A Writer’s Serendipity or How Research Saved My Book

As a blogger and science nerd, I try to keep up with science news from a variety of sources. Oddly, that curiosity rarely benefits my writing. My writing style follows a diagonal on the chart below: Lawful Plantser, True Plantser, and Chaotic Plotter. And that’s pretty much how my research goes, too. I start with a plan and end going off script. This is the story of a writer’s serendipity or how research saved my book.

Image of a 3 x 3 table listing Lawful panther, neutral panther, chaotic panther in top row, lawful plaster, true plaster, chaotic plaster on the next row, and lawful plotter, neutral plotter and chaotic plotter on the final row.

My Research Method

Targeted research is when one narrows their topic and is very selective in choosing books and articles for said research. Targeted research is always my intent, it rarely is what gives me the most inspiration.

I love Google Maps. They allow me to “travel to” areas I’ve never visited. But the maps don’t give me the smells, the texture, or the mood of the place. For those, I search out travel blogs, expat blogs, and personal blogs. Sometimes, I reach out to a blogger for more details. Usually, bloggers respond with more information than I need. And that’s a lovely thing.

Sometimes, I need more hands-on research. That may mean a visit to a museum or a road trip to a location.

Be Prepared

Serendipity has been a big part of the Fellowship Dystopia Series. Although it isn’t quite serendipitous if you’re looking in the correct direction.

For example, I had selected Lynchburg, Virginia as a location in the first book, My Soul to Keep, because of its history and location. But until I visited Lynchburg, I did not know about the former Virginia State Epileptic Colony.

I happened upon the historical marker as I drove through the area around Lynchburg. After researching the Colony, it became a source of inspiration and an important location in the book.

Image of a historical marker which reads Centeral Virginia Training Center.  Established in 1910 as the Virginia State Epileptic Colony the center admitted its first patients in May 1911. It's an example of a writer's serendipity or how research saved my book.

Don’t Research Everything

When I first started writing, I would research the heck out of every topic and location I wanted to include in the book. It was a tremendous amount of work and I would amass more files than I could store (both physical and virtual).

You know what all the research did? Squat. Typically, I used very little of the research I collected before I started writing the book. Often, in writing the story, I’d find the research didn’t fit the book. Not only that, no matter how much I think I’ve planned the book, more than one thing changes during the writing. All that research work was a waste of time.

These days, I will research a general topic or time period or location. When I accumulate three or more pages of notes, I move on to another topic or I write.

It’s when I write the first draft that the real serendipity research happens.

Everyone Must Follow Their Own Best Flow

Legions of writing mentors will tell you not to stop writing once you start your first draft. Their belief is that if you interrupt the creative process, you will lose your way. That was true of me when I first started writing. Anything that interrupted my writing threw me off course or straight into what many refer to as writer’s block.

What works for me now is to research as I go. I write as far as I can based on my imagination or memory. When the writing stutters and I can’t seem to get through the next scene, I take a few hours to a few days for research.

When I’m in the middle of a draft, my head is full of possibilities. Maybe my character will go here and do this. Or do that and go there. Or…. It’s nonstop and a bewildering plethora of possibilities. But with a bit of research, my writer’s brain (some call this their muse) will latch onto some bit of information. That piece of information focuses my writer’s brain and writing the draft takes off again.

Serendipity Strikes Again

Recently, I was researching a blog article I wanted to write. I needed more scientific research to back up my story. I turned to one of my frequent sources, Sciencenews.org. My search of their website was fruitless. But the site was celebrating their 100th anniversary. 

My curiosity overcame what little resistance I had. I clicked on one of their original stories, and that resulted in another bit of writer’s Serendipity.

Dated September 19, 1921, the article titled, “Urges Artificial Selection to Produce American Race of Demigods” is a peek into a certain mindset. And a piece of a book I haven’t even outlined was born. Perhaps a character may grow out of this article.

Stay tuned to this blog to see if the final version of And When I Wake, the third book of the Fellowship Dystopia series, will use this bit of a writer’s serendipity or how research saved my book.

