How to write about places you’ve never been to – Guest Post by Stuart White

Tales from the Falkland Islands…and writing research tips!

I am proud to present a guest post by my friend and mentor, Stuart White. Please read his impressive biography HERE.

Real Research: Writing about faraway places, part 2

A guest post by Stuart White

RESEARCH – AND HOW TO DO IT IF YOU CAN’T GET TO THE PLACE.

By Stuart White

Author – Stuart White

Last week I stressed the importance of trying to visit a place where your story is set.

And I could almost hear the cries of, “OK for you buddy, but I’ve got twelve bucks to last me the week and two kids to feed. I can hardly make rent, let alone get on a plane to Paris.”

And you’ve got a valid point. But I think I did say ‘If you can get there.’

So this week I’m going to give you some tips of how to get the feel and smell and sense of a place, despite the fact you haven’t got the moolah to get there.

But first to tie up the loose threads of last post, when I described my trip to South America and the Falklands Islands to do research on my script ‘Death at Sea.’

Another aspect of that ‘research’ was a practical one. Death at Sea has a show reel – a sort of five-minute filmed teaser outlining what the project is. At the moment it consists of some old newsreel film of the conflicts and still pictures of the ships and the protagonists.

So it was suggested it might be an idea to get some current footage of the area in which our story took place and scenes are set – like shots of Montevideo, where British and German spies recruited locals in a deadly cloak and dagger game to uncover secrets about the other nation’s fleets.

Like the Falklands, showing the harbor from which the British fleet fired its first shots, then the actual waters the battle took place.

Likewise off Coronel, south of Valparaiso and the port itself where several scenes are set – including a banquet at which the German admiral was honored.

So with video camera and tripod in hand, I filmed like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice…out at dawn doing sunrises…then sunsets…the ship pitching and swaying, spray shooting over the bows…and the stormy seas in which brave men died.

When that goes to the director he hopes to cut it into the original show reel, including some voice-over commentaries from yours truly.

But now back to research and how to make yours effective without you jet-setting around the world.

 In 2003 I wrote a novel called The Valhalla Secret (since become an optioned screenplay) which is set in the final days of Berlin in 1945 as Soviet troops capture the German capital.

I had been to Berlin and walked its streets and had three or four excellent books on the subject to aid my research. But I wasn’t born when the Nazis were defeated, so short of a time machine I was stuck as for the real atmosphere of the period.

What I needed was someone who’d been there then; a living witness. And by good fate and chance, I found one in my condo block in Los Angeles.

The German-born woman’s name was Ursula and she’d been fourteen years old in 1945. She agreed to talk to me.

Her eyes were haunted as she recounted the shelling; women hit by shrapnel as they stood in line to get water from a stand-pipe. The hunger and her mother desperately carving meat from a just-killed horse.

The ‘hurra-hurra’ cries of the Russian front-line soldiers, and the screams of women being raped in their homes. Ursula’s account wasn’t unique, my books contained such accounts, but hearing her account made it real for me, and I believe contributed to the later scenes I wrote.

So…your novel is set in Paris, or Venice, or New York. First off try to find someone who is from there, has lived there or visited a lot. Then just talk to them about the place.

Ask them about smells? What does Paris smell like in the spring or fall? Do the drains still whiff pungently? (They used to when I first went there).

Is there the pungent aroma of Gauloises and Gitanes cigarettes? Does the Metro still have a lingering scent of steel and blast furnace as it did, or have the new luxurious cushioned carriages eliminated that?

What do Parisians eat for breakfast – croissants? (More likely a chunk of bread without butter – and strong, bitter coffee).

Do French women still say “Ooh-la-la…” and do French men struggling with English say, “It ees, ‘ow you say, ze…”

The former is – incredibly  – true, they do. The latter is a cliché to be avoided like the plague (forgive the satire).

What newspaper would a Parisian sit reading in a café – Le Monde the cerebral world-respected journal? In my view he’s more likely to read Le Figaro. (As in New York you’d more likely see someone reading the Daily News than the New York Times).

See what I’m getting at? Try to get outside the kind of tourist brochure cliché of Paris and the French people (or any city) and inside the reality.

