Everything You Need to Know About Conducting Research for Your Book

Hi everyone! This article is a companion to the Instagram video series I am currently doing about research. To watch, click on the Instagram icon at the top of the page or find me @laurenbrockmeierwriter. 

In this series of videos, I broke down the ins and outs of doing research into bite-sized pieces. I’ve tried to make this article scannable so you can jump to the section you need. I’ll continue this series in later videos and add content to this post, so check back periodically. If there is something specific you’d like me to cover, please let me know in the comments.

Part 1: Finding Appropriate Sources for Your Research

Primary and Secondary Sources

There are so many types of sources available to you as a writer. Knowing what kind you need and how to find them is vital. Let’s start with some basics. 

When you are doing research on an academic subject like history, biology or anthropology you will find two types of sources– primary and secondary. A primary historical source is a piece of written work from the period being looked at, for instance, a diary entry from 1902. Other fields have different types of primary sources. Research data, artifacts, scientific reports, ethnographies, and first-hand accounts are primary sources. 

Secondary sources analyze primary sources. They may use primary sources to support a theory, interpret an event or raise additional questions on a subject. One example is an article in a research journal that uses primary sources to prove that King Tut was murdered. In the sciences, secondary sources are typically literature reviews. A literature review is an article that looks at the results of several studies on a topic to summarize the current state of knowledge and what still needs to be studied. In some cases, an article that summarizes scientific knowledge for public consumption, such as an article on NASA.gov, could be considered a reliable secondary source. 

In the world of internet research, there are many places to find sources. It’s good to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, so you know which one you’ve found. Here’s a less academic example of the difference: A blog that gives a first-hand account of a contemporary event is a primary source. In contrast, an article that summarizes or interprets first-hand accounts of that same event is a secondary source. 

Which Source is Right for You?

 A scholarly journal, a blog, a Wikipedia article, and government websites are all legitimate sources for different types of information. You might be thinking, “Wait a second, isn’t Wikipedia terrible?” The answer is that it’s all about how you use it. That goes for many sources on the internet. Just because you shouldn’t use WebMD to diagnose yourself doesn’t mean it’s not a great source when you are trying to describe disease symptoms in a fictional story. When you embark on your research journey, you need to know what sources are appropriate for your needs.

Here’s an example:

 If you want to know about the symptoms of the black plague, a website like WebMD or Healthline are decent sources. If you want to know how many people in the US or the world contract the black plague every year, you should look at cdc.gov or who.int. Now let’s say you are interested in the circumstances of the plague epidemic in San Francisco in 1900-1904. You’ll need to find scholarly articles to learn more about this. Wikipedia could be a good starting place if you need an overview of the information and some ideas about other sources to look at. Find the bibliography section at the bottom and make a list for your next trip to the library. You can also find scholarly sources on sites like JSTOR, but you will need to pay for access if you aren’t affiliated with a University. Let’s go a step further. You want to know what life was like for prostitutes during this same epidemic. Secondary sources can help you with this, but if you can find a primary source like a diary entry or a newspaper article from the time period, that’s even better. (JSTOR is also great for primary sources– more on that below.) 

Of course, if you are doing research for a fictional book, you may be more interested in how something feels than in hard facts. If your character is about to go rock climbing and you’ve never been, you could read a blog online written by someone who climbs regularly. You could also arrange to interview a rock climber. A rock climber’s blog could help you with other important details like what equipment your character should be taking and what the culture of rock climbing enthusiasts is like. 

How to Use Wikipedia

Wikipedia allows anyone to edit their articles. I’ve heard they’ve gotten better at vetting their contributors, but there are still some pages with poorly documented information. The good news is that these pages will include notes stating they need more sources. You should look elsewhere for information when you come across a page like this. That said, a well-written Wikipedia page with a robust bibliography at the bottom is a great jumping-off point for your research. If you are researching something scholarly, make sure the sources are by authors with PhDs or other appropriate qualifications. Then find those sources and take a look at their bibliographies. You can snowball your sources this way to speed up your research process. 

Wikipedia is also a legitimate source for information on pop-culture subjects like movies, music, and television. I recommend staying away from pages on hot-button topics, as these are likely to be written from a biased perspective. (The global warming page changed every other week as people from different sides of the debate edited it.)

Example of a well-written Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Francisco_plague_of_1900%E2%80%931904

What is JSTOR?

I mentioned JSTOR above as a source for primary and secondary scholarly sources. It’s a database where you can search for various peer-reviewed secondary sources as well as all kinds of primary sources (from voice recordings to newspaper articles). If you are affiliated with a university (or some high schools), you should have free access to all that JSTOR offers. If not, you will need to get a paid subscription. This is well worth it if you need to do a considerable amount of research on a topic. They offer sources for various subjects, including medicine, history, physics, and anthropology.

Take a look: https://www.jstor.org/

Part 2: Vetting Your Sources

We all know that misinformation is a huge problem. You may be able to easily spot misinformation on social media, but it can be more difficult to notice incomplete information and subtle bias on blogs, webpages, or scholarly articles. Bias comes in many forms and flavors and is found in sources on all subjects, even fairly dry academic fields. For instance, one geologist might have a pet theory that they cling to and bolster, while another takes a more objective view of the evidence. Here are five signs of bias to watch out for:

1. Loaded or Overly Emotional Language

 Loaded language refers to terms that have meaning beyond their literal meaning and a positive or negative emotional connotation. Some examples include “terrorist,” “bureaucrat,” and “primitive.” These sorts of words inject emotion and opinion into a story and can influence a reader’s (or watcher’s) opinions without them realizing it. Imagine how you might feel differently about a news story if people are referred to as “illegal immigrants” as opposed to “asylum seekers.” Media outlets and scholars should strive to use more neutral, less charged language. 

