That Whole Research Thing

| Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Today's Tune: Fast Asleep

My fabulous reader-dudes: you should definitely check out today's song, because it is by my friend's band and it is also REALLY GOOD. If you are into soulful, folksy rock, go listen. Go. This is me shoo'ing you. As long as you come back afterward.

Welcome back! So, I requested blog topics on Twitter last night, and @LynneSchmidt suggested "favorite things to research, or ways you like to do research." And so a blog post was born.

I'm going to admit this off the bat: I love to do research. In fact, it's very easy for me to get sucked into researching things to the point where it's one o'clock in the morning and I'm like, "Oh crap, I was going to actually write a chapter today. WHOOPS." Thus, before we even talk about what and how I like to research, let's start with a tip: don't use research as an excuse to delay actually putting words to the page. It's pretty easy to spend hours surfing the 'net and then pat yourself on the back for "working on your writing." RESIST.

Anyway, I feel a little goofy admitting that I do the vast majority of my research online. I even use Wikipedia. I know, I know. WIKIPEDIA, GROSS. But this is the thing: I write fiction. And while I want my fiction (particularly my science fiction) to make sense and be believable, I don't like binding myself too closely to pure, unadulterated FACTS. Which absolutely does not mean that I don't take my research seriously, it just means that I don't take it so seriously that I tie my hands to the real world with no wiggle room. I do, after all, write speculative fiction.

That said, I don't like to get things completely wrong. It's embarrassing. I like to sound like I know what I'm talking about by actually knowing what I'm talking about. When I set my story in a real place, I like to know where things are located, what neighborhoods my characters would live in, what they'd do for fun, etc. I like to have a grounding in reality, because it helps me feel like I can more accurately elaborate on it without completely botching something.

While writing TTH, I found myself doing a lot of research. Since it's a historical sci-fi novel based in real Old Chicago, I found myself perusing a lot of old maps, picking my art historian friend's brain about the style of dress and society mannerisms of the time, and looking up real people and places that existed back then. I wanted my world to feel as realistic as possible because I felt it'd add another layer of believability to the less-than-believable elements. And even though TTH relies on a hefty dose of applied phlebotinum, I still found myself researching everything from botany to electric eels to battery power. In my current WIP, I'm doing a lot of research on the symptoms of severe dehydration and the hunting habits of piranhas. Don't ask.

I suppose I approach research much in the same way I approach writing -- I like to have a solid base knowledge so that I'm aware of what I can change without making a complete mess of things. I write consciously and think a lot about choices before I make them. And yes, some of the changes I make might rub purists the wrong way, but that's okay with me. The important thing is that I feel like I'm in control of my work, and research helps me do that.

Some of my favorite sources of research, you ask? Well, I can't recommend utilizing your friends and family enough. Everyone has a unique perspective to bring to the table, and if I'm tackling something I'm not 100% sure about, you better believe I ask about their experiences and opinions. I've unnerved my dad more than once with my medical questions, I'm sure. University websites and libraries are also a wealth of information. I research nearly everything that comes into my head. If I have a question, I investigate. And you'd be amazed what you can find while Googling something like "fables about missing hearts."

In my mind, there's no such thing as too much knowledge. I research way more than I can ever include in a novel, but then the knowledge is THERE. I can pull on it at any time, file it away for future projects, or just be content in knowing a little bit more about the world.

How do you do your research, reader-pals?

P.S. - Here's a picture of Chris Hemsworth because @amparo_ortiz suggested I write a blog post about him, too.


{ Old Kitty } at: June 6, 2012 at 6:34 AM said...

I'm sure I've said this before but it's my fave anecdote on why these days I so utilise libraries and newspapers and the BBC and google! if I dare venture out and write of things I don't know so I won't get caught out again. I sent a story to a proper published author who returned my story saying how he couldn't get past my first page because I'd written how this certain airport flew to Chicago when in reality no planes flew to Chicago from this airport! Mega-embarassment and eating of humble pie after!! Never again!!

Take care

{ JeffO } at: June 6, 2012 at 6:47 AM said...

I don't think there's any shame in using Wikipedia, especially as a starting point, and as long as you keep in mind the potential shortcomings in factuality. I use it a lot, too.

{ Lynn(e) Schmidt } at: June 6, 2012 at 7:00 AM said...

#1, Thanks for the shout out
#2, That is a tasty picture :)
#3, I also use Wiki, but that's because I fell in love with it in college. Most of the time it's for fast questions "What are tents made out of?" things like that.
#4, I like in the field research. Over the winter, I got a sponsorship from a company so I could research disc golf, and that WAS AWESOME. Now, I'm all about harassing companies and being all "Wanna donate your product so I can play with it?" It's a lot, a lot of fun when they say yes :)

Excellent blog post, and I couldn't agree more: utilize friends and family. Thankfully, I'm a YA author with a lot of friends still in high school :)

{ Rachel Taylor } at: June 6, 2012 at 7:45 AM said...

Great post, as always.

I write historical with fantasy elements too (currently 1903 NYC). I'll sometimes start with online sources, but I've found that they don't usually offer enough detail. And the detail is what makes the story vivid. I've also had online sources lead me the wrong way - especially when it comes to clothing / etiquette.

The one thing the internet is great for though is photographs and drawings of places / peoples / things. I just got started using pinterest to organize it all, which is handy. And nothing beats genealogical sites for finding era appropriate names.

For most of my research I rely on books (library books especially). Not only is there more detail and less worry about errors, but many times the information surrounding the single detail I'm looking for will tell me what I should go hunt up next.

Once I've got my time / place, I like to read the newspaper of the day. This again gives me a huge amount of detail and helps get the politics of the era right. It's time consuming though and I have to pay for the ability to do it. (I also have a small collection of original etiquette books.)

I'm a pretty big introvert so it's hard for me to ask friends for help, although my hubby's good for anything mechanical and weapon-like. The story-research thread at AW is another excellent resource.

And last, but not least, nothing beats going to actual historical sites from the age in question. I remember well my first visit to a 1870s mansion where I realized the house in my mind was all wrong based on sources of light (aka - they relied heavily on sunlight which changed the layout of the house).

{ Matthew MacNish } at: June 6, 2012 at 11:39 AM said...

I have five levels of research, but I rarely use the deepest two, unless you count writing about stuff I've already experienced. The hard part, I think, is like everything else: finding the right balance.

{ Yael } at: June 7, 2012 at 7:35 PM said...

I don't know enough about any particular historical period to notice if an author "got it right" or not, but as a person who works in the medical sciences, it's sometimes hard not to cringe at the ridiculous pseudoscience you see in a lot of books. I keep having to remind myself that these authors are trying their best.

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