A Newbie’s Guide to the Archives

Researching at the National Archives, or one of its many branches across the country, is something few of us have the chance to do – or even a reason to do. Unless you’re researching something pretty darn specific, chances are you’ll never need to set foot into one of their research rooms.

The Archives are a whole different experience from doing research at your local library or museum, though! There are many rules to follow, and for good reason:  the files located there are often the only copies in existence. They have to be there, for as long as they last, for anyone who wants to see them. Most of the files are fragile; historic preservation is a relatively new thing in American history, and you may be looking at papers and pages that want to disintegrate before your eyes.

I know I did.

I spent several days (spaced over several weeks) traveling to the National Archives in Kansas City, working with four boxes containing more than 3,000 documents that are all related to the book I’m slowly putting together. Here’s some tips and tricks I picked up:

You can photograph things yourself. Copies are astronomically expensive if you have the Archives do it (though that is an option, particularly if you live far away; you’ll also have to pay for shipping); they’re still expensive if you do it. But if you have a good-quality DSLR or even a good-quality point and shoot camera, you can take all the photos you want for free. I used my Nikon Coolpix L820, and they turned out great. The research rooms have special light tables set up where you can screw your camera into a special ‘upside down’ tripod. They even provide you with the proper settings to get the best-quality shots possible.

No bags are allowed in the research room. Lockers are provided for your coat, camera bag, laptop bag, etc., and you’re given a key to your locker. No purses, either. You can carry your laptop, camera, and cell phone into the research room. You’ll have to open your laptop at the end of the day so they can check to make sure you haven’t tried to smuggle anything out (Yes, apparently this is a thing!).

You’ll have to sign in every time, and you’ll be issued a National Archives Researcher Card. These expire in a year, and they give you permission to do research ONLY at that branch of the Archives. So mine gave me permission to use the records at the National Archives at Kansas City. You’ll have to present it every time you go. If you do research at another branch, you’ll have to get one there, too. Here’s a more thorough explanation:  https://www.archives.gov/research/start/researcher-card.html#orientation

I hope it goes without saying, but no documents can ever leave the research room.

One box and one folder on the table at any given time. If you’ve got a file that has multiple boxes/folders, the rules are simple:  one box at a time, one folder at a time. Put that folder up before you get out another. They will give you an 11 x 14 laminated ‘marker’ you can use to mark your place in the box, in fact. This is so folders don’t become misplaced, and papers don’t end up in the wrong folder.

cover pager kimmel deposition 1Bare hands only! You will never, ever wear white gloves to handle documents. There’s a specific reason for this:  the cotton gloves, no matter how well-made, are far more likely to snag fragile, brittle page edges than your bare fingers are. Don’t believe me? Put on a pair of gloves. Now go pet your dog. How much hair do you get on the gloves? Exactly. For extremely fragile items, you can ask the staff to train you in how to use the ‘spatulas’ to turn pages, but this is tricky too. Honestly, I found the easiest method was to use two hands – one to pick up the edge, the other to help lift and turn. This photo is one of mine; this is an example of just how fragile the documents can be.

The staff are there to help. If you have any questions at all, ASK. Their first responsibility is to the items in the Archives; their second responsibility is to you.

Yes, there really is a Big Black Binder of Bad and Banned People. I’m sure it has an official name, but this is the list of people that are never, ever to be allowed into the Archives. They include people who have destroyed documents and most especially, people – including former employees – who have stolen documents, either for themselves, or to sell online.

And as I found out, not everything is in the online databases. It took me MONTHS to figure out exactly where my case files were, because even though I had the docket number, the case number, and I KNEW where they ought to be, they just . . . weren’t. It took some digging by the Archives staff (more than a month, in fact), to locate them in storage. I picture this storage as resembling the crate-lined cavern at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So if you’re looking online and you know which Archives location your files should be stored in – just shoot them an email and ask.

Documents are fragile! Just to reiterate. Most have not had the benefit of proper storage for their entire existence. Mine had water damage; some were stuck together. Mold and other allergens are a definite possibility. If you don’t feel comfortable handling a particularly fragile document, ASK THE STAFF. They’ll be happy to help you get it sorted. But please, don’t try it yourself and ruin things.

