Category Archives: Research

Google Can Take You Anywhere

A few years ago I heard a successful author say that you should have unique setting for most of your novel. Don’t use the same setting too much, especially in a fantasy or sci-fi story where you want to create a continuous sense of wonder for the reader.

As I wrote the first novel I wanted to publish, I took this to heart. Each time I had a new scene, it would be in a different place. It worked for the story, because the characters were on the run much of the time.

The story, New Sight, takes place in the western United States in modern times. Easy for setting, because I didn’t have to make up a bunch of world building rules and such. I remember pulling up Google Maps and charting where I wanted my characters to go. I needed a place of some mystical value, and I Googled that as well. When I had a basic roadmap, I started looking for interesting things in or near the places I wanted to use.

I found a hotel in Colorado that is an old drive-in movie theater. They’ve built it so that you can watch a movie through a huge window in your room while you’re lounging on your bed. I used this in one version of my story, but it didn’t make the final cut. Still, I may use it later for something else. Curiosity piqued? Check it out here.

I found out that Las Vegas has a hidden society of poor people living in the storm drains under the city. Yes please, totally used this. Sort of. Here is the article that my sister sent me after we’d been talking about it.

I found out that a little-known hike in Canyonlands leads to a place called Druid Arch. Some people think it is of mystical importance. Score!

That’s just a few examples. I’d been to Las Vegas, and didn’t end up using the hotel, but I wanted to go to Druid Arch. It took me a few months of getting into better shape, and one failed attempt due to stupid snow in April, but I finally got there.

I’d searched for info on the hike, and had found pictures and descriptions of it. Which gave me a good idea of what to expect. I dragged a few friends along with me. We only got lost once or twice for a few minutes, but in the end made it.

It was so fun seeing the place for myself. Feeling it. Smelling it. Hearing it. I added a few new details to the scenes I’d written there before my final manuscript went out. And, after I got my rights back from my original publisher, I used my own photos on the new cover. With help from an actual artist, of course.

It’s not always practical to visit the places you use in your stories, but at least take the time to Google them. You’ll be amazed at what you find from interesting landmarks to urban legends to people in the sewers.

Home As Setting and Theme

When my debut novel, Sleeper Protocol, was released in 2016, many of my childhood friends, family, and even my teachers commented about my use of “home.” Where I call home is a long way from where I live now, but every time I’m there the feeling of peace is as palpable as wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. I was born and raised in upper east Tennessee in an area called the Tri-Cities. My family actually lived very near a small community known as Midway – it was Midway between Johnson City and Tennessee’s Oldest City, Jonesborough. The Appalachian mountains filled the eastern horizon, running in a roughly southwest to northeast line. It’s a beautiful place.

And I never intended for my story to go there.

As the story of a cloned soldier trying to find his identity unwound from my brain to the keyboard, I initially struggled with “What’s the point?” or even Eric Flint’s famous guidance of “Who gives a $^#@?” I needed something to make the character’s emotional struggle hit home and that’s where the inspiration hit. So, I took my character home. In the third act, he descends Cherokee Mountain, crosses the Nolichucky River, and ends up on a small knoll where a farmhouse once stood. All of those are real places and the knoll is where my family’s homestead still stands. My cousins own “The Farm” as we call it, and it’s wonderful to know that it’s still there and open for my family to visit any time we want. That openness and warmth led me to bringing my character to an very different emotional level. I gave him a sense of place, a sense of a home that he’d once had and was very different than the future one, but a place he could identify with fully and embrace his identity. Once I’d opened that door, I proceeded to move him further along the path by having him stand over his own gravesite in the Mountain Home National Cemetery.

The journey to find his “home” was really the key to unlocking his identity. My first ideas to bring him through familiar territory to help with my description and emotional resonance gave way to something else entirely: a theme I’d never intended. Our sense of home is a large part pf our identity. Even our home nation, or state, or municipality is much more than a common bond to our neighbors. We identify ourselves to that place forever. No matter where I go, when I am asked where I’m from I always say that I’m from Tennessee and just happen to live elsewhere.

My point is this – write about your home or wherever you consider your home to be. Pull that emotion and identity into your own writing. Your voice will improve, your characters will seem more grounded and real, and your readers – especially those who claim the same sense of home – will keep asking for more. When you’re not writing about your home? Put that same warmth and emotion into the characters who are there. It makes a difference to the story and to your characters.

Free Reign

A guest post by Tonya L. De Marco

Do I keep a depraved soul locked in my subconscious, caged unable to act on her desires? Is there a past-life sister sharing her memories with me, breathing life into my characters and infusing them with her ideals of right and wrong? Is it just good old-fashioned curiosity about what makes such characters tick? Do I admire their freedom, their lack of concern for the moral and ethical shackles that bind most of mankind?

I try not to delve too deeply within myself seeking the answers. It’s likely I have a sympathetic personality or a very open mind that allows these characters to speak to me. I give them free reign through my writing. My voice is their voice.

My stories are dark, often with twisted characters and an erotic flavor. No subject is taboo. Incest, rape, murder, cannibalism, mental illness, sacrilege, and acts against children can all be found in my published work or my work in progress. These atrocities occur in the world, I see no reason not to include them in fiction. These are the stories that need to be heard. They are the tales I’m meant to tell.

Traveling through Wyoming on a return trip home from a convention, I encountered a new character and found inspiration. Now known as the Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum, we stopped in Rawlings to take a tour of what served as the territorial prison from 1901-1981. The imposing stone facade and high wall surrounding the yard were daunting, but it’s what transpired inside the fortress that still haunts me.