What Flavor of Success Do You Want

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines success as “favorable or desired outcome.” That’s like trying to eat a large designer cake in one bite. There are as many interpretations of that as there are people on the planet. And there are traps within personal definitions of success—traps where you give the responsibility away to others. As a result, it’s hard to pin down what success means to you. If you don’t define success for yourself in a realistic way, you may inadvertently say no to success. Think of success in simpler terms. What flavor of success do you want?

Photo of a designer cake with flowers, butterflies, and bows. Define what flavor of success you want for each job.

What does it look like? How do you measure success? Is success a book published, a book sold, a certain number of books sold, a certain amount of money earned? All the usual definitions may leave you unsatisfied. Why? Because most of those things are not in your control.

What You Can’t Control

You can’t control readers Not how many you get nor how they respond to your book. Even when you do mega-research on your genre, you have no control over a single reader. 

You can’t control sales. Certain marketing maneuvers will increase the possibility of sales, but you cannot control the number of sales you get in a day, a week, or a lifetime.

Winning awards or gaining best seller stickers aren’t in your control (or you shouldn’t be able to control those things.)

What You Control

As a writer, you can control how much time you dedicate to learning and plying your craft. You can control the number of words you write, the skill with which you write, and how you publish a book. (Fortunately, there are more options for publishing your book today than ever before.)

You can even control (within the limits of your fiscal abilities) how much advertising you do.

Best of all, you control your definition of success.

How Do You Define Success?

Your definition depends upon why you write. And your why won’t be the reason any other writer writes.

Joanna Penn, of the Creative Penn fame, has an excellent blog post and podcast on what makes a good definition.

Better yet, is the recent post on SFWA’s website, Story Cake by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley. In her post she admits to having different definitions of success for different pieces of writing. She compares the success of a story (or novel) to the success of baking a cake. That cake brings delight and enjoyment to a small group of family and friends.

Thing of your success in terms of a slice of cake--who will enjoy it. what flavor of success do you or they want?

Give Yourself Permission

Allow yourself to enjoy small successes–no matter what “job” you’re doing. Give yourself permission to celebrate the mixing of the ingredients, the baking, the icing and decoration, and in delivering the confection to a single person. Take pleasure in that smile from the person who ate a slice of your strawberry cake. 

Think about each story or job as a different recipe. What flavor of success do you want for that story, that job? Give yourself permission to enjoy all the flavors of success.

Hits, Misses, and Challenges

It’s the beginning of a new quarter. Time to review the hits, misses, and challenges of my intentions for the last quarter. And as everyone knows, the last month of the last quarter was a doozy. This whole first quarter challenged me in unexpected ways. 

image of an open journal with a black pen lying on the page--I keep a journal so I can record hits, misses, and challenges--do you?

1st Quarter Intentions

If you recall from my post describing intentions, I make a list of intentions for four areas: Making, Managing, Marketing, and Home. At the end of each quarter I review my intentions so I know what my hits, misses, and challenges were. So you can follow my analysis, here’s my list of intentions for the first quarter of 2020.

Make: 

  • Resolve problems with the first half of my WIP. 
  • Finish the first draft. 
  • Blog three times a week. 
  • Publish three monthly newsletters.

Manage

  • Change to a different email service.
  • Finish an online copywriting class.
  • Read a book once a month.
  • Make regular Social Media posts.

Market

  • Complete a second class on Amazon ads.
  • Get new covers for My Soul to Keep and Fellowship. 
  • Print new bookmarks.
  • Increase the size of my mailing list.

Home

  • Bring my husband home from the rehab center.
  • Rearrange the bedroom to make it more caregiver friendly.
  • Prepare a garage sale.

1st Quarter Hits

Make: 

  • I figured out the problems with my manuscript and have made some forward progress. It’s fun to write again, and I am pleased with the work I have done to this point. I think my readers will enjoy this next book.
  • I blogged three times a week. Frequently I wrote the blog on the day I posted it, but each of them were posted before my noon cut off time. I count that as a win.
  • I published on newsletter and have another one that will go out next week.

Manage: 

I signed up for a new mail service.

