We Can Work It Out: Using Research in Your Fiction

Research is very often a necessary, or at the very least it’s an advisable, step in your writing process. The old adage still holds true that a writer should ‘write what he knows’. But sometimes writers want to explore unfamiliar worlds and so they turn to research.

Recently, I wrote about following your gut. But sometimes research must be done. I don’t mean research about craft (although that too is important). I’m talking about research relating to your plot.

My current WIP is about a girl who struggles with reconnecting with her neglectful father one last time before his death. Although I knew, before I began writing or researching, the basics of what my characters were going to experience, I felt a greater confidence once I had the support of some research behind my writing. There’s always something to be researched, to be double checked. In my case, I wanted to know about how a young girl might deal with grief.

I don’t know that many people who’ve died and I also don’t know that many people who have lost loved ones. So this isn’t really a subject I’m comfortable with (thank you, God). Whenever you feel uneasy about anything you’re writing — look it up. Go to your local library, use the internet, investigate a new setting personally, and/or talk to people who might know more about that subject than you.

For that audience you couldn’t have expected, now you can be sure that you have your facts straight. Sometimes your audience will know more about your character’s type than you and they’ll recognize when you’re depicting your character incorrectly. And if you’re thinking to yourself How could I depict my own creation incorrectly? It’s easier than you think.

Here’s a few tips and suggestions as to how to go about your research.

1. In terms of the internet, don’t be afraid to go beyond Google. Explore! Curiosity will be your greatest guide. Researching through other, specific search engines can be more beneficial to your needs. Here’s an expansive Directory of Open Access Journals. This way, you can feel confident that what you’re writing makes sense. No matter who reads your writing — nobody will find any factual flaws. Are you writing about an American criminal? Here’s a page on outlaws.

2. Research before you write. This way, you won’t feel bogged down by interruptions and your writing will probably come out more fluid.

3. Your research will take the shape of an hourglass. Start with broad questions, focus in on specifics, and then expand again. According to Research Methods Knowledge Base, it’s important to start with general questions and finish with general conclusions, but somewhere in the middle you are discussing and thinking about the mechanics of your topic. This method is geared more towards non-fiction writers, but it’s a technique that can be molded to the needs of fiction writers as well. In my story, for example, I start by asking: How would my MC grieve? Then, as I find out more and more about the subject, I can ask more specific questions like: What does angry grief look like? How are her friends and family affected? As I observe and take notes on everything, I’m able to compile a certain set of knowledge. In my story, I might not use everything, but I now I have a general perspective on the subject.

Do you have any research tips?


The Great Writer’s Instincts

Recently, while mulling over a WIP, I started feeling very apprehensive about the story itself, in all its entirety. Were my worries of simplicity and conventionality paranoia or was my story really trash? Nobody will care about this story… the hero is not interesting enough… her obstacles aren’t challenging… I had to talk to somebody. I began on a rant about all the literary rules I was breaking and all the writer’s advice I was forgetting to apply to my story.

The advice I got was simple. Stop thinking and just write from your gut.

Of course, I should take into consideration that this came from a person who just wanted to go back to sleep and get rid of me. Nevertheless, I think the advice was sound. Except, after all the time I spent thinking logically and pragmatically about my writing, how I do I make the shift into passionate, effortless writing?

Writing viscerally means transcending what you’ve been told about literature, while remaining connected to that knowledge, and listening to the past, present, and future of yourself and your world. It requires a great deal of character (no, I don’t mean the fictional kind), confidence and the courage to put all of yourself into your writing. Great writers open themselves and their minds and let the world flow through them. Great writers (and artists in general) are sieves which leave us with filtered versions of their world. It isn’t that these writers are better people or that they are more interesting; it is their sensitivity to their surroundings and their ability to regurgitate their experiences.

What I need, and what I think many writers could benefit from, is a dose of moderation.  To detach myself completely would be a mistake. But to continue on this narrow path of writing tips and literary instruction is also wrong. I will try to center myself between my instincts and my how-to books, between my self and the advice of others. For me, the most important aspect of writing is to ensure that it is a creation all my own. To feel the airs of inspiration is necessary, sure. We should still try to, as T.S. Elliot says, “steal” from great writers. But what we steal should be open and flexible enough so that we are still able to work with it and make it our own. Now when I write, I will try to remember to ask myself: is my voice coming through? Does it reflect my own originality? Am I contributing as much of myself as possible?

