Category Archives: Advice

In praise of browsing

For me, an important element of creative research is serendipity, which the OED defines as “making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” Browsing is a great way to open yourself to serendipity, but it is unfortunately becoming a lost art in this digital age.

Browsing and searching are different– browsing is about the journey, searching is about the destination. Searching is focused on finding specific information quickly and often leads to tunnel-vision, which can prevent you from recognizing useful sources that don’t match your preconceived ideas and assumptions. Browsing is about slowing down, opening your eyes, feeding your curiosity, and allowing yourself the opportunity to make discoveries.

I believe it’s important to set aside time to browse on a regular basis– not just on the web, but in the physical world as well. Spend time exploring different bookstores (both new and used), visit libraries and museums, and search out unusual places you’ve never visited. Take a different route, walk around neighborhoods you don’t live in, look for hidden treasures.

Whenever you are looking for something in a bookstore or library, always browse the surrounding books and nearby shelves. I can’t tell you the number of times that I found books much better than the one I was looking for by doing this. Sometimes you don’t really know what you need until you find it.

Remind yourself to occasionally browse unfamiliar sections or subjects in bookstores and libraries, rather than only the ones you think will be of interest to you. Bookstores (especially those selling used books) each have their own idiosyncratic system of categorizing, so what you want may be in a section you never visit, and if you change your routine you might stumble across amazing things you aren’t looking for.

Use sources to lead you to other sources. Whenever you are looking at a book or article, browse the bibliographies or lists of references cited, as this will often reveal useful sources you might not have found on your own. When you discover an interesting blog or website, check out the list of links and bookmark those that may be useful to you. Talk to people and ask them for recommendations.

If something arouses your curiosity or inspires you, embrace the creative impulse and and see where it leads. Write stuff down. Let your mind wander.

I hope you’ll all spend some time browsing this holiday weekend. You never know what you might discover….


My October 25th “Creative Research for Writers” class

On Sunday, October 25th, I’ll be teaching an all-day “Creative Research for Writers” class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Here’s the description:

Creative research can help writers of fiction and nonfiction with inspiration, storytelling, and world-building whether they are writing about the past, present, or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. We’ll discuss the relationship between research and writing, different types of research writers may need to do, practical tips and advice on doing research, and how and where to find useful and unusual sources of information on the Web, in books, databases, and libraries, and in unexpected places.

Matt Ruff will be my special guest and share his experiences with using research in fiction.

The class will be from 10am to 5pm (six hours of class and a lunch break). My May 9th “Research for Writers” class was four hours, but my students and I felt that wasn’t enough time, so I arranged for my next class be longer.

The cost is $127.80 for Hugo House members or $142.00 for non-members, and enrollment is limited to 15.

Registration begins August 18th for Hugo House members and August 25th for non-members. During the first week of member registration, you can register by telephone (206-322-7030) or in person. Once general registration begins on August 25th, you can also register online or by mail or fax. Here’s the link to the registration information.

Here’s the link to the Fall 2009 Hugo House class catalog. Of particular note:  John Crowley will be teaching a one-day class called “The Further In You Go The Bigger It Gets: Using the Deep Structures of Fantasy” and Nancy Kress will be teaching a six-week class called “Writing Fiction: A Critique Class.”

Please email me if you have any questions about my class or if you would like information about customized private classes/workshops for groups or individual coaching.

You can still register for my Research for Writers class

Registration is still open for my May 9th Research for Writers class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle.

Here’s the class description:

Research is an important part of the creative process for writers of fiction and nonfiction. Research can help with inspiration, storytelling and world building whether you are writing about the past, present or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. The instructor will share advice about research, discuss the kinds of research writers may need to do and help students find useful sources of information in print, on the Web, in libraries and in unexpected places.

The class will be from 1pm to 5pm on Saturday, May 9th, and the cost is $95 ($85.50 for Hugo House members).  You can register online or by phone, mail, or fax.  Here are links to the spring 2009 course catalog and registration information.

Update (4/28): Thanks to Cory Doctorow’s BoingBoing post, my May 9th class is almost full. I checked with Hugo House this afternoon and there is one spot left. (Due to a glitch, their website lists the class as full, so you’ll have to call them at 206-322-7030 to register.)

My Research for Writers class

I will be teaching a one-day Research for Writers class on Saturday, May 9th from1 pm to 5 pm at Richard Hugo House in Seattle.

Here’s the description from their spring 2009 course catalog:

Research for Writers

Research is an important part of the creative process for writers of fiction and nonfiction. Research can help with inspiration, storytelling and world building, whether you are writing about the past, present or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. The instructor will share advice about research, discuss the kinds of research writers may need to do and help students find useful sources of information in print, on the Web, in libraries and in unexpected places.