Market

  • The second ads class was amazing. It taught me many things.
  • I’ve selected my new cover artist.
  • Many thanks to the Voracious Readers who joined my mailing list this quarter. I deeply appreciate the reviews you gave My Soul to Keep.

Home

  • My husband came home from the rehab center at the end of January.
  • The bedroom got rearranged. And it is more caregiver friendly.

1st Quarter Challenges

Being able to bring my husband home again was a joy and a lot of work. I did not anticipate how much his care needs had increased. And the sheer number of doctor’s appointments and home health appointments alone were a challenge. It was difficult to find the time and the energy to write. About the time I finally found a rhythm that allowed more writing time, COVID-19 became my next major distraction.

Fortunately, my family and friends are all safe and self-quarantined. Some are essential workers though, and while they are being careful, they are in harm’s way.

1st Quarter Misses

Make:

  • Completing the first draft of the novel was a big miss.
  • The newsletter was a partial hit in that I got one out.

Manage

  • Learning how to move my blog post emails and newsletter to a different email service has been postponed. 
  • I did not finish the online copywriting class.
  • Reading took a big hit. I started one book and still have not finished it.
  • Make regular Social Media posts also is a miss. Writing comes first, so this one I consider a lesser miss. (If that makes any sense.)

Market

  • It took a lot of studying dystopian novel covers, deciding what I liked and didn’t like, and lots of discussion with a dear friend before I knew what I wanted. So no new covers yet. But they will be awesome.
  • Printing new bookmarks obviously must wait on the new covers.

Home

The preparation for a garage sale has stalled. It’s hard to be motivated to prepare for something when the date is nebulous.

Second Quarter Intentions

Image of a bulletin board with a yellow post it that reads "make things happen"

Since I missed many of my intentions for the first quarter and life is uncertain now, I’m scaling back a bit.

Make: 

  • Finish the first draft of If I Should Die.
  • Blog two-to-three times a week.
  • Produce a monthly newsletter.

Manage: 

  • Work with the new cover artist and have at least one new cover by the end of the quarter.
  • Learn the new email service.

Market:

I will await new covers before I attempt to make new intentions for marketing.

Home: 

Once a month I will remove one bag of items we wish to donate. 

Hits, Misses, and New Opportunities

For me, reviewing what I’ve accomplished helps me keep things in perspective. It also helps me learn where I spent most of my energy. That knowledge helps me adjust, if needed, so I can set intentions that are reasonable. 

Want to learn more about intentions? Read Orna Ross’s posts.

Not everyone uses the same method to track what they want to do and what they accomplish. There are many roads to reach your destination. And I’m fascinated by the different methods people use. Do you set intentions or goals each month? Do you track your progress? And do you assess what your hits, misses, and challenges? If you don’t, how do you recognize new opportunities and set your intentions for the next month? Whatever your process is, I wish you the best for your work, your play, and your health.

Are You Aiming for Their Writing Success?

These five women authors are the top five of the Best Female Novelists of All Time (adapted from Ranker)  On your road to success, you may wish to follow the path of someone who has been there. In this series of blog posts, we’ll briefly review the writing lives of these authors. When you are aiming for writing success, understanding what others’ success looked like helps. 

Virginia Woolf

1882-1941

British author, Virginia Woolf, produced at least ten novels, many short stories, plays, essays, and reviews. Virginia started writing in 1900 at eight years old. Her first published piece appeared in 1915. This home schooled author wrote about artistic theory, literary history, women’s writing, and the politics of power. Her novels fall into the women’s literary fiction category. 

Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.

Virginia Woolf

While working on her first novel, she asked friends and relatives for advice. Thereafter, she allowed no one to see her manuscripts. 

Image of the book Virginia Woolf, a writer's diary Details of her writing success and habits.

She wrote standing for a while because, like a painter, she wanted to step back from her canvas to get a better view. And she experimented with different pens, hoping to find the perfect one.  

Woolf put the price of writing at an annual £500 (about $41,000 today) and “a lock on the door.” She experienced writing success in her lifetime. She sold her work and made some money. But she was less successful than her friend Vita Sackville-West. Woolf was anxious and sensitive about reviews. Finishing a book usually left her depressed.

