Monday, March 9, 2009

Searching for Gold Nuggets

A heart-felt thank you goes out to all of our new followers. You’re the ones who make Novel Matters a relevant place for readers and writers of great fiction. Won’t you join the conversation?


From now on, the first Monday of the month is Contest Announcement Day! You're right, today is the second Monday of March, but we have a good excuse. We’ve been working behind the scene to make Novel Matters a welcoming and thought-provoking place to visit. This month’s prize is a Patti Hill library, including Like a Watered Garden, Always Green, In Every Flower, and The Queen of Sleepy Eye. That’s four—count ‘em—four novels for your reading pleasure. A winner will be chosen from visitors who comment on any blog topic from now until the last Thursday of the month. You guessed it. The last Friday of the month will be Contest Winner Announcement Day! Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Researching a novel is like mining for gold nuggets. And gold nuggets are very difficult to find. You’ll end up sluicing a lot of sand to find a few nuggets to add to your pouch. But once you’ve felt the weight of a burgeoning pouch in your hand, a hunger grows in your writer’s soul for more. You’re never satisfied.

Right now, I’m steeped in research for a novel that will be released in 2010. My office is filled with highlighted books tagged with sticky notes. And I’ve paid way too much for back issues of magazines from the forties to take a peek into the lives of WWII homemakers. A notebook filled with transcribed interviews grows fatter by the day. I’ve watched movies and read novels of that time to absorb the cadence of speech and to authenticate vocabulary. When do I have enough nuggets to stop looking and start writing?

I don’t know!

I’ve been here before. Although The Queen of Sleepy Eye takes place in the mid-70s—and yes, I was there—I saturated myself with the time and the small town that became my setting. Since this book has already been written, it’s easier for me to see the gold nuggets, like bread crumbs left on a trail, that lead me through the story.

I talked to a church secretary who told me a story about an older congregant. She had been troubled by the broken stained-glass windows of her church, so she hired a hippie from a local commune to repair the windows, all without the knowledge of the other congregants. This was just the element I needed to build rising antagonism in the story. Eureka, a gold nugget!

I interviewed a retired pastor on the porch of his log cabin home. We chatted for nearly three hours before he mentioned that his home had been the mortuary in the mid-70s. Not only that, but the home included a trap door for bodies to be lowered to the basement preparation room. Perfect. What better place to test the protagonist’s meddle than a mortuary? I moved her right in. And that trap door, well, it came in handy. Woohoo, another nugget to add to the pouch!

My husband and I stopped by Farmer Frank’s on one research trip to Cordial (AKA Paonia, CO). While Dennis tried on work boots, I talked to the proprietor. About the time of the story, he’d moved to the area as a teen . He remembered being the brunt of pranks as the new arrival in a tight community. His struggle to fit in became a strong motivator for a supporting character who befriends Amy, my protagonist. Thanks to Farmer Frank, I created one of my most memorable characters. Hallelujah! My pouch grew much fatter that day.

I spent hours at the Paonia Library microfiche machine, interviewed a hippie-turned-real-estate agent, collected eggs and fended off a rooster with the help of Pick the turkey, who just happens to play himself in the novel. When did I stop researching and start writing The Queen of Sleepy Eye? Honestly? I counted out the days to my deadline. Oh boy, that got me writing.

As a writer, how do you know when to stop mining for nuggets and start tippy-typing on your computer? Who or what have been your best resources? As a reader, do you trust what you read in fiction to be fact? Are you aware of an author who has bent the truth to suit his/her story? Is bending the truth a deal-breaker for you?

I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.


Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Patti, your books are really going to make somebody's day at the end of the month when the winner is announced. Great stuff! The photos you posted are wonderful, too. It is sort of like a treasure hunt, finding the nuggets to use in a book. It makes a complicated and sometimes frustrating process much more fun.

Patti Hill said...

What I didn't say is that I use about 3-5% of what I discover from my research. The rest shapes my way of thinking as I write.

When I sent my last manuscript in for editorial review, the revision notes pointed out that my research was showing. That's like walking around with the hem of your skirt tucked into your waistband (this actually happened to me). But there is that danger of becoming so enamoured by what you learn that you can't help plugging it in somewhere. When that happens, ask yourself, does the reader need to know this tidbit to understand the character's motivation. If the answer is no, hold on to that information. You may get to talk about it during author talks, but you'll certainly be the life of any party. It's a thought.

Jan Kern said...

Count me in. I haven't read enough of your books yet, Patti.

Your post made me chuckle. Loved the accompanying pictures. But I also love the research you do and how you turn those nuggets into a rich story.

