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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


And ... we're live!

This is just a quick note to officially switch from Blogger and begin posting over in Wordpress. If you haven't already, nose around the rest of the site (start at the Home page, which I'm kind of proud of), and then stay tuned as I begin posting here from now on. Also, if you used to follow me in here Blogger, update your RSS feeds to this:

As I mentioned in earlier posts, I'll leave this blog open through the end of January, maybe a bit longer, but all my new posts will appear at the Wordpress site, so please visit me over there.

And now--back to the fiction!


New blog site nearly ready

The big move is just around the corner:  Look for a link to the new home of Beginner's Mind in the next day or two.

Also, I have a new addition to the list of resources for helping Haiti.  And if you haven't already, check out Lori Ann Bloomfield's post on compassionate writing.


Compassion in action

My friend Lori Ann Bloomfield, over on her blog First Line, has posted an excellent comment on how writers can help not only Haitians but all human beings, simply through the act of writing.  By writing more human characters, she says, we come to understand our fellow human beings better, and it's a very small step from there to full compassion for all humanity.  Better still, when we compassionately write fully realized, human characters, we invite our readers to a broader, more compassionate view of the world.  It's a beautiful post, and I encourage everyone to check it out.


I'm moving the blog

Just a heads-up:  I plan to migrate this blog over to Wordpress next week.  I like Blogger a lot and I've enjoyed posting here, but I'm moving for the website-like functionality of Wordpress.  I'll keep this blog up through the rest of the month, and I'll keep posting here for a while even after I've moved to Wordpress, but early next week, look for a link to my new home on the Web.


Research wrap-up: More resources than you ever wanted (but not nearly as many as you'll need)

As I said in the first post of this series, there’s a lot of advice out there. I’ve just hit some highlights that have intrigued me over the years, but if you want to push further and see what other ideas exist, here are some articles and resources I've found online. I’ve also included a short bibliography of some books that at least mention researching for fiction. And in case anyone was curious, yes, I did mention Anne Lamott and Jesse Lee Kercheval a lot, as well as a few references to Paul Lucey. That’s because when my wife and I first moved overseas, I only had room in my luggage for a handful of books, and at the time I was wholly enthralled with Bird by Bird and Building Fiction, and Story Sense is just a terrific reference guide for plotting, so they got to tag along for the ride. The other books on the list below are equally fantastic, though (I own them all), and I would have quoted them as well if I’d been able to bring them with me.

Web articles about research:

Bibliographies and databases:

Here are a couple of links to bibliographies on research resources, both of them special collections related to science fiction and fantasy research:

And, because my own research that started all this was on the American Civil War, I thought I’d toss in a few of the sites I found invaluable during my own writing (there are thousands of Civil War sites online—these are just the few I stopped at, and they were plenty):


These are books I own.  They discuss, at least in brief, some aspect of researching for fiction:
Also, check out some of the standard magazines and journals about writing. You might try Writer’s Digest or The Writer, but I do remember reading some terrific articles on research in The Writer’s Chronicle and Poets & Writers, and I strongly recommend both those publications.

Just when we thought we had things under control, that maybe since the aid was arriving we could let up on our contributions, a vicious 5.9 aftershock rocked Haiti again today.  Which means we aren't finished helping yet—not even close.  So, once again, please visit my links page to find out how you can help.


Research tip #6: Marbling

So now you have all your research done and you’re ready to get back to the writing. But you’re writing fiction here, not a research paper—so how do you use this research you’ve done? Sometimes the answer is easy: You were looking for a particular detail, and you found it, and you just plug it in and keep on working. But other times your research will be background—you’d written a quick rough draft but needed to learn a lot more about the time period, or the industry, or the culture, or whatever it is you’re writing about, so you’ve spent days or weeks or even months plowing through piles of research, and now you need to return to that draft of yours and work in what you learned. And this is where things get tricky.

The simple answer is to always focus on the writing. If you learned what you studied, if you absorbed all that research you did, then you should be able to just start revising the text and the details will fall in on their own. But let’s be honest, writing is almost never as easy as shaking our heads and letting the genius sift down. You’re going to have to work at this, and it’s going to have to be precise and intentional.

So let’s set aside the writing for a minute and go bake a cake.

In his screenwriting book, Story Sense, Paul Lucey discusses working research into a story:
A certain amount of your research may be cited in the script, but it should not be dumped on audiences to impress them. Instead, research should be worked into the story in the same way that the history of the characters and the locations is worked in through a process called marbling. This term refers to information that reveals the characters and the plot indirectly, through dialogue and images. When marbling is done skillfully, audiences are hardly aware that they are receiving exposition.

