Plotting around what you know

I’ve reached a point in the current book (#7 in the Applied Topology series, for those who care) where I have to stop, take a deep breath, sit back and… read all day. Or maybe all week.

No, really. I have to. I’m not just making excuses to take off, I swear! (Oy… please, people, don’t let Thalia beat me up! She doesn’t like it when I ask her to quit talking for a few days.)

Thing is that A Child of Magic has a subplot which requires my characters to visit Philadelphia for a day and a half. Um, during the Constitutional Convention. Summer of 1787, that would be. The bits that got them into this fix have already been written, and I’ve already worked out how this assignment leads right into the final confrontation of the main plot. But now it’s time for them (and me) to take a deep breath and plunge into the noise, smells, and mud of the big city.

And I don’t know nearly enough about late eighteenth-century Philadelphia yet.

“So?” I hear you saying. “Just write the story and make notes in the text about the stuff you need to look up.”

That would be lovely, if it worked, but it doesn’t: not for me.

The first problem, the way I got to this point, was that I needed to start writing this story while I was still collecting books on eighteenth-century Philadelphia, many of which weren’t available online or were significantly more expensive as e-books than as mildly battered used books. I put aside that part of the research so that I wouldn’t go crazy waiting for the used books to get here. (Libraries are not a practical option now. Maybe after the knee surgery. Right now I’d have to pay somebody to run around in the stacks for me.)

The books are here now – and so is the need for them.

The second problem and the one I want to discuss today is that to a great extent, my plotting for historical passages doesn’t precede the detailed research: it follows it. I take the evocative descriptions and interesting details I discover and use them to shape a subplot story that will benefit from what I do know without venturing too far into the treacherous ground of what I don’t know.

Of course, my own interests have a lot to do with the process. Thalia isn’t going to go into a lot of detail about the finer points of fashionable dress in 1787 because, pace Georgette Heyer, fashion bores me. Fortunately, it bores Thalia too; I am so glad I didn’t write her as somebody who cares about that stuff. I’ve already got a couple of general costume reference books that will give me enough to go on with. She’s stuck in a long dress and her shoes, having been made in a time when the same last was used for both right and left, hurt her feet. She’s got a fetching muslin cap to cover her short hair and a story about having been a fever victim to explain the unfashionably short curls should anyone notice them. That’s as much as she – and I – really care about.

On the other hand, topics that do catch my interest can lead to plot twists and interesting scenes. I have started reading Benjamin Rush and have been quite taken by the theories surrounding diagnosis and treatment of the many varieties of epidemic fevers that plagued Philadelphians in the summer months. We’re six years too early for the great yellow fever epidemic, but I can certainly have a scene of dueling physicians arguing over the bedside of a character who thinks he’s dying. (Poor Colton – I could have told him not to drink the water, back in Chapter 11, but this scene was already a gleam in my eye at that point.)

And so it goes. My characters’ peregrinations will be determined partly by overall plot requirements (gotta bring everybody back alive while precipitating the semi-crisis that leads to the final resolution) and partly by Interesting Stuff I find out.

For the actual debates, Madison’s notes provide copious detail, although I have to remember that the delegates went to great lengths to prevent those details from becoming common knowledge. Since my characters need to eat and to interact with the locals, if I can find a good contemporary description of a tavern, great; if I can’t, I’ll lean on Thalia’s reactions to the place (It stinks, but so does everywhere else; and this stuff they call hasty pudding needs salt.) Colton may have been rescued from an unsavory gaol by a charitable Quaker, because somebody needs to do it and I fancy the challenge of writing a few paragraphs of the Plain Speech as it was used at the time.

And on the second pass, I’ll delete ninety percent of the tavern discussions about the debates, because I am credibly informed by one of my beta readers that nobody else is all that fascinated by the endless nit-picky details that went into that long, hot summer of hammering out the defining document of our nation. (Sheesh. And I was only telling her about the high points. I hadn’t even written the scenes yet.)

And what else? Well… I’ll get back to you on that. Right now I’m going to put my feet up, grab a highlighter, and plunge into that lovely, lovely stack of books on the shelf and the virtual stack on my Kindle.  Rebels and Gentlemen, Bring out Your Dead, Miracle at Philadelphia, Alexander Graydon’s memoirs, Elizabeth Drinker’s diary, The Grand Convention, Life and Times in Colonial Philadelphia… Where to begin?



(Featured image: cropped from Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States.)