Emotional language includes unneeded adjectives or words designed to create a specific emotion in the reader. These are inappropriate in news sources or scholarly articles that should be laying out facts and allowing the reader to decide what they feel and believe. For instance, if I say, “The greedy company bilked its customers,” I’m leading you to several conclusions that may or may not be true without giving you any real facts to back up these conclusions. It would be better to say, “Customers allege that the company overcharged them.” 

Be on the lookout for these two tip-offs of bias. Ask yourself how you feel after reading something and why you feel that way. What facts have you been given to justify your feelings? Remember that accusations and feelings are not facts. For instance, to know whether or not the company in the example above was, in fact, greedy or had bilked its customers, you’d have to hear many details about what customers claimed, what the company said, and what its financial records showed. If the article doesn’t provide these facts (along with a list of sources for their information), there is no basis for their claims (as far as readers can tell). 

2. Unqualified Sources (Who Wrote This?)

One of the most important things about a source is who wrote it and what qualifies them to give you this information. For instance, I’m qualified to talk about research because I have a degree in history– a subject that deals heavily with research. 

Peer-reviewed journals like “The Lancet” or “American Ethnologist” subject every article they publish to a rigorous review for research standards and quality. They look into whether the research was conducted according to best practices, whether proper ethical oversight was given, if applicable, and whether the researchers or funders had any conflicts of interest. You should still use the skills this article is teaching you even when you approach work that’s been peer reviewed, but you can expect peer-reviewed work to be high quality. Peer-reviewed work will also be conducted by people who are qualified.

 Stuff you find on the internet outside of peer-reviewed journals, or research databases can be written by anyone. Just because a person makes a charismatic, emotionally persuasive argument doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about. If they are being emotionally persuasive, they are most likely a biased source. You should vet the people who are providing you with information. Do they hold a relevant degree or have validated life experience in the subject they are talking about? For instance, someone with a degree in business is not qualified to speak about public health. Of course, if someone is trained in conducting research or has relevant life experience, they may be able to provide good facts on a subject outside their degree. Regardless of whether a person holds a degree, they should always provide legitimate sources and tell their readers or viewers how they got their information. 

Keep in mind that even professionals can be biased. Just because someone quotes a doctor or a historian to back up their claims doesn’t mean that their information is true. They could be finding people with the same biases, or they could be misquoting or misrepresenting their statements. This is why it’s vital to look up your own sources using your new research and bias detection skills. 

3. Are There Financial Conflicts of Interest? (or Why Was this Written?)

If you are looking at a scholarly article, it will tell whether or not the people involved in the study or article have any conflicts of interest to declare. These sorts of academic sources should also tell you the name of the study’s sponsor. One of the easier-to-spot examples of possible bias in academia is the bias associated with sponsorship. This is especially common in areas where scholarship intersects with religion, public policy, or corporate interests. 

For instance, a study on a skincare ingredient conducted by a company that sells skincare products should be viewed skeptically. As should a study aimed at proving a particular religious event that a religious university sponsors. Sometimes this type of bias is less obvious. A study on food insecurity commissioned by a government and conducted by a non-profit that receives hefty government subsidies may or may not produce accurate, unbiased information. Any of these studies might produce some true conclusions, but comparing their findings with those conducted by more neutral parties would be best. 

Statistics, in particular, should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s extremely easy to manipulate statistics to say whatever you want them to say. If a scholarly source includes statistics, it should talk about group size, margins of error, how they accounted for various confounding factors, who funded the analysis, and what incentives were offered to participants. Unfortunately, we’ve normalized quick, uncontextualized statistics in news media and other sources. Look for conflicting statistics on whatever subject you are researching and read about why the researchers arrived at different results. Statistics are often used to “prove” something, but they are seldom as straightforward as they seem. They are also often utilized by people and organizations who benefit from them and therefore don’t stand up to the “who wrote this and why?” test. 

Outside of academic sources, financial bias can take other forms. Beware of people trying to sell you things on the internet. There are many blogs out there that provide information designed to lead you to buy a product or service. If you are looking for information on the benefits of massage, it can be easy to stumble onto a massage parlor’s blog. Sometimes these articles are well disguised as neutral information sources. Pay attention to what links are contained in the article, the web address, and whether there are mentions of specific products or promotions. The massage parlor might provide some accurate information. Still, if you look at a medical website, you’ll probably find that the massage parlor overstated some things and deemphasized a lack of evidence for their claims. 

4. Are Both Sides Treated Equally?

This is a tricky one regarding scholarly sources but a bit more straightforward when looking at journalism. Let’s deal with the straightforward end first. If a news article spends most of its length talking about one side of an issue and only a short time talking about the other side, it might be biased.

 Research methods can also introduce this type of bias. If I interview 12 cat lovers and only three dog lovers for an article about which pet is best for you, I’m writing a biased article. These differences can sway a reader’s opinion, even if the writer didn’t intend this. Sometimes it comes comes down to language. If I say dogs are loving animals but are difficult to care for while cats can also be cuddly and are easy to care for, I’m not making a 1:1 comparison. I’m highlighting two benefits for cats and only one for dogs. It would be better to list what kinds of care cats and dogs need and allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about what suits them best. 

In scholarly sources, it’s normal for an article to strive to prove a particular theory or hypothesis and to spend only a paragraph or two acknowledging other arguments. There is more than one interpretation of most historical events. One scholar may think that the facts surrounding the injuries on a mummified body lead to the conclusion that the person was sacrificed. Another scholar may argue that the person was murdered. So how should you know who’s right?

( If you are researching a fictional book, you may not need to know, but for the sake of argument, let’s say you want to include some factual information that will stand the test of time.)

 Read articles on both (or all) sides and look at the rebuttals. The rebuttal is a section of the article usually found toward the end where the scholar acknowledges other interpretations and tells the reader why they think those other interpretations are wrong (or at least not complete). If you read the rebuttals on both sides, you should get a better idea of which side you are more inclined to agree with. It’s also possible that more information is needed to prove either side correct. An article that acknowledges other theories or lack of information should be viewed as more reliable than an article that doesn’t. (A google search for “controversy over X subject” can give you a good idea of the different views involved.) Note that some topics are well proven and not controversial and therefore don’t require a rebuttal. 

