Monday, February 11, 2013

Monday Musings: That pesky background stuff

So you want to be a writer? Well, my biggest advice is this: fire up Google 'cause you're going to be doing some research! And I'm not talking about research in the sense of boning up on the Tudor period in England for your work of historical fiction, I'm talking about everyday things that come up when you're writing about completely imaginary worlds and people.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a writer is writing about careers about which I know nothing. I try to stick to stuff that I'm at least somewhat familiar with, but I think it might get boring if all of my main characters were teachers and writers. I found this aspect of writing very complicated when it came to Contributor, and I don't anticipate it getting much easier with the next two installments. I don't know anything about engineering, but my main character is an engineer, so I needed to make things at least sound feasible when she was in her work environment. This is something I never considered before I sat down and started writing.

Next up is inventing products. Yep, inventing products. Now, this isn't something that every writer will have to do, but there may come a time when you need to figure out something for your main character or one of your secondary characters to invent. In my case, as I work on Committed, I decided I wanted to come up with a product for Masato, the groom-to-be, to create. The series notes that he and his friend are partners trying to start up their own tech company, and it occurred to me last night that I should come up with something specific for him to be working on, in order to flesh out some aspects of the story related to his job. I looked at my husband and asked him what kind of app he thought would be useful for a smart phone, and with his help, I came up with something for Masato to invent. Or did I invent it? It's complicated. You can read all about his product in episode four.

Names are another area I've found surprisingly difficult. For instance, when I wrote Contributor, Dara's name was not originally Dara Morrow. Her first name was the same, but her last name was different, and I thought it sounded too close to the name of a character in a popular YA series. I didn't want to look like I was ripping the name off--even though I came up with it long before the other book was published--so I changed her name.

Company names can be even trickier. The company Melinda works for in Phoning It In was originally named something else. When the novel was complete, I pulled up my trusty friend, Google, and found there already was a business with that name, so that was a no go. I then spent probably a good forty-five minutes typing various business names into Google until I managed to search for one without results.

Place names aren't always a piece of cake either, especially if you're creating a big, expansive world. No joke, parts of my manuscript sometimes look something like this: "Are you talking about the king of DESERTCOUNTRY?" I did this with Asleep, as I worked on it during NaNo '12. It looked ridiculous but, as anyone who has done NaNo knows, time is at a premium, and I just didn't have time to name all the characters and places I was using in the story. Names would sometimes pop into my head as I was writing and I'd go back and replace the placeholder names with the names I'd thought up, but I'm pretty sure there's still a placeholder or two in the manuscript.

This can all be frustrating, and I sometimes feel like I ought to sit down for hours making up lists of character names, place names, etc. But I always have to weigh things like this: do I want to spend time making up names of countries, or do I want to write? Usually the answer is that I want to write. That's not to say that coming up with names, doing research, etc. isn't important because it goes without saying that it is. It's just that, when I get a story in my head, I have to get the story out onto my computer screen because I'm terrified I'll forget it. And sometimes I do forget things. I'll have a scene all plotted out in my head and then, when I sit down to write it, it's gone. Zip, zilch, zero. Maybe it means the ideas aren't as good as I thought they were, I don't know. But it's not a good feeling, I can assure you of that.

Then again, there are times when it's fun to just let my imagination run wild and think of character names, what a city on the coast in my fantasy WIP would look like, etc. I spent plenty of time drawing up a map of the kingdoms for Asleep, proving to myself that I had a good vision in my head of what my world looked like--and that my cartography skills are tragically poor. It is imperative for world building to be well done in a spec fic novel, but sometimes that world building comes after the story because the story shapes what the world looks like. Or vice versa. It's a chicken and egg question, really.

Still, I'm grateful to be a writer in this day and age. I can't imagine what a pain it must have been to do this kind of research without the Internet waiting to fetch you all the info you need. I remember what it was like to have to go to the library and thumb through book after book trying to find helpful info, and I'm grateful I now only have to do that when I need in-depth knowledge about something. The digital age, she is a glorious thing.