Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere


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Write what you know?

Sounds like a great idea, right? If you write what you know, just think of all the research you don’t have to do. That’s more time you can spend actually writing. Then again, you miss all the fun of actual research (I mean, just think of the rabbit holes you can explore when you google “lethal food”). Disclaimer: No, I haven’t googled it yet, but I write mysteries, so I’ll get there πŸ˜‰ .

Not only do you get to skip out on a lot of research, you get to use all that special knowledge you’ve got stored in that gray matter of yours. It’s almost as good as bar trivia, right? I mean, if you find a substitute for drinking a shot every time you get a question wrong (just to keep the record straight, I’ve never personally played bar trivia, but I wouldn’t mind trying it πŸ˜€ )

Sounds like a plan. Heck, a lot of writers do it. Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist, just like Kathy. John Grisham is a lawyer in the South, and he writes legal thrillers set in the South. Right now I’m reading a Jammer Davis book by Ward Larsen. Jammer is an ex-Air Force pilot and aviation accident investigator, just like … wait for it … Ward Larsen. The list goes on.

It’s a good way to make your characters sound authentic. And that’s the idea, right? Make the reader believe your character really knows what s/he is doing. If you are an investigative journalist and know the ins and outs of the business, including working for a television news station, your investigative journalist character will be authentic and believable, just like Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Charlotte McNally.

Since you’ve done the job, you can add extra details to ensure the reader believes in the character. And adding that tidbit to the blurb lends you some weight with readers. Think: well, this author is a third-degree black belt in jujitsu, so this book about a ninja should be pretty good.

But … (you knew this was coming πŸ™‚ )

There’s a line between authenticity and readability. If you worked as a chocolatier for ten years, and your main character is a chocolatier, you can have that character describe how to get the perfect temper for the chocolate. If you, a geologist writing a thriller, make your character a geologist,Β  that character can describe the aspects of drilling for oil, or searching for gold, or taking core samples in Antarctica.

And just as you’re describing how the change in strata means a volcanic eruption a couple million years ago produced a solid vein of gold rather than gold scattered through the rock, your reader is skipping ahead to where the bad guy has your main character lined up with the cross-hairs of the scope of his high-powered rifle.

See the dilemma? You want to include the details to prove you know what you’re talking about, but unless the reader is interested in geology, they don’t want to wade through that. If you want some examples of TMTI (too much technical information), read Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan books.

dash8 smOkay, so how much do you take out so the reader won’t skip that part? Or, how much do you include to make sure the reader knows you know what you’re talking about? That’s where I’m at with my manuscript. After talking with my agent, and reviewing the somewhat-but-not-very-helpful feedback from the publishers who have passed, I’m tweaking my manuscript to remove even more of the TMTI bits, because we suspect that might be a big part of the reason they passed. If the editors stumble through those parts, it ruins the reading experience. In fact, the most recent publisher to pass said it was a really close decision. If there’d been a little bit less TMTI, would they have accepted it? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s something.

For instance, my main character, who is an aircraft mechanic, is asked about the fire bottle for the auxiliary power unit (APU) in an airplane. Initially, she described it thus:

β€œFire bottle. If there’s a fire in the APU, it’ll blow. There’s an explosive squib here,” she pointed to a nodule on the bottle connected to a wire harness, β€œthat ruptures the diaphragm and releases high-pressure suppressant.” She indicated the line that carried the chemical extinguisher to the combustion chamber of the APU.

If you’re someone familiar with mechanical stuff, you can probably follow this pretty well. But if you have trouble doing more than pumping gas or airing up your tires, you’ll probably skim this. So, time to leave out more of the details:

β€œFire bottle. If there’s a fire in the APU, it’ll blow. There’s an explosive squib here,” she pointed to a nodule on the bottle connected to a wire harness, β€œthat releases high-pressure suppressant.”

Why did I keep the detail about the squib and the wire harness? Because it’s relevant in one of the climax scenes. Which is smoother to read? The second one, I hope.

I’ve pulled a lot of the remaining technical details out (by this point far less then in earlier drafts), but it’s still a struggle of wanting to prove I know what I’m talking about (authenticity) and making it accessible to mostly non-mechanical readers (readability). After my guinea pigs–er, readers go through it, I’ll send it to my agent for the next round of submissions. Here’s hoping!

It’s been a short week–at least it seems like it. Had a nice day with relatives last week, and everyone (in-laws) got to meet my son’s girlfriend. Whew, it’s over! For all those who celebrate Easter, have a blessed holiday weekend. For everyone else, get writing!


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Stormin’ the brain

I enter my writing office, coffee mug in hand. It’s a fun one I received as a gift. Every writer needs a fun mug! plotting-mug_cr“G’day, love. It’s about time you showed up.”

My Muse is standing in front of the whiteboard wall, marker in hand. Today he’s sporting an Atlanta Falcons jersey and jeans, with a New England Patriots cap.

