How to Do Research for a Novel

Research, for me, is not an onerous task. When I’m ready to start writing about a particular time period, I can’t wait to go to the library, pull every book available on that era off the shelf, take them home and lose myself in a time period. However, research isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It can be overwhelming deciding where to begin, what to look for and when to stop. Today, I want to offer some advice and a few suggestions for getting started and seeing it through until “The End.”

The first thing to do is…

Start Big: You know what era you want to write about, so it’s time to learn about the era. General overview books are a great place to start because they give you the key politics, ideas, people and events that helped shape the time period. Once you know the basics, you can begin to…

Narrow things down: Decide when in the era you want your story to take place then focus your research accordingly. In my Regency novel, Engagement of Convenience, I needed the heroine’s brother to be injured at the Battle of Trafalgar and then arrive back home from the battle before the end of the story. As a result, I did a great deal of research on the particulars of the battle, especially which ships first brought news of the battle back to England. Details like this are important since they helped me craft scenes and add to the historical realism of the story. So once you’re done narrowing things down, it’s time to...

Get personal: The details of everyday life help create characters, make them real and flavor a narrative. To make the Regency period come alive in the story, I researched everyday life including dress, food, furniture and the plans of both London town houses and country manor houses. I sprinkled these details throughout the story to help make the setting come alive and draw the reader into the time period. However, be careful with how much historic detail you add to your story. Too much will make it read like a college mid-term instead of a sweeping saga. So, what happens when the research you need isn’t there? Well, it’s time to…

Think outside the box: Depending on what time period you’re dealing with, or what obscure historical event you’re trying to incorporate into your story, you may or may not have a wealth of information to draw from. This is when it’s time to start looking at primary sources like journals, autobiographies and even government reports. These writings will give you more detail on a subject than a general history book will and most are in the public domain and available free on Amazon. It’s time consuming but worth it, even though at some point you're going to have to…

Know when to say when: Research can be fun. It can help you outline your story or navigate a tricky plot point. However, it can also distract from writing. There is no end to the research available or the hours you can dedicate to it. It’s an important part of the process, but so is sitting down and getting words on paper. So, don’t be afraid to put your research aside and start writing, because the great thing about research is, you can access it any time and you can always do more.

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Don't Be Afraid to Tweak Your Dreams

Someone once told me that when it comes to choosing whether or not to do something, time will pass whether you do it or not, In other words, when debating whether or not to follow a dream, time will pass whether you go after what you want or whether you don't.

I confess, I didn’t start my writing career with romance. I wanted to be a screenwriter, so I moved to Hollywood, learned the craft of writing screenplays, and dove headfirst into the film business. Time and life passed while I chased my dream. I gathered up a lot of great experiences, however, I fell a little short of reaching my goal of seeing my name on the big screen.

As a result, there came a day when I had to admit that perhaps, just maybe, it was time to change course. I still wanted to write, but maybe screenwriting wasn’t the right genre for me. I started examining my interests and thinking about what the next step in my writing career would be. I loved romance and I loved history, so maybe I could write a historical romance. I’d read romance for many years, but I was sixteen the last time I thought about actually writing one. Back then, I’d even checked out a library book on how to write romance. What I thought a sixteen year old could bring to a story, I’m not sure, but I give myself kudos for trying. Now, I needed to try again.

It wasn’t easy changing course because, in many ways, it meant starting from the beginning. Thanks to my screenwriting background, I knew a great deal about the craft of writing, but not as it applied to narrative. During the first drafts of my first novel, Lady's Wager, I struggled with moving characters through scenes, description, and even the proper use of speech tags. I hadn’t discovered RWA yet, so I stumbled through these early, self-taught lessons with the help of some brutally honest critique partners. Once I did discover RWA, I began to learn the business of writing romance and found new ways to hone my skills as a novelist. Like the pursuit of my screenwriting dream, it took time and effort to learn the craft and business, but unlike screenwriting, I began to see success. With each accomplishment, I gained more confidence and the encouragement to keep going. 

Making the change wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. I now have nine published novels and a handful of published novellas under my belt. I didn’t give up on my dream to write, I just changed it. If you’re thinking of tweaking your dreams, I encourage you to do it. Don’t let fear of the unknown or going back to the beginning stop you. After all, what do you have to lose?

