Tips to Make Us Stronger Authors—Both Fiction & Non-Fiction

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mark Roy.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Mark Roy.

For those confused, WordPress has been possessed this week and for some reason published some notes I’d saved in a DRAFT. Sorry for the confusion.

Anyway…

Becoming a non-fiction author has a number of steps. After having written both fiction and non-fiction, I don’t think one is easier than the other. There are unique challenges to both. Yet, I will say that even novelists can benefit from the same tactics employed by good NF authors.

Like fiction, there’s seemingly infinite variety of types of non-fiction. There’s self-help, narrative non-fiction, informational non-fiction, and on and on. Much of being successful in non-fiction (and fiction) is finding your audience, then developing your voice and then marrying your voice to a style that suits you.

Think Like a Journalist 

A friend of mine, Author Caitlin Kelly, is the one who pointed this out to me, and she is an amazing and successful journalist and NF author who has a fantastic blog-–a vast treasure for all kinds of writers. She’s gruff, tough, and knows her stuff ;). If you want to ROCK non-fiction? She’s a priceless guide.

I’d been doing this “thinking like a journalist” thing for some time, just wasn’t particularly aware of it (until Caitlin made the observation). Journalists pay close attention to the world around them, collect, analyze and see patterns.

This is why good NF is more than just a glorified term-paper. We collect data, facts, information, opinions, then fashion them together into something uniquely our own that serves our audience. NF is less about listing pages of facts and studies. Leave that to the doctoral theses.

Journalists search for facts then tether those facts to the human story and assign relevance.

Novelists can learn from this tactic, too.

Where do you think so many of the best-selling story ideas come from? Many are birthed from headlines, history books, or human experience…then placed into story form. Fiction authors don’t have to pull ideas from the ether. The world abounds with stories if we pay attention.

Research can help with theme.

I recently helped a new writer plot her trilogy, but the underlying themes (though a fantasy) were essentially the injustice of slavery and sex-trafficking. These are two hot issues that have plagued humanity since the dawn of time. How much richer can a fantasy about slavery be if the author immerses herself in the sociological and psychological issues surrounding the topic TODAY (on planet Earth) then threads those motifs into her world?

Do Our Homework (Even When It’s Hard)

In my new NF book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World, I easily read almost 8,000 pages of other people’s research. Some of it was fun to read (I LOVE anything by Seth Godin and Neil Postman). Others? Real brain-benders. The Gutenberg Galaxy—The Making of Typographic Man was a the toughest 293 pages on my life, but Marshall McLuhan’s work was pivotal to the message I longed to convey.

The message is the medium and society cannot help but be influenced by technology.

I read exhausting works about neuroscience, the changes in the biological structure of the human brain over the centuries (due to technology shifts) and then, how this in turn, influenced society and economics. Why? Because I wanted to support why I don’t believe in relying on spam, ads and traditional marketing. I needed evidence that empirically demonstrated my contention that modern humans have literally learned to “un-see” such things (then offer solutions as to what humans would see).

Sure there are non-fiction books out there that thread together a bunch of fluff, glitter and opinions. But if we want to be a mark above? We must know our stuff.

This applies to novelists as well.

I once tossed a romantic suspense across the room because the author had the protagonist “putting the safety on a revolver” (which is an interesting trick since revolvers don’t have and never have had a safety). If there are guns in your book and you’re being specific? Understand how that gun works. Go to a shooting range. Ask questions like a journalist would.

Yes, I am notorious in movies for counting rounds.

Wow, a Magic Glock. He shot 35 rounds and never had to reload. Where can I get one of THOSE?

For Non-Fiction AND Fiction, The Devil is in the Details

I’ve read many samples of thrillers with military characters, but the characters were saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things that anyone trained to be a SEAL, a Green Beret, a military contractor or even a mercenary simply would never do. I’ve read about victims shot by a high-powered rifle with a small bullet-wound to show for it.

Um, said victim would likely be a red mist.

There’s a difference in gunshot wounds from a full-metal-jacket round as opposed to a hollow-point round, and, if we have this stuff in our books? Better nail the facts. Our reading audience (likely military people, law enforcement, or people who know/like guns) are reading and they can spot when we fail to do our research.

