Research: Developing Characters and Assessing Developments in the Genre

I submitted an earlier version of each of these essays for my chapter’s newsletter:

Research: Authenticating our Characters’ Experiences

My interest in research in the writing process stems from my own personal experience. I admit, I’m biased. I used to be an academic in a field where research was paramount. Everything I wrote had to have a strong basis in research before I could tell the story had on my mind. Without research, the story I was telling would not have been credible. As a result of my experience, research is no big deal for me.

Granted our stories are fantasies, but they are based in the human condition as indicated by their time and place. Because of my interest in contemporary romances, my fantasy world is based in what is happening in the here and now.

So I believe research authenticates our characters’ experiences. My character interviews help me get inside their heads to give me a sense of what they are like: their personalities, their worlds, the people they know and connect with. I can only know about them if I do research that firmly grounds me in the world as it exists for them.

They tell me who they are and I find out what they need. As I learn about them, I learn and grow as well.

For example, in a recent case, I did a lot of work doing intense research on a matter that was challenging for me. It was tough emotionally, but I needed to go there, in order to delve into my character’s feelings. What she might have been experiencing.

So I don’t believe there is such a thing as too much research, unless you think research is a time waster! Any research is useful if it helps make our characters seem like real people with experiences that make them who they are. Even if you think the research can’t be used, the knowledge gained from your work matters if it gives you confidence to write your characters well. What can’t be used can be set aside for future use in a different book.

Happy researching!

Reading Within and Across Subgenres: Another Type of Research?

Although I write contemporary romances with sweet and inspirational edges, I read widely across subgenres. In a similar vein, I’m a member of various on-line RWA chapters where I can connect to other writers and not only within the genres that interest me.

When I was at the RWA, I attended a panel held by a group of writers who are experts in a field that provides context for one of my current heroines. One of the panelists gave out copies of her book. Only two of them interested me. What an amazing gift what was! I devoured them in days. Her books could have easily been research for me on the inner workings of her field of expertise, but I realized I didn’t need as much information as she had, and that was fine. I could enjoy stories about characters similar to my heroine.

I read widely because reading is no longer something I do just for fun. I’m a writer, so I want to know about what is happening in the field, and especially when I read controversial essays, Facebook posts and tweets. I don’t always respond, because the emotional energy required to get involved in those debates would drain me. But I’m aware.

What do I learn then when I read so widely?

I sense the conventions in the subgenres, whether or not I agree with them. I learn what editors and publishers want to see when they sign and promote the authors in their catalogues. I see how indie writers are writing independently of that whole process.

But I also believe I become a better writer when I read. Reading another writer’s book, I assess the effectiveness of the editorial process. Did this indie writer have a developmental editor? What about copy editors and proofreaders? Do publishers seem to do a good job on behalf of their writers?

I don’t always leave reviews on Amazon, so I’m more likely to make note of the books I’ve read on Goodreads.

Reading also gives me a chance to explore my own writing. I was never part of the fan fiction movement, but I have heard of it since becoming a romance writer. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist trying to write in the subgenre after finishing a novel I read recently. I really enjoyed it, but similar to other reviewers, I thought the book was too short. Drawing upon my eye for critique based upon the work I’ve done with my developmental editors, I noticed a big gap where the author could have done a better job at developing a scene. I decided to try a rebuild of it. Now this wasn’t something I wrote for public consumption. It was about wanting to try a different style of writing.

As I continue revising and doing line edits of my latest manuscript, I’m thinking more and more of my research–the critiques I’ve developed from assessing the books I have been reading.

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.

#RWA19 reflections: my characters confront me at the RWA conference

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I was taking a break sitting in the eighth floor lobby of the Marriott Marquis and reflecting upon what I learned during the course of the workshops I attended, when I heard a voice.

“Ms. James?”

I looked up. A young man was standing nearby my chair. He looked vaguely familiar but didn’t have a name tag.

He put down his Starbucks mug and extended his hand. “Hi, it’s Austin.”

I studied him and noticed that he looked as I imagined, but I was creeped out to see him. What was he doing there?

As though he read my mind, he answered. “Well, you created me, but when you began to talk about me, you brought me to life.”

I was dumbfounded. “I brought you to life?”

“Yes, you did! All those chats with the ladies who had suggestions on how to make me better, that’s how it happened.”

