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Research for Fiction?

“How much of what you write could actually happen?  What research, if any, do you do?”

While I’m paraphrasing for the purpose of this blog post, this is one of the better questions I think I’ve ever been asked about my writing.  It’s easy to think that no research at all has to happen in order to write fiction, but the fact of the matter is that readers are more skeptical in today’s world.  People from various walks of life are going to stumble upon and consume your work, and their suspension of disbelief will be shattered if you as a writer try telling them something that they know fully well is not the truth.  Authors also have to pay attention to the fact that our work can influence others who get caught up in the fantasy of what we’ve created.  These are awesome responsibilities, and as a writer the best way to approach them is to make sure that your story has some grounding in reality.  Sure, as a fiction writer, you’re lying to your audience for a few hundred pages–but remember the old saying that the best lies are based on truth.

If you want to be a better liar, you have to be better at telling the truth.  That means research.

I’ve made some missteps along the way, being a human being.  When I first published Through the Eyes of Outcasts, I was convinced that my descriptions of the firearms used throughout the novel were accurate, having been raised around guns and familiar with their use.  Alas, I was approached by a former firearms instructor who had read the book–and while he was generous with his opinion of the story itself, he told me that there was a detail that bothered him which he could just not let go of:  unless my characters were using World War II-era weapons, they were not using clips.  A Colt .45, for example, utilizes magazines.  It’s very true that many people still refer to magazines as clips, but he found it impossible to believe that any character with a military background would ever make that mistake.  He was of course correct, and the story has since been revised.  Oops.  You live, and you learn.

While writing On the Path of Outcasts, it quickly became apparent that I would need to research the exact role police officers play when responding to a scene of violence, and how they approached their duties.  A lot of this information took place on impulse while I was eating my lunch at a local restaurant.  A patrol officer and his partner (what branch, I didn’t know–I saw them only as most citizens do:  they were cops) entered, ordered their food, and were about to leave with bags in hand.  Recognizing opportunity, I rose from my table and approached them.  I first thanked them for their service and introduced myself, then asked permission to interview them if they had the time.  They traded glances, frowned at one another, then agreed so long as I was brief.  Neither could inform me of crime scene investigations (“We’re patrol officers, not investigators,” one explained), but I was given a wealth of information that wound up on the pages of my novel.  Their responses and reflections also led me toward new areas to research.  While I did take some liberties with what I learned (that blame lies squarely upon my own shoulders, not theirs), I think they’d more or less approve of what survived countless revisions and drafts.  I never did catch their names, but I’m grateful for their time and answers.

My descriptions of what a given firearm can do to a human body are very accurate.  When writing about violence, I recognize that I have an obligation not to glamorize it.  We live in an age where firearms are almost as easy to purchase as hamburgers.  You don’t have to know anything about them to gain ownership of them.  Depending on what type you buy or from where you buy them, you might not even have to pass a background check.  You certainly don’t have to receive any sort of training on their use.  But creating the deaths of others is nothing to take lightly nor is it something to fantasize about.  It’s permanent, and leaves lasting damage.  As Sarah once quoted from Dennis, you cannot unfire a bullet.  It is true that I overblow the gore content somewhat in certain scenes, since I do use the blood and carnage metaphorically.  Having said that, the damage described to people and objects in my novels has indeed been sketched out based upon objective sources.  Living in the United States, unfortunately there are a lot of sources to draw from.  So, no, you will never read about bullets exploding gas tanks in my books.  You’ll never read about small-caliber weapons throwing victims theatrically through windows, or having the capability of chopping through objects which would have in truth stopped that given round cold.  You’ll never read about things such as car doors or drywall acting as effective shields.  You will, however, read about the irreversible damage they could have caused in the situations described.  I’m not here to feed the superhero complexes of those who equate firearm ownership with power.  Sure, I’m here to entertain… but some lines do need to be drawn, and that’s mine.  It’s based on reality.   That means research.

I’m just trying to be a better liar.  I’m pretty upfront about that.  Honestly!

Piracy in the Digital Age

“I just ran a Google search for your book, and noticed it’s on several piracy websites.  How do you feel about your work being pirated?”

I’ve run into this same question on multiple writer’s forums–so when I was asked personally about this topic, I already had plenty of time to form my opinion.  As with most of my views, I like to tap it down from more than one angle.

