Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How well do you know the parts of a book and their names and functions? Below I've gathered a list of the most common elements in a printed book.

Photo credit: pschubert from morguefile.com

Front Matter


All the pages prior to the main body. Numbering is done in lowercase Roman numerals.

End papers/leaves
Blank pages, sometimes with images, at the beginning and end of a book. They usually exist to fill out a printer's signature (huge paper sheets from which book pages are cut) and give a polished look. Paperbacks are less likely than hardbacks to contain them.

Endorsements
Praise from other authors, important book reviewers, or experts on your topic often appear first. Keep in mind that readers will be likely to skip or skim, so put the most important first, and have plenty of white space on the page. Dense text on an endorsements page will be a turn off.

Half title page
In traditionally published books, it's common to have a page with the title and nothing else.

"Also by" page
A list of the author's other works typically appears on the back of the Half title.

Title page
The book title and the names of the author(s) and the publisher go on the front of this page

The back of the title page should include the copyright notice, the ISBN, the publisher’s address, the year the book was published, any disclaimers, information about the cover art and/or designer.

Cataloging in Publication information also goes here--the categories for library search engines-- for traditionally published books. Self-published books are not eligible for this service (see Library of Congress FAQs for more info). Don't try this at home, either. You can pay to have CIP data generated, but it's pricey and won't guarantee your book will make it into a library.

Dedication
Spot where the author gives special recognition to someone or something. The word "dedicated" or "dedication" need not appear. Simply "In memory of my mother" or "For Sam, who makes it all worthwhile" is often plenty.

Acknowledgements
Specific thanks to all the people who helped the author, and can sometimes cleverly incorporate the story's themes or images. Acknowledgements can also appear in the back matter, if preferred.

Table of contents
This list of the elements included in the book is more common in nonfiction than fiction. It should include pertinent front matter--such as a foreword or preface, the chapters, and all back matter.

Foreword (note spelling!)
A special introduction written by someone other than the author, that gives supportive information regarding the book. Forewords can be included in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry books.

Preface
Written by the book’s author, this contains important information related to the book topic, such as explaining the author's expertise, or research methodology. Prefaces are largely used in nonfiction.

Body

Introduction
In nonfiction, the author gives the reader more details about the book, typically a rationale for "why I wrote this book" or an informal letter to readers, highlighting the benefits of reading the book.

Prologue
In fiction, a chapter occurring outside the main narrative time frame or location, typically before the main story action picks up. Sometimes the prologue will be a fictionalized outside source, such as an imaginary newspaper clipping, TV broadcast or online article. Using part of a scene from the climax as a prologue has been done (Twilight) but will likely come off as gimmicky. Keep in mind that some readers will skip prologues, so use with caution.

Chapters
The text of the book is typically broken into parts called chapters. These might be named with a simple number (Ten, 17), the word "chapter" and a numeral or spelled out number (Chapter 23, Chapter Six), a descriptive heading ("In which the heroine uncovers a ruse"), a date (especially for diary-style fiction), a location (Chicago, Dave's house), the point-of-view character's name, or a combination of these (Chapter 6, March 21, Chicago; 15 Vanessa).

Epigraphs
Quotations from other sources that summarize the theme of a chapter can be inserted at the beginning of a chapter, or the book as a whole (usually right before the body). Beware of taking more than about 400 words from any single source--that's the UK threshold for "fair dealing," a copyright concept more strict than US law. If you use Bible verses, use several different translations (say, NIV, ESV, NASB) to ensure you don't stray out of fair use or fair dealing territory, and be sure to attribute correctly (in an appendix, and in your copyright information).

Frank Herbert's Dune used epigraphs from a fictional source written by one of his characters who is a small child in the book. In doing this, he avoids copyright issues and also signals that this person will become significant.

Scenes/sections
Chapters are composed of subsections called "scenes" in fiction and "sections" in nonfiction.

How separations between scenes are demarcated can depend on medium. In paper books, extra space is typically added. In e-books, scene breaks are often marked with centered asterisks, dashes, or even line art. Indie authors should determine what their "house style" will be and use it consistently.

Nonfiction sections usually have descriptive headings.