Working at the Archives is a dream come true for a historian – it means we’ve finally stumbled on something that could be career-making, or at the very least, something we’re passionately obsessed with. H0pefully these tips might make it slightly less nerve-wracking if you’re embarking on this for the first time.

Here’s a link to the National Archives’ ‘Research Our Records’ page:  https://www.archives.gov/research/

And here’s a list of the branch locations across the country:  http://www.archives.gov/locations/

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Everything you needed to know about microfilm . . .

But were afraid to ask!

If you’re writing anything historical – fiction or nonfiction – research is in your future. It can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re doing, or what you’re truly in for.

I’m a regular at my local library, where all the Arkansas City Traveler issues are on microfilm. Ever use microfilm? It’s a bugger. When I was in grad school, I had to do several research papers using microfilmed sources, and it was exhausting. It hasn’t gotten easier!

Microfilm can be fantastic in several ways. For instance:

  • If you have allergies, there’s no worries about dry, dusty, moldy papers.
  • And, one of the greatest things:  if you need a newspaper from another town or state, you can usually get them via interlibrary loan. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s fantastic. As with anything, there’s a time limit on how long you can keep them; don’t order too many at a time. You’ll need to get the card catologue number from the library, but then you should be able to take that to your library and in a week or so, have what you need.
  • Conversely, if you know exactly what articles you need and when they were printed, you can probably pay the library to print them for you, and send them.

Actually using the microfilm is fairly simple, and most librarians will be happy to give you the five-minute tutorial. All the machines I’ve worked with were made in the 1960s. You could run over them with a semi and not hurt them, so don’t worry about that. There’s a button to turn it on; you feed the film through the rollers, and voila! Done. There are small wheels you turn to enlarge, sharpen, and rotate the film.

When you find an article you want, you can print it (they have printers attached). But here’s something REALLY, REALLY important:  make sure it’s set to print black ON white, not white on black. The default is almost always white on black, which is impossible to read. Other than that . . . It’s simple. Almost too simple. 😉

But there’s things to keep in mind:

  • Every library has their own rules about who can use the microfilm. You might have to get a card, or sign you life away in blood. (Kidding. Mostly.)
  • You can’t remove the microfilm from the library (though unless you have a machine at home, who’d want to?).
  • It’s bloody hard work. I’d honestly rather work with real newspapers, despite the fact I’d die of an allergy attack if I did. If you get motion sickness AT ALL, take Dramamine or whatever before you start.
  • Why?  Glad you asked. Because looking at those bloody screens for more than an hour will make you want to poke your eyes out with a stick, that’s why. If you have eye problems, or get eyestrain easily, this might be really difficult for you. Plan on short excursions, and know what you want to accomplish beforehand.

For me, microfilm is deadly. It tends to trigger migraines if I work on it too long. I can be on it for an hour at most. In order to see the articles you’re looking for, you’ll have to enlarge the film – which means you’ll be moving the film up and down and sideways in order to see the entire page. It’s possible to fit an entire page on a screen (sort of), but then the print is so tiny, you can’t read it. If this is a problem for you, plan accordingly.

Alternatively, you can hire people to do the research for you, if you’re not a control freak like I am. Or if you know precisely what you’re looking for. Professional researchers, who often charge $25/hour or more. Retired folk who want something to do. Hungry college kids who’d like to eat protein this week. Libraries may be able to put you in touch; so can local historical societies.

But, I’ll warn you:  this does take some of the fun out of it. You  never know what you’re going to find. When I was researching my historical nonfiction, for example, I kept a file folder on hand just to keep the interesting tidbits that had nothing to do with the research I needed. Serial killers, axe murderers, disappeared children, lynchings . . . small things I want to go back and look at, when I can. And for my YA novel, I keep finding cool things that don’t necessarily have to do with the stories I need (mostly Klan activity in the area), but are just additional bits of color to toss in, like cherry tomatoes in a salad. 🙂

So yes. If you’re doing historical research of any kind, there’s just no getting around it:  you’ll be using microfilm sometime. And microfilm can be your friend in so many ways.

But it can also be your doom.

