7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Mike Mullin

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Mike Mullin, author of ASHFALL and its sequels) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Mike is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: LovesKangol won.)





Mike Mullin is the author of ASHFALL, about Alex, a teen struggling
to survive and find his family after the cataclysmic eruption of the
Yellowstone supervolcano. The sequel, ASHEN WINTER, will be
released on October 8, 2012. If you’re interested in learning more
about the science behind ASHFALL, check out Mike’s guest post
on the Our Time in Juvie blog. The sequel, ASHEN WINTER, will
be out October 8, 2012. Follow Mike on Twitter.



7 Things I’ve Learned About Researching a Novel

1. Some research is best conducted by doing, not reading. For example, the idea for ASHFALL came from reading another book, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which includes a chapter about the Yellowstone supervolcano. Once I learned about the volcano under Yellowstone National Park, I was hooked—I read everything I could find about it.

Very quickly I realized that if the volcano were to erupt again today, it would easily be the worst cataclysm in recorded history, and I’d need to make my protagonist a very special teen for him to be able to survive. I also decided to try to write an intensely realistic novel—as close as possible to what could happen—will happen—when the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts again. So magic, superpowers, and vampirism were out. Instead, I made my protagonist a martial artist.

I suppose I could have read a bunch of books on martial arts, but instead, I enrolled in a local taekwondo dojang. I found I enjoyed martial arts, stuck with it, and finally earned my black belt just before ASHFALL was released last year. Now martial arts are a big part of my author presentations—you can see one of my demos (breaking concrete blocks with my bare hands) here.

(11 ways to assist a friend in promoting their new book.)

2. Dig deeper. The original idea for ASHFALL came from a secondary source (Bryson’s book), and other secondary sources were also invaluable to my writing. But the very best ideas came when I dug deeper, following the citations in the secondary sources back to primary sources, like the 2004 article in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research that suggested that supervolcanoes might be capable of launching rocks hundreds of miles on ballistic trajectories. I needed a way to start ASHFALL with a bang, and lo and behold, there it was.

3. Personal accounts are incredibly useful sources for a novelist. For example, I happened upon an obscure self-published book titled The Mount St. Helens Ashfall Ordeal, about a woman who was trapped in her cabin in Idaho by the Mount St. Helens ashfall. While her account didn’t add much to my knowledge of volcanoes, it did add tremendously to my understanding of the fear inspired by an ashfall and resulting darkness.

4. Research can take your novel to new places. In the first draft of ASHFALL, Alex fled from Indianapolis (where I live) to Yellow Springs, Ohio (where my brother Paul’s farm is). That lasted until I found a map of the ashfall distribution from the Yellowstone eruption of 2.1 million years ago—the most violent of the Yellowstone super-eruptions. The map showed that the probable ashfall would not reach as far east as Yellow Springs. Although the cataclysm I depict in ASHFALL will be horrible everywhere, I wanted Alex’s quest to begin in deep ash that could create darkness, cause lightning storms, and collapse buildings. So ASHFALL had to move west, to Iowa.

(Agents get specific and explain what kind of stories they’re looking for.)

5. Google Maps and Street View are helpful but not the same as visiting your setting in person. I chose to move ASHFALL to Waterloo, Iowa by drawing a circle 900-miles in radius around Yellowstone on a U.S. map in an old Rand McNally road atlas. I used Google Maps to find Alex’s destination, choosing Millville, Illinois.

But when I arrived in Waterloo, I couldn’t find Alex’s house. It needed to be an old house with built-in gutters in a neighborhood trendy enough that Alex could have gay neighbors. After searching for two hours, I gave up and crossed the river into Cedar Falls, where I found Alex’s house almost immediately—near 9th & Olive.

When I arrived at the end of Alex’s journey—Millville, Illinois—it wasn’t there. Literally. The spot marked on Google maps was nothing but a crossroads amid autumn corn stubble. I drove into nearby Apple River Canyon State Park to ask for directions. The ranger, a stooped, toothless guy who looked to be in his 80s, said the last of the foundations of the thriving 1880s town of Millville had washed away in a flood nearly 20 years ago. So if I’d relied merely on maps, Alex’s journey would have started in a place where his house couldn’t be, and ended in a place that no longer existed. Which would be fine for some fiction, I guess, but not for the intensely realistic novel I was struggling to write.