Epilogue
A final chapter, typically dramatized scenes, that takes place sometime after the main narrative. This might be a day or decades later. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for example, J.K. Rowling provides a glimpse of how our favorite characters are faring 19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts.

Back Matter


All elements that appearing after the body of the book. Be sure to include them when numbering pages and constructing your table of contents.

Afterword (note spelling!)
Unlike an epilogue, an afterword is not in a character's voice, but is instead follow up information for the audience from the author. This might include an explanation of how the author got the idea for the story or a testimonial from another source.

Appendix (Appendices if more than one)
Appendices include supplementary information, such as "further reading" with recommended books, or a list of resources such as organizations and websites related to the book's topic. Maps of your fantasy world and lists of characters and their relationships (for large casts) would also appear here. Appendices might also include additional content related to the book, such as discussion questions or recipes for foods featured in the story.

Glossary
Vocabulary words and their definitions. If you coin a lot of terms in your worldbuilding, readers will appreciate a glossary. Don't forget to include pronunciations.

Bibliography
Lists the references used in writing the book. It's rare to include this in fiction. More often, fiction writers mention important research sources in their acknowledgements.

Index
An alphabetical list of significant terms found within the text and the pages where they appear. Nonfiction books usually include this element.

Author biography ("About the author")
A sentence, paragraph or even a page with information about the author. Increasingly, authors include information about how to connect on social media. Some also include a personal plea for reviews.

Sneak Peak
A sample chapter of the next book in the series, or of your next release can build audience.


Did I miss anything? Which elements do you wish authors and publishers used more often? Less often?
Wednesday, March 25, 2015 Laurel Garver
How well do you know the parts of a book and their names and functions? Below I've gathered a list of the most common elements in a printed book.

Photo credit: pschubert from morguefile.com

Front Matter


All the pages prior to the main body. Numbering is done in lowercase Roman numerals.

End papers/leaves
Blank pages, sometimes with images, at the beginning and end of a book. They usually exist to fill out a printer's signature (huge paper sheets from which book pages are cut) and give a polished look. Paperbacks are less likely than hardbacks to contain them.

Endorsements
Praise from other authors, important book reviewers, or experts on your topic often appear first. Keep in mind that readers will be likely to skip or skim, so put the most important first, and have plenty of white space on the page. Dense text on an endorsements page will be a turn off.

Half title page
In traditionally published books, it's common to have a page with the title and nothing else.

"Also by" page
A list of the author's other works typically appears on the back of the Half title.

Title page
The book title and the names of the author(s) and the publisher go on the front of this page

The back of the title page should include the copyright notice, the ISBN, the publisher’s address, the year the book was published, any disclaimers, information about the cover art and/or designer.

Cataloging in Publication information also goes here--the categories for library search engines-- for traditionally published books. Self-published books are not eligible for this service (see Library of Congress FAQs for more info). Don't try this at home, either. You can pay to have CIP data generated, but it's pricey and won't guarantee your book will make it into a library.

Dedication
Spot where the author gives special recognition to someone or something. The word "dedicated" or "dedication" need not appear. Simply "In memory of my mother" or "For Sam, who makes it all worthwhile" is often plenty.

Acknowledgements
Specific thanks to all the people who helped the author, and can sometimes cleverly incorporate the story's themes or images. Acknowledgements can also appear in the back matter, if preferred.

Table of contents
This list of the elements included in the book is more common in nonfiction than fiction. It should include pertinent front matter--such as a foreword or preface, the chapters, and all back matter.

Foreword (note spelling!)
A special introduction written by someone other than the author, that gives supportive information regarding the book. Forewords can be included in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry books.

Preface
Written by the book’s author, this contains important information related to the book topic, such as explaining the author's expertise, or research methodology. Prefaces are largely used in nonfiction.

Body

Introduction
In nonfiction, the author gives the reader more details about the book, typically a rationale for "why I wrote this book" or an informal letter to readers, highlighting the benefits of reading the book.

Prologue
In fiction, a chapter occurring outside the main narrative time frame or location, typically before the main story action picks up. Sometimes the prologue will be a fictionalized outside source, such as an imaginary newspaper clipping, TV broadcast or online article. Using part of a scene from the climax as a prologue has been done (Twilight) but will likely come off as gimmicky. Keep in mind that some readers will skip prologues, so use with caution.

Chapters
The text of the book is typically broken into parts called chapters. These might be named with a simple number (Ten, 17), the word "chapter" and a numeral or spelled out number (Chapter 23, Chapter Six), a descriptive heading ("In which the heroine uncovers a ruse"), a date (especially for diary-style fiction), a location (Chicago, Dave's house), the point-of-view character's name, or a combination of these (Chapter 6, March 21, Chicago; 15 Vanessa).

Epigraphs
Quotations from other sources that summarize the theme of a chapter can be inserted at the beginning of a chapter, or the book as a whole (usually right before the body). Beware of taking more than about 400 words from any single source--that's the UK threshold for "fair dealing," a copyright concept more strict than US law. If you use Bible verses, use several different translations (say, NIV, ESV, NASB) to ensure you don't stray out of fair use or fair dealing territory, and be sure to attribute correctly (in an appendix, and in your copyright information).

Frank Herbert's Dune used epigraphs from a fictional source written by one of his characters who is a small child in the book. In doing this, he avoids copyright issues and also signals that this person will become significant.

Scenes/sections
Chapters are composed of subsections called "scenes" in fiction and "sections" in nonfiction.

How separations between scenes are demarcated can depend on medium. In paper books, extra space is typically added. In e-books, scene breaks are often marked with centered asterisks, dashes, or even line art. Indie authors should determine what their "house style" will be and use it consistently.

Nonfiction sections usually have descriptive headings.

Epilogue
A final chapter, typically dramatized scenes, that takes place sometime after the main narrative. This might be a day or decades later. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, for example, J.K. Rowling provides a glimpse of how our favorite characters are faring 19 years after the Battle of Hogwarts.

Back Matter


All elements that appearing after the body of the book. Be sure to include them when numbering pages and constructing your table of contents.

Afterword (note spelling!)
Unlike an epilogue, an afterword is not in a character's voice, but is instead follow up information for the audience from the author. This might include an explanation of how the author got the idea for the story or a testimonial from another source.

Appendix (Appendices if more than one)
Appendices include supplementary information, such as "further reading" with recommended books, or a list of resources such as organizations and websites related to the book's topic. Maps of your fantasy world and lists of characters and their relationships (for large casts) would also appear here. Appendices might also include additional content related to the book, such as discussion questions or recipes for foods featured in the story.

Glossary
Vocabulary words and their definitions. If you coin a lot of terms in your worldbuilding, readers will appreciate a glossary. Don't forget to include pronunciations.

Bibliography
Lists the references used in writing the book. It's rare to include this in fiction. More often, fiction writers mention important research sources in their acknowledgements.

Index
An alphabetical list of significant terms found within the text and the pages where they appear. Nonfiction books usually include this element.

Author biography ("About the author")
A sentence, paragraph or even a page with information about the author. Increasingly, authors include information about how to connect on social media. Some also include a personal plea for reviews.

Sneak Peak
A sample chapter of the next book in the series, or of your next release can build audience.


Did I miss anything? Which elements do you wish authors and publishers used more often? Less often?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dublin photo by flokke from morguefile.com
Just for fun, I thought I'd post an entry from one of my high school journals describing my experiences marching in the St. Patrick's day parade in Dublin, Ireland, with my high school band.  I haven't altered the words I wrote at 16, except to remove names. Read on to learn about the magic of magpies, dueling saxophones and how to preform emergency surgery on a parade route.

March 17, 1985

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Up at the crack of dawn, we dressed and made our appearance at breakfast. Corn flakes and juice, followed by bacon, mutton sausage and eggs became an all-too-familiar breakfast. After loading the buses with instruments, everyone donned uniforms and boarded. To Dublin, Ho!

Conn [tour guide] told us of an ancient superstition about magpies, those huge crow-like birds of Europe. If you see a single magpie and wave to it, you’ll have good luck all day. If you see two, you needn’t wave, that is automatically good luck. If you wave to three magpies, you’ll have a girl child, and waving to four will bring a boy. We got caught up in the amusing Irish superstitions, to say the least—we waved at every big, black bird we saw for the rest of the week.

