Research For Middle Grade Historicals & Incubation as Inspiration with Anne O’Brien Carelli

Today’s guest on the podcast is Anne O’Brien Carelli author of Skylark and Wallcreeper, a middle grade story that alternates between Brooklyn in 2012 and the German-occupied town of Brume in 1944. Anne joined me today to talk about writing for children, and the amount of research required to write historical fiction – no matter the age, as well as using incubation and your subconscious to think your way around the sticky spots in your manuscript.

Support the Podcast 

Structure & Research For Your Novel, With Sarah Carlson

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!


Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Sarah Carlson, debut author of All The Walls of Belfast, which will be releasing in March - don't miss the chance to enter to win an ARC below! Sarah writes Contemporary YA that incorporates social issues, and is a member of SCBWI. Sarah is represented by literary agent Claire Anderson-Wheeler at Regal Hoffman & Associates.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m kind of a Pantsner, or a Planster. My natural inclination is to be a Pantser. The novels I write are all about characters, and the plots therefore are driven by the characters. I discover my characters as I write, unique aspects of their personalities and quirks, but also much deeper things like their core beliefs about themselves, the world, and the people around them. I discover their insecurities, which the antagonist exploits or are the antagonists themselves, and what makes them strong, which helps them (maybe) defeat the antagonist in the end. And I discover what they need and why they need it—internal and external stakes that truly matter.

All of these character aspects determine how they will act and react to other characters and the obstacles thrown in their way, which is the plot.

But at the same time, I can’t just totally throw characters together and just see what happens. I need at least a bare bones direction. So, what I generally try to do is start with a general idea of what the central conflict and antagonist are, then I try to flesh out a bit the major points in the novel, based loosely on The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures by Christopher Vogel.

Then what typically happens is the plot completely evolves and changes as I’m writing and discovering my characters, and it often changes significantly between my many, many drafts as I understand my characters and their motivations even better. It may not be the most efficient way to write a book, but for me, it leads to a story with rich, deep characters who make high stakes decisions based on who they are, rather than to fit my plot.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

It really depends on what the novel is about, and how much research it takes. All the Walls of Belfast took about five years, in part because I was writing outside my lane about a topic that stems from a very complex social-political history. I needed to understand that to understand the complex current events and perspectives of my characters, and to grasp the roots of the intergenerational trauma impacting many of the teen characters.

Because it’s based in Belfast, I also needed to do mega research into dialect (first bridging the gap between British English and American English, and then specifically Belfast dialect), culture, and setting. I also took three trips there and managed to get five readers from Belfast. Beyond that, it is also dual point-of-view with very different characters. Figuring out Fiona’s story (ironically the one who’s culturally American) was much more challenging than Danny (the boy from Belfast). Her inciting incident, and therefore pretty much her entire story, was completely changed and re-written more than once because it took me a while to truly find the heart of her story.

The novel I’m currently working on, set in my hometown in rural Wisconsin, was much quicker, perhaps two or three months to complete the first draft (while working full-time and raising my toddler). This novel took some research around heroin addiction and its impact on children and families but didn’t require much beyond that because I spent my teenage years growing up there.

So, obviously, big difference!

What slows the process down is often waiting to get feedback from readers about what’s working and not working, then deciding what fits with your story, but having that space away from your story helps you return with fresh eyes. Sometimes for me, too, I just get stuck and need some space to find the way forward, and that often stems from the fact that I’m in the process of discovering the heart of my story.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

If I’m not on a deadline, I follow my heart and work on whatever’s calling me. It may vary week-to-week. Generally, though, I work on something until I hit a wall or run out of steam, then something else calls to me and I work on that.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

I’ve always loved writing, ever since 4th grade when I was selected from my grade as a winner for some writing competition. In middle school, I wrote basically Stephen King fan fiction on loose-leaf paper, then in high school delved into tons of research and then writing an epic sci-fi book. As I got serious about writing, the biggest fear I had to overcome was showing other people my work, first family and then strangers in critique groups, then agents.

How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?

Four or five.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I wouldn’t say I quit as in I deleted it, but I locked it away and told myself it’ll never be seen again, lol. That’s not to say bits of it might not inspire other work later, but . . . Knowing it was time and my reasoning, that varied. Sometimes it was realizing it wasn’t my story to tell. Other times it was realizing that I was trying to write a genre that doesn’t fit with my current skill set (like that sci-fi novel I started when I was fifteen). Who knows, I may go back to them someday. But, most importantly, I learned priceless volumes with every manuscript, so it really wasn’t a waste of time.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?

