Sometimes, you just can’t avoid research—it’s like driving through mud. Actually I’m reminded of Burketon Hills, a thrilling and muddy place my Dad used to take me where 4x4 trucks with oversized tires would climb dunes and play in the mud.
Much like currently writing the third book in my Temple of Indra series except now I am the monster truck spinning my wheels and flinging dirt. The message behind both mud bogging and research is the same—drive through enough of it, and you’re probably going to get stuck. With research tires spinning, historical wars flying and forward progress on your novel halted, what is a writer to do?
Well first off let’s talk about whether or not research is really necessary for your book. In my opinion, yes, although the amount depends on what genre you’re writing. Historical fiction and tech-based science fiction being quite reliant on research but really even mainstream fiction requires research at times. Getting into the mind of cops, killers, and the opposite sex doesn’t come naturally to all of us.
My series hinges on reincarnation and time travel of a sort which technically feels a lot like historical fiction because two of my main characters go back to where it all began to rescue one of their own. Here are some of the tabs open on my browser this morning Wallachian Revolution of 1848, The Politics of Witchcraft Studies, Romanian Folklore and Haunted Romania. Need another coffee? Me too.
I thought I knew enough about Romania to set a fictional backdrop there, after all I watched Dracula, The Boy Who Cried Werewolf and Transylvania 6-5000. Tee hee! Unfortunately, as I pour over the historical facts and political strife that was the Danubian Principalities, I realize this place has undergone a lot of war and finding the right time period is going to be a challenge.
Why don’t I just abandon this setting? Great idea! How much easier would it be to just pick a new setting for my book, Prague, Austria, Hungary—oh wait I did that in Book One and it was also full of political strife, besides would you leave your once shiny new toy truck stuck in the mud? Me neither. I’m a Taurus and that makes me as stubborn as a bull. I would love to take a trip to Transylvania to visit the fifteenth century Corvinești Castle that is northwest of the Carpathian Mountain range and situated by the river Zlasti. Wouldn’t that shake something loose? From the pictures, it’s an imposing building, with forty-three rooms, two balconies and two bridges supported by four massive stone pillars. I could do some in-person research on the torture chamber, no, it’s not the red room of Fifty Shades, it’s even worse. Gasp! I could learn about the Hunyadi era when many people were brutally tortured and killed within the castle walls, brutally beaten, hanged and decapitated. The funny thing about research is a lot of the stuff I learn doesn’t even wind up in my story. But it still informs my writing. This is part of the job and it’s the reason you should not shy away from it. So here is my advice for when your virtual truck gets hung up on a rock or you flood that magnificent engine that is your brain?
Rock It Out
As soon as you get stuck, you need to come to a complete stop, go in reverse, and get back where you started from—solid ground—so head back to your notes. To do this you need to be organized ahead of time. If you didn’t write an outline before then take the time and do it now. Start with the hook. This is a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: “An architect travels back in time to save his wife.” The sentence will serve you forever as a ten-second selling tool. This is the big picture and can be used in online pitch contests. Some hints on what makes a good sentence: Shorter is better. No character names. Which character has the most to lose in this story? What does he/she want to win? Now expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel. Ideally, your paragraph will have about five sentences. One sentence for backdrop and story setup, one sentence each for your (3) disasters, then one more sentence to tell the ending. Note: This is not the back-cover copy for your book. This paragraph summarizes the whole story. Your back-cover copy should summarize only about the first quarter of the story.
Place dry, solid objects beneath the edge of the tire in the direction you want to go (forward or reverse). Some drivers like floor mats or sticks, I like characters. Characters are an intricate part of any novel. For each of your major characters, write a one-page summary sheet that tells: name, a one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline, what he/she wants (motivation), what does he/she want (goal), what’s preventing him/her from reaching this goal (conflict), what will he/she learn, how will he/she change (epiphany). Once you’ve created characters, take your four-page synopsis and make a list of all the scenes using a spreadsheet that you’ll need to turn the story into a novel.
If you plan to drive through mud on a regular basis, it is probably wise to outfit your truck with some sort of winch. Even if you don’t have a winch, a friend’s Hi-Lift jack can be used to pull the vehicle free. Likewise a good writers group can come in handy. Sometimes we need a little help from our writer friends. Take your prep work with you and talk it out. I can’t count how many times I’ve been rescued by Yvonne, Susan, Marissa, Lora, Connie and Ann.
