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  • shanercollinsautho

Three Questions: Writing Process

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

The old adage is "write what you know." One of my grad school mentors told me that was ludicrous and that a better approach is "write what you know; research what you don't." I agree with my professor. I've been fortunate enough that I've had some pretty incredible experiences in my life and have had a wide gamut of jobs and so I have a lot that I can draw from. In my mystery novel, This is Not Your Place, the main character is an Afghanistan war veteran and a brewer at a Vermont beer brewery. I'm not a veteran but I trained in Army ROTC for 18 months and know a lot of veterans who I can check in with. I also worked at a beer brewery as a tour guide and bartender for three years and so I had to do very little research on that. An area of the book that I did have to research was ALS as the protagonist is diagnosed with the disease shortly into the story. I read as much on the disease as I could and then I joined some forums where people diagnosed with ALS and their family members were having discussions about their daily struggles. Then, when the book was done, I checked in one of my closest friends who happens to run the ICU at a major hospital in Florida to make sure I had portrayed the illness accurately.

Another thing I'd needed to research for this book was what would happen to a child who entered the foster system and how guardianship would be navigated. Luckily, I happened to work in a State of Vermont office building at the time and my organization shared a suite with a handful of social workers who worked for a family center. I was able to interview her and ask a few dozen questions clarifying the mechanics and inner workings of that system.

I think that research is super important so that writers have authority and credibility in the content of their writing. However, I also think it's important to note that research is a place where writers can get into a rut. They are voracious to know more and more and it stalls their writing. At some point, you need to acknowledge that you'll never know everything on a given topic, but you will know enough to credibly write about it.

Where do you write? What do you need to write?

Where I write has changed frequently over the years. When I was young, I wrote my first three novels in the public library in South Windsor, Connecticut. At times, I've written in classrooms, on my laptop at work, or even on my phone. Now, I am fortunate enough to have my own office where I can focus.

I generally write exclusively on a laptop though when I am gearing up to write a story, I write notes, character details, and outlines ideas on a notepad. If I get stuck on a story, I will also resort to writing long hand, usually in the form of jotting down everything I know about a story, the characters, and where it's going. I try to write as fast as I can and in a stream-of-conscious manner that helps my inner editor to keep his damn mouth shut.

Once I start a story, I do make a concerted effort to write everyday, even if it's just a few sentences. This momentum helps to keep my brain focused on the story and the direction it's going clear. If I stop, it will take me a few days to build up that momentum again. Once I am really chugging along with a story, I aim to write 2,000 words a day.

Caffeine and music are my two absolutely non-negotiable requirements for writing. Music helps get me in the write mood and headspace for a story. I've written entire novels before listening to a single song on repeat. This idiosyncrasy is especially appreciated by my family who love hearing the same song on repeat for days, weeks, or occasionally months on end.

When do you write?

Right now, I am incredibly fortunate to be self-employed and so I have as much time as I need during the day to write while the kids are in daycare. When I had a full-time job, I would wake up at 4:30am or 5:00am everyday and get in 1-2 hours of writing before my day started. This was brutal but necessary. I am so grateful that I no longer have to choose between sleep and writing.

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