6. While you’re out visiting your setting, be careful where you take pictures. You probably can’t make out the words below the “Restricted Area” sign in the picture below, but it says something like “It is a felony to take pictures in this location.” Not good. So I hightailed it out of there just after snapping this photo:

7. Social media isn’t just for promoting your books; it’s helpful for research as well. When I finished the fifth or sixth draft of ASHFALL, I reached out via social media—asking friends if they knew any geologists who might be willing to review my manuscripts. I found two: Pete Matthews, who worked for the United States Geological Survey on Mount St. Helens at the time it erupted in 1980, and Erin Stoesz, who works at the volcanic observatory at Yellowstone National Park every summer. They each made invaluable contributions to ASHFALL.



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18 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Mike Mullin

  1. Scott M

    ASHFALL sounds like a fabulous read! I love your tidbit about being careful where you take pictures while researching a setting…that sounds a rule tailor-made for being broken by an adventurous writer.

  2. 4show

    Fantastic! You really gave some interesting ideas about research. Social media is not one I would have considered before now. Your book sounds like a “must read” for the young and adult reader. It’s now on my list.

  3. asligar

    Using social media for research is a wonderful tip. My writing is history based and I do a lot of research reading, and have visited appropriate sites, to get a feel for the period, and museums, to get a handle on the look and size of material things and what it must have been like to use them, but had not thought about using social media, too.

  4. elaine

    Thanks for the encouraging suggestions and tips about research. You’re so right when you suggest the emotional responses cannot be found in factual books. Sometimes, the personal story or a visit can capture a whole set of emotions for the author.

  5. schwip

    I agree that some things as a writer are certainly easier using social media. In the old days it was much harder to promote to the right audience.

  6. kipdurney

    I’m so glad you mentioned social media as being more than just a marketing tool. SM is one of the best and most accessible research tools that we have at our disposal. But the best part of using it as a research tool is that it’s current and offers a world view and not biased based upon your geographical location. It’s importance is paramount in my writing. Thank you! http://kipdurney.com and http://tubalub.com

  7. Mike Mullin

    One thing I got wrong above: Pete Matthews was present at Mount St. Helens when it erupted in 1980, but he never worked for the USGS. I apologize for the error.

  8. gdcribbs


    What a great article to happen upon when I’m researching not only my next book, but a new genre that requires a great deal of research in itself. I love the fact that you got in the car and went there to give more authenticity to your writing, and to catch those things you’d only find if you saw it in person, or experienced it yourself (martial arts classes). What a great example. I think once you found your inciting incident, you dove into the writing even though you weren’t done with researching, and you trusted yourself with markers in all caps to correct later in revisions. This is a great list for fellow writers to review, and I thank you for sharing it.

    I’d love to read and review ASHFALL and am looking forward to ASHEN WINTER. Thank you very much!

  9. miselainis

    Good stuff, as I’m coming to realize myself.

    I was recently on vacation in Victoria and Vancouver, BC, and it turned into a part-time research trip when I was inspired to write a new book while we were there. In addition to investing in bagfuls of local interest books from the local bookstores to take home with me for later, I toured many of the places I’d be writing about. With so much history still standing there, it was impossible not to. I still missed a few things, but I can check them out later. I’ve started writing like you, Mike. Lots of highlights and “fill in the blank” areas of material to add later.

  10. smrtlbstr87

    Nice. This is great advice. Researching online, through books, or other media is good, I agree, but experience is always the best research!

    1. Mike Mullin

      At some point, I quit researching and start writing. I know I’m not done, but you have to write the thing to learn the additional questions you need to ask. While I’m drafting, I don’t do any research. My first drafts are littered with notes like CHECK THIS and ADD STREET NAME HERE. I don’t want anything to distract me from forward progress on the draft. On the second and future drafts, I answer the questions the first draft raised.


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