Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Questions for Writers #2


By Lazette Gifford
Copyright © 2009 by Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

No two authors are alike in how they work, but it can be helpful see how each experiences creativity and how they handle the actual work of writing.  With that in mind, I've started this new section for Vision.  Over the next several issues, I will send out a set of writing-related questions to several professionally published writers and present their answers in this and future issues.  I hope you'll find them interesting! 

These are the questions for this issue:

1. In general, how much pre-work (outlines, character studies and other research) do you do before you start a novel or story?

2. Are there some types of writing you leap into without preparation and others that you do extensive work on before you begin the actual story?

The answers are wonderful!

C. J. Cherryh


Easy. Generally none. I get paid for writing, not outlining or doing character studies. I look up only what I'm going to use. A good example would be the short story "MasKs," in which I outlined the major 5 phases of the story, realized I needed some place names, and managed to get an accurate (fairly) map of modern Venice, Italy, off the internet. In the evenings, aside from my regular work, I looked up a few interesting matter like the power of the doges and the history of Venice, and compared it with what I already knew---then just wrote. For Faery in Shadow, I got a Celtic dictionary and spent my off time reading up on Celtic archaeology---had one book in the  bathroom, to tell the truth. But I just wrote.

On Heavy Time, I needed to know the behavior of asteroids, so I got a computer program that tracks asteroid orbits and let it run overnight, which told me a lot by its printout. The rest was imagination and paying attention to NASA bulletins.

On Paladin, however, I did something I've never done: the publisher kept delaying specifics of what he wanted, so I outlined to fill the time I was waiting for a go-ahead; and when the answer finally came, I filled in dialogue, changed the tenses to past tense, and pretty well had the book written except for editing.

And on Cuckoo's Egg, I'd been bitten by a brown recluse spider and been shot full of Medrol. I was in a wheelchair, higher than a kite, unable to sleep for more than 5 minute stretches for 2 weeks, and filled my time by writing this book entirely in the sleepless two weeks. I never want to do that again.

Usually I don't do character studies at all: I envision the characters, toss them into a room together and see what they say to each other. It's often so colorful it has to go into the book. 

So I think that sort of answers both questions in one!  

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publications: [to come]
with Lynn Abbey and Jane Fancher


Julie Czerneda


In general, I don't outline first. I do a great deal of research, especially into the science of my premise. That begins years before I start a novel. I spent about 5 years researching Species Imperative before writing a word of it, and kept that up as I wrote. My character and world building is usually more as I go along, although I'd say I have a reasonably good feel for those, in my head at least, before I start. I like the surprises that arise as I write. For short fiction, I do outline and whatever research I need to write about the topic beforehand.


Timely question. I leapt into HIDDEN IN SIGHT, for example, with no preparation at all. Lately? My last three books, the Stratification cycle of the Clan Chronicles, were prequels to work already in print so I did an immense amount beforehand. After all, I had to be sure I had everything right before I started. For that, I spent several months studying the existing Trade Pact trilogy, then had to invent the new world -- nailing down everything from technology to naming systems, including maps of the geography and way too many ecology notes. Because Stratification lays the groundwork for the conclusion, Reunification, which I won't write until 2010, I had to also be sure everything to come was properly foreshadowed and/or supported. The final book of the cycle, RIFT IN THE SKY, was outlined scene by scene in a storyboard format.

Every scene. Before I wrote one word. Phew! I have to say, it was an experience and I believe did the trick. Will I write that way ever again? I don't know. At the moment, I'm gathering my notes and researching a standalone fantasy, my first, called A TURN OF LIGHT. I feel compelled to build a scale model of the hamlet where the story occurs, complete with little buildings. Which I suppose is the ultimate answer. You do what's necessary for the story. The best approach is rarely the same.

Margaret McGaffey Fisk


For a short story? None. Pre-work tends to lead to novels.

For novels, when the idea solidifies, I write an initial synopsis then translate that into an outline. Along the way, I write down who the main characters are, their physical appearance (or what bit comes to mind), and any back story that comes up. That's all I need to start writing, but if I can tell in advance that I need to know more about something, I will do some basic research, or if I know the timeline will be an issue, I'll map that out. Those last two are usually dealt with as I'm writing.