5. Look at Several Sources

This last rule can help you identify all the signs mentioned above. It’s also the only way to answer another vital question– is information left out? Unless you are an expert in the subject, there is no way you can know if a source is leaving information out unless you find another source that includes it. 

Looking at sources from different sides of a debate or scholarly schools of thought will give you a more well-rounded view of the subject and help you compensate in your writing for the small biases that are present even in well-written articles. Try to be aware of all the individuals or groups who have a stake in the subject you are researching and try to find information from all sides, especially those that may be underrepresented in the literature.

 Reading different sides can make you aware of your own bias. Take note if you find yourself leaning in one direction for personal reasons. When this happens, read more about the side you are biased against so you can use that information to mitigate your bias. 

Here’s where to go for more information:

For more guidance on evaluating scholarly and popular sources: https://libguides.bridgewater.edu/c.php?g=944802&p=6811022

For help identifying your own implicit bias:


Part 3: Understanding The Information You Find

Once you find sources and vet them for bias, you must understand what you are reading. This can be difficult if you aren’t familiar with certain terms, ideas, or norms in a particular field. While I can’t include this information for all possible fields in this article, I’m going to list some common ones. I’m going to begin by talking about correlation and causation because these phenomena are often seen in academic studies and everyday life. Understanding these concepts is vital for understanding the veracity of the information you are looking at. 

Correlation, Causation, and Cause and Effect

Many academic quandaries come down to one basic question: Did A cause B? It’s an easy question to get wrong, especially if you don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation. Biased sources or people purposely spreading misinformation depend on the audience not knowing much about correlation and causation. 

 Correlation means that two or more things are associated with each other. Correlations can be completely coincidental or affected by other unknown variables. Just because there is a correlation between variables doesn’t mean that one directly and reliably causes the other. For instance, someone selling ice cream may notice they sell more on hot days. There’s a positive correlation between ice cream sales and the temperature. This means they both go up together. This correlation may not be reliable enough to be an objective truth. The ice cream dealer might have cooler days where they sell more than usual. It’s also possible that a third variable is affecting ice cream sales. For instance, there may be more tourists or more activities that bring people together near the ice cream shop during the summer months. A random hot day that didn’t happen during the tourist season or the fair might not raise ice cream sales. 

So when two things are correlated, there’s a loose but not always reliable connection between them. Sometimes correlations are completely random. 

For there to be causation, the relationship between two variables must be consistent and provable. A change in one variable reliably causes a change in the other. Three conditions must be met for causation to be proven, and a well-designed study or analysis will take all of them into account. The conditions are covariance, which means there’s a relationship between the two variables where one affects the other, temporal precedence– establishing that the cause occurs before the effect,  and control for third variables. In our ice cream example, we’d have to prove that temperatures affect ice cream sales, that the temperature goes up before sales increase, and that a third variable like the tourist season or local events wasn’t affecting ice cream sales. To control for the third variable, we could look at hot days during a month that doesn’t have other things going on that might attract customers. 

Misleading statistics, unscientific surveys, and fake news often present coincidental correlations as proven causations. Badly designed scientific studies will fail to control for third variables. 

Medical trials take the concept of causation and expand on it. The following is a simplified example of how this works: 

A well-designed study for a new medication will need to factor in the normal incidence of certain health conditions among the general population when determining whether the medication causes a side effect. Suppose one-quarter of the general population typically experiences a mild rash in any given year (this is called background incidence), and your research subjects represent the population accurately. In that case, if more than a quarter of them develop a rash, there’s a chance the new medication caused the rash. If a quarter or less of them develop a rash, it probably would have happened anyway, and causation is not proven. 

To sum up, correlation vs. causation is a way of thinking and questioning that can help you avoid erroneous or biased conclusions. It’s used in many academic fields and understanding it can give you a better idea of how the researchers were analyzing things. 

For more information on these concepts and their applications in science check out this source: https://www.understandinghealthresearch.org/useful-information/correlation-and-causation-15

Phew! That was a lot of info. If you’ve stuck with me this far you deserve to treat yourself to a snack or something. Hopefully, this article has given you some tools you can use to improve your research. Let me know what else you’d like me to cover in the comments. 

4 Captivating First-Person Narratives For Your TBR

“I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.”

Great Expectations

The best books show us what it feels like to be human. No type of story does a better job of this (in my opinion) than a powerful first-person narrative. When a story is told in the first person, there’s no separation between the reader and the protagonist. We are in the character’s head, watching their inner life as they try to figure themselves out and navigate their world. Ideally, the reader will see themselves in the character and find validation or a new understanding of themselves and their life. These stories stay with us forever and invite us to return to their pages again and agian.

Here are four first-person narratives that give a close-up view of fascinating and relatable characters (with no to light spoilers):

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is one of my favorite books and has been hailed by critics as Dickens’ best book. It tells the story of orphan boy Pip, who is living a hard knock life on the banks of the Thames with his abusive older sister and her kind but passive husband. Miss Havisham, the local rich lady, takes an interest in Pip and helps him get on as a blacksmith’s apprentice. While he works away at this, Pip receives the surprising news that a secret benefactor has bequeathed him a large fortune, and he must go to London and learn how to be a gentleman. 

Pip’s story is narrated in the first person by the older Pip. This gives it a sense of nostalgia, regret, and wisdom that wouldn’t be possible if young Pip told it. As Pip navigates his unlooked-for new life, he goes through some relatable growing pains. 

