Making it Real – How To do Targeted Research
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can get lost in research for years on end. It’s the perfect excuse to climb down a hole and pull it in after me, the hole in this case being interesting factoids that had never come my way, or narratives of exploring strange lands, or…
After a while, if I give in to my inclinations (has happened once in a while) my loved ones gather around the hole shutting down “are you still alive in there.” And once or twice they’ve tossed down a rope known as “the book is way overdue and we need the money.”
The funny thing is, when I climb back up, I find I still don’t have what I need to write the book.
We won’t talk about my Shakespeare trilogy, because I’d been interested in Shakespeare since my early teens, and reading stuff about his time and his bio was just normal, and led, in turn to knowing a lot of things I didn’t even know I knew and which I dropped in carelessly.
But even there I ended up having to do specific research, like when I found out that the book needed a whole heck of a lot about clothes. I had to buy a book about clothes in Elizabethan England. (The good side of this, of course, is that it came with patterns, which, when the younger son got bitten by the Shakespeare bug in the performing version, allowed me to make him an entire wardrobe to perform as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. This is the kid who is 6’4″ now, so at 10 he was the size of most 13 year olds, and the school had nothing that fit him.)
Anyway, this is my method: if I am asked — as I was recently — to write something set in say the time of the revolution, the first thing I do is buy one or two general interest books, preferably ones well thought of. Then I buy a biography or ten written by people of the time. And then I outline the book and decide what targeted research I’ll need. Will they sit down at table? Will there be a tavern scene? All of those have books written about them. I find those and read them for the specific scenes I need. At this time, too, to “soak in” the feel of things I start watching documentaries about that time and place. This gives a “texture” to the book it would otherwise lack.
Of course, my books change as I write them, so sometimes I’ll find I have to write a scene that wasn’t in the outline, like horse shoeing or perhaps riding between two specific scenes. At that time, I will put notes all over the book that say “look up x” — most people use something to bracket those, that isn’t used in normal writing, so that we can do a final look see and make sure we got them all. I use curly brackets — and also, my monitor gets “porcupined” with sticky notes with things like “try to find book or website or reenactor who knows about x.” and “I’m almost sure the description of horse shoeing in the blah blah novel is wrong,” but it’s all I could find “so, replace it when you figure out the right one.”
After I’m done, there’s an other checking the facts and feel time.
That’s about it for historical books. For non-historical books, particularly space opera things get trickier. Needless to say I’m not going to research brooms, burners or flyers when most of their tech relies on anti-grav which can be miniaturized into a hand-carried gadget. There was a leap somewhere along the line that we can’t see. It would be like a cave man writing about the modern era and researching how to build airplanes. If they could do it, it would already exist.
But even in space opera, or fantasy, you’re going to run against real-life, verifiable situations. And if you fob those, your readers won’t believe you about the bigger things. So, I spent a considerable amount of time, with the help of one of my first readers, trying to figure out if an oxygen tank would explode in a certain situation. I also studied what to do when submerged in something opaque, like sewage, and how easy it is to lose your bearings.
The little things are what makes the reader by the big things.
Then there’s how people act in certain situations. I lived through one (or a series of small ones) revolution, but I was a kid, and the revolution didn’t do much but flip the country between national and international socialism. This means it’s not the pattern for all revolutions. And it certainly doesn’t give me insight into being on the inside of the thing.
Hence, when writing about revolutions (which is all the Earth Revolution series is about) I read a lot about revolutions. Not because it’s going to follow any in particular, but because it gives me the feel/sense/texture of what a revolution does, how it happens, the type of people who thrive vs. the type of people who sink, etc.) Again, this gives you, as it were, the touchstone of the possible, if not of the probable. You find out what might happen in your imagined revolution, in another time. You discover angles and ideas that would never have occurred to you on your own. It makes the whole thing more real.
Of course, this applies beyond revolutions.
There are a few other points, but I’ll dispose of them in a list:
1- It used to be said you could play fast and loose with geography and feel of anything but NYC. That was the city your agent and editors knew and they’d come down on your like a ton of bricks. Indie has changed things. You really can’t play fast and loose with any area well known to any large number of people. You don’t have the time to answer all the irate letters because no, that store isn’t in that street in Chicago, but in the one two over.
So, write about places you know very well, make a place up, or lie about a tiny town in Montana, population 100. Even if they all write to you, at least there’s not many of them.
2- No matter how much you research or how well you know something, you’ll get at least ten letters pointing out a mistake. Sometimes they’ll be right too. Take the fact I re-read all of Dumas looking for descriptions of the guys, and finding none, went on to write Aramis as blond. I immediately got ten letters pointing out that Aramis, in Twenty Years After is mentioned as his hair “still being so black.” I recovered from that one by pointing out that yes, and that was a jab at the obvious fact he was coloring his hair (most color at the time didn’t do blond well.) You can recover, but you ARE going to make mistakes.
3- Beware things from other research that fall in. I was researching China while writing the last Shakespeare book, and suddenly there was a wooden bell clapping to signal people should bring out their waste. This happens but it needs to be weeded.
4- Please, please, please don’t stop writing because you don’t know something. Curly bracket it and put in “look up later.” Or write how it feels right, then make a sticky note to correct in post. Your readers will never know it was all wrong in rough draft.
5- If you know an expert in that discipline or time, for the love of heaven, have him read the d*mn thing when you’re done. You’ll never be an expert like someone who has devoted his/her entire life to it.
6- be careful of readers’ prejudices. I got the Musketeers’ Mysteries rejected at a house because I apparently didn’t know Porthos had been a pirate. (So the editor watched movies, but had never read Dumas) You can go with the writers’ prejudices or against them, and in this case I had no way of doing this, but… when going against what the reader thinks he knows, hang a flag on it. Ie say things like “It wasn’t that people lived worse while working in the mills than they had in the countryside. If it were so, people wouldn’t come to the city in droves. It was that–” and then go on with your dog and pony show.
This is all that occurs to me now. There’s probably more, and feel free to ask in comments. Next up Real People!