Research Can Be Seductive

Research Can Be Seductive

Researching for background information is necessary. This is especially so if it is an historical novel where visits to archives and rare book libraries are in order. We may now benefit from the Internet, but it cannot provide everything. It was one thing for me to research John Goodricke’s life online, but quite another to actually hold his original large leather-bound handwritten astronomical journal of nightly observations. Not a facsimile, the real thing. When you do something like that, you touch history. Such an experience alone can colour your writing.


Do not agonize over the usefulness of this or that archival material. Take it all. I could not know in advance what would be useful or what would not. I recall researching for Goodricke’s Time in the library of the Royal Astronomical Society and looking through a biography of William Herschel. It was in that volume that I unexpectedly came across a description of the incident where Herschel presented a paper to the Royal Society on the variability of Algol. This ‘presentation’, however, was not made at the Society, but in a pub at the behest of the Society’s president, Joseph Banks. Not being sure whether it would later be of any value, I photocopied it all. Later, it not only proved to be useful, but was a critical event in the unfolding of the narrative. It, like many other events depicted in the novel, happened. Why it did was another matter and that was where I was free to embellish.


None of the above is meant to deny the value of the internet. For example, in one chapter of Goodricke’s Time I wished to describe what it was like to take a ‘water taxi’ down the Thames. These were known, at the time, as tilt boats. What were they like? How were they powered? What was the fee? Was it at all dangerous? Information such as would take up only a few lines in a paragraph but would typically more time to source on the internet. It would be easy to completely fabricate information such as this and maybe you could get away with it. But in an historical novel, quite apart from building a plot, developing your characters etc., you must place the reader in an environment, in an atmosphere. Details combine to give the reader a sense of where they are. Once that has been established, it is easier for the dialogue to flow.


Be aware, however, that research can be seductive. It is a validating exercise – when you are doing it you are working on your novel! But, no, you are not. You are conducting research. There came a time when I could no longer deny that research had slipped into becoming the continual postponement, the continual avoidance, of the demanding and reclusive act of writing. Without over dramatizing, writing requires much more courage and self-confidence than does sifting through archival material in some historic library.. Know when it is time to stop research and face the keyboard.


Characters Drive the Plot

Characters Drive the Plot

What moves the plot forward? The actions and reactions of the characters certainly have a lot to do with it. They might be reacting to events beyond their control; a conspiracy, a catastrophe, and so forth. Or, they could be driving the story forward, as happens in Goodricke’s Time, by their own actions. In any case, it is their actions ought to be believable, they should remain ‘in character’. The reader must have a clear concept of the personality of each main character, something not as easy as it may sound.

The creation of the main characters has two major elements. First, you must have a conveyable concept of their basic personalities. This is critical. If you struggle for convincing adjectives to describe someone you know personally, then how well can you create a fictional character who behaves in a consistent manner? A ‘blueprint’ often suggested in aid of this is the sixteen personality types devised by Briggs Meyer. I did not think it appropriate to simply go down the list of these sixteen personality types ‘shopping’ for the one that seemed to fit. Rather it provides a baseline from which to operate by outlining characteristics of each personality type. For example, the INTP (introverted, intuitive, thinking, perceiving) types are those often described as quiet and analytical. They enjoy spending time alone, thinking about how things work, and coming up with solutions to problems. INTPs have a richer inner world and would rather focus their attention on their internal thoughts rather than the external world. In Goodricke’s Time this comes close to describing Goodricke himself. The usefulness of understanding each of your characters personalities helps them in a way, to push off in their own direction. One of these personality types will likely best apply to any character you have in mind. It can help to exercise this ability to describe personality types beyond the simple ‘introvert’ vs ‘extrovert’.

The second element is to keep in mind that they drive the plot. The main protagonist should be easily perceived as someone who will want something with all their heart. But there will be others who would thwart him. The reader must be able to care what happens to your main character. If they do not, then why turn the page?

Characters need not be wholly consistent throughout. They may self-evaluate and change their thinking. Goodricke, unlike Piggott, was not interested in women, in relationships. His life, his entire life, was science. But over time he began to rethink his priorities. Why this happens, the experiences that lead to this had to be carefully considered and placed within the narrative. His deafness played a large part in this reappraisal of his life’s path. Your main character will likely not have this complication but will still struggle in a different way.


