The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

On the plane...

I write this sitting on a little jet on my way to Raleigh, North Carolina, Chapel Hill University, where I’ll be lecturing a writing class and giving a keynote speech. The subject of the conference is “the Specualtive South,” meaning an investigation of alternate histories involving the Southern United States. Not sure what I’ll talk about. Probably will wait until I see the other topics of discussion, and then fill in the gaps.

I’d bet that my speech will deal with the work that went into the creation of my book LION’S BLOOD, set in an alternate history in which Africa developed a technological civilization prior to Europe, and colonized the Americas, bringing white slaves. Took four years of research, but that doesn’t mean I was writing during that period.

You see, I use a method of overlapping projects: I’m polishing one while creating rough draft on another while outlining a third and researching a fourth. It’s just the way my mind works. One question that is often asked is: when do you know you’ve done enough research? Good question. You see, in one sense, you can never do “enough” research, because the world of your book or screenplay has to feel like the real world. And the act of Creation, by that standard, requires a God-like knowledge of your world.

In practical terms, however, what you need is enough knowledge to be able to lay out the territory, and then map your character’s way through it. There is a very specific standard that I use in this regard. I begin with a general idea of what I want to know, and then start reading and asking questions. Along the way, I develop theories on the subject, and then search to disprove my own ideas. When I come up with a theory I’ve never heard of, and can’t disprove, I seek out an expert, and lay out my thoughts. If I get positive feedback on these original ideas, I know that my research phase is drawing to a close—I’m ready to write!

You’ll need to come up with your own standards, of course. And in the final analysis it’s an art-form, not a science. Only you know the effect you’re trying to create in your work. And only experience will teach you to create it.

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