Entering the city, we stopped waving at magpies and started waving at the magnificent people. Everyone waved back, even some of the dignified guarde (police). We really got a kick out of that. With a little coaxing and much waving, we urged a peddler to come over to the bus and sell us Irish flags. Now we had flags to wave, as well as hands.

After lining up, we were in for quite a wait. A group of curious, kilted bagpipers came over to talk to us. They were intrigued by American saxophones, and we were intrigued by their bagpipes. One of the bagpipers challenged John S., an alto saxophonist, to a duel. We called it a draw.

The time finally came to enter the parade route. I swear, Dublin’s entire population must have come out to see us. They were so thick, we had to go single file at times. About 5/6 of the onlookers seemed to be under 18. I almost wished we didn’t have to march the parade—I just wanted to reach out and cuddle some of those adorable children. The little rosy-cheeked girls with ponytails in green ribbon and rosy little naughty boys were just too cute! The crowd seemed to love us too, asking as we passed if we knew their cousins in Pittsburgh or Scranton or Philadelphia.

The cord that suspends my xylophone upper keys [like the black keys on a piano] broke as I played the cadence, while we were squeezed into single file formation. One of the parents, Mr. F., saw my grimace, and thinking I’d hurt myself, rushed to my side. We were now two groups away from the judging stand, and I began to feel panicked. I restrung the bars, trying to keep moving and not swing my xylophone into anyone. Then Mr. F. pulled the cord taut and together we tied it, hopefully well enough to make it through our routine for the judges.

At the moment of truth—the Lord Mayor’s judging stand—we did our “Thriller” routine with utmost flash and precision. The crowd went wild. They’d probably never seen a drum major in a sequined glove moonwalk while color guard and instrumentalists alike did a Jackson-esque dance routine.

====

The entry goes on to describe the sightseeing tour they dragged us on after we’d marched in a parade and were still very jet lagged. We did take first place for our division with that homage to MJ, which was quite a thrill for our band from rural central Pennsylvania.

If you have no old journals to dig through, you might enjoy trying your hand at one of the following prompts.

Writing prompts
Write your most extraordinary holiday or travel memory.
Write a fictional journal entry for a kid traveling abroad for the first time.
Write a story in which a parade goes horribly wrong.
Write a scene in which your character is caught in the crush of a huge crowd.

Have you ever dug out things you wrote in high school? What did you unearth? Are there any memories you wish you'd captured in a journal?
Tuesday, March 17, 2015 Laurel Garver
Dublin photo by flokke from morguefile.com
Just for fun, I thought I'd post an entry from one of my high school journals describing my experiences marching in the St. Patrick's day parade in Dublin, Ireland, with my high school band.  I haven't altered the words I wrote at 16, except to remove names. Read on to learn about the magic of magpies, dueling saxophones and how to preform emergency surgery on a parade route.

March 17, 1985

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Up at the crack of dawn, we dressed and made our appearance at breakfast. Corn flakes and juice, followed by bacon, mutton sausage and eggs became an all-too-familiar breakfast. After loading the buses with instruments, everyone donned uniforms and boarded. To Dublin, Ho!

Conn [tour guide] told us of an ancient superstition about magpies, those huge crow-like birds of Europe. If you see a single magpie and wave to it, you’ll have good luck all day. If you see two, you needn’t wave, that is automatically good luck. If you wave to three magpies, you’ll have a girl child, and waving to four will bring a boy. We got caught up in the amusing Irish superstitions, to say the least—we waved at every big, black bird we saw for the rest of the week.

Entering the city, we stopped waving at magpies and started waving at the magnificent people. Everyone waved back, even some of the dignified guarde (police). We really got a kick out of that. With a little coaxing and much waving, we urged a peddler to come over to the bus and sell us Irish flags. Now we had flags to wave, as well as hands.

After lining up, we were in for quite a wait. A group of curious, kilted bagpipers came over to talk to us. They were intrigued by American saxophones, and we were intrigued by their bagpipes. One of the bagpipers challenged John S., an alto saxophonist, to a duel. We called it a draw.