Movie adaptations have focused on the grim, dower qualities of the book, which is a shame because there are so many humorous and relatable moments in Pip’s story. Dickens’ does a great job of writing atmosphere in this book and that part does lean towards the Gothic. On the other side of things, there’s Pip’s friend, the lawyer who calls his old father the aged P (aged parent), and the relatable time when Pip spends way more money than he should on partying with his roommate. 

This story has it all, romance, heartbreak, surprise twists, and beautiful prose. It’s also a comforting read when you feel that your life isn’t going according to “plan.” 

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

I’ve always found Lewis’ work to be a bit hit or miss, but this book was definitely a hit. It was published in 1956 and was well received by critics as Lewis’ “most mature novel”. He wrote it with his wife, Joy, and it’s obvious that he got a woman’s input because his female protagonist is incredibly realistic and three-dimensional. 

This book is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis was bothered by the illogical actions of the characters in the myth and wanted to rewrite it. The result is a heart-wrenching first-person account by Psyche’s older sister Orual.

Orual is the “ugly” daughter of a despotic King, but after her sister Psyche is offered as a sacrifice to a monstrous creature, she can’t resist going to find her. What she discovers will change her life forever. 

The beauty of this book is that it pulls you into Oruals mind as she makes decisions so you can see all the reasons behind them, including the lies she tells to herself. It’s an uncomfortably realistic view of human strength and frailty that stays with the reader long after turning the last page. 

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro said that the inspiration behind Never Let Me Go was to explore what it’s like to live during a dystopian era, as opposed to other dystopian novels that focus on an uprising or overthrow of the dystopian system. 

This is the story of Kathy H., who describes herself as a carer. Her job is to care for the cloned people whose only purpose in life is to be organ donors. Kathy herself is one of these clones, but she doesn’t have to be a donor while she works as a carer. She frequently reminisces about her time at Hailsham, a boarding school for cloned donors. The reader learns about Kathy’s growing-up experiences, her friends, her first love, her “first time,” and her growing understanding of what she and her friends are. Adult Kathy cares for some of these friends and lovers as they fulfill their purpose and donate organs until they die. 

If you’re thinking, “God, that sounds depressing,” you’re right. It’s probably the most depressing book I’ve ever read. It’s a horror story more than anything and a well-done one. Imagine if one of the characters in the Hunger Games was narrating events as if that’s just how the world is and everything is fine. Kathy’s acceptance of the horrific system she’s living in makes the story far more disturbing than those where the character rails against the bad guys.

Yet, it does what the other novels I’ve listed here do– it makes you think about what it means to be human and explores mortality, morality, and how it feels to be part of the means that justify someone else’s ends.  

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe was one of those super hyped books that actually lived up to my expectations. Some of the best stories happen when someone asks, “What would that story look like from a different perspective?” That’s the case here, as Circe narrates her story, including the time she spent with Odysseus.

 Of course, this is a very different story when Odysseus isn’t the narrator. Far from being a conniving witch who turns men into pigs for the fun of it, Circe is a woman forced to survive on her own after she’s exiled to a remote island. Yes, she has magic, but she only turns men into pigs out of self-defense. Understandable for a woman alone who might be visited by rapacious sailors at any moment. 

Odysseus is a small part of Circe’s story that begins with her time as a child in the halls of her divine parents and ends after Odysseus’s death. During her exile, she creates a home, becomes a green witch extraordinaire, raises a child, and ultimately risks her life to right the wrongs of her youth.

 I enjoyed seeing this humanizing portrait of a female character from mythology. So often, women in Greek and Roman myths are either faceless victims or villains who punish each other for the wrongs of the men in their lives. Miller’s Circe is able to overcome these roles and be a hero in her own right. 

Have you read any fiction or nonfiction first-person narratives that you loved? Let me know in the comments.

My SFF Adaptation Wishlist

During the last several years adaptations of fantasy and science fiction stories have taken off in a big way. As is the case when anything goes “mainstream”, the original fans have often been disappointed by the results. That’s not to say that no good has come of it. Game of Thrones kept us enthralled until the last season let us down. The Wheel of Time TV series debuted to strongly mixed reactions from fans of the books, and we are still anticipating the release of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. I’m not sure how I feel about that last one, but I think Tolkien would approve of the title since anything with a colon sounds like a scholarly article.  

At this point, I think we all feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation when adaptations of our favorite books are announced. Sometimes it’s nice to take a step back from the often disappointing reality of adaptations and fantasize about our own “perfect” versions. 

Here, in no particular order, are my adaptation fantasies. Please comment and let me know what yours are.

The Children of Hurin by J.R.R Tolkien as a Play

 Because who says that adaptations have to be on screen, some stories are made for the stage, and this is one of them. It has all the drama and tragedy of Shakespeare’s best works and doesn’t need crazy special effects. I’d also pay big money to see Turin’s story made into an opera, preferably by a resurrected Puccini. Bonus points if it’s in Elvish. 

The Silmarillion by J.R.R Tolkien as an Animated Series

I know that live-action is all the rage right now, with Disney turning animated films into live-action ones, but animation is just better for some types of stories. To tell The Silmarillion the way it should be told, the adapters need to be able to work without the budgetary and logistical concerns inherent to live-action productions. Sometimes fantasy stuff looks more realistic animated than it does with practical or computer effects. 

Yes, technically we have the technology to make it look good, but realistic computer animation that looks right in a live-action film is so expensive that it often ends up being half-assed and not looking great. Or, the story is changed to require fewer effects-heavy creatures and scenes. In an animated Silmarillion, we could see armies of Balrogs and other First Age shenanigans just as they are described in the book. We already have gorgeous examples of First Age animations by artists like Ted Nasmith and Alan Lee. I’d also accept a simpler form of animation as long as it had the right “feel.”

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine As A Movie or TV Series

This book and its sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, are the most standout fantasy books I’ve read in years. I’d love a faithful adaptation of some kind to watch. I think these could be successful as live-action, but I’d also enjoy a well-done animation. Thanks to Martine’s descriptions, I have an amazing picture of Teixcalaan in my head, and it would be neat to see other interpretations on screen. I’d also love to hear the poetry in the book read out loud by someone who knows what they are doing. 

