Tell a better story by gathering reference: images, links, and historical data

When we write best, it’s when we can envision in our minds and in our hearts the scene playing out in front of us, then put pen to page and make those words come to life.

For my latest project, I was writing a novel that takes place in Montreal, my home city.  As such, I thought to myself, I need to do very little research at all – after all, I live here, I breathe this air, I walk these streets, this city is as much a part of my soul as the other places I’ve lived in my life.

However, when I went about writing the book, I found that it still was extremely helpful for me to gather reference to help me keep in mind as I was writing out the various chapters.  I gather several different kinds of reference:

  1. Images
  2. Links to websites
  3. Historical Data

The most important type of reference for me is my image bank.  Sometimes when I’m sitting in my office writing the words, I need an image or a piece of music to spike my sensory memory of the place I’m writing about.  The best way to do this, of course, is to go and take your own pictures.  If you can go to the places where the action takes place, walk in those footsteps, and take pictures, then you can also jot down some notes about what it was like.

Tell a better story by gathering reference images, research, and historical data

Tell a better story by gathering reference images, links, and historical data

For example, let’s say I have a scene that takes place on Mont Royal.  For those of you not from Montreal, this is the mountain that gives Montreal its name, and lies in the very centre of the island the city is on.  If I describe it from memory, I might talk about things like:

  • The path that winds through the trees makes you feel like you’re in a real forest
  • There are many people on the mountain, jogging, walking, playing, biking, climbing the stairs, walking their dogs
  • In the summer people are often playing music on the central plaza, particularly if there is an event like a soccer game
  • If I instead go there in person, and take pictures, then that can jog my memory of some of the more subtle elements of being on the mountain:
  • The way the light filters through the trees
  • The look of the leaves as the sun pierces through to show the veins
  • The feeling of the cool wind on my face in the early morning
  • The heat causing sweat on my skin as I hike the mountain in high summer
  • The feeling of the gravel crunching under my shoes
  • The way the wind brushes through the fine hairs on my arms
  • The blue sky is too piercing to look at directly

…And so on.

Images are not the only useful bits of reference to keep in mind.  Sometimes, it’s not possible to actually go to the location in person, and we must rely on research to get the useful data.  As such, I usually get together a list of links to websites that will help me learn more about the locations that I write about.  If it’s possible to find first-hand accounts instead of relying on dry data, that’s always helpful as well.

Lastly, you may need some Historical Data as well.  For example, even though my latest book takes place only back in 2007, since it was a few years ago now I needed to refresh my memory of what was happening in the world in 2007.  I found that:

  • Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as the Prime Minister of the UK
  • Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in France
  • The first person was convicted in Guantanamo Bay
  • There was the first “surge” in Iraq

Even if you think that events like this have no impact on events in your book, they may.  I think it’s important to have an idea of the context.  Also, current events may be a topic of discussion for your characters.  Not only that, but there may be a historical reason to research specific events.  In my case, being that it was a gay romance novel, I was interested in Pride in 2007.  When I compared to Pride in 2014, I found that the festival in 2007 was actually a lot shorter.  There had also been some turmoil that had caused the organizing committee to drop an event.  Never assume that the way things are today are the way they were even a few years ago.

When we are thinking about books that take place in other worlds, such as with Science Fiction or Fantasy, then I think it’s really important to put yourself in a mindset to imagine what sort of events might be going on in that world that would impact the characters in your story.

No matter where or when your book takes place, taking the time to think about the world and the environment, all the way from the macro level of global events, down to the micro level of what it feels like to walk through a location – it all combines together to enable you to create a rich description that adds to the quality of your writing.

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What does it take to be a Writer?

I was browsing through Pulse on LinkedIn today and saw someone pose this question to the Writer’s group I’m a part of:

How do you feel when you tell people you’re a writer and they say, “You know, I do some writing, too.”?

The person who posed the question himself responded by saying:

“Personally, it offends me, and I will politely let them know this. It offends me because I work very hard, tirelessly even, at what I do and for someone to compare professional writing to just plain being literate in general I feel belittled.”

How does everyone else respond?

I was amazed to see the variety in responses to this simple question.  Here are some of the common ideas:

  • Writing is a full-time job, so if you don’t do it full-time, you’re not a writer
  • If you’re not published, you’re not a writer
  • If you’re not paid to do your writing, you’re not a writer

There were many authors who wanted to encourage others to write, to pursue their dream of writing.  One of the authors quoted Red Smith and I found the quote to be quite apt, to say the least.

What Makes a Writer

What Makes a Writer

Let me try something here…. How about, if you write, you’re a writer?

Is that… too simple? Continue reading

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Write What You Feel

Write what you feel

Write what you feel

Everyone’s heard the expression ‘Write what you know.’  I submit that instead, we should think about ‘Write what you feel.’

When we think about the best writing, whether it’s a favourite novel, or even an ad campaign, the best writing is always something that affects an emotional impact in the reader.  When I think about a really good book, it makes me laugh, cry, and think, and those feelings resonate in me sometimes for days afterwards.

There’s something about feeling someone else’s pain, something that helps us work through our own pain.  Knowing that there are other people out there who suffer from loneliness, fear of rejection, lost love, depression, frustration, all those negative feelings – knowing you’re not actually alone can help you work through those things.  It can also help the reader to relate to the writing in a real sense.

There is no love without hate, no joy without pain, no triumph without struggle.

If you want to write something that will really touch someone, it’s about more than crisis resolution.  It’s about understanding the emotional journey your characters undertake throughout the story.

Here are some points to think about when writing:

  • What brings your character joy?
  • Who has hurt your character?
  • Does your character suffer from any psychological conditions?  Depression?  Anger management?  Bipolar?
  • Who or what makes your character feel hate?  Aggression?
  • What makes your character sad?

Sometimes a character’s motivations are more subtle, and sometimes more intense.  Some of the most interesting characters have drastic personality disorders.  I think of books such as the Game of Thrones series, which has such a myriad of differing characters with their own motivations, and I know the books would not have been nearly as effective without that emotional connection.  George R. R. Martin is known for killing off his characters – but would it have as much impact if you hadn’t already connected emotionally with the plight of those characters?

Once you understand more about your character’s feelings, you can then think about the next step – what does your character do as a result of those emotions?  What actions do they take?

  • How does your character react to a situation that makes them happy?
  • What does your character do when they’re sad?
  • Does your character have an outlet in which they pour themselves when feeling emotional?

Next time you’re writing, try to take down your own internal barriers, and put yourself in the shoes of your characters.  How would you feel if you were them?  Pour those feelings into your writing, and it will bring your writing to a new place.

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Putting Down Your Pen

The holiday season has come to a close, and everyone’s gearing up for the new year.  Usually, over the holidays, I take that ‘break’ time to do some intensive writing.  This year, I decided to try something different.

I’m sitting here at the family cottage, a house set on a picturesque lake in Ontario.  There is snow covering the frozen lake, and I’m just relaxing for the moment, though I plan to put on my cross-country skis and take a tour around the lake later this afternoon.

Everyone who comes to this place mentions to me how ‘quiet’ it is.  For someone accustomed to city life, the absence of all that noise – cars, horns blaring, buses, pedestrians, laughter, children screaming or laughing – without all that, it seems almost lifeless.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  Here, I have the chance to soak in the sunlight, to listen to the breeze in the trees, and if I’m quiet enough, as I make my way through this world I’m guaranteed to see some creature or another during the course of the day.  It could be a deer, coming up to graze close to the house.  Or perhaps a fox, running through the woods.  Certainly I’ll see birds, and listen to the birdsong.

Up until earlier this week, I hadn’t written a word in three weeks.

Instead, I took the time to absorb.  I hung out with friends and family.  I read some new books, re-read some of my old favourites.  After a controversial disagreement on the subject at a dinner conversation, I went back and watched most of the ‘new’ Battlestar Galactica television show again to re-look at my opinion of it.

Taking the time to not write has enabled me to carefully think about what I will write.  I had some sparkling conversations about feminism and what it means – from my point of view, nothing more and nothing less than equality among the sexes.  I debated about what it means to be ‘feminine’, and why the feminism movement is viewed negatively.  All of this allowed me to think back again about why I decided to write a book in the first place.

I wanted a book where the lead character was a strong female, a capable female, who did not need to lean on the male supporting cast to see the story to its end.  I wanted to see a female leader, someone with faults but who I could look at and say, yes, I would want to be like her.

I’m glad I took some time away from writing, because being able to listen, to talk, to read, and to watch has given me a renewed vigour for writing myself.  It has made me realize – yes, I do have something to say.

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Children of RIVA available on Kindle now!

It’s finally here!  It’s been quite a journey.  It’s not everyone that can say that they have not only written a book, but that they’ve completed it and published it.

I am so excited to announce that Children of RIVA (Volume 1 of Vanishing Aurora) is now available on the Kindle store!

Children of RIVA cover image

Children of RIVA cover image

If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ll know a little bit about my writing process.  It all starts with a concept, then a vision of the characters.  A world starts to form itself in my mind, and then a journey for the characters to go on through that world.  I enjoy writing so much, I’ve always written for myself, but now I’m making my writing accessible to the world at large.

I’ll continue to share this journey and my creative process over the coming months.  In the meantime, pick up the book and give it a read!  If you have time, review it.

Children of RIVA

Aurora never knew what it felt like to walk on grass, or wood. To feel the wind on her face, or to shelter from the rain. She grew up in the metal and glass world of the space station Magellan. Life was happy and peaceful in her loving family, until her sister Gaia was taken away as a child. They said she was going to the “Elite School,” that she was chosen to be a part of something special. They said she would grow up to be one of the leaders of the next generation.

They lied.

Aurora fights her way through life, struggling past all the boundaries that are thrown up in front of her. She has one goal, and one goal only: to save Gaia.
She never could have realized that in order to save Gaia, she’d first need to save the world.

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NaNoWriMo: External Edit

As you’re writing for NaNoWriMo, you may have stumbled against some of my blog entries to help you create your story.  If so, then you’ve read about the steps I normally take.  Up until now, I’ve gone through:

  • Inspiration
  • Character Motivation
  • Plot Structure
  • Polishing
  • Writer’s Block: The Walkabout

Now I’ll discuss doing an external edit.

External Edit

How you do this will depend on your budget and preference.  If you’re self-publishing a book, and have no investment capital, then you might want to take a free approach.

Continue reading

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Write With the Door Closed

“Write like nobody’s watching, write like you’re dancing in the kitchen, write like you’re singing in the car at a red light.”

When I heard Jessie Sternthal say those words in a speech this weekend, my jaw dropped.  I got all tingly inside.  Finally, I thought, someone understands how I write!

Jessie writes a totally different style of writing than I do.  She’s a marketing guru, who specializes in advertising.  She wrote the copy for this amazing video.  Wow.

Even though she does a totally different kind of writing, I think there’s a lot that creative writers can learn from marketing writers.  I’ve been digging deep into marketing lately, on both personal and professional fronts, and I have nothing but respect for the marketing community.

I know some of you novelists out there will be like, marketing?  Why do I have to think about an audience?  This is my artistic creation!

Well… let’s put it this way.  Do you want anyone to read your book?

Point. Continue reading

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