Circus on PBS

Research Time: Giving Your Story Believability

Research is incredibly important when it comes to world-building – even more so if it’s based in a world of reality, with a topic you might not know much about.

When I set out to write GIFTED, I began writing about a girl who could control fire. She would be familiar with her gift (as opposed to coming into it at a certain age or it surprising her with a particular emotion or event), but not so much with everyone else that I didn’t have good reason to explain to readers how the gifts worked. For a while I was stumped, until the imagination fairy smacked an idea into my head: put her in a supernatural circus.

There was only one problem: I hadn’t been to a circus since I was a kid and didn’t know jack about circus life. The solution? Research, research, research.

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One of my biggest resources for my Donovan Circus books is the PBS documentary CIRCUS. Six hour long episodes take the viewer behind the scenes of the Big Apple Circus, where you learn about the performers, workers, leaders, and more. This was fantastic – I got to see how things worked in a real circus and see how I could apply it to my fictional Donovan Circus. I gathered ideas from their grounds setup, their performance acts, and their people. Like it or not, there’s a class hierarchy in that kind of show business. Several of the non-performers tend to run away to the circus to escape, from things like shady pasts or simply nowhere else to go and it’s the only job they can find. Even if I hadn’t been researching, I still found it fascinating to hear what it was like for some to “run away to the circus.”

Now, I wasn’t looking to make a historical piece full of facts or even imitate circus life completely. It’s a supernatural circus, so I took several liberties with what I learned. When I went to write out my circus setting, it sort of took on a life of its own.

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I also bought “Under the Big Top” by Bruce Feiler. His book chronicles his journey with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. He spent a year performing with them as a clown, interviewing members and getting their personal stories. Reading some of their stories seemed outrageous (and perhaps they were – outsiders are not to be trusted, and clown or no, Feiler was an outsider, so they may have enjoyed messing with him a bit). Either way, the book was not only entertaining, but informative. I was surprised to learn a few common phrases come from circus life, such as “hold your horses”, “rain or shine,” and “get the show on the road.”

The whole idea of the circus is used as a backdrop, a setting where the story takes place. That being said, the circus itself isn’t of terrible importance – while some readers may have wanted to see more performances in the ring, for me, the story takes place outside the tents. The focus of the plot just happens to take place at a circus. So while my research was incredibly important, I felt it was okay to twist things to my needs. As writers, we can create any kind of world we want, no matter how big or involved. But I think, if there’s any reality-based settings or information, it’s the research that keeps our noses clean, if you will, and lets readers sit back and enjoy the ride without too many questions.

How do you go about researching for a book? Or do you just fly by the acrobat wire and jump right in to tell your own interpretation of the story?

World Building: Do the Rules Matter? (Survey Says Yes)

Fun fact about me: I never received detention, not once throughout all my school years. I was not a rule-breaker and knew that rules established the order of things. I LIKE rules, probably because I am forever and always a goody-two-shoes. Much like in the real world, there are rules that must be built into your fantasy worlds. Whether you’re writing dystopian, paranormal, or supernatural, authors must configure rules into their worlds to set up plot and help readers suspend their disbelief even in a fantastical world. This is different from your culture’s internal laws and the possibilities are endless, even if it’s defying gravity or other impossible-in-real-life situations.

Let me explain further. In Harry Potter, for example, we know that despite the wizarding world being in plain view of Muggles, they are separate worlds. Underage wizards cannot perform magic outside of Howarts, there’s a Ministry of Magic as their form of government, and as Hermione constantly reminds Ron, wizards cannot create food or money from their wands. Those are basic rules that everyone knows and as readers, we understand that these things are impossible because of the way the world is built. No matter how talented Harry might be, he’ll never create a million dollars from his wand, just as Hermione cannot create a delicious feast from nothing. While all the things we read in Hogwarts are unbelievable, we are able to suspend our disbelief because we understand how Rowling’s world works based on a few established rules (and more as we keep reading).

As usual, I’ll compare it to what I know – my Gifted world. Despite the components of a magical circus, there are set rules for the characters that help keep a reader grounded to the story. Much like a wizarding world, gifted beings typically hide themselves in plain sight of regular humans – but it is definitely a secret world and has been since the beginning. Each individual has a unique gift to their “species” so to speak and gifted only have one power (as opposed to X-Men, some of whom have several powers in addition to what they’re known for). That sets a few rules that readers can understand even if they can’t relate, but it helps them settle comfortably into your world because they know you won’t suddenly change things up on them.

Every world is different but provided you’ve set some rules, it will be much easier for a reader to feel involved, even if it’s not an in-your-face fantasy. The witchy thriller piece I’m finishing is set in the everyday world and while there’s certainly a little hocus-pocus floating around, the story is more focused on the murder/thriller plotline. My witch magic is subtle (flickering lights, sudden weather changes, and other explainable things a human wouldn’t blame on magic) but rules are still in place to establish how their world works and how a reader should approach the story. If a reader sees an author breaking their world rules, it can turn them off – who’s to say you won’t keep breaking your own rules and throw everything we’ve just read out the window because now suddenly that one broken rule affects the rest of the story. It’s a cop out, in my opinion, because it means that not only did we not establish a solid world, but now we can’t even get our heroes out of the problem with their own skill set. We’ve then hurt our hero’s credibility! If Hermione could suddenly produce meals out of thin air, that means they shouldn’t starve, shouldn’t feel the hunger pains and accompanying emotions that come along with their frustrated journey to defeat Voldemort. It would’ve taken away a lot of angst, which of course only adds to our character development.