28 thoughts on “Plotting around what you know

  1. “…plotting for historical passages doesn’t precede the detailed research: it follows it…”
    I evolved an excel spread-sheet to thread plot developments around historical events, incidents and developments: a column for months and years, (you could even do it day by day) and then a columns for national and local events, and separate columns for each character and family, tracing their actions in relationship to events.
    So – when I had two characters meet for a drink at a thirst-parlor in Austin in the spring of 1846 – I knew what they would have a conversation about.
    Helps in keeping track of character’s ages, duration of pregnancies, time in deployment or on long sea voyages, etc.

    1. Wow! That sounds like a seriously good way of keeping track of your characters and events. Better than the Word file I’m currently using to keep the chronology of two intertwined series straight. I’ll have to play around with Excel a bit more.

      1. It works very well for me – you can put in the sequence of events in various places. I do it with the years and months along the left-hand side, and then columns for events – national and international, then down to local (as in towns) and then to the various characters and families. It’s almost like seeing things in three dimensions, rather than two.

    2. Women who both get pregnant and give birth during the course of a novel always make timing interesting as the rest of the plot has to be finagled about the baby’s refusal to budge, temporally.

  2. I’m at a point where I need to research genre plot conventions for the “suspense” parts of what is a basic romance, or even thriller or mystery tropes and maybe even a bit of police procedural and forensics. Not a *great* deal of that is needed for the story itself but while I can recount all the needed “beats” for a romance plot in my sleep, I honestly have no notion how my stalwart couple go about finding and defeating the bad guy.

    I realize that this is a different sort of research than history or science or geography.

    In the past when writers have talked about research I’ve found it all a bit confusing because how do you know what to research? Particularly if you do the research first? But it seems obvious that doing the research *now* means a break in writing which is usually a bad idea. However! I can’t go on without it so, well, the writing she is broke. It’s all the same destination at this point.

    Maybe just… slogging through and over time learning and getting a better idea what research is likely to be needed before beginning? But if someone has good tips on how to figure that out ahead of time, don’t be shy.

    1. I actually get the best ideas for characters and incidents from just immersing myself in the research material, so it isn’t like it is time lost.

        1. I know pretty much what the general outline – and period and place that I want to work into the story. I just start with a general history – and then drill down through the bibliography. For one book I started with a website about the Greene DeWitt colony, which was a perfect gusher of links and references.
          And then I read just about anything that I can get my hands on which has a bearing.
          When it comes to the 19th century western American frontier, I already have a lot of material on my shelves already.

        2. Funnel. Start big, say “Texas: A History,” that gives you the big sweep of events, or “Women’s Dress through the Ages,” or whatever. That tells you some of the big ideas, and often has a list of more specific books and resources in it. Then you start narrowing down.

          So, for one book, I started with a general history of China (which I needed anyway for Day Job). Then Song Dynasty in particular. Then one on environmental change in that period (see Day Job), one on the Tang-Song transition (because that was where Chinese upper society underwent a massive change that lasted for the next thousand and more years) and two on women and society in the Song Dynasty. From there? Helllloooooo novel.

    2. Fanfic I started assembling a file for last fall. Knew I needed a beanstalk from some of the properties, and I had read about one in Equador in a novel. Checked out Equador, and its mountains on wikipedia. I’m hesitant about vulcanism, but otherwise perfect. Picked out some locations, and worked out my alternate history from wikipedia. (The alternate history material wasn’t worth researching in greater detail, because the project’s core assumptions laughed, and said that certain details would remain unspecified, filing them under handwaving.) But I looked at the archeological records for one of the sites, and went from wiki to a university library’s search engine to find more information. I’m going to be fabricating a lot of stuff about the history and prehistory of the site, and better info than wiki has gives me more of a framework to make changes from.

      More day job sort of project, nonfiction, started months prior. Started rereading one of my old textbooks on the subject, got more textbooks, dug up papers, figured out that I would have done well to look up subjects on the same topic from another field much earlier, recently realized that an assumption I’d drifted into early on is not realistic, and that I’d probably have found directly applicable papers if I had searched on the basis of a more realistic assumption.

      Correct research for fiction depends on the fiction project. Research needs are part of the process variations between every author. I’ve found that Swain’s ‘story design is planning an emotional journey’ closes a lot of the mental gaps that had been challenging me. Story research scope questions: Does this help convince me that the fake world exists in a way that helps me convince others? Are the readers going to care about this? If I am writing a Naruto highschool AU, I can be pretty sure that the readers will not care if I research an actual highschool in a real location. I would have to write something long, detailed, crunchy, and worth the effort of reading before lack of attention to the school’s floorplan would catch up with me. Question two answered, the remaining is whether I care.

