Research Tools For Writers

A friend once asked me what my favorite part of being a writer was and I surprised him when I said it was the research that led up to the writing. It’s not the actual storytelling that I love. I need to tell the story, but I also need to let the voices out of my head. I mean, write down those thoughts.

Never mind.

Anyway, new writers often misjudge how much research they can do. If you think your information access is limited to Google search and Wikipedia, think again. Many of these sources are free and quite a few will probably heap data upon you if you ask politely. Pro Tip: Always ask politely.

Source 1: Government Agencies

Most government entities (this includes the military and intelligence agencies) have what is known as a Public Affairs Office. They usually deal with press inquiries and such, but they also work with authors. Public affairs or public information officers are gold mines for information. They can send you documents (usually free if digital), arrange for you to speak with subject matter experts, and even conduct research visits. The Air Force PIO I spoke with when researching Antigone’s Fall told me that if I had a published book, they could do anything up to a ride on a plane. Plane rides took more pull/prestige than I had, but who cares? Often these new contacts will be willing to answer questions, then check your manuscript for errors.

Source 2: Academia.

University professors are fantastic sources of information. Like public affairs folks, they are usually happy to talk to writers, provided you’re respectful of their time and have done your background work. Don’t call up Professor Snape and ask him to teach you everything about potions over coffee. Call him up and ask him to verify that you do need three drops of claret in your veritaserum. If you’re new to a topic, however, academics can often recommend some background reading until you’re able to converse intelligently on a topic. Also, if they refer you to a graduate student, do not take offense. Grad students are invariably up on the latest literature, are conducting their own research, and probably welcome contact from someone who isn’t an undergrad asking if Homo Habilus will be on the next exam.

Source 3: Other Writers

What? You’re shocked? A thousand years ago when I was trying to break into writing Star Wars tie-in novels, I had a huge box of West End Games RPG books, just like every Star Wars author. What I also had, however, was the idea to talk to some of these writers. Vonda McIntyre once fielded a cold call from me, and was kind enough to answer questions for twelve minutes. Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston likewise answered emails and provided advice, answers, and encouragement. Rather than send the same queries to Bantam Spectra, their information helped me craft totally original queries that failed on cool new merits. Good writers that we’re all apprentices at one point. Great writers remember that we still are. Don’t be afraid of asking writers for some help, but do your research, respect their time, and thank them.

Source 4: Classes

If you’re reading this, you can take classes from top universities–for free. edX is a resource for free courses offered from schools like Harvard, UCBerkeley, etc. In addition, some schools, such as MIT, offer many of their materials for free. It won’t get you anything official, but it’ll make you smarter about your chosen field.

Research Rules

  • Always be polite in your conversations and correspondence. You’re asking for something. Be humble and grateful.
  • Do as much on your own as possible. Look to experts to refine your questions rather than save you a few weeks in a college classroom.
  • Reciprocate. It may not be with these people, but at some point another writer will come to you for help. Give it with a smile.
  • Google and Wikipedia are fine places to start your research, but never enough to stand on (*cough*Dan Brown*cough*).
  • Show some initiative. Storytelling is an art, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know your stuff.

That’s it. Go forth, learn your stuff, and tell your tales.


Settings As Characters

Part of an author’s job is to transport readers to new locales–or offer a new perspective on a locale with which they’re familiar. Lots of little details can add a lot of authenticity to a story…or they can bore the crap out of a reader. My friend Dave loves rich settings, but loathes exposition and cascading streams of adjectives. A dash of flavor works wonders.

In Apotheosis, everyone’s favorite hoodie-wearing vortex of chaos arrives in Japan. Not only is it her first time out of the US, but it’s her first time to experience a culture radically different than her own. What sort of details might she note?

Most global cities look similar, but the signage gets confusing.

Most global cities look similar, but the signage gets confusing.

Sure. Signs and adverts will be really different than she’s used to. Street signs? (sound of raucous expatriate laughter) What street signs? Japan thinks street signs steal your souls, so it doesn’t use them.



Well, mostly. The point is, my first night in Japan, I got crazy lost because there were NO street signs. Not even in Japanese. A newcomer, especially one who gets separated from her group in Chapter 1, will probably note how easy it is to get lost.

Yomotsu Hirasaka is the gateway to the underworld. Right this way.

Yomotsu-hirasaka is the gateway to the underworld. Right this way.

This is the gateway to the underworld. Seriously.

And here’s the gateway to the underworld. Seriously.

Which isn’t to say that a character won’t make pleasant surprises. Japan boasts a surprising amount of English on signs. The one shown above isn’t in Osaka or Kobe. It’s in Matsue, a tiny town in a super rural prefecture on the west coast. You might not find someone who speaks English, but you’ll find signage.