Enrollment is limited to 15 people, and the cost is $95 ($85.50 for Hugo House members). Registration begins on February 24th for members and on March 3rd for nonmembers. During the first week of member registration you can only register by phone (206-322-7030) or in person. Beginning March 3rd you can register online or by mail (download and print the registration form). This page has links to the course catalog and detailed registration information.

Good advice from writers to start the new year

Welcome back. Now that we’ve all finally escaped from 2008, I wanted to start 2009 with some good advice from interesting and talented writers.

In September 2008, Nicola Griffith posted on her blog her list of “twelve daily deeds of delight for health and happiness.” Here are a few highlights:

  • eat a piece of fruit (I mean fruit, a whole something you could pick from a tree or vine: an apple, a nectarine, a pear; not juice; not sorbet; not a disgusting frozen pie; a plump ripe luscious piece of mouth-watering fruit grown without herbicides or pesticides)
  • have a conversation (I don’t mean an information exchange about who’s cooking dinner tonight; I don’t mean a shouting match or politely modulated torment about politics; I don’t mean an angsty confession about childhood trauma, or a monologue about javascript; I mean a relaxed, lively, back-and-forth exploration of what gives each of you joy; maybe combined with eating vegetables and drinking wine)
  • get out in the fresh air (walking from the office to the car doesn’t count; I’m talking about the park, the beach, the city at one o’clock in the morning: breathe deep of cool, living air)
  • look at something with attention–a bird or a beetle, the back of your hand or a glass of water, a shoe or a pencil–until you see something new (newness is all around us; trust me, this one puts a sparkle around your day for hours, and it’s a must for beginning artists)

For those of you who like to make New Year’s resolutions, I suggest that you read her original blog post and either incorporate her list into your daily life or make your own list to live by.

Kelley Eskridge posted on her blog an excellent essay for aspiring pro writers.

Justine Larbalestier has been writing an entertaining series of blog posts with her advice on writing.

In February 2008, John Scalzi wrote a fantastic blog post titled “Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money.” This should be required reading for every writer, artist, freelancer, or self-employed person.

This year you’ll get more advice from me on research and related subjects, and tips for aspiring writers from my husband, Matt Ruff.

Advice for writers about research

Research is an important part of the writing process for authors of fiction and nonfiction.

A few of you out there may be wondering why fiction writers need to do research at all. Can’t they just make everything up? Research is important for world-building, storytelling, detail, and inspiration whether you are writing about the past, present, or future, whether your characters are living on earth or on an alien world, or whether they are using magic or technology. 

My advice for writers about research:

  • You don’t need to know everything about a subject in order to write about it. Think about what you really need to know, why you need to know it, and what you can just make up.
  • Do not wait until you have done all of your research to begin writing. Writing and research should be interconnected, and each should fuel the other.
  • Don’t become obsessed with details that aren’t important to anyone but you, but take the time to confirm the accuracy of information you do use so you can avoid obvious bloopers and preventable errors. 
  • Allow the research to lead you in unexpected directions. If you find out something that conflicts with your plans, don’t view it as an obstacle, figure out how to use it.
  • When writing, don’t stop if you are missing details. Mark the spot, keep writing, and go back and fill it in later.
  • Don’t put everything you know into your writing. Backstory and worldbuilding are great, but don’t put it all in the finished work. Avoid data dumps. To quote Ernest Hemingway, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If the writer omits something because he doesn’t know it, then there is a hole in the story.”
  • Know when to stop– don’t let research interfere with your writing.
  • Be open to serendipity, and allow yourself to discover information in unlikely places.

Don’t believe everything you read

“The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.” — Samuel Johnson

I thought this famous Samuel Johnson quote would be an appropriate way to begin my blog. The problem is that Johnson never actually said this, despite the fact that you’ll find this attributed to him on a number of different quotation websites. None of these websites identified the original source of the Johnson quote, so I decided to dig a little deeper. The Apocrypha section of Frank Lynch’s Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page identifies this quote as a corruption of something Johnson did say, which was recorded by James Boswell in his Life of Johnson. The actual Johnson quote is:  “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” I confirmed this by searching the text of Boswell’s Life of Johnson online.

This illustrates a few important lessons about evaluating sources of information:

  • Don’t believe everything you read, especially on the Internet. Just because the same information appears on multiple websites doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Bad information spreads like a virus.
  • Not all sources of information are equal. Don’t rely on only one source for an important piece of information. You should always try to find multiple sources, as well as different kinds of sources.
  • Use reputable sources and find out where or who the information is coming from. Is the author or source identifiable, knowledgeable, and credible? What are their qualifications or credentials? Are they biased, do they have an ax to grind, or are they selling something? Are sources for the information cited, or does information appear in a vacuum without any way of knowing where it originally came from?

Research is like treasure hunting, and to do it well you must be skeptical, curious, discriminating, persistent, and willing to look beneath the surface.