Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Plotting for Research and Plotting from Research

Ink was fortunate to have award-winning author Donna Fletcher Crow as our guest speaker on October 14, 2010. Donna's writing career spans 3 decades and covers an impressive range of literary styles from 'Choose Your Adventure' tales in the 1980's through historical mystery and inspirational romance to epic novels of the British Isles. Now she concentrates on mysteries, promoting 'A Very Private Grave'(first of the Monastery Murders), now out in the USA, UK, and Canada, while simultaneously testing the waters of e-books with a different series. Busy lady!

With all those historical novels in her personal backlist, Donna has become an expert at research, specifically pertaining to historical fiction but also to contemporary novels. She was generous with her acquired wisdom, which can be summarized very briefly as: start wide and zoom in, go there in person, and leave room for serendipity.

Simple, you say? The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Start wide: in your background reading, read as broadly and deeply as possible. Look for maps and other illustrations - of clothing, transportation, and buildings - made in the era that interests you. (If you aren't interested in this era, why try to write about it at all?) Find out about the political situation, including any wars or religious movements. Then refine your story idea to take advantage of actual dramatic elements such as elections, riots, unusual weather (such as the winter the Thames River froze), maybe even an assassination/attempt. All these can feed your central conflict and add depth and veracity to your characters. On some books, this phase took years of Donna's part-time focus.

Zoom in: Donna likes to write the opening chapter or two to get her essential characters and conflicts in place before plotting in detail. Then she writes a summary of the rest of the book, aiming for four pages on the theory that, if she can't explain her story in that space, she doesn't know it well enough yet. Now Donna can list of exactly what she still needs to know and start tracking down specific sources: rare books, places to be visited, people to interview. Make email contacts and set up phone or in-person appointments.

Interviews: Know what you need to know but keep an open mind and leave plenty of time. The experts you consult may have unexpected stores of useful information that will only come out when their passion for their subject overrides their polite short answers to specific questions.

On-site research: Let the site suggest the plot elements where possible; if there's a bridge, might someone fall or be thrown off it? Listen to local gossip (yes, eavesdrop in coffee shops); not only will you taste the dialect and cadence of regional speech, you never know when a chance tale of someone's grandmother will provide a spark for your fictive dream.

Buy books. Especially local histories and guidebooks that may not be widely available.

Take photos. In this digital age, you can play an on-location slide show on your screen while you're writing the relevant scene. Note with your senses, not sight alone. If you're writing in a local setting, you may think you know all you need about an area but it's still a good idea to visit the key locations. See how they look and feel in different weather, different seasons. Let your characters feel the squishy mud underfoot in springtime or the crush the rattling leaves in fall or breathe frostily in the desolate industrial area on a winter's night.

When you write, relive all those sensory inputs and realistic details through the viewpoint character. Don't try to cram in all your research. Concentrate on producing a single vivid impression in each scene. The more fully immersed you and your plot are in the place, time, political and social setting of your characters, the more real the fictive dream becomes for you the writer and for the eventual reader.

Some spare handouts will be available at the November meeting. For more information on Donna's books and her other interests, visit her website

Jayne Barnard