A TV Series Inspired by The Lies of Locke Lamora

I loved the Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series by Scott Lynch. The characters, particularly Locke and Jean, were what made these books fun. The deeper, darker plot that became more evident in the sequels always felt a little out of place to me, and I never could get into it.   

I would happily watch a show that covered the first book pretty faithfully and then branched off and became a heist-of-the-week type thing with some kind of overarching plot, but nothing too serious. There is something to be said for fantasy stories that are just fun, and I think this one has that potential. 

My 2022 Book Goals

2021 has finally come to an end, and it was a good year for reading, if not for much else. I’m looking forward to the reading year ahead! There are several new books I want to check out and some favorite series I’ll be continuing. Here’s what I’ll be reading this year:

A Classic

Each year I read at least one “classic” novel.  I’m starting my year with Paradise Lost by John Milton. This epic poem about the fall of man was written in the 1600s and has been inspiring authors and artists ever since. I picked this book because it has been so influential and oft-quoted. The fact that I haven’t read it feels like a gaping hole in my education. I hope it lives up to the hype.

Series I’m Continuing

I’ve tried out several new authors and series the last few years, but I only read the first book of some series because I was eager to read the next new thing. I think I got burnt out on long series and needed a break.

This year I’d like to go back and continue a few of the series that I liked the most. The two I have in mind right now are the Children of Time series by Adrian Tchaikovsky (read my review of the awesome first book) and The Poppy Wars series by R.F. Kuang. I’m also looking forward to reading the next installment of the Wayward Children Series, Where the Drowned Girls Go, by Seanan McGuire.

I may also pick up some of Adrian Tchaikovski’s other work since I enjoyed Children of Time so much. 

New Releases by Authors I Haven’t Read

How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

 This science fiction book about the aftermath of a plague caused by microorganisms found in Antarctica has garnered a lot of attention. Many reviewers mentioned that even though it deals with a plague, it doesn’t feel like it’s exploiting the present moment. It sounds like a book that plays with format and style in unique ways. Maybe this book will be my “something fresh” for the year. 

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

I loved Amazon’s TV version of The Expanse, so of course, I have to read the books. I must know what was up with Xan!

Violeta by Isabel Allende

A story about a woman who lived through the terrible upheaval of the early twentieth century and still managed to thrive. I love looking-back-on-life-from-old-age type stories, and this one sounds perfect for right now. 

Multicultural SFF

I read Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia last fall and loved it. Her idea of vampire myth meets Aztec mythology in Mexico city felt fresh– not easy to do in the vampire genre. I’m going to check out at least one of her other books, either Mexican Gothic or Gods of Jade and Shadow. 

Since my book in progress uses Incan history as inspiration for much of the world-building, I’m trying to read other SFF books that have used South American or Native mythologies or histories. I’ve heard good things about Rebecca Roanhorse’s work, especially her book Black Sun. The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera also looks intriguing. 

I’d also love to read some speculative fiction stories from authors in other parts of the world. If you have any great Asian/African/Middle Eastern or Eastern European SFF recommendations, please leave them in the comments. 

My husband has been begging me to read the Eisenhorn series by Dan Abnett for years. Military Sci-fi is not usually my thing, but I told him I’d give it a shot. 

A fellow writer recently recommended the Reluctant Royals series by Alyssa Cole, so I’m going to be checking that out as well. 

What books do you love? Let me know so I can add more recommended reads to my list. 

Why Writers Should Read The Eye of The World

The Wheel of Time– a vast sprawling epic that many find intimidating. But what if we take just the first book, The Eye of the World. On its own, it’s a simple story about villagers leaving home and being chased by evil creatures until they make some troubling discoveries. It’s a great example of how to write the first book in a series. 

The Eye of the World has it all; fascinating characters, high stakes and a vividly imagined world. If you want to write books like that, then reading them is the best way to learn. Jordan’s work is somewhat controversial. Some readers criticize his writing as wordy, but many fans also praise it as easy to read, despite the sundry detail. These books aren’t perfect, but they prove that imperfect books can still be excellent. Writer-me finds that comforting. 

Here are five things writers can learn from The Eye of the World:

1. Keep it Simple

 This was my first time approaching Jordan’s work as a writer, and it was good to be reminded that complex tales can have fairly simple beginnings. I recommend reading this book if you are embarking on an epic story of your own. As a reader, I tend to hold the whole story of series I’ve read in my head. As a writer this sometimes makes me panic and wonder if my first book is delivering enough.

The Eye of the World is a simple story that hints at bigger things to come. That was still enough to hook millions of readers. In each successive book, Jordan adds characters and expands the world until it becomes a sprawling epic. He gives us time in the first few books to know his main cast and introduce key worldbuilding elements. This makes it easier for readers to feel invested in following the twisty, turvy, enigma-wrapped-in-a-mystery plots later in the series. 

2. Description

As I mentioned above, some people might beg to differ on this. Jordan’s writing style is wordy sometimes, but overall he does a fantastic job of showing us his world. Maybe we don’t need to hear so much about all the cats at the inn or have two pages describing a dress, but he doesn’t wax on about everything.

Many of his character descriptions are succinct and give an instant picture. For instance, he’ll write something like, “the man had a face like an anvil,” or “her mouth looked like she always tasted something sour.” These short descriptions tell us something of the person’s physical appearance and a little bit about their demeanor. Sometimes he’ll describe one key element of a city or country, like their architecture or food. He’ll use that one element to paint a picture of the culture and the state of the world at that point in the story. 

