Search History and the Writer’s Spark

From Seventh Star Press!

There is the standing joke about not checking the search history of a writer.  Questions, often of a criminal nature, find their way into long, damning lists (How to dispose of a body? or domestic terrorist organizations or importing poisonous animals might pop up in histories of friends), as writers research things that, given our more sedentary and timid natures, we probably don’t know first-hand. 

This research is usually for the obvious purposes.  Writers anchor themselves in plausible fictional worlds, creating a kind of dream they invite the reader to share, and any time the dream veers unnecessarily and unintentionally from plausible stuff, you’ll have a reader out there who knows the terrain: when your errors emerge, there’s a reader out there who’ll catch them, whose whole absorption in the book is punctured by your ignorance of what you may have thought was a small matter, but becomes enormous to the reader who knows you’ve made the mistake, then begins to speculate that if you’ve made a mistake he knows about, what is keeping you from others?

When I found out how to tap a telegraph wire, I resolved I’d be damned if I didn’t use all that reading and consultation and leg work in the piece of fiction I’d researched it for.  Then discovered, of course, that parts of my newfound knowledge deflected from the power and dream of the story—that if I talked about this fascinating subject for as long as I wanted to go on with it, my readers would forget what was going on in the book.

How reliable, in short, is the world you’ve created?

So, for the most part, research guides you through uncertain country, maps out the signposts so you can steer the reader’s belief in the story around swamps and sinkholes and perilous bluffs.  That’s why I spent days researching how to tap a telegraph wire—because I both dreaded and respected that informed reader who’d have the information, who was trusting me to unfold the story and whose trust I needed to have for my fiction to work.

It’s also why I steer away from technical passages on firearms in my books.  I grew up around guns, but they held little interest for me, and when they come into play in my stories, it’s always with reluctance that I bring them up, because somewhere out there are a dozen readers whose version of the way that a specific gun works is both authoritative and enough different from the other authorities to cause disputes. For which I am blamed, and my story is discredited.

In short, you can’t be a thorough-going font of specific knowledge, but you can do your best.  And when you do your best, it often patches the worst holes in narrative detail, thereby making the dream of your fiction more vivid and plausible.

But the practical benefits of research are only part of the reason I’m doing it constantly.  Good research not only patches my ideas, but it gives me new ones.  The older I get, the more I glimpse the vast interconnectedness of all the things I learn—how a discovery, say, of a particular medical phenomenon might take my thoughts back to an historical moment that might have only a metaphorical connection to medicine, or to an architectural structure or to a move in a chess game.  What this kind of research does, if you enter it openly, is bend or disorder what you expected.  It’s research in the romantic/academic vein—research as discovery and poetry and play. 

And there are always dangers special to this kind of research.  It’s like the lotus-eaters of the Odyssey, where you bite into the plant and want to stay on the island forever.  For why write when there’s all these good things to discover?

Then you recall that writing is discovery as well.  That it is poetry and play and insight, and that such pleasure are why you got into it in the first place.

And the other principal danger is the temptation to use it all. 

Nowadays, I couldn’t even tell you what I learned about the telegraph.  But no knowledge you gather dies unheeded or untransformed: it lies fallow for years, or floats out to connect with something far-fetched and more useful and wonderful.  Knowledge is the parent of playfulness, which is the parent of knowledge. 

So cut perpetual slack to search histories.  And above all, don’t erase them: we’re going to revisit them in a month or two.

Trajan’s Arch by Michael Williams

Gabriel Rackett stands at the threshold of middle age. He lives north of Chicago and teaches at a small community college. He has written one novel and has no prospects of writing another, his powers stagnated by drink and loss. Into his possession comes a manuscript, written by a childhood friend and neighbor, which ignites his memory and takes him back to his mysterious mentor and the ghosts that haunted his own coming of age.

Now, at the ebb of his resources, Gabriel returns to his old haunts through a series of fantastic stories spilling dangerously off the page–tales that will preoccupy and pursue him back to their dark and secret sources.

Michael Williams

Michael Williams

Over the past 25 years, Michael Williams has written a number of strange novels, from the early Weasel’s Luck and Galen Beknighted in the best-selling DRAGONLANCE series to the more recent lyrical and experimental Arcady, singled out for praise by Locus and Asimov’s magazines. In Trajan’s Arch, his eleventh novel, stories fold into stories and a boy grows up with ghostly mentors, and the recently published Vine mingles Greek tragedy and urban legend, as a local dramatic production in a small city goes humorously, then horrifically, awry.

Trajan’s Arch and Vine are two of the books in Williams’s highly anticipated City Quartet, to be joined in 2018 by Dominic’s Ghosts and Tattered Men.

Williams was born in Louisville, Ky. and spent much of his childhood in the south central part of the state, the red-dirt gothic home of Appalachian foothills and stories of Confederate guerrillas. Through good luck and a roundabout journey he made his way through through New England, New York, Wisconsin, Britain and Ireland, and has ended up less than thirty miles from where he began. He has a Ph.D. in humanities and teaches at the University of Louisville, where he focuses on the modern fantastic in fiction and film. He is married and has two grown sons.

