Category Archives: Writing

How to do it, how not to do, and how to keep yourself intact.

Cyber Research 101H – part 2


Okay, we’re at the Archive. We have a topic, and we are facing the empty search box.

It’s really simple.

You might put in “medieval Paris” and you will get a lot of old books about even older times. This is a bit dangerous, as apparently some of those Victorians were smoking strange stuff in their Meerschaums when they wrote about the past. It has been said that the farther back you go, the more modern your references need to be. I’ve been studying the Middle Ages since high school (figured it was necessary to write high fantasy) and the changes in how we picture the Middle Ages just since then have been amazing. Now, I can read the big volumes by Paul Le Croix and call BS on a lot of his weirder stuff, and even what was considered normal back then. This is no place for beginners.

No, as an inexperienced researcher, you don’t want to read what Le Croix said about knightly combat or ladies’ costume (his interpretation of a sideless surcoat had my costumer’s eyes bugging out in disbelief). What you do want to do is look at the zillions of pictures he collected, like a big Pinterest page. You want to read him very cautiously. Take what he quotes from original sources and back away from his own interpretations.

What you are looking for are the medieval French primary sources, like The Book of the Knight of La Tour Landry, the closest we have to a medieval etiquette book, or Froissart’s History, which is the Hundred Years Wars and events roundabout, as researched by talking to people who were there, or sometimes heard from Grandad. It may not even be accurate, as Herodotus or Xenophon may be inaccurate in their histories, but it’s what people believed happened. Mere facts you can get from modern historians. You are looking for everyday life and its flavour.
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Cyber Research 101H


On Nanowrimo historical fiction forums, I’ve seen people asking for help, lots of help, “because I didn’t go to college so I didn’t learn how to research.” So we who did owe them that help, y’know. I never heard of a course in research, except freshman English did include a passing reference to the *Guide to Periodical Literature* or whatever it’s called. You can tell how often I use it. It’s academic.

In general, people learned how to find things in libraries by wandering around a library to kind of see what they had. Every library has a different collection, like only one of all I’ve visited ever had a copy of *Regency Boximania.*  I remember in Virginia I was sited to access four separate libraries. Sigh. Or in Makiki I was fifteen minutes from the two largest collections in the state.

Now I am three blocks from a branch library, but between its limited hours and pop collection, it has proven perfectly useless to me. So I totally sympathize with other forumites who say, “That sounds like a great book, but I’m hours from a university library/live in a part of the world where they don’t have that in the libraries/Amazon won’t ship here.” Or all of the above.

If you are online, you have access to some excellent libraries *for historical fiction research.* Notice the limitation, please. You *can* dig around and find more modern reference if you are willing to buy subscriptions to academic archives like JSTOR. But while doing science research for techno-thrillers, science fiction, and some mysteries means you need the most up-to-date information, when it comes to getting the everyday life part of histfi, the free online libraries are a treasury of the period books you otherwise have to a) find out ever existed, b) hunt up a copy, and c) finance the purchase.

The problem with online is that you can’t just wander the stacks and find the right subject section. You have to learn the basics of the search engine.

Your best source is Internet Archive (, home of the Wayback Machine that can help you find vanished sites or their older versions.

It has also become the central card catalog for free books on the Web. Google lists all its free books here. Pretty much all of Project Gutenberg is available. Hatha Trust links through. A lot of the Library of Congress *American Memory* project is here, though sometimes a separate Search there will turn up more, especially in prints and photographs and maps. More of University of Michigan’s *Making of America* is showing up, though they have a stunning collection of antique periodicals you need to check out  directly.

The first thing you need is to get an idea of which books or kind of books you need. For that, I already wrote the 50 Books list (, click on 50 Books). It’s just to make sure you get the broad idea of the times and don’t, say, spend all your time on etiquette and steamboats and forget to learn about food, medicine, and fares for a Hansom cab across London.