3. Clarity of Vision

When Jordan was writing The Eye of the World, he meant his series to be a trilogy. Like every other writer, he changed things as he went along, and there are minor consistency errors still in print today. Despite this, it seems like Jordan had a clear vision of where he wanted Rand to end up. The dream sequence in Chapter 9 foreshadows many plot points and important pieces of Rand’s character arc. It also gives a clear summary of some of the central philosophical themes of the series. Having this clear vision for his main character helped Jordan keep the story on track (for the most part) while juggling thousands of characters and subplots.

Theme is difficult to talk about without sounding pedantic, but it is an integral part of literature. The themes of nihilism vs. hope, the balance between destruction and creation, light and dark, male and female, etc., come through clearly in The Eye of the World and every other book in the series. 

Speaking of balance, the more succinct side of Jordan’s writing is displayed in chapter 9. It might take him two pages to describe a dress, but he can also encapsulate the series’ themes/ cosmology/and significant plot arcs in a couple of paragraphs. The truly genius thing about these moments is that they are subtle and natural to the story. A first-time reader wouldn’t know that the chapter 9 dream sequence is chock full of foreshadowing for later books. 

4. Close Third-Person Perspective

Jordan has been called a master of close third-person perspective. His skill with this develops as the series goes along. Already in The Eye of the World, we see characters with limited information who act according to their personalities, opinions, and backgrounds. The characters always feel distinct, even in later books where he gives us several perspectives. I think that The Wheel of Time is worth reading for the sake of studying his mastery of perspective, even if you don’t appreciate other elements of his writing style. 

Note that I’m not claiming his characters are perfect. Some of them, especially his female characters, tend to fall into caricature-like behaviors. Despite this, his cast is full of fleshed-out personalities who feel like real people, even when they do outlandish things. 

5. Verisimilitude

Jordan’s world feels real because he incorporates so many types of people, and the full spectrum of human behavior into the story. His secondary and tertiary characters fill out the world, and it never feels like a city or group of people spring up for our characters to encounter and then cease to exist. His world breathes and lives even when our main characters are gathered in one hotel room. 

Even though he introduces many elements that help him tell the story, he does so in a natural way. His primary and secondary characters make choices based on their weaknesses and perceptions. These choices complicate the plot of the story in ways that feel organic instead of contrived. 

By grounding his world in some realistic elements, Jordan gives himself leeway to introduce all kinds of unrealistic things without losing his readers. I’ve heard many fans say that they return to the series again and again because of Jordan’s immersive, believable style.

Long story short, I think The Eye of the World is a good book to learn things from. If you like it and continue on with the second book, The Great Hunt, you’ll see how Jordan adds layers to the story and opens up the world. What begins as a fairly Tolkienesque tale takes on a flavor all its own. So if you are writing the first book of a big epic story, don’t be afraid to let it grow slowly and breathe a bit. Fans of The Wheel of Time were willing to read over 4 million words because Jordan hooked us on his characters in the first book and then kept amping up the action and sense of awe.

Have you read The Eye of the World? Let me know what you think in the comments.

To Focus, or Not to Focus? That is the Question

Hello Friends,

Today is November 1st, and many of you are gearing up for NaNoWriMo–putting your noses to the grindstone with a plan to come out on the other side with a 50,000-word first draft. I wish you all the best of luck. This type of focus is an essential part of writing, but it’s also the most challenging part.

This year I joined a local writing group and was able to have someone beta read a draft of my novel. While this was going on, I found myself with time to spend on other writing projects. I wrote some poetry and short stories and even got a few of these things published. After the beta read finished, I was excited to jump into working on my book again. But then life happened. The best way to describe my last several months is “a series of unfortunate events.” Family emergency after family emergency got in the way of my writing time, but of course, family had to be my priority, and I don’t regret that.

I have managed to do substantial revisions and rewrites on my book, but my progress has felt painfully slow. Before all the you-know-what hit the fan, I had begun revising this website, but it didn’t get finished until today. Why? Because whenever I got the chance to write, I wanted to focus only on my novel. Even sitting here writing this today, I feel like I’m betraying my precious writing time. This brings me to the question I want to explore in this blog. As a creative person, what are the pros and cons of focusing on one thing for a long period of time vs. spending time on more than one creative project?

Today’s writing market offers many opportunities for those of us trying to break in. Sometimes it can feel like too many. Writing short stories or poems and getting them published in non-paying and paying online markets is a great way to get your name out there. But both the writing and the submitting take time and energy.

If you are trying to work on a novel with the hopes of having it traditionally published one day, you have to spend a lot of time on that one goal. But rumor has it that if you want to be published, it’s helpful not to be completely unknown. Of course, if you plan to self-publish a novel, then building an internet following is vital. So how do we balance all this, assuming that we don’t have the luxury of writing full-time? That’s the struggle I’m dealing with. How do I take time away from my novel to work on other things and not feel guilty about it? I know that pursuing other writing projects will help develop my craft, gain an audience for my work, and maybe even bring in some cash–but it won’t finish my novel.

Spending several writing sessions in a row immersed in my novel is my best way to write. It helps me hold the story in my head, and the ideas flow more easily. Unfortunately, I also crave variety. I’ve noticed that this seems to be a common trait of creative people. We seldom have only one art form we spend time on. We like to try writing different types of things, and some of us also spend time painting or doing some other form of art. Sometimes I find that creating visual art helps to inspire the writing part of my brain. But again, we come to that problem of focus. There are only so many hours in a day, and by the time we subtract all the activities necessary for basic living, we aren’t left with as much time as we’d like to pursue our creative projects.

I’m not providing any answers here today. I really want to hear your feedback. How do you balance the different types of creative work you want to do without neglecting whatever you consider to be your most important project? How much time do you think the modern writer should spend on developing an online audience? Have you found a way of working that solves some of these problems for you?

The Last Thing I Saw

I plucked the white sphere off the sidewalk and almost dropped it again. An eye stared up from my hand. It wasn’t real, just glass, cool and dry. The crowd bustled, oblivious, around me. Then a girl was in front of me. Waist high in a pretty white dress. Her eyes were downcast, long lashes resting on rosy cheeks. Her hand gripped my wrist.  “Is this yours?” I asked.

