Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Research, Writing, and Visual Cues

by Marsha Ward @MarshaWard

Let me state up front that I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This affects the way I write, and tosses a few hurdles in my path that many other writers don't deal with. But other writers also have ADD or ADHD, so I feel a kinship with them. We do the best we can, and sometimes, we do brilliantly.

When it comes to writing novels, I don't always follow a strict progression of tasks. You know, like do research, write, edit, send the work off. These are very broad categories for the many and varied tasks writers do to get from the beginning to the end of a project. Let me explain a bit further.
  • Some writers do all their research before they write the first creative word.
  • Some writers do quite a bit of research to get a solid overview before they begin writing, then continue to research while they write, as they discover they need specific details.
  • Some writers make it all up, without any need for research.
Because I write historical novels, I need to do research, so I don't fall into the third group of writers.

I don't always know what I need to know when I begin a project, so I can't research everything before I write. Therefore, I don't belong in the first category, either.


I'm among those in the middle category above: I get the background covered, start writing, then fill in the gaps when they come along. I think of this as first, using the shotgun approach, then using a rifle to target the specifics.

 Once I've identified certain facts, I find that I need constant reminders of them. I'm afflicted with ADHD, remember?

Because I am a visual-learner, I depended on visual cues to remember these key items as I wrote the prequel novel in The Owen Family Saga, Gone for a Soldier. I made several charts or graphs, which are actually poster-board sheets I hung on my walls or attached to the front door with magnets. These sheets have various types of information on them.

One sheet showed a column with a rough timeline of the major battles of the eastern theater of the Civil War. My characters were not much concerned with the war's battles west of Virginia. A column on the rest of the page noted how my characters were impacted by these events. I should have used more space on the timeline side, as the second column needed more room. Oh well.


Another sheet reminded me of which military units are aggregated to make up larger units, that is: company > regiment > brigade > division > corps > army. I hope I got that right, as I'm not looking at the sheet.

A third sheet showed the configuration and changes there-to of the eastern fighting forces of the Confederacy. The death of major commanders often meant the entire army got reorganized. As units received casualties, they often were combined. New regiments were raised and places found for them in the army.

My intent wasn't to document these changes, but to show where they impact my characters. You see, I assigned most of my characters to actual historical Civil War units. In only one case did I choose to create a bogus cavalry company.

Civil War Units from Virginia
If Character A started out in actual Company Z of Regiment 1 of the infantry, and his unit was wiped out and combined with another after Battle 100, he might write home about it. If his Company didn't actually participate in a certain battle, I couldn't write a scene showing him in the heat of the fray.


Alas, I discovered I needed to dump a scene I wrote before I learned that a character's historical unit wasn't at the Battle of First Manassas (called Bull Run by the Yankees). Part of the problem came about because I hadn't isolated the company he would join before I wrote the scene. I knew his regiment was in the battle, so I assumed his company would be. Only after I picked the company in which he would enlist did I learn that, for whatever reason, it hadn't been on the field of battle. Erk!


I know all this sounds like an awful lot of work. To be truthful, it is! However, my method makes it possible for me to function at least halfway like a human being, and to let loose the stories rolling around in my head. That's worth the extra work!