Friday, December 12, 2008

Research and Inspiration

My friend, Diana, started a book last year that took place on the Isle of Man. It was a place she dreamed of visting one day and loved researching the area. Her story got to a point where she felt she couldn’t do the Isle of Man justice until experiencing it in person. She got that opportunity this summer. I asked her to share her thoughts on her trip and how it gave her a different perspective on her story and research.

Thanks, Diana, for sharing your story!


If I think back to my years growing up in the Northwest and how I loved to spend my time, a few different pursuits and interests come to mind, among them acting and being outdoors and also traveling and writing. Every spare moment, if I wasn’t creating a skit, I could be found writing on some scrap of paper or tearing pages out of notebooks to write a poem or short story. And traveling opened a whole new realm to me – to see the world and discover inspiration quite out of the blue waiting around any corner. I would get ideas for stories whilst on a road trip and be scrawling notes and chapters in the car, staring out the window, culling ideas as my Dad drove singing along to the Beach Boys and my sister played with her toys in the seat next to me.

But I think no other trip was more profound to me, for influencing my writing than my first visit to Europe when I was eleven years old. Now I had NO desire to go on this trip as I knew it involved flying for a very long time, a very great distance over a very big ocean and to be honest, that idea really freaked me out! But I found once we arrived there, that Europe was so different from what I had known or ever seen that I immediately became very curious. And it was there at the old age of eleven and a HALF (that half was important! J ) that I learned a lot about myself and was struck with how just atmosphere and landscape could inspire me as I wrote. I wrote a lot of poems during those weeks, some silly, some serious, some fairly descent and some AWFUL (like REALLY bad ;-) ), but all of that writing served to show me that if I looked out beyond my horizon and what I knew, there was much to be seen and much to learn and all of it inspired me. I was bitten by the travel bug on that trip more than any other and wrote wrote, wrote after that vacation.

Twenty years have passed since that adventure to other shores, and many poems and stories later, I found myself last year working on a short novel for NanoWriMo that was set in a place that I loved, located across that same vast ocean. I had been researching it for the past few years. But I was in a quandary. Here was a subject that intrigued me and that I loved to write about but I found I could only do so much research from my desk at home and thusly only write so much as well, before I hit a sort of wall where detail was needed to continue the story with the right amount of depth and accuracy, to really help bring it to life. I had studied the beautiful Isle of Man for many years and had learned all sorts of facts and trivia but yet, not having been there in person to see it for myself, the story lacked something within the heart of it. It needed a shot of authenticity and though I felt plenty inspired and excited about the subject I needed an added shot of inspiration myself!

So I packed my bags last summer and set off for the UK, Ireland and the Isle of Man for two weeks. I needed to see the lay of the land on the Island, the details of the shops and pubs, how the roads wound and connected and feel the spirit of the lovely people who inhabited this jewel I had come to know and love only through photos, videos and books. I hadn’t been anywhere in Europe for those twenty years and it was interesting returning as an adult. I found that many of the same things in travel still inspire my writing – a rain storm, no matter where it is will always draw my pen out of hibernation and I was drenched in rain on this trip, and thusly inspiration. Travel also gave me a more accurate view of the way people live in a place – the reality of dealing with day to day elements like weather and road conditions, sea conditions and how it can affect people’s spirits (or not – the Manx are a spirited and plucky bunch!) But being able to bring a dose of reality to my story by injecting details like, just exactly what a violently keeling boat on the open sea feels like as a wave tumbles over the top of it, or what motorbikers gearing up for a famous road race are feeling and how thrilled they really are to race their bikes around the most hilly and curving, challenging race track in the world; this kind of research was worth more than any cost to get there to experience it. And it still gives me goose bumps! J I have a feeling that whether I am writing about a place down the street or half way round the world, that implementing some research in person if I can, will be helpful in future writing endeavours. Taking time to soak in the environment and meet people, to research the details in a tangible way can bring new life to a work and make all the difference.

I’d love to know how you research for a story you are writing or how you overcome a writing block. And what inspires you?

Thanks Tami for inviting me to share some thoughts on writing!

Diana LaGrandeur

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Title Dilemma

My apologies for all my east-coast friends who are getting this in Thursday, rather than Wednesday: I spent most of my day at the theatre with no access to my computer. Luckily, none of the kids stuck gum in my hair this time. 

I am one of those writers who has to have a title for her book before she actually starts on the book. I like notes and color coding and character bios, all organized in a system that only I understand.

"untitled paranorm project draft 1" just does NOT look good on a word document file. It looks...messy. It throws me off my groove. But alas, no title comes to me. So I am slowly ripping my hair out, foaming at the mouth and constantly IM'ing Tami, who has had to deal with me whining about my lack of title for a few weeks now. So I've decided to expand my horizons and ask all of you for awesome title advice. 

What do you guys do when you don't have a title? How do you pick a title that fits your book AND you think would grab the attention of readers later on? What's your fabulous title secret? Have you ever had to change a title you love, and why? And also, for my own personal interest: do you use your titles when you talk to your friends about your books?  

I'm curious about the last question because when I do talk about my books, I generally don't use the titles. I define them differently: "The book about gay bashing" or "The book about virginity." Sometimes it amazes me how you can condense something as complicated as a 70,000 word manuscript into a few words. Does anyone else do this?

And please, someone pull me out of bad title hell! 

Monday, December 8, 2008

Novel Podcasts

After writing the first draft of Under My Skin, I asked a few friends to help me create a podcast of the first 2 chapters. I read the part of Eryn, the main character and had my friends read for others. The result was something between an audio book, readers theatre and an oldtime radio show.

Now, these friends of mine just happened to be members of my band as well, so we created a few tunes to serve as theme songs for each chapter. After recording the moody little tunes, I used some of the tracks throughout the chapter as a soundtrack of sorts - a throbbing heartbeat during an action scene, wind during a run in the woods. It was creative and fun.

While those chapters have since been revised with my current edit, I learned some really valuable lessons in changing how I viewed UMS. The shift from prose to script was enlightening. I learned where readers stumbled over lofty sections because I was too busy being a writer to use “real” language. I discovered key phrases I repeated that I never would have spotting in the written manuscript because I needed to HEAR them. There were action sequences entirely interrupted by narrative, killing tension and disengaging the reader.

My little podcast experiment was well worth the recording time. Ultimately I decided to revise UMS and so I removed the full podcasts from my Myspace page and just left a few samples. However, I’m tempted to try again once UMS is finalized.

I used Protools to record the audio/tunes – but then I had invested in the program for band recording. You could easily do something similar with Garageband – and jazz it up even more with their canned sound effects/music samples. Even if you just record yourself reading your WIP – I guarantee you’ll discover ways to tweak your writing and heighten impact.

You can listen to the samples on my pen name's Myspace page: