Hi everyone! Today I am so excited to welcome Sarah Madison to the blog. Sarah is here to talk about her book, The Boys of Summer. Some of you may remember my review of this one a while back and I really enjoyed it. Today she is sharing more about the book as well as offering a great giveaway. Please join me in giving her a big welcome!
Research: The Backbone of Your Story
I recently was asked how much research I did for the dream sequence in The Boys of Summer. Oh man, what a question! See, the dream sequence wasn’t supposed to be more than a single scene, a way of getting an image out of my head so I could move on with the story. I’d already set up Rick Sutton as a former Air Force pilot. For some reason, however, I kept seeing this image of him as an RAF pilot from WW2, leaning negligently up against the side of a Spitfire. It didn’t belong in my story, but I couldn’t shake the image, just the same.
I decided I’d make it part of a dream. A single scene, a brief impression, nothing more. It was a hot image, and I wanted to use it. So I began poking around on Wikipedia and Google to check a few facts. Find a photo of a Spitfire. Determine if the term ‘dog tags’ was in use in WW2, or if Americans served in the RAF before the US had officially entered the war. For the purposes of my dream, I wanted it set in England, near Bletchley Park where the code breaking was taking place. A few simple facts, that’s all.
But the funny thing about fact-finding is that one set of facts leads to another. I discovered how much fighter pilots loved the Spitfire—they waxed poetical in their description of this plane and what she could do. Right then, I knew had to use that. Then I found myself reading books on the war itself, on the Battle of Britain. Reading Churchill’s speeches. The poetry of the time. I began watching movies, modern renditions of WW2 stories. What I ended up with was a wealth of information all layered both in fact and artistic perception. Mechanical details of flight intermingled with the stories of heroism and insanity on the part of the pilots. Near misses and deadly catastrophes. The more I read, the more I was appalled at how little I knew of the era, of the history of the war, of how close the UK came to falling to the Axis Powers.
I learned other things that astonished and horrified me as well. Like how young most of these pilots were because only a young man could handle the G-forces sustained in an unpressurized cockpit of a fighter plane and not pass out. Some of these pilots were little more than schoolboys—and many of them had been flying for less than twenty hours before they went on their first combat missions.
I also learned that homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment or chemical castration well into the 1950s in the UK. Neither your social status or your service during the war was any protection against this charge or the penalties if convicted. Alan Turing, widely considered the father of computer science and known for his work in code-breaking at Bletchley Park, was given chemical castration in lieu of prison time when he was convicted of homosexuality in 1952. Just before his forty-second birthday in 1954, he died of cyanide poisoning. He was a huge fan of the Snow White story and a half-eaten apple was found beside him. Credited with changing the course of the war with his success in decrypting German codes, it was only in July of 2013 that plans for an official pardon were announced, despite a formal apology being given posthumously in 2009 by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
All this and more made me realize I couldn’t just stop with just a simple scene. A dream scene to fulfill a little fantasy of mine couldn’t possibly do justice to everything I learned. I knew I was taking a risk by expanding my scene to make it such an important part of the story, but I knew I couldn’t tell the story any other way.
When it comes to research, there is no such thing as doing too much of it. None of your research on a story goes to waste. You may not use every fact you’ve discovered in a scene or in dialog, but it is the scaffolding on which your story is built, the backbone of its structure. Every factoid you’ve digested goes into determining why your character turns left when he might have turned right. Why he does or does not take cream in his coffee. Why he walks out on his lover or why he turns around and comes back. It is what gives dimension to your characters and your story.
No, you can never do too much research. Can you use too much of what you’ve learned? Definitely. You do not want to pound your readers over the head with the facts you’ve gathered, no matter how much they delight you. The research and the fact-finding, while ultimately important, are window dressing to the real story. Sometimes you have to bend facts a little for the sake of the story. If we wrote true-to-life police procedurals, we might find our readers dozing off while our heroes spend hours at their paperwork. On the other hand, I can tell you that some effort into knowing how real police officers or firemen function is crucial if your main characters work in these professions. I have to laugh when I read stories about crime-solving veterinarians or doctors who spend so much time pursuing bad guys that they are never at work! One wrong detail can throw the acute observer out of a story or television program. For example, I once laughed my way through an entire episode of Grey’s Anatomy because every single actor had their stethoscopes on backward. Now mind, that’s a tiny little detail, but it’s something their medical consultant should have caught.