Because we’re writers and therefore probably also book nerds, we might be tempted to think of marbling in terms of paper-dying, the art form in which you swirl inks and dyes on paper to produce wild, psychedelic patterns. But I think this is a poor metaphor, because the result is a disorienting churn of color that does not help anyone perceive either the larger picture or the individual hues. Instead, I think the term “marbling” as used for fiction is best related to marbling in baking. For those of you who’ve never been up to your elbows in flour, marbling in baking refers to swirling two contrasting batters—one light, one dark, usually vanilla and chocolate—into a single cake, so the baked cake comes out looking like marble (or like marbled paper). But bakers know that the secret to a good marbled cake is neither the separation of the flavors nor the blend of flavors, but the complement of flavors: we don’t want to taste chocolate and then vanilla, and we don’t want to taste chocolate-vanilla; we want to taste how chocolate and vanilla play off each other in a single bite.

In fiction, we “marble” our details in such a way that they neither stand out as a distinct list of details (“Look what I learned!”) nor blend in as indistinct jumbles of words. Instead, marbled details should work their way into a story so they complement the story—they show us details not to inform the reader but to inform the story, to provide depth to character, to drive the plot, to set the mood.

And we should never forget that this is the function of our research—to serve as details in a story. This can feel frustrating sometimes in the same way that cooking frustrates some people. You spend hours and hours in the kitchen, tossing up a huge mess and stacking dirty dishes you’ll just have to spend hours cleaning later, but the final result is a single plate of food that someone wolfs down in maybe 20 minutes, and then it’s over. Similarly, when you spend hours or days rubbing your weary eyeballs and your hands have gone dry from flipping pages and you’ve learned an entire history inside and out, it can be terribly frustrating to find that all that work boils down to a single detail, a phrase in a sentence. You are tempted, I bet, to pour on the details, to load in everything you learned just to prove that you did the work. But this is not why we did the research; we’re not out to prove anything, we’re out to tell a story.

Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, puts it this way:
Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth—a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well. Bad liars pile on the facts and figures, the corroborating evidence, the improbable digressions ending in blinds alleys, while good (or at least better) liars know that it’s the single priceless detail that jumps out of the story and tells us to take it easy, we can quit our dreary adult jobs of playing judge and jury and again become as trusting children, hearing the gospel of grown-up knowledge without a single care or doubt.

Yes, your research lends your fiction a certain authority, a sense that you know what you’re talking about, or at least your narrator does. A lot of great authors made sure they did know what they were talking about—when you read Hemingway’s vivid descriptions of lion-hunting in Africa, you know that old Papa Hemingway actually hefted a rifle and trekked out on safari, actually shot at the king of cats himself. But in Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells of writing a story about gardening based solely on research and on going to the source (in this case, a horticulturalist as well as dozens of happy home gardeners) and then catching people off guard when they assumed she herself was a gardener. “I’d let them know that I had only been winging it, with a lot of help from people around me. [. . .] ‘You don’t love to garden?’ they’d ask me incredulously, and I’d shake my head and not mention that what I love are cut flowers, because this sounds so violent and decadent [. . .].”

So you find only those details that are necessary, only the research that serves the story, and then you work it in where it’s necessary and only there. In her book Building Fiction, Jesse Lee Kercheval explains how Tim O’Brien (who, to be fair, was indeed a Vietnam veteran, so his details came first-hand) worked in whole lists of specific facts to lend realism to his short story “The Things They Carried.”
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men. . . .

As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&Ms for especially bad wounds, for a total weight of nearly 20 pounds.

The information here accomplishes several things at once: They give the narrator (and O’Brien himself) authority through the specificity of the details—the weight of packs, the caliber of firearm, the curious detail about the “M&Ms for especially bad wounds.” Only someone who’d been there, we would reason, could know details like that. The lists also inform us about the characters, “the cumulative impression they leave of a character’s rank and specialty,” as Kercheval puts it. (Notice that the medic carries comic books, too, which, combined with the M&M detail, tells us something about Rat Kiley the human being as well as Rat Kiley the medic.) And they move the story itself forward—the description of the platoon leader, with his weapons of war and his “responsibility for the lives of his men,” precedes the description of the medic, whose gear helps him heal the wounds of war, and this pairing creates a tension that propels the story forward.

But for the best example of how to use your research in your fiction—how to marble in the details so that they complement the story you’re telling—I will turn to the master, Cormac McCarthy, and his greatest novel so far, the brilliant historical novel Blood Meridian. (For a fascinating discussion of McCarthy’s own research and writing process, check out this rare interview, with John Jurgensen.)

