(Last week I talked about falling into a hole of research. This week is about the drags you might struggle with while working on a project, meanwhile new stories in your mind try to get you off-track. Also, I realize I’m a couple days late but once again, on my blog, I was right on time so if you want posts on time, go there.)
Distractions are constant in a writer’s life. It’s difficult to get beyond real life and enter the imaginary one in your head sometimes. I’ve found myself being pulled in various directions by various projects. I’ve been keeping up on my blogging, but it’s making me lag behind in writing on my actual story, not to mention a piece of flash fiction I started on Friday, inspired by my brother’s writing he sent me, has grown into something larger than just a short one-off. I’m enjoying it but it’s just another thing taking me away from the story I was previously working on.
Finishing things can be incredibly hard. Newer ideas are more exciting and enticing. You don’t have to fiddle with characters or figure out how the plot is going to go from A-Z, or struggle with making your writing halfway decent. Old projects get stagnant, fast. Something slows the process down or hinders you and the new idea beckons, with it’s lack of problems.
In my current story, I have the first long scene mostly finished, a fairly simple one in which two detectives go through a crime scene investigation, find a few clues, figure out a few things and leave. I thought it would be simple but was far from that. I realized, though I had watched numerous ‘crime shows’, I had no idea how an actual crime scene investigation would go. I didn’t mind if it was a little off but if it was so much so that the reader wouldn’t engage with the story, what was the point? So I struggled and am still struggling with maintaining realism, while also wanting to get on to other bits of the story, the real meat and potatoes of the thing. I’ve also been waffling on a specific supporting character, trying to make them strong, independent, three-dimensional. Bits and pieces of the scene I’ve already written are rewriting themselves in my head, trying to make everything fit better which stalls me on continuing it and makes new ideas look more interesting.
The problems can make your story seem boring or stupid. Maybe you realize you need to cut out a whole part and wonder ‘what’s the point’? Why try to continue with this obviously hopeless piece of writing when you can just start anew, fresh, on something awesome? Because, of course, the grass is always greener, the new story will lose its luster as well, and then you’re in the same boat you were in before, until all around you are leaky boats you never finished working on and you sink to the bottom of the ocean and I’m not really sure where I went with that metaphor but it works.
But you just have to get down to the gritty nitty. What a strange phrase, by the way. What the hell does that mean, really? Anyways, you have to get down and do it. Write. Which is what I need to do. So I’m going to. No more talking about writing, or writing about writing, or listening to other people talk about writing, or watching people write….Just writing. Period. Start writing before the distractions take hold, before the problems build up, before the hindrances trip you up, before your new ideas tantalize you with their new-ness.
And guess what? I spent time doing that. I spent time cutting away the crap that needed cutting away, rewriting the bits that needed rewriting, and it felt great. Just keep writing.
(First part here.)
Johnny flicked the flashlight back on and set it behind a bank of electronics. He had one chance. He used the faint illumination to circle away from the light into a dark corner. He heard footsteps just outside the bridge, near the hatch.
It was close. “Hey, show yourself!” A male voice called out from the hallway. It was a man and he must have seen the light.
Johnny creeped along the wall toward the open door, from where the voice had come from. His head thudded with pain and sweat dripped down his forehead as he moved closer and closer. He saw movement, a blur.
The unknown man took a few steps onto the bridge. He stood feet away from Johnny, facing the source of the light.
Though the man stood close, Johnny couldn’t make him out at all. Though the illumination from the flashlight was faint this far away, Johnny still should have been able to see a figure, a silhouette, something. All he’d seen was the blur of movement. Johnny waited, every muscle tensed. The man had living camo on, a piece of old-tech Johnny had only heard about. It was rumored one or two of Hal’s men had it but nobody really believed them. Johnny realized that was why he had never caught a sight of the guy in front of him, only felt a presence, just on the edge of his vision.
"Show yourself or you’re going to regret it, asshole," the man called out again. "This is my home."
Johnny saw the blurry movement as the man took a couple more steps.