Length is the big decider there for me as I mentioned above. However, there is one other category which comes up now and again, usually on the short story side, that changes everything. Idea stories are usually triggered by something coming out in the sciences or a new social discovery (maybe just new to me). In those cases, I'll require enough research to ground me in the project, and often have at least a basic outline. This is because something other than the plot or characters is driving the story so I have to push the story rather than it pushing me.


Margaret McGaffey Fisk

Curve of Her Claw

From the Ashes

The Author's Grimoire

Lazette Gifford


I love doing pre-work, and I'll do it at any chance I can.  I love research, note-taking and outlines.  I have found that as my life gets more complex, the better it is for me to have things worked out so that I don't lose track of what I'm trying to accomplish.  I have also found the added benefit that my stories are far more complex than they used to be because I work out more detail ahead of time.

I sometimes do quick outlines -- little more than a line or two per chapter -- and other times I do very complex outlines and notes that might be 40 pages or more.  No matter how much I do, I still enjoy writing the novel itself, and I still find that it surprises me.  The outline is just a roadmap: it tells me the direction I want to go, but not what I'm going to see or what the characters are going to say and do in the situation.  And when they go off on a detour, so to speak, I have the map to get them back where I want them. 


I rarely do any pre-work for short stories, and I sometimes leap into novels without any background work, especially if it is something written in a story universe I've worked with before.  However, if I want to create a new alien culture or work with anything remotely related to history, I'll leap at doing research and notes.  I enjoy it, and the more I read and research, the more ideas I get.

Farstep Station,  Available at


Sherwood Smith


Depends--is the book part of a series? A collaboration? Or is it a very complicated one? Some need maps, charts of tides and winds, daily calendars cross referencing events, and chapter-by-chapter notes. I don't do character studies, though I will write down details for ease of continuity, especially if there is a big cast.


The leap in without prep are called the "white fire stories"--they write themselves. (Research might come in the rewrite!)

Steve Miller


I usually don't do character studies, make paper dolls, or write biographies for my characters; part of what enriches the writing experience for me is the process of discovery that occurs while I'm at the keyboard or in the scene-thinking space. I have outlined but don't usually; and the research I do is ongoing -- I'm *always* reading about astronomical oddities and theories, I'm always looking at information about nifty aircraft and spacecraft, and if I know someone is knowledgeable about guns or knives or whatever I try to listen. I will sometimes prep the sub-brain by ... let us call it mood reading. For example if I'm going to be working on a YA story or one with an important YA character I'll go reread some Heinlein and Norton and McCaffrey -- say six books, one a day, and then take a day off before I start.


Generally not extensive work beforehand (see above, I don't consider reading a few books as extensive work!), though I do find that when I'm working in the Liaden garden I sometimes do have to reread a couple of books to both recover the texture of the characters and to remember where the big story arc was if I'm doing a kind of interstitial story.

Jim Burk


 It depends upon the material. I never seem to have a problem with character, only with background or plotting.


Some science fiction requires a lot of study and ditto with something like a police procedural (I'm thinking of writing a mystery and need to have a feel for the sort of info an FBI agent in Wichita would be communicating to other offices, for instance.) In fantasies, once I know enough to know where I'm going, almost no research at all.


Jane Toombs


When I have an idea, the first thing I do is name the two main characters and the villain, if there is one, so I have actual names to work with. Then I write a synopsis, so I have a general idea of where the story is headed. This is a loose synopsis in that I deviate from often as I write the story, But I find the structure of this synopsis useful in keeping me from straying off into dead ends. If I need to do any research I delve into that before actually beginning the story, Which doesnít mean I might not have to do additional research if the story brings up new issues. I do not do character studies ahead of time, because by the end of three chapters I know the main characters very well I donít know how this happens, but by then theyíve either shown me or told me who they are and what motivates them.