The time finally came to enter the parade route. I swear, Dublin’s entire population must have come out to see us. They were so thick, we had to go single file at times. About 5/6 of the onlookers seemed to be under 18. I almost wished we didn’t have to march the parade—I just wanted to reach out and cuddle some of those adorable children. The little rosy-cheeked girls with ponytails in green ribbon and rosy little naughty boys were just too cute! The crowd seemed to love us too, asking as we passed if we knew their cousins in Pittsburgh or Scranton or Philadelphia.

The cord that suspends my xylophone upper keys [like the black keys on a piano] broke as I played the cadence, while we were squeezed into single file formation. One of the parents, Mr. F., saw my grimace, and thinking I’d hurt myself, rushed to my side. We were now two groups away from the judging stand, and I began to feel panicked. I restrung the bars, trying to keep moving and not swing my xylophone into anyone. Then Mr. F. pulled the cord taut and together we tied it, hopefully well enough to make it through our routine for the judges.

At the moment of truth—the Lord Mayor’s judging stand—we did our “Thriller” routine with utmost flash and precision. The crowd went wild. They’d probably never seen a drum major in a sequined glove moonwalk while color guard and instrumentalists alike did a Jackson-esque dance routine.

====

The entry goes on to describe the sightseeing tour they dragged us on after we’d marched in a parade and were still very jet lagged. We did take first place for our division with that homage to MJ, which was quite a thrill for our band from rural central Pennsylvania.

If you have no old journals to dig through, you might enjoy trying your hand at one of the following prompts.

Writing prompts
Write your most extraordinary holiday or travel memory.
Write a fictional journal entry for a kid traveling abroad for the first time.
Write a story in which a parade goes horribly wrong.
Write a scene in which your character is caught in the crush of a huge crowd.

Have you ever dug out things you wrote in high school? What did you unearth? Are there any memories you wish you'd captured in a journal?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Jane opens Brenna’s fridge and sees neat rows of French mineral water, bins stuffed with fresh veggies, and hiding behind a row of organic condiments, a half-eaten shoo-fly pie.

Who is Brenna?
A) A Southern grandma who runs Jane’s quilting circle.
B) An upwardly-mobile, urban gym-addict who’s ashamed of her rural roots.
C) A disorganized, free-spirited artist who rarely remembers to eat.

image from blog.zealousgood.com

If you guessed B, then you know that what’s in a character’s fridge tells you a lot about her. Specifically, it can tell you about the following:

relationship to food
Does she love to cook and have lots of interesting ingredients on hand? Does she eat only out of necessity and give little thought to food?

level of tidiness and ability to plan
Is her fridge dirty or sparkling? Is it bare or full enough to feed an army at a moment’s notice? Are foods in logical places? Do oddball items find their way inside?

health-consciousness
Is she a raw-foods vegan? A junk-food junkie? All organic? Cares only if the food is quick and tasty?

level of sophistication
Does she eat only plain, all-American foods or does she try cuisines from all over the world?

socioeconomic status (or strivings)
Is her food pricey foreign imports, middle-America name brands or cheap generics?

willingness to indulge herself
Does she allow herself a tiny pint of Ben and Jerry’s or a freezer full of it? Does she have a freezer-burned 5-gallon vat of generic vanilla ice cream because it’s a “good value”?

spending priorities
Does she skimp on one food category to spend more on another? Is eating organic more important than, say, having cable TV? Does she stick to only WIC-covered items?

ethnic or socioeconomic background
Does she keep specialized ingredients on hand from a particular culture? What are her childhood comfort foods she hides?

place on the traditional to trendy spectrum
Does she have Tupperware containers of leftover tuna-noodle casserole or cartons of takeout from the hip Vietnamese place? Ranch dip or hummus? String beans or edamame?

What's in your character's fridge? What ways have you used food to help build your characterization?
Wednesday, March 11, 2015 Laurel Garver
Jane opens Brenna’s fridge and sees neat rows of French mineral water, bins stuffed with fresh veggies, and hiding behind a row of organic condiments, a half-eaten shoo-fly pie.