In Blood Meridian, a group of men led by the violently mythic Judge Holden are running from a band of vengeful Native Americans; as one might expect in a Western, they are shooting at each other as they gallop across the West Texas desert, firing so much that the judge’s men run out of ammunition. Actually, they have plenty of bullets and plenty of empty casings and are used to recycling their rounds by recasing their own ammo, but they have run out of gunpowder. So they run to the volcanic mountains to escape, and there on the burning peaks the judge sets about making gunpowder by hand.

The process of making gunpowder involves chemically mixing potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulfur powder, and charcoal. But these men are on the run, trapped at the top of a volcano—they’re not leisurely tinkering around with a chemistry set. McCarthy did his research, though, and he learned that human urine contains nitrogen and that saltpeter can be made from urine by mixing it with potash (wood ashes). He also must have discovered that sulfur naturally occurs in volcanic regions. And it wouldn’t be hard to come across charcoal at a volcano, either.

I did a little looking myself (okay, a very little—I just hit Wikipedia), and learned that just before the Renaissance, Europeans discovered a way to add liquid to the ingredients and create a kind of gunpowder paste, which they then dried and crushed to form gunpowder. And, according to the Wikipedia article, “gunners also found that it was more powerful and easier to load into guns.”

Perfect! But these men in Blood Meridian are on the run, in the middle of a shootout, fighting for their lives. We don’t have time to pause the action and explain all these technical, alchemical processes. We need gunpowder and we need it now! So McCarthy marbles—he keeps the action moving fiery and relentless even as he describes the powder-making process in grossly vivid detail and reveals volumes of insight into Judge Holden’s feral genius and his devlish nature:
We hauled forth our members and at it we went and the judge on his knees kneadin the mass with his naked arms and the piss was splashin about and he was cryin out for us to piss, man, piss for your very souls for cant you see the redskins yonder, and laughing the while and workin up this great mass in a foul black dough, a devil's batter by the stink of it and him not a bloody dark pastryman himself I dont suppose and he pulls out his knife and he commences to trowel it across the southfacin rocks, spreadin it out thin with the knifeblade and watchin the sun with one eye and him smeared with blacking and reekin of piss and sulphur and grinnin and wieldin the knife with a dexterity that was wondrous like he did it every day of his life.

(For any chemistry nerds reading, I should point out that most information online explains that making gunpowder takes an incredibly long time, upwards of two days or more, so I know there’s absolutely no way that the judge’s men could concoct makeshift gunpowder on a mountaintop and reload and carry on their fight with the Native Americans in the span of time McCarthy describes in his novel. But we don’t care—the story has us, we are committed, and now we just want these guys to shoot the bullet.)

Tomorrow, a short summation and a list of links to other articles and books you might find useful.

If you haven't already, please visit my links for charity and aid organizations that are helping Haiti.  Also, today I discovered the website for the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, which is another place you can donate (I've added it to the existing list as well).  And as always, if you know of any news or any other organizations I can add here, let me know.


Research tip #5: Shop the catalogue

I’ve written about this before, but just to recap: Tom Franklin hates doing research. Yet his first two novels were historical fiction, which stuck Franklin doing the very thing he hates. Still, Franklin prefers to focus on the writing, to let the fiction drive his work (which is probably the way we all should work), so he developed a way to conduct the research he needed to do without letting it get in the way of his writing. The idea wasn’t his—he credits Steven Scarborough for the suggestion—but he made it his own.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Franklin has a thing for details. The way he sees it, a story might be entertaining if you focus on character and plot, but the characters aren't real and the plot won’t ring true without the help of minute details. “You can't write convincingly unless you know the tiny details of a place, of people, buttons on their britches or zippers, how much their snuff costs, the caliber of their sidearm,” he once told interviewer Rob McClure Smith. But in Hell at the Breech, Franklin was writing about the late 1890s, a period he had little access to. So, how to get the details right?

Scarborough suggested he find an old Sears & Roebuck catalogue. “Everything in the world you could get you got through Sears & Roebuck,” Franklin told Smith. “I got one from 1897 and it's filled with pictures of everything from Adzes to zebra lined boots. [. . .] This Sears catalogue’s got it all.”

