Tag Archives: writing research

Q&A: Not Enough Information

Not actually a fight question, but I couldn’t think who else to ask. My story has a living weapon type character who’s entire purpose is to kill the villain. But? Who are the weapon’s squadmates? Should I be basing them on Delta Force? Rangers? Green Berets??? It’s a landlocked mission so I’m figuring Army…Basically, who does a military send in when they need a dictator dead, and they don’t control the place the dictator is?

I hate to say it, but there really isn’t enough information to answer this question. Or, more accurately, the information I’d actually need isn’t here. I can offer some general advice which might help.

When you’re writing a story, once you’ve got your first idea in mind, your next step should be to conduct a lit review. That is to say, find other works that are playing around with similar concepts, and take a look at them. How did their authors put their story together? What did they do that you like? What did they do that doesn’t work for you? What can you learn from their efforts?

In this case, there’s a lot of material you can chew through. Ranging from bad 80s action movies staring Chuck Norris (Hell, The Expendables and Apocalypse Now both fit in this general theme), to a bunch of mid-90s XCOM clones (I’m specifically thinking of Jagged Alliance 2, here, but it was a thriving subgenre for a few years there), to loads of books, ranging from non-fiction to pure pulp. I can even think of a few comic books that might be useful, depending on what you want to do, (the Vertigo reboot of The Losers, and Queen and Country, come to mind immediately).

In the specific example of Video Games, they’ve become much more interesting for lit reviews in the past few years, with the rise of easily accessible postmortem analysis. A decade ago, I never would have considered looking at something like Ghost Recon: Wildlands and saying yeah, this might be useful, but the associated critical analysis and critique has been fascinating (even without playing the game).

Without knowing what you’re looking for, specifically, it’s kinda hard to pin this one down, and say, “yeah, this is what you want.” To be fair, I can usually make an educated guess at what someone’s aiming for. I can also be completely wrong; that happens too. So I offer the best advice I can, with the information given. It’s just, in this case, I’m honestly not sure what you’re looking for.

You do, however. You probably know if you’ve seen a movie, read a book, a comic, or played a video game that kinda conveyed the story you wanted to tell, or at least parts of it. You’ll know it when you see it. When you do, remember to look for things you can learn from what they did. Look for similar pieces. Look for what other people said about it.


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Q&A: Vet Your Sources

I suggest you read The Templars and the Assassins: Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman. Very interesting read. A lot of what we know about the historical Assassins is slandar by their enemies. Also the characters of Assassin’s Creed are just as interesting as their historical counterparts. How Ubisoft took the legends of both orders and expanded them is amazing and a stroke of sheer brilliance.

When you’re conducting research: One of the first steps is to vet the author. Who are they? What’s their background? Once you understand that, you can make an intelligent assessment of what you’re reading.

For example, Wasserman is not a trained historian. In fact, as far as I can tell he doesn’t hold any formal degree. His area of expertise is mysticism and the occult. His own bio describes him as, “an admirer of the teachings of Aleister Crowley.” So, if you were researching modern American mysticism, he might be a decent point or reference. Detailed historical analysis? Not so much.

Another thing to consider, when writing non-fiction is that bold claims require strong evidence. In very general terms, claims don’t get much bolder than, “everything you know about this thing is wrong.”

Wasserman… doesn’t really do that. He collected a lot of interesting tidbits of trivia, though given the errors I found from skimming through the first few chapters, I wouldn’t trust any of it without first verifying in more credible sources.

Wasserman also appears to lack the ability to evaluate the quality of his evidence. This is a very important skill in academic literature, particularly when evaluating historical events. Not everything said or written is true, and as an academic, it falls on the author to evaluate the available evidence. This often involves looking at the larger context of contemporary events, the agendas of people involved, and the amount of surviving primary sources.

For example, confessions obtained under torture usually aren’t viewed as particularly credible. As we’ve said before, turns out when you apply enough force to someone, they’ll tell you whatever they think you want to hear, rather than actually coughing up the truth. Torture is a crude tool used to confirm your version of reality, and is not a functional investigative tool. And then Wasserman takes these confessions at face value, and tries to find some way to square them away with reality.

Yes, I am frustrated by Wasserman. He takes a fascinating part of history and injects it with confirmation bias so severe it would make a YouTube commenter blush. As a writer, there’s a real reason you should study history. Looking at why people, real people, took the actions they did can really help you understand how individuals think, and the options your characters have.

What Wasserman does very well is demonstrate how you can take real people and events, and distort them to fit your setting. (To be fair, it’s not an intentional demonstration.) This can be useful when you’re working off some “secret history of the world,” story, or when you’re writing an alt-history setting. If you want to write a story where the Assassins were secret defenders of an alien civilization that secretly founded western civilization, then Wasserman and Erich von Däniken are probably authors you should investigate closely. Also Assassin’s Creed, for the Dan Brown on mescaline vibe, and because that  is the plot for Assassin’s Creed. (Though, von Däniken is pretty good for that flavor of weirdness in general.)

