Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension”, part 29: “Are We There Yet?”

Welcome back! For the rest of this year we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison’s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read and learn from all the fabulous segments from 2013-2015 by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on my drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month twenty-nine:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 29: Are We There Yet?

So I’ve sent my novel out to my beta readers, who are struggling through the manuscript, bless their hearts. While I wait for their opinions, I work on my fifth draft. For this draft, I work from a printed copy, not the computer screen, because during the fifth draft I’m adding in extra research information and checking out every little fact. I have a tendency to trash my office during this time, piling research books, papers, articles, artifacts, and notes on every available surface.

IMG_1878A copy of the Vocedol Dove from the Eneolithic culture that once flourished near present day Vukovar, Croatia. This copy graces one of the bookshelves in my office.

Here’s an example of how I attack my manuscript during the research-revisions phase. The following segment is the current opening paragraph in my novel-in-progress BONE FIRE, which is set in Eastern Europe, 5800 B.C.

The size of an eight-winter child, that old man, smaller even than Awna. Since the earth was frozen less than a hand-length down, Awna used only half a morning to chop away the soil and the tree roots to carve out his grave. With the wide, flat blade of her digging stone, she pried up pads of moss under the oak trees that spread their winter-broken leaves against the sky. Webbed with the night’s meager snowfall, the moss carried the heavy scent of rich, wet earth, a smell the old man had loved, so Awna layered it as a bed at the bottom of his grave. She pulled his body to the hole, her fingers cupped gently over his brittle bones. She let his feet ease in first, and after, the rest of him. Then she crouched on the edge of the grave, as if she might slide down and claim space for herself.

1. The size of an eight-winter child, that old man… The old man in BONE FIRE is a primordial dwarf. I will check out my notes and sources to be sure this size is accurate. Yes, I’ve already checked this, but I will check it again.

2. Since the earth was frozen less than a hand-length down… This period in Eastern Europe was warmer than the current climate. I need to consult temperature charts and find information about how quickly the  the ground freezes in winter. I also will need to double check soil types. All this I’ll find on the Internet, but I’ll also talk to my dad about it. He holds a master’s degree in Soils.

3. …only half a morning to chop away the soil and tree roots… I’ll use a couple of resources for this segment — my husband who has dug a lot of post holes in his life, and our friend who is a mortician and has supervised the digging of graves.

4. …wide, flat blade of her digging stone… I’ll be sorting through artifact photographs my husband and I took at a museum visit during our recent trip to Eastern Europe.

5. …moss under the oak trees… For this, I’ll resort once again to my very handy The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees of the World book by Tony Russell, Catherine Cutler, and Martin Walters. I’ll also do a bit more research on moss. Does it grow under oak trees? What types of moss are native to Eastern Europe?

6. …the night’s meager snowfall… Back to Internet resources and climate data.

Even if you aren’t writing historical fiction, you’ll still need to check out some of the facts you present in your novel, because one misstep can make readers –  at least a few of them — close your book and never come back to it. If you’re using some controversial happenings or opinions as fact, don’t be afraid to mention that in your author’s notes. Readers will forgive educated guesses, even if they disagree with your conclusions. However, it’s difficult to overlook those blatantly wrong statements presented as fact.

Remember, readers are a novelist’s life blood. When you complete a book and release it into the world, you are in effect making a contract with your readers. They give up one of their most precious commodities — time — to read your book. In return, you, the writer, should give them your very best effort, which includes accurate research.

Novels which require extensive research will have mistakes. No matter how hard you try to uncover the facts, you’re going to miss something. It’s not the end of the world. If a reader calls you on it, apologize and thank them.

So, that’s my fifth draft. For some writers, a research draft will take no more than a few days. For me, it’s usually a couple of months, but it’s a fun couple of months, the culmination of all the research travel, reading, and gathering I’ve done over the year or two it takes me to write the novel. In the case of BONE FIRE, I’ve invested nearly a decade into the research. The same for my Alaska books. But that’s one of my quirks. I love research.

My question for you: Do you love to do research, or do you consider it just a necessary evil?

Strength to your pen!


 *Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two bestselling Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy – all of which went digital in May 2013. She also wrote a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you to come back July 23, 2015, for part 30.


2 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension”, part 29: “Are We There Yet?”

  1. I remember reading a book that said that Atlantis was, at a time, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean (if it did exist), and then at the end of the series, along with some other things, explained why they said that (looking at mythology, etc.). It was pretty cool.
    Great post! 😀


  2. I always love to learn new ideas and facts in books, Erik! I guess that’s why I love to do research. It sound like the author of the book you mentioned had done some strong research, not only scientific but also research in mythologies and ancient stories. Cool!!


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