Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

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What’s in a gait? Horses and how they move.

As I peruse writing message boards – especially those seeking advice on certain questions – I often see some variation on this:

“How long can a horse gallop?” “How long can a horse go without rest?” “I’ve got my hero needing to ride his horse 20 miles in one hour. Is that possible?”

Yeah. NO.

Nothing pulls a reader out of a book faster than finding something that’s Not Right. If I read that a horse is galloping for an hour straight, I’ll chuck that book straight across the room! So I thought this week, I’d see if I could clarify a few things when it comes to horses and their gaits.

The basic gaits:  The way a horse moves is called a gait. Horses have four basic gaits:  walk, trot, canter, gallop. (We won’t get into the gaits that some breeds are specially bred for.)

  • The walk is a four-beat, flat – well, it’s a walk.
  • The trot is two-beat; the horse’s diagonal legs move together as a pair. Human equivalent is a jog. Here’s a link to a short video on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkRieNqW56o (There’s also the pace, but unless you’re writing about Standardbred racing, I wouldn’t worry about that.)
  • The canter is a three-beat gait; most horses find the canter easy to maintain, and it’s easier to ride than the trot.
  • The gallop is the fastest gait a horse has. It’s four-beat, and cannot be maintained for long (it depends on the fitness of the horse, the terrain, etc. but it’s like having a person sprint. They can’t maintain that for long.) Horse racing is the gallop. Here’s a video of the most famous match race in history – Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral, 1938. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVT2MPNCqgM Notice how at the end, Seabiscuit’s legs are nothing but a blur? That’s why horse races only last 1-2 minutes. Horse just can’t maintain this pace for that long.

Here’s one of the most fantastic videos I’ve ever seen – this is Edward Gal and his most famous ride, Moorlands Totilas. This is Grand Prix Dressage. Unless the horses in  your book DO Grand Prix dressage, they won’t be doing any of the movements you see here – but this will give you an idea of the basic gaits and how they differ from one another. Totilas enters at the trot; the walk is at 3:29; the canter work begins at 4:00. Also – most horses who do dressage work, even at the Grand Prix level, don’t make it look this damn effortless. Totilas is in a  class by himself.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GT6Yn7SLkmQ

How long can a horse maintain its gaits? It depends on a lot of things – are they at liberty? How fit are they? How much does the rider weigh? How much other weight is the horse carrying?

When you see Westerns with the riders galloping their horses hell-bent across the desert – YEAH, RIGHT. Doesn’t happen. Not for long, anyway. The same thing with the stagecoaches and the four-horse teams cantering or galloping down the road – just NO. Maybe for very short bursts, but those stagecoaches were bloody heavy! Mostly, those horses walked and trotted. Mostly they walked. Have you ever seen True Grit? Remember the scene at the end where Rooster Cogburn gallops the pony to death in order to save whats-her-name, the whiny little girl? That’s the reality. That’s what happens when  you gallop a horse too fast, for too long.

It also depends on the breed or type of horse you have. If you’re writing a Western, your horses are probably going to be a mix of several breeds. The cavalry had Thoroughbreds, which often escaped and bred with local stock, producing a tough, smaller horse that was more suited to the environment. If you’re writing a medieval history and you have knights, they would have ridden draft or draft-crosses – horses big and heavy enough to carry a rider, his armor, and his incredibly heavy saddle. Here’s a chart that shows some of the major draft breeds – as you can see, there’s quite a bit of difference between them all!

draft_horse_breeds

ALSO – if you research this further, you’ll find that many times, Western riders have different terms for the gaits. They refer to a trot as a ‘jog’ and the canter as a ‘lope’. In point of fact, if you show Western, these are the proper terms. ‘Lope,’ however, is often a four-beat, quasi-gait, and not a true three-beat canter, and the ‘jog’ is often more of a shuffle. To illustrate, here’s a video from the 2008 Quarter Horse Congress:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stEgqgnbC4M (I’m trying to be fair, but I absolutely despise the way Western Pleasure has gone downhill! When I showed 20+ years ago, proper gaits were still rewarded – ugh.)

I hope some of these videos help illustrate the basic horse gaits, and maybe clarify any questions you might have had. 🙂

Half-Baked Cupcakes: Getting Your Characters “Done”

It’s no secret:  I’m a historian, and I write a lot of historical fiction. Even my urban fantasies are infused with history. (Sort of hard not to be, when one of my MCs is an 18th-century ghost, I guess.)

But one thing I’ve learned over the past years is that characters will often come to you fully formed – including backstory – and sometimes, they don’t. They’re like a cupcake that’s not quite done in the center. It looks done; the top has risen, and it looks like all the other cupcakes, but it’s just not. Stick the toothpick in, and you get a gooey mass of unbaked chocolate batter.

So what do you do?

There’s a couple of things. First, figure out what you do know about this character. They came to you, so clearly you need them in the story somehow. They fulfill a purpose. Of course, if this is the waiter that brings your MC a glass of water and we’re never seeing him again, then no worries. Don’t bother. But if this is the waiter that brings your MC a glass of water, and suddenly he pulls out a gun and shoots at the baddie that’s been secretly stalking your MC – wow. He just turned into a Real Character. How’d he come to be there? Why is he packing? How many more tricks does he have up his sleeve, and where did he learn them?