Last But Not Least—Pull It Out
Oftentimes, the best and quickest way to get your truck unstuck is to have another truck simply pull you out. Which means get back to writing and worry about the historical accuracy, names of places, people and dates, during the rewrites. The truth is I love to research. I could spend years delving into castle architecture alone just to write a thriller that hinges on one small and obscure architectural fact. I would live in research land forever but at a certain point, you need to just write. That is why I’ve put a rule in place. I allow myself to research during two phases: the idea phase and the rewriting phase. In between, research is a distraction.
Here are some of the great sites offering research advice that I live by.
Curse of the Purple Delhi Sapphire
Temple of Indra Series
Genre: Mystery, Adventure, Romance
Publisher: Solstice Publishing
Date of Publication: February 3rd, 2015
Cover Artist: Rebecca Boyd
Print Length: 215 pages
Word Count: 66, 400
Print Length: 215 pages
Word Count: 66, 400
As a librarian, Sophia Marcil loved reading, especially books about ancient curses and reincarnation, but she never imagined the legend of the Purple Delhi Sapphire was true until she inherited it and was transported back to a past life where she was murdered. Now she knows that not only is reincarnation real, but so is the devil’s magic locked inside the precious gem. Just as she’s about to tell her boyfriend Cullen about it, he proposes with an engagement ring made from a piece of the very sapphire that’s cursed her. Reeling from the shock and surrounded by his family, she allows him to place it on her ring finger. As soon as it touches her skin, she feels herself being wrenched back in time.
Before she knows it, she’s wandering the hallway of an old Victorian house in the body of her great aunt. Unfortunately, her nemesis has also reincarnated in 1920—as one of her family members. Sophia struggles to locate the Purple Delhi Sapphire in time to prevent the deaths of those she loves, but she fails and returns to her present-day life, to the precise moment she left, with a deep understanding that her killer’s soul is also tied to the sapphire and every life she has, he is resurrected as someone close to her.
Her stalker ex-boyfriend Nick seems like a prime candidate this time but she’s convinced she’s a step ahead of him, thanks to a tip from a medium, she knows that if she uses the magic of the stone correctly she can trap Nick’s soul in the sapphire and save herself. But when Nick is murdered, she finds evidence that has her questioning everything she thought she knew.
Is Cullen husband material or is history doomed to repeat itself?
Fog descended, eerily beautiful despite the dingy residue it seemed to be composed of—producing an unwelcome metallic taste in my mouth. I lagged behind, pulling my scarf tight around my shoulders and taking in the outline of the buildings, which now looked even more Gothic and ghostly. They gave me a chill, or maybe it was just the weather. I had snowmobiled and skied on the frostiest of Canadian mornings and hardly ever felt the cold; I even slept with the windows open at times. But this cold was different from anything I had experienced. It cut to the core.
Of course I’d read about the smog of old London, when a million coal fires polluted the atmosphere, but the sound of the fog horn now blaring from the river made it real.
“Maggie,” Emily said with a cough. “We should duck into one of these places. We’ve got a pea-souper rolling in.”
Maggie’s soon-to-be mother-in-law gave a gasp. “A tavern is not a suitable place for a group of women and children.”
“Yes, I realize that but it’s bloody—sorry, it’s terribly bad weather out here—” Emily stopped. “It’s going to get worse and—”
“Mama, I’m cold,” Gigi whined. I gave her arms and shoulders a little rub to increase the circulation.
“What is this?” Marjorie asked through a muffled hand.
“Pollution from the—” I began and then clamped my hand over my mouth.
“No use chit-chatting. We should be there already. Let’s pick up our feet, shall we?”
Maggie, who was clearly uncomfortable, made a vague gesture with her hands and followed the formidable woman down the sidewalk.