You’ll notice the sample lists are filled with a mixture of boughten books and freebie ebooks. That’s just how I do my own research. For example, my ongoing WW2 project includes both US Army periodicals from the Archive, and *Marianne in Chains* about life in Vichy France, which arrived in an Amazon box. Some things you can’t get for free, but you can get pretty cheap second-hand. Others are just worth the new cost: the authors deserve their royalties, right?

In ebooks, the general rule is to take the PDF. The only books that are proofread are Project Gutenberg. Everything else is only OCR’d and more or less full of robot hash if you go for the Kindle or Epub versions. With PDFs you are at least getting the pictures of the pages to read. Also, other versions may lose the illustrations, or make maps or stitch charts unreadable. I have over 2000 non-fiction ebooks: learn from my mistakes.

Also, older-made PDFs from Google may omit all illustrations, whether maps in a history book or fashion plates in a pattern catalog. Use anyone else’s PDFs by preference: theirs, you have to stop and check.When I’m downloading 30 different books, I don’t want to slow down that much, because I’m recording bibliographic information at the same time.

Do keep a list, if not a database, of what you get (you can see my earlier posts on databasing them). If you don’t know you have it or where to find it, then it’s like you never got it. I often hunt one subject/topic a day, so the list kind of writes itself, as you can Copy and Paste the biblio info from the download page. So I get everything on Napoleonic Chemistry in one place, or Medieval Medicine, or 1894-1903 travel.

NEXT: How to Make the Most of Search

Truth Requires Consequences


It’s been years since I read *The Time Traveler’s Wife* and I don’t  reread bad books. I do hope the author has since learned how to write, plot, and portray convincing characters.

Over-writing was one problem. “She leaned against him like cold pasta” did give me a permanent bad example when I teach writing. By that late in the book I had been sand-bagged with so many poorly-chosen metaphors that I just sat there giggling in my office chair.

Lack of any science in something she tried to treat as science fiction is another, as is classic levels of “character acting on author knowledge.”

But the most over-arching, thorough-going problem, destroying plot, tension, and characterizations, is the lack of consequences.

We expect, in any world, that when characters transgress the rules of their culture, there will be negative reactions and punishments. To have known rules, taboos and laws both, broken and then have nothing happen to the character except maybe a sympathetic talk, instantly destroys all suspension of disbelief. The plot loses all tension, because we don’t believe in the world or the characters, and it looks like nothing really bad is ever going to befall them anyway. When something bad does happen, it merely seems an author contrivance to play at being dramatic with her handpuppets.

Examples ensue.

The time traveler works in a closed stacks library with a number of co-workers, male and female. At one point it becomes known to the reader that everyone “knows” (from finding the clothes he vanished out of) that he takes off his clothes and goes around naked in the closed stacks.

Reality check: what would happen at any normal workplace if it were found that a male worker customarily wandered starkers around the warehouse or old document storage? Right: the first time his clothes are so found, a note is left on them telling him to come talk to his supervisor or the head of HR. If he does it again, out the door. That’s normal consequences. This does not go on for months or years with co-workers wondering when they’re going to run into him in the altogether.

Instead, everyone is cool with this and doesn’t care that he does this, including all the women. It only comes up when he appears naked in a place with no human entry, and his boss explains that they’ve known about him being a little odd for years.

Additional nega-points for Stupid On Cue: no-one has ever noticed that his clothes aren’t folded on a shelf, or flung all over, or dropped normally. They are laying all in a crumple as if he dematerialized out of them: all garments still fastened, socks inside shoes and cuffs, underwear inside clothes, shirt buttoned and the tie still around the neck, and his watch and wedding ring on the floor under his left shirt cuff.

Secondly, he takes his problem to a genetics specialist because he (via the author) just knows his problem must be genetic. In this way, his secret is out. Later, he has a daughter who zips randomly through time from infancy. Her public school teacher knows this and to allow for it. No one cares that they can travel in time, otherwise.

