Sunday, October 12, 2008

Welcome Guest Blogger - Craig Harms. Fact in Fiction

Research. It's foundational to writing. Fiction is no different. Within the pages of completely made up stories you will find all sorts of fact. Truth tangled in the nets of fantasy, science in among the fiction, procedure tossed in with the pretend. Author Craig harms is here to chat with us about the importance of doing your homework before you craft your fiction.

Craig Harms received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University Of Nebraska School of Journalism and his Master of Science degree in Instructional Design from Western Illinois University.
His career choices have included advertising, research analysis at NBC television network, acting, radio announcing, and writing for a New York, NY art gallery. He is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and Grace Marketing groups.
Craig lives in Dallas City, Il with his wife Sue, their dogs, cats, and a flock of very lively parrots.
Learn more at: www.dayomega.com

Fact in Fiction

I’m convinced there’s no such thing as pure fiction; even though the story and characters are drawn from the writer’s imagination, there must be at least a kernel of truth to make the story believable to the reader. This can only be achieved by adding a certain amount of facts to the written equation. Facts can be found through research. Research can open new doors as the work in progress develops and provides an authenticity to the story in several relevant ways:
Research provides local color. As the writer decides where the setting will take place, s/he should research the location, or even better, visit it in person. This helps provide a feel for its inhabitants, what they think, how they dress, their dialect; the layout of the area, its streets, businesses, and uniqueness; the landscape, climate, plant and animal life. Credibility flies out the window when the facts don’t mesh with the storyline, even if it is in the realm of make-believe. The locales in my novel Day Omega include Chicago, Israel, and Vatican City. Including even small tidbits of real information—the Picasso sculpture in front of the Richard J. Daley Center, the terrain and agriculture in the Plains of Esdraelon, the frescoes inside the Sistine Chapel—helped, I hope, paints an authentic picture in the reader’s mind’s eye.
Research can propel the writer into unexpected new directions. It’s not uncommon for novelists to find themselves at a literary dead-end street with nowhere else to go. Research can open new avenues in which to explore. Again, using Day Omega as an example, a global heat wave has destroyed all the world’s livestock, grains, fruits, and vegetables. The question I had was, “how can I keep the citizens from starving to death if they have no sustenance?” I stumbled upon a solution through research.

One of the seven bowls of wrath unleashed as predicted in the Revelation is that all bodies of water are turned to blood. By keying the words “what can turn water red?” into a search engine box, the solution became evident. Intense warm sunlight causes an explosion of red algae, which depletes oxygen content, and suffocates all living organisms in a liquid environment. Yet, it can provide nourishment, as the Japanese discovered three hundred years ago. Through research, I learned that they harvested the algae, dried it out, and called the substance nori, which was probably pretty tasteless, but very high in protein content. Finding this information helped further the story in three ways: it kept the antagonists alive until the final judgment, provided a believable interpretation for the waters turning to blood, and when the world army invades Israel for the final battle, they are given MRE’s of pressed nori stamped with a Christian cross to remind them daily of the enemy they are sent out to vanquish.

Research provides a frame of reference for the tale being told, a condition described in one dictionary as “a set of ideas, conditions, or assumptions that determine how something will be approached, perceived, or understood.” My published novel and my current WIP both deal with many complex scientific principles and terms that are critical to advancing the story, but these ideas and conditions were quite unknown to me before I began writing. Therefore, it was important that I research them, and then synthesize the information into palpable language. After this was accomplished, I could then use the frames of reference in my writing. For example, in my book, Jesus appears to everyone in a shimmering glowing figure. The optics expert dismisses the visitation as a trick of light and describes it in scientific terms; the agronomist suggests it was mass hallucinations caused by ergot—a fungus that infects grain and has a hallucinogenic effect. Experts in other fields provided rational explanations for the supernatural events that were occurring. The point is, having points of references can assist the writer greatly in approaching a subject, and then creating the arc of how it is perceived or understood.

Lastly, I don’t want to come across as self-serving, but research can make the writer seem more intelligent that they actually might be, as mentioned above! One reviewer wrote about Day Omega: “In his debut novel, Mr. Harms created a very believable interpretation of the end times of our world. His Biblical, scientific, and historical knowledge blend together into a story rich with strong characters and Christian hope”. Trust me, the biblical, scientific, and historical knowledge mentioned did not come from pre-existing knowledge, but through research, research, research. I found historical facts that were congruent with sections of the story I was creating at the time, i.e.: the Treaty of Milan (313), Hitler’s Enabling Act (1933), the structure of the United Nations. All came into play as the plots developed.

It should be noted that research doesn’t necessary require a trip to the local library or surfing the Internet. The writer should be focused enough on the project that s/he is constantly observant of sources that may help them add a depth of realism to their works in progress. It helps to keep a notebook where one can scribble down ideas that might come in handy down the writing road. Clip magazine and newspaper articles that seem apropos to your subject, perhaps you can plug the information they contain into an upcoming section, again injecting needed realism into the manuscript. Visit museums if your story is a historical piece. Research can also include studying—not just casually watching—movies and television programs. Pay close attention to plots, pacing, and character development and their emotional reactions.
I truly believe that the more resources and research a writer utilizes, the easier it is for them to write—and write better, believable fiction.
*****
How you research can be as important as what you research. I've seen writers asking other writers for inside information everything from legal procedures, to sea captaining. All well and fine, talking to colleagues can be an important first step in research, but for the hard cold facts, we must go to the source, and once there, we must take our time. Get it right! Readers can spot bad research a mile away.
I hope you're inspired to crack open some books, talk to an expert, or visit a library this week to add authentic fact to your fab fiction.
I bid you good writing.

3 comments:

lynnrush said...

Thanks for the post! The advice was great. I'm finding research very important. I gave one of my characters an old beat up car, but had the year wrong....dah....have to make sure the year/make of the car existed .

Thanks, have a great day!

The Koala Bear Writer said...

Definately great advice. As I read this, I was thinking of books I've read where the background research, cleverly slipped into the story, made all the difference. Don't overload the reader, but give them something new and interesting while they're reading. :)

Craig said...

Thanks. Just passing forward what I learned over the years. Now about ALL the other elements that make up a great read!

Peace,
Craig