 She tilted her head up, feathery lashes rising over empty sockets. “No,” she said, her other clawed hand on my cheek. “It’s yours.”

**This is an original piece of writing that is protected by copyright. You can share this piece as long as you give credit to the author (Lauren Brockmeier) and provide a link to this post. Thank you.**

5 Five-Star Books to Add to Your Must-Read List

Whenever I rate a book, I have a system. A four-star review means I loved it. I’ll probably reread the book at some point and also read any sequels if it’s part of a series. I know right away if a book merited four stars. 

A five-star review is different. Five stars isn’t just about a book being enjoyable; it has to stick with me for months or years after I’ve finished it. I reserve five-star ratings for a book that has a special something to it. Something that lives on in my mind and makes me think about the story, the characters, or a lesson I learned from it long after I’ve read the last page. Today I’m going to talk about five books (in no particular order) that I’ve read over the past few years that merited five stars. 

1. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

I’ve read fantasy for so long that I’ve become pretty jaded. It takes something really different and fresh to excite me. After being unimpressed with several newer fantasy novels, I was pleasantly surprised by A Memory Called Empire. Martine crafts a unique future society that feels real enough to touch. The plot has something for everyone; part murder mystery, part political thriller, and part space opera, yet not bound by the tropes of any of those. I couldn’t put this book down until I knew how it all turned out.

I’ve read several reviews by people from immigrant backgrounds who say that Martine did a fantastic job writing cultural displacement. I can’t personally speak to that, but my history education does make me sensitive to portrayals of imperialism and colonialism. Martine displayed the personal impacts of these phenomena without making the story feel like a history lesson or a direct allegory. 

There are so many reasons to check out this book, I can’t name them all here, but if you like diversity, cool technology, subversive poetry, and relatable heroines, then you might just love A Memory Called Empire.

 Bonus: The sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, was just released, so you can binge-read them both. 

2. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This novel follows the experiences of Count Alexander Rostov. The story begins in 1922 with a Bolshevik tribunal that convicts Rostov of being an “unrepentant aristocrat” and sentences him to house arrest in a posh hotel across the street from the Kremlin. What follows is a gripping account of one man’s struggle to cope. Will he adapt to his imprisonment or give in to despair? What about his political ideals and the hopes he has for his country? Can he change anything while confined to a hotel?  Towles covers a lifetime in a book that seems to pass in mere moments, handling the story so that it never seems slow.

I read this book in 2019 and found it profoundly moving. Most people have found themselves dealing with unforeseen circumstances at some point in their lives, and this novel was relatable and inspiring in that context. Count Rostov’s resilience was on my mind throughout 2019, but after 2020 the story took on a whole new meaning for me. I think many people will find Rostov’s challenges even more moving now that we’ve all been through our own versions of house-arrest.  This is a book I know I will return to again and again. I think you will too. 

3. The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

Lost cities and ancient curses meet modern technology and scholarship in this non-fiction read that is fascinating and terrifying by turns. It tells the true story of researchers who went into the Honduran jungles in 2015 to search for the legendary White City or City of the Monkey God. Spoiler Alert: They found it. 

This book kept me captivated from the very first page. Deadly jungle adventure that feels like a more realistic version of Indiana Jones coincided with lessons in pre-history, history, and modern science. A lost city isn’t all they found in La Mosquita. Many of the people involved in the project also contracted a horrible illness, one that affects millions of people around the world.

 Preston uses his story of incredible discovery to take readers into the lives of the ancient people who were most likely wiped out by European diseases and highlight the millions of people worldwide who live with tropical diseases and extreme poverty. This is not a story about white researchers exploiting or stealing artifacts in an underprivileged country. The Honduran government was involved in the research (Preston speaks honestly about the pros and cons of that), and many locals were employed as guides, researchers, and scientists. 

The story of the White City is still being uncovered, but what’s been found so far reads like an object lesson about the fragility of human societies. Some of the numbers in this book about disease rates among Native Peoples during the Colonial Era are bone-chilling. Preston makes readers see the people behind the numbers. He also talks about the incredible Native civilizations as they existed before European contact and shares written records from Native People who lived through the cataclysm of epidemics that devastated their societies. 

The past intersects almost seamlessly with future concerns as Preston traces the effects of climate change on tropical diseases and predicts that some of these illnesses will be common in North America by 2080. His conversations with epidemiologists about the possibility of future pandemics seem especially prescient in light of recent events (this book was published in 2017). If you are looking for a quick education in a broad variety of subjects and a hair-raising adventure story, you will find it all here. 

4. The Chaos Walking Series by Patrick Ness

This series is technically written for middle school-aged children, and the entire time I was reading it, I went back and forth over whether it was really NOT for children or whether it should be required reading for every child. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more emotionally true portrayal of fascism, colonialism, and warfare. Ness has an incredible understanding of human nature. He shows how toxic leaders can manipulate even the most innocent and kind-hearted people into doing unthinkable things. He also shows that empathy and kindness can be the best weapons against sociopaths and despots. 

As far as trigger warnings go, these books (there are 3) should be labeled “everything.” They are so intense that I had to take breaks and read rom-coms between them. I know that may not sound like a recommendation, but the truth is these books aren’t for everyone. Having said that, if you want to deepen your understanding of the darkest sides of human nature and become a more educated citizen, voter, and human being, then I can’t think of many better books you could choose to help with that. 

Oh, and they take place in the future, on a different planet where people can hear each other’s thoughts. I mention that as an aside because they are so reflective of Earth’s sad history that you’ll forget they take place somewhere else. 

5. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

If I had to pick just one word to describe Tchaikovsky’s brilliant science fiction novel, it would be “weird,” but in the best possible way. When I read this book’s description and saw that it involved sentient spiders, I was worried that it would be cheesy. I never expected the spiders to be my favorite characters. Tchaikovsky uses evolutionary biology to build an incredible society that is at once alien and relatable. 

