Our question for the Novelociraptors this week: What’s your process for doing your research when you’re writing? Any specific tricks or tips
Research is a big part of my life. As a philosophy professor, reading a few dozen books in order to write a few dozen pages is par for the course. As a novelist, I write a lot of historical fiction, and good historical fiction demands a ton of research. I intertwine my old-timey samurai stories with modern-day police thrillers, and since I’ve never been a cop, that requires even more research (albeit of a completely different kind: my studies of philosophy and history never prepared me for shooting submachine guns or throwing flash-bang grenades).
Here are the most important research tips I have for writing fiction:
1. Don’t overdo it.
2. Don’t get anything wrong.
I know, I know: they sound contradictory. If you really are committed to getting everything right, you’re overdoing it almost by definition. Plus, as soon as you research one question, you unearth two more, and with each new foray you dig up more amazing facts that just have to find a place in your manuscript. Indulge this instinct and you won’t have a novel, you’ll have a bunch of Trivial Pursuit cards. Research will strangle your book if you let it.
So let me express these two tips a little differently:
1. Choose precisely the right details to immerse the reader completely in the story.
2. Make sure those details are true to life, because if they aren’t, you’ll jar some readers out of the story.
Now #2 is in service to #1. Together, they help to focus your research. If I inundate you with every single detail of samurai life, not only will I bore you but I’ll betray my own characters. An authentic samurai doesn’t notice every single detail of his life. No one does that. We take the minutiae for granted, and we only remark on the subtleties that resonate for us in some important way.
Your great power as a writer is to make the details resonate exactly as you want them to. So choose them for a specific reason—maybe to set the right emotional tone for the scene, or to reveal something telling about a character, or just to make your readers confident that they’re in good hands and they should keep reading.
But as Voltaire said, great power implies great responsibility. Anyone who can get your book can probably get on the web. Some will be more than happy to email you and point out everything you got wrong. So, you know, don’t get anything wrong.
One thing that has helped me with getting more out of research is to emphasize primary materials.
When I want to work with a scientific idea, I try to read the academic papers rather than relying on accounts in textbooks, news articles, or pop science books. When I want to work with a historical event, I try to read the primary sources behind academic and popular histories. When I want to find out more about a technology, I try to read the patents and design documents.
The secondary sources are helpful in giving context and elucidating concepts, and sometimes you have to rely on them because the primary sources are not accessible for a variety of reasons. