A Fun Form of Research

books and science

I’ve been spending the last few months working on the first draft of what is turning out to be a novel. It began as an idea for a short story based on a prompt I came across in Writer’s Digest magazine: Your character hears a knock on the door. When he/she answers it, the person who knocked says, “I’m from the future. I’m here to save your life.”

I loved that prompt, and thought I could do something with it. As I worked on the idea I had for the short story, I realized I wanted to know more about that person who knocked on the door. I wanted to know more about that future he was allegedly from. So I started digging, and wrote some more. And more, and more. Soon enough, it was clear I was writing a novel.

Not what I had planned, but okay. It turns out this particular future–without going into too many details right now–is heavily science-oriented, and science has solved a lot of the world’s problems. Awesome. But because of this, books are rare, and reading literature is not particularly encouraged. My character, named Benjamin, nevertheless discovers the joy of reading. Here’s a sampling of the books he reads in the story:

  • The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. Since Benjamin is from “the future”, then a time machine must figure in the story somewhere. This book excites him when he reads it as a child.
  • Antigone, by Sophocles. Benjamin has a good friend named Ellen, who aspires to be an actress (which is considered another subversive activity, besides reading literature). She puts on one-woman plays for him, including this one, playing all the characters.
  • Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. Benjamin is studying law enforcement (considered a second-rate occupation, far beneath the hard sciences–that, and the fact that there’s not much crime to begin with). He discovers a fondness for murder mysteries; though murder is a rare occasion in his world, it becomes horribly real for him later on.
  • 1984, by George Orwell. Benjamin reads this when he is unfairly persecuted simply for being different. He becomes marked and is always being watched. The book mirrors the tyranny that is beginning to bloom in his society.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Neither Ben, nor my present day character, Brooke, has read this book, but it plays a small, though key, role in the story. And I like the title–there’s a love story in here somewhere, and there is a terrible illness that threatens the future.

I have to confess that either a) it’s been a long time since I’ve read some of these books, or b) I haven’t read some of them at all. If I’m going to mention any of these books in my story, I better have read them and be very familiar with them.

Reading books–what a totally painless form of research! Because I also have to look into sciencey-related things (NOT my strong point), including writing about time travel in a way that doesn’t make a physicist roll her eyes.

I’ve always been a bit lazy about research (or at least whiny about it), but this I can do.

If you’re a writer, do you like research as part of your writing process? Or does it fill you with dread? Any subjects you like better than others? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

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First Lines

blank book with letters

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

These are, of course, first lines of famous novels (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, in case you’re wondering).

If you’re a writer, you inevitably come across writing advice that tells you to pay particular attention to the first line of your story. Whether it’s a novel or flash fiction, its purpose is to not only draw your readers in, but also to set the tone and maybe hint at what is to come.

Perusing some of the books on my shelf, I came across these perhaps less famous but serviceable gems:

  • The King stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored. (Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel).
  • For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town. (Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman).
  • I still remember the day when my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. (Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon).
  • They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. (My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier).

Coming up with a great first line is an art in itself, and I’m not sure I’ve quite got it down. It takes practice. Personally, I think short story first lines should be punchy and to the point, while novels can ease into a scene–the whole scene taking the place of the first line to grab a reader and lure them in.

Here’s a sampling of some of my short story first lines:

  • Alice left her body for the first time the day George nearly killed her. The Memory of Oranges
  • I went to the river where my husband died, looking for absolution.  Clean
  • Oliver loved the monsters. The Hungry
  • Rose knew they’d be coming soon to implant her. Plugged In

Would you want to continue reading these stories? My hope is yes. Usually with a first draft, I don’t worry about it too much; just begin. Then go back and try to sculpt it into something that says, you just gotta read this. 

What are some of your favorite first lines? Any great ones of your own? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!