Research, Intrigue and the Internet

I write spy thrillers. I invent devious characters and spin tales about terrible events and I have free reign because my books are, after all, fiction. But I also inject real places and actual events into the body of the story to add a sense of realism. And because readers expect accuracy with regard to anything that is real-life, I do my best to meet their expectations. I have traveled extensively and have visited most of the locations that I use in my novels, but those trips don’t always coincide exactly with the time frame of the story. The challenge, then, is to fill in the gaps between what was and what is. Research becomes the order of the day.

LM Reynolds writes spy thrillers, inventing devious characters and spinning tales about terrible events. Click To Tweet

My latest novel has a backstory that takes place in the early to mid-nineties—in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990. A total of six (or seven, depending on who is counting) other countries surfaced out of the chaos, along ethnic and religious lines that exposed long-simmering hostilities.

I visited Sarajevo when the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984—when it was still in Yugoslavia. Shortly thereafter, I coached a few dozen young Yugoslav men and women who had been hired by Pan Am. Eight short years later, the entire region was at war and Sarajevo had become the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The city was also subjected to the longest siege in modern history, from 1992 to 1996. No food, no water, no medicine, no electricity, no fuel, no escape. Nearly 14,000 of its residents perished—over one-third of whom were civilians.

When I was in Sarajevo, it was a lovely and welcoming place; I enjoyed it immensely. I liked the people, especially—warm and embracing and kind. A decade later, nearly every building bore evidence of the mortars and rockets and sniper fire that had rained down on the city for four years. The scarring of the inhabitants, both physical and psychological, was even more disturbing. Families were decimated and men, women, and children maimed. They lived with terror for years and many still have a well-founded fear of open spaces. I was, and am still, saddened and horrified by the events that took place there. I think I knew, even back then, that I would write about it someday.

One of my characters is a Bosnian man who, after a particularly tragic experience, decides to flee Sarajevo and make his way to his family’s home in a town about fifty miles away. But how did people escape from the surrounded city? Not easily. The city lies in a slender river valley that runs generally east-west and is hemmed in by sharply steep hills to the north and south. Hostile Serbian forces occupied nearly all of the territory around Sarajevo, save for a narrow corridor at the southwest—just beyond the airport—which led to land occupied by Bosnian forces. To escape, one had to cross not only the runway but also the open grounds around the airport—at night, through an area laced with coils of barbed wire—and risk being caught in a sniper’s scope.

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. Click To Tweet

I was not enthusiastic about my character’s odds of making a successful escape via the airport crossing—too many real people had died while making the attempt. I considered having him wait it out until a peace agreement was reached. My storyline, however, demanded that he leave the city in 1993, and the Dayton Accords were not signed until late 1995. Time for Plan B. I had a vague recollection of hearing about a tunnel, so I dug in (pun fully intended) to learn more about it. In early 1993, the Bosnians had dug—by hand—a half-mile tunnel to bring supplies into the city. The northern entrance was in the garage of an apartment building, in a neighborhood on the southwest side of the city. From there, the tunnel ran generally south, dropping beneath the runway, and extending to the cellar of a private home to the south of the airport, with Bosnian-held land just beyond. It was a remarkable feat, a perfect display of human resilience and ingenuity.

The owner of the house has since restored part of the original tunnel and today the family runs their own private museum. It has become one of the most popular tourist spots in the city. I needed to learn everything that I could, so, in addition to all of the technical research, I visited travel blogs and other travel-oriented sites and looked at hundreds of photos. As I explored, however, I kept running across references to the private dwelling that hid the north end of the tunnel. I was thoroughly confused. I checked and double-checked. All of the published maps clearly showed the names of the neighborhoods where the entrances were located (Dobrinja to the north, Butmir to the south), that the airport was to the southwest of the city, and that the house and its museum were south of the airport—not north. What on earth was going on? How could so many people have misstated the location? Was I just going crazy?