Story First, Then Plot

Story First, Then Plot

A novelist should be excited, a ‘thing of fevers and enthusiasms’, Ray Bradbury once wrote. How does this ‘fever’ come about? The source is a story you have a passion to tell, a story you must tell. Absent this, writing will be flat and aimless. This has led me to believe that ‘writer’s block’ is perhaps better described as ‘story block’. If there is no story, then what is there to write? A story is what the novel is about while a plot is what happens. Once you have the story, then ‘writer’s block’ begins to fade. At least that was my experience.

A famous author once wrote that ‘finding the stories is not the hard part, writing them down is’. I suggest this may be backwards, or perhaps not quite complete. Finding stories can be the hard part and, once you have one, writing it down is the easier part. Moreover, it may also be the case the story finds you. I found it was all too easy to confuse a story with an idea for a book, Ideas come and go. Perhaps this is what that this author had in mind. There is a distinction between an idea for a novel and a story to tell. One instills a passion to be written, the other is not much different than writing to for the Sunday magazine. One idea that came to mind was the lost concept of honor and how there was a time when it was within the law to challenge someone to a duel to the death if that honor was questioned. Much has changed, not to mention the concept of having honor. When was the last duel legally fought, by whom and for what reason? Were pistols at ten paces precursors of the classic Western street gunfight? And so on. In the end it was filed away for another day, as ideas often are.

A story is something more than an idea. It is more an emotional craving and less a dispassionate concept. It is driven by some personal truth and one you may not have been aware you have. I believe it is even arguable that you can only know something is true through the act of writing. This is what is I believe Oscar Wilde meant by saying anything worth knowing cannot be taught, it comes from within. The more this becomes clear then the more inspired, and inspiring, the writing will be.

Finding the story is not easy, at least one that fills you with ‘enthusiasms’. But once you have one then the writing should become easier. The more commanding and clear its message, the easier it ought to be to ‘write down’. At the risk of a cliché, I wrote to learn what happened next. For me it was all about the having that story first. How it all then might unfold is the plot. A plot can have many tweaks, but there is only the one story.

John Goodricke’s life needed more of a telling, at least as far as I was concerned. It was easy to find accounts of his work in history of science journals where his deafness is only briefly mentioned. Goodricke’s Time is just as much about the experience of deafness, and the struggle to teach the deaf, it is as much about his experience of adjusting to his deafness than it is about astronomy. One point about having a story. It helps to tell someone in thirty seconds. You are on an elevator. Another passenger joins you and asks, ‘what is your story?’ and before they exit, you tell them. For Goodricke’s Time it is What is most important in life? Young Goodricke, despite his deafness or perhaps even because of it, could tell you.

A perceptive reader was once asked was Goodricke’s idea of what was most important in life what I thought? Was it some disclosure on my part? His answer, after all, did come from me, not him. How well could I understand something so personal to someone who lived in a different culture over two hundred and thirty-five years ago? Goodricke was a character in my novel. I could not have him behave, have him appear authentic unless some strong idea of his personality was held. How close it is to the actual John Goodricke no one can say. I can say that it fits with Goodricke’s personality as described in Goodricke’s Time. When writing dialogue, it is critical to have a clear and consistent idea of the personalities of the characters. The purpose of the plot is to develop the story, to make it come to life. Plot is what happens. It is the sequence of events inside a story. What is the correct placement or order of these events? What drives the plot? Does the reader care and want to turn the page? What part do characters play in driving the plot? How does one go about making a character pop off the page? These are some things discussed in my next post.


I Began as an Artist but Ended as an Engineer

I Began as an Artist but Ended as an Engineer

I have often been asked, ‘Why don’t you have a blog on your website as do other writers?’ Well, not often. Okay. Never. Still, there is a good reason to do so. I have written four nonfiction works – three published and one now in press. Another novel is now in preparation. Goodricke’s Time, my first, demanded a different approach than did the writing of non-fiction and this is what I wish to share here. When writing a novel you are writing for a different reader experience than that of non-fiction, sometimes referred to as ‘expository prose’. Non-fiction intends to convey knowledge, while a novel – imaginative literature – attempts to communicate an atmosphere and an experience itself, one that that the reader can have or share only by reading.

