An author of Speculative Fiction, speculates about fiction.

flash fiction

Research is your friend

It strikes me that I don’t talk about my writing process very much and, contrary to popular belief, I do have one. While I do most of my plotting in my head, only setting it down in notes when it’s exceptionally vivid to me, the rest of the idea-to-page process is pretty normal. One of the things I think are incredibly important, possibly beyond all others and especially for writers of Speculative Fiction in all its glorious forms, is research.

If you’re going to make your story/novel/flash fiction/novella as realistic as it can be (and by realistic, I mean believable despite the wierdness) then research is where it’s at. As an example let’s use my current WIP, The Adventures of Alan Shaw. This is a very different beast to Greaveburn. Alan Shaw is an Alternate History/Steampunk novel based in the very real Victorian era of England, albeit with some technological flights of fancy. But in order to make my Neo-Victorian elements work, I had to understand what the victorian era was really like. If I had a motto, it’d be:

Learn the rules before you break them.

And so I do research. A lot. Of course, the internet is your friend. There are sites or wikis on every subject known to humankind somewhere in the unending virtual vaults. But call me old fashioned, I still like my books now and again.

Here's what I used for Alan Shaw so far.

As you can see, there’s quite a mix in there. Let’s break down what I think is important about researchas the groundwork for your writing:

1. Know your genre

When writing Greavburn, I had no idea that I was actually working on a Steampunk novel. I was aware of the Gothic literature sub-genre and loved its aesthetic. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake is one of my favourite books, and that was the kind of grand darkness I wanted to instill in Greaveburn. But Steampunk wasn’t even on my radar. And so, when I discovered that it existed, and that Greaveburn fit the bill, I panicked. What if someone had already done what I had? How restrictive to Greaveburn’s reception would that be?

I learnt my lesson for working on Alan Shaw. I’ve read James Blaylock’s Homunculus, J.W. Jeter’s Infenal Devices and pretty much memorised The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer and co. And now I can confidently say that I know what to do and what not to do, what’s old hat and what’s relatively new (hey, that rhymes. I should write that down). Knowing your genre makes sure that you hit your demographic while avoiding any “it’s all been done” style comments.

2. Go simple

Finding reference books that are quick to read, while still being representative of the subject you’re researching, can be a real struggle. People love to bash on about their expert subject to the point of mind-numbing boredom. But you dont need a huge tome, reaching 3000 pages across four volumes about Victorian London by Lord Cyril Fanthorpe the 3rd esp. to know your stuff. In order to make your story realistic, all you need are the little touches. Those little details make the difference between just some woman in a dress and a young governess wearing a crinoline pinofore. You never have to mention it again, but that’s the kind of period detail that shows you’ve put the effort in.

But as I was saying, there’s an easy way to find those things out. Go for children’s books. They’re brilliant! They have pictures to help get the right feel in your prose, they hit only the important topics and give you great overview of any subject. The Eyewitness series is brilliant for historical stuff, if you’re interested in that stuff.

3. Get your facts right

If you’re writing about a certain place, be it a city or town or foreign country, get your facts right. Never forget that your readers know their stuff. Don’t think you can flim-flam them with sweeping references to places. With Alan Shaw, I have to evoke an image of Victorian London that rings true to someone who’s never been to London and someone who walks its streets every day. Google Maps can take you anywhere you need to go, and even tell you the quickest way for your character to walk/drive around their environment. You dont have to give an itemised list of corners turned between your Detective’s home and the mortuary, but it helps if you know how long it would take and what’s in between so you can describe it if need be.

While Google Maps is great for the present day, historical settings pose a little more of a problem. And so I got myself some maps:

Victorian London, imprisoned in plastic.

They came in four pieces, originally, but with a little industrious folding and one of those frameless plastic frames (contradictory, I know) I now have an easily accessible map of Victorian London. What’s better than that, with the plastic covering, if you get some dry-wipe markers, you can plot routes, circle areas or points of interest to your heart’s content without ruining the source material for later use! (This is an Art Attack!)

My doodles marking Covent Garden Market, and routes for Alan to take around London.