I’m sometimes put off by “hard” science fiction, but I also like stories that are more grounded in science than space opera is.  I felt this book struck a nice balance. There was plenty of science, but it always propelled the story forward. It reminded me a lot of Ender’s Game because of some of the questions it raises and ideas it explores.  

If you are looking for a science fiction novel that will broaden your mind and change the way you look at things, then I highly recommend Children of Time. 

Note: I wrote a full review of Children of Time right after I read it. You can find it here

These aren’t all the books I’ve given five stars to in the past three years or so, but these were some of my favorites. I hope this list helps you find your next favorite book. Please let me know if you’ve read any of the books on this list and what you thought of them. As always, I’d love to hear your recommendations.

Universal Reflection: A Poem

What are the stars when we aren’t looking?

Tableaux of warriors, gods and heroes?

Or atoms, plasma burning?

The universe looks to us, 

Orphaned children, drifting.

The only eyes within it,

Painting meaning on the void.

By Lauren Brockmeier

This work is protected by copyright law and may not be reused or redistributed in any way

5 Lessons from Tolkien about Writing and Life

Tolkien by Anna Tochennikova via shutterstoc

I recently reread The Lord of the Rings for the first time as an adult. I thoroughly enjoyed it and got so much more out of it than I did as a teenager. This time I was reading it both as a writer and as a fan. I was inspired to revisit the fascinating volume The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, to get more insight into Tolkien as a man and as a writer.

Tolkien lived through a series of horrifying historical events. He also had a happy marriage and a large family (by today’s standards), not to mention a full-time job as a philologist. He was a busy man with a lot to think about. Yet, somehow he managed to craft an amazingly detailed secondary world that has come to set the standard for a whole genre.

Here are some of the lessons Tolkien can teach us about writing and life:

  1. Only You Can Stop You From Writing

One of the most common excuses we use for not getting our work done is that we don’t have the time to write. Many people complain that they are not inspired, maybe they are too tired, too stressed, etc. While it is essential to take care of yourself and take a break from time to time, it’s also important to know when to fight through these obstacles.

Tolkien wrote while he was participating in World War I. Several of his letters mention days spent drilling in the rain, followed by a writing session. He had a demanding career and was a devoted husband and father. Not to mention that he lived through a laundry list of global crises and tragedies. Through all of his worries and obligations he made time to write and forced himself to focus on it. 

2. Fellowship is Important in Real Life Too

One of the main themes in Tolkien’s books, and especially in The Lord of the Rings, is fellowship. Frodo really wouldn’t have gotten very far without Sam, and the work of all the characters together accomplished what none of them could have done alone. This was a concept that Tolkien understood from real-life experience.

Throughout his life he joined with other creators to get feedback on his work. When he was in school in 1911, he and his friends called their group the T.C.B.S. or Tea Club and Barrovian Society. This name alluded to their habit of illicitly taking tea in the library. Tragically, most of the young men in this group died during WWI. Tolkien writes in his letters: “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.”

Tolkien didn’t let the pain of these losses stop him from forming new friendships. Later, when Tolkien was working at Oxford, he, C.S. Lewis, and several other literary-minded men joined together to form the Inklings. They met regularly to critique each other’s work and encourage each other. C.S. Lewis said of the Inklings, “What I owe to them all is incalculable.” Speaking of his work on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said, “Only by [Lewis’s] support and friendship did I ever struggle to the end.”

If you are not working as a professor at Oxford, it might be harder to find like-minded friends than it was for Tolkien, but it’s worth the effort.

3. Write About What You Care About

Tolkien loved languages and began inventing his own in childhood. This passion led him to create the languages that we now know as “Elvish” and to create cultures and stories to go with those languages. He built the many cultures of Middle Earth on this foundation.

He also had some strong opinions and values that come through in his stories. For instance, one major theme of all his works is the importance of hope, and God as a source of hope. He also talks about the folly of glorifying battle — a lesson no doubt gleaned from the propaganda of WWI. He writes powerfully about friendship, romance, and overcoming hardship. His stories have a profound effect on his readers because of the genuine feeling he put into them.

I go to his works for encouragement and wisdom, and I’ve heard many other Tolkien fans say the same. If you care about something, write about it. Your passion will come through to your readers, and even though everyone might not see eye to eye with you, those who do will deeply appreciate your work.

4. Know What Criticism to Take and What to Leave

Tolkien received negative feedback on his writing sometimes. I know that seems crazy, but it’s true! Without the criticism of his fellow writers, Tolkien’s work wouldn’t have been as good. He writes that Lewis, in particular, would read a passage and say that he felt Tolkien could do better. Tolkien appreciated this criticism and used it to improve his writing. 

Tolkien also received other types of criticism, mainly about his choice to write fantasy. People at the time thought that stories of elves and dwarves were only for children. They criticized Tolkien’s work as “escapist.” His fascination with made-up languages was also criticized and seen as an inappropriate hobby for a serious scholar. He defended his work against these types of criticisms and didn’t let them derail him from what he truly loved. 

5. Be Humble

As hard as it might be to believe now, Tolkien never expected that he would become a best-selling author. Throughout his letters, he makes self-deprecating comments about himself and his work. He didn’t think that “the imaginings of his mind” would be important to the world. He was writing mainly for himself. Even after he became a success, Tolkien often described his fame as “an accident.”

I think it’s fair to say that he always wanted to achieve something great, but he didn’t let his ego get the best of him. He’d seen other men with high ambitions fall in wars or simply fail to meet with popular success. I think he knew that the only satisfaction he could be sure of was the satisfaction he got from writing- not from publication or fame. 

I hope this post has inspired you to go work on your own projects, and also to learn more about Tolkien and his work.

Happy Writing!