The 1896 Razorbacks. No? This photo was presented to me that way. A good look reveals very young boys and what looks like it might be a girl. Or could it be true? It would take some complicated research to find out. Want to give it a try?
Have you ever wondered where a writer obtains historical information or interviews? I began writing regional history long before the advent of the Internet as a feature writer for a weekly newspaper. Searching for the same facts today is much easier if we’re computer literate. Yet nothing beats contact with the people who have stories to share. Have you ever read a book where the author just makes everything up including facts? Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, make sure what needs to be true really is. In fiction as well as nonfiction, history, language, clothing, living conditions and so much more must be true. So I urge all writers to do their research.
Someone told me she only wanted to write contemporary stories so she wouldn’t have to do research. WRONG. Where does her hero/heroine work? In what city? Who do they deal with? What’s going on in the world around them? Good grief, check it out. Make your story ring true, make it real. Our story can be fiction, but unless you’re writing fantasy or making up urban worlds, what happens around our characters must be true or at least possible.
Fiction and nonfiction run parallel with each other in so many ways. During the twenty years I wrote for newspapers, I must have interviewed hundreds of people. My main interest soon became the history of the area where I lived and worked. The editor gave me a page where I began an historical column which I’ve written in one form or another for all those years. So I must modestly say that I’ve gotten pretty good at getting information out of people.
The first thing I learned was to write stories about the people who lived our history. It’s pretty easy to look up a bunch of facts, dates and place names and the like and put them down. Not so easy to tell the stories that will keep your readers coming back for more. So once a writer hears or reads about a specific happening, the next step is to find someone whose family history includes stories of that event. Take the lady who, when we talked about the Battle of Prairie Grove during the Civil War here in Arkansas, immediately remembered that her great-grandmother had told a story of how, from where they lived, gun fire sounded just like popcorn popping. She also told of a man who lived in a cave to keep from having to serve in the war, so he could care for his family who lived in a cabin nearby. Such stories lend color to any tale about that battle.
For years I saved tons of interviews in the hopes the stories could one day be put into a book. And when that day finally came I learned that having those stories simply wasn’t enough. I had to revisit all the places where my stories took place. Ten to twenty years can bring about a lot of change. So one entire summer my husband and I drove through four surrounding counties taking photographs that could be compared with old pictures we had and talking to folks in all the small settlements. I wanted some new stories that had never been published in any form. I wanted reality to ring true. I want the same thing in my historical and contemporary novels as well. They may have stories I dream up, but they are set in a time frame that must be spot on to keep the reader intrigued.
The worst thing you as a writer can do is publish something that isn’t ready to be published. Please, please, let a good editor read your book and take his or her advice. Or better yet, sit down and write another book, then another, until by practice you become the best writer you can be. Or quit writing now if you’re not willing to hone your craft.
Writing is a profession, and as such cannot be learned overnight. No one can teach you to be creative, but those of us who have a lot of experience in the trenches can help you learn the mechanics of turning that creativity into a well written book.
If you think good writers became good overnight, then you aren’t thinking straight. Or, go ahead and publish your book because you can do it in today’s market, but it could be the last one you publish if you don’t take the advice of well-published authors who know what they’re talking about. Study hard and long and write, write, write.
One piece of advice I give novice writers who truly want to be the best they can be is, go buy a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain and study it like you would study for a Master’s Degree. Do the exercises and pay attention to what this fabulous writing teacher has to say. If you are going to become a good writer, then Swain can get you there if anyone can. If you aren’t willing to work toward a successful career as a writer, then get a good day job you’ll enjoy.
Were you able to check out the photo I posted? Let me know what you learn. And here’s a hint. Don’t trust Wikipedia. There’s so much wrong information there.