My agent is Claire Anderson-Wheeler at Regal Hoffman & Associates. I queried two manuscripts before All The Walls of Belfast with absolutely no requests at all. To be fair, when I started querying eight or nine years ago, I had NO IDEA what I was doing. At all. Like my YA sci-fi was 240,000 words. EEK!!!! There were years where I just gave up querying altogether, but I didn’t give up writing because I can’t. I love creating stories and have since I started walking basically. I kept pushing myself to improve. I attended writing conferences, researched effective query letters, learned more about HOW to write a book, wrote new books. Worked with a few writing coaches. Found critique partners. Joined writing groups. Kept pushing myself. Kept writing.

With All The Walls of Belfast, I was very reluctant to even start querying, but I worked hard on compiling a list of agents (which included Claire). Then in 2014 I discovered the joy of the YA writing Twitter community. The first contest I participated in (and it was with All The Walls of Belfast) was Pitch Wars. I was one of those hopeful mentees who read all the signs and was SURE I was going to be picked. I wasn’t. But my query materials were in much better shape and I’d amassed many new, skilled writing friends I still talk to. Then I participated in a few more Twitter-based writing contests and didn’t get picked.

Just as I was preparing to (finally) traditionally query, one of my writer friends told me about a Twitter pitching contest called #Pitchmas, right before Christmas. I was almost like, what’s the point, but she helped me prepare a few 140 word tweets, so I went for it. And . . . Claire liked one of my tweets! I sent her my materials. Ironically, if I remember correctly, she didn’t even ask for my query, just my synopsis. All that work on my query and it wasn’t even needed ;-P I made a point of telling her I’d planned on querying her anyway. I sent the full, and I think THE CALL came in late January 2015. I reached out to other agents who had my query, got a few more full requests, then gave them a week to read them. In the end, I decided Claire’s vision for my novel, and her enthusiasm, was the perfect fit!

How long did you query before landing your agent?  

I queried three novels over about six years.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Just keep telling yourself it’s a business, and a very subjective one at that. For example, with All The Walls of Belfast, it often came down to agents not being interested in the setting or not connecting with one of the two POV characters, but my agent and publisher both LOVED the setting and both characters and felt all that was a major selling point of the book. So, it all came down to subjectivity.

If you’re not getting requests, get some fresh eyes on your query and first pages. That’s why I always sent them out in small batches, to see if they were working. Keep writing. If you don’t get any bites on your initial novel, try the next one. The writers who make it are the ones who persevere and keep pushing themselves to improve their craft. And, most importantly, they never give up.

How much input do you have on cover art?

Turner Publishing asked me for my vision for All The Walls of Belfast, then they gave me three cover comps based on it. I picked one and then offered several rounds of specific things to tweak to make sure the characters matched my vision of them. I also had say over font colors. And I totally love the end result!

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I was just really surprised by how hard Turner Publishing was working on everything in the background without me knowing!

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I’m working very closely with Turner’s marketing director on strategy and we’re definitely a team! My goal is to enhance all the stuff they’re already doing. I actually enjoy it, and I’m the kind of person who likes to be in control of my own destiny, so I’m trying hard to be involved with readers and writers across social media platforms. I also designed my own swag and am working to creatively compile giveaway packs with a focus on supporting local Belfast businesses when possible. I made my own book teaser trailer.

I also have a website and blog, and can be found on Twitter, Goodreads, Instagram, Facebook and Youtube.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I got on Twitter and started my blog/website back in 2014, when I really got serious about treating writing as a profession. Participating in Twitter-based writing contests like Pitch Wars helped me to build my writing tribe. My writing friends have continued to help me build my craft, and now also help me get the word out about All The Walls of Belfast. But it takes a lot of genuine relationship building and mutual support to get there, so definitely work on it before. Plus, who knows, if I never got on Twitter, I may never have gotten my agent in the first place.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Absolutely. I think it’s critical. Both my personal friends and writer friends are already helping me spread the word about All The Walls of Belfast. I must say, joining the Novel Nineteens, a dedicated group of MG and YA writers debuting in 2019, has been absolutely essential to my career. I learn so much from them, and we help one another get the word out about our upcoming books. They’re so much fun, too! And let me tell you, so much literary awesome is about to explode on the scene in 2019, so be ready.

You can pre-order All The Walls of Belfast on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound.

And be sure to enter the giveaway below for a chance to win an ARC!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Research, But Not Too Soon by Julia Glass

by Julia Glass

When I teach, I like debunking the mythical dictates carved in the styrofoam pillars supporting the shrine built to deify the Real Writer. (Picture the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s Ernest Hemingway up on that throne, fountain pen clenched in a fist as big as a Thanksgiving turkey.) There’s a reason, I point out, that novelists do not have to pass exams to practice their trade. Architects and sea captains, sure. Surgeons, you bet. Why not novelists? Simple: Our form of malpractice won’t kill anybody. The worst we can do is bore you silly, fail to suspend your disbelief, make you waste a little money. So we get to do this thing we do by whatever rules and rituals we devise.

