Working for History

I’ve added to the mix of archaeology, editing, research, and writing I’m normally up to by getting a part-time job posting at The Clio, an online non-profit educational resource for historic research. (Read between the lines: it’s FREE to use). I’m writing about five entries a week, and having a blast finding out about historic places and cultural centers all over the country (so far I’ve mainly written about the DC, NYC, and Providence, RI areas). Here are links to some of my posts on The Clio:

New York City

Washington, D.C.

Providence, Rhode Island

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What Archaeology and Fiction Writing Have in Common

For anyone curious about why my two biggest interests are so “different” from one another…here’s why they’re not:

  1. All knowledge is useful knowledge. Taking interest in a wide variety of subjects gives you that much more material to work with when it comes to writing – you can get rich, specific detail and a broad spectrum of characters and settings just by being curious…and you never know what will pop up that might give you an idea. In archaeology, you never know what might come in handy, either. Obviously, you need a smattering of history and geology of the area you’re working in, but then there are things like being aware of what plant species are native, which were introduced and when and for what purpose (for example, Vinca minor – graveyard ivy – isn’t native to Kentucky, doesn’t spread much on its own, and was a common graveyard planting in the 19th century); things like the fact that tanneries used human urine as a chemical component of processing leather (and therefore might be located near a lavatory in a historic building); things like what parts of an animal have the highest caloric value…you get the idea. Anything might turn out to be useful.
  2. Everything is writing / Everything is archaeology.  This is kind of along the lines of the previous. Anything you know about, hear about, learn about, can potentially be applied to fiction writing, and the same goes for archaeology. When you think about it, since archaeology is essentially the study of the human past, then any human behavior, and any natural phenomenon or environment that humans have ever had a relationship to, well…that pretty much covers everything. When it comes to writing, everything you observe, think about, act upon, receive responses from, and interact with is story potential.
  3. Getting into a point of view. Unless you’re writing a fictionalized autobiography, fiction requires you to step out of your own worldview and into the worldview of somebody (or more than one somebody) else. Any branch of anthropology, including archaeology, requires the same thing…except you’re doing your best to step into the worldview of real people, living or dead (depending on what you’re working on).
  4. Beginning, Middle, and End (and sometimes Epilogue). Obviously, a story has to have a beginning, middle, and end – even if it’s a flash fiction story, something happens, something changes, someone’s mind opens or closes or shifts. In archaeology, we have Phase 1 projects (surveys, which might be done with ground penetrating radar or electromagnetometry or by walking the site or by shovel testing), Phase 2 projects (“Hey! We found stuff in Phase 1 and someone is willing to pay for us to find out more!!”) where you dig test units in areas that promise evidence of features or artifacts, and Phase 3 projects (when you excavate a site in detail). Not every site gets to Phase 2, and not all Phase 2 projects go on to a Phase 3. It depends on money, the site’s potential for adding to our knowledge of history/prehistory, and why the site was being excavated to begin with (Who funded it? Did they fund it voluntarily, or for compliance with the law before their development could move forward? How fast do they want the archaeologists out of their hair?) Or you could view the beginning, middle, and end of archaeology this way: Excavation, artifact processing, and report writing. Because those three steps happen on any project, at any level (unless you’re a lousy archaeologist). The epilogue, in that case, could be seen as public presentations, or in some cases the establishment of a historical center or local museum on site. 
  5. Drinking, Swearing, and Nerding Out. All three of these activities are near and dear to both archaeologists and writers. At least, 90% of all the archaeologists and writers I know. Preferably, do all three at the same time while in the company of other writers/archaeologists after a day of slaving away at the computer/with the trowel.

Write Like You’re Getting Paid to Do It

New topic for Sara D vs. Reality…whining about writing for a grade.

So I’m trying to put together a speech for one of my classes.  I am not having luck with my topic research.  What I’m trying to do is a speech on the politics of literature, specifically dealing with the historical persecution of authors, with a focus on how and why a government decides a work is subversive.  It isn’t going well.  I can find lots of specific examples, but almost nothing in the way of an overarching, comprehensive look at the subject.  And for a 15-minute speech, I’m not going to be able to turn 500 examples into my own overarching, comprehensive study, because that would be a freaking thesis project, not a 15-minute speech.  I am frustrated.