She suffered from depression and possibly bipolar disorder. Woolf committed suicide at 59. You can find a bibliography here.

Agatha Christie, DBE

1890-1976

English novelist, Agatha Christie created the world famous detective, Hercule Poirot, inspired by the Belgium refugees around her during World War I. She wrote over 60 Poirot novels plus the Miss Marple detective series and other books. Find her detective and thriller stories listed here.

At eleven, she fell ill with influenza. Her mother recommended she write stories to entertain herself. She published her first poem that year. And that launched her career. 

She usually had dozens of notebooks in which she jotted random notes. Plot ideas, poisons, and snippets of characters gathered in her notebooks. She spent most of her time plotting out the story. Then she wrote. She wrote by hand first and had someone type the manuscript. Later, she used a dictaphone. Her grandson said in the 1950s she’d write one or two chapters a day. She would take two or three months to write. Followed by a month to revise. Once it she sent it to her editor, she’d read a chapter or two to the family after dinner. At the height of her writing success in the 1950s, Christie churned out 2-3 novels per year. She slowed down later in life. 

Image of the book, Agatha Christie's Complete Secret Notebooks transcribed by her grandson they detail her writing success

Good advice is always certain to be ignored, but that’s no reason not to give it.

Agatha Christie

The best-selling female author of all time died of natural causes at 86.

Jane Austen

1775-1817

Austin published her six novels anonymously. We will never know the true reason she published her books by The Lady. Two facts may have influenced that decision. At the time, British society believed it unbecoming for a woman to have a career. And her father was in the clergy. 

At 8, they sent her to boarding school for her “formal education.” When she returned home, she made use of her father’s extensive library. She also began writing “First Impressions” which became Pride and Prejudice. She completed the first draft in 1799. 

Austin’s father attempted to get that first manuscript published. The editor didn’t even bother to open the package.

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.

Jane Austen

Her books are famous for her realistic characters and relationships. They’re about love. She set the stage for literary realism. Her writing style vastly differed from that of her peers. It was groundbreaking.

She died of an unknown illness (possibly Addison’s Disease) at 42. Her brother and sister published her completed works. And her brother “unveiled” her with his loving tribute, “Memoir of Miss Austen.”

She became an authoress entirely from taste and inclination. Neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed with her early motives.

Henry Austen

He said that she was surprised that her books made any money at all.

Her books were “discovered” in the 1940s because literary scholars and feminist critics brought her achievements to light. Read more about Jane Austen. https://www.janeausten.org/

George Eliot AKA Mary Ann Evans

1819-1880

George Eliot wrote novels, poems, essays, reviews, and translations. She published her first piece of fiction when she was thirty-seven.

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

George Eliot

Following the death of her father in 1851, Eliot used her inheritance to live independently from her family. She moved to London and pursued a career in journalism. In the 19th century, her life as a single working woman was unusual. 

In 1854 she accompanied her lover, George Henry Lewes, on his travels while researching his biography of Goethe. Lewes encouraged her to try writing fiction. 

She published her first three short stories in 1857. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede (1859), instantly became a best-seller. Later that year, the public learned her identity. That knowledge did not affect her writing success. Her bibliography is here.

She proposed using a pseudonym to her publisher. It served two purposes. It concealed her gender, disguised her irregular social position (living with a married man), and distanced herself from “silly novels by lady novelists.”

George Eliot caught a throat infection in December 1880. The illness triggered her existing kidney disease and caused her death.

Mary Shelley

1797-1816

The fifth Best Female Novelists of All Time, Mary Shelley, was an English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer, and travel writer. She published her first poem in 1801.

As a child, I scribbled; and my favourite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to ‘write stories.’

Mary Shelley

Homeschooled, her only formal schooling was six months at Miss Pettman’s Ladies’ School in Ramsgate. Because of her father’s employment, she had access to an estate’s extensive library. She made use of it.

She began an affair with her father’s married acquaintance, Percy Bysshe Shelley, when she was seventeen. Her father tried to break it off, but the two met in secret. They

Shelley was eighteen years old when she wrote Frankenstein. It took two years of painstaking wordsmithing before she finished the novel. She published it the following year. The public shocked by the “atrocious” story was further shocked that such a story was written by a woman. 