Don’t say you weren’t warned. 🙂

 

Here’s a few other blog posts related to this one:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/historical-fiction-playing-in-the-sandbox/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/down-the-rabbit-hole/

Challenged – and Challenging – Books

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about whether fiction is a safe place, and my own experiences with The Picture of Dorian Gray. I determined that fiction – even if age-appropriate – is not only a dangerous place, but that it should be a dangerous place. That it should force you beyond your comfort zone, and push you to think about things you’d rather never consider, and in the process, make you grow. Make you stronger. Make you more diverse and broad-minded and hopefully, more educated.

One way in which religions and governments have always tried to control the populace is by controlling what they read. From the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books to the current push by individual school districts to ban certain books from school libraries, books have always been regarded as dangerous.

As well they should be.

Although the Index was abolished in 1966, it remains an indelible part of history. My students are flabbergasted to learn that great scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo had their works listed, that philosophers such as Descartes and Locke and Hume are on the list, that books such as Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were on the list.

Yet it’s no different than the efforts to ban certain books in schools across America today. Some, like Fifty Shades of Grey, I totally get – in fact, one librarian in Florida refused to put it in her library not due to the content, but because it was poorly written. 🙂 But that begs the question:  is it ever up to us to decide what someone else reads?

As a writer, I say no. As a teacher, I say no.

Fiction may not be a safe place – but it’s far safer for students to become exposed to issues like racism, drug/alcohol abuse, suicide, death, parental abuse, etc. than anywhere else. We want to ban books because they discuss such topics – but kids go through this every day. Not only that, but they’re online. They watch TV. They see this stuff anyway. The difference is, they see it in real life, with no tools to handle it or process it.

Fiction gives them those tools. By allowing them to read about fictional characters who are going through difficult situations, it allows them to see how this character handles it – and the results of their choices. It gives them a way to discuss what they would have done instead, or options the character may have had. They have a chance to identify with someone, perhaps someone who’s going through a very similar thing. Not only that, but these characters sometimes give kids a role model, someone to look up to. How many teenage girls went to archery ranges after The Hunger Games became popular? Maybe more importantly, how many of them realized that girls could hold their own against boys? Maybe even gave them the confidence to defend themselves if the need arose?

This is one reason why To Kill a Mockingbird is still a classic today. (We’ll forget that other, second book for a moment.) Through Scout’s eyes, we’re able to understand Jim Crow South. We’re able to see racism from her vantage point. We’re able to see the hatred and fear of the town, and the incredible courage Atticus Finch shows. Atticus (until that second book, anyway) gave us a father figure to look up to. Published in 1960, just six years after Brown v. Board of Education, just five years after the murder of Emmett Till, it showed the world the South that Harper Lee knew. It drove home the fact that the South she knew was still very much alive. And I like to think it gave whites the courage to stand up for what they knew was right, to start joining the fight for civil rights.

Was it challenged? Of course. By both blacks and whites, generally on grounds of racial content, racial slurs, profanity, and sexual content. It’s been challenged – and banned – since it was published.

But that’s the point. It challenged us. 

All good books should challenge us. That’s what good literature – whether adult or young adult – should do. The Hunger Games and Divergent challenge us to consider a future with a totalitarian government in which all civil rights are eradicated. Thirteen Reasons Why, although many people have pointed out that the reason for the suicide may not be believable, is still disturbing to a lot of adults – I taught this book in a Young Adult Fiction class designed for teachers, and I was surprised that this was the book that most disturbed them, that they didn’t think they could actually use in a classroom. The Book Thief forces us to consider the evils of Nazi Germany – but also, to recognize that not everyone bought into Hitler’s vision, and that many were just trying to survive.

So, yes. Some books are dangerous. Some make us question our beliefs. Some make us question our upbringing. Some make us question our society.

And that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do.

 

Some links you might find interesting:

http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/classics – the American Library Association’s ‘Banned Classic Book’ List

http://www.ala.org/bbooks/top-100-bannedchallenged-books-2000-2009 – the most challenged books from 2000 – 2009.

http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/indexlibrorum.asp – the Index of Forbidden Books, from Fordham University

 

 

When Less is More

It’s something we all hear from time to time – less is more.

But when it comes to writing, what does that mean, exactly?

Yesterday, as I was working on my young adult novel, I was reminded yet again of this adage, and how it affects my writing – generally for the better.

Most writing books will have something to say on this topic. Stephen King will tell you that adverbs are the work of the devil. A lot of writers will tell you that dialogue tags are the first thing that need to go in a manuscript (which has some merit; after all, if your dialogue and action don’t tell who’s talking, then you’ve got some work to do). Description? Of course you need it, but do you need ten pages of description? Probably not. That’s why it’s so important to work details like that into the narrative.

(I read the first page of a manuscript once where it was nothing – nothing! – but a description of this spaceship. I was so bored and confused by the end of the first paragraph that I told him to start with a character and the character’s problem, and work these details in later.)

So yesterday. I was working on my manuscript and I had several places where there were ‘problem sentences’ – sentences that didn’t quite make sense in the context to the scene, that needed rewritten.

Or did they?

Take for instance this one (problem sentence is in bold):

Bart hauled me to my feet and tucked his gun away. “Scrappy little thing, aren’t you?”

“I don’t take nothing off nobody,” I said.

He laughed. “I can see that.”

“Bart.” Sally’s voice came down the hall. “Bring the kid in here.”

And then he dragged me down the hall and into that room. 

Next to that line, I scribbled Why? She needs to ask why Bart has Nicky in the basement. And then I realized that just down the page a bit, she does ask. And so – voila! Less is more.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2

Cut the problem line, and it reads just fine.

I can’t tell you how many times that trick has saved a scene for me. Here’s another example:

He stared at me, and for the first time since I’d known him, I saw fear, real fear, in his eyes. “You met Collins? He was there?”

“He liked Abby real well.” I bit the inside of my cheek, trying real hard to hang on to my temper. “Told me it’s a sin to take another man’s runner.”

“He’d know.” Simon picked up another apple, but he didn’t take a bite. “He say anything else?”

This is an example of a time when I had one thing planned for this scene, but by the time the entire thing was written and done, this line didn’t make sense anymore. Through several drafts, I kept coming back to it, wondering if I should – or could – make it work, if there was a way to revise it. And then, finally, I just cut it. And guess what? It works fine.

Of course, it’s not just about a line here or there (though if you’re trying to cut your word count, that does help). It’s also about entire scenes. For example, in this novel, my MC, Nicky, is a rumrunner in 1924. I had a pivotal scene drafted in which he needs to leave at a certain time to make a delivery to a hotel, but Bart delays him – and the next day, they find out that revenuers were patrolling that road at the time Nicky would have been there. But the hotel they were delivering to didn’t exist in 1924. So that kept bothering me. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy. In fact, at one point in the manuscript I wrote The Gueda Springs Hotel is a problem for them AND me! 🙂

But. I had this other thing in the back of my mind – a local Klan parade that I just hadn’t worked into the narrative yet, though I knew it was important. Finally, yesterday, the two clicked (I literally saw the light going on in my head!) and both problems got solved. Rather that mess with the hotel, I changed the scene so that Bart keeps him from getting caught up in the Klan parade (because in the 1920s, the Klan hated bootleggers more than they hated just about anyone). That made me very happy.

Sometimes, sadly, you do have to ‘murder your darlings.’ Entire scenes get cut. Characters get the axe. Ideas don’t work. But sometimes, it works out for the best. And sometimes, rather than fuss with one line that doesn’t make a lot of sense . . . you can just cut it.

Less really can be more. 🙂

Now fifty, now sixty, now . . . My Adventures at an Auction

Yesterday, I went to an auction.

Ever been to an auction? Most people in my neck of the woods have – heck, most people make a hobby of it – but I know there’s a lot of people out there who haven’t. So here’s what happens:  auctioneers, who spend a long time in school learning this craft, sell items to the highest bidder. It goes fast, you may get lost, you may think you’ve won something that you didn’t, and you may end up spending WAY more than you thought on something you only kind of wanted. Or they may sell items “times the money,” which means they’ve got 2 or more of an item, and you’re bidding on the price of JUST ONE . If you want more than one, you pay double the price. They may also do “choice,” which means they’ll line up several sort-of-similar items and you bid on first choice.