“You were at the workshop when we discussed your first chapter?”

“I was.” He took a sip of his coffee. “They were right you know. Your ideas about my story being shorter than the other ones? Not a good idea.”

“Really?”

“I have a lot of things to say, people to meet, things to do. So my story needs to be longer.”

I looked around. “Is Natasha here?”

“No, she said that since this is my story, she didn’t have to show up. Maybe she wants to be surprised.” He grinned. “She will come around eventually.”

Since he talked about the other books, I asked whether he knew the main characters.

“Of course I know them. They are here, just like me, and they want to talk to you.”

Suddenly, his phone pinged. He took it out of his pocket and checked for a text.

“They’re on their way.” He held up his hand. “But not Helena and Leon. They said it’s too soon.” He brought some chairs closer to where we were sitting.

Ayanna and Todd were the first to appear. They looked well put together, since I worked with them after they had their session with the developmental editor. Bobby and Suzette looked less certain and secure, since I read the editor’s report but didn’t have a chance to meet with them.

I felt overwhelmed as I reached for my notebook. I was in for some heavy duty note taking.

“Okay guys, I’m listening.”

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.

 

How has your summer been?

I just realized that it has been two months since I last posted! Where on earth has the time gone? Who knows.

Well things have been well, with some vacation time in the midst of this summer. The heat has been bad a few days, but otherwise the summer has been a good one.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, since it’s always good to keep up with what’s happening in the field. I’ve been reading books on Overdrive, but I’ve noticed that my libraries are requiring a Kindle account in order to download books. If there’s no Kindle, the books can only be read as a web page.

I wish I knew what that’s about.

Ordination season was last month. I was on board for that, looking for more inspiration for my current work in progress! So that was fun. This work in progress is the third in the series. The second one was in developmental editing, so I have to get back to it eventually, and the first will be in copy editing soon. Talk about a balancing act and juggling!

Otherwise, the Romance Writers Association annual conference will take place soon, and the authors who are attending are feverishly preparing, as per all I’m seeing in my Facebook and Twitter feeds.

The big question, how much can I get done before the conference takes place?

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.

Editing as I Write: A Good Foundation for Revising?

I’ve noticed something with this latest work in progress. It seems I spent a lot more time editing than usual, insofar as I was editing as I wrote.

I wrote scenes then agonized over them as I looked for problems in diction, punctuation, point of view, and paragraph markers, including quotes for characters’ voices. I wrote chapters then looked for inconsistencies and plot holes. I spent a lot of time reviewing my first three chapters, since those are the ones that tend to draw readers in. I also got some feedback from a chapter member who was glad to take a look at my first twenty to thirty pages.

It seems that all this foundational work has made my revisions easier, but without sacrificing my writing time.

I made note when I began writing, a few days after I had my outline ready to go. I was proceeding at a reasonable clip until I needed to take a break because I was dealing with some real world matters that took me away from my writer’s life and my imaginary friends. Even then, the delays didn’t set me back. I finished the first draft at a time similar enough to when I finished the previous works in progress. My typical goal is to have the first draft done within four to six months.

Another important point is that I haven’t yet gone forward with publishing the first of the two latest works in progress. That has been helpful towards the revision process for this current manuscript. The two books are connected, so I have to make sure that I get all the details correct and avoid inconsistencies along with plot holes from one book to the next.

It will be interesting to see what my developmental editor has to say.

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.

Romance Writing: Prurient Interest in our Novels?

I saw some tweets not that long about Stacey Adams’ interview with Stephen Colbert: link. He was interviewing her about her political career. Knowing how high profile she is, one might have expected the focus to be on her background in law and public policy and a recent book she wrote: link.

Instead, he wanted to read excerpts from the romance novels she once wrote as Selena Montgomery, even though she didn’t want him to: link; link.

Romance writers and readers were indignant, and rightfully so, because he was feeding into a prurient interest in her romance writing that diminished her as a lightweight, as many tend to see romance writing as a silly women’s thing, as though love and companionship isn’t a universal desire.

It was as though Ms. Abrams’ novels was all that mattered about her, because romance writing can be seen as a reflection of the writer herself, and in very personal ways. Is she writing about things she experienced or things she has fantasized about? One’s writing can never just be an entertaining story.