If it’s really a question of whether I have a problem with people reading my work for free, as an author my answer has to be, “Of course not.”

No, that’s what my answer has to be.

No matter how you’re published or how you market your material, not every reader is a sale.  Let’s say a library purchases one of my books.  That same library is going to allow hundreds of readers to borrow it.  None of those readers will add anything more than the single sale I made to the library.  It’s the same deal as Stephen King has.  It’s the same deal as J.K. Rowling has.  I want that library to buy my book, nonetheless.  Do you know why?  Because hundreds of readers will find it that way, free or otherwise.  They’ll know it exists.

I don’t make all-inclusive statements lightly, but I’m willing to say that every avid reader in the world has visited a used book store, or purchased a used novel at a yard sale or thrift store.  If you buy my novel from such a place, all I’m going to do is thank you and hope that you enjoy it–even though not a single penny of that sale ever made its way into my bank account.  You may have spent money to purchase it, but from my point of view you’re a free reader.  I have no bones to pick about that, either; as a matter of fact, it puts a smile on my face.  Pass it around to friends and family, knowing you’re doing so with my unreserved blessing.

In forums, I’ve seen other authors rage and foam about lost sales for every copy downloaded from a torrent.  I can’t join them in their anger.  Let me put this into proper perspective for you:  The e-book version of Through the Eyes of Outcasts is, at the time of this writing, priced at $3.99.  Four bucks.  About the price of a latte.  Less than the price of a deli sandwich.  Less than a month of Netflix.  If you were to purchase this work through my Payhip store and share the link on social media, you would pay $2.  That’s probably less money than you have hidden in your couch cushions.  If you wouldn’t pay $4, and you wouldn’t pay $2, you’re not a lost sale.  Enjoy your pirated download.

No, I have no problem with others reading my work for free.  Obscurity is far and away a larger enemy to myself (or any other author) than Internet piracy.  Besides all of that, there are so many of these sites that I would be wasting my time playing whack-a-mole trying to clean things up.  I’d rather be writing.

The only thing I do have a problem with is finding my work for sale under a different author name.  My writing is from me to you, and I don’t give a damn if it sounds selfish to say that I claim ownership of it.  I’m the one who spends sometimes up to a year writing and refining it.  I’m the one who puts money and time into creating it.  You bet I’m selfish about owning it.  If I ever find out that someone else is listing my work under his or her own name and claiming credit for it, I’ll own that person.  I register my work.  I have proof of publication dates.  I also have the ability and will to pursue the matter in court.  Make no mistake, I’ll win.  If this paragraph is speaking to you, all I can say is… your move.  Choose wisely.  My advice is to write your own book.

I also have a problem with the prevalence of viruses and malware that infest some of these piracy sites.  I build and work with computers on a daily basis, and I can tell you horror stories about the agony of those who were infected with such things.  Surely avoiding all of that is worth $2-$4 to you.  Or maybe it isn’t.  Either way, you get what you pay for.

You also might not be reading the most up-to-date version.  I’m a human being, and sometimes despite my best efforts the specter known as Typo makes his appearance.  Maybe my terminology wasn’t correct, and it mattered enough to the story that I decided to fix it.  While these things don’t matter much to a paperback book–that version of the novel is what it is and can’t be changed–anything you buy on legitimate sales channels is going to represent my latest and greatest.  I also can’t claim responsibility for any formatting errors the reader encounters when the pirate may have added formats I never made available.

Pirated work may be freely available, but sometimes free comes with a price after all.

Be True to Yourself?

“How much of you resides within your characters?”

This was an interesting question recently ran by me, and I thought I’d not only share my answer but also elaborate a bit upon it.

Like most authors, I put a lot of myself into my characters.  Writing isn’t just about entertaining–it’s also about clearing the cobwebs and making sense of the world that I live in.  I may create a strange world or extraordinary circumstances into which to stick a character, but my central interest is in what strength this character will draw from in order to dig him- or herself out and overcome the conflict… or will he or she be consumed?

To fall back, the deepest well I have to draw from is within.  What would I do?  Why?

I can answer this more accurately if I give the character some of my own traits–and indeed, I may be providing buried insight into overcoming an issue within my own life.

