Better Writing Through Reading and Research

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot more. Mostly, I stick to contemporary fiction—especially in the genres I write in. This helps me in two ways. First, I get a look at the competition. And second, I see what’s hot and what’s not as far as reader tastes go. But there’s another benefit and, depending on what you buy, you can take advantage of another writer’s research.

But wait, you say. I thought writers just make crap up and hope they can fool you. Well, that’s true—for bad writers. Good ones take the time to learn about the world they are constructing and endow their stories with a rich undertone that immerses the protagonist—and the reader. Here’s an example. I just finished a novel about a journalist who gets caught up in a conspiracy that involves soulless corporate giants and an assassin with a love of greasy food. To be honest, the book isn’t great. Though the story is well constructed, I felt the principal characters lacked believability. In other words, they just didn’t ring true. Nevertheless, I am so glad I read the book. Here’s why.

The Only Source of Knowledge Is Experience
Einstein said that, and I happen to agree wholeheartedly. The author of the book in question is a former journalist and, when it comes to dogged reporters on a beat, he knows what he’s talking about. I really enjoyed learning about the mindset of the journalist, as well as hearing the faint praise and jeering commentary about the profession as a whole. The author has also peppered the story with discussions of the power of big media and print vs. online. I’m not saying that after reading the book I could go off and write my own novel about a journalist/detective. But I could certainly create a secondary character who’s a journalist and make them sound authentic. Experience counts.

Reading for Pleasure and Learning
When I was a kid, I always compartmentalized my reading. There were books I read to learn and those I devoured for pleasure. But it was rare that a book served both ends. I say nuts to that! Providing you pick good material, every book can be a learning experience. Often when I read, I like to pore over the language. This is what helps me to write better. But I am also aware of the setting and the jargon a character uses. Recently, I reviewed a horror collection. There was one, in particular, I fell in love with—“The Corpse King” by Tim Curran. Now, I could be wrong, but I am of the opinion that the author researched the hell out of the period and in particular about how resurrectionists plied their trade. This is an excellent example of a story that is pleasurable to read and teaches you something in the bargain.

Apply Your Knowledge
I’ve read a lot of nonfiction books about the demonic and possession. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I do bring that background to the stories I write. The last thing I want is for someone in the know to read my work and dismiss it as uninformed drivel. And this is apart from the writing. Readers either like my work, or they don’t. I just don’t want to be accused of ignorance when I could have just as easily researched before I wrote. And neither should you! Remember, writing isn’t just about the words—it’s about what’s behind them. Have fun.

Rebecca Scarberry—Where I Get My Storylines

Guest post by Rebecca Scarberry

[Rebecca Scarberry]In 2011, before I self-published any of my books, I struggled with the editing of my first novel. An editor told me I needed to practice writing. Author Seumas Gallacher told me about two short story contests I could enter. He said it would provide me with some good writing practice. This sounded like a great idea. I immediately went out on my front porch with a pad of paper and a pencil.

I sat there wondering what sort of short stories people might find interesting. According to the contest rules, the stories could only be 1,500 words long. I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Suddenly, a red-winged blackbird landed on my porch bannister and stared at me for the longest time. His beady black eyes made me think about my older cousin Johnny’s birds. When I was five years old he used to raise carrier pigeons, and showed me how well they could deliver messages. I immediately started writing Messages from Henry, a mystery for young adults. Henry is a carrier pigeon, trying to save his owner from death by the hands of her kidnapper.

After I wrote Messages from Henry, I started writing Rag Doll, a crime drama for adults. Ever since I moved to Arkansas in 2007, I’ve been eager to search for gems/diamonds in the Crater of Diamonds State Park. Therefore, I decided to write a twisted little mystery about a murder in the diamond park. There are many twists in the story, and readers are warned not to rush through this book. They need to pay attention for the ending has a huge twist.