Various authors noted that romance writers come from all types of backgrounds. They are lawyers, doctors, and professionals of all types. They tweeted the excerpts of their books they would have liked to hear out loud. They all referred to those where the heroines indicated their intelligence, strength and resilience, not just their characterization as sexual beings.

One writer asked whether a male writer would have been questioned like that about a thriller he might have written.

I thought that was an interesting perspective. Romantic suspense novels are the flip side of thrillers and spy novels like those written by Ian Fleming of the James Bond franchise. But we don’t see them as romance novels, because the stories are from the perspective of the male protagonist. The romance is secondary to the high level drama of the thriller. In romantic suspense novels, the heroine is not a secondary character, and the romance is part and parcel of the suspenseful story. Yet only one genre is dismissed as being less important. Only one genre is targeted for prurient interest.

It seems to me that the topic of sex scenes in romance novels fuels debates within the genre in important ways and it’s directly tied to the prurient interest in what we write. Those readers and writers who argue that women’s sexual empowerment is paramount are the ones who demand women’s sexual agency notwithstanding the dismissal which might follow.  Others believe, in turn, that sex scenes aren’t crucial for the development of a romance and that women’s empowerment can be demonstrated in other ways. So an author noted a criticism that she wasn’t really writing romances because her sex scenes were closed door.

When these debates abound within the world of Romancelandia, I think it’s important to step outside for a bit and remember that these discussions indicate some underlying tensions that persist in society about romance writing.

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.

The Punctuation Police?

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Discussions among writers about punctuation sometimes seem like an exercise in extreme nerdiness! All kinds of talk about Oxford commas, em dashes, colons and semicolons. But does it really matter?

The significance of the debate didn’t come to me from a writing group discussion, although it was one we talked about in a recent @rwchat.

I read a New York Times article about the problems court reporters have in understanding African American Vernacular English: link. The lack of comprehension had major consequences for freedom as opposed to incarceration, as well as life or death.

Court reporters are charged with accurately reporting witnesses’ testimony at depositions and trials. They produce transcripts which become the official record of court proceedings. Writers are merely tasked with writing for clarity; diction and punctuation are the means of making sure our words are understood.

I was struck by an observation. The linguists who did the study played audio recordings for the reporters. The researchers then asked the reporters to write what they heard and to paraphrase as well. But they had a difficult time doing each. Yet, the reporters weren’t asked to punctuate.

The article quoted a defendant’s statement: “I know that I didn’t do it so why don’t you just give me a lawyer dog ’cause this is not what’s up.”

Reading it, I thought about how punctuation might have made the difference in meaning, but that wasn’t even discussed. If I were writing, how would I punctuate a sentence like that in order to convey the character’s meaning?

In oral communication, it is easy to understand pauses and what they mean. In written communication, punctuation matters more because they are markers that help explain the meaning of words, phrases, and sentences.

So “eats, shoots and leaves” is hilarious, while “eats shoots and leaves” is a mundane observation which doesn’t evoke the same imagery: link.

A misplaced–or even nonexistent–comma can change a whole sentence’s meaning.

An earlier version of this article appeared in my local RWA chapter newsletter.

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I am a member of various writing communities on twitter.

A host of one of the writing games came up with an ingenious one, to write a love letter to one’s work in progress.

Here’s what I came up with, except it’s in honor of all my works in progress and books:

__________________

Dear WIPs,

You keep me amused, excited, and enthusiastic to be with you and my characters on my journey. You keep my imagination working overtime.

😍😍,

Barbara.

P.S. I love how you have helped me find .

__________________

You can find me on Amazon: link.

Copyright Barbara James, all rights reserved.

 

Music and the Work in Progress

I might have mentioned that I’m currently using playlists on Spotify for my works in progress. In my books, I have tended to include references to the music that inspired me as I was writing. These are the songs that I thought might bring a scene full circle, but that is not always the case.

Sometimes a song inspires a scene, and it’s totally unexpected.

I’m at the gym a lot, I go to my local Planet Fitness. The gym’s management implemented a recent development of broadcasting music videos the patrons can watch on television screens. So when I’m not watching the news, I’m watching videos of the latest pop music.

I just love it. Sometimes I hear a song that draws me in some fashion. Perhaps it’s the name of the song, the melody, or the lyrics. Or all of the above. If the song appeals, I wonder whether it can fit into the Spotify playlist I have set up for each of my works in progress.