A warning shot rang out, loud. It ricocheted off the ceiling. The man must have had a big gun.
"I’m not screwing around." The man approached the source of the light.
Johnny took his chance and ducked into the hallway, running. He spotted the light from the hatch. Just a few more steps.
"Stop!" The man behind shouted.
Johnny jumped, catching the edge of the hatch. He pulled himself up.
A burst of gunfire echoed in the hallway.
Johnny scrambled out of the hatch and onto the hull. He didn’t stop. He took a running jump onto the hull of another ship, then dropped down it’s side, hit the ground and kept running. He crouched and crawled under the belly of another craft. He planted his back against a wall and waited. He tried to control his breathing and listen over the sound of his pounding headache and thudding heart. Outside of his own body, silence dominated the Heap.
He felt the chip in his pocket and shook his head. The camo guy must have been living in the ship or maybe near it. Whatever it was, the guy obviously felt it was his territory.
Johnny was fine with leaving it to him. He started the long way back to Terra.
"You look like shit, Johnny. You been to the Heap again?" Ken, one of the gate guards, asked.
Johnny shrugged. “You know as well as I do, Ken. Hal doesn’t want anyone out there. It’s dangerous, he says. He doesn’t want anyone getting hurt.”
Ken chuckled at that. He pulled a crank that opened the metal gate with a screech. “Get anything good?”
"A headache." Johnny walked in and glanced at the other gate guard, a young man wearing a weary look. "Whose the new guy?" Johnny asked, looking at Ken.
Ken looked at the new guy. “This is Stan. Stan, meet Johnny.”
The two looked at each other for a moment. Stan had his hand on the butt of his pistol, holstered at his side.
Johnny turned back to Ken. “So, you or the new guy reporting to Hal tonight?”
Ken sighed, then nodded at Stan. “Him.”
Stan’s gripped his gun but still kept it holstered. His eyes widened. “Shit, Ken, what the hell?”
"Easy, easy," Johnny said. "Ken, we’re friends right?"
Ken frowned. “Yeah, Johnny, we’re friends. Why?”
"I got you that medic-tech that saved your son, didn’t I? Didn’t even charge you for it, if I remember right."
"Of course, Johnny. I didn’t forget that. How could I? What are you going on about?"
"Just this," Johnny said. "I need a favor the new guy to neglect to mention to Hal that I came in."
Ken took a step and put a hand on Stan’s shoulder. “Ease up, rook. Johnny’s a good guy.” Ken looked at Johnny. “I’ll make sure Stan doesn’t say anything.”
"You could just have asked me, you know. Jesus, what’s with the runaround?" Stan asked.
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know you. I can’t trust you. Even if I did know you, Hal’s got half the village in his pocket, one way or another, including half the guys who say they’re loyal to the Sheriff. But Ken here, Ken owes me. So I can trust him. For now.”
"Hal will find out soon enough anyhow, you know that," Ken said.
"Wheres your bag? Your gun?" Ken asked. "What the hell happened to you out there?"
Ken laughed out loud. “No shit.”
"It’s true. You got a smoke?" Johnny took a cigarette and a match from Ken. He lit it and took a puff. "Say, a woman come through here earlier? Short hair and goggles?"
Ken nodded, having a smoke of his own. “Yeah. She had a black bag too. Shit.” Ken smirked. “She the one that got ya?”
"You might say that."
"Well, she’s probably at Sallie’s if you wanted to know."
"Thanks," Johnny said. "Nice to meet you, new guy." He left the two at the gate. He tossed the cigarette as he walked into the center of town.
The dirt streets were mostly clear, though the afternoon sun blazed in the sky. The farmers would be out tending their crops and the rest of the people disliked heading outside these days. Firefights had erupted more than once in the past week between the Sheriff and Hal’s men.
That tended to keep most folk inside.
There were a few women and men in ragged clothing carried buckets of water from the well back to their homes, padding through dust. Homes in Terra were cozy things, a couple rooms at most with the basic necessities. A couple children played in a puddle of mud until their mother called them inside.
