Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: The Big Picture

We started a couple of weeks ago with the theme statement: a big umbrella intended to cover what the novel was about. This doesn’t mean that we have to plot or know our entire book, but we should have an idea about what large issue(s) the book addresses.

This week we’re staying with the big picture. Writing a novel is akin to going on a long journey. We need to know when we’re going, where we’re going, if anything (good or bad) is happening there, and what’s the weather like. A good map is always helpful.

 Where is this book in time?

  • What are the approximate dates during which our story takes place?
  • If we’re dealing with a concentrated time period, especially one tied to real dates, what are sunrises and sunsets for that time period? What was the weather like?

A novel can cover any length of time. It might be a multi-generational saga that follows four generations of a family through most of the twentieth century, or it might be a few hours at a lake cottage, when our protagonist decides on a major life change.

Whiskeyjack, the work in progress I’m using as examples for this blog series, takes place between Labor Day and Christmas 1977. Why 1977? Three reasons.

  • I need to link something in a character’s background to an event that happened thirty-five years earlier in World War II.
  • The late seventies were the cusp of a major change in the Canadian north. Electronic technology, like mobile phones, had the barest toehold in the north. It was not only possible, but likely, that remote communities relied on land lines and/or short-wave radio for communication. Both could be knocked out by weather conditions. I wanted to create the greatest sense of isolation and need for self-reliance possible.
  • I’d worked in the near north five years later, which was close enough that I could extrapolate backwards from my experiences to what the characters would experience.

 Why does weather matter?

Readers know. Readers remember. Some of them get highly ticked off if they know that the author hasn’t gotten it right. If you ever run into either woman who collectively write under the name of P. J. Parrish,  ask her about loons. These authors have a wonderful story about why it’s important to do research, proof-read carefully, and, if the worst happens, turn it into a funny story.

Knowing what the real conditions were is to give the author a choice. Anyone who wants to set a mystery in Calgary, Alberta in June, 2005 needs to know that there were torrential rains that month and that all the rivers in southern Alberta—including the Bow and the Elbow, which both flow through Calgary—were out of their banks. People were being evacuated, homes were flooded and a young woman taking a short cut home after working an evening shift attempted to cross a pedestrian bridges over the Bow River and was never seen again. Now, the author may not want to use any of this, and if she doesn’t, self-preservation dictates to at least mention it in the introduction, as in “Anyone in Calgary in June, 2005 will know that the city was in the middle of a flood that month. However, for the purposes of this book . . .” and so on.

We might get lucky. We might discover that that there is a solar, lunar, weather, or topographical anomaly we can use to our advantage. In another book, I wanted two of my characters to walk through a moon garden. That’s not a garden on the moon, but a garden of white flowers and plants, all of which reflect light and look beautiful spooky, especially under a full moon. Guess what? By happenstance, the date where this chapter fell turned out to be a full moon.

 Where to find weather data

For the United States, try the National Climatic Data Centre. It’s a bit of a complicated site, and they charge for some information, but it is the grandmother of all U.S. data.

For Canada, try Environment Canada Historical Data.

For a good general world-wide reference try

The U. S. Naval Oceanography Portal is helpful for both inside and outside the U.S. The data is in two parts, one for places in the United States, and one for places outside the United States. By entering the date desired, the name of a city, its longitude and latitude, and its time zone, you will get a list times related to the sun and moon on a given day. I don’t know how far back they go, but I’ve used dates in the 1970s with no problem at all.

 Where are we in space?

  • Where are the locations the story takes place?
  • Have we been there?
  • What kinds of maps can we get?

Some novels are about saving the universe, the galaxy, or the world. Others are about the banks of one creek, on one farm. What matters most is that we know the geography.

Obviously, it helps if we’ve been to the places we’re writing about, but sometimes that just isn’t practical. If the out-of-doors is important in our book—check out Julia Spenser-Fleming’s books  as examples of where topography becomes vital—try the U.S. The National Map. They have an on-line store for customers in the U. S. and will take mail, phone or fax orders from people living outside the U.S. Topo maps are wonderful things. They show you physical features, how much the altitude is changing and how fast, and, in sufficient high enough scale, will show you individual buildings. That deserted cabin at the head of the cove might be just the place for your heroine to be held captive.

We of course have all of the on-line maps now at out fingertips. Just so we keep in mind that they may not be perfectly accurate.

 How much will real life events intrude?

  • What real life events were happening in the world or in our location when the book takes place?
  • Will the characters ignore these events, mentioned them briefly, or do they form an essential part of the story?
  • What research, if any, needs to be done to get the details right as they relate to real life events?

Can we imagine anyone writing a story set in New York City on September 11, 2001, and not including the Twin Towers or in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 and not including the Kennedy Assassination? Okay, maybe we could get away with both of these if the book took place early in the morning, before the events happened.

For Whiskeyjack, I’ve chosen to ignore outside events because I’m writing about a small town, in a very isolated part of Alberta, and part of the book’s theme is isolation. But I did at least check Wikkipedia for a summary of events during the last four months of 1977. Maybe I’ll mention Queen Elizabeth II opening the Canadian Parliament in the middle of October. It’s the kind of thing my characters would have heard on the radio.

For all of these details, if the Internet fail us, don’t forget that honored standby, research librarians. They are still out there and they’re wonderful at finding obscure facts. Many libraries charge a fee for this, but it’s tax deductible as as research expense.

I invite you join me here on Thursday for Writing in Strange Places.

Next Tuesday on Write the Novel, we’ll take a look at The Dreaded Back Story.