Years ago, I had a writer with a futuristic thriller/spy novel. He tried to “make up” a futuristic weapon, yet there was no making him understand that the caliber of his made-up weapon made it a ROCKET LAUNCHER. A little research and he’d have known that caliber is the diameter of the bullet. Want to write futuristic stuff and create futuristic weapons? Subscribe to Popular Science  and Popular Mechanics and READ.

author

Tear out articles and file them away to refer to later. Bookmark useful web pages. Learn to use OneNote.

Have spree killers, hustlers, serial killers, thrill-killers, arsonists, manipulators, narcissists, sociopaths or sex-addicts in your book? The DSM-5 is your new best friend (and can be helpful for family reunions, too :D).

This professional reference can add dimension (and validity) to our characters. Research teaches us their behaviors, patterns and progression. For instance, someone who’s raped and killed women will only escalate. He will not deescalate back to being a Peeping Tom. He also won’t suddenly switch from murdering prostitutes to robbing banks. Different M.O. Different psychological profile.

Whether you write non-fiction or fiction, research is key. Read, subscribe to periodicals, read blogs and don’t be afraid to ask experts. Many are happy to help writers get the facts straight. The FBI has a page just for writers. There are also some fabulous reference tools out there. Look to cool guides like Deadly Doses–A Writer’s Guide to Poisons (and the rest of the series—AWESOME stuff!).

What have been some of your best resources? Have you had trouble finding where to go to find the information you need? Do you get frustrated with incorrect details? Is there a white panel van parked in front of your house, too?

I love hearing from you!

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Since it was such a HUGE success and attendees loved it, I am rerunning the Your First Five Pages class SATURDAY EDITION. Use the WANA15 code for 15% off. Yes, editors REALLY can tell everything they need to know about your book in five pages or less. Here’s a peek into what we see and how to fix it. Not only will this information repair your first pages, it can help you understand deeper flaws in the rest of your manuscript.

My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.

WANACon, the writing conference of the future is COMING! We start with PajamaCon the evening of October 3rd and then October 4th and 5th we have some of the biggest names in publishing coming RIGHT TO YOU. If you REGISTER NOW, you get PajamaCon and BOTH DAYS OF THE CONFERENCE (and all recordings) for $119 (regularly $149). Sign up today, because this special won’t last and seats are limited. REGISTER HERE.

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  1. #1 by MonaKarel on September 5, 2013 - 9:33 am

    Best source for historic guns, the Single Action Shooting Society. They shoot black powder, dress authentically (some of them) and many have made a study of the real Old West, not Disney’s version. IMO if you’re going to have your dainty heroine use any sort of weapon and not get knocked on her skinny butt you need to learn how to handle that weapon yourself. Ditto with driving a semi or riding a horse.

  2. #2 by Grigory Ryzhakov (@GrigoryRyzhakov) on September 5, 2013 - 9:53 am

    Hi Kristen, awesome post as always. And good for you to stress out the improtance of doing research. Nothing distracts me more from a book than poorly researched facts.

    I consider my blog a non-fiction format: I mainly blog on Russian literature, film and biological sciences. I always try to blog about something useful, informative yet in an entertaining manner.

    Blogging for me is form of educating rather than self-expression (as in my fiction).

    Of course, I can’t compete with big websites like popsci, but my blog is my web image and people can see through it what kind of fiction they can expect from me.

    Thank you for the fantastic links :)

  3. #3 by Veronica Forand on September 5, 2013 - 10:00 am

    Okay-love this article- the earlier version freaked me out with three two to three lines and I was lost without my daily hit of Lamb.

    Thanks.

    PS- If you want to know the effects of bullets on the body- ask an ER nurse or doctor- they can give you details you didn’t want to know.

    • #4 by Shawn Mc on September 5, 2013 - 11:06 am

      …or husbands who have been there and done that. ;)

    • #5 by Bill Bartlett on September 6, 2013 - 8:23 am

      Hi Kristen,

      In my story that’s set in contemporary times, I reference some historical items and events. I’m still polishing the story, but I included a section of notes after the end of the story, telling the facts and where I reported them as they occurred and when I used them as a springboard for the rest of the story. I love it when authors do that. I think it shows confidence in their ability to tell a story, but more importantly, I think it shows consideration for the reader and their intelligence. Thanks for the bit.

  4. #6 by Jon Jefferson on September 5, 2013 - 10:30 am

    Another interesting note for both fiction and non fiction is historical accuracy. Something as simple as claiming a style of cooking that came in the 80s and putting it in the 60s can throw people off. Sure the average person might not realize it but there will always be someone who knows better. Just like gun use, there is always someone who knows what is right and what is wrong.

  5. #7 by mpactlife on September 5, 2013 - 10:31 am

    Kristen, thank you for providing such rich posts. I was searching and was blessed to find a mentor. You encourage, inspire, and provoke me to be a better writer. Thank you!

    Sabrina Memminger MPACT LIFE

  6. #8 by wckedwords on September 5, 2013 - 10:32 am

    I actually find the research portion of writing fiction exhilarating. It satisfies my left brain side that pushed me to earn a degree in forensic psychology and study every biology-based science I could get my hands on. My creative side won out in the end (crime scene photos and forensic units can get damn depressing after a while), but I still love to learn new things. When I was writing a book about Navajo girls I stayed on the reservation. I slept in a hogan, ate the food, hiked mountains, and talked to people. I was even lucky enough to have a friend teach me to ride bareback. The research made the book better and I had fun while I was at it.
    Thanks for all of the great links, and I’m glad to know I’m no the only girl out there that catches herself counting shots.

  7. #9 by cynthiagrstacey on September 5, 2013 - 10:37 am

    Love the post! I watched an episode of Chicago Fire (one of my favorite TV shows) where there was a fire in a men’s prison. The fire fighting team enters the jail and gets held hostage by the inmates who started the fire (didn’t see that coming!) the whole time I am going no no no….this does not happen, you have to lock down the jail before the fire dept will enter…. duh! (I work in a federal prison) I count the bullets too! You need to make it real. Thanks for the article Kristen, awesome as always. I will repost on my blog.

  8. #10 by cynthiagrstacey on September 5, 2013 - 10:38 am

    Reblogged this on Cynthia Stacey and commented:
    Awesome article by author Kristen Lamb.

  9. #11 by Shea Ford on September 5, 2013 - 10:39 am

    Thank you for all the references in this post! I researched till my eyes bled for my current WIP, The Stone of Kings. I still couldn’t quite get all the info I truly needed because I only spent 1 week in Ireland, where the whole novel takes place. But I’ve got a cousin there who is currently critiquing it for me to get all my cultural nuances right. :D

    The hardest part was getting enough information about Turlough O’Carolan, who is an essential character. I didn’t feel like I was getting enough about him from the internet, and my library couldn’t seem to get his biography. So after lots of coaxing, I convinced hubby that purchasing the biography for myself was totally worth it. And it was. I’m still hoping that I haven’t put words in O’Carolan’s mouth that would have no business being there, but I feel more confident that I’ve created fun fictional account of what COULD have happened if he found himself in the situation I put him in and how he would have reacted to it.

  10. #12 by kitdunsmore on September 5, 2013 - 11:01 am

    Thanks for insisting that fiction writers do their research! I will let you get one, maybe two things wrong, and still give you a chance (assuming they are little mistakes), but three strikes and I am not reading your book. And even though I write fantasy, I do lots of research on appropriate level technologies from clothing to cooking to architecture. My current novel is set in pagan Anglo-Saxon England (500 AD) and every time I learn something new (what a plant looks like or how they built their houses) I get a clearer picture of my action and settings, and I also have even better ideas for my story. Research doesn’t destroy my creativity — it feeds it.

  11. #13 by Kathryn on September 5, 2013 - 11:12 am

    This is a very useful post… and I agree even in fiction we need to know everything about the era we write of.This is why writing is much more than just sitting down and writing from our imagination.
    The style of cooking here has changed so much since the 70’s that my cookery books seem like another world.That would make a good article,,I see,

  12. #14 by Heather on September 5, 2013 - 11:18 am

    I keep my copy of my DSM-IV on my desk. I love it. Because I want to find good personality traits.