Character: Come to My Johari Window

Listening to: Come to My Window by Melissa Etheridge


I recently discovered a very interesting method for developing character. The Johari Window is a “cognitive psychological tool”, originally invented to improve understanding between self and self, and self and others. I got to researching and found out that the Johari Window is mostly used by businesses who want to encourage better communication between their employees. They set up these workshops where employees have the opportunity to finally build a rapport with long-time office strangers.

The Johari Window has four slots, the open self or arena, the blind self, the hidden or facade self, and the unknown self.

The arena is what is openly known about the person. Depending on the relationship, this area can include anything from hair color (the obvious basics) to feelings, emotions, desires, and fears (what you might share with a friend). If the relationship has just begun, or if the relationship has yet to exist, then this area will remain very small. Even something as artificial as small talk can expand this space.

The blind spot is what you know about me that I have yet to find out. This might be something you don’t tell me on purpose, because you’re trying to protect me or because you’re trying to hurt me; this might be something that I’m in denial about or maybe it’s a delusion that no one can talk me out of. Either way, the blind spot are is not an effective or productive space.

The hidden self, or Facade area, is the space where all my secrets stay. Particularly discreet people will have a larger hidden space than others, just as people who lack boundaries will have an especially small hidden area. The hidden area should not be too big or too small. Some secrets are healthy, while others, when kept hidden buried, can be damaging to the self or to the relationship.

The unknown self contains that which is completely hidden, from everyone. These can be both psychological and physical. Physically, it could be a skill, like fast running, or an illness, like cancer, which I am unaware of. However, more often than not, it is psychological. These can range from capabilities or talents I don’t know that I have, traumas I refuse to surface, fears I don’t want to face, subconscious feelings, or ingrained traits and attitudes from childhood.


So! How does all this information connect back to fiction? The following is an analysis of a Fitzgerald short as it relates to the Johari Window.

Most, if not all, fiction is built around a main character or a group of main characters with an objective. Whether they are aware of their goals, whether they succeed or fail — these are choices that each writer will make for himself. Over the course of the story, the character will try, probably more than once, to get what he/she wants/needs. An author can use the Johari Window to develop the characters and their relationships to themselves and to each other. With time and through action, the Johari Window will change and each pane will increase or decrease in size.

As an example, let’s look at Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story begins with Bernice, the story’s protagonist, feeling awkward and forlorn while visiting her shallow cousin Marjorie. Fitzgerald begins with an opening where the characters are unfamiliar with each other. If we were to apply Johari’s Window to the first pages of this story, the “open area” would be minuscule because Marjorie knows little about Bernice, except that she is a scrupulous young girl, and Bernice knows little about Marjorie, except that she has a lot of friends.

Bernice’s objective is to feel like she’s part of the crowd, part of the “vast circle of youth“. At first she attempts to become one of the crew by being polite (in other words, by being herself). But this plan quickly falls apart. That night, she overhears Marjorie explaining to a family member how “a little cheap popularity” is of such paramount importance, especially to an eighteen year old girl. Bernice confronts her cousin later on about their opposing views. Fitzgerald pushes the two rival girls together, making for a collision which results in a furiously tense altercation. While  in the heat of the argument, Bernice and Marjorie both begin to take what belonged to their hidden areas and use it to fill their open areas. That is to say, they let guards down while amidst great emotion and expand their open areas by disclosing relevant hidden feelings.

After some fighting, Bernice begins to feel defeated and starts taking Marjorie’s advice. It is important to note that Bernice probably would not have changed her ways if it weren’t for this external force pushing her. I have read stories where the main character makes an internal shift suddenly and without any apparent cause. These stories feel awkward and forced and the reader, confused, is left to wonder why the character did what he/she did and felt the way he/she felt. Everything happens for a reason, particularly in fiction.