Yes, of course. I donít do historicals much any more, but when I did write them my research was extensive to begin with and ongoing throughout the story, If I used a real historical character, I often skimmed a biography to find salient points. For example, I used General William Sherman in one of my Moonrunner books, so I needed to get a grip on him as a man . What I discovered was heíd been fostered out by his father as a young boy and eventually married the daughter of the foster family. He and his wife had been friends since childhood, which accounts for the revealing letters he wrote to her. In these letters, he told her how he hated war and how he planned to aim his march through the South at ending the war as quickly as possible. The men under him called him Uncle Billy among themselves, but his middle name was Tecumseh, and his friends called him Cump. Would I have known that without reading the biography? Iím a registered nurse, so when writing contemporary stories and use medical personnel as characters, no research is necessary if their jobs are only incidental to the story. Research on current medical procedures is only necessary if I use a hospital setting.

Lee Killough


I do a *ton* of pre-work, though how much depends a bit on the kind of story...on how much of the setting and its workings will need to explain/show to the reader. With a story close to the here and now, I don't have to work out so much societal detail, though the living pace, landscape, and flavor of a major city is going to be different from that of a farm town or resort town. If the story is set on an alien world, though, I really go to work, starting with constructing the planet's solar system, working out day/year/gravity/etc for the planet. Draw maps of the planet, sketch representative flora and fauna. If there are aliens, I draw sketches of them, too, and work out details of their society from Agriculture to Weights and measures.

I always do character studies. The character doesn't come alive for me until I know his/her parents, pets, siblings, biography, likes and dislikes, where he lives. If he drives a vehicle, I decide what it is and paste a picture of one into the bio. I may diagram his house/apartment. I want to know his job. If he is a police officer, as the protagonists of my mysteries tend to be, I work out the structure and politics of his department.

Yes, it is a lot of work and runs the danger of burning up so creative energy there is none left for writing the book itself. But list-making is part of my nature, and so far, creating extensive background has worked for me. Far from exhausting me, it invigorates me, making my setting and characters come alive even before I start actual writing on the book. My mania for wanting to be sure of all details led to making a world-building list...which led to my chapbook on worldbuilding, Checking On Culture, that Yard Dog Press published.


No, I can't just leap into stories. While other authors do, with great success, the couple of times I tried that, the stories ended up stumbling in the wilderness and dying of starvation. I need a definite destination, and while I'm intrigued by the twists and turns I discover in the road along the way -- and willing to follow them to see where they go -- that finish line has to be out there where I can keep aiming for it. ,
Checking on Culture, an aid to building story backgrounds
The Leopard's Daughter, a fantasy of ancient Africa

Elizabeth K. Burton


I'm strictly a "pantser." I get an idea, and I either jot it down for future reference or start writing it. The characters are usually the first to arrive, and they're like Topsy--they "just grow" as we progress. This entails going back and revising mid-project sometimes, rather like when you marry someone in haste and discover six months later they aren't who you thought they were.

In recent years, I've started using a writing program called Scrivener, though, which helps me keep things organized that previously were tucked into various files. For example, over the course of four books set in my fictional world of Karlathia, I've developed a language for one of the races. To ensure the syntax is logical, I started a dictionary for it. There followed a geography and a list of flora and fauna.

In other words, I do things backwards. On the other hand, I'm a voracious reader on all kinds of subjects, so I may already have at least the basics of, say, weather causes and effects stored in the wetware files.


My tendency is always to start writing till I get to a point where my knowledge base is insufficient to let me continue. That's less of a problem when you're creating a totally new world, but when I do something contemporary there are always points where I need to go look stuff up. Again, the writing program is a godsend, as it allows me to keep not only textual material and links to relevant websites but even graphics and videos in a project file.


Elizabeth K. Burton
The Everdark Gate

Jack Scoltock


 In generalÖ. I donít do any pre-work at all. The idea comes and I go from there. I rework it and rework it until Iím happy to put it on my hard disc.

On second thoughts I did do prework for my three non-fiction books. All history- Spanish Armada, World War 11 and a white Star shipwreck. I had to do prework there. In my fiction stories I donít- I let the story carry me on where it goes I havenít a clue and this makes the process very exciting.