Some men and women stalked the streets as opposed to walking along them. Their eyes were narrow and their faces grim, expecting trouble at any moment. It was easy to tell them apart. They carried big guns. You could tell the Sheriff’s men by the badge on their coat. Hal’s men simply looked mean. The two passed occasionally, sharing looks of hatred. A few glanced at Johnny with suspicion but he just kept walking. Though Johnny had a reputation for scavenging in the Heap, the village was large enough that most didn’t know his name, only those he’d traded with and, unfortunately, the two men who controlled the village. Turns out they liked to be informed about those who scavenged old tech.
Johnny saw the largest building in the village, a three story wooden shack that rivaled ten homes in size. Sallie’s, the only inn, restaurant and bar in the village. It didn’t have a sign but it didn’t need to. Johnny left the main street. He had business to attend to.
He found a home larger than most and banged on the front door. The front windows were covered with cloth. He banged again. “Glen, let me in.”
The door finally opened, revealing a large man in a animal hide glaring out. “I’m busy,” Glen grunted and went to shut the door.
Johnny stepped forward and put his arm against the door. “Wait. I got something worth interrupting you for.”
Glen shook his head. “You say the same thing every time.” He turned around and left the door open.
Johnny went in and closed the door. Light came from two lanterns hung from the ceiling, banishing all shadows. Wires and electronic hardware hung from nails in the wall. A workbench stood against one wall, a lantern directly over it, a tiny set of tools unrolled upon it. A small device lay open, it’s mechanical innards revealed.
There was a table in the center of the room, cluttered with random pieces of old tech and two chairs. Johnny noted a handgun on the table. “You working on that or you nervous about something?” Johnny asked, taking one of the chairs.
Glen shrugged. “It’s getting worse. You know how it is.”
"Remind me," Johnny said. "I’ve been out a couple days."
"Well, the Sheriff and Hal ain’t getting on better terms, that’s for sure. Sheriff ain’t got enough loyal men to rout the boss and Hal’s got too much support from the townfolk anyhow."
"Through fear," Johnny said.
"Support is support." Glen took the other chair. It groaned beneath his weight as he leaned back. "Along with that is food is getting more and more scarce, crops ain’t catching and the old-tech is failing, which is bad for the crops and fresh water as well. We live on a desert world, John. Ain’t going to last forever."
Johnny shook his head. “We humans been here for hundreds of years. We’ll go on.”
"We’ve been scratching out a living using old tech to survive where survival ain’t possible otherwise. Old tech can’t last forever and we can’t make new tech."
"You been thinking about this alot, haven’t you?"
"Got a drink?"
Glen got up and reached into a cabinet underneath the work bench. He pulled out a bottle of amber liquid and a couple clay cups. He poured a healthy amount into each cup and slid one over.
Johnny took it. They clinked cups and drank. “What about the Scrapheap? I tell you there’s loads of tech still in there, waiting to be found.”
"Stuff that’s been sitting around for centuries. Won’t do much better than what we got now. Besides, Hal’s taking everything he can from there and loaning it out until his clients owe him for life. And let’s say you or another independent scav finds something out there. We scratch out another decade or so of life, what then? It’s all just temporary." Glen took another drink. "This world ain’t fit for life, ain’t nothing going to change that."
Johnny sipped at the brackish liquid. It burned like fire down your throat and tasted like ashes. It helped his headache though. “Sounds like you’ve given up.”
"If it’s our time, it’s our time. If not, it’s not. I’m not going to be like those hopeless crazies, preaching that other humans are going to come save the day, their ships suddenly appearing in the atmosphere to bring us to a new planet. It’s bullshit. Too easy. Life ain’t easy." Glen finished his drink. "I just fix useless shit and make it work temporarily. Speaking of, let’s get the hell down to business. What do you got?"
Johnny pulled the data chip from his pocket and put it on the table. “Got that from a ship that looks awfully like the one in the center of town.”
Glen went to the work bench and grabbed a small computer pad that he flipped open, revealing a keyboard and screen. He brought it to the table and picked up the data chip.