Do French people always say “Bonjour’ and “Bonsoir” on greeting you? Yes, they do. It’s almost compulsory. And you’re supposed to say it too. Don’t, and they’ll say you are ‘mal eleve.’ Badly brought up.

I’m not going to go on about what I think the real Paris is, but you can find it out from people who’ve lived there or visited.

And from movies; watch French movies, older ones if your story is set some while ago, and modern ones if it’s set there now. Get a feel for the rhythm of Parisian (or French) life.

Let the images soak in until you’re absorbing the culture the mode of living. Do Frenchmen still wear berets? Well, only the older ones. Do all French people smoke? It’s not as bad as Tokyo or Eastern Europe and smoking is banned in all public places, but smoking is ubiquitous in public spaces, especially in Paris.

As for Paris, so to for Venice, or New York, or Cleveland – or indeed any town or location you can’t visit. And if your novel is set in a time that no-one can possibly be alive now, then read first-hand accounts, even old travel books. It’s astonishing what information you can turn up.

Do anything and everything you can to make that place – and time – come alive.

Another incredible source of information on past places and times are reproductions of newspapers of that period. They are quite commonplace now and yield masses of information about prices (from the advertisements) and the minutiae of daily life.

French WW2 magazine

I have sets of French newspapers from World War Two which were invaluable in writing a script called, ‘To The Very Gates’ about a woman arrested in Vichy France in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz.

French newspapers WW2

Look for the little, apparently inconsequential things. I was once researching the life of King George the Third, the man who ‘lost America’, That is, the American Revolution happened on his watch.

Everyone knows that George suffered periods of insanity (caused by a condition called porphyria) and films have been made of it like, “The Madness of King George.”

But reading a book on the American Revolution I came across a little known fact about King George that I one day hope to use.

He wasn’t terribly eclectically educated, but when caught out on something he didn’t know, he would bluff and affect to think it strange.

Some American colonists were describing a new agricultural development to him. The King not having the faintest idea what they were talking about, but not wishing – as he saw it – to show his ignorance, stroked his chin, pulled a puzzled face, and said, “Well that’s very strange. Very strange indeed.”

The colonists were baffled and embarrassed as well they might be. And I swear that one day that line is going into something I write.

So from Gitanes to George, from Berlin to regal bafflement, there’s always something you can add to your script by off-the-grid research.

Good hunting!

 

Why I use a smartphone to write my novel


I’m a mom to two small children. I understand the struggle to find time to write.

Most writing advice includes many references to “just do it” involving the phrase, “get your butt in a chair” or “sit down and do it.” This advice is all well and good, but if you DO NOT EVER SIT DOWN because you’re a mom, this advice doesn’t work for you. In fact, this advice can become downright discouraging. If you can never sit down, this post is for you, mommas!

Sitting down at the traditional “writer’s desk” to get a significant daily word count is next to impossible for me at this stage of my life. Especially since #secondbaby, my 8-month old, is still #breastfeeding. He’s up eating every two hours. #nanowrimo is almost upon us and this year, if you want to participate, I say go for it! Go for it even if you have no time to “get your butt in a chair and write.” Here’s how I did it!

I’m so busy. I still want to pursue my passion for writing and become an author despite limited time. Over the last year as I experimented with time savers I realized I needed something that would allow me to multitask. That something is a smartphone.

Over the last year, and especially the last 8 months, writing on my smartphone has helped me stay on track with my novel by enabling me to write every day, even if it’ only a few words here and there.

I am a SAHM/WAHM so I stay busy with my two kids and housework. But I found that I can use a few ten minute to thirty minute time slots throughout my day. Breastfeeding is a great example of time that can be used to multi-task. I also can write while my boys are playing quietly together (this is rare). Or, and let’s get real here, during bathroom breaks. Just remember, when you’re determined and crunching time, you gotta take time where you find it. Just sayin’…

Over the past year I’ve used my smartphone to write. Even hunched over a baby nuzzled to my breast, bleary-eyed at 3am, I can still text words into my smartphone. That’s mostly how I made it through #nanowrimo2015 (aside from my husband’s heroic efforts to buy me time. @knightsbayne ) It works.

I tried using a laptop computer while breastfeeding but the “clack, clack” of keys as I typed one-handed woke up the baby.