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A Brief History of Taxes

Beware the Ides of April. Tax day is nearly upon us. If you haven’t already fired up the Turbo Tax software, then you have some homework to do this week. While you’re slogging through numerous forms more complicated than quantum physics, take heart, our tax system is much better, and far more forgiving than the ancient methods. Today, I’m going to give a very quick and dirty history of ancient civilization and medieval English taxation.

If you were living in the ancient world, you would be squeezed not by Rome or Thebes directly but by “tax-farmers”. Men who’d bid to obtain the office and whose job it was to make you pay. These men were loathed across the ancient world because if they came up short, they were required to make up the difference themselves. Since they were not usually from the ruling classes, they didn’t have the social clout to make the rich pay. As a result, they tended to squeeze every last denarii out of the middle class and the poor. Later in the empire, the office of tax collector became hereditary, so some people were bound by birth to be the most unpopular person on the block. When the Roman Empire finally collapsed in 480 AD, the knowledge, learning and complex civil service of Rome disappeared, but taxes remained.

Under the Anglo-Saxons, land was taxed and the proceeds paid to the king. When the Vikings showed up, the money was used to either fight them or pay them to go away (the “Danegeld”).  Once the Normans arrived, William the Conqueror instructed his men to find out what everyone owned and how much they owed him. Thus, the famous, or should I say infamous, Domesday Book was compiled. Landowners were taxed based on how much land they held, but, if they were friends with the king, the king could grant them exemptions. As time went by, too many exemptions meant too little tax money, and the monarch started getting testy. The testiest monarch was King John, but his nobles weren’t having it. They rose up and forced him to sign the Magna Carta which forced the king to get permission from the nobles before he could raise taxes.

So, when you’re filling out your 1040 this week, be thankful the Vikings aren’t at your door, King John isn’t seizing your land, and you weren’t born into a tax collecting family in ancient Rome.

Books and Myths to Inspire Your Writing

I've always enjoyed classical mythology. The archetypes speak to me as they have to millions of people throughout the centuries. Edith Hamilton and her book Mythology was my first introduction into the classic stories of man verses god and sometimes himself. In college, I discovered Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces and how mythic images are still with us today. I recently picked up The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By by Carol Pearson to help me with character and story development.

If you aren't familiar with Joseph Campbell's work and want a quick introduction, then I'd recommend Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion edited by Diane K. Osborn. It is a beautifully compiled series of his lectures and thoughts on mythic subjects and how they still influence and inspire us. It also provides a good introduction into the concept of the hero’s journey and examples of its continued use in modern novels and movies. Watch Star Wars to see the hero's journey in action. Understanding the hero's journey can help you better understand plotting and story development.

In regards to writing and how mythic imagery still influences storytellers, my two favorite books are The Writer’s Journey and The Artist’s WayThe Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler was one of the first writing books that I read. The plotting techniques are great for helping me create both simple and complex stories and characters that appeal to a wide range of people. His use of common films like The Wizard of Oz to illustrate his points makes it a very accessible book. The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is an excellent book that appeals to my mythological side while offering some great writing techniques for inspiring the muse. Her method of daily journaling helps keep writer's block at bay and to keep the creative juices flowing. It's an excellent book for those looking to unlock their creativity or for those just starting as writers. Through the book's exercises, emerging writers learn about themselves and their process while developing the daily habits necessary to becoming successful.

I hope you check out some of these great writing resources, and that they help you on your own path to writing just like they helped me.

What Classic Hollywood Can Teach Us About Writing

We live in an age when anything can and usually does end up on screen. Characters have no problem discussing the most intimate topics or being placed in compromising situations, but this wasn’t always the case in Hollywood. In the mid 1930s, the Hays Code was introduced and film producers faced strict rules about what could and could not be said or portrayed on film. Working under these restrictions, filmmakers and screenwriters became very creative when dealing with adult subjects. It is this creativity that writers can learn from to bring depth and subtext to their own writing.

A great example of using subtext is the classic Tyrone Powers, Gene Tierney film The Razor’s Edge. In one scene, the heroine wants to get pregnant by her fiancĂ© so he won’t leave her. In 1946 when the film was made, the heroine couldn’t simply come out and admit her scheme. She and the hero had to dance around the subject yet, listening to the dialogue, it is obvious what is being discussed in the scene. It’s an excellent example of how characters can say everything while saying nothing.