As the ladies turned a corner, a man in a trench coat caught my eye. He’d been right behind us four blocks ago, and earlier in the day he’d loitered outside the dress shop. His fedora rode low over his eyes at all times and he looked to be about 5’11", coincidentally the same build as Eugene. I kept my eye on him for the next several blocks before he slipped behind a great stone church. I looked up and began to feel uneasy as I realized I’d now lost sight of the gang. In the growing fog, the iron fence surrounding it looked like rows of jagged black teeth. Don’t panic, I said to myself. Eventually I would catch up to them or come to a place I recognized and everything would be all right. I knew the name of the hotel we were staying in. The problem was that I was rapidly being swallowed up into the murk, and it was impossible to read the street signs which had now vanished into the fog above my head.
That’s when I noticed the slow, steady rhythm of footsteps behind me—keeping pace with mine. I turned but couldn’t see anyone. Probably just someone else out lost in this godforsaken weather, I told myself. Or the footsteps could only be a strange echo produced by the fog. I started walking again, stopped suddenly, and heard the footsteps continue another couple of beats before they too stopped. I had no choice but to keep going, so I increased my pace. Thankfully I glimpsed Marjorie’s skirt disappearing behind a building and took off on a terror in an effort to catch up, my mind conjuring the sort of thing that happened in the fog in some of Gigi’s old mystery novels. I rounded the corner onto a cobblestone side street and ran smack into something hard.
Palming my forehead, I realized the smog didn’t hang quite as low here, or maybe the cool breeze off the Thames River pushed it away. The bad news was, aside from the offending lamp post, the street lay empty. I looked up and noticed a sign that hung atop an old storefront, advertising rare books. Maggie must have reasoned with her mother-in-law and pulled the gang indoors. No better place than one filled with books.
Wandering into the shop through a brass-studded wooden door, I smiled to myself, taken in by the familiar smell of grass mixed with a hint of vanilla, my happy place. Books were a constant in my life, and this unmistakable smell always made me feel at home. The bell over the door jingled and a slender man of sixty with large brown eyes, a long nose, and a full gray mustache appeared, climbing down from the rolling ladder behind the counter.
He smiled at me as if he recognized a fellow bibliophile.
“Good afternoon, miss. May I help you?”
I looked around the quaint little shop. A polished table sat empty in the corner, offering up only a delicate brass lamp. Shelves lined the room and were packed with books at every turn but the store was also empty, unless Marjorie and the gang were hiding in an alcove. “Did a group of women come in here?”
“No, dear,” he replied and wrinkled his brow.
Turning to go back out the door, panic slammed into my chest. The man in the navy blue trench coat had followed me. He stood at the corner of the street, leaning against the wall, casually smoking and efficiently blocking my only way out. Half expecting him to turn around and spot me, my mouth went dry.
“Is everything all right, miss?”
Swiping a hand over my forehead, I brushed back a clump of sweaty hair. “I’m fine. I’m waiting for someone, that’s all.”
The shopkeeper stood still, watching me, his face creased with concern. Hastily I retreated, circling the room, studying the shelves and looking for a back door.
He followed me to where I stood browsing an older collection of Shakespeare. He pulled out a nineteenth-century edition of Twelfth Night and handed it to me. I flipped through the pages, to be polite, before handing it back.
“Something specific you fancy?”
“I’ll just take a look around on my own,” I said, then noticed for the first time the book in his possession.
“What’s that?” I asked, squinting; his hand covered the spine.
I followed him and he laid the book open on the counter, turning it sideways so we could both look at it. The scent of dust and pages that time had long since begun to degrade drifted out of it. It was the smell of the book I’d found in the library in my own time and seen prior to that in the alchemist’s study.
“It’s a collection of spells I acquired at an estate sale in Prague a few years ago.” He flipped the thin pages until he came to a poem printed neatly in the center of the leaf. “It looks to me like a book of magic,” he added, grinning.
A familiar feeling twisted within me.
Could it be?
Rachel Stapleton spent her youth cultivating a vivid imagination inside the book lined walls of an old Victorian library where she consumed everything from mystery to biography, creating magical worlds, hidden elevators, and secret spiral staircases. At sixteen, she penned a column for the local newspaper and in 2006, wrote her first book featuring an adventurous librarian.
She lives in a Second Empire Victorian with her husband and two children in Ontario and enjoys writing in the comforts of aged wood and arched dormers. She is the author of The Temple of Indra’s Jewel and is currently working on a third book in the Temple of Indra series.
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