This article, written by Patricia Burroughs is from the April 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Ever heard of the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Special Agents?
They’re the folks who bring down the mob when the FBI can’t. They also back up the Secret Service when needed, as they are all special Treasury Department agents.
One of them married my best friend.
Poor guy. For a few years he fielded my annual phone calls about whether or not something was deductible – always with my justification for why it should be deductible for me, a writer.
Fortunately, the Special Agent always found my latest research expenses entertaining, and always responded, “Yes, for you that would be deductible.”
This finally resulted in his pronouncement made with a lot of humor and no little bit of awe:
“Pooks, being a writer is having a license to steal.”
Let me give credit where credit is due. I’m not a tax professional of any kind, nor would I ever give anybody tax or legal advice. I only knew what unexpected expenditures might be deductible from the collective experiences of many other writers since I first became a Schedule C-filing writer in 1986.
It’s all in the name of research. Only a writer’s R&D is a wee bit different from a tech firm’s.
All it took was 17 years of newspaper subscriptions and two words.
Case Study No. 1: From the beginning, authors told me that every movie I watched, every book I bought, etc., was deductible as research – not just the ones specific to subjects I was writing about right then. This even included newspaper and magazine subscriptions.
As if on cue, an author friend who had claimed her daily newspaper subscription for years saw a small filler article buried deep in the back. Two words jumped out at her. Two words, and she was off to start scribbling down her idea.
The words? Heir hunter.
The newspaper gave a few bare facts about a private eye who specialized in finding heirs for wills that need to be settled.
Carol Jerina sold that romantic comedy/adventure, Tropic Gold. It took years of time and reading and subscription fees before she found those two words but they paid off.
“I wish somebody would pay me to write about wine.”
Case Study No. 2: Editor and SFF author Laura Anne Gilman is a wine aficionado. She and her agent were commiserating one day about a food and wine expo they both yearned to attend but couldn’t because of work and expense.
“Write a fantasy about wine,” her agent said and they both laughed.
The next day Laura Anne sent back an outline for a fantasy trilogy where the magic was in wine. Not stopping at the kind of book that would justify the expenses of a wine expo or two, in her world each wine’s magical powers were influenced by the soil they were grown in, the very things that make regional wines different in our world. Her agent sold it, and Laura Anne took a dream trip to vineyards across Europe, to learn first-hand about the way the soil and climate affected the wines, the way they might go wrong, or how they might go very, very right. Those wine regions became the basis of the lands in her fantasy world, their terrain, weather, and other details provided by their European counterparts.
The first book in The Vineart Wars trilogy, Flesh & Fire, was on Library Journal’s “Best Books of 2009” list and was a Nebula Nominee for Best Novel that same year.
“Every trip I take is a research trip. Every. Single. One. I make sure of it.”
Case Study No. 3: Another writer considers almost every trip he takes as research because his magpie brain is collecting ideas everywhere he goes. He buys books – often many books – about local history that tantalizes him and about the local fauna and flora. He buys a local newspaper so he’ll have a deeper feel for what the place is like. He always talks to people; he’s a people person. But these conversations also become more research as he jots down any local jargon or phrasings along with brief notes on an attitude, a facial tic, any significant details that seem idiosyncratic to this place.
Once he’s home he organizes his notes, adds to them as things pop up from his memory, and jots down the story ideas that might have flitted through his muse’s imagination, if there are any. He “sets up the desk,” so to speak, so it will be organized and at his fingertips whether he returns to it in 10 days or 10 years. It may not be sheer happenstance that this material, along with his receipts from the trip, might come in handy if he gets audited.
He’s been surprised at what he ends up using later and how he uses it, but then should he be? He wouldn’t have been drawn to those tantalizing and peculiar things in the first place if they hadn’t tickled his muse.
The reason so many of writers claim deductions for every single book they buy, movie they rent, symphony they attend, trip they take, etc., is because they are research.
For writers, everything is grist for the mill.
We all know this because we all can point to ideas that seemingly came from nowhere. But where do you think those alluvial layers of creativity in our brains come from in the first place?
They accumulate in layer over layer of experience, reading, watching, learning, even hearing music that raises the hair on our arms. They become the primordial soup where stories begin.
Educators often look for the siblings of a gifted child to also show giftedness. Genetic? Maybe, but there’s more. The same family culture that allowed that giftedness to broaden – often being read to, being given experiences beyond the home – will be at play with the younger siblings, as well
That’s our brains – our gifted children that need to be fed with a vastness of input from many directions if we want to create.
But just between us, is it realistic to claim all my reading expenses?
Reading is research, even when it doesn’t seem like it.
Books, movies, and television, can be our continuing education. They keep us current on the marketplace – what genres are trending, what kinds of books are selling.
Beyond that, whether we’re reading a centuries old classic or the hot, fluffy new comic novel that everybody’s talking about – we’re always analyzing and assessing at some level; we may be noting story structure or character tells or new voices. How many times have you been distracted from the story you’re watching or reading because the writer made a misstep and it annoyed you? Because the plot is lagging and you’re now analyzing what should have been cut instead of who the killer will cut next? How many writers have said, “I just can’t enjoy books or movies anymore because I end up dissecting them?”
And then there are all the sparks of ideas we’ve been talking about. Ideas pop up even if we are supposedly reading something that has nothing to do with what we write, even if we’re reading true crime and writing sweet romance.
In Case Study No. 1, that newspaper subscription didn’t look like research to a non-writer eventually paid off with two words that led to a contract, advance, and royalties.
The writer in Case Study No. 2 grabbed the power to make her passion tax deductible. She fanned the flames into a trilogy that took her on a dream trip she’d never have been able to afford otherwise.
In Case Study No. 3, the writer considers every trip he takes as a research trip and claims the expenses on his taxes. He likes the deductions on his Schedule C, but knows that any of the materials he picks up or buys can end up in an article, a novel, a short story, or a screenplay.
The bottom line for any deduction in the case of an audit is, can you prove it is valid?
Prove you spent the money and keep those receipts. It’s then up to the auditor to determine whether said expenses were spent in the pursuit of your business rather than your hobby. You have to justify it as a business expense.
One friend has been audited more than once and has never had to prove a thing. She explained to the auditor that she was a pro writer first published in whatever year, and had published novels, short stories, and articles. Her secret weapon was the thick file folders of ongoing projects. She figured they wouldn’t want to dig through them but, if they did, she’d let them know that the rest of her proof was still in the car, that she hadn’t wanted to carry in the boxes unless absolutely necessary. She didn’t need them, but she’d been prepared to prove her claims.
Look, taxes are scary. Everybody’s tax situation is different. As a reminder, none of the above is meant as tax advice.
But as for that license to steal?
This is our truth. We aren’t stealing anything.
We spin straw into gold, and if we learn how to make that straw more financially beneficial to our bottom line? That’s just business.
And you do.