  13. #15 by Janna G. Noelle on September 5, 2013 - 11:32 am

    I find that doing research helps inform my plots as well, as in, every time I learn something new about my subject of interest, it takes the story in a direction I never would have come up with on my own.

    • #16 by Shea Ford on September 5, 2013 - 11:50 am

      This benefit is my favorite part of the writing process. :D

  14. #17 by Melissa Lewicki on September 5, 2013 - 12:52 pm

    I have that book of poisons. I needed a poison that could be sprayed and knock out the victim. My favorite recommendation from that book was that if you cannot find the perfect poison for your fiction book, make one up. We are writing fiction.

  15. #18 by Lauren Craig on September 5, 2013 - 12:59 pm

    Reblogged this on Blog of a College Writer.

  16. #19 by Barbara on September 5, 2013 - 1:24 pm

    Good stuff. I posted the link on my blog fb page.

  17. #20 by rpmas on September 5, 2013 - 2:20 pm

    “We must know our stuff”

    Oh Amen. I read one book where the main character called Prinny up for Tea in 1812. And then the took “One of those new fangled horseless carriages everyone is buying” to go shopping. I think the author confused Edward and George. Worse yet someone paid her to publish it.

    One well known Romance Author who wrote very funny novels lost me when she had a main character peel an okra. If she’s that lazy, I don’t need to read her. [She later topped this by having someone walk from the Northern Scotland to Southern England in a week. She lost my sister on that one.] When someone says she is one of their favorite authors I lower their IQ estimate by 40 points.

  18. #21 by Melissa Sugar on September 5, 2013 - 2:25 pm

    Hi Kristen,

    I wanted to let you know that I registered for your First Five Pages Webinar, and I included my correct email on my registration form, but I paid for the gold level course with my husband Daryl Gold’s PayPal account. His PayPal email is different than my email and I wanted to make sure that the information and notices about the course go to my personal email account. Do I need to do anything else to let you know about my payment coming from a different email than my own email account? I’m super excited about the class and want to make sure I don’t miss anything important.

    Thank you and I am sorry if the two different email addresses is confusing or an inconvenience.

    Melissa

  19. #23 by Elke Feuer on September 5, 2013 - 3:17 pm

    Thanks for the great resources, Kristen! I added two of them to my list. My challenge is that I live on a small island (British colony) and can’t used any of the police procedure manuals out there because although we’re a British colony, some of our procedures are specific to the island.

    Fortunately, I know the former police commissioner, so I’m able to pick his brain, but finding out the details of certain things is proving to be an interesting journey. My next step is to beg for a ride in the cop car to a crime scene. Cross your fingers for me. :-)

    • #24 by Author Kristen Lamb on September 5, 2013 - 6:22 pm

      Use Twitter. There are probably hashtags like #police and you can get to know people who work in law enforcement in the area you need.

  20. #25 by Cate Masters on September 5, 2013 - 3:50 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. When I was little my dad brought home the New York Times every Sunday, and I absorbed every bit I could. Some of those news articles struck me as lyrical even then, sometimes even just a photo caption. It captivated me. Wish I could afford to buy it now!

  21. #26 by writeopiaguide on September 5, 2013 - 4:18 pm

    Reblogged this on Journey to Writeopia.

  22. #27 by jennifer Windram on September 5, 2013 - 4:50 pm

    Being a nurse, this always drives me crazy when I watch a medical drama or any situation on TV where someone is near death and not hooked up to a single tube or monitor.

    In my own writing, I do sometimes struggle with finding that one little nugget of information I need to get the story right. And yes, whenever my husband gets on the computer after me he looks both perplexed and frightened.

  23. #28 by Matthew Wright on September 6, 2013 - 2:26 am

    Great post! Fiction and non-fiction writing are remarkably similar. I was trained in the former, but actually write the latter. Research and punctillious attention to detail rule; and so, too, do the basic rules of writing including taking the reader on an emotional journey.

  24. #29 by knotrune on September 6, 2013 - 4:15 am

    Totally agree about research. I was put off a book whose author did not know a VW Beetle (the vintage ones at least) has its engine in the boot (trunk) not under the bonnet (hood). Also recently read a book whose author had clearly researched horse riding and knew ragwort is toxic to them, but had not researched ragwort to discover it had not reached England in the 16th century.