And then, light bulb! The museum’s collection of artifacts includes a map, designed to provide a visual explanation of how the city was surrounded, and to show the entry points and route of the tunnel. It is a pretty map, a photogenic map—a map that thousands of people have captured on their smartphones and posted and shared on the web. It is also a map with which the artist took a small liberty—by inverting it. The museum map shows the mountains and the Bosnian-held territory to the northeast, along with the airport. With the mountains at the top and the valley at the bottom, it is probably a more aesthetically pleasing composition. Or perhaps the artist was just gazing out at the snow-covered peaks while creating the picture. Regardless, thousands of people automatically associated the map’s top with North and its bottom with South. Thus, if you were using it as a real map, it would only work well if you looked at it while standing on your head.

Whew! I was relieved to know that I had not yet lost all of my marbles. Instead, I had encountered a classic example of how misinformation spreads on the web. It was not malevolent, nor intentional, but it certainly had legs! As a longtime consumer of web content, I have learned which sites to generally (note the disclaimer) trust when I am seeking factual information. But even if one employs the journalist’s technique of verification from multiple sources, one can still be led astray or led to question established fact. While the internet is a glorious place to find information, at your fingertips, in an instant, it can also be a perilous place to wade, with sharks of every description homing in as you splash in the surf.

Make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction! Click To Tweet

The moral of the story is that, if you are conducting research on the internet, be careful about accepting statements at face value. Check your facts, explore multiple reputable sources, use your common sense, and throw in a healthy dose of skepticism. And for all of you digital-map explorers out there, beware! Before setting off on a journey to an unfamiliar place, providing directions to lost travelers, or planning a military invasion, make sure that you have your wits about you, that you know which way is north, and that your map is pointed in the right direction!

~~ LM Reynolds

 

Voice Affects Content; Content Isn’t Voice

Sometimes well-loved sections must be cut from your manuscript because they do not serve the story. Many of us have heard that we must “kill your darlings” to improve, advice that has been attributed to Faulkner, but apparently goes back even further than that.

You may have written a wonderful bit of prose that captures a feeling or belief that is close to your heart and soul. You may have a deep feeling about an aspect of lifestyle, let’s use running as an example. You’re a runner, so you make one of your characters a runner. And, you write an entire section about your philosophy for running. This is content. Because running is important to you, you feel it is part of your voice. But in storytelling, that is not necessarily so.

Go from Point A to Point B

Pulitzer Prize Winner David Mamet, in his master class for writers, says your job as a storyteller is to get Jack or Jill, your protagonist, from Point A in your story, to Point B, the transformation of the character at the end of the book. The story is paramount, and every aspect of your telling must have to do with that direct trajectory the protagonist must travel. If there are brief side trips from that trajectory, they must have a specific and meaningful purpose.

The classic 1976 movie Marathon Man is a great example in which running, a seemingly insignificant aspect of a character, later becomes integral to the story.

So, if Jack or Jill’s philosophy about running does not have a direct impact on the story, does not inform that trajectory in an important way, it must go. Write it for your own satisfaction, but be prepared to cut it from the story. Doing so tightens the story; it does NOT change your voice.

Your voice as a writer comes from the way you tell a story. In your choice of words, in your phrasing, in the “tint” that you bring to your language. It is unique and natural to you. It is in your character development, your description, and your dialog. It seeps into your prose through the life experiences that have molded you, and the emotions you feel while writing a story. 

Just as how the same piece of music sounds quite different if played on a violin versus a flute (or sung by a choir or a rapper), a story that involves that same plot, characters, world, etc., can still change a lot depending on the voice used to tell it.~ Kat Zhang

Where is my Voice?

What, then, is the best way to develop your own unique writing voice? The truth is, it won’t come overnight. You can study other authors you like and practice using some of their techniques. You may hear the voices of friends or co-workers and incorporate them somehow, or let them inform your characters. Your mind is already at work, filing these details away until you’re ready to use them.