The catalogue became his springboard into the fiction. He’d write and write (and revise as he went), and just keep plowing away at the story until he couldn’t write any more. He was dry; he needed a dip at the well. So he’d pull out his facsimile copy of the 1897 Sears & Roebuck catalogue and flip through it. Eventually, he’d find something—sometimes an item he was looking for, like, say, a pocket watch, but often he’d stumble across something he hadn’t expected, like a stereoscope for viewing photographs, a kind of Victorian-era version of our old 3-D View-Masters—and he’d start describing whatever he found. The catalogue, after all, contained drawings or diagrams of the items for sale, descriptions of what they were and how they functioned, ads explaining who might find them useful, and so on. And absolute wealth of information—practically a time machine. So Franklin would describe the item, would perhaps assign it to a character and let him or her use it, and just keep working over the bit until it developed into a scene. The next thing Franklin knew, the fiction was rolling along again and the story progressed.

Franklin got lucky, of course, that anyone was bothering to print facsimiles of the old Sears catalogue at all, let alone that it was from the same time period he was writing about. But it's not hard to find similar items for yourself, and the more we writers come to need these books, the more our demand will create a market for them. That same 1897 Sears catalogue is actually available now through Amazon, as is an 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue and an 1886 Bloomingdale's illustrated catalogue. A quick search through your local library might also turn up books on the history of advertising, in which you can find ads and illustrations from years past.  You can also find useful information in histories of clothing and costumes, antique furniture guides, even old cookbooks. 

And while you’re there, look into the library’s newspaper archives. Most public libraries—even the small town libraries—will keep archives of the local papers, and many larger libraries will keep archives of major national papers as well. If your library is well funded, you might even be able to search through the microfilm or microfiche collections for newspapers that are decades, even centuries old. (If your library is not well funded, lobby your local government to increase library funding, and join your area Friends of the Library group to help raise money.)

I mention the newspapers because they’ll also have print advertising and can help add a little local color to your details, and while you’re there, you can also browse some of the community articles to see what people were writing their editors to complain about, what people were gossiping about, what the local community was interested in. Check out the photos, too--you can see what people were wearing, which, as Sherlock Holmes would tell you, can provide excellent character details.  You can do the same with magazines, sometimes with surprising results (the library at one of the colleges I attended has the entire run of Playboy—in full color—on microfiche, though you have to know who to ask to get access to it and sorry, I’m not going to help you with that one).

When I was working on my Civil War novel, I found myself slowing down about halfway through and I started wondering how I was going to push on through. I thought about Franklin, in the same predicament while working on Hell at the Breech, and I decided to follow his advice: I shopped the catalogue. Of course, I don’t have a copy of that or any other historical catalogue, and living overseas as I do, it was going to be difficult to get one on short notice. But with some search guidance from a librarian (actually, my wife), I started poking around online and I stumbled across the excellent web site titled simply The Civil War. The site is good for all its history and essays and trivia, sure, but the pot of gold is their collection of Civil War-era Harper's Weekly magazines, which they’ve scanned in and posted online. (The coolest thing about their project is that they preserved the text as text, so the magazines are fully searchable!) Now, not only did I have access to contemporary news about the war, but I also had letters, political cartoons, sketches of battles, and, best of all, advertising. Thanks to these magazines, I was able to add vivid realism to my battle descriptions, give depth to characters’ personal sentiments about the war, and include rich details about daily life. In one scene, my characters come across a few worn old books in a dead soldier’s rucksack, and I listed the titles, which I’d found on a bestseller list from 1863. In another scene, some characters are haggling over the price of a few blackmarket firearms, and I was able to describe some of them based on advertising in the magazine, which sold pistols alongside ladies’ stockings.

The Harper’s Weeklys weren’t as easily perused as a Sears catalogue, maybe, and they were comparatively limited in scope, but they got the writing going every time, and that’s the only point anyway—it is always the point—to get back to the writing.

Of course, once you shop the catalogue, you have to unpack all that stuff and arrange it, which is for some people the biggest trick of all. So, tomorrow, I’ll write about marbling….

Bonus link:  For more recent cultural and material research, check out the delightful Retroland website.  Remember Trapper Keepers?  Yeah, so do they.  Loads of nostalgic fun.

Obama has tweeted about Haiti—his first post on Twitter—and asked Americans to continue supporting Haitian relief efforts.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called for troops and aid organizations to unclog the bottleneck of supplies, and indeed the US military (according to some, a source of the bottlenecking once we took control of the main airport in Port-au-Prince) has agreed to help speed the distribution of supplies.  Yet as the death toll mounts, with some estimates now reaching more than 200,000 dead, survivors continue to be miraculously pulled from the rubble, alive and in dire need of food and medicine.  That means it remains important—is perhaps more important now—to continue giving to relief efforts.  There are reports now of fake support groups popping up on Facebook, which is unfortunate, but the list I put together a few days ago remains a good starting point for finding legitimate, carefully vetted aid organizations.  Please check out that list and consider giving.