Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bring Your Novel to Life

Welcome to the inaugural post of the Prairie Chicks Write Romance blog. The 5 regular members of this blog are an eclectic group of women with varied writing interests and levels of publication. Because I picked Thurs as my regular day to post, I’ve received the distinction of posting on this 1st day of January, 2009.

My genre of writing includes contemporary and historical romance for both the secular and inspirational markets. I am pre-pubbed and unagented and if those 2 words are not in your dictionary yet, they should be.

One of the stumbling blocks for a writer is accuracy – whether it’s in the actual writing skills like spelling and grammar, or in the flora, fauna, location and era of the particular story. Readers today don’t have time for pages or even paragraphs of description, but they still want to feel as if they’ve become part of the story whether as a bystander or one of the characters themselves. This means you need to involve as many of the senses as possible.

It’s easy to give a visual description for the reader, but what about the sounds, smells and sensations that bring those scenes to life? If your character is standing at a train station, the first thing you’d have to research is the type of train that would actually appear in your story. If it’s a historical novel, you wouldn’t have a diesel engine pull up to the platform. Would it be a steam engine? What does a steam engine sound like? Smell like? Feel like? Would your ears hurt from the shrilling scream of the whistle or would it be a rhythmic toot toot? You could describe the steam shooting out from under the engine and the way it bent the weeds that grew beside the tracks but how would it feel brushing against your clothes? Hot? Or, just breezy? Would you hear the whoosh of the steam? Would small bits of dirt spatter against you? Or would you hear bits of debris ricochet off steamer trunks? Would the engine be fired by coal or wood?

I love the smell of wood smoke and that would be my choice but did they use a wood-fired steam engine in the town and era my story is located? Is my town even located beside an actual railroad track?

Of course, I could make a fictional town with an imaginary railway track. I don’t, though. My characters and stories are fiction. I need to ground myself in facts to give my stories realism. In my contemporary series, the town of Prairie Junction is fictional but I’ve based its layout on an actual town. It’s located beside a real railway line, near a existent road, and my characters visit actual places nearby.

Likewise the flora and fauna. You want the reader to smell the flowers as they walk or drive past a garden. Which flowers are natural and which imported? Was a plant we take for granted even bred in the era you are writing in? Or, was it brought over from Europe or Asia in the 20th century and interbred with local varieties?

My historical novel, An Outlaw for the Lady, is set in 1875 Wyoming Territory. At one point, my heroine is hiding behind a bush and brushes up against it which lets off a scent. For this scene, I had to check the historical records of Wyoming not only for the type of plant that grew naturally in the region at the time, but also for the growing characteristics of that particular bush. Since it’s June in my story, would that particular bush have been high enough to hide my heroine as she crouched or stood? Would it have been full leafed? In fruit or flower? Was it green or silver leafed? Would it have smelled like pine, sage or stinky socks? Would it have pricked her or been soft to the touch?

These are just a few of the details I’ve needed to research to bring An Outlaw for the Lady to life. When someone closes the book on this story, I want them to feel they’ve travelled back in time. I want them to feel satisfied and not cheated by the experience.

I haven’t mentioned language and speech which certainly comes under the heading of ‘sounds’ when you’re describing a story, but that’s because it’s a subject all on its own and will be the topic of my next post.

How much time do you spend in research? Is research necessary for a contemporary novel? Do you want your reader to watch the events unfold or be involved in the story itself?


Anonymous said...

Well, hello, Ms. Anita Mae! Great blog and so true. My biggest faux pas is the word "okay" in historicals. Fortunately, I had good editors for those works. :)

Hope Chastain said...

Wonderful article, Anita Mae! Great information! Since your book is set in 1875, you might be interested to know that this was the year Russian immigrants accidentally brought over tumbleweeds to North America. I discussed that with novelist Dusty Richards when he had a book-signing at our library a couple of years ago.
Have a Blessed New Year! I'll be adding this blog to my roster!

Hope :-)

Janet said...

Valid points, Anita. Research is so important to give fictional stories authenticity, whether they are contemporary or historical.

Question - do you bookmark your research pages for future reference and/or verification? I know researching the middle ages, I end up linking a ton of times and then lose track of where my initial item was located. I read somewhere that you should have 5 references to back up each historical fact!

Great article!


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Kel, thanks for stopping.

Hmm - so when did they start using the word okay?

I'm having a problem with 'stand watch' or 'on watch'. It's a naval term but when did it become common usage?

Words and phrases like this are going to be a topic in a future post, so check back.

Okay? :-)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hello Hope - nice of you to visit.

No, I didn't know that the tumbleweed was an import. I'd heard it was a dried up ol' sagebrush. We have enough of them sailing under our wheels in Oct but I've never used them in a book before. Obviously I'll have to do some more checking before I do use it, eh? I appreciate your insight.

Congrats on being picked to judge the Golden Heart. That's quite a coup.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hi Janet, yes, I do bookmark my net sources for future reference, but I also make a copy of it via the copy and paste method into a word doc.

At the ACFW conference in Sept, I attended Lena Nelson Dooley's workshop on 'Painting Historicals With Authenticity'. She gave us mega info on valid sites to use in our research. I believe she said you only need 3 sources of info but you need to ensure they are valid sources. She advised us to make a copy of everything and keep it in a file for future ref. She actually makes a hard copy of everything and keeps one file per book in an actual filing cabinet.

Lena said you might never hear how accurate your research is, but make one little error and you'll never hear the end of it.

Suse said...

Hey Anita Mae,

Excellent article. I'm the kind of person who usually skips over most descriptions, but when I do read something that seems inaccurate, I lose faith in that writer and her story.
I know I definitely need to spend more time making sure any descriptions I use are accurate and appropriate for the setting, time of year, etc., even if my stories are usually contemporary.


Karen said...

Great article, Anita. I have a binder for every WIP with a section for any research I've done. I have bookmarked pages in the past though and can see how handy that would be for future referencing. I admire people whose work involves extensive knowledge of a different place and time.

Great work, Anita.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Suse, I'm with you on this one. There has to be something special about a lengthy description or I'm skipping it myself.

'...when I do read something that seems inaccurate, I lose faith in that writer and her story.' - I know what you mean. When I find an error, I seem to lose the storyline and start looking for errors. I don't mean to, but I find myself wandering that way...which is silly, really because I'm not the most accurate proof-reader by a long shot.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Karen, thanks. So, it sounds like you write contemporary, too?

Which brings me to Suse's last sentence about Contemporary writing and the fact that even in this genre, you need to check for accuracy.

Readers can't see the 'little dog' unless you give them a picture. There's a big difference between a toy poodle and a Chihuahua and readers, especially animal lovers, want to know which one you're talking about.

As a writer, you should know because even if you don't mention the breed, you need to know whether it 'yapped' or 'barked'.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Do you have some favorite sources, either books or websites, that you would recommend for research?

Great first blog!

Jana Richards

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey, thanks Jana.

Actually, one of the first places I discovered was the Petticoats and Pistols blog which is authored by a passel of historical western romance writers at

These women may not be experts according to the educational system, but between them and their daily blog visitors is a whole lot of experience and info on where to look for credible sources. They're the ones that know which books you need if you're writing about the Old West. Like where to go for 19th century footwear...and wood stove parts...and when jello was invented...

And, don't forget local libraries and historical societies which not only have valuable info for the location you've chosen, but sometimes even have local history books for sale as well.

I mentioned Lena Nelson Dooley in an earlier comment and she said one of her mainstays is the US Montgomery Ward catalogues which sold everything from dishes to houses and has pics and prices. She said the catalogues can often be found on ebay. I presume you might find an old Eaton's catalogue the same way.

Lena did give us a list of creditable sources she uses but again, they're all for life in 19th century America.

If there's enough interest, though, I could explore this further. At this point with only one Historical novel completed, I've only researched what I need for my novel. Of course this doesn't help if you've set your story in another apologies on that score...but maybe someone else knows...