She revised and republished it twice. The original with notations from her and Percy is at the Smithsonian Institute. The British publisher SP Books  published a facsimile of that manuscript last year. A limited edition, it honored the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein’s publication.

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.

Mary Shelley

The archives are full of her attempts to get published. Editors rejected her over and over because of her gender. Some surmise there were rejections because of her relationship with Percy. Some people felt she distracted him from his literary endeavors, others disapproved of their unmarried relationship. Even after Percy’s wife died and she and he married, they faced societal and family disapproval.

Still, Shelley wrote seven novels and many short stories. Her bibliography is here.


1775-1976. Five independent women over a 200 year span of time. They empowered themselves and were authors despite the social expectations around them. Did any of these women inspire you? Are you aiming for their writing success? Or is your idea of success something different?

Outtake from Fellowship & A Lesson

I’m deep in the last minute edits for Fellowship before I send it to the proofreader. Writing a book in the same world as My Soul to Keep that is not a sequel, has been interesting. So this week, I want to share an outtake from Fellowship and a lesson learned about writing before research.

I am both a planner and a pantser. By that I mean, I write the story with a general outline. Since the outline isn’t very detailed I often go “off on a tangent.” I let the characters take me places that often end up on the cutting room floor as this excerpt did after I learned an important lesson.

Image of a call button for a walkie talkie for my outtake from Fellowship and a lesson

Before Research

Ian opened and closed his fists over and over. It was weird. He’d never been afraid of hiking through the mountains before. It’s not right. Not fair. The Blue Ridge Mountains are my mountains. It was where Pop had taught him to hunt and fish and think.

Pop was wrong about the Fellowship though. He thought it just needed some improvements. Pop used to talk about a time when he was young when he could walk where ever he wanted, even the streets of Lynchburg, without fear. Pop had said that was before the Prophet Josiah Shephard and billionaire J. D. Wagner created the Fellowship. Pop said at first it was about love and God and good stuff so he wanted to save that part of the Fellowship. Ian wasn’t about to try to save the Fellowship. Not after what they’d done.

When he got back to the old neighborhood his sense of danger increased. He pulled his collar up and the bill of his cap down. He couldn’t afford to be identified. One of these neighbors had turned his parents in. How could he find out who? His reporter’s brain didn’t give him an answer. He couldn’t interview people. Or visit the newspaper morgue—not that that would do him any good. How did he stay hidden and find out who betrayed his family? If it were just him, he’d not care. He’d suss out the details. But he owed it to Ma and Pop to keep Leslie and Travis and Kenny safe. So he couldn’t just go up to Monty’s house and knock like he used to.

He made a second circuit and passed the park again. Kids were playing, swinging, running around. A dark-haired boy about Kenny’s age ran smack into Ian’s legs.

“Whoa, kid. Watch where you’re going.”

The boy looked up at Ian. “Sorry mister.” The kid’s walkie talkie squawked. “Paulie. Come in Paulie.”

Ian caught his breath and squatted on his heels to be eye-level with the kid. “Say, if you let me use your walkie talkie for a minute, we’ll call it even, okay?”

The boy gave him a dubious look then stared at his walkie talkie.

“Don’t worry. I’ll give it back.” He grabbed the walkie talkie. For a moment he thought the kid wouldn’t let go, then he released it. “I’m gonna take three giant steps,” Ian said. “You can still see me, but I can talk to my buddy.” It was a long shot, but Monty loved to listen to CB radios and said he got kid chatter all the time. Ian took three giant steps and changed the walkie talkie’s channel. “This is Thorn calling Blackbird. Thorn to Blackbird. Do you read?”

Nothing but static answered. Ian glanced back at the little boy whose dubious look had changed to a pout.

“Thorn to Blackbird. I have a situation.”

“This is Blackbird,” Monty answered. “How do I know this is really Thorn?”

“I’ll meet you at the GTH in ten,” Ian said. “Over.”