Stories come from the subconscious. What drives you to write, to some extent, are your own unresolved inner conflicts. Have you noticed your favorite authors have character types that recur? Plot turns that feel familiar? Descriptive details that you would swear you have read before (a yellow bowl, a slant of light, an inch of cigarette ash)? That is the subconscious at work.~ Cris Freese

Your writer’s voice is truly an inside job. You already have it, you just have to reveal it. All of those experiences go into the melting pot of your psyche. The more you write, the more you relax into the process of it. When you relax, clear away the clutter of daily life, and open your mind to your own creativity, your unique voice will find its way from your mind and your heart through your fingers, onto the keyboard — and into your content! 

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Patience, Tender Writer

As a journalism student in college, I learned several lessons about patience, deadlines, and editors. First of all, editors have no patience with late or sloppy writers. And deadlines are everything.

Often within the span of hours, a newspaper reporter has to come up with a story idea, pitch it to the news desk, research it, conduct interviews, write and deliver a compelling story, allowing enough time for the editor to do his/her thing. In this case, there is no time at all for them to mollycoddle. They might read the first sentence and toss it back at you. “This sucks. Rewrite it.”

Or, things like “It’s wordy.” “You buried the lead.” “Move paragraph three to the top and start over.” Or just, “Nope.” And don’t even think about a clever ending, because it very likely will get cut to make space for a last-minute ad placement.

Growing a Thicker Skin

Such treatment definitely helps tender writers grow thicker skins. But for those whose path to writing has bypassed this rewarding experience, the first time their precious work is edited can be a painful experience. And here’s where patience comes in.

If the editor returns your work quickly, you can suffer the quick rip of the bandage and get back to work much more easily than if they sit on it for weeks and months. Take their suggestions seriously. We all need an objective viewpoint, and what we think does not always come across clearly in what we write. One day you will love your editor.

We all need an objective viewpoint. Click To Tweet

If they take a few weeks or longer to return your work, you can feel stuck in the mud, no place to turn. You’ll manufacture scenarios. They must hate it. They can’t bear to read it. They never made it past the first page and threw it down. Why else would it take so long? Or, maybe they love it, they can’t think of anything constructive to say? What if it’s so good, they are already showing it to an agent, or a movie producer? What if someone gets hold of it and is sending you a contract right now?

Oh, the creative mind does wander. Click To Tweet

Oh, the creative mind does wander.

An editor may do all sorts of things, like add your work to the bottom an already impossible pile. Read it in small bits between trips to the grocery store and childcare. Read it once, set it aside for a week or so, and then read it again to see if their impressions have changed. Fill in the blank with any number of scenarios. Editors are humans after all and have their own priorities.

Feedback is necessary. Suffering is optional. Click To Tweet

But whether well-seasoned or new, a writer is not required to suffer.

Some tips to help the impatient

Patience, for me, is almost an offensive swear word, but I know it’s my challenge to conquer. Here’s what has worked for me so far.

Expect the best, but prepare for the worst

If you’re new to writing and haven’t been edited before, your best course of action is the same as preparing for a hurricane. You’ve done your best; now let it go. Feedback will come quickly or slowly according to wind speed, but come it will. When it does, stand up and take it. Repair after.

Distract yourself

I always have several other projects that need my attention. Right now there are eleven items on my desk, not including this post and the stacks of family photos I’m supposed to scan. Immersion in any one of them will take my mind off the waiting, and hopefully reduce the number of projects staring back at me. I get frustrated and sometimes overwhelmed, but I am never bored.

Get physical

My absolute favorite is to go outside and weed the flowerbeds. I mean weed them, rip those suckers out with brute force. It’s a form of editing and can be immensely satisfying. Plus, you can see your accomplishment before you; what you managed to uncover is more beautiful than when you started. Immediate gratification. Um, you could also just go for a swim.

Pleasure and relaxation

My go-to for this is chocolate and a walk on the beach, maybe some shopping, and if I am really brain-frazzled, just an old movie and a blanket. I don’t recommend alcohol; it’s depressing and highly detrimental to brain cells, especially the creative ones. Ice cream or a magnificent espresso concoction will do the trick much better. As will a massage.

When the feedback arrives — whether you like it or not — put on your big kid pants and deal. Be grateful someone took the time to read your work and pay careful attention to it. You worked very hard on it. You want it to shine. Editors do too.