Stepping into cell block A, the oldest part of the prison, was an immediate shock. A chill permeated my body seeping into the very core of my bones. I wanted to weep, cry out, and run all at the same time but something held me immobile. The silent screaming of the tortured souls of the past invaded my mind and my being. I was overwhelmed with emotion flooding in all at once; hopelessness, fear, anguish, depression. I felt smothered, suffocated, controlled. The feeling of oppression was a palpable weight on my shoulders. It was as if I was being buried alive.

Collecting myself enough to follow along with the tour, the sense of straddling a line between the different times hung with me. As the guide recounted stories of some of the prison’s infamous inmates, their images played out before me as if etched on a veil hanging over my eyes. The prisoners endured remarkably deplorable and harsh conditions – cramped quarters, no heat, constant threat of violence, a cement ledge as a bed, persons convicted of petty offenses in the same general population with the most depraved criminals. The lives and circumstances of the prisoners intrigued me. I have to admit, I felt a level of respect for anyone able to survive in the inhumane situation.

I was particularly drawn to the history of a young woman inmate convicted of killing her father and incarcerated in the prison in 1908. Annie was sentenced when she was only fourteen years of age. The museum had some of her letters on display enabling me to learn more about Annie. Her voice spoke to me across the lines of time.

After returning home, I couldn’t shake the uneasy feelings I’d experienced. The sadness and hopelessness clung to me like a shroud. Deciding to immerse myself in the darkness rather than try to avoid it, I did some more research on Annie.

Annie’s letters give no indication that she was remorseful. She writes, “….a feeling or a wish came over me to kill someone and this feeling, I could not resist.” She was housed in the facility approximately a year then transferred to Colorado where she finished out most of her four year sentence before receiving a pardon. Annie’s life before and after the murder and incarceration, by all accounts I’ve found, was unremarkable. She went on to marry and have children and live a normal, quiet life until her death in 1975.

The story I’m writing is fiction so it’s inspired by Annie rather than based on her. All manner of horrific events will happen to my character, Anna, before the murder, during her stay in the prison, and after her release. I have to let go of all the emotion that overwhelmed me that day at the prison. My way of accomplishing that is to write about it. Feel the feelings and move past them as I let the characters I write experience the emotion for me.

Unlock the locks, throw open the doors, uncage the dark demons of your mind. Give them a voice through your pen and let them tell their stories. Maybe they’ll connect with the darkness in the readers and you’ll have a best-seller!

 

To learn more about the museum and Annie, follow the links below:


tonyasquareimgTonya L. De Marco is a Costume Designer, Cosplayer, published Model, and published Author. She splits her time between the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

You can visit Tonya on her Amazon Author Page, her Instagram page, her Facebook page, or on her website, TonyaLDeMarco.com.

Amnesia

Why are books better than their movie counterparts? There are several reasons, but I believe the strongest has to do with insight into the mind. We are given a telepathic link to the point of view character’s mind. But that link streams data in bits instead of a massive info dump (in good writing anyway).

This can be problematic if not done right. We all love a good twist ending. That mental whiplash, once everything seems to be resolved, can be an exhilarating experience. I remember watching the Sixth Sense when the child psychologist discovers he’s dead.

I immediately wanted to watch the movie again. When I did, it was a totally different experience. But the twist wouldn’t have worked if he knew he was dead all along. Consider that for a moment. In twists where the characters know what is going on, but not the reader, a twist comes across more like fraud than hand-clapping thrill.

That’s because there is an unspoken agreement between the reader and writer. The writer promises a good story, an exciting tale, an emotional journey. The reader promises to go along with the ride and believe the words and trust the characters as they are presented. When the reader discovers that the characters were withholding critical information, even though there had been an apparent telepathic link, then that trust is broken and the reader feels deceived, not entertained.

There are many ways to help the reader discover along with the POV characters so that discovery becomes a journey. The one gimmick I’d like to discuss is amnesia.

The Maze Runner did it well, forbidding the reader much of the world where juveniles run mazes. Because of Thomas’s amnesia, the reader is sucked into the story, waiting with baited breath every bit of information they can glean together from the world before them.

I recently read a book where amnesia was used well. Sleeper Protocol by Kevin Ikenberry was a fantastic sci-fi novel where the main character discovers his identity and memories through a series of scientific supported phases under the supposition that rediscovery (integration) can be detrimental to the mind if it happens too quickly.

The sixth sense was essentially an amnesia story, disguised. That’s why it worked so well.

Others, like Dan Brown’s Inferno, use amnesia as a tool to propose a purpose and deciding event for the character in order to up the stakes, or increase the drama and embellish the character arc.

Arguably one of the best amnesia tales is Jason Borne whose head wound left him with no prior memory although he had exceptional skills, spoke foreign languages, knew martial arts and spy craft and so on. Also it allowed the reader to empathize with someone who killed people for a living.

Fifty First Dates used amnesia to tell an incredible, funny, and yet heart-wrenching love story.

I myself have an amnesia novel in the works. It’s temporary and as it wears off, the reader discovers the apocalyptic world, as fascinating as it appears, isn’t at all what it seams and instead turns into an exciting thriller.

To write the piece, I did extensive research on the brain and memory loss. In my world, it has to be, believable. Basically there are different parts of the brain where memory is stored. Episodic memory involving experiences and events are different than Semantic Memory involving facts and concepts. These two types are stored in separate parts of the brain. This is why Jason Borne doesn’t remember any specific event but he knows at this altitude he can flat out run for thirty minutes and not break a sweat.

This is also why is would not make sense for Thomas of Maze Runner to recall his name but nothing else. Unless of course there was some medical, scientific, magical reasoning for it that James Dashner covers well.

What are some of your favorite amnesia stories?

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.