Prominent among those dictates (close on the heels of Write every day) is Write what you know. Which holds true, admittedly, to the extent that every journey begins at home. But I like Grace Paley’s retort: “We don’t write about what we know; we write about what we don’t know about what we know.” Write what you want to know, and start out pretending you know a lot more than you do. Surmise, invent, and bluff your way through it as far as you can. Flex your imagination. Why else are you here?

One of the ancillary pleasures in writing fiction, however, is finding out stuff, “real” stuff, stuff you never knew before, stuff you need to know if the story you’re telling is to hold up as true. Curiosity is the apprentice to your imagination. Yet I have found that the longer I can put off my research, the stronger and tighter my stories are. This is personal, of course; maybe you, setting out to write the great modern Western, need to pack up and live as a Wyoming cowhand before you can write a single word. Herman Melville went on an honest-to-God whaling voyage, no luxury cruise, before sitting down to write Moby-Dick. I hasten to add that I am not writing historical fiction, so the broad context of my work is the world we live in now; nevertheless, I delve deeply into my characters’ personal histories, which means I’m facing history with a capital H. I may need to find out about, for instance, the rationing of farm equipment during World War II. (Wars of the last century have influenced the lives of my fictional people as dramatically as they have the lives of actual people.)

I won’t deny that laziness factors into my method. Years ago, I loved nothing more than a good excuse to roam the library stacks. Now, even heading downscreen to Safari seems like a chore when all I want to do is hang around with my characters, eavesdrop on their secrets, and get them in trouble just to find out how they’ll endure (or not).

In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. Though I may not understand why, I will have felt a deep curiosity to inhabit the psyche of a wildlife biologist, a pastry chef, a Guatemalan gardener, an elderly widower, a music critic, the devout Catholic mother of two gay sons, a cancer patient, a cellist, a lonely film star, an insolent young man bent on what he sees as constructive anarchy.

To know their passions, preoccupations, and afflictions, I have researched the infrastructure of wedding cakes, the culture of a 1960s summer camp for teenage musicians, the pathology and treatment of AIDS in the 1980s, the training of Border collies, the politics of water rights in the Southwest, the conservation of grizzly bears – but I began by writing from instinct and hearsay. The problem with doing research too soon is this: If I uncover too much captivating knowledge in advance, I cannot resist including it, nor can I tell when it dilutes or distracts from the story I’m trying to tell. If, on the other hand, I must pack it into the brimming suitcase of an existing story, only the pertinent details will fit. (The vast lore I uncovered on the variously eccentric traditions surrounding wedding confections was hard to leave behind, but because I was working to authenticate an existing scene, the narrative had only so much give.) The story must be the boss of the research, not the other way around.

I like doing my research live, using people as sources whenever I can. And sometimes those people find me. Years ago, while struggling to craft a character living with the after-effects of head trauma, after reading medical journals had left me more confused than informed, I was called for jury duty – where I happened to meet a stranger who had gone through an experience parallel to that of my character. I conducted some enormously fruitful “research” over lunch breaks from the courthouse.

Inevitably, you miss things. If you’re lucky, people who read your work early on catch those gaffes before it’s too late: the clam sauce with onions, the cello seated behind the flute; an idiom or a gadget or a popular song deployed before its time. Sometimes, however, alternative facts wind up in print. In Three Junes, I began by using memory and guesswork to describe the surroundings of a Scottish country home, an essential setting, knowing I’d fine-tune the details later. Several drafts later, I consulted a guide to British birding, overwriting my placeholder blue jays, robins, and cardinals with yellowhammers, chiffchaffs, and collared doves. Botanically, however, it turns out I wasn’t so thorough.

There I was, out on tour, closing my book after reading to a small audience, when a hand shot up, emphatically. “Excuse me,” said my questioner, “but please see page 117. It isn’t possible, you realize, for the women’s final at Wimbledon to fall within the month of June. And, on page 47, can you tell me what a dogwood tree is doing in Scotland? Dogwoods grow only in North America.” He was holding a copy of my book sprouting a thicket of Post-Its. He was my first of a certain kind of reader. I want to hug and slug these people at the very same time. They are, after all, devoted to the truth.

Okay, so he had me on Wimbledon – a necessary torqueing of reality that I had hoped no one would notice. “But as for the dogwood,” I said, keeping my cool, “there were these American houseguests who, wanting to make a memorable impression on their Scottish hosts, and knowing how much they cherished their garden, smuggled a dogwood sapling in their luggage as a house present. The climate proved perfectly hospitable. The guests were invited back. Next time, they brought a pair blue jays.”

Julia Glass the author of six novels, including the best-selling Three Junes, winner of the National Book Award, and I See You Everywhere, winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Other published works include Chairs in the Rafters and essays in several anthologies. Glass is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College. She lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Julia's essay is excerpted from Signature's 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide - which you can download for free!