I’m sure the author meant us to realize that an uncontrolled random time-skipping just isn’t important except to the ones so cursed. Except, as she does not realize, it would be one of the most important discoveries of all time.

ALL SCIENCE IS TURNED UPSIDE DOWN!! Time is no longer one-way and causality can be reversed. The future can create the past, as he sometimes does.

She hand-waves off time-travel with “it’s caused by a genetic mutation.” But *how* is it caused by tweaking a bit of DNA? How does something in him turn physics inside out? Scientists from bacteriologists to astrophysicists must find out. She never even hints at a theory of how the travel works. “It’s a mutation” seems to be her idea of an explanation.

On top of this, once it is known to be genetic, someone is going to get the bright idea to sedate the traveler so he can’t jump, sequester him, hook him up to a milking machine, and use artificial insemination to produce as many offspring of his as possible, in the hopes one of them or their crossbred descendants will have controlled time travel.

Yet he and his family go on living a normal life with no heightened security, and even the geneticists lose interest in them.

One of the times he acts on the past again lacks consequences. The wife, as a high schooler, gets beaten up by a date when she won’t give him sex — but he doesn’t rape her. No one sees her bruises and such until the time traveler conveniently shows up in the next week. She talks the middle-aged librarian into being the muscle for her revenge. They get the bad date to a place, the traveler cows the boy into stripping, and they duct tape him to a tree. She then cell-phones everyone she knows (in school) to come by and complete his humiliation.

And then the event is over and vanishes from conciousness. No one talks about it at school, so that a teacher might overhear. No parent picks up on it. The bad date does not complain to his parents, making up some story about this thug the girl hired because bad date wouldn’t ask her out any more, thereby getting her possibly arrested and sent to Juvenile Hall. No one keeps grilling her on who was the man who helped her pull that off. No one who hates her or just likes trouble purposely brings it up to a teacher or her family.

So please remember in your revising to check for this kind of gross continuity error. This isn’t how the world works, and I detect a whiff of Mary Sue to all this being happy or amnesiac with events that ought to get the characters in some very difficult situations. The author also missed the chance for a much more interesting story in some spots! At least, she needed to iron out these (and other) plot wrinkles so the story wasn’t so desperately silly.

Unnecessary is Deadweight


All overly detailed scenes, that don’t contribute to either hindering or furthering the protagonist’s quest, are unnecessary padding. All they do is clog the pace.

Unnecessary sex scenes. If the sex is not dramatic, that is, the details of the sex itself create or resolve complications, you don’t need it. If the aftermath of sex is where the drama happens, you don’t need the prior detail. Don’t try to convince modern readers that people having hot monkey sex are actually carrying on a thoughtful dramatic conversation during it: who has the brains to? You have to stop the sex cold for complicated talk. The author who tosses in sex “to keep the reader from getting bored” has not fixed but highlighted their problem: the pacing or tension has died. If it’s boring for the characters to discuss some subject with their clothes on, it’s boring plus silly for them to discuss it while their groping is graphically described. (Mind you, I can write erotica, but something besides sex is going on in each of those scenes, which makes plotting through them really difficult work. Good sex scenes aren’t easy.) Read the rest of this entry

Slanguage: A Look Backwards Guides the Path Forward.


Writers mainly use a Standard English that we can assume everyone literately educated learns, when it isn’t still their native tongue. Richelieu’s French Academy guards their tradition. In English, it’s quite enough to say that if Jane Austen didn’t use it, it’s suspect.

Use Standard rather than hip, now, TV slanguage because by the time it’s in print, it’s looking so five minutes ago. (Professional publication usually takes two years from deadline to book, not to menton all the time you’ll take to sell it). By the time return dates fill the inside pages of library copies, it looks definitely dated and, if you’re not careful, starting to become incomprehensible. Too soon the last check-out date is years ago.

