April 30, 2014

On Novel Research

As I've mentioned, I'm currently deep in the research phase for my next novel. I enjoy the various aspects of research: the obtaining of new knowledge, the tracking down of obscure facts, the delaying of actual writing. In the course of many years and drafts, I've refined my research process through trial and error, and I thought I'd pass along some strategies and techniques.

Much of novel research is similar to any other research, including the work you probably had to do for term papers in school. While I still find it ludicrous that in sixth grade, each student in my class had to create a box of index cards filled with details of every major battle of the Civil War, I will concede that this project gave me a strong foundation in research skills. I was fortunate to receive an education that helped me refine these skills as I got older, and later I worked at jobs that gave me further practice. As with any research task, when fact-finding for your fiction, spend time thinking up relevant keyword combinations to run through a library catalog or web search, and always remember to judge the quality of sources. It's also useful if you have an ability to skim information to find the sections that are worth reading carefully.

I do novel research at several different points in the writing process. The initial stage, before I start a first draft, is my opportunity to get an overview of major subjects in the story that I don't know much about. This is where I am right now with INCONCLUSIVE, and one thing I need to learn about is life in a biology lab, so I've been consulting a ton of library books on this topic. I also anticipate plenty of online research, but books tend to be a good place to start for in-depth, curated information.

The advance research stage is the time to immerse yourself in whatever parts of the world of your novel aren't familiar to you, whether it's a time period, geographical area, culture, or career. (If your novel is set in a world of your own invention, you might be doing more world-building than research at this point, but most likely there are reality-based aspects you'll need to learn about.) This is also the part where it's really easy to get trapped forever and never begin writing the story, so it's advisable to give yourself a research deadline. (Note to self: Set a research deadline.)

Once you've decided that you know enough and can start writing, you're going to quickly find out how much more research you wish you'd done. When you're in the middle of a scene and there's some information you want to look up, you're supposed to make a note of it, keep writing, and fix it at the end. That's what everyone says, but I'm terrible about this, because I don't like moving forward in a story if I'm uncertain about what's happened so far. The deal I try to make with myself is that instead of interrupting my writing for a research excursion, I can investigate the question that night, or the next day at the beginning of my writing session, so I feel comfortable knowing I'm not getting too far ahead with a fact unchecked.

There's always the potential for more research, so I always have to exercise judgment about how much to do when, and sometimes I don't get the balance right. I'm sure I've put dozens of hours into verifying details of scenes that I removed in a subsequent draft. Ideally, you'll stick to more general research early in the writing process, when a story is still in flux. Then plan to devote time to another research stage after you've completed a draft or two and have some certainty about both what's happening in your story and what you still don't know.

I'll wrap up my research advice next time with some tips on record-keeping and choosing sources.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Bill Morris at The Millions considers second novels and asks, Are We Entering a Golden Age of the Second Novel?: "There's plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write -- and that it can be even harder to live down."

April 25, 2014

Library Love

I want to sing the praises of my local library, because lately I've been making heavy use of its wonderful resources. In particular, I'm grateful for two of those resources, which your local library most likely offers as well: ebook lending and interlibrary loan.

I've known for a while that my library participates in several programs that allow patrons to download digital books, but for a long time, I never bothered looking into the details. In January, though, I wanted to read a book that I intended to get from the library, and since it was fairly recent and fairly popular, it occurred to me that I might be able to borrow it as an ebook and save myself a trip. It turned out I was right, and that I could check out the book immediately.

Since then, I've determined that the list of available ebook titles isn't as miraculously complete as my first borrowing experience suggested, but I've still found enough overlap with my interests that I've read five library ebooks so far this year. At my library at least, ebooks show up in a regular catalog search, listed as "electronic resource". You can also search or browse the ebook catalog separately to see what's offered.

I've put in requests to borrow several more ebooks that have waiting lists. Currently, library ebook programs are constrained to operate as if the books were physical, so each library only owns the right to lend a limited number of copies at a time. This means that if you want a hot new release, you may have to wait months for your turn -- but perhaps not as long as if you're trying to borrow the hardcover, since presumably fewer library patrons are using the ebook resources.

If you've already embraced ereading but haven't investigated your library's digital offerings, I encourage you to take a look at your library's website and see what your card gives you access to. You may have to set up an account with an ebook lending program and download a specific application, so there's a little bit of a technological hurdle to overcome, but clear documentation is probably available. I had to spend a few minutes getting started with each of the programs that my library's affiliated with, and none of them work quite as seamlessly as Amazon, but now that I'm set up, it's easy for me to borrow ebooks at any time.

When it comes to physical books, I'm fortunate that my library has an extensive collection of its own but also offers interlibrary loan that gives me access to nearly every book or subject I've ever searched for. Last week, after I finished looking through the books I'd checked out for novel research, I discovered how much more on the topic was available, and I spent a bunch of time in the combined catalog making interlibrary loan requests. When I started getting error messages, I discovered that I'd reached the maximum number of requests, but I figured that would be enough books for now.