Those are the things you may not know right now. You may be just as shocked as anyone that this random guy has done this. Maybe you meant for something else to happen in that scene. Who cares? Go with it!!!! Because if this character can suddenly insert himself into your novel like that, he’s worth keeping.

So. You can talk to him, of course – do a character sketch, where you let the character tell you about his life. I do this a lot.

But depending on what he says, you may also have to do some research. Let’s say he’s Interpol. Well. What do YOU know about Interpol? Maybe nothing! Maybe you head the term on an old rerun of “Magnum, PI.” So you’ll need to do your research. What you learn in your research will shape who he is. If he’s Interpol, chances are he’s not American – so what is his nationality? That will give you race, religion, ethnicity, beliefs, other languages he speaks, contacts & connections . . . You might even change your mind. You might realize he’s not Interpol at all – instead, he’s Mossad (Israel’s version of the CIA). Or Scotland Yard.

Well, then what?! 🙂 More research!

If you hate research, then better stick to the old adage “write what you know.” But even then, there’s going to be research. Let’s say you’re writing about your home town and one of your MCs is an auto mechanic. Do you know anything about that? Or maybe he’s engaged to a woman who runs the local movie theatre. Or teaches for a local college. Research!

I’m doing this right now with Sarah, my female lead in the historical romance I’m working on. The more I research Massachusetts circa 1774, the more real she becomes.

Another example is Rebecca, from my urban fantasy series. Rebecca appeared briefly in one novel, but I was always intrigued by her and finally decided that she needed her own novel. So I wrote it. It sucked. Mostly because I had no idea who Rebecca was. I thought I did:  I really thought I did, but in reality, she was a caricature. Calling her a half-baked cupcake is a kindness; she hadn’t even been put in the oven yet! In truth, she was missing quite a few key ingredients!

So I put it away, embarrassed I’d even let my beta readers see it.

And then one night – about six months later – I had a very clear scene in my mind. Rebecca, squaring off against her husband, only I knew that it wasn’t really her husband, but something else. I grabbed my laptop and started writing – and from the second my fingers touched the keys, it was her voice coming through. Calm, educated, scared to death. In love so deeply with her husband that she might very well drown in it. And yes, a woman living in the 17th century with powers no one could attribute to anything other than witchcraft. It was that voice I’d been waiting for. It simply took her longer than my other characters to bake.

What’s funny is that there’s another character from these novels. a ghost named Shannon, who came to me 100% done and ready to raise all kinds of hell. But Rebecca was more subtle. I needed to do more research on the time period, read more about the witch trials of the time, review the Malleus Maleficarum. And in truth, there was another character who I needed to know more about – her nemesis. They began to come to me in tandem, telling their stories. In truth, I love her nemesis – he’s an extremely complicated character, and makes no excuses for it. But I needed to research him as well. I needed to know how he came to be in her village, and once I understood that . . . I had no problems.

Rebecca is much closer to being done than she was a year ago. I’m still struggling with how to finish her story and embed it into the existing novel without a ton of rewriting – it’ll involve some experimenting with format, and I’m okay with that. Besides, I’m still doing research for both her and Sarah. And with every new fact I learn, the more ‘real’ I know they’re going to be.

Someday, they’ll be cupcakes fresh from the oven. Fully baked. Ready to be frosted and consumed by readers.

At least, I hope so!!!!

The Perils of Procrastination

I have to admit, this is one of those weeks when I feel I haven’t accomplished anything or have anything interesting to share! I haven’t written very much (though I did go back through old drafts and try to pick up the pieces of a novel) and I did meet with my writing group (which was, ahem, not exactly productive, especially since — cough — I’ve sort of started revisions and realize I have more to go before I can give the revised MS to my beta!).

I did go to some rummage sales and picked up some fantastic pieces for my store. Great vintage handkerchiefs and vintage gloves from the 1950s. I went to a local museum and did some research there — by the way, if you’re researching the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots, they have some unpublished photos at the Top of Oklahoma Museum in Blackwell, OK! I urged them to get them scanned and posted online for historians, but I’m not sure they actually will. Then I stopped at one of my “happy places,” Ashby’s Antique Mall in Blackwell, where I picked up some fantastic 1920s purses and a 1930s umbrella, and my personal favorite, a photo album with some sweet photos and a new mystery to solve. But that will have to wait a bit . . .

This week on PBS, “Secrets of the Dead” was about the Mona Lisa mystery. In it, they said that da Vinci hardly ever finished anything, even paintings, because he would get bored with them. Most of these were commissions, mind you! And he’d just walk away, or let one of his apprentices finish it up. I’m glad to know that someone as great as da Vinci had that habit. It makes me feel better about my own varied and — at times — oppositional interests.

Deep down, I know I’m procrastinating. I have a novel to finish. The last line came to me this week, as I was making a salad for supper. Chopping up the tomatoes and — there it was. I’ve been researching it. I’ve been reading the old drafts. I had a self-imposed deadline of August 1 to finish it. I doubt that is going to happen. So I’m burying myself in my online store and in research, to avoid the inevitable:  sitting down, slipping back into Nicky’s voice, and finishing his story, his way. Even this post is procrastination!

So here and now, I’m saying:  I’m going to actually write this week. I can’t pin myself down to how much, but I’m going to separate my draft into the three sections I know the novel needs, and that will help me see where I need to start marrying scenes and what needs to be be filled in. I also have some major structural changes to make to my other novel before Tuesday, when my beta expects to see it. And grading. And . . .