After entering both of the short stories in two different contests, I posted the stories on my blog. So many authors suggested I lengthen the stories and publish them. They gave me many examples as to how I should do this. Therefore, I lengthened both of them and sent them to many beta readers. I also went to a local library with printed copies of Messages from Henry and asked many young adults to read it and tell me if they liked it. They loved it and this gave me the encouragement I needed to continue editing the book.

It took Seumas Gallacher months to talk me into self-publishing Messages from Henry, and I’m so glad he did. Six months later, I self-published Rag Doll. Both of these very short books are free samples of my writing capabilities, and continue to receive rave reviews.

In June 2013, while my husband was driving down a busy city street, I looked out the passenger side window and saw a big red beach ball rolling along the curb next to our vehicle. The wind had blown the ball out of a large wire container, in front of the general store. It continued rolling next to our vehicle for a quarter of a mile. When Rick saw the ball he told me I should write a story about the ball. When we got home, I quickly jotted down an outline. Weeks later, while I was writing Jumper, I decided to write the sequel to Messages from Henry since the book was so popular. I wanted the novel to be set in England. I’ve never been there, so I asked several British authors if they’d like to collaborate. Three of them wanted to do this. I chose author Francis Potts. He’s the author of the novel entitled Flying Lessons and five other books. We published Where Love Takes You on December 15, 2013. The novel has received all five star reviews so far.

After self-publishing four volumes of Jumper (illustrated children’s series in eBook and print), I wrote the script for one episode of Jumper. I wrote the script because many parents told me their children love Jumper and want him on television in an animated cartoon. I’m currently in touch with the Public Broadcasting Service’s producer of children’s programming in Virginia.

By the way, I never published the first novel I wrote in 2007.

Book Blurb

[Messages from Henry Cover]

Messages from Henry is a highly original young adult novella about a very unlikely hero, a homing pigeon. Henry is trying to save his owner from death by the hands of her kidnapper. It’s a mystery thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat, rooting Henry on, and praying for Evelyn’s safe return.

Where to Buy
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA

About the Author
Rebecca Scarberry was born and raised on the southern coast of California. She lives on a very secluded non-working farm in the Boston Mountains of Arkansas with her husband and four cats. She has devoted the last five years to her love of writing fiction.

She has published seven books in four different genres: mystery/suspense, romance, crime drama, and a series of children’s picture books. She has written the script for one episode of her Jumper series of children’s books. She will soon be sending the script to several television producers who’ve asked to read it. Writing for young children is her most current passion. You can find Rebecca on Twitter, at her publisher’s website, and at her Amazon author page.

Jessica Knauss—Turning Dreams Into Stories

[Jessica Knauss]Guest post by Jessica Knauss

I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. I have a little book of jagged pencil lines in which, at four or five, I imitated what I thought the printed page looked like because I was so frustrated with not having been taught to write yet. Nothing makes me happier than writing stories. I get inspiration from the most unexpected places, and maybe that’s what makes them so unpredictable and so hard to categorize.

I’ve discussed before the fruitfulness of staying in bed after the alarm to remember dreams and see if any scenes come out of them, but I’ve also made stories out of things I’ve overheard on the subway, that friends have told me, or that I’ve tasted at breakfast. I recently won a prize for a strangely dark story based on a photograph of a beach house. All these stories had to end up somewhere, and many have been published. I’ve now gathered all my published stories and the best of the ones that haven’t yet seen the light of day into Unpredictable Worlds.

Book Blurb

[Unpredictable Worlds Cover]

A teacher controls her students with an edible microchip. A reporter turns into a rhinoceros. A couple’s efforts to eat local go frighteningly awry. If you’re looking to be surprised, puzzled, or just plain entertained, pick up this omnibus. There’s something for everyone.

More than twenty years in the making, Unpredictable Worlds contains all of Jessica Knauss’s published and prize-winning short fiction as of March 2015 and a few of her best stories never before seen in print or eBook. Zany plots and outrageous characters will stretch your belief and tug at your heart.

WARNING: These stories contain exaggeration, elision, and disregard for “the real world.” Some even exhibit a tone of blatant optimism. However, they respect human speech patterns, admire good grammar, and hold proper punctuation in the highest regard.