But back to Bernice. Slowly, the morals which Bernice’s mother imbued on her are swept away. Marjorie blows in with her tempting superficiality and re-creates Bernice. Marjorie teaches her naive cousin the ways of a shallow and effortless flirt. During these lessons, Bernice is becoming increasingly aware of that which was previously in her blind spot. To push the open area into the blind spot space, the character must actively listen to others and be open to feedback. Now, prepared with new and different weaponry, Bernice walks back into Marjorie’s social scene. An interesting twist: Bernice learns all too quickly how to hog attention and, soon becomes Marjorie’s replacement, Marjorie’s competition. By the end of the story, Bernice is the talk of the town. But in her greed to be the ultimate center of attention, she goes mad — ruining her own image and that of her cousin. The story’s conclusion reveals to the reader, Bernice, Marjorie, and possibly even to Fitzgerald how monstrous Bernice could be. Her potential is surfaced and her unknown area is made smaller.

Sometimes our stories grow automatically and our writer’s sixth sense guides us through its development. But sometimes we need directions which is why the Johari Window is so damn useful.

Challenges, Goals, and Other Literary Objectives

I’ve just finished a VERY big life project and now feel like I’m going to have a lot of extra time on my hands, at least until college starts (I’m thinking of September as a possibility). I’d like to take advantage of this new time surplus by setting some goals.

1. Writing Goal: 500 words a day

I know I can write more than 500 words a day, but I want there to be less pressure. I feel like high expectations scare me away. The cool thing about this challenge in particular is that, its host, Inkygirl.com, has a “Weekly Word Check-In” pit stop where all the challengers are encouraged to post their progress. I’m not sure I can do this yet, but I’m going to go ahead and recommend this as an efficient motivator.

2. Reading Challenge: A Story a Week

Just a story? That’s no challenge. Ah, but it is a challenge. First of all, I haven’t been reading at all lately. So, jumping into full length books might be asking too much of myself. But, giving myself an entire week for each story has quite a few benefits. Its regular pace will keep me reading, even if its only a little at a time. And, beecause the expectations are so low in terms of quantity read, there’s no pressure, and thus, there’s a greater likelihood that I will meet my goals. The bounty of time I’ll be giving myself to read will mean plenty of time to dissect, analyze, and review the stories. I find that when I take the time to delve into what I read, the lessons I learn from picking apart the writing of others leads to improvements in my own writing.

3. Submissions!!

I want to start sending out my short stories. I want to make it an annual event. I read somewhere (Writer’s Digest?) that September is the best time to submit to literary magazines. My goal is to have 10 completed shorts by September. With the remaining 4 months and 3 weeks, I’d like to finish 5 shorts, one of which I’ve already begun. Then, I’ll send them all out to different lit magazines and hope for the best.

I’m not too good with goals and I’m definitely not too good with commitment. But my optimism never fails me, and so, once again, I will set these goals for myself.

Ready for Press?

(Image: Courtesy of BamaWester on Flickr)

So you say you’re all done with your manuscript. You’ve read it, proofed it, rewritten it, gotten critiques, rewritten it again, and now it’s finally finished. But how can you be sure that it’s ready to be sent out to publishers? What do the publishers want and what are the readers looking for?

Donald Maass of Writer Unboxed, one of my favorite blogs, posted an entry on what makes for a popular manuscript. The entry took apart the findings of a New York Times article, “Will You be E-mailing this Column?”, which, in turn, took apart the findings of a University of Pennsylvania study. The purpose of the study was to figure out what made popular NYT articles so contagious. For six months, UPenn studied frequently e-mailed articles, breaking them down into categories and tagging articles for having qualities like being surprising or providing practical value.

So what makes writing travel?

1. Emotional Writing: According to the studies, sharing emotional writing has three important effects. 1) “people can clarify that ambiguity and gain deeper understanding of how they feel” 2) “to help them cope or reduce feelings of dissonance” and 3) “can strengthen social bonds and deepen social connections”

2. Be Positive: Happy endings, anyone? Donald Maass seems to have predicted this one. But I disagree. I love a sad ending. I think struggles are beautiful. The study is in a tug of war about this one. They say that although it seems like people enjoy distributing happiness, more research needs to be done on the subject.

3. Awe Inspiring: When your writing successfully expresses something grand, your readers will feel like they a part of something much larger than themselves. The study defines awe as a feeling of “self-transcendence” and explains that when we are faced with something vast, either literally or figuratively (grand canyon or God, respectively), we have the nature urge to share that experience.

4. Useful Information: Does your fiction stock useful information? Look out how well Malcolm Gladwell turned out. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to be facts and figures. Very often, with good literature, authors weave in important life advice. “Because useful information has social exchange value, sharing it may encourage reciprocity or be driven by people’s desire to look good or self-enhance.”

5. Surprise!: This is why nobody likes a spoiler. Twists and shockers are fun. Just as suspense in a story will keep us going, surprises, too, will light a fire of interest. As the study points out, things that are surprising are generally interesting and everybody wants to be that guy/girl at the office who knows something out of the ordinary.

There are many ways to push your writing forward, to spread the word, to create social contagion. These are five tips, probably five out of a million, on how to do so. Now, before I end this post, I do want to say that you shouldn’t change your writing just for the people. If you’re not comfortable with what you’re sending out, don’t bother. As Cyril Connolly said (whoever that is), “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self“.

Character: On this Assembly, Making an Entrance Comes First

A story is made up of an assembly line of decisions. With time and multiple revisions, you’ll work with, add, and subtract many pieces to your story. The process changes with the writer. For me, getting comfortable with my plot and my characters is of paramount importance. Usually that happens before I even begin writing. Those are the first decisions I make — what color hair my character will have, what goals they set for themselves, what their backgrounds look like, and so forth. Only after that can I begin to write.

I’m currently working on this project that I assigned myself. The hunt: Find a story I don’t like, but with a great deal of potential. The task: Rewrite said story. It’s a lengthy and time-sucking exercise to distract me from my main work-in-progress which, at its half point, hit a road bump and hasn’t been able to recover since.

Since the plot is written out for me and my character studies are almost done, I’m wondering how I could go about introducing my two characters? Right now, I have only two demands. 1) My main character is revealed in the beginning and 2) my supporting character is introduced later on.

I decided I would study, compare, and contrast some character introductions. Get myself inspired. I’m thinking I’ll do three studies. Consider this Story One, Day One:

1. Subtle, On-going, and Nameless:Appetite” by Saïd Sayrafiezade is a short story recently published in the New Yorker that has a greater focus on character than on plot, so I figure it’d be fitting for this study. When plot is less than character, I find it harder to write out a synopsis, so I’ll refrain from doing so here. I recommend reading the story for yourself (word count: 5,995), although I’d stop reading right before the last line.

As much as I enjoyed this story, the last line (the character’s last words) infuriated me. It seemed so out of character. Considering that the story revolves around this character, that’s no small issue. His introduction and his development was coherent, cohesive, co-everything– but the damned last line is such an ugly stain on that story that it makes me wonder if anything can truly be all around wonderful.

But! In spite of the ugliness, it’s still quality writing. The reader never stops learning about the character, which is true of any good story. The beginning is testimony to the character’s misery. He can’t seem to verbalize what he wants and, thus, his demands (if they can even be called demands) aren’t met. As this short story is told in first person, the main character, whose name is never revealed, is the one to explain the cause to this effect. “Somewhere in my past, something had gone wrong for me.” Now, the reader not only knows the character but he knows why the character is who he is. Histories aren’t always necessary, but, now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever run into a history that was pointless either.

The history seems to be the first sign of an old school, straight forward, introductory method. Before that, the character’s voice is weaved into the dialogue and narration, but not actually put forth in an explicit description. There are no adjectives to direct you to how the character feels. Still, the reader knows exactly what’s going on in his head.

The character is introduced through action. His short-lived, unsuccessful conversation with his boss is how we get know him and his reactions. The pressure of the situation exacerbates the character’s nature. We know that under pressure, the main character is unassertive, unsure, and unfocused. Nothing went according to plan — from the position of his feet, “one foot crossed uncomfortably in front of the other”, to the conversation itself, which took an ugly turn when his boss put him on the spot with an unexpected question. The fact that everything went wrong, and would continue to go wrong, refers back to the first sentence, “Things were not going as I had hoped”.