A glut of advice on how we should write, or not write, exists online and in print. This material is a double-edged sword. Some of it may improve your writing while keeping you from discovering a distinctive style. For example, I have seen online the ‘four things’ that made Hemingway’s writing so successful. He was, for example, the master of the short sentence. But the author of that advice appears not have known that Hemingway once said that he wished he had written Moby Dick and there are some long sentences there! The point is, Melville had his style. Hemingway had his. You should have yours. Therefore, in the blog posts that follow, I only here share my thoughts, my experiences about writing. They are nowhere intended as ‘tips on how to be a better writer’.

The first thing I learned was it was better for me to begin as an artist and end as an engineer. Before writing a single word, I acquired books and DVDs about ‘how to write sentences’ or ‘the strategy of fiction writing’, not to mention ‘writer’s groups’. You get the idea. My original inent was to apply some of this ‘advice to writers’ as I wrote. Barbara Tuchman  spent eight hours crafting the opening paragraph of Guns of August to lure you into her narrative clutch. I would do the same!

However,I soon learned that using this approach meant I would never finish. Crafting every other sentence set my writing speed to ‘slow’. I had been inveigled by Mark Twain’s insight that ‘the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug’. I wanted that right word! Each sentence had to be perfect, but a search for that ‘right word’ was like writing on molasses. What was important was simply to write. Lightning bugs could always be exterminated later. The point was don’t create stylistic conundrums that needlessly reduce the intuitive flow of thought to a trickle. This resulted in windy and wordy sentences, but at least my thoughts were on the page where they belonged.

Note that I used the term ‘intuitive flow’ of writing, sometimes referred to as ‘stream of consciousness’. One critic of the overuse or reliance on the use of intuition advises that when you ‘actually start writing, you’ll want it to be a process where you are consciously considering  the impact every word you type has on the reader’s perception’. This may work for some, but I feel it a nitpick style that bogs you down. You can always go back and edit and consider that ‘impact of every word’. The point is that you will have something worthwhile to edit. This, then, was beginning with the mind of an artist.

A full discussion of intuition, what it is and how it operates, is a bit beyond the scope of any blog. Moreover, intuition is mostly understood by its achievements and less by precisely how it works. It is difficult to therefore provide a roadmap on how to write using your intuition. For me it meant sensing a character’s mood or how the atmosphere of a scene should feel. I ‘intuited’ the spirit of a setting.  Putting this into words allows the reader to  complete the circle as it were, allowing them to have that same experieence. Others also contend that intuition can clash with the writing process because it is the expression of non-conscious biases that may produce inauthentic behavior in your characters. I think this misunderstands the role of intuition in all art and perhaps may also be a bit too much Psychology 101.

This is not meant to dismiss the opposite side of the coin from intuition; intellect. Writing uses both intuition and intellect and these are complexly related through perception and thinking. In my view, intuition is what happens when we directly apprehend meaning from a scent in the air, the lie of a cat or shadows across a room. It is a property of perception. Such perceptions are nowhere separate from thinking, they have a share in every cognitive act as does the intellect. Its insights might be considered as a gift from nowhere, a type of supernatural inspiration that some consider therefore less valid. But to me they are critical to the creative act in painting, in music and in writing. It was later for me during the editing process that the intellect began to gain the upper hand when I wrote as an engineer.

Engineers think preemptively and see whole systems. A systems-level thinking process would consider how its elements are best inked in sequence, and in function—and under what conditions they work and do not work. For me this approach was best applied only after the first draft was complete to learn whether it worked as a ‘system’. Others advise the creating of this system through the use of a synopsis of each chapter on index cards and arranged on a cork board, virtual or real. This technique is more effective, in my view, in writing non-fiction. But if you sit down to write a novel to ‘learn what happens next’, then this approach has less value and may even take you down a wrong path. And if I did not know exactly from the outset how the novel would ultimately unfold, how could I fill these cards out? They can be filled out once the first draft is complete, the approach I took. There was nothing stopping me at that point to see whether the novel worked as a ‘system’. In my case, it did not. I inserted a new second chapter and swapped two other chapters around. This is what is meant by ending as an engineer.

There is, of course, more to it than this such as research, editing or defining characters, (more about these in future blogs). I found that writing a novel to be a process of continual refinement. My approach was to first get the bloody thing written, then learn whether it worked as a system. And only then could I begin to fine-tune each sentence by finding  that ‘right word.’