One of the perils of writing mainstream YA fiction is you want kids to sound normal and today, which means in ten years the new YAs need a translation. On the other hand, good YA specfi, like Heinlein and Norton, avoided actual slanguage of their time for Standard with invented slang. Many YA publishers’ guidelines say “No science fiction or fantasy”: libraries don’t buy it because the old stuff is as popular as ever. But they always need new contemporary YA because kids can’t understand any longer a story where the protagonist doesn’t have a cellphone that takes pictures for evidence, or where they talk like 1995 did.

Adults are more forgiving of detail, but the story that’s now a period piece of dress and technology becomes foggy if you also used the slanguage and cliches of your time or, worse, your youth. Take Necromancer by Gordon Dickson. Someone says of the focus character, “He always could put the Indian sign on me.” Indian from India or redskins? Control or confusion or paralysis or adoration? Most of you have as little idea what that means as I do. This is played as a key character point, from one of the few to have known the person from youth, but it’s now totally lost to readers because the author used a (Western? rural?) slang phrase from his youth and put it in the future world.

Think how funny and opaque hippy slang stories can be, if you’re under forty. That’s any work stuffed with fashionable phraseology and cliches forty years later. If you want your grandchildren to collect royalty checks based on your work, think twice about not bothering to master Standard English, etc. It can be the difference between a short burst of sales and appreciation followed by limbo, and a long haul of royalties and reputation.

We All Have Heroes, and Models


Who were the writers you imitated (or imitate!) in your pastiche phase?

Much as I loved and read Andre Norton, I never seemed to do anything her style. I had a definite Lester Dent phase, resulting in my first finished novella, then went into a Weird Tales swords and sorcery phase, with REH plots and CAS language (oh, my poor teacher), then moved more into the style of Fritz Leiber.

After that, I actually started finding my own style. I think the continued factors of “my style” are characters one recent critter described as talking as wittily as he wished real people did (based largely on myself and my friends: we really did and do try to be amusing) and a reality-based mixture of the wonderful and the gritty.

An analogy for that looks in the window at me: a beautiful crescent moon in a dawn-painted frame of clouds, above ranks of dusty rain-streaked storage containers with peeling warehouses in the middle distance and container cranes beyond, all laced with power wires.

Everything else, whether my language is plain or fancy (level of language), whether it’s all dialogue or all action, the genre — that varies. Bits of CAS’s vocabulary creep in, but my critters will tell me where they go “huh?”

What’s your style? What do you wish it were? What do you need to change to get there?

Brake, Horse Power


When people add coaches, carriages, wagons, and carts to their stories, they often do enough research to find out they may have something called “brakes” and then treat them largely as autos or trucks with horses up front. (Less often, mules, donkeys, camels, zebras, oxen, elephants, or carabao, not to mention moose, caribou, goats, or dogs for motive power.)

In an auto, you can be zooming at freeway speeds, stomp the brakes, and come down to a complete stop. But auto brakes are complicated and highly engineered, even before they were computerized. You have the force multiplier of hydraulic systems in power brakes. You have the brake shoes exerting friction against the whole brake drum.

On a carriage, you have a pivoted stick exerting friction against several inches of the iron tire on a four-foot-high wheel. That’s all.

Let’s get the variations that make no difference brushed aside and call it a horse-drawn coach. Think of it as a British mail coach or a frontier stage coach or a polished private coach – doesn’t matter. What matters is that none of these can be stopped at any notable speed by the mechanical brake.

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The Bottom Drawer and the Back Burner


Authors frequently refer to things in “the bottom drawer.” It may actually be a box in the closet or a CDR in the back of the box, but it is where we keep our projects that are dead in the water. Maybe we got partway through and something horrifically just like it showed up on the book racks: these evil accidents of fashion happen. Maybe the idea didn’t work out, and we decided not to throw good time after bad, so we walked away from it. Maybe it went around to every possible publisher and just didn’t sell. The problem may not have been in the book, but in publishing fashion. Sometimes we are writing the books of ten years ago, and sometimes the market isn’t ready for what we’re writing and sometimes it’s just the wrong spot in a cycle.