The writing process that works for me

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the writing process.  Each writer develops their own process, over the course of time, that works best for them as an individual.  The sooner the writer understands this, the better it will go for their writing.

My approach has been honed since the mid-1990s, when I dedicated myself to writing fiction with an intent of being published.  Looking back, I have made some small refinements to my process, but by and large I found what worked for me during the first few years and did not deviate from it.

One of the best early decisions I made was to have a dedicated space set aside for writing only.  I made the conscious decision to have one computer committed to being my writing computer, and to have it located in a different room from the one that I conducted business on.

Author Stephen Zimmer

Over time, this had the effect of snapping my brain into writing mode when I sat down at this particular computer.  I attribute this as a big reason why I have not had problems during my career with writer’s block.

I started playing music while writing to block out sounds in the house or out on the street, creating a sort of bubble that further reinforced my writing mindset when in a session.  Music also can help with the mood of a scene, providing another benefit for my process.   

As the internet grew to greater prominence (long before the rise of social media), I also recognized the potential distractions of the online world and saw to it that the computer that I wrote on was offline.  When social media emerged into the pervasive force that it is today, that decision turned out to be a great one, as it is very easy to be distracted by notifications, the urge to check messages, or browse online. 

Despite writing in large word count formats like epic fantasy, I have never put my focus on word count goals for my writing sessions.  The most important thing to me then and now is writing regularly, whether I write a couple hundred words or several thousand in a given session.  Writing on a consistent basis keeps my mind in the right kind of zone for the creative process, even when I go about my daily activities in between sessions.

I also do not allow myself to become bogged in a particular scene.  If I find myself becoming a little stuck in a particular scene, I will move ahead with another, and come back to the earlier one later.  This “walking away” from the problematic scene for a short time has worked out well in giving me a fresh perspective, as when I return to it I usually have figured out what I want to do with it and what it needs to accomplish for the greater story.   

From the beginning, as a writer of multiple series, I deemed it important to know the destination of my stories and have a basic framework for getting there.  At the same time, I understood how new ideas, plot lines, and characters can crop up over the course of writing a manuscript. 

I embraced balancing the need for having a road map in the form of an outline while leaving room to breathe for the creation of new characters and story ideas.  I have never sensed that I have boxed myself in too tightly with my initial outline, and I have always had a very clear vision of the general course I envision for a manuscript. 

The part of the process that had to come with time and experience was knowing when I was ready to hand off a manuscript to an editor.  Virtually all writers are capable of making changes and rewriting endlessly, if they allowed themselves to. 

When doing passes through a manuscript, a writer will always come across a word, phrase, or even scene that they will feel a need to change.  A very important part of the writing process is having the sense to know when a manuscript has reached the right state to declare it finished and ready for the editing process.  

During the course of the past ten years, I have tightened up this window and I recognize the point where a manuscript is ready much clearer than I did before.  Rewriting and additional passes through the manuscript take less time than they did before and my editors have remarked that I have been delivering extremely clean copy on my last few titles (which allows them to spend extra time analyzing content, as opposed to correcting things they come across).  It is a sense that I had to develop through seasoning, growth, and experience.

Going forward, I am open to adjusting things in my writing process to make sure that I have the process that best suits me.  I share my process as I enjoy seeing the writing processes of others, and I never know when I might come across a good suggestion that could work for me as well.

Writing is quite the journey and it is a path of constant growth, but it is very individual in nature.  Just remember, there is no right writing process for everyone. 

You have to find what works the best for you. 

About the author:  Stephen Zimmer is an award-winning author and filmmaker based out of Lexington, Ky. His works include the Rayden Valkyrie novels (wword and worcery), the Rising Dawn Saga (cross-genre), the Fires in Eden Series (epic fantasy), the Hellscapes short story collections (horror), the Chronicles of Ave short story collections (fantasy), the Harvey and Solomon Tales (steampunk), and the forthcoming Faraway Saga (YA dystopian/cross-genre).

Stephen’s visual work includes the feature film Shadows Light, shorts films such as The Sirens and Swordbearer, and the forthcoming Rayden Valkyrie: Saga of a Lionheart TV pilot. Stephen is a proud Kentucky Colonel who also enjoys the realms of music, martial arts, good bourbons, and spending time with family.

Find out more about Stephen Zimmer’s new book, Prowling the Darkness!

Dark rumors and whisperings of unholy sorcery bring Rayden Valkyrie to the remote city of Sereth-Naga. There she finds a populace cowering in fear of the city’s ruthless, mysterious rulers, who remain behind the high walls of their citadel.

An even greater mystery surrounds the city. Something is prowling the darkness.

Something that has kept the enigmatic rulers for centuries from escaping Sereth-Naga to spread their wickedness to other lands.

Prowling the Darkness is a stand-alone novella that is part of the Rayden Valkyrie Tales.

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Website: www.stephenzimmer.com
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Twitter: @sgzimmer
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Seventh Star to launch web TV pilot

Rayden Valkyrie: Saga of a Lionheart will launch worldwide on July 28 through Seventh Star Press’s YouTube channel! Underlord Stephen Zimmer and the crew at Seventh Star Studios have been working for a long time on Rayden, which had its world premiere in September.

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