But when a song inspires a scene, it is as though I can’t get the song out of my head, because something about the song’s energy fits a scenario I imagine for my characters.

The latest source of my inspiration is one I can imagine will be the basis of the first chapter for the next work in progress. But I do not have the time to work on it now. I can only take notes and listen to Spotify.

My current hero and heroine are depending upon me, then my previous hero and heroine will be getting back to me soon.

I look forward to sharing my future updates.

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.

An Author in Search of her Character

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The newsletter editors of my Romance Writers of America chapter urged us to submit character interviews. I had fun imagining an interview with the heroine from The Wedding Bet: Lauren.

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I get up from my seat in the Starbucks at Penn Station. “Lauren, it’s so good to see you!” I give her a hug and step back to take in her black slacks, red jacket and blue scarf. “I just love the outfit!”

“It’s good to see you as well.” She touches the scarf. “It’s a gift from Annelise (heroine of Starting Over: Rick). She and Rick were in town. Denise (heroine of Going Home: Roger) lives in New London too, so we all got together during the Christmas holidays. Lots of kids running round. Chaotic, but fun. Can’t complain. We’re all doing fine. How have you been?”

“I’ve been fine, the family’s fine. I’ve been getting to know some new characters. And you?”

“That’s great! I like Facebook, it’s good for keeping in touch with everyone, so I’ll check for your updates. Don and I, we’ve been married several years. The babies are getting bigger and I’m doing nursing part time. Gives me more time with them.” She takes out her phone to show me some photos.

I take it and study a picture of her with her children. “I love it, they are so adorable.” I return the phone to her. “They’re with Daddy this afternoon?”

She nods. “I’m sure they’re having some adventures. He’s so busy, it’s good whenever he can have down time with them. We’re still going strong. He’s doing great, getting promotions.” She smiles at a photo of him. “I just love how much he enjoys being a dad. Our family life is such a blessing.”

“It’s like a Hallmark movie.”

“And you made it possible for us!”

“So which television show would most resemble your life?”

“Something like Black-ish, I think.”

“I can see it! So if we made a movie of your life, who would star?

“Idris Elba as Don, it goes without saying! I would love it if Kerry Washington were to play me.”

“She’d be recognizable.” I notice the book she placed onto the table. “What are you reading?”

“Michelle Obama’s autobiography. Her story is so relatable.”

“I agree. She really speaks to so many women’s experiences.”

“That’s what I really like about you as our author! Perhaps it comes from your training as a clergywoman. Whatever it is, you understand us, our experiences and needs. Everything that has been important for us in getting our happily ever after. Like, you’ve always respected our privacy, giving us the closed door bedroom scenes we prefer. Annelise, Denise and I, we call you our honorary auntie!”

“Thank you, sweetie. That’s so lovely to hear.”

She hugs me. “You’re always welcome.”

We get our drinks and continue chatting until it was time for her to catch her train back to Connecticut.

Copyright, Barbara James. All Rights Reserved.

Writing Goals: 2019

I began writing the books in my sweet romance series in the spring of 2017. The first two books were out in August of 2017 and February of 2018.

I started Lauren’s book on New Year’s Day 2018, and somehow I thought I was going to get three manuscripts done during the course of the year.

It didn’t happen, but it wasn’t a major disappointment because I fell within my reasonable expectations. But I did have some delays in getting Lauren’s book out–the editing process took some time. In addition, I was learning and exploring other possibilities for publishing. But I was glad she finally came out right before Christmas.

I started my new inspirational series in the spring and I finished my first draft on New Years’ Eve. Delays again, I was hoping to finish during NaNoWriMo. But I pushed myself to meet my reasonable goal–based upon my experience to date–of finishing before the end of the year. The first draft is done.

So I began this year sitting in on the auditions of the characters who have been clamoring for my attention. They want to be the stars of the second book! Yes, it’s like that, as though I’m watching a stage with people coming and going. They read bits of dialogue and I see their prospective scenes.

I didn’t have this figured out until New Year’s Day. I grappled with it for several days! It was a cycle of reading, thinking, then thinking and reading again.

So I was outlining and interviewing my characters and only began writing on the third. The next heroine and hero are secondary characters from the current work in progress. The fun part is that one of them is more developed than the other. So I get to revisit them and see what they have been up to.

Copyright Barbara James. All rights reserved.