Mostly I’m frustrated because I was excited about this topic, and now I’ll probably have to change the focus of my speech so I can use the TONS of stuff I’ve found on censorship and book burning and so on.  Same general topic, just not the angle I was going for.  I suppose the moral of the story is that, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, prose or speech, sometimes what you set out to write just doesn’t work, and you have to be flexible about it.  Even if you have to pout about it for a day or two before getting back to work.  And maybe it’s a good idea, if you’re not writing for school, to pretend that you are.  Yes.  Pretend you have a professor and your grade depends on getting over yourself and writing it anyway, and your financial aid for next year depends on your grade, and if you don’t follow through your GPA will suffer and no one will give you any money for school.  Pretend those things whenever you want to sulk about your writing.  It does wonders for lighting a fire under a writer’s ass.

Stranger Than Fiction

I may have rambled on the topic of research for fantasy (why I do it) before on this blog, but I’m gonna do it again anyway.  My favorite reason to research for fantasy is that I couldn’t possibly make up anything crazier than the things that have happened in the real world throughout its multitude of cultures and time periods.

I set out to do some research about the history of immunization yesterday, for example, and ran across this article on theriac, a “cure-all” used in ancient Greece.  Scroll down to that insane list of ingredients!!  I couldn’t make anything up weirder than that.  Turpentine, viper venom, opium, and…carrots and black pepper?  Wait a minute, the first three are weird enough, but then to combine them with something as normal as carrots and black pepper is just…over the top.  And that’s only a fraction of the stuff that went into this substance – there were 64 ingredients.

It isn’t that I’ll necessarily use this particular tidbit of information.  It’s that I run across so many odd little scraps and details, and all of it rattles around in my head (sort of like the 64 ingredients of theriac) and shifts and combines and ignites into something new, and that’s how I get a lot of my inspiration.

Friday Exercise – Wish List

Make a list of 5 elements you know you want in your next story (or book).  If you know what tone you want, a few of your main characters’ traits, whether you want first or third person narration, what genre you want, where you want to set it or what kind of setting you’d like to use.  For example:

  1. three friends as the central characters
  2. lots of humor and banter in the narration and dialogue
  3. scenic setting…maybe on a journey of some kind?
  4. adventures and mishaps, and maybe a battle with a tin of pineapple?
  5. a dog

And that example is pulled from Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, by the way, which is the funniest thing ever written.

Think of it as sort of a wish list for your story.  List more than 5 things…list as many things as you can come up with.  Fill in the details.  You want to write something that will fit into the steampunk genre?  Okay, so which established elements of steampunk do you want, and how is your story a little different?  How can you take an element of it a little further, give it a twist, or focus on an area that’s been overlooked before?  You want an exotic setting.  Otherworld or real-world exotic?  If it’s the real world, pick a place you’ve always wanted to know more about, or that you’ve visited, and do some research.  If it’s otherworldly, are you going for futuristic, alternate history, another planet, science fiction, or fantasy?

The point is to aim for what you’re excited about writing, and then get you asking and answering questions to focus your sights.

Choosing Curiosity

For the second week in a row, I’ve missed my Monday post – this time, because I was busy all weekend (thus, didn’t have time to write one in advance), and then started jury duty Monday morning.  So, like last Wednesday, I’m posting about writing instead of marketing with my Wednesday post.

To start with, here’s a little run-down of how my time has been spent lately:  last week (when I had the flu), over the course of this weekend (when I was out doing stuff, meeting and getting to know new people, hearing lots of memories and stories shared between friends, seeing new places and hearing the history these friends had there together, etc.), and so far this week (while waiting to be called from the jury pool room to trials, being questioned for possible selection to a jury, chatting with fellow jury pool members to pass the time, etc.).  All of this stuff is pretty much outside my normal routine, some of it understandably crappy (being sick, parking downtown, having to get up early (I’m a night person and an evening shift worker), sitting in a room for hours just waiting for something to happen), some of it understandably exciting and fun (my weekend), and some of it able to go either way (jury duty is very much all or nothing…either you’re just sitting around passing the time as best you can, or something important is happening).

That said, what’s been on my mind in terms of writing has been (a) the fact that breaking out of your normal routine does, indeed, get your brain going, (b) even if you don’t choose what breaks your routine and even if the break is unwanted and/or unpleasant, as a writer, you can use anything as an opportunity – any experience adds to what you know about life, and therefore what you can convincingly write about in your fiction, and (c)  anytime you’re stuck in a room full of other people, you’re sitting on a gold mine of observable material…characters, dialogue, quirks, mannerisms, backgrounds, story ideas….