“Holy cow. It really is you?” Monty sounded almost reverent. “Meet at the GTH in ten. Over and out.”

Ian’s chest filled with air and hope for the first time in days. He changed the walkie’s channel back and returned the walkie talkie to the little boy. “Thanks, little man.”

He zig-zagged through the park to be certain no one followed him. His steps were more sure, more energetic than they had been. His circuitous route still got him to the Green Tree House five minutes early.

He climbed the rope, crawled inside the patched-together little house, and pulled the rope up behind him.

Four and a half minutes later someone thumped a three-three-four rhythm on the tree. Ian peeked out. Monty flashed a mouthful of white teeth up at him.

Monty climbed into the tree house and bumped his fists against Ian’s shoulder. “Man, it’s good to see you,” Monty said.“What happened? Your whole family— I was afraid that you all were—you know.”

“Ma, Pop, and Henry were.” Ian’s throat thickened.

Monty gaped at him. “How did you—?”

“I was at the paper, the kids were at school…” Somehow Ian couldn’t say more.

“Where have you been?” Monty asked. “You look like you’ve slept in your clothes.”

Ian gave him a wan smile. “I did. All of our stuff was gone. I grabbed some stuff, but blankets, a hatchet, and a knife doesn’t help much.”

“Wow.” Monty scratched his neck. “I’ll be you’re hungry.” He pulled a napkin-wrapped lump out of one pocket then the other, handed them to Ian.

One napkin held a sandwich, the other an apple. Roast beef! Ian wolfed down half of the sandwich in two bites. “Thanks, man,” he muttered and took another big bite.

Monty folded his legs Indian-style. “Maybe you could hide in my basement?”

Ian shook his head. “Thanks, but we can’t put you in danger.”

“We? Who else made it?”

“Leslie, Travis, and Kenny.”

Monty’s mouth made an “O” but no sound came out. He closed his mouth and gave Ian an expectant look.

“I need help, Monty. We’re cold and hungry.”

Monty snickered at that one.

“We need a tent, clothes, food, and a hunting rifle.” Ian looked down at his feet. This asking for help was hard.

Monty rubbed his chin. “Mother has been collecting for the poor. I could bring you some blankets and canned goods, she’ll never miss them.”

Ian swallowed the lump that had risen in his throat. “That would be great.” He hesitated. “I could really use a hunting rifle. Know where I could get one?”

Monty wrinkled his brow and pressed his lips together, his concentrating face. “You know I’d have to get a license approved through the Second Sphere to get a rifle. I sure as heck don’t want to bring them down on you. I’ll have to think on that one and a tent. Haven’t ever seen a tent donated.”

“Sure,” Ian said, his voice showed more of his disappointment than he’d meant to do. He forced a smile. “Don’t do anything that’ll get you in trouble. Canned foods and blankets will be a big help.”


The Real World

I don’t remember what prompted me to look up walkie-talkies after I wrote the scene, but I did.

The first device to be widely nicknamed a “walkie-talkie” was developed by the US military during World War II, the backpacked Motorola SCR-300.

Wikipedia

The first handheld walkie-talkie was the AM SCR-536 transceiver from 1941, also made by Motorola, named the Handie-Talkie (HT). 

Wikipedia

After the war, surplus handheld radios made it into the market. The public called them “walkie-talkies.” At least one toy version of the handheld radios first appeared in the 1950s from Remco. Their limited availability, popularity, and particularly their limited range made them not acceptable for use in this story. Gulp. Lesson learned: do your research before writing thousands of words. Or, do as I did, but be prepared to cut your darlings.

The scene was cut. I used surplus Handie-Talkies instead of walkie-talkies.

Shameless Plug

You’ll have to read the book to see how the Handie-Talkie became important in the story. The book is available for preorder on Amazon. You can read an early draft of the beginning of Fellowship or check out the book page. And, if you are a Facebook user, follow my page and search for and join the group “Band of Dystopian Authors and Fans for my launch party. (Date to be announced soon.)

I hope you enjoyed reading this outtake from Fellowship and a lesson learned. Sometimes lessons are expensive. Sometimes they are simply a lesson for this story.