Who is Brenna?
A) A Southern grandma who runs Jane’s quilting circle.
B) An upwardly-mobile, urban gym-addict who’s ashamed of her rural roots.
C) A disorganized, free-spirited artist who rarely remembers to eat.

image from blog.zealousgood.com

If you guessed B, then you know that what’s in a character’s fridge tells you a lot about her. Specifically, it can tell you about the following:

relationship to food
Does she love to cook and have lots of interesting ingredients on hand? Does she eat only out of necessity and give little thought to food?

level of tidiness and ability to plan
Is her fridge dirty or sparkling? Is it bare or full enough to feed an army at a moment’s notice? Are foods in logical places? Do oddball items find their way inside?

health-consciousness
Is she a raw-foods vegan? A junk-food junkie? All organic? Cares only if the food is quick and tasty?

level of sophistication
Does she eat only plain, all-American foods or does she try cuisines from all over the world?

socioeconomic status (or strivings)
Is her food pricey foreign imports, middle-America name brands or cheap generics?

willingness to indulge herself
Does she allow herself a tiny pint of Ben and Jerry’s or a freezer full of it? Does she have a freezer-burned 5-gallon vat of generic vanilla ice cream because it’s a “good value”?

spending priorities
Does she skimp on one food category to spend more on another? Is eating organic more important than, say, having cable TV? Does she stick to only WIC-covered items?

ethnic or socioeconomic background
Does she keep specialized ingredients on hand from a particular culture? What are her childhood comfort foods she hides?

place on the traditional to trendy spectrum
Does she have Tupperware containers of leftover tuna-noodle casserole or cartons of takeout from the hip Vietnamese place? Ranch dip or hummus? String beans or edamame?

What's in your character's fridge? What ways have you used food to help build your characterization?

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

I know loads of writers who pore over every writing craft book they can get their hands on, but who nonetheless can't seem to get a story off the ground. Why is that?

They neglect an essential element of craft rarely gets talked about: developing your knowledge base so that you have raw material from which to build interesting stories. This is also called "research."

Research has become something of a dirty word among a certain breed of fiction writer. These folks consistently argue that they write what they know and therefore never need to do such a nerdy thing as check facts. God forbid facts get in the way of their imaginations.

Well, I fear that such thinking is naive at best, and at worst, lazy. It tends to produce copycat, formulaic writing full of plot holes and cliches. Why? 

Photo credit: Alvimann from morguefile.com
When writers assume knowledge of their fictional world they don't actually have, they will struggle to develop material. Instead, as Robert McKee describes in Story, such writers will "reheat literary leftovers and serve up plates of boredom because, regardless of their talents, they lack an in-depth understanding of their story's setting and all it contains. Knowledge of and insight into the world of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and excellence" (68). I would add that understanding human nature, from how personality develops to what motivates people is essential to developing multi-dimensional characters to inhabit your story world.

McKee rightly warns against using research as a form of procrastination, a way of endlessly delaying doing any writing. Rather, research in broad topic areas ought to be something you do for personal enrichment/brain food and as the need arises. Research is often more portable than creative work. You can read print books, ebooks, and articles while sitting in a hospital waiting room, or while the kids are at soccer practice, or while standing in line at the grocery store.

Below are some areas to learn about about in order to feed your brain with ideas. As McKee notes, "you can't kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance.... Talent must be stimulated with facts and ideas. Feed your talent" (73-74). Research should be the third leg of the material-generation stool, along with imagination and memory (See McKee's excellent book Story for more on this). 

The lists below are meant to stimulate your curiosity, not form a guilt-inducing Mensa übermind curriculum. Simply pick any topic that sounds interesting and read one book or explore a few reputable websites about it (by reputable, I mean backed by research,  not some hothead spouting off). What new curiosities does it raise about your story world or characters? Read on that topic next.

Imagine how much more pumped you'll be to write when you're abuzz with ideas. As McKee notes, when you have something to say, you can't stop yourself from writing.

Characterization and dialogue

  • Personality types
  • Body language
  • Communication styles
  • Gender differences
  • Belief formation
  • Identity formation
  • Intimacy and social bonding
  • Friendships and cliques
  • Marriage dynamics
  • Birth order and personality
  • Sibling dynamics
  • Parenting styles
  • Intergenerational influence and conflict
  • Rights and responsibilities of various family roles in history
  • Neuroses
  • Phobias
  • Neuro-sensory differences
  • Addiction
  • Trauma 
  • Personality disorders
  • Mental illnesses

Milieu, Setting and Plot
  • Climate 
  • Weather Phenomena
  • Environment
  • Architecture and interior design
  • Anthropology
  • Effects of poverty and wealth
  • Government models in history
  • Education models
  • Macroeconomics
  • Technology
  • Policies and procedures of institutions in  your story world
  • Laws and ordinances
  • Criminology
  • Forensics
  • Pathology
  • Scientific breakthroughs
  • Historic events

Tell me: which of these research topics might move your story forward most? Which topics sound fascinating in their own right, and worth reading to stimulate new story ideas?
Wednesday, March 04, 2015 Laurel Garver
I know loads of writers who pore over every writing craft book they can get their hands on, but who nonetheless can't seem to get a story off the ground. Why is that?

They neglect an essential element of craft rarely gets talked about: developing your knowledge base so that you have raw material from which to build interesting stories. This is also called "research."

Research has become something of a dirty word among a certain breed of fiction writer. These folks consistently argue that they write what they know and therefore never need to do such a nerdy thing as check facts. God forbid facts get in the way of their imaginations.

Well, I fear that such thinking is naive at best, and at worst, lazy. It tends to produce copycat, formulaic writing full of plot holes and cliches. Why? 

Photo credit: Alvimann from morguefile.com
When writers assume knowledge of their fictional world they don't actually have, they will struggle to develop material. Instead, as Robert McKee describes in Story, such writers will "reheat literary leftovers and serve up plates of boredom because, regardless of their talents, they lack an in-depth understanding of their story's setting and all it contains. Knowledge of and insight into the world of your story is fundamental to the achievement of originality and excellence" (68). I would add that understanding human nature, from how personality develops to what motivates people is essential to developing multi-dimensional characters to inhabit your story world.

McKee rightly warns against using research as a form of procrastination, a way of endlessly delaying doing any writing. Rather, research in broad topic areas ought to be something you do for personal enrichment/brain food and as the need arises. Research is often more portable than creative work. You can read print books, ebooks, and articles while sitting in a hospital waiting room, or while the kids are at soccer practice, or while standing in line at the grocery store.

Below are some areas to learn about about in order to feed your brain with ideas. As McKee notes, "you can't kill your talent, but you can starve it into a coma through ignorance.... Talent must be stimulated with facts and ideas. Feed your talent" (73-74). Research should be the third leg of the material-generation stool, along with imagination and memory (See McKee's excellent book Story for more on this). 

The lists below are meant to stimulate your curiosity, not form a guilt-inducing Mensa übermind curriculum. Simply pick any topic that sounds interesting and read one book or explore a few reputable websites about it (by reputable, I mean backed by research,  not some hothead spouting off). What new curiosities does it raise about your story world or characters? Read on that topic next.

Imagine how much more pumped you'll be to write when you're abuzz with ideas. As McKee notes, when you have something to say, you can't stop yourself from writing.

Characterization and dialogue

  • Personality types
  • Body language
  • Communication styles
  • Gender differences
  • Belief formation
  • Identity formation
  • Intimacy and social bonding
  • Friendships and cliques
  • Marriage dynamics
  • Birth order and personality
  • Sibling dynamics
  • Parenting styles
  • Intergenerational influence and conflict
  • Rights and responsibilities of various family roles in history
  • Neuroses
  • Phobias
  • Neuro-sensory differences
  • Addiction
  • Trauma 
  • Personality disorders
  • Mental illnesses

Milieu, Setting and Plot
  • Climate 
  • Weather Phenomena
  • Environment
  • Architecture and interior design
  • Anthropology
  • Effects of poverty and wealth
  • Government models in history
  • Education models
  • Macroeconomics
  • Technology
  • Policies and procedures of institutions in  your story world
  • Laws and ordinances
  • Criminology
  • Forensics
  • Pathology
  • Scientific breakthroughs
  • Historic events

Tell me: which of these research topics might move your story forward most? Which topics sound fascinating in their own right, and worth reading to stimulate new story ideas?