Which brings me to consultants. There’s reading about history and then there’s speaking with someone who knows the nitty gritty of how things work. If you have friends in the professions you need to know about—ask! Not sure someone can speak or walk after significant injuries? Find out! A scene in which someone speaks at length while dying when it is impossible for them to do so is going to throw me right out of the story. Most writers know people who can help with these kinds of questions. Sometimes you just get stumped, however. There are some great online communities where you can go to ask your questions. I particularly like little details, which is a fact checking community on Live Journal. Make sure you read the rules before you blunder headlong into such communities—chances are someone has already asked your question before and if you just use the system appropriately, you can find your answer without having to repeat the question.
There’s a fine line between weaving your lovely information gathered into the pattern of your overall story and hitting the reader over the head with it. If it sounds like you’re quoting Wikipedia, you probably are. If it feels like you’re giving a history lesson, you probably are. When people sit down to a meal at a fine restaurant, they might admire the place settings and centerpiece, but it is the food that they came to experience. Keep your hand light with your research usage. It should add to the overall ambiance of the evening, not overwhelm the dinner.
David McIntyre has been enjoying the heck out of his current assignment: touring the Hawaiian Islands in search of the ideal shooting locations for a series of film company projects. What’s not to like? Stunning scenery, great food, sunny beaches…and a secret crush on his hot, ex-Air Force pilot, Rick Sutton. Everything changes when a tropical storm and engine failure force a crash landing on a deserted atoll with a WWII listening post. Rick’s injuries, and a lack of food and water, make rescue imperative, but it takes an intensely vivid dream about the war to make David see that Rick is more than just a pilot to him. Will David gather his courage to confess his feelings to Rick—before it’s too late?
About Sarah Madison
Like most writers, Sarah Madison was a story-teller as a child. She couldn’t help herself! She carried a grubby spiral notebook with her everywhere she went, filling it with stories about dogs and horses. When she reached the end of high school, however, she packed up all her creativity in a box and placed it on a shelf, to be stored with other childhood memories. She worked hard at her job and thought that being passionless was just what growing up was all about.
One day she woke up. She opened the box on her shelf and discovered much to her surprise, her passion was there, just waiting to be claimed again.
Now, writing sometimes takes precedence over everything else. In fact, when she is in the middle of a chapter, she usually relies on the smoke detector to tell her when dinner is ready.
To learn more, visit Sarah on her website, on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.
- Monday 9th December – Virtual Writers, Inc. (interview)
- Tuesday 10th December – Charlie Cochet (interview)
- Wednesday 11th December – Kathryn Lively from ARe Cafe (guest post), Annette Gisby from Zipper Rippers (interview) & Jessica Bell from The Alliterative Allomorph (guest post)
- Thursday 12th December –Sinfully Sexy Book Reviews (review and interview)
- Friday 13th December – Tammy Middleton from Tams Book Blog (also posted on MM Good Book Reviews) (review & guest post)
- Saturday 14th December – Kirsty Vizard (review)
- Sunday 15th December – Sid Love (guest post) & Twitter Interview with Sarah Madison (1pm EST)
- Monday 16th December – Kathy from Book Reviews and More (guest post)
- Tuesday 17th December – Joyfully Jay (guest post)
- Wednesday 18th December – Sophie Sansregret from Evolved Books (review and guest post)
- Thursday 19th December – Eden Winters from Magnolias and Men (promo) & Gay List Book Reviews(interview)
- Friday 20th December – Iris Pross from Smexy Fab Four (review), Mrs Condit from Mrs Condit Reads Books (promo) & Jesse Kimmel-Freeman (promo)
- Saturday 21st December – Beckey White from In the Pages of a Good Book (guest post)
- Sunday 22nd December – Sarah Madison
Sarah is giving away a $50 Amazon gift card to one lucky commenter on her tour. Follow the link for Rafflecopter giveaway
for your chance to enter.