Johnny finished his drink and poured himself another. His headache was finally going away.
Glen plugged the chip in. “Let’s see what we got here.” Though Glen was a big man with big hands, his fingers flew across the keyboard with the delicate finesse of a piano player. He eyes widened as green numbers scrolled rapidly across the screen.
"What is it?" Johnny asked, peering over the big man’s shoulder, unable to understand what the text on the screen meant.
Glen got up and went to the cabinets under his workbench. His movements were frantic and he couldn’t seem to catch a breath.
"Glen, you alright? What are you looking for?"
Glen turned to him and gulped. “I’m looking for speakers. I need to give it sound.”
Glen turned back to the cabinets, searching in a frenzy, tossing things out of his way. “Because,” he said.
"It wants to talk to us."
(This wasn’t meant to be a series, it was meant to be a short flash piece, something quick and written off the cuff. It was inspired by a sci-fi story and start of a novel that my brother sent me. I don’t know how many parts there will be but it will be continued and soon. )
Johnny wasn’t sure what he’d found in the Scrapheap but he had a feeling it was important. There was always things to find in the Scrapheap, a graveyard of ancient spaceships that had all crashed in the same area. Hundreds and hundreds of them across miles of rocky terrain. Nobody knew how to use them anymore, if any were even still capable of flight.
You could find some good scrap in the Heap, if you scrounged long enough. Though it’d been picked over by scavengers and looters time and time again, Johnny usually managed to find an old trinket or two that’d get him room and board for a week at Sallie’s.
He knew the Heap well, a veritable jungle of steel machinery, filled with rusting hulks, extinct creations of man. There were labyrinthine passageways, mazes of metal to get lost in. Hills, valleys and mountains of shining glass and metal, all useless but for the treasures within. Johnny knew the hot spots that had been picked clean and the deeper zones that hadn’t seen a human hand since the crash centuries ago.
Nobody in the nearby village of Terra knew what had caused an entire armada of ships to fall in such a way centuries ago and many thought the place cursed because of it. Others claimed Terra’s ancestors came from these very ships and considered the place holy.
Well, Johnny had spent half his life there. He’d seen more skeletons and rotten corpses than he could count. Nothing seemed holy about it. As for curses, his livelihood came from scrounging the place. If there were spirits, they weren’t so bad and he thanked them now and again, when he thought of it.
There were dangers, that kept most folks away. Scavengers and looters could be cruel. Losing yourself or getting stuck in a ship, dying to dehydration. And there was something else. Something Johnny had felt more than seen. A presence that lurked near a particular ship, the same model of a ship that stood in the center of Terra. Johnny wanted to check it out but he’d always been cautious and the presence had kept him away. He wasn’t sure what the thing could be, a man living out there? Some creature from the jungle come to investigate?
On the day he changed the world, the presence was gone. He watched the ship for awhile, watching from the cockpit of another ship, using old-tech binoculars. Nothing moved for hours. It was gone, had to be. Maybe the creature had gone back to the jungle. Maybe the man had died. Regardless, he was going into that ship. He popped his binoculars into his pack and slipped it on his shoulder. He checked the handgun and flashlight at his side. The sun showed mid-morning as he slipped out.
He had to scramble over a pair of behemoth-sized spacecraft, huge transports and slid down the side onto the roof of the vessel he wanted. It was smaller than the behemoths, though still large. The model in Terra could be seen from the flatlands miles around.
There was a hatch on the roof with a datapad beside it. Johnny crouched down and set his bag down, pulling out a hand-sized keypad. It had a wire with an input on the end that slid right into the datapad on the ship. The keypad was the reason he fared well in the Scrapheap where as others did not. Getting into the spaceships wasn’t as easy as just opening the door. It required a code or code-breaking software and not many had either. The only guy Johnny knew who could make anything like it was Glen, the techie in Terra and only Hal’s men got them. Hal didn’t want anyone else getting access to old-tech. Luckily, Glen was a friend of Johnny’s.
