Tumblr Ask #1: Balancing the Research and Story Processes

👋😄 I saw that you write historical fiction! I have a historical fiction book I’m planning atm and I’m not sure how to balance research and story. Any tips on that? ✒

Hyba Ouazzani

That’s a good question!

I think that the most important time to do the most research is at the beginning. When I have a very general idea of the time period and setting that I will be implementing, I research a bird’s eye view. Even if you feel like you know the period very well, it can help to review the major events of a century. Plus, doing this fosters more inspiration. If you find a specific event that sparks your interest, then you can look into it even deeper and include it as an important facet of your story.

For example, I was very interested in the 1618 Defenestration of Prague. My excitement about the topic led me to incorporate it in Atrocious Immoralities as a significant plot point.

You can also research specific historical figures, and include them as characters in your story. Using historical figures as characters is a good tool for emphasizing the fiction in historical fiction. Events are harder to tweak in a compelling way in a story, but characters can be manipulated much more.

Aside from the initial research and gathering events and figures that you are inclined towards, the next most important role that research serves is fact-checking along the way. Often while writing, I will find myself asking absurdly specific questions to Google. These are moments like “Did [thing] exist in [year]?” This is a crucial, less exciting element of making sure your story is grounded in reality. I’m sure you can relate to these silly Google searches.

If you’re feeling like most of your time is dedicated to one or the other, I would suggest thinking of it more as blending the two. After you research something, ask yourself some narrative questions, like:

  • How could this impact my protagonist?
  • What sort of societal consequences did this event/person have at large?

Asking these questions will help you to create a cohesive historical fiction narrative, no matter what direction you take it.

I also talked about this topic pretty broadly on my blog. Good luck!

Character writing: avoiding self-inserts

People often say that in order to write a character, you should be able to answer just about any question from their perspective. This is good advice until it’s taken to the self-insert extreme.

There are worse things than writing characters that are essentially just self-inserts. After all, a well-written character is the most important thing, and some authors may write wonderful characters who take after themselves. But it is always preferential to write characters different from oneself.

Imagine you write multiple books which are not joined by a series. Your readers loved your first book, but when they begin the next, they start to sense a pattern. These characters all seem the same, and why?

The only time your characters should answer everything precisely how you would is if you’re a memoir author!

Luckily, the good news is that delving into your characters is a lot of fun. I know authors who take personality tests from their character’s perspectives once they’ve come to understand them fully. But before you start pulling up Myers-Briggs tests, create something like this:

A Very (Very) Abridged Character Analysis Worksheet

  • Physical Appearance
  • Favorites
  • Background/upbringing
  • Family
  • Occupation/passions
  • Attitude/mindset/outlook
  • Personality
  • Interrelation with others/perceived as…
  • Their goals
  • How they react to problems/crisis

These are the major headings I use in my character analysis, which are then broken down into subsections diving in much deeper. You can take it as far as you want; some of mine go as far as their favorite book and their name’s etymology.

To further show the detail I delve into with my own character worksheets, here’s the physical appearance alone of Avis Papley, the protagonist of my upcoming book Atrocious Immoralities.

PHYSICAL APPEARANCE

  • Age: 18
    • What is their perceived age: 15
  • Eye Color: Green
  • Hair color: Light brown
    • Distinguishable hair feature: wavy
    • Type of hair: coarse
    • Typical hairstyle: Down to her elbows, roughly chopped
  • Height: 5’6
  • Weight: 117
  • Type of body/build: Thin due to undereating
  • Nationality: English
  • Skin tone: Pale
  • Shape of face: Heart, round
  • Distinguishing marks: Birthmark on her ankle, scar on her cheek (unknown cause)
  • Most predominant feature: Her striking eyes
  • Resembles (famous or not): Avis Magellan
  • Accent: Cumbrian English
  • Are they healthy: No                                                  
    • If not, why not: Malnourished

When you finish a character worksheet, read over it again. Do you see yourself in the details? If you relate too much, try again. Think about your character’s situation in life and the setting in the story. Does this make them more inclined towards a certain proclivity or appearance? What can you change about your character to make them more believable as a wholly different entity?