While I looked for ways to get extra word count for #nanowrimo before the baby was born, I used Google Docs for iPhone to write. Now, since I find myself using my smartphone more and more for novel writing, I’ve explored several apps. There’s a lot out there. I will cover what apps I found most useful in my next post. The app I use now for novel writing is Scrivener by Literature and Latte. This is a link to a FREE TRIAL. I DO NOT get any money for sharing this. It’s just a great program.

I’m a mommy and I’m a writer. Mommy-writers, especially of small children, need all the help they can get to achieve their goals. I know I do. While I have far from mastered writing or time management, I hope to help in my small way by sharing my experience, even if only to provide encouragement. Writing can get done even when you have no time to “get your butt in a chair.” You just have to think outside of the “box” where the traditional writer’s space is concerned. Maybe even if your writer’s “chair” is a “white throne.”

DON’T GET IT RIGHT, GET IT WRITTEN! character names

BY Guest, Stuart White

Stuart White

Stuart White

About Stuart White

 

We started yesterday with a post on HOW TO GET STARTED WITH YOUR NOVEL.  Today, we are continuing with some tips on

HOW TO NAME YOUR CHARACTERS.

 SOME GUIDELINES

 So you have your title and what the story is about. Now don’t worry, these are not the Ten Commandments written in stone for which you’ll be tortured to death if you should deviate from them. They’re guidelines. Remember that. They’re sort of rails on a bridge, or ropes on a cliff to help you hang on if you falter.

 What to do next…? NAMES!

Next thing to write down: “Who is the hero or heroine or the plurals of those?” Write down the name of that person or persons. Then the names of any subsidiary characters you can think of.

HOW TO NAME YOUR CHARACTER:

 IMPORTANT NOTE: Give them a name that springs out. Rather than Molly Perkins, Gretchen Sunflower. Rather than Dan Smith, Alban Lightsaber. Get the drift?

 “Good” Character Names

 Good character names stand out and publishers like them and readers love them. But, if you think your character is Molly Perkins, then call her that. It’s your book, no-one else’s. And there’s a good argument that your readers will identify more with Molly Perkins or Sue-Ann Jones, than Gretchen Sunflower. (For this exercise you can have her Molly at the beginning and she’ll change her name to Gretchen Sunflower en route to Hollywood and fame. Most Hollywood stars after all do not use the names they were born with. Deal? OK.)

 “Bad” Character Names

 Definitely avoid like the plague of that cliché, names that readers will find hard to pronounce or stumble over. When they do they might just stumble enough to not bother walking on. I once unforgivably called one of my characters, Uwe. It’s a German name pronounced Oo-vay. No-one I knew who read the novel could pronounce it, and used to say to me, “That guy, the German spy, ooo-weee…or uh-way..” they couldn’t pronounce it. So don’t choose one people will have problems pronouncing, like Brezezinski, Sczesny, or a long incongruous name like Aristotle Van Takhmanangakal (unless it’s some eccentric professor or mad scientist and the name is deliberately weird). Because those are names that people will stumble on, and when they stumble they lose the thread of your book. So – go for a name that springs out but doesn’t overwhelm.

 Helpful tip: 

Make A List

 Start to list their information as though they were a real person. Date and place of birth. (Remember in your novel that the chronology must always fit).

  1. What kind of school did they go to?
  2. Are they Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, whatever?
  3. Are they tall, short, fat, thin? I’m serious. I’ve read novels where people start out small and then suddenly grow about six inches as the story goes on; amazing to have a growth spurt at thirty-five.
  4. What color is her/his hair.
  5. Teeth? Regular, irregular

NOTE ABOUT IRREGULARITY: And a bit of irregularity always makes a more interesting character; a freckle there, a slightly larger eye, a mole. But it’s your character, so if you want them to be six three with ice-blue eyes, blonde/blond with bulging biceps, fine, a kind of Swedish cyborg then so describe them. Just don’t then have them as a shy, retiring middle-school teacher in small-town Alabama because that’s stretching your credibility. Now keep your dossier to hand and remember it when writing your scenes.

TO BE CONTINUED…..COME BACK TOMORROW FOR MORE GREAT WRITING TIPS. Don’t Get it Right, Get it Written!

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