But, hey, at least Wasserman managed to secure an endorsement from a Golden Dawn magus for the back cover. So, you know, he’s got that going for him.


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hi i was wondering if you new anything about how to write from the point of view of a sniper? like in what would be going through their head as they take the shot? thanks :)

This probably isn’t going to be a particularly satisfying
answer for you; but you need to learn about your character’s profession. This
is a mandatory step when you’re creating, nearly, any character. The old advice
is to, “write what you know.” The restrictive way to interpret it would be
thinking you can’t write someone fundamentally different from yourself, which
isn’t true, you simply need to do some research, and learn about who your
character would be.

In this case, that means looking into the mindset of
snipers. There’s a fair amount of non-fiction material on the subject out there.
Offhand, Chris Kyle’s autobiography, and a couple books from Nicholas Irving come to mind. These are blind recommendations, I haven’t read any, but, they
should help you with understanding the mindset of a modern sniper. Obviously,
if your character lacks a military background, then these books might not be
exactly what you’re looking for, but it should point you in the right
direction. There’s also a much wider range of literature on the subject, if modern
day US Special Forces really isn’t on point.

Depending on what you dig up, the answer may be as simple as
simply running the math, adjusting, and then putting a round out there, without
any real reflection on what that bullet is doing.

The best source of information would be people who have
actually been snipers (or done whatever job you’re researching). You may need
to parse out and analyze who they are as a person from what they’ve written,
but they would be the ones who knew what they were thinking.


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Writing my first book. Please tell me what order I should go in HELP. I have index cards and an empty notebook in front of me, know exactly how I want my story, but what goes first? Research? Names? Plot twist ideas?

Ideas come first. Well, really, the first thing is: what excites you?

It doesn’t matter if it’s a character, a twist, a concept, or just a single moment. The thing you’re looking at and cannot wait to drop on your audience. It’s the one thing that will drive you to commit to the project, and will carry you through the parts that tie it all together.

Once you’ve found that, you should have an idea of where to start. Everything else is negotiable.

A formal pattern would be: concept, lit review, preliminary plotting, research, plot refinement, write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite… call it close enough to done, rewrite again.

Concept is easy: I want to write this. At this stage it’s fairly nebulous. You can probably scribble out a concept in a single paragraph. And almost any writing prompt you’ve seen falls into this general category. This is just having the idea.

Lit review is where the work starts. You need to go out, find other material in the genre, read it, and start building a comprehensive idea of what the genre you’ve just waded into really looks like. This isn’t always a necessary step. If you’re a hard core sci-fi fan, then a lit review of space operas probably isn’t going to be that useful, because you already know what you’re looking at. But, if you’re wandering into new territory, this is absolutely vital, because you will learn new things about the genre. You should keep an eye on what works and what doesn’t in the genre as you’re going. This will help you avoid easy mistakes, and will help a lot.

Preliminary plotting has probably already started. You might have actually started this when you were building the concept. So if this is already done, you can move on. This boils down to, I have characters that do these things. You might only have a vague idea of what happens along the way or where they’re going, but you should have an idea of where your story starts.

This is probably where you’ll start to get a handle on your characters. You might have had some concepts for them already, but after your lit review, you should have a vague idea of who you want in your story. You’ll probably keep refining them through the entire process, and research will tell you a lot about who they should, or would, be.

Research is a lot like the lit review, it’s work, and you probably started doing research during your lit review. This is going to be very dependent on your preliminary plotting and what you learned during your lit review.

One piece of advice about research: buy your books and keep them. You never know when a stray book on Arthurian lit or a history text on Mesoamarica will suddenly become relevant to what you’re doing right now. Also, if you’re in college, keep your textbooks. I know it’s basically free money, but good ones can be incredibly valuable resources later on. Being a writer requires being a book hoarder.

Also, I know I put this in a linear order, but, research never ends. You do the research you want before you start, but throughout the project you’ll keep hitting points where you need to go back in. Again, if you still have the books from earlier they’re still available as resources.

Plot refinement can be just nailing down the order of things in your head before you start, or it can be sketching out a formal outline. It depends on what works best for you.


Rewrite. Because, as they say, “writing is rewriting.” The hard part here isn’t actually finishing, it’s knowing when to stop. Once you get going, odds are you’ll never be completely satisfied with what makes it to the page. But, if you don’t check yourself on this, you can easily end up spending ten years revising a project to death. Don’t do that.

Obviously, you can rearrange these however works for you. Generally speaking your lit review and research will inform things about the story you’re trying to tell, closing off options and opening new ones, so they should come first. But, honestly, if you have something you need to get on the page, do it. You can always clean it up, fix it, or feed it to a grue later.

Two things to grab:

Steven King’s On Writing. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of King, but his advice here is excellent.

King recommends of reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Do that too.