Or make sense.

Weird signage, but still…

Other signs might baffle a newcomer. I cannot think of a way Isaura will not have a titanic battle with a Toto Washlet.

These are the controls on a typical toilet. Mwahahaha. Choose wisely.

Let’s see–fountain (or boobs), fountain (or boobs), and levitating fountain. Cool. I’m ready to toilet.

The environment is only part of the setting. Don’t forget the people. If Americans and Europeans look and act quite differently (Mayonnaise on French fries? You sick freak, Amsterdam!), disparate cultures such as Middle Eastern, African, or Asian will offer a number of details to share. In Japan, feathery anime hair is very fashionable on young men, as is wearing capris. That would stand out to a Seattle witch. Also, smoking in restaurants? Oh, the non-smoking section is marked by a sign? I’m sure the smoke will respect that.

So, describe the people and places your character encounters.

How do people on the street dress? Is there a prevailing smell? Sound?

How do people on the street dress? Is there a prevailing smell? Sound?

Small towns in Japan look and feel nothing like major cities like Osaka. Show the reader how!

Small towns in Japan look and feel nothing like major cities like Osaka. Show the reader how!

Not everyone can drop everything and relocate, but Google Earth, Streetview maps, and the Internet offer authors a wealth of resources to draw upon. Can’t get to Shanghai for yourself? Find an expat on social media. Watch some YouTube videos. Read some blogs.

The key point of this collection of mental notes to myself is to make the setting part of the story, rather than an opportunity for exposition. Work in some local businesses, some funky visuals/nasals, and let the characters interact with the world–not coast through it. Make it real for the reader and they’ll stick with you for the entire journey, even if–no, especially if it’s a wild ride for their sensorium.

Struggles and Breakthroughs

R. K. MacPherson:

Writers often feel like they have to perform on demand. That they must be Dashiell Hammett at all times or they aren’t a writer. Worse, as happened to me, they tried to make being a writer a core component of their identity.

That isn’t sustainable for most people and what happens if it fails? If you don’t write, are you not you?

Read this excellent post by Julie and see if you can identify with the struggles she describes. I certainly could.

Originally posted on Word Flows:

It’s been a while since I posted here. There are a number of reasons. I think I’m even going to share some of them with you guys, which means this is going to be a hard post to write, maybe even harder to hit publish on. I’m going to try anyway. Bear with me. This is going to be a long post.

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Writing Perspective

One of the hardest things for me to master as a writer is the voice in which the work is written. I wrote my first fabulously unpublishable piles of detritus in third person, which seemed to be the default for everything I’d read up until then.

Antigone’s Fall was written from the first person perspective. It was a thriller trying to be a mystery, so the intimate immediacy of first person appealed to me. I offered me a way to expound on my character’s thoughts and processes without having to make use of a sidekick whose sole function was to be the information dump dummy.

When I wrote Stormcaller, I switched to a very close third person. Isaura was still the POV through which the reader experienced the story, but we didn’t sit quite inside her head. Truth be told, I wanted very much to copy Martin Cruz Smith’s style of writing. Throughout the Arkady Renko novels, we see only though his eyes and we get his thoughts, but we don’t hear them. It’s an intimate perspective I would very much like to master.

That said, there are limitations, however. The close perspective works awesome when the main character is uncovering a mystery and most of the conflict ties to them. As I discovered in Assassins, however, it sucks for trying to build up an equally well-developed bad guy rather than a caricature. It was one of the main things I felt unhappy about with Assassins, but couldn’t see a way past it.

Now that I’m gearing up for Apotheosis, my outlines and plotting convinced me that I need to give The Big Bad at least a shot at presenting their case. Without real development, I’ll never be happy with my Big Bad because they’ll be just another angry [TOTALLY CLASSIFIED TOP SECRET] out to [STILL CLASSIFIED—MOVE ALONG].

I’m considering having three point-of-view characters for Apotheosis, and for this I need to reread Havana Bay. The mystery itself is only okay, but the fish-out-of-water setting is done well and the shifts between Renko and Ophelia add tremendous depth to the story.

If I can pull it off, I think it will make Apotheosis a great capstone to the Stormcaller Cycle.

That’s a big if.

Assassins – R.K MacPherson

R. K. MacPherson:

Here’s the review for Assassins I teased last week. I didn’t know how it would turn out, so I chewed on my nails until ouch!

But here’s the review! Pretty sweet!

Originally posted on The Review Hart:

Assassins_Cover_2 Title:  Assassins:  (Book two of the Stormcaller Cycle series).