Moral of the story? Establish your world-building and make sure you understand the rules. Ask lots of questions as you jot everything down – can they produce food or money from thin air? Is your vampire still dangerous even though he dates a human? Can Character X accomplish her task once you’ve set up your fiction government control? (And if not, how does she overcome her obstacle?) Once you figure out what works and what doesn’t, you’ll have an easier time writing your story (that I can promise you!) because you know the boundaries of what your characters can and can’t do. Rules will help readers become comfortable with the story as they get lost in a world unlike their own and they can trust you to take them on a fantasy adventure that’s both realistic and unexpected.

Writing Characters: Layer ‘Em Like an Onion

When it comes to writing my characters, I’m all about layers. Occasionally, I’ll dive in and start writing scenes, especially ones I’ve been excited to write, but I like knowing my characters and how they’d react in their situation. One of the main reasons Lucy of Gifted is 21 years old is because I knew I couldn’t make her under 21–specifically because Lucy would never have the balls to sneak into a bar and drink underage. Lucy is brave, but not reckless (not usually, anyway) and is all about abiding rules and laws. It’s how she and her family stayed safe as gifted out in the human world for all those years.

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Shrek, the original onion layer, agrees that layers make a character.

For whatever reason, Gifted sort of simply came together for me. I mean, I worked hard on it and edited thousands of times to tie up all my loose ends, but sometimes it simply wrote itself through my fingers, my subconscious secretly piecing things together without my even realizing it. More importantly, the characters were almost a no-brainer. I knew almost immediately who they were, their roles in the story, what they looked like, and how their relationships with Lucy would evolve. I knew exactly how each person would react in any given situation. They were already old friends of mine and they nearly jumped off the page for me. I only had one major change with the characters–Renata, the Earthshaker we see a handful of times throughout, was actually a main player. I decided there were already lots of characters, so I scooted her to the background (though I kept in her big moment during a fight scene). After a while (like after the 2nd draft), I finally wrote everything down about the characters–their families, tics and habits, all of it. I made sure I knew those guys inside and out. And it took several layers that even led me to their secrets I might not have found otherwise had I not dug a little deeper.

When I say layer a character, I mean that’s my method of writing. I’d been having some difficulties with the WIP lately. When working on SuperNova, I couldn’t figure out why I was having such a blasted hard time with the characters. I could picture them in my mind, but I didn’t know them yet. Every scene I wrote sounded flat because despite my physical movements and settings, the voices were simply neutral. I could’ve traded them in for anyone. The last thing I want is Nova getting confused for Lucy. So last week, I took a step back and realized I’d skipped a step that I didn’t really have to do for my Gifted characters right away. I’d been so worried about getting the story out on paper that I didn’t take a good look at my characters, didn’t interview them or consider their thoughts and feelings.

Once I sit down to write characters, I spend pages and pages with them. Unless I’m acknowledging a relationship with another character in the book (brother/sister, love interest of, etc), the sole focus is that one person. I don’t just write about their appearance or how they react to things; I write about their fears, their insecurities, what makes them happy, their hopes and dreams, the tiny scar they have on their knee from 5th grade baseball, and so much more. I round out possible scenarios that I’ve outlined for the story and as I ask questions, I answer them along the way, cleaning up the loose ends that might be somewhere in the manuscript. For example, when writing about a new character, Penelope:

“Penelope Warner [age, physical description, role in story]…She’s younger, so more prone to jealousy and childishness…she’s bored and wants to stir up action…if [situation] occurred, she would [action]. When she first meets Nova, she thinks [thought]. How does she see her brother? When they are together [she acts this way], but if [character/situation] were to happen, maybe she’s [action].”

Sorry, I know that’s like the world’s worst Mad Lib, but you probably get the general idea (plus I know all the answers to those questions and I refuse to give spoilers before the first draft is even done!) 🙂 Once I’m done with the first layer, realizing who they are, I can move on to the next: placing them in scenes. Because I’ve already set up everything, I add in specifics, such as their facial expressions (reactions), tics (like Lucy’s finger tapping), or emotional reactions (Delia’s cookie problem). I also get little ideas within those scenes on how to move forward. Sometimes I get thrown for a loop, but often it leads to a helpful dose of detail later on in the book.

I have no doubt that layering sounds a little strange to some, just as other techniques might baffle me. However, it’s working for me in this strange little system. It’s like I’ve put all the ingredients together and now it’s time to bake the cake (I’ve got dessert on the brain). The point is, no matter how a writer composes their story, it’s important for us to know our characters inside and out. When they talk to you, write everything down! It doesn’t matter if family history or a random event in their life doesn’t make the cut–it makes the characters who they are. Those ideas shape them just as any of our pasts shape us. Brainstorming is fun and you’ll put all the pieces together eventually. Even if the details don’t make it into the story, it helps us to create our world and its people.