 4. The Counter-argument

 

Just remember: There’s another side to research. Don’t get too bogged down with it. Learn what you need and move on. It’s a tool to help you write, it’s not words on the page.

Well, folks, that’s it for now. I hope this post has been as useful to you as my researching endeavours have been to me. If you have any researching tips of your own, then feel free to share. I’m always looking for new ways to do what we do.

 

Thanks for reading!


Not Before Bed update!

Thanks to the very kind H. Conrad Miller, Not Before Bed has had another great review! Take a look:

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A great collection of horror short stories ranging from Lovecraftian to werewolves to that thing that goes bump under your bed. Each story is finely crafted by Craig Hallam in an enjoyable and easy to read way while still having each story have it’s own voice and feel. I think that is one of the most remarkable things about this collection. While it is easy to see how all of the stories came from one author, each story was told with a voice all it’s own that was perfect for that specific sub-genre of horror.

Craig out did himself with his variety of stories. The dark sci-fi in Mandy in the Jar-O have an alien abductee’s horrific realization that her wildest dreams of being wanted are not so wonderful. The Lovercraftian tale of Albert that has little dialogue but such gripping description that every pool of water larger than the size of a drop suspect from harboring tentacled elder gods. These stories have the ability to catch and hold a reader’s attention. After every story I was left asking “When can I read a full story about this?”

I highly recommend this to anyone who loves horror. But I especially recommend it to anyone who wants to look into horror for the first time. It will give you a great primer for the genre and help you find a niche inside of it you will like.

 

Good job Craig
Cheers!

Well, I could hardly have asked for a better review than that! Let’s hope that it hitting Goodreads and the web in general gives Not Before Bed another little jolt of downloads. I think this is probably the appropriate time for me to give you some updates on the collection itself, too.

Since moving the collection from Smashwords to Kindle Direct Publishing, I’ve forced myself to NOT constantly check how many downloads I’ve been getting every month. And, because of that, I actually forgot to check altogether. Until today. And so, I can now inform you all that in the last year Not Before Bed, Amazon and Smashwords combined, has had a staggering…

13,426 downloads!

I have no idea how this happened, but July last year showed a massive surge which then frittered out to just a few a month. And since I’ve only been looking at the last few months, I almost missed the huge 12,000ish downloads from middle of last year.

While it may be like this...

 

...it feels more like this.

 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think this causes for a huge thank you to everyone, whether they’re reading this or not, who has taken the time to download Not Before Bed. I never thought my shoddy little short story collection would be such a (relative) hit. I have no idea WHY this happened, but I’m not going to argue. If I can get but a portion of those downloads for Greaveburn, I’ll be a very happy camper. Special thanks, of course, go to those who went the extra mile to review it, too; you’ve all been extremely supportive and helpful in your feedback.

And with that, I think it’s time to put Not Before Bed to….well, to bed. It’ll still be out there to download for all those people who still manage to stumble onto it. But for me, it’s been a great experience that’s over now. I’m going home to concentrate on the next project. From here on in, it’s all about Greaveburn’s release later this year. And so, I’d like to bid a final thank you to everyone who made Not Before Bed a huge personal success. Stick around, there’s more writing to come!

Thanks for reading.


>Flash Fic

>With nothing more to offer you (except for complaining about the constant struggle for publication), I thought I’d drop in with a couple of Flash Fiction offerings for you to peruse. Hope you enjoy them.

Cellar

No sound came from a nearby street; no rumble of traffic or sound of feet. Not even a distant horn or passing aeroplane. No light. No steady amber streetlamp glow or pulsing blue (and I wished for that, and prayed and begged). No smells of civilisation wafted down the vent; it was too high and small to see through but I’d sit under it and sniff sniff sniff for the sweet scent of kebab or exhaust fumes. Anything that smelled like life and freedom. But I smelled leek and potato, and the broth he made from them; then it was all I tasted. No sound, but what he made. I never heard a single footstep that wasn’t his in the kitchen above. But I heard birdsong, and the crunch of leaves (always him with his thumping march, preceded or followed by the bang of a screen door I never saw).
    So when he said I’d never be found, I believed him.