In truth, I hadn’t intended to go – but then I looked at the auction site on Friday night, and realized that I had no choice. Because some very rare newspapers – several months’ worth of the Winfield Free Press – were being sold, and I needed them for my research into my YA novel, and they’re not available anywhere else. It felt sort of – ordained. I’d been looking for these papers for a long time, and suddenly, here they were, at this random auction!

I HAD to go. And those papers HAD to come home with me.

Some people go to auctions like that – there’s one or two items they want, and they’re bound and determined to leave with them. Others go because it’s a social activity. Meet old friends, meet new friends. See what’s there. It’s like going to the park, or the coffee shop. They may buy a few things; they may buy a ton of things. My dad went to an auction once where he was practically the only person bidding on anything. He came home with an entire stock trailer full of boxes. I still don’t know what was in all of them.

Some tips for attending an auction:

  • Be prepared to freeze to death. Dress appropriately.
  • Bring cash for the lunch counter.
  • Bring a book or something. I arrived at 9:30am. Know what time the newspapers sold? 5pm. In between there was furniture, pottery (SO . . . MUCH . . . POTTERY . . .), and tons of STUFF.
  • Look through the boxes. You never know what you’re going to find. For example, I brought home a box of World War II letters. But in that box, I found some really great things, including a ration book from WW II and passes to the White House from the Nixon administration! 🙂
  • Set a max price in advance – and don’t go over it. That’s the biggest thing. What are you willing to pay for something? Will you die if you don’t take it home?
  • Prepare to fight to the death! In some cases, you’ll have to fight to be seen and heard, fight to have your bid taken, fight for a spot at the front of the crowd, and fight for what you want. One lady stood on a chair in the back while she was bidding. Like me, she’d come for one thing and one thing only. She bought it. She went home at 10:30am. Lucky.
  • YES, auctioneers really do talk that fast. It’s a learned skill. Pay attention. Sometimes, if they realize you didn’t mean to bid on that particular item, they’ll start over, but you won’t make any friends doing that. And sometimes, they’ll make you buy it anyway.
  • And never, ever bid against someone who just holds their number up in the air and doesn’t ever take it down. They came for that item. Get out of their way. 🙂

So. Yes. I came home with my newspapers. Seven books in total, each spanning two months in the early 1920s. The Winfield Free Press was the KKK-friendly newspaper in my area in the 1920s, and if you want to know what they were up to, you have to have that paper. And since my YA protagonist, Nicky, is up against them, I need to know what they were doing!

The thing was, a lot of other people wanted those papers, too.

They tried to start the bidding at $100 – and then they dropped it to $50 and I started. For a while there were about five of us bidding; then, when we got to about $150, we lost a couple, and when the bidding hit $200, it was just me and another guy. He ran me up to $270, and stopped (after I gave him The Glare – you know, ladies, the one that says yeah, why don’t you just keep on with what you’re doing and see what happens, buddy!) and then . . .

They kept asking for bids!

It was five minutes – FIVE FREAKING MINUTES – before they finally let me have them. Five looooong minutes of them asking the crowd, going back to each of the original bidders – and me giving them all The Glare – before they finally dropped the gavel.

Sheesh!

All I can say is, they’d better be worth it.

As for what I’m going to do with them – well, once I finish with my research, I’m donating them to the local historical society, where they can be digitized and accessed by other historians. I think it’s important that all of these primary sources be available, in some way, to everyone. And because these are so rare, and so fragile, it’s important that they be conserved and stored properly, too.

And now – I’m off to start reading. 🙂

Your Baddies: Are they all they can be?

It feels like I’ve written about this before, but it’s still a topic that weighs on my mind – and, I think, should weigh on the minds of every writer, at least a little.

We spend so much time getting our protagonists just right. Their sidekicks, too. Hair and eye color, height and weight. What kinds of clothes they wear, where they live, what they do for a living. Background – education, parents and family, where they’ve lived. How they talk and walk. How they act. How they react to certain situations and certain people. Are they trusting? Outgoing? Happy? How do they get into the situation in which they find themselves, when your book opens? How do the secondary characters get involved? How long have they known your MC? How do they feel about him/her? On and on.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2But how many of us truly spend a lot of time thinking about our antagonists in as much detail as we do our protagonists?

