Monday, August 31, 2020

Writing and Research

 I recently read a blog which discusses research in writing mysteries and doing real-life research in the field.

Here’s my comment:

Research is an iceberg.  There's a lot more under the water than is showing.  Insert metaphor here about the book being the Titanic if that research is wrong.  

The more the research appears on the page in the form of your main character/s, the more you need personal experience.  You can fake a SCUBA scene with research but not an entire book if your character spends a decent chunk of the novel underwater.  If needs must, have an expert read your book.  

If your personal life experience doesn't remotely connect with police work, a police procedural probably isn't the best mystery subgenre to write.  An amazing variety of mystery types and main characters are out there, and your own life experience and interests can enrich your books.  Find a genre that fits.  Your own emotional references should be considered, as well.  You may very well regret spending months or years in the viewpoint headspace of someone who is your polar emotional opposite.   

WORST RESEARCH SOURCES:  TV shows and novels.  

A RESEARCH SOURCE I LIKE:  If you need to write horses, Judith Tarr's column at  Search the label with her name or "SFF Horses."  

THE MOST INTERESTING OVERHEARD RESEARCH: Many years ago, Mom and I were at a hotel restaurant on the NC coast, and the room was full of big guys in high-ranking officer uniforms of all the military branches, and they were chatting away about things that should not be said in public.  I wasn't stupid enough to ask them questions and would never use that info, but dang!  


Years ago, I had a chat with a world-class weapons and combat expert about fighting. (Science fiction and fantasy conventions are filled with military, police, and scientists who love to answer questions.)  I asked him who was the most dangerous opponent in a fight.

His answer-- “In a bar fight most men will keep fighting until they go down. Later, they’ll get up, and we might have a beer together. A small man doesn’t do that.

“To him, it’s not a fight, it’s survival. He’s fighting to kill because he knows he might not survive otherwise. If he goes down, he doesn’t stay down. He comes right back up and keeps fighting until he takes you down.

“He’ll use any weapon he can find to kill you, too.

“Never pick a fight with a small man.”

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Power of the Archetype and Symbols

 In Jayne Anne Krentz's book DANGEROUS MEN AND ADVENTUROUS WOMEN: ROMANCE WRITERS ON THE APPEAL OF ROMANCE, she explores the archetypal myths or fairy tales behind the most successful romances. She believes that “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” and “Snow White” are often the core plot and emotional energizers for romance novels.

But there's more to the archetype than just the fairy tale, and this extra element can vitalize a writer's work and give it greater depth.

The archetype is also a symbol or image which has a strong emotional resonance for humankind. The archetypal image can raise the hackles (absolute darkness), slow the heartbeat (a babbling brook), or turn the stomach (maggots on a rabbit's carcass). The archetype image can help us push the reader's emotional buttons so we can make them feel what we want them to feel.

Horror writers already know the importance of the fear archetype, and they use it to great effect. Stephen King, for example, can go for the archetypal jugular vein with relentless certainty. It is his greatest strength as a writer. His layering of images provokes an emotional response greater than mere words.

The archetypal image can also be manipulated to express changing emotions. In an unpublished novel of mine, the hero and innocent heroine end up in bed. Afterwards, the hero sends her a dozen white roses, the symbol of pure love and innocence.

As the days pass and the hero doesn't get back in touch, the heroine watches the roses fade as her hopes fade. When she finally realizes that the roses that meant “forever” to her mean “thanks for the great sex and good-bye” to him, she smashes the vase.

Her innocence and love have faded completely, her heart is as crushed as the roses on the floor.

A writer's subconscious is busy planting things the writer is blind to at the moment, and that's particularly true of archetypes.

When I rework a novel, I'll find lots of foreshadowing of events I didn't think I'd planned until the moment I wrote it, and I'll discover that certain types of metaphors or images have kept appearing that fit a theme or event I didn't know was coming.

Part of the trick in editing is going back over the work and building on the bread crumb hints left by the subconscious so the images create a resonance within the novel. 

The danger with archetypal images is their overuse. Horror and paranormal writing is awash with archetypal images that have become cliches-- the baying wolf, the bat, the open grave. You must discover new old images to bring freshness and creativity to your writing.

Go through dream dictionaries since dreams are filled with archetypal images. Study books like A DICTIONARY OF SYMBOLS by J. E. Cirlot. Read books on Jung's studies of the archetype and the unconscious to get a broad overview of the emotional significance of these images. Notice the images that good writers use to push your emotional buttons.

And, especially, consider your own dreams. For they are your most fertile creative garden. They are the true home of the archetype.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Separating the Reader from the Critic

QUESTION: Ever since I started to write with my eye toward being published, I have trouble reading for fun.  I keep spotting craft mistakes, or I’m analyzing why I like or don’t like something.  I miss the fun.  Any suggestions?

I have two degrees in literary analysis, I’m a professional writer, I’ve worked as an editor, and I teach writing. If anyone has an super-critic in their head, I do.

Years ago, I realized I could never shut off the critic in my head, but I have learned to keep her separate from reader me. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I learned to do it.

About the only time my super-critic takes over is when a book is so flawed I continue to read it like an autopsy of what can go wrong and why. Otherwise, I’ll stop reading entirely.

Reading really good writers helps.  Reading what you love helps.  Reading outside your genre helps.


Mainly, though, you simply have to learn to ignore the critic sitting in the corner of your brain taking notes the same way you focus on one conversation in a room full of conversations.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Thinking Through a Minor Character

 You are an old and powerful fae (fairy) with lots of human money and your own retainers.  You discover a powerful magical artifact, and others want to kill you and take it.  Do you

1.  Hire fae warriors to protect you the moment you realize you are in trouble.

2. Contact other powerful and friendly fae for help to get you to your own protected domain.

3. A long time after you find the artifact and have done nothing to protect yourself and the artifact, you leave a message on the answering machine of a half-fae private detective who has neither the power nor the skill to protect you.  Then you don’t bother to tell her who is after you or why even though the assassins have just broken in the door.  You do, however, ask her to solve your murder.

Unfortunately, in a novel I recently read, the author chose #3.  She obviously hadn’t given any thought to the background, skills, and options of her murder victim so she created this whooper of a ridiculous storyline.  

If she’d wanted a victim who had no means of protection or power, she could have created someone to fit the bill.  

Creating a believable story requires not only a good viewpoint character with her strengths and weakness fitting the storyline; it also requires the same careful thought about minor characters who influence her and the storyline.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Media versus the Real World

On a recent blog, the writer complained that the heroine in a novel didn't react as she thought she should. The heroine had a chance to shoot one of the villains but took cover when an unknown shooter shot the gun out of the bad guy's hand. Instead, she took cover.

Obviously, according to this blogger, whoever had shot the gun out of the bad guy's hand was on the heroine's side, and she finally had a chance at getting the bad guy.

I argued that in the real world, unlike the movies and TV, a trained marksman would never shoot the gun out of the hand because it is a near impossible shot. As my dad who was an expert marksman with a military background told me, "The Lone Ranger can shoot the gun out of a bad guy's hand. Us mere mortals should aim for the center of the man's body."

In the real world with bullets flying, a smart person with even a little training would get the heck out of the way because it's likely that bullet that took out the bad guy's gun was a miss, not deliberate, and she would be betting her life by not getting out of the way of someone who may be after her.

In the real world, most people are bad shots with no training. Even in the Old West, very few people died in a gun battle and then only after an incredible amount of ammo was used.

I've always believed it's wiser to go with fact, not media nonsense, because I'd rather not have readers snort and toss the book down because they caught me in a stupid error. There's nothing I can do about people who don't know any better so I don't worry about them.