The bottom drawer is a place of cobwebs and dust. The “back burner,” on the other hand, is a place to keep things warm and bubbling. It’s often where we keep ideas that haven’t quite jelled yet, possibly for decades. We may have gotten interested again in the idea from reading our own idea books, and this may be the project to work on after the current one. In the meantime, we collect some research now and then or draw some maps or do some conlang work for an invented world. We may have written nothing on it, or it may be a partial needing more thinking-out.

As a writer, your ideas and words are what you have to sell. It makes good sense both economically and emotionally to leave only incurable juvenalia in your bottom drawer.

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Transcription Errors – Why You Want to Do Your Own Writing Rather than Recycling Someone Else’s


Readers don’t come to us for a collage of what we’ve read elsewhere. It bores them.

Recycled writing includes cliches and stereotypes, including cliched and stereotyped plots. You also need to avoid something between: behaviors or appearances whose description has been exaggerated until it has lost contact with reality. Like photocopying a photocopy, each recycle makes it worse.

Take “turning green” to describe someone nauseated, ready to vomit. Some writers will describe people turning “pea green” with illness.

Have you ever seen anyone turn shamrock color? Of course not! They can’t. Can not.

Probably some nineteenth century writer described chlorosis, chronic anemia, where the skin is so pale that it’s faintly greenish contrasted with healthy skin. Someone recycled this as so pale with temporary illness as to be vaguely greenish. Next copy, the green became notable, and associated with nausea. Finally we end up with people who turn grass-color before running away to vomit.

At no time since the original has anyone checked in with reality, including the editors letting this stuff go by in pot-boiler fiction. This is third-rate writing, except maybe in humor. We assume anyone taking the trouble to stop here wants to be the best writer possible.

Don’t recycle what you’ve read.

Don’t borrow cliche phrases and stereotypical characters, any of that sort of thing. Start with reality, and find your own way to say it. Make the writing your own.

Always use your own physical experience as a touchstone for writing. This means you need to pay attention intently to the world around you.

At some time you or someone you know has been dog-sick. Was there actually any way to tell in advance? Did your internal warning match symptoms from med texts (cribbed by other writers trying to avoid pea-green) or did you fail to salivate, close your eyes, and the rest of that supposed reality? (Questioning authorities is a whole other blog.) Maybe the only authentic warning to an onlooker is an expression of surprise or distress and that hand movement to cover the mouth.

This means a writer needs to pay attention to life and experiences, small as well as showy. Writing gives us the greatest gift this way: our lives, vivid, juicy, and constantly valuable, truly lived rather than sleepwalking through them.

That doesn’t mean you have to commit crimes to write about them: you just have to learn to extrapolate. Y’know — imagine. But do your own imagining. Don’t re-use someone else’s.

Is It History, Near History, or Alternate History?


It used to be so simple to figure out “historical fiction”: the date of the setting began with an 18 or less.

But now, in 2016, how do we consider the century-old 1916? Things made then pass through customs now as genuine antiques. How about the approaching century mark for the 1920s, even WW2? And how in the world do we consider a steampunk secret history?

Let’s try to make the easiest cut first, which happens to be the biggest one: real history from alternative history.

It’s only sporting to let your readers know you’re doing alternative history somewhere in the cover blurb, an afterword, or a 50-word intro. Otherwise, there are enough junky writers out there that the reader may think you don’t know that Queen Victoria never remarried or that Napoleon was sent to exile in Elba first. With you sending him to St. Helena’s right away, why, the Hundred Days and Waterloo won’t happen! (And that was your point: France without the great Romantic binge of the Hundred Days.)

Also, there are enough people with poor history retention that they may believe your rendition is fact, and your story, so much more vivid than their high school history class, is going to stay in their head as the real deal. I’m thinking here of a reviewer of the film, The Silent Village, who thought it was a vital documentary, and we should never forget how horrible the Nazis were after they occupied Wales, and why that made our part in WW2 so necessary …
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