One of the best things about being a writer, I think, is that we have the gift of being able to pull something positive out of any situation.  Whether it’s traumatic, aggravating, uncomfortable, or fantastically awesome, a writer can get at least a short story or a poem out of almost anything that happens.  At times in my life, that has been the one gleam of reassurance and positivity in the back of my mind – when things have been at the very depths of fear and trauma, I’ve had this calm, logical piece of myself that has told me, “This is going to be so good for your writing someday,” and patted me on the shoulder…it’s a soothing thought when you’re in a panic, a ray of hope in times of despair, a candle in the darkness.  Writers are lucky to have that.

In less dire circumstances, such as the aggravations of being in a jury pool (getting up ridiculously early and still being barely on time because of parking, monetary troubles, long lunch lines, chairs that make your butt hurt after 45 minutes, waiting around for stuff, not getting picked for a trial that sounded interesting, etc.) there’s still that happy little part of me that’s like, “Ooh, but shiny!  Now I know all this stuff about how this works that I didn’t know before!” and “Hey, this lady I’m sitting next to all damn day waiting to get pulled for a case knows an awful lot of cool stuff about [whatever]…wonder where that could lead?” and “Hm…this guy sure knows a lot about [historical event].  Has some good yarns to spin about the experience.  Let’s keep him talking!”

A writer can always choose to get curious – let yourself wonder about a system or a process you’re encountering for the first time, pay attention to what’s going on, listen to what other people are saying about it to you or to each other, watch the folks who’re on familiar ground and how they interact with one another and with the newbies, chat with people in waiting rooms, look around for anomalies, watch facial expressions.  It beats being bored anyday…and it’s good practise.  My theory is, the more you make it a habit to be observant and take note of your surroundings, the more generally inspired you’ll be, and the richer your details will become.

Metathesiophobia – The Fear of Making Changes

Monday is my day for writing about the actual process of writing and revising.  And today I’m going to use it to vent about my revision process, because I’m in the stage of rewriting where you just look at your notes with the same numb horror that grips you when you see a particularly nasty car accident, except that you also occasionally bang your head on your desk and moan.  (Fellow writers, please tell me you have these kinds of days, too…?  Otherwise I have to question my sanity, and I don’t really want to.)

My notes, at least, are very organized.  I read through my NaNo draft a couple weeks ago and made a detailed page-by-page rundown of any problems I found – from awkward dialogue to gaping plot holes – and finished up with a set of observations about overall issues with the book as a whole.  Then I went through the notes with four colors of highlighter – (1) needs research, (2) needs additional material, (3) dropped thread / follow up, and (4) needs clarity / flesh out.  Any problems not in those categories are pretty much too small for me to care about at this point.  My philosophy is:  Fix the big stuff first.  Usually you’ll fix a lot of smaller stuff without meaning to in the process.

So, in a way, I know what to do next – my research, cut and combine some characters, re-outline with my dropped plot points and new character set in mind, and do some writing exercises to acquaint myself better with some of the characters and their backgrounds.

What makes it overwhelming is the scope of the book.  With so many characters and such a vast amount of information I need to convey to the reader within the first 1/4 of the book, the necessity of pinning the events down while keeping the feel of the plot fluid for the reader, and a hella lot of complications, it’s a lot for one brain to keep track of.  It doesn’t help that my last book was a very focused first person POV, and now my writer muscles have to readjust to the different gravity of working in third person omniscient narration.

Woe is me.  But these are the times when a writer must buckle down and start the daunting task in spite of being overwhelmed by it.  If I need to, I will break out the colored pencils and DRAW the threads of the plotline as they move around each other and then converge and resolve.  Sometimes a brain does not want to think in words anymore, even when it is a writing brain.

Right now, anything that will get my head around this plot is my friend.

Scrounging for Agents

It’s Wednesday – Marketing Day here at Sara D vs. Reality – and I’ll tackle the topic of finding agents and researching them (both to avoid scams and to help determine if they’re a good fit for you and your project).  Now, to start with, it’s different with fiction than with nonfiction.  With nonfiction, you can start querying prior to completion of the book (how far along it needs to be seems to depend on the agency/publisher).  Working with fiction, however, you need to have a complete, tip-top manuscript written and revised and rewritten and perfected and gone over again and then polished some more – in other words, make it as good as you can possibly make it before you even Google an agency.

Once you have your manuscript finished, it’s time to find an agent or a publisher.  You can get an agent after your manuscript has been published, or you can get an agent first and they’ll help you place your manuscript with a publisher.  Either way, an agent’s job is to negotiate your contract with the publisher, getting you more money and more exposure.  No agent should ever ever ever get any money from you up front – they get paid when YOU get paid by the publisher, and industry standard commission for an agent is about a 15% cut.

Here is my method for agent hunting:

  • Google search for literary agents plus genre of project
  • Look over the website of a given agency
  • Check http://pred-ed.com/pubagent.htm (Predators & Editors guide to agencies and publishers) to see if there is a warning or a recommendation for the agency I’m researching
  • Google the agency name and/or the specific agent I want to query from that agency, checking for interviews, articles, or horror stories on public forums about working with the agency/agent in question
  • If the agency/agent looks good after my “background check”, I personalize my query letter to them based on information I found in any interviews or articles from my research

And that’s how I roll.  Any additional tips & suggestions?  I’d be happy to have ’em in the comments section!

Making Sense Just Makes Sense

I love it when people say stuff like, “Oh, it must be nice to write fantasy and sci-fi.  You don’t have to do any research.”  That’s sarcasm, by the way.  Speculative fiction, in order to suspend a reader’s disbelief, requires at least as much research as mainstream or literary fiction.  Details have to be consistent, incongruities have to be clearly accounted for, and all in all the stuff you make up has to make sense.

And, frankly, the more fans like something, the more they want your world to make sense – think about how avid fans of Star Trek and Star Wars will study up on ship designs, pseudo-scientific principles, alien races, etc.  Any writer of speculative fiction who hopes to have a fan base that devoted someday (and let’s face it, we all wish our works were as beloved and marketable) should have in mind that, if they’re lucky, people will want this kind of consistency and detail from their creation.

It’s funny how you have to leave so much technical detail, background, history, etc. out of the text of your book because to put it in would be to bore the reader half to death with “info dumping”, and yet that same kind of material is exactly what a fan base seeks out once they’re in love with your world and your characters.  And they’re disappointed when the world crumbles on inspection, which a writer can say is silly (it’s only fiction, after all!) or can embrace and enjoy that folks care so much about it.

Dig in.  Don’t be sloppy with your details.  Work things out even if they won’t be said outright in the text.  You’ll write your world and your characters better for it, probably save yourself from some messy rewriting to fix inconsistencies, and, if you’re lucky enough to have avid fans someday, you’ll be able to answer their questions with confidence at science fiction conventions.

A Week in the Life

It’s been a busy week for me, writing-wise.  I finished proofreading the final draft of my novel on Tuesday, which means that today or tomorrow I will be able to wrap up the final version altogether.  Just got a few finishing touches on three chapters, and then it’ll be on to writing my query letter for an agent!

My plan is to spend October (after I get my query letter done and my book sent out) prepping for my NaNoWriMo project.  The book is the first in a trilogy, so in addition to planning the story arc for all the major characters across all three books, I’ll be looking into putting together a series bible (more about that in another post, when I’ve gotten started making one!).  I spent yesterday tacking every visual element I’ve come up with in association with this book over the years I’ve had it rattling in my head.  I have character sketches, clothing designs, a map, a grid style outline, architectural sketches of specific settings (from specific vantage points, in some cases), and ink drawings of some types of creatures the series may or may not involve.  This is all on the wall next to my bed now, which I hope will mean I’ll lie there and stare at it at night and get good ideas from my subconscious as a reward.  Ha!

October, if it goes the way I want it to, should be spent in a frenzy of sketching, inking, and coloring cityscapes and architectural studies, reading up on and eating authentic Italian food (and drink), and searching out traditional Italian and Russian folk music for the purposes of a worktime playlist.  Ah, man, what a hard life.

One of my short story beginnings also piped up this week, with lots of ideas suddenly occurring to me that will finally give the story direction, purpose, and cohesiveness.  So maybe if I’m a good little writer and get my book sent off early enough, I can spend a couple days drafting this short story before I get my head totally into the NaNo novel.  I love that writing is its own reward – literally – for me.  I’m like, I get to write a short story if I send off my book before I need to start my other book!  Hurray!  And this actually works as motivation.