 3) - The Master Class

And here it is: Part three and final part of dialog trilogy - The Master Class

1. Trialog
Well, trialog is actually an invented word. I could also have called it multilog as it is about discussions with more than two people. Why is that an issue? Try one and you will see it. You will tend to use much more dialog tags especially as conversations with multiple parties to tend longer. Also with the length of the conversation, I gets more and more difficult to identify who is talking.

In my current novel I'm writing a scene, where two people try to convince a third person to do something. As additional difficulty, the two people are brother and sister with very similar voices just with a more masculine and feminine touch as a difference.

In order to not tap into the dialog tag-trap, I try the following:

  • Have a clear view on each participants role, goal and voice. Every time this person talks I try to hear his voice in my head and write it as distinct as possible. Additionally, during review I read all the dialog parts of one person together and see if some pieces jump out.
  • Use blocking in order to clarify from time to time. Have one person move or leave the room for a moment. It clarifies who is talking for one or two sentences.
  • Last but not least, yes, there will be more dialog tags. However, I usually leave them away while writing and add them at the very end, where absolutely necessary.

2. The Art of Talking by not Saying
Good dialog says what needs to be said in the shortest, most entertaining possible way. Great dialog hides and lets us guess the true meaning.

Take the following dialog from Casablanca as an example:
Laszlo: "Ilsa - I..."
Ilsa: "Yes?"
Laszlo: "When I was in the concentration camp, were you lonely in Paris?"
Ilsa: "Yes, Victor, I was."
Laszlo: "I know how it is to be lonely. Is there anything you wish to tell me?"
Ilsa: "No Victor, there isn't."
Laszlo: "I love you very much, my dear."
Ilsa: "Yes, yes I know. Victor, whatever I do, will you believe that I, that..."
Laszlo: "You don't even have to say it, I will believe..."

Laszlo doesn't really ask for Ilsa's feelings in Paris. He indirectly asks whether she was faithful or not and it is not really clear if he understands that she wasn't. In his answer, however, it is clear that he forgives her. She, on the other side, implies that she might be unfaithful just now for their cause and he approves even that.

Now, look at the same dialog, written in a way things are spelled out clearly:
"Were you faithful in Paris when I was in the concentration camp?"
"Yes, I was."
"I don't know. But I'm fine with it anyway. I love you very much."

For me, I like the first dialog much better. 

Happy writing great dialog

Your writer in a foreign land