Not Before Bed

I’m outside your bedroom door.
    Go take a look if you like. It will only take a second.
    Nothing? But as soon as it clicks to the jamb, I’m there. Stood in the darkness, my toes curling in your carpet, my body tense with anticipation, inches from your door.
    As you change, as you turn out the light. I’m there. As you slide down into your linen cocoon, I’m there. I’m patient. I can wait.
    I press my serrated ear to the wood panelling. I can hear you breathe. I listen as you turn over, shifting your drowsy weight into that familiar position. It’s familiar to me too.
    Your breathing slows.
    I’ve listened to you for a long time, I know when you’re asleep. And when you are, I slip inside.
    You are fascinating to me, you creatures that sleep. Slumber on sweet dreamer. I lay on your chest and breathe in your scent. Oh, you sleep on your side? I like that better. Then I can squirm up behind you, fold myself to match your form. Sometimes you feel my breath on your neck, or my delicate fingernails as they brush your hair. But you won’t wake. I won’t let you.
    I lay beside you and sing soft nightmares in your ear. I know when you’re dreaming, I can smell it. When you mumble in your sleep, I’m the one who answers. When perspiration prickles from your tormented dreams, I’m the one who licks the brine from your skin. And when you open your eyes, and can’t move, it’s the fear of me that freezes you. It’s the fear of me that halts the voice in your fragile throat.
    Lucky for you, I’m not hungry. Not tonight.
    I’ll see you tomorrow.

Thanks for reading!


>March of the Broken

>I thought I should finally post something on here that everyone can read. Having checked that the electronic rights have reverted back to me, here’s March of the Broken. My first (very) short Zombie story from Murky Depths #9:

Unsteadily I take to my crippled feet, make my first shambling step.
    Survey the carnage. The ground is slick with scarlet and I drag my reluctant toes through the gore unsure of my destination. The silence is maddening. I can not feel myself as I move, propelled forward by preternatural will, but I can feel the hunger. It rises in my dulled mind with insatiable ferocity that catcalls and jeers to only me.
    There are more, so many now. We move in shuffling unison, a broken battalion, an exodus of the hungry.
    And there are the others. They move so swift, and always away.
    Please. Don’t leave me.
    My voice sounds so morose and the words merge into a single hollow syllable. Some of them cover their ears as I plead in vain.
    Only in the earliest morning has the city ever been so still. There is a dreadful tension in the chill air. The buildings themselves seem to quiver with the effort of remaining still. There is a vacuum caused by the holding of mortal breath as I wander by.
    A sound. It catches my instinctual ear and I am drawn.
    My tattered hands scratch ineffectually at their walls, their doors. They plead like prisoners, afraid of their guards. They beg me to leave them alone. I can hear them from behind their barriers of brick and wood. They think them impenetrable. Nothing is more timeless than me. I am beyond the grasp of Time and Death. Not your bricks, not your wood, not your fragile lives can withstand my patient hunger.
    I wait. Outside.
    There is a press of bodies without people. Torsos and limbs held together by force of habit. We jostle and sway in the dark, our senses strained toward one inescapable goal. There is movement and the mob flows with wilted vigour. A sorrowful lament rises from our swelling ranks.
    I’m here. Can you not see me? Help me.
    Let me inside. I’m so alone and the world hurts my insomniac eyes.
    Sometimes they shriek and writhe in my arms. They beat at me like a beast, thrash and struggle. The thick taste of tin as it jets against my palette or the wet crunch of flesh is all that I ask for. Yet, they are so reluctant.
    So warm. I just want to be warm.
    I see you, a face from the locked vault of my mind. Your hair, I remember, it felt as if I were touching a dream. I knew you before. There was something before the stained shirt. There was something before your face was so cold and scarred with tear tracks. You know me. Who am I now, that you see me with such loathing? There was love there once.
    A whisper as you raise the rifle to your shoulder.
    Yes. That was my name.
    You say you’re sorry.
    Please, please.

Thanks for reading.