Praying for Novel Matters and great connections!

Laura J. Davis said...

I write Biblical Fiction, so I spend a great deal of time researching.I have books piled high on my desk, that (if I let them) could keep me from writing anything for days! It is definitely a problem for me. I don't know when to stop and start to write. I get so overwhelmed with all the information at my fingertips, that sometimes as I start to write, I go blank. Where do I begin? How do I bring that aspect into the story? Finding nuggets are great, but mining them is another story altogether!

lynniegirl said...

What about a visit to a retirement or nursing home for interviews of WWII homemakers? My almost 95-yr. old mother has lots of stories and still tells them.

Bonnie Grove said...

I want to win a Patti Hill library!!!
Exempt you say?
Aw nuts. Well, maybe I can suck up to the author?
I'm a researcher at heart - but most of my research has been acedemic in nature. (zzzzzzzzz).
But it's a good question - when do you just get writing? I suppose one answer could be when characters start talking to you as you research.
That seems to be what happens to me - characters appear, some fully formed, some still ideas with faces, and then I write.

Patti Hill said...

Jan: Thanks for noticing my photos. I have hundreds of pictures I took of Paonia, all referred to when it came time to describe a setting. Isn't Pick a handsome fellow?
Laura: I can't imagine where to start researching for Biblical fiction, let alone when to stop. I admire your tenacity, and I'd love to see your library!
Lynniegirl: Excellent suggestion! Where does your mama live? Colorado? No? Darn.
Actually, I've interviewed several women who have filled me in on coal heat and wringer washing machines and, oh boy, slaughtering chickens. Now, there's a nugget I'm not going to use.
Bonnie: I agree with you! I'm at a point where my characters are with me when I wake up, lull in the shower, and drive about town. The story is building in me, and my fingers are itching to start typing, but I'm an outline person, so that's the next step. And going through that process will usually send me back to my sources for more information.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I'd like to add that unless I'm looking for a particular piece of information, I stop researching when the information starts to repeat itself. You're right about having more info than you can use. I think my husband probably gets sick of hearing about all the nuggets I couldn't use.

Lori Benton said...

I've only completed (well, almost completed; still editing) one historical, but I like to write and research simultaneously. I researched the time period broadly first, to more or less choose the year the story was set (and even then I picked the date rather whimsically because I liked the colors--fellow synesthesiacs will understand). But I also wanted to get the scenes and snippets of scenes--those ones that were bubbling over and I knew would be part of the story somehow--out of my head while they were fresh. In the course of writing those, research subjects surfaced. While researching those, bibliographies suggested more sources. More scenes were written, more research subjects surfaced, getting more and more detailed, leading to more great bibliographies. I couldn't guess ahead of time everything I'd need to know. For instance, I never expected one of my characters would end up working on the Great Dismal Swamp canal, but nearly four years into the writing, he did.

Patti Hill said...

Lori: There's always unexpected twists that require a quick look-up on the Internet or a dig at the local library. I do tons of on-the-spot research. For that, I do thank God for the Internet.

I must read your book to know what the Dismal Swamp canal accomplished. Just by the name, I'm out. I'm thinking snakes and mosquitoes and repitiles with huge teeth. Shiver! But is sounds very intriquing.

Unknown said...

I've always heard it said, "Write what you know." However, I've discovered that the writing process uncovers what you don't know. And what you don't know and have to go find out is the glue that holds all the chunks of known materials together.

I've had the writing process shut down for hours and days while I chase down some historically-accurate detail.

Some people say you should just put ellipses or the equivalent of "fill in later" in a manuscript and just forge ahead. I usually can't do that.

What do the others of you do in such a case?

Latayne C Scott

Lori Benton said...

Latayne, if it's a small fact that needs researching, I'll leave [ ]s or a footnote to check it for accuracy, and go on. But in the case of the Dismal Swamp section of my story that I mentioned in another comment post, I knew the setting and the process of canal digging would dictate a lot of what would happen in the scenes. I found two books at Amazon on the subject. While I read those, I either edited other scenes or wrote scenes in a different section of the book.

It is hard to leave those [ ]s sometimes, though. If it's a matter of a quick internet search, I'll usually stop and do that. But it's so easy to get distracted and take an hour over something that needed only ten minutes.

Patti, from all I've read, snakes and mosquitoes (and heat, humidity, mud, and malaria) was the experience of those 18C canal workers. The Great Dismal is a large coastal swamp straddling the NC and VA state lines.

Patti Hill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.