“What She Lacked” Excerpt
Please enjoy an excerpt from “What She Lacked,” my favorite story that has never been published before.

After months of searching, I followed my instinct to Manhattan. I didn’t find my twin sister Dulcy so much by her presence as by the void she created in the commotion surrounding her. On my second morning there, she was standing in the middle of the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue, surrounded by a wave of powerwalking natives and gawk-walking tourists and endless shouts to “Get out of the *ing way!” or to “Shove over!”

The cops in Boston had been singularly unhelpful and told me they were going to close the case. “It’s policy, ma’am. If we have no leads on a case for a certain amount of time, we have to move on,” said the stern leader.

One earnest officer took me into confidence and whispered, “Pretty girls have been disappearing lately and we haven’t found any of them.”

“Am I at risk?” I had asked, figuring that if my identical twin had disappeared, I, too, would be the kidnapper’s type.

“No,” he said, too quickly. “You graduated from Harvard.”

Like most twentysomethings in Boston, I had more university degrees than life experience. But I’d had to complete the last one, in Library Science, in order to get any job at all in that market choked with able young college grads. “So?”

“Only pretty girls without degrees have been disappearing.”

So now he thought he was a profiler. It was like something from a formulaic TV show. But he was right in that, although my sister had applied to all the good drama schools in the country, nothing had worked out for her in the end. She was living with our parents because the money a person can earn from acting in commercials and student films is small and unstable. But over the years, she put a lot of speaking roles under her belt and was sure this, unlike all the other years when she’d said the same thing, was her breakthrough year. I chalked up the cops’ surrender to the fact that none of them were twins and accessed my twinly intuition—or just some solid logic—and reasoned that she must have gone to New York to increase her chances. Rather than waiting for her to call me with the news that she had been cast as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, I asked for some time off work at the library and headed out in hopes of seeing her name on the marquee myself.

I swam against the current of foot traffic and finally stood before my sister, who made no sign that she saw me. One of her eyelids was relaxed over her eye while the other flickered nervously over an orb that seemed to see nothing. A trickle of sweat appeared at her brow, but it was no wonder because it was the middle of June and she was wearing what she had been when she’d disappeared: a long wool coat complete with a Burberry scarf. The coat displayed rips and tears at every angle and swaths of caked mud across the back. Her hair, usually coiffed to perfection and shellacked to a hard sheen, floated wildly in the gusts from passing cars, trucks, and people, each with their distinct noises. Perhaps most disturbing of all, she was showing roots. My hand went to my own straight, uncolored blonde locks in the inexorable act of comparison I’d made my whole life. This was the first time I had ever come out ahead, so the panic inside me grew. The rude shouting hadn’t stopped, occasionally punctuated with, “Is she okay?” I tried to break through the din, grabbing her by the shoulders and saying, calmly and slowly, “Dulcy. Dulcy, are you in there?”

Both of her eyelids snapped open. “Christabel.” The name of our favorite literary heroine as children flowed from her lips as if she were casually conversing at a dinner party.

“No, it’s Fran. I’m your sister Fran.” […]

About the Author
Born and raised in Northern California, Jessica Knauss is a New Englander by design. She has worked as a librarian and a Spanish teacher and earned a PhD in Medieval Spanish Literature before entering the publishing world as an editor. She has published fiction, poetry, and nonfiction in numerous venues. Her acclaimed novella about a woman’s awakening through sleeping in trees, Tree/House, is also currently available, and her contemporary paranormal Awash in Talent is coming soon. Bagwyn Books will publish her medieval epic Seven Noble Knights in late 2016. Get updates on her writing at her blog: jessicaknauss.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+.

Unpredictable Worlds releases for Kindle on May 15 with a softcover edition available the same day. Unpredictable Worlds is already available for preorder for only 99 cents. Once it’s out there in the world, the price will go up, so save at least 66% now and have this strangely amazing book delivered to your device on release day.

Where to Buy
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA