Searching, searching, searching – doing Research
One of the interesting aspects of writing my current novel is the research that is involved. Normally, especially when writing short stories, I have a vague idea of the plot and characters and just blaze away with the first draft. During rewriting I will tidy up the story and make it work as a story. Editing often tightens up the plot and corrects any spelling and punctuation boo-boos. There is often little scope – or need – for much background research. I usually write what I know, or draw on my fertile imagination to fill in the gaps.
Not so with a novel. With my current work in progress – the novel I’m writing as my thesis paper for my MA – I am expected to show evidence of appropriate research. This is not the way I normally work, so it is stretching me beyond my normal practices. This is good, and is what doing my MA is all about. The writing of specific short stories, poems and essays has stretched my writing skills in amazing ways.
Doing background research for my novel has had a wonderful side effect. It is giving me a deeper understanding of the setting of my novel. More about that in a future post on this blog. All I will say now is that the novel, which is being written with children as my audience in mind, is set in Nepal during the recent civil war. Soaking myself in the culture of the country is proving to be a fascinating experience; so much so I am almost forgetting to attend to the actual writing.
All this research is helping me on my journey. It is a journey of discovery, not only of an amazing culture, but also of finding out the story of my main character. He is based upon a photo I took of a boy during a visit to Nepal in 2006. I wondered: What is his story? In discovering many aspects of the culture, the country, the people and the times in which my story is set, I am discovering this boy’s story. It is a growing, organic world; it may be fiction, but it is becoming a real place for me.
I now have to make sure that the fascination with the research does not take over and replace the writing.
For more articles in this series about writing a novel click here.
Last year I bought a copy of the Garry Disher book called Writing Fiction: an introduction to the craft. It was the required text for the fiction writing unit in my Master of Arts course.
As I read the first chapter I underlined the following: ‘…new writers… believe that the best writing grows out of powerful feelings and intense passion.’ (Disher, 2001, p.5) While this can be true I have found that it is not always the case. Sure, intensely experienced life events can be a wonderful source of writing inspiration, but if that is all we had to write about we’d never have much to say. Most of us lead such deadly dull and boring lives that we should restrained from hoisting that on our readers.
Disher goes on to say that ‘even the most mundane incident, can give rise to a story or novel, and the best writing and creative insights often come from writing calmly and with detachment… day after day. Don’t sit and wait. Start writing, and write regularly – for the practice, and to find what it is you want to say.’ This has been another benefit of doing this and other writing units in my course; the regular enforced writing exercises and the requirement to hand up finished works.
While it is writing under intense pressure at times, I believe that it is excellent discipline for the aspiring writer. To succeed, the aspiring writer must become a perspiring writer. Over the last three years I have, in part, developed the skill of writing on demand. This was in relation to my blogging. I set myself the difficult task of writing – on average – three articles of 300 – 400 words each per day. I haven’t succeeded entirely, especially last year while studying, but I came close to it before commencing the course. I have learned to very quickly come up with ideas, plan and then write rapidly. The more I’ve done the less editing and rewriting is required, so my skills are definitely developing.
Later in the chapter he says: ‘It’s pointless to wait for inspiration… Write whether you feel like it or not.’ (Disher, 2001, p. 12-13) He suggests setting definite goals with writing, say a 1000 words per day. When I was blogging solidly over recent years I had goals for each day regarding word count, number of hours of writing, number of articles written. I also had weekly, monthly and annual goals. All that discipline has helped me during my year of study and will be of great help in coming years as a writer – especially if I ever have looming publisher deadlines.
Disher, G, 2001, Writing Fiction: an introduction to the craft. Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest.
Whose story is this anyway?
Writers have many decisions to make when they first begin writing a story or novel. In fact, a writer must decide on many aspects of the writing even before a word is written. Some of these decisions include such things as deciding on the characters, including their names, deciding on the setting, thinking about the theme of the story and giving some thought to the structure of the story. I will write more about these aspects in other posts in this series.
Point of view
The author must decide early on in the writing process – preferably before a word is written – as to the point of view of the story. I’ve written before about this topic elsewhere (click here). It is a huge topic and whole books have been written about POV.
At its simplest, point of view can be summarised by asking the question: whose story is this? Who is telling the story?
First person point of view
I can tell the story in the first person. In this point of view I will use the words I, me and my frequently. It reads like I am the main character and I am relating the story. As the author, I am the narrator and I put myself in the role of the character. I have written this paragraph in the first person.
Second person point of view
You can also write a story in the second person and this involves using the pronouns you and your frequently. It is a very unusual way of writing and you will find not many writers use this form of writing in fiction. You might be interested to know that the author of this blog has tried writing a short story like this. You will find it is very demanding to be successful to write using this point of view. One of the inherent dangers in this point of view is that your story will be very confronting to the reader. You can put off readers from finishing the story which is not what you what. If you are observant you will notice that this paragraph has been written in the second person.