“Can’t decide who to root for?” I ask, gesturing with my mug at his ensemble. “The Super Bowl is next weekend, not this weekend.”

“Figured I’d start early. It was either these or …”

“The burgundy henley?” I finish.

He aims those baby blues at me. “You really like that shirt, don’t you?”

I really like how he looks in that shirt, but I’m not going to tell him that. He might never wear it again. I sidle up next to him. “Sooo, whatcha doing?”

“Trying to come up with alternate titles for your book, as you well know.” He adds another word to the collection on the board. They’re mostly aviation-related, words like “terminal”, “plane”, and “stall”. Some are words that often show up in mystery and thriller titles, like “death”, “dark”, and “fear”. HeΒ  writes “bag-smasher” off to the side.

“Really?” I erase it. “Do you think ‘bag-smasher’ conveys a sense of mystery and suspense?”

“Hey, I’m just tossing out ideas.” He drapes an arm around my shoulders. “I really like that one.” He points. “How about ‘Terminal Cargo’? Or ‘Frozen Stall’? ‘Crash and Freeze’? What about ‘Deadly Wings’?”

“Ugh. No.” The words on the board start to swim in my vision. We’re brainstorming different titles for my book at my agent’s request. “It needs to be aviation-esque, but still have a connotation of suspense.”

He stares at me. “‘Aviation-esque’? Really?”

I duck out from under his arm and head to my desk. “We can think about the title later. Right now I need your help with the proposal.”

My Muse leans against the board, arms crossed. “Are you ready to sit down and get started on that? That one’s not going to be easy, love.”

“I never expected it to be easy.” I drop into my chair and set my mug aside. “It’s like a spiffed-up synopsis.” The same dread that I feel when I think about writing a synopsis blows a chill through me now. It’s like a cover blurb, or the blurbs you see on Amazon. But more.

“Want to tackle the bio first?” he asks.

Tempting. Very tempting. “Nope.”

He drags a director’s chair to my desk and sits across from me. “It’ll be easier.”

“True, but we gotta get the pitch part done, and that’ll take the longest.”

A slow smile brightens his face. “I’m proud of you, love. No procrastinating.”

“Yet.”

I always seem to find other things to do instead of the hard stuff, like writing a synopsis or figuring out a plot hole. I’ve got an example of a proposal, and I’ll have to research some on Amazon. For ideas, not procrastination.

No. Really.

My agent accepted my revision, with a few minor edits, so the next thing on the list is to come up with another title (current title: Just Plane Dead), write a bio that wows, and create a proposal she can present to editors. I’d be lying if I said I’m not worried about it. I’m sure my Muse and I can come up with something super awesome. I still think writing the book and revising it are way easier.

Oh, and for those who stop by for cat pics (you know who you are πŸ˜‰ ):

I’m pulling from the archives. Zoey is our orange cat, and Socks was our other one until she went MIA. We still miss her. She was so nice and fuzzy and nice. Zoey’s kind of a grump; she doesn’t even like to be picked up, but she sure likes to be petted.

Go forth and write this weekend! I will be πŸ™‚


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Write what you know, or do a good fake-out

Write what you know. How often have you heard that advice?

Pfft. All. The. Time.

Which is all well and good if you’re writing about making chocolate chip cookies (not cheating, mind you, actually measuring the ingredients and mixing them together) or driving in a snowstorm, or checking out of a big-box store behind the person who is cleaning the pennies out of their little coin purse.

But what if:

  • You’ve never ridden a dragon.
  • You’ve never ridden a horse.
  • You’ve never fired a gun.
  • You’ve never seen the Grand Canyon.
  • You’ve never cast a spell of invisibility.
  • You’ve never changed into a wolf/tiger/bear/bird of prey/swan/vampire/gargoyle/(I could go on).
  • You’ve never lost a brother.
  • You’ve never been stalked.
  • Someone has never tried to kill you.

Granted, some things you can realistically do. Never fired a gun? Go to your local gun shop, gun range, or contact a sportsman’s club and ask for the experience. Never ridden a horse? I’m sure most horse owners wouldn’t mind helping you out, especially if you offer to muck out the stable or pay them in return.

Some of those experiences can be translated into others. Never ridden a dragon? How different do you suppose that is from riding a horse? Never seen the Grand Canyon? Um, okay, pictures or Google Earth don’t do it justice compared to seeing it in person, but you could probably give it a good go.

Sometimes you can find other people who have had an experience you want to write about. Talk to that person, get them to describe everything from physical sensations (including any tastes or smells) to emotional sensations.

Psst, it’s called research.

But what if you haven’t experienced something, and you don’t know anyone who has? What if it’s something you cannot experience, like, ever? Time-travel. Casting spells. Shape-shifting. Or maybe something you could experience but probably shouldn’t, like falling five stories from a building or driving a car off a cliff.