Action and history tell us a great deal about the character. We learn that the main character, twice, turned down opportunities to integrate himself into the world he wanted to belong to. Although he doesn’t seem to be aware of it, it’s that kind of self-destruction that caused his misery.

The supporting character, an anorexic waitress that works at the same restaurant as our main character, is introduced by her relation to the main character. “A few days after I was turned down for I raise, an anorexic waitress started working at the restaurant.” Immediately after that, the author jumps into how the main character feels about her, “She was pretty but had no breasts or ass” is the next sentence. Once again, we learn a little more about the character through his relationship with the world. It’s not about what the main character sees, but how he sees it. What is his perspective?

This story has reminded of one very important rule on character: Everything is relationship. And, so, I’ll end this post with a quote:

“We should approach fictional characters with the same concerns with which we approach people. We need to be alert for how we are to take them, for what we are to make of them, and we need to see how they may reflect our own experience. We need to observe their actions, to listen to what they say and how they say it, to notice how they relate to other characters and how other characters respond to them, especially to what they say about each other. To make inferences about characters, we look for connections, for links and clues to their function and significance in the story. In analyzing a character or character’s relationships, we relate one act, one speech, one physical detail to another until we understand the character.” Robert DiYanni

Character: Walk in Their Shoes

Atticus Finch knew that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (I forgot the actual quote, so I sprung this from Sparknotes). You can’t judge someone until you’re privy to all the aspects of their situation, of their life. It’s important to shift perspective in order to gain a better understanding.

I’m working on a character for a short story, who, as of yet, has no flaws, and I’m wondering in what ways can I get to know her? How do I reveal those flaws?

Before the readers, before the writing… how do you get to know your own creation? An important caveat: For those of you who have read Shelley’s Frankenstein, you might remember how Victor Frankenstein became obsessed with creating life. He devoted himself to one thing and poured his soul and all his energy into this. Naturally, he got physically sick, lost contact with his friends and family, and began to lose his mind. You don’t want to get so close to this character that it enraptures your life. An author should have a hold on various perspectives of his/her story and all of its many parts.  Thus, you should have the ability to see both the big picture and the smaller details, but if you’re too close, you might have trouble distancing yourself enough to see your character as your reader would.

So, while still keeping a safe distance, how do you go about fleshing out a character? Is it possible to simultaneously walk in their shoes and be objective? There are different exercises you can use to carefully give your character dimensions.

1. Questionnaires — You can find these easily — online, in books, in class — questionnaires are everywhere.

2. Criminal Interrogation — Charge your character with a crime (you choose whether or not your character is guilty). Play bad cop/good cop and try to prove that they’ve committed said crime by asking a bunch of pressing questions. Overwhelm the character. How does your character react under stress?

3. Fight with a Friend — Another stress exercise for your character. What would happen if your character got into an altercation with his/her closest friend?

4. Psychoanalysis of a Dream — Conjure up any random dream you’d like — the weirder the better. Take your character to see a professional psychoanalyst and let them pick apart your character’s freak dream. Let your creative juices flow freely; let your instincts guide you; work with whatever interpretation you produce (i.e. the disappearing food on the thanksgiving dinner table is your character’s inability to control his/her surroundings). Naturally, when you become privy to your character’s subconscious, you’ll also become privy to his/her true feelings, desires, and fears.

5. Tarot cards — This is a cool idea. I recently saw it on Write to Done, but it appears on other sites as well. This method is especially nifty when you don’t know much about character or when you want to know their future.

6. Compare and Contrast: Buddy for a Day — For one day, have your character follow you around. Whatever happens — compare/contrast it to what your character would do or feel in that situation. You’re creating a real life scenario to see how your character would behave and/or think in a less action filled, plot-driven circumstance.  Comparing/contrasting is a tool that might allow you to get a better understanding of the possible causes and effects of these behaviors and thoughts. You’re natural instinct isn’t to analyze your own actions, but when creating another life, it’s handy to know the ins and outs. Another method of ‘Buddy for a Day’ is for you to follow your character around. What does a day in the life of your character look like?

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