Think about it for a second. Think about some of the greatest antagonists in literature. Hannibal Lecter. The man eats people. But . . . he’s not a typical ‘villain’ who cackles maniacally as he sautees someone’s liver. He is a real person on the page. In fact, if you Google him, you’ll find he has an incredible, detailed backstory that explains how he came to be what he is. And that’s one of the reasons why we’re drawn to Silence of the Lambs.

In another post, I made the point that your ‘villain’ (antagonist) has to be evenly matched with your MC, so that the reader finds it believable. Are they in a cat-and-mouse game of espionage during the Cold War? Then they’d better be the top agents the CIA and KGB can send at each other. One reason Voldemort is so good is that we’re not sure, even up to that final page, whether Harry really can defeat him or not. And we’re afraid he can’t.

But there’s more to it. Your antagonist shouldn’t be a storybook villain. What’s the fun in that? And if you’re having trouble with your novel, maybe you should think about it from your antagonist’s POV. What do they want? Why are they trying to stop the MC from getting what they want? What’s their background? What’s their motivation? Remember:  your antagonist believes he’s the hero of his own story. Is yours? Really? The way you’ve written him? Or is he a caricature, a cardboard figure put there so your MC has something to go up against?

Rowling did a great job of this with Professor Snape. I know I wasn’t the only one blown away by his big revelation. He seemed like a caricature villain, didn’t he? Hating Harry because he hated Harry’s father James. It was believable because that’s precisely the sort of thing a middle-grader would think – and, let’s face it, because we all know people exactly like that. But wow. What she did with him in the last two books went beyond anything I expected.

Sure, there’s lots of best-selling novels that have caricature ‘villains.’ But where do those novels end up, eventually? On the remainder table, or lining the shelves at your local thrift shop. No one re-reads them.

Look to history. Look to all the great ‘villains’ of history. Hitler. Stalin. Genghis Khan. Caligula. Trump. Stalin believed he was absolutely doing the right thing for the Soviet Union; Hitler believed he was absolutely doing the right thing for Germany. Trump believes he’s absolutely doing the right thing for himself. Read biographies of these guys.You’ll find them far more complicated than your high school history class made them out to be. (Except Trump.)

OR . . . think about common historical heroes. Read their biographies. And find out how flawed they really were. Think Abraham Lincoln was the “Great Emancipator?” Think again. He was just as racist as anyone else; the Emancipation Proclamation was a last-ditch effort to undermine the South by taking away their slaves. (It was also illegal, and – since it applied to a foreign nation – was totally worthless. It also didn’t free all the slaves in America.) Love electricity? Think Thomas Edison is responsible for it? HAH! Edison made a career of hiring top minds, stealing their ideas, and then firing them. Nikola Tesla found that out the hard way. Edison also alienated his 16-year old daughter when he went off to Paris and returned with a 17-year old bride. He also murdered thousands of animals in his efforts to design and build one of the most controversial inventions ever – the electric chair. Why did he build it? So he could ‘prove’ that George Westinghouse’s alternating current was too dangerous, and his company would be given the right to bring electricity to New York City.

Yeah. Not so heroic now, are they? 🙂 Tell this story from Tesla’s POV, and who’s the baddie?

Your protagonist must be flawed. But your antagonist must have redeeming qualities to make them human, to make them believable. I struggle with this. I’m putting my 14-year old rumrunner up against a guy that is as cold as the day is long – or is he? Meanwhile, I’ve got my romance novel heroine struggling to protect herself and her farm from a kitten-drowning rapist – who also happens to be a proud patriot and leader of the Sons of Liberty. And my urban fantasy series? The two antagonists I have there are not only against my protagonists, but against each other. Once I sat down with one of them and started working on his – its? – story, I quickly fell in love with this urbane, witty, well-spoken, self-deprecating demon.Even though he’s trying to kill one of my MCs and . . . yeah. But I totally get where he’s coming from, now.

Bottom line:  Your reader should be almost as invested in your antagonist as they are in your protagonist. If that means you need to create as an elaborate a backstory for him as you do your MC, do it. If you’re not sure of their motivation, figure it out.

Studying history is a great way to figure out how to create characters that are real – because you see it from both sides. Next week, I’ll look at a couple of incidents in history where you’re not entirely sure who the baddie should be. Until then – happy writing. 🙂

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!!!!