Author: R.K MacPherson

Length: Roughly 240 pages.

Amazon Link: Assassins.

Reviewer: Shen Hart.

Rating: ♥♥♥♥


In this sequel to Stormcaller, the Amazon best-selling urban fantasy novel, Isaura Durand finds herself hunted. The FBI wants answers to the ritual murders in the Cascade Mountains, the blood mages want to put an end to her meddling, and an order of assassins wants her dead. Oh, and the rest of the eldritch community thinks she’s murdering other adepts.

So much for a normal existence.

Ordo Purgatio—an ancient fraternity of pious hunters—has come to Seattle to kill her. Resourceful and relentless, the assassins prove to be more than a match for her. Each attempt on her life grows more ruthless—and the stakes that much higher.

As she races through the chaos to stay ahead of her enemies, Isaura searches for answers. Why can…

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Notable Firsts

"It never snows in Kainan. Tennis shoes are fine."

“It never snows in Kainan. Tennis shoes are fine.”

It’s been awhile since I last updated things. A few things are afoot and a few things are keeping me occupied. Work on Apotheosis goes slow, mostly because I’m still wrapping up some plotlines in my head. I’m not certain how much story is needed.

Shockingly, I’m not certain who lives and who dies.

Much like these palms. They're really confused.

Much like these palms. They’re really confused.

The Review Hart is reviewing Assassins on February 17th. I’m a bit nervous, but also really stoked. This is the first time one of my novels has been reviewed without my submitting it for consideration/rejection. That’s just neat. Watch for it when it goes live and check out the other reviews!

The orange trees aren't happy about this precipitation.

The orange trees aren’t happy about this precipitation.

Although the site is still in development, I was interviewed by Women Readers. The site doesn’t officially launch until April, but this was also the first time I was contacted out of the blue to speak about my writing Stormcaller. It gave me a good chance to not only talk about my work, but also reflect about how far I’ve come since I decided to pursue writing. It humbled me that someone felt Isaura is a cool character, worth sharing.

Much like these winter shots. Can't NOT share these.

Much like these winter shots. Can’t NOT share these.

To celebrate the Assassins review, I’m putting Stormcaller on a Kindle Countdown Sale starting Monday, February 17th. With a bit of luck, new readers will discover Seattle’s little tempest-in-a-hoodie.

There’s probably a bit more news in a few weeks, but I’ll wait until everything is finalized.

Dislike Isn’t The Same Thing As Bad

Shanna Germain tweeted something that struck a chord with me (Minor 7th).

G/M/B = Game/Movie/Book - She's a super sharp writer. Check out her works.

G/M/B = Game/Movie/Book – She’s a super sharp writer. Check out her works.

I had a similar (albeit brief) conversation with Laura Gallier this week and it got me thinking about what makes a book good or bad. Laura’s criteria included technical defects in the book (formatting errors, typos, etc.), whereas I tend to dismiss such details and focus more on storytelling and grammar.

Disliking something doesn’t make it bad, per se. I do not like dry wines–at all–but that doesn’t make them bad. It’s a subjective view. As we consume content and review it, I think its important to note the distinction between disliking something and it being a bad product.

The first ebook I ever bought was a how-to guide for drawing. I opened it up and saw poorly formatted pages, with artwork that probably came from a skilled canine or unskilled artist (like me!), and had so many problems that I returned it. That was a bad book and my review reflected it, and listed those faults.

When I bought Three Stations, the seventh Arkady Renko novel, I didn’t particularly like it. The story dragged and it didn’t feel immersive or innovative. My review noted that, as well as goofs a copyeditor or editor should have caught, but it wasn’t a bad book. I simply didn’t enjoy it.

I shy away from reviews these days unless I’m wildly impressed (for good or ill) or the writer is someone I respect. The politics of reviews are very strange and too murky for my tastes. Writers need to remember that reviews will include criticisms (I have never read a perfect book), but reviewers need to consider what they’re dinging people on. Coming across a book with two cover images, or a funky character (a typographical problem, not story actors), or a missing period is not the end of the world. If the problem is pervasive, that’s one thing, but a few isolated instances I think are worth a pass.

It’s okay to not like a story. It’s okay to include those thoughts in a review. I think it’s important to note the distinction, however, between your perception (I didn’t like the plot) and quality (every other page was broken code). Stormcaller got several negative reviews, but I appreciated the fact that the reviewers added caveats such as “I really liked this book until X.” Even with the negative review, the honest remarks took the sting out of them.

Reviews are an integral part of a book’s level of success. Don’t do others a disservice you wouldn’t want done to your creations.