The keypad beeped and the hatch slid open, albeit with a rusty screech of metal.
Johnny put his pad into his bag and put it over his shoulder. He held on to the edge of the hatch with his fingers and let himself down. There was another hatch but a simple lever within opened it. He dropped to the floor of the ship. He grabbed his flashlight and flicked it on, illuminating a hallway he was in. Though it was daylight outside, none of that reached the insides of the ship save for the open hatch. Johnny made his way toward the bridge. He found corpses in spacesuits, long since rotted away. The screens above the ship’s controls were broken and black. He hit a few of the buttons just for fun, a tradition of sorts, that he had. Nothing happened of course. His hand passed across something sticking out and he gripped it, pulling out a datachip that had been sticking out of the command console. He whistled. Datachips were highly valuable. Ancient knowledge came at a premium price. He couldn’t help feeling this was something big.
A flashlight flashed at his back, splashing light around him.
"Turn around slowly," a female voice called out. "I have a pistol aimed at your skull."
Johnny palmed the chip up his sleeve as he turned around, hands up in plain sight. He held his flashlight pointing to the side and kept his other hand open. “I’m not looking for trouble,” he said.
"You shouldn’t be looking around the Heap, then."
"Can’t help myself." He took a step toward her. "Curiosity, I suppose."
"Don’t move," she said.
He couldn’t see much beyond the bright orb of her flashlight. “Could you maybe point the flashlight out of my eyes, at least?”
He sighed. “Can’t we settle this without harm? You don’t want to kill me and I don’t have anything worth killing for anyhow.”
"I’m just supposed to believe you and let you walk?" The light came closer as she walked toward him. "Scavengers are just robbers by a different name."
He shook his head. “Not true, the thugs just give us true scavengers a bad name.”
She stopped, close and shined the light down at the ground, still aiming the pistol at him.
He could see she had short hair and wore black goggles. He didn’t see anything else because she hit him in the face with the butt of her gun. His head rocked back.
She hit him in the stomach, hard.
He bent over, gasping for air.
She hit him in the head again, knocking him to the ground. “Nothing personal,” she said. “Guess I’m a thug, not a true scav like you.” She took his pistol and his bag. She even took the cigarettes and matches from his coat pockets.
Johnny’s head rang. He could smell and taste blood. By the time he could get up, she was gone. He felt across his scalp for a split but all he found was a very tender bump. He wiped blood from his nose before pinching it to stop the bleeding. “At least she left me my flashlight,” he muttered. When he stood, something fell out of his sleeve and hit the floor. He reached down and grabbed the data chip.
Something heavy hit the roof and walked across it.
Johnny felt the hairs on the back of his head stand up. He heard something drop down the hatch. He slipped the chip into his pocket and flicked off his only weapon, the flashlight.
The presence was back.
Research is a vital part of the writing process. It can add life to your story, strengthen details and fill in background. We, as authors, have the ability to write about anything but with that comes a certain responsibility to our readers. We have to present a believable world in which the story happens or the reader will lose interest. If they can’t believe in the world because things just don’t work right or sound right, they can’t believe in the story and they can’t enjoy it. When it comes to a story, we have to do our homework. A gun has to work like a gun, a car has to run like a car, a character’s job needs to make sense, etc. Now, we can often gloss over certain things. The character can simply get in the car and drive off, but we can’t do that with everything or the story will feel flimsy. When you can add specific details, just here or there, a bit of knowledge, can really get the reader interested. If I read a story, get enjoyment and learn something? That’s awesome!
There is such a thing as putting in too much detail. It’s good for you as an author to know how things work in your story but you don’t need to try to teach your reader every single fact involved in your story. If your story is about whaling, that doesn’t mean you need to inform the reader on every aspect of whales, whaling, whaling ships, paintings of whales, etc. (I’m looking at you Moby Dick).
So you don’t need every detail of every system involved in your story but you do need to know the basics. If you don’t understand how something works, it’s likely that will come across in your story and the reader will be able to tell. Research adds depth and realism.