Third person point of view
The author who decides to use this POV will use the words he, she and they many times when writing about the characters. She will become, as the author, a detached observer of the events occurring in the story.
The above summary is very simple. The author has several other points of view to consider, but this brief introduction will have to be sufficient for purposes of this article.
Point of view in my novel
Last week I had to come up with the first chapter of the novel I am writing as my thesis paper. It was my turn to present what I had written to the supervising lecturer and to my fellow students who make up my critique group. Before this I had been doing plenty of work on the novel. I had done extensive research on the setting, the characters and other aspects of the work. Finally, I had to be productive and produce the first draft of the first chapter. It is a very rough first draft.
I chose the third person point of view for no particular reason. It is a well used method of story telling. I found it interesting, however, that when preparing for the seminar I realised that it would be worth rewriting the first page or two in the first person. This would have the effect of making the story more immediate and perhaps more exciting. When I put this idea to the group they agreed that it is worth trying. They also agreed that a change from past tense to present tense would add to and heighten the tension.
Making these changes will raise other considerations of course, but it will be interesting to see how it all develops.
- Writing success – well sort of – another article about point of view.
- Writing a novel – more articles in this series.
The germ of an idea
To write a story or novel the writer needs an idea. Several actually. In fact, a writer probably needs a heap of ideas to finish a novel.
I find that there is usually one spark of an idea that will get me writing. It might be something I’ve seen on television, or shopping, or on holiday, or at the beach or while walking. It could be a photograph, a delicious smell or a memory from years ago.
Once the idea, the spark is there I ask the question: What if? What if the person in that photo was a murderer? What if the dog I saw on my walk was telling me that his master was lying injured in the garden? What if…?
Ideas for my thesis novel
For the last few months I’ve been quite undecided about what to write about for my Master of Arts thesis novel. The crunch time is here: I have to start on this in the next few days. I’ve actually been mulling over five ideas.
- A time fantasy novel set in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia in ancient times.
- A novel featuring two teenagers fascinated by time who find themselves trapped in suspended time.
- A novel drawn from the real life experiences of a member of my family.
- A novel (or even a trilogy) fictionalising the experiences of my forebears and their emigration from Prussia to South Australia in the 1840s, a story of triumph over great tragedy.
- A novel about a small Nepali boy caught in the midst of civil war.
After months of hesitation I’ve settled on the last one. This is the one that draws me to the main character again and again. All of the ideas I’ve listed above are quite valid and I’ll possibly use them all someday. The first four all need considerable research and planning before I can even think about writing a word.
This is also true of the story line I have chosen, but the main character is so strong and prominent in my thinking he needs to escape on to the page.
More about the process in coming days.
I am writing a novel.
I need to clarify that statement: I have been thinking about writing a novel. The time for thinking is over. I urgently need to start some serious planning and writing. The pressure is really on, because I have to present the first chapter – or a part of a chapter – at a seminar next week.
Let me back-track a little. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am half way through my Master of Arts in Creative Writing course. So far I’ve been very successful, completing all the assignments and gaining distinctions (or higher) for every one of them. It was hard work, but the writing has been very satisfying. My skills have developed way beyond what I had hoped for, and I’ve produced many pleasing pieces of writing.
I have one unit of study to complete. It’s called Editing and Publishing for Writers, a very practical course aimed at both editing one’s writing and preparing work for publication. The balance of my studies this year will focus on my thesis paper. This will be a 40,000 word novel.
What should I write about?
This is a question that has plagued writers ever since the first stylus was picked up to scratch on a clay tablet in ancient Sumaria. I wasn’t there at the time, so I’m not sure what they wrote about. In varying degrees of perplexity, many writers have always struggled to come up story ideas.
It makes it so much easier if you know the plot line before you start writing. You know – beginning, middle and ending – that sort of thing. Not to forget twists and turns, problems to overcome, births, deaths, marriages, murders and the inevitable taxes.
It also helps to know your characters. Boy or girl, adults, animals, creatures, monsters or aliens: they’ve all been used before and will presumably be used many times more for many years to come.
Finally, it is essential that you are quite clear in your head where and when the story is set. Will it be in a city or a rural setting? Will it be a place near you or far away, perhaps in another country or even another world? Will the story be set in the present time, the distant past or even the future?
Decisions, decisions, decisions
The writer has to make so many decisions when starting to write a short story or novel. These choices are essential in the planning stages and they need to be reviewed constantly while the work is in progress. That is what I will be doing during the coming months.
I will get by with little help from my readers:
This blog will become a journey through the writing of my novel. I plan to write frequently about the process and the decisions I make. I invite reader’s comments as we go; in fact, you can all help me in the process. I will need all the help I can get.