Classic Hollywood films can also provide a great lesson in how to pepper in backstory through dialogue. His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant is a great example of how to use witty dialogue for both characterization and backstory. In the film, Russell and Grant play a divorced couple who work in the newspaper business. Most of the film takes place in the office of Grant’s newspaper, but there is no voice over telling us what happened to make Grant and Russell get a divorce. Instead, their past relationship is revealed in their verbal exchanges with the characters providing just enough information so the viewer knows what happened, but not so much that the action of the story stops for an info dump. The Philadelphia Story is another great film, staring Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn where dialogue is successfully used to reveal backstory. The best example is with the character Liz, who is Stewart’s camerawoman, and the way she reveals her previous marriage. There are only about 3 lines where the ex-husband is mentioned but each paints a vivid picture of who he was and why the marriage didn’t last.

His Girl Friday is also a great film to watch if you are looking to add zing to your dialogue. At Times, Grant and Russell speak so fast that they practically step over each other’s lines. However, the way each of them speaks reveals their character and gives the viewer a sense of the fast paced life of a 1940’s newsroom.

So, if you're having trouble with dialogue, subtext and dropping in backstory, and you need some examples of how it’s done well, check out one of these great classic films. And, if you get a chance, please check out my novel Studio Relations. Set in 1935 Hollywood, it is the story of a vivacious female director and a handsome studio executive who must overcome their professional differences to find love during Hollywood’s golden age. 

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Adorable Birthday Gift Basket for a Little Boy

With Easter over, I'm back to making gift baskets for different silent auctions. I got the idea for this basket when I picked up the cute sailor bucket at a going out of business sale. I filled it with a few things little boys love. A number of the items were clearance steals that I scored throughout the year. The Cool Gear kid cup was a Target 90% summer sale item (yes, 90% off). Instead of around $5 it was about $.50. I bought more than one. I found the Lego DVD at Dollar Tree, along with the Crazy Eight card game which usually sells at Walmart for about $3.99, the Silly Putty and the Hot Wheels car.

When I purchase items for baskets, I don't always know what I'm going to do with them. I still snag them on the cheap, put them in my office closet, and eventually the inspiration comes to me. I hope you find inspiration in this cute basket, and during your next shopping trip.

Items in the basket are:

Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers DVD
Crazy 8s - I like this company's card games because the cards are big and sturdy.
Cool Gear Kid Cup
Silly Putty
Hot Wheels Car

Easter Traditions that Started in the 1930s

Easter is fast approaching. As you dye your eggs and buy your chocolate bunnies, I’d like you to take a moment to stop and think about the 1930s.

The 1930s?

Yes, the 1930s, the decade of the Great Depression, the start of World War II and the golden age of Hollywood, which just happens to be the setting for my novel Studio Relations. It's the story of Vivien Howard, a vivacious female director and Weston Holmes, a handsome studio executive who must overcome their professional differences to find love during Hollywood’s golden age.

The 1930’s also brought us a few Easter traditions. Granted, the decade didn’t contribute as much to the way we celebrate Easter as it did to the way we celebrate Christmas, but it did add a little something to the springtime fun. 

-        Associating bunnies and eggs with Easter has been around for a long time, but did you know that jelly beans were first introduced into Easter tradition in the 1930s? They’d been available as a candy for many years, but for some reason their association with Easter was cemented in the 1930s.

-        The first Easter Seals, the sale of which benefit services for the disabled, were introduced in 1934. The organization had been around since 1919, but the seals themselves were not introduced until 1934.

-        The song Easter Parade by Irving Berlin rose to prominence in 1933 as part of a Broadway review. However, the Fred Astaire version we all know and love didn’t arrive until 1948.

-        You can blame hollow chocolate bunnies on the 1930’s. According to a article, advertisements for hollow chocolate bunnies first appeared in newspapers in 1939. Debate still rages as to whether solid or hollow are best.

So, as you enjoy another handful of jelly beans while Easter Parade drifts out of the stereo for the last time, please consider curling up with Studio Relations, a story set in the decade that started the hollow bunny debate and these other Easter traditions.   

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