Now, you might say “my story is set in a whole new world so I can make everything up HAHA I WIN I TRICKED YOU BOOYAH!” or “I’m writing sci-fi/fantasy so I don’t need to do research”. False. Wrong. Research can still strengthen your story. Knowing how medieval combat was actually carried out can really make your fantasy battles that much more believable. Knowing particular topics in science that relate to your sci-fi story can make it that much more interesting to the reader.
There is another form of research you have to go through when you create your own world. What do I mean by that? Call it….Internal Research. You need to act like a researcher. You need to ask questions about this new world, the history, the politics, the systems in place, the people, etc. Though you are creating the answers, the questions still need to be addressed and ‘research’ still needs to be done.
There can be such a thing as doing too much research. When you’ve got twelve tabs open in firefox, each filled with pages upon pages of text and you’ve been looking for hours, leaving your story stagnant and stuck, it’s time to buckle down and just get to writing. Research is important but of course, writing is more important. You can always come back after learning new things and edit in what you’ve learned through research.
Write first, ask questions and research the answers to those questions, later.
Research is a necessary part of an author’s vocation. We write often about things we don’t know about and need to provide at least a minimum amount of realism to our stories. For the short story I’m working on and more projects set in the same world, I plunged into an ocean of content while trying to do some research.
It started with me checking out “The King In Yellow”, an old book of short horror stories that was referenced in the popular HBO show, “True Detective”. It’s not an amazing book filled with stories that will blow your mind, if anything, the stories are rather mediocre, but his work did inspire many authors, Lovecraft included. At the same time, I was looking over Lovecraft’s work and trying to find what may have inspired his unique mythos and tales. I started looking into other authors of the time writing similar things, all with an underlying theme of ancient horrors and beings beyond our comprehension, which, if witnessed, would inspire insanity. The genre is called Cosmic Horror.
It fascinated me. I found that Lovecraft had littered his stories with references to real and imaginary texts, ancient books of magic and he even created the famed “Necronomicon”. I don’t mean that he wrote “The Necronomicon,” but he made it up, thinking up a whole history of the text and referencing it in many of his stories. In fact, there was a group of writers who referenced each other’s made-up ancient texts, almost as a way of respecting one another’s work and perhaps, showing that they shared a similar world in their own stories.
I learned a great deal, in fact. ‘Grimoire’ is a word for a book on magic, which is pretty awesome, if you ask me. I also learned that grimoires actually existed, that people thought they could perform magic and wrote books of magic, rituals and steps to summoning demons and the like. That sounds so completely crazy today, a how-to book on magic, written in all seriousness, blew my mind. I mean, if I had thought about it, I suppose I would have realized that people obviously did once believe in magic and why not write a book on it? It’s just, in this day and age, that sounds so crazy to me.
Now you might be wondering why am I delving into this old world filled with magic and horror and things. My current project is set in modern day but with the idea that some of what Lovecraft written might be true, there might be Old Things, beyond our comprehension attempting to break into our world, there might be cultists with true grimoires performing sick rituals in an attempt to summon dark beings, and with these things there also comes a ragtag band of people who have been secretly fighting to keep our world together throughout history. Sound cool? I hope so. The short story is sort of a prologue, with novels coming after. The dream is a rotating cast of characters telling stories in first person….and that’s as much as I’m going to say, for now.
Research can be incredibly fun for an author, learning things they never would have even got into, otherwise, but it can also be a time sink. You can find your writing time dwindling as you dive further and further into details, history, etc. At some point, you need to say you’ve seen enough, at least for the time being, and get to writing. You can always edit things later after more research.
If you are a fellow writer, how does research apply to your writing? How much or how little do you do? Does realism matter in a story that much? Does getting certain things right matter or is the story itself enough to keep the reader invested?
I know, I know, I’ve been slacking on my tumblr recently. Good news is I’ve kept my blog Write-first, ask questions later has been on schedule so far so you can go there if you want up-to-date posts. I will get my tumblr back on track, posting Monday’s and Wednesday’s posts later today, thanks!