Remember all those hours of make-believe when you were a kid? You didn’t know it then, but you were practicing for the times when you need to pretend. Not just in real life, because face it, we’ve all been there with the fake genuine smile and feigned interest when your relative starts telling that story yet again.

We go into that pretend state when we write things that we really don’t know. The deeper we can imagine the experience, and the more we can extrapolate from what we have experienced first-hand, the more realistic our writing will be.

The character in my latest WIP lost her big brother. I’m the oldest in my family, so I never had a big brother, nor have I lost a sibling. How could I write about her grief and guilt?

I have lost a parent. I know grief. But guilt? Hmm. I’ve gone through guilt with other things, like not offering to help the young mother in church struggling to control her three kids after her husband died. I should’ve offered to hold the fussy baby so she could deal with her other two children.

Even though I’ve never experienced loss like my character, I can use what I do know. I can remember the grief and guilt and translate it into my character. Actors do the same sort of thing. Our goal as writers is to bring our readers through the same experience as our characters.

We fake it good.

It’s worth it. The better you can fake it, the deeper the reader is pulled into the character’s experience. That translates to a better reader experience, which ultimately translates to more readers, because they tell their friends how good the story is.

How do you know you’ve written a good fake-out? When a beta reader tells you you’ve nailed something the reader actually experienced. Or when you go to book clubs and the readers relay their own similar experiences (this happens a lot with Ceone Fenn and her book, To Reap the Finest Wheat).

Like actors, we need to “get into character”. Some writers actually take acting classes to help them learn to do just that. Guess what? It means more well-rounded characters and more realistic scenes.

Our goal is to suck the reader into the story so they don’t want to surface until the end. We want them to cry, gasp, laugh, and dance for joy with our characters. Use what you know to imagine what you haven’t experienced.

Make-believe. It does a writer good.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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Trust me

Famous words heard before a prank, right?

These are the words writers say to readers. We want our readers to trust us to take them into the world of our story and entertain them. We want our readers to trust us to take them away from their own lives for a while and bring them into the lives of our characters.

There are many ways we keep our readers’ trust, from creating believable characters, to ensuring those characters behave in ways that make sense, to avoiding the trust-shattering deus ex machina escapes from the hard places we pin them against. We make sure our ten-year-old character doesn’t behave like an adult, and our 18th-century merchant doesn’t sound like a 20th-century soldier.

We also need to keep our readers’ trust by making sure our facts are straight. There’s nothing quite like reading a story set in the 1980s that includes a reference to cellphones or laptops that weigh less than 10 pounds. If our story is set in the early 20th century, we do our research to make sure we stay true to the styles, music, movies, and other trends that existed in that time period.

Accuracy is an easy way to keep the reader locked into the story, instead of breaking out because the character clicked the safety on a Glock (Glocks don’t have safeties in the same sense most other handguns do) or turned the key to start an airplane (the starting process is more involved than turning a key).

Bottom line: we do our research. Research of facts is the easy part of keeping the reader in the story. The harder part is ensuring our characters and plots are believable. I can use Google Earth (oh, the wonders of Google!) to check which direction I need to go from Waikiki to Diamond Head. I can drive to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to get an idea how big the cherry is on the spoon.

Setting isn’t the only thing we research. The resources we have in the writing community rival Google and Wikipedia. An expert on police procedures or forensics is as close as a Facebook group or crime blog (check out retired detective and forensics coroner Garry Rodger’s dyingwords.net or crime writer Sue Coletta’s site). Writers who have done extensive research on a subject are experts in their own right (for Irish myth, see Ali Isaac’s site, or check out Mae Clair’s site for tidbits on all those creatures people swear exist–but do they?)

Do your readers a favor and make sure the easy stuff is right. For example, there’s a pet ferret in my WIP. I’ve never had a pet ferret, but one quick question in my Facebook writers’ group gave me a half dozen people who have actually owned pet ferrets. Don’t underestimate the resources you have in various writing groups. I know a couple writers who are wonderful resources when it comes to the likely behaviors and fears of my WIP’s main character.

In other words, with a little work, you can assure your reader they can trust you to have your facts straight. Now, research can’t help you if your character doesn’t react the way they should. (This is a great article about that aspect of story.) Those are the things critique partners and beta readers can help with.

Now, for a bit of shameless promotion, pop on over to Mae Clair’s site for my guest post. While you’re there, check out her blog. Hey, check out all the blogs I’ve linked to. They are all excellent resources for your research.

Here’s a tip: set a timer, because soon you’ll realize you spent an hour or two just checking out all the cool information, and not writing. Hey, trust me πŸ˜‰

Gotta get back to the WIP!

Oh, just a quick aside. It’s spring, we had a snowstorm today, and my babies are looking good. My tomatoes and peppers are coming up, and the onions are impersonating grass.

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Peppers and tomatoes

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