My first answer I think takes in everything in the second.

The Meltin' Pot From Wreck to Rescue and Recovery, published by the History Press is to be launched on March the sixth, and already released by the Inishowen sub-aqua club who found the B 17 bomber.

Challenge of the Red Unicorn is out in March aswell. Published by


Jim C. Hines


I need an outline before I start writing. For a short story, it might be a quarter-page note of major plot points, whereas a novel gets a 3-4 page outline with about a paragraph per chapter. I'm a Writer of Very Little Brain, and I need the outline to help me hold the story in my head as I write. Of course, most of the time as I write the story, I discover that my outline is broken. Either the plot doesn't make sense or the characterization doesn't work or I come up with a more exciting twist for the story, at which point I stop to rewrite the outline. Most of my novels go through at least three different outlines before I finish a first draft. I'll usually make some preliminary character notes as well, though they tend to be shorter. I develop the characters over the course of the story and its subsequent rewrites.


In 14 years of writing, I can think of one story I leapt into without preparation. I didn't know what to write about that day, so I looked down at my keyboard, grimaced at the crumbs trapped between the keys, and started writing a paragraph about grimy keyboards. It was an interesting exercise, but not a terribly good story. Everyone's process is different, but for me, I need to have a sense of where my story is going before I start writing ... even if that sense turns out to be completely wrong and the final story goes in a completely different direction.


""These princesses will give Charlie's Angels a serious run for the money and leave 'em in the dust."" -Esther Friesner

Read the first chapter at 


Darwin Garrison


The kind of pre-work involved for a novel or story depends on whether the work is being done on creative speculation or by invitation.

If I'm creating something from scratch, I'll first have an "idea". I will then write the idea down in a journal or tap it into a word processor to save it for future reference. After that, my concepts tend to float around in the dead space of my mind, gathering momentum and cohesiveness until such a time as I'm ready to write them (or at least pen down some cohesive scenes). At that point, I'll start gathering whatever research I need to have to hand in order to maintain plausibility and suspension of disbelief for the readers. In science fiction, this is often some sort of pending research, possible avenue of innovation, or theory regarding the functionality of the universe. For fantasy, things like speeds of walking or horseback travel, period foods, clothing, historic societies, etc. Not that there are walls between what you need. Often, societal information feeds forward in to SF and tech feeds backward into fantasy. In any case, I keep track of the data as required for reference.

For invitational or requested writing, there are often "themes" or pre-defined content that needs to be incorporated up-front. For example, the Jim Baen Memorial contest looks at most 60 years into the future of space travel (i.e. near-future science fiction). That puts certain requirements on the fiction itself that requires me to some reading and research up-front. I then take the swirl of possible tech to extrapolate a setting before I bring my characters onto my mental stage and let the real story happen.

That's something of a point to be made. Without characters, there is no story. The setting is there to support the characters and help build tension. People sometimes forget that and get too caught up with the "gimmick" and lose track of writing characters and character-driven plot that will allow the reader to sustain their suspension of disbelief.


I'm a write-first and plan later sort of person. Interpersonal interactions drive plot, generally speaking. However, setting and characters are symbiotic, so I can't write too far ahead without having my rationals and research in place. It becomes something of a hop-scotch exercise of write, read, search, repeat.

Dick Schwirian


I write historical fiction so I do a lot of research before attempting to write anything. Since I write about events as well as characters, there is limited plot flexibility. The characters, who, after all, are real, are of primary interest: Who they are, why they did what they did, how they interacted, etc.


As noted above, historical plots are pretty much a given. However, the small interactions betwen characters are not part of the historical record and permit some subjective interpretation. I do an outline first, but do a lot of ad-libbing as I go.


Darrell Bain


Very Little


I begin all my writing with a simple idea or theme and the story develops as I write. Once the characters become "real" to me, I know the story or novel is a keeper and I'll always finish it.


If you are a published author -- not self-published (though you can be both) -- and would like to take part, email me at and I will add you onto the list!