Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Then and Now

Barbara here. As usual, Rick's post of yesterday got me thinking. Like him, I take my research seriously. I write a gritty, realistic, psychological detective series set in the very real city of Ottawa. Much as I sometimes wish I could just make it all up, I find myself drawn to the bumps, scars, and twists of the real world we live in. Not a made-up town where I can draw the map to my own liking, not the elastic boundaries of magical realism or the carte blanche of a completely alien universe. I have to make sure every street corner is correct and every police procedure is, if not accurate, at least plausible. On TV, the detectives can traipse all over the crime scene with their long blonde hair trailing, but not in my books. I don't want police officers hurling the book against the wall. I want readers to believe the world I create, to be drawn into the lives of my characters and feel like they're walking in their shoes.

It's nineteen years since I had my first publication, and today, as I was researching my latest book, I reflected on how much my approach to writing has changed. First of all the mechanics of writing itself. I used to write all my fiction long-hand. Computers were work; they encouraged stilted, technical prose but not the intimate, free-associative flow of fiction. I wrote the first drafts of all my novels entirely in long-hand, and then transcribed them. But then hybrid writing crept it. Blogs, speeches, and essays, which were neither stilted professional writing nor free-wheeling fiction. I found it increasingly easy to write this style directly on the computer, as I am doing with this blog. Then I began my Rapid Reads literacy series of novellas. These involved a straight-forward linear plot with spare, simple language. With some practice I found I could write these on the computer too. In fact the computer made it easy to delete those literary flourishes and fancy adjectives that crept in from my regular style.

I have not yet written a complex, multi-layered, full-length novel directly onto the computer. I quail at the thought. My muse is most friendly when I am curled up in a comfortable chair with a pen in my hand and paper on my knee. I have been writing this way for decades, and the habits of thought and heart are deeply set. But I fear I am losing the facility of writing long-hand. I do it so rarely that it now takes thought and effort. That unconscious natural flow from thought and pen tip no longer exists. What if I have lost the fluid creativity of long-hand but not yet acquired it on the keyboard? This summer will tell the tale, when I graduate from my Rapid Reads novella to my next full-length novel.

Research is the other major area of change in my writing process. Twenty years ago, with the internet in its infancy, my first source was books. Remember the old index-card catalogues in the library? I frequented the public library and also both the university libraries, and would often walk out with a stack of eight books on the subject I wanted. My second source was people. I became adept at tracking down experts on the phone and making cold calls to everyone from locksmiths to coroners. If I had a lot of questions, I arranged for an interview. My third source was a personal visit to check out a place. I walked around, taking notes and photographs in order to get the feel, sights and sounds of the place,

Nowadays, I still use the libraries, but mainly for big-picture background. I currently have on my coffee table seven books on the north, which I will be reading or at least skimming to learn about the wilderness, history, ecology, etc. I will add more as I need them. I read at least ten books in researching The Whisper of Legends. I still use the phone to talk to experts, although I increasingly email them with questions. I still make a personal visit to the places in the books. But the internet has been a life-saver in providing answers. Google maps, satellite view, and street view give you details of cities. Websites of businesses and organizations provide invaluable information on everything from police procedure to dog handling. Online encyclopedias make information accessible any place, any time. Do you need to know the weight of a black bear? A five-second search on Google. The right type of rifle for shooting a man? Hunting and gun manufacturers' websites are a click away.

Today, if you want to be accurate, there is not excuse for sloppy research. An incredible world of knowledge is accessible from your living room. Writers (incuding me) used to type their novels on manual typewriters, with each change of phrase or word requiring messy liquid white-out. How much easier it is today, to research, write and polish to perfection! I sometimes wonder, if things were now as they were then, how many of us would have persevered?

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