In Through the Eyes of Outcasts, Scott Ingram is in desperate need of development.  He has dug himself into a rut where he allows himself to be self-arrested on all fronts.  He’s created a comfort zone, only to discover that zone isn’t so comfortable after all.  Scott wants to belong to something.  He wants to matter.  He wants love, and to be loved.  Who among you hasn’t found yourself in a situation that fits this description?  If you can answer that you never have, I’d sincerely like to meet you because I know I’ll never meet your like again.  That said, there’s plenty of life experiences to draw from.  There’s a lot of common mental ground to write into such a character.

Sarah Bollinger starts off sounding very much like the logical voice of reason (which I probably don’t listen to as often as I should) inside my own head.  Harsh and disappointed at times… but always honest with her opinions.  Vulnerable as most of us are, but also strong in many areas–again, just as most of us are.  This is why she only exists within Ingram’s thoughts in the first book.  She’s my voice, she speaks in the cadence of my own internal dialog… and she’s a leading character for the rest of this series.  She’s very much me.  Even when I develop her identity and give her a personality not necessarily matching my own, I’m the cement in her foundation.

Douglass Stevens is trapped in a situation he’d rather get out of, and all he wants to do is get the unpleasantness over with so that he can move ahead with his life under his own terms.  (Sound familiar?  Again, if it doesn’t, we need to have a talk over coffee:  I’m going to find you fascinating.)  What would motivate me in his situation?  How confused would I be, and how would I form plans?  Those answers become his.

Anna is the version of me who knows that her logical voice is screaming against what her heart wants.  She knows what she’s stepping into, she knows at least enough to be sure it’s a bad idea–but she also knows that she’s going to do what is in her heart and make sense of the details later either way.

Even antagonists such as Rob and Lance represent what I feel would happen if I let my worst impulses steal the ball and run off with it.  We’ve all got that little devil inside.  What if we gave him the wheel for awhile?

At the end of the day, it is fiction–and those are fictional characters.  But in their cores, they are alive and breathing, and thanking you for reading this entry.

On the Path, and on Target

(10/01/2017)

I’m happy to announce that the follow-up to Through the Eyes of Outcasts is on target (like a mark through a sniper’s scope) for release during the spring of 2018.  As I type this blog entry, the manuscript is in the process of revisions.  If you’ve ever done carpentry work, think of this period as sanding passes:  rough spots get smoothed over here.  Within this very month, it will be in the hands of my editor.  After editing, there’s another round of final revisions (should my editor find any rough spots I’ve missed), copyright registration, typesetting/formatting, cover design, distributor set-ups… lasso tricks, cake, punch, and a dance contest.  But after all of that, dear reader, it will be in your hands.

Entitled On the Path of Outcasts, it will be available during the spring of 2018.  I’m aiming for March, but certainly April at the very latest.

That said, I’ll let you know that if something happened which saw this novel on your lap today, right now, I wouldn’t be too bummed or embarrassed.  The heavy lifting has been done.  The story is pretty much “there.”  And if you liked Through the Eyes of Outcasts, you’re going to really sink your teeth into this one.

Well… no, don’t eat it.  I’m not flavoring it or anything–the Cheetos crumbs are yours to put on the pages yourselves, okay?  That’s not on me.  That’s all you.  My writing, your junk food.  That’s the deal.

On the Path of Outcasts will be a larger novel than the fast-read feel of the first entry, but that doesn’t mean I’m backing off from giving the Outcasts plenty to do.  Scott Ingram and Sarah Bollinger will be at this party, and you’re going to get to know them a lot better.  I could tell you more… but what’s the point of going to a party if you already know what’s going to happen?

None.  No point at all.  Stop looking for spoilers.

Besides, finding things out on your own is the fun of readying a new novel–and this particular novel’s going to be tons of fun.  And remember:  there’s still another book that will be following in what I hope will be the spring of 2019.  Outcasts are busy people.

Stay tuned to find out more as developments occur.  I’ll keep you posted.  We’re in this together, after all.

On a sincere personal note, I wish to thank readers of Through the Eyes of Outcasts for their support.  The feedback I’ve received has been incredible, and it’s a special euphoria to know that you’re enjoying what you’ve read so far.  You’re the reason why I’m doing this, each of you.

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