    The trouble is I then can’t finish my own historical fiction because I can never research everything… As an ex-PhD (unfinished) I know it is impossible to know everything which has been discovered, let alone the things which have not yet been discovered. I need to overcome my perfectionism and just write. Or switch to fantasy where I can just make it up! Except of course you still need to do just as much research and I don’t have the head start that having been an academic medievalist gives me in that field… aaaargh!!! :D

  25. #30 by katbiggie on September 6, 2013 - 5:33 am

    Oh I’m sure I must be on a watchlist, since I like to write about terrorism! And in a recent storyline, I have a sex trade scandal going on. I hated even typing in the search terms for that research, but you are correct – if you want to ensnare the educated reader, you have to know your stuff! Great (and entertaining!) advice!

  26. #31 by Sophie Kersey on September 6, 2013 - 10:19 am

    Great post – I’m a non-fiction editor but write fiction so can see it from both sides of the fence. I was watching a medical show with my family recently and their jaws dropped as I rattled off my knowledge of the various types of skull fracture ‘Ah, with a depressed fracture there’s less risk of pressure build-up but more danger of infection’ – all researched for my novel Unspeakable Things. Any thriller writers out there wanting insight into what trauma really feels like – please see my recommendation of the brilliant ‘Surviving Survival': http://creakydoorwriter.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/if-youre-writing-about-trauma-read-this.html
    This book is not only an invaluable resource for writers – it is also one of the most fascinating books you’ll ever read – and I promise, I’m not connected to it in any way – just passing on the tip!

  27. #32 by John Hayden on September 7, 2013 - 1:31 am

    A great post. I’m fascinated by the acknowledgements page in many novels, thanking all the people and institutions that were sources of information. For instance, the acknowledgements in Sue Grafton’s books.

  28. #33 by Book Blather on September 7, 2013 - 2:48 pm

    Loving this post. “The DSM-5 is your new best friend (and can be helpful for family reunions, too :D ).” – LOL. Thanks for all the tips!

  29. #34 by Sinistra Inksteyne on September 8, 2013 - 3:01 am

    I love that second picture of yours! When I was studying scriptwriting at university, we were given a page of advice which included ‘at least once in your life, write something worth going to prison for’.
    Haven’t quite got there yet….

  30. #35 by Gry Ranfelt on September 8, 2013 - 1:09 pm

    Yes, I’m doing wanacon! Wooop! Just gotta pay tomorrow to get it over with :D I’m so glad I decided to join.
    Anyway, I find research hard to do because I don’t know where to begin. I think a post on this topic would be priceless.

  31. #36 by michaelawanders on September 8, 2013 - 1:12 pm

    This is really helpful, thank you for posting! I am currently working on a novel and there is a lot about it I need to change. Reading your blog encourages me to keep working on it and editing it to get it right!

  32. #37 by Daphne Shadows on September 8, 2013 - 11:57 pm

    Research. How can you write ANYTHING without researching first?

  33. #38 by saralitchfield on September 9, 2013 - 2:59 pm

    Brilliant post as usual – I’m a big believer in research. I recently proofread a novel and the research behind the action was meticulous – this does make a massive difference to the whole book’s impact! The last thing you want in the middle of a fight-scene is your reader pausing and going, ‘Huh?!’ A pet peev of mine is anachronism – it can actually keep me up at night. Research what you write about or stick to writing what you know! Hey, if you research what you don’t know – you can write about that too!

  34. #39 by Anne Stuessy on September 18, 2013 - 11:52 am

    I just love your posts! The single best forensic resource I know is D.P. Lyle, M.D. His books and blog (http://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/) are a great way to discover just the right poison to kill off a character, how blood really splatters, stages of decomp and many more tidbits that are sure to get you removed from the family dining table.

  35. #40 by Linda Williams Stirling on February 5, 2014 - 6:46 pm

    Reblogged this on Linda Williams Stirling and commented:
    Kristen is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and founder of WANA. She gives some great writing tips here. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
    Take care,
    Linda Williams Stirling

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