“What Year Is It, Anyway?”

A few years ago, I read a mystery that had a very modern and contemporary feel to it, both in the language and the narrative.  Nowhere in the book’s description or within the context of the story did it clarify the time period.  I’d read perhaps six chapters before it became clear that it was set in the Old West, and not in the year 2012.  Not long after that, I lost interest, put the book down and have since forgotten both title and author.

Why did I put the book down, after investing enough time to have read six chapters?  I wanted to give the book a fair chance, even though I was continually trying to pinpoint the When of the world within that story.  And when a simple thing (like establishing the time period) takes more than one paragraph, let alone fifty pages, I’m removed from that world completely.  The effort to try and go back in is no longer worth it.

When writing fiction, be it a long or short narrative, it is important to immediately establish the context of the when, the where and the why.  This is especially important when the setting of your story is historical.  Whether it’s the Old West, Ancient Athens or turn of the century London, as soon as your reader opens to the first page, that world must come to life and engage all five senses – smell, sound, sight, touch, taste.  The goal, by doing this, is to engage the reader so deeply that they can’t turn the pages fast enough.    

Your job as a writer is to create a world so rich, so detailed, so inviting, that it takes your reader out of this world. 

And leave them wanting more.

Research Can Be Fun

When one hears the word research, it is not often connected to the word fun.  It automatically conjures up the image of surrounding oneself with dusty tomes in a poorly lit room, away from distractions of the world outside.  Or of scientists in remote castles wanting to play the role of God by re-animating a corpse.  Or students groaning over an assignment that requires five legitimate sources that does not include Wikipedia.

Despite my own initial dismay at having to do the work needed, I actually enjoy the act of research.  Whether it includes reading on topics I’m not familiar with (or have a passing knowledge of), I love learning.  Even though my own writing is primarily fiction, I want to make sure that my facts are accurate.  This is especially the case if I’m writing about a time period or area I did not live in.  Or, if there’s a life experience that I do not have, I make sure to read and ask questions so that I have at the very least a basic understanding.

Research can be done in a variety of ways (reading, asking questions of people in relevant fields, or even learning a skill), so it doesn’t have to be viewed as a boring and burdensome task.  If you approach it with the view that what you learn is as valuable as a 15th century gold doubloon (which it is), then once the initial dismay passes (which it will), then the ensuing action becomes a hunt for treasure (which knowledge always is).

What you turn up may surprise you in countless ways that you did not foresee.

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