Yesterday I picked up my stack of requests, and it was pretty cool to see that some of them came from as far as Las Vegas. So keep in mind that even if your local library isn't particularly impressive, it's probably connected to a network of other libraries that you can easily borrow from through interlibrary loan.

When I was a kid and consumed books at a frantic pace, my local library was a beloved and necessary part of my reading life. As an adult with the financial resources to support a slower reading habit, my use of the library has ebbed and flowed, but I've always been very glad to know the library is available. This year, since I've had an uptick in reading and new novel research needs, I've really been feeling the library love, and I hope I've spread a little of that to you all.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Daniel José Older covers the Fundamentals Of Writing "The Other": "If your book has two black people in it and both just happen to have superpowers and represent the forces of good and evil, you have a problem. Between these two exceptional, magical characters dwells a swath of fully human, often non-magical but emotionally complex white characters. It doesn’t matter that one of the black characters is a good guy; trust me."

April 16, 2014

Great Big Book Catchup

So far, 2014 has been all about reading for me (that's what happens in the absence of writing and revising), and I've got a big new batch of books to tell you about since my last set of recommendations. As a bonus, if you stick around to the end of the post, you'll get a little hint about the subject of my next novel!

→ It wasn't until almost halfway through BOY, SNOW, BIRD by Helen Oyeyemi that I discovered what it's about -- except that the delayed understanding is also very much part of the story's aboutness. I was grateful that I came to this book with no prior knowledge, and if you want to do the same, avoid reading any other descriptions or reviews, including the cover copy.

I'll tell you that the novel takes place in the 1950s, in a tiny New England town where the narrator has fled to get away from her abusive father. She's a beautiful young woman, and the story is interested in the idea of appearances and how they can differ from realities. It's also a fairy tale retelling, but in an abstract sort of way that, like the rest of the story, takes time to nail down.

The book is beautifully written and fascinating. It's often indirect and sometimes veers into strangeness, and for the most part I was glad to be along for the ride. At the end of the journey, I was left a bit unsatisfied and wishing I'd had more time with all the characters. I'll definitely be seeking more of Oyeyemi's work in the future.

→ At some level, THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB by Karen Joy Fowler is exactly what the title suggests: a story about a group of people who form a book club to discuss the works of Jane Austen. It's easy to make further assumptions about a book with this title and premise. I certainly did, before I became acquainted with Karen Joy Fowler and her work. Those assumptions underestimate this novel -- and perhaps also underestimate the writing of Jane Austen.

You don't need to be a Austen devotee to appreciate the book. I only recently started reading Austen myself. Fowler provides summaries of Austen's novels for those wanting an introduction or refresher, but even these are mostly unnecessary, because the real story here is about the six characters who belong to the club. The Austen discussions are used as a clever framework, with each section focusing on one club meeting and one character's life and problems. The characters are wonderful and real, funny and flawed, and I was sorry when their stories came to an end.

This is a smart book, and of course a book for book lovers. It features possibly the best blurb ever ("If I could eat this novel, I would." -- Alice Sebold) and certainly the best ever reading guide, with discussion questions attributed to each of the characters. Incidentally, the movie adaptation is reasonably entertaining, but it left out many of the darker and deeper moments and made the story more of a romantic comedy.

Fowler's most recent book, WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES, was one of my favorites from last year. I wasn't quite as taken by THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB, but I was pleased to find the same wry humor and another unconventional narrative structure. I can't wait to read all of Fowler's other books, and it makes me happy that she's written so many different kinds of stories.

April 4, 2014

Not So Fast

Last week, I got some very wonderful time off with a Hawaiian vacation full of ocean views, relaxation, and reading. I returned from the trip invigorated, eagerly dove into serious research for the next novel, and was immediately interrupted by getting sick. I'm all recovered now, but it made for a disappointing first week back. (Though at least being sick gave me time to finish up my vacation reading.)

I have made a little research progress, though. Some weeks back, I spent an afternoon among the library stacks identifying books that could be useful, and now I've started looking through them. I'm going to have to learn a lot about several different topics in order to write the new novel effectively, and I'm sure that any day now I'll stop being coy and tell you more about that.

I'll also have many recently read books to tell you about once I get caught up on reviews. And maybe soon I'll have others things to talk about, but for now, that's all there is to report.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Book Riot, Josh Corman wonders Why Dystopian Novels Speak To Us: "Fear is the root of every dystopia, and it's the glue that keeps the reader stuck to its characters and conflicts for the book's duration. If you harbor any distrust of your government (or governments in general), then 1984 will speak to you more powerfully; if you're concerned about climate change and corporate power, then Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam books will be likelier to get under your skin."