Friday, May 03, 2013

Research, Writing, and Visual Cues

When it comes to writing novels, I don't follow a strict progression of tasks. Let me explain.

  • Some writers do all their research before they write the first creative word.
  • Some writers do quite a bit of research to get a solid overview before they begin writing, then continue to research while they write, as they discover they need specific details.
  • Some writers make it all up, without any need for research.

Because I write historical novels, I need to do research, so I don't fall into the third group of writers.

I don't always know what I need to know when I begin a project, so I can't research everything before I write. Therefore, I don't belong in the first category, either.

I'm among those in the middle category above: I get the background covered, start writing, then fill in the gaps when they come along. I think of this as first, using the shotgun approach, then using a rifle to target the specifics.

Once I've identified certain facts, I find that I need constant reminders of them. I'm afflicted with ADHD, remember?

Because I am a visual-learner, I depend on visual cues to remember these key items as I write the current novel. I make several charts or graphs, which are actually poster-board sheets I hang on my walls or attach to the front door with magnets. These sheets have various types of information on them.

One sheet shows a column with a rough timeline of the major battles of the eastern theater of the Civil War. My characters are not much concerned with the war battles west of Virginia. A column on the rest of the page notes how my characters were impacted by these events. I should have used more space on the timeline side, as the second column needs more room. Oh well.

Another sheet reminds me of which military units are aggregated to make up larger units, that is: company > regiment > brigade > division > corps > army. I hope I got that right, as I'm not looking at the sheet.

A third sheet shows the configuration and changes there-to of the eastern fighting forces of the Confederacy. The death of major commanders often meant the entire army got reorganized. As units received casualties, they often were combined. New regiments were raised and places found for them.

My intent isn't to document these changes, but to show where they impact my characters. You see, I have assigned most of my characters to actual historical Civil War units. In only one case have I chosen to create a bogus cavalry company.

If Character A started out in actual Company Z of Regiment 1 of the infantry, and his unit was wiped out and combined with another after Battle 100, he might write home about it. If his Company didn't actually participate in a certain battle, I can't write a scene showing him in the heat of the fray.

Alas, I discovered I need to dump a scene I wrote before I learned that a character's historical unit wasn't at First Manassas. Part of the problem came about because I hadn't isolated the company he would join before I wrote the scene. I knew his regiment was in the battle, so I assumed my character's company would be. Only after I picked the company in which he would enlist did I learn that, for whatever reason, it hadn't been on the field of battle. Erk!

I know all this sounds like an awful lot of work. To be truthful, it is! However, my method makes it possible for me to function at least halfway like a human being, and to let loose the stories rolling around in my head. That's worth the extra work!

Let me know if you think the stories are worth the pain, or if I am just too weird for this world.


  1. Of course it's worth the effort! I wish I was this organized with my stories. My mind is just so messy! I need to take some cues from you. Thanks for sharing this, Marsha!

    1. Joyce, I have to be organized in one area of my life! I have such a messy mind that I have to have lists.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Thanks for this post! I've been looking for a way to organize my timeline for my next series. Do you ever find pictures that are close to what your characters look like in your mind, then pin them up as a reminder while you are writing? I think I need to do that, too. Plus character sketches -- background, personality traits. My writing lacks depth, so maybe this would help.

    1. Hi Polly. Thanks for the visit.

      Actually, I do have 4-x 6-inch character cards upon which I paste pictures. I also put on there a physical description, their lineage (if pertinent), and a rough estimate of their date of birth. I do the character sketches elsewhere. I have a list of questions I answer about each character, plus their visits here on this blog help me get to know them really well.

  3. You're doing it right. I'm impressed. All stories need some research. No writer should (one did) have grandpa and grandson chasing fire flies on San Diego beaches.

    1. Ha ha ha, Donna! Right you are. Thanks for the approbation.

      An author's lack of research that resulted in a very glaring mistake actually motivated me to polish my novel and begin looking for an agent/publisher back in the day. You know, the old, "I can write better than that!" provocation.

      That said, I cringe at the mistakes I've made in the past. It will probably never see print, but I have concocted an entire justification as to why one of my minor characters--who has NEVER appeared on scene in a novel, but was referred to by other characters--got his legs shot off in a battle in the western Civil War theater when he and his family live in Virginia. I think I have it nailed now, and gained a lot of peace of mind from the exercise. :-)

  4. Great, Marsha. Sounds like the right approach for you and I research in a similar vein. Yes, it's worth your effort!

    1. Thanks, Heidi. I'm glad to have something in common with you.

  5. I'd love to see a photo of your office wall! I usually use a notebook and start compiling artifacts...but I'm definitely in the continue to research as you go along group. Luckily my topics have not been as complex as the Civil War...although the military info for Sand Creek certainly got interesting.

    1. Nancy, I'll have to post some photos soon. Thanks for the suggestion.


I welcome your comments.

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