Thinking in these terms helps me to create unique characters with unique desires in my work.

Creating a book playlist

It does not surprise me that nearly every author jumps to the creation of a playlist, sometimes even before writing the book itself. Coming up with a set of songs to listen to while writing is often an integral aspect of the writing process and one which only further connects your intentions with the audience.

Depending on the type of person you are, this may come as a stressor. “You mean I have to pick songs for my book, and the list is limited?”

Well, if you’re like me, making book playlists is a whole lot of fun, and has the crucial role of helping you set the tone of your story. But if you find yourself wishing for a bit more guidance, here’s my method:

  1. Choose a medium
    Will your playlist be made on a streaming service like Spotify, or would you rather go physical with a CD or cassette? I like to use Spotify for personal use as I create the playlist, then I can transfer the playlist to more shareable sites like SoundCloud. This makes it easy for me to listen to, and easy to share as a fun connection with readers.

  2. Start with your gut
    You might be tempted to go to genre-inspired playlists that already exist. Resist that urge, and begin with your own tastes. This is critical because your music taste will intermingle with your authorial voice in a beautiful, genuine way while writing. More importantly, you want to listen to music you like! You can add some of those genre songs in later.

  3. Adapt to character
    Once you’ve added some of your favorite songs that just make sense, step into the mind of your characters. What music would they listen to? What do they like dancing to, or love to hear performed by a quartet? This helps you to develop an even stronger setting. Keeping in mind the period in which you are writing will create a much more immersive atmosphere.

  4. Consider specific tones
    When your book is a work in progress, you will have ideas of when certain scenes will occur. Having specific songs to set the tone for an action sequence or heartbreaking betrayal will help you to convey the same tone through your words. This could even be a diegetic choice, allowing you to elicit the same emotions in the characters. What song is playing when they dance, and what does that feel like to the characters?

  5. Don’t be afraid to keep adding
    It is inevitable that you will find the perfect song that you missed. I continued adding songs to mine until well after the book was finished, as I picked up on tones that I had not previously recognized.

    With your playlist ready, you will have a compilation of moods, scenes, characters, and settings, all ready for you to work with. Get to listening and start DJing your book process!

To see the end product of my own book playlist, listen to the Atrocious Immoralities playlist here on SoundCloud:

Creating your writing space

We all have our favorite spaces to create, whether just out of comfort or awareness that we produce our best work while there. But Rattner is able to break down why this happens and how to manually foster a creative space.

I’ve been incredibly inspired as of late after listening to an episode of The Writer Files podcast featuring Donald M. Rattner.

Rattner is a “creativity architect”, an architect who specializes in designing spaces that maximize creative productivity and inspiration. This concept felt so obvious to me as soon as he introduced himself, but it wasn’t ever something that came to mind naturally. We all have our favorite spaces to create, whether just out of comfort or awareness that we produce our best work while there. But Rattner is able to break down why this happens and how to manually foster a creative space.

An important first step is to assess your surroundings in your favorite writing space. Is it a minimalistic setting where you have few surroundings, or is it a space filled with memories and ephemera that inspire you? It can say a lot about where you find inspiration when you look around.

My favorite writing spaces have been some of both, depending on what sort of headspace I was in. I like writing at my desk where I’m surrounded by my inspirations and favorite art, but I also finished my first book at the beautiful, modern UCSB library.

You want a place where you can either find inspiration around you or where you have to find it yourself. Some of us need that outside inspiration, and some of us just need peace and quiet.

Go to one of each and try writing. See how it feels, how hard you feel like you have to work to get words on the page. Maybe you want a blend of the two. Be sure to try writing outside at least once in your life!

I highly recommend listening to that episode (The Writer Files: How to Design Your Writing Space with Award-Winning Architect Donald M. Rattner) and checking out other episodes of The Writer Files. Kelton Reid is an excellent host and the guests are incredibly varied and bring unique insight every time. I also recommend checking out work from Rattner (donaldrattner.com). I don’t yet own his book My Creative Space: How to Design Your Home to Stimulate Ideas and Spark Innovation, but I hope to get it soon.