      What design priorities are important for you? When you think about how the project excites you, what parts are more important? If romance and suspense are both strongly important to you, and you don’t care about stopping work, and want the story working the first draft, maybe go research suspense. If suspense isn’t as important, and you are maybe willing to do some significant edits later, maybe put something in for suspense now, and accept that you may be locking yourself into a design that doesn’t leave room later for making the suspense subplot strong. You don’t have to start with a perfect process, and your first story doesn’t have to be without serious design shortcomings. One you finish something, the lessons learned improve the process for the next. Just don’t pick the options that kill your ability to finish. 🙂

      1. “I would have to write something long, detailed, crunchy, and worth the effort of reading before lack of attention to the school’s floorplan would catch up with me.”

        This brings up an interesting point.

        There are some people, like me ferinstance, who automagically build the highschool and orient ourselves in it when we read. So if Naruto makes a left at the end of the corridor instead of a right when he is Naruto-running, we yell “That’s a dead end!” and it spoils the fight.

        I’m given to understand that this is extremely weird and wrong, and that Most People can’t tell left from right and don’t care. (Conversation with relative, there was mockery involved. 😡 I’m a bit salty about it.)

        On the bright side, if you only say that he turned toward the science lab, then the weird person’s brain fills in all the blanks on its own, and Naruto hangs a hard right before pummeling the Bad Guy.

            1. My inner consistency nut is a little hard to live with at times. I try and keep ahead of her as much as possible. She escapes the basement lockup way too often.

          1. So do I – and maps.
            Even if I have never really been to the town I am writing about (or visited only once, decades ago, maps and floor plans help construct the mental image.

            1. Peter took me on a road trip whose entire point was to stand in the remains of an old fort, look left, look right, smell the air, see how the shadows lay, and get a feel for how far it really was across the parade ground, and how many people you could reasonably pack in there. And then we followed a route out that was built on the old trail so he could get a feel for the land itself, and how long it would really take a party on horseback to cross the ground with all the dips, rises, and gullies.

              Because sometimes there’s google earth, and sometimes there’s actual practical ground-truthing.

  3. the same last was used for both right and left Huh?

    [googles] Oh. Interesting. I shall need research before writing about shoe making.

    1. Shoes didn’t use to have left and right. Interesting bit of irrelevant info I learned once.

  4. You really have to research first, write after, or you’ll find that you made something impossible the lynchpin of the plot.

  5. “The second problem and the one I want to discuss today is that to a great extent, my plotting for historical passages doesn’t precede the detailed research: it follows it.”

    That’s because you’re writing a story about SOMEONE, and you want to get the thing right. You would want to know, just for instance, how to light a candle in 1776. Answer, they would have a spill-plane to make spills. A long shaving you light in the fire, to light your candle. Or you could do what my mother the farm girl did, yank a straw out of the broom.

    This is the correct method of writing a character driven story IMHO, you have to know what it was like in that place before carrying on.

    That’s why I set things in present day in places I’ve already been. I’m lazy. ~:D All I have to do is take Tuesday afternoon at Main and Spring in Hamilton and drop a lippy robot spider on the sidewalk. (I don’t need to be able to build the spider, but I should at least have considered the probable abilities and limitations of such a thing.)

    I think this is the best way to go, because it prevents you from ridiculous idiocy like having your mechanical genius character in 1788 be able to understand, disassemble and fix a smart-phone (or a time machine!) carried by your intrepid time traveler. That one is up for a fricking Nebula this year. You may be assured that the author ticked off every SJW box though, oh yes.

    Stuff like that makes my head ache. Okay, not my head, but the ache is real.

    1. “That’s because you’re writing a story about SOMEONE, and you want to get the thing right.”


      Historians have it easy by comparison! We poor novelists don’t get to wave our hands and say, “There were several ways of lighting a candle in 1776, and [character] doubtless used one of them.” We have to make up our minds — if not with a detailed description of that long shaving, at least by setting the scene so that the reader isn’t going to say, “Hey! There’s no fire in the room; how did she light that candle?”

      I don’t think it makes much difference whether you consider your story character-driven, plot-driven, or I-need-to-finish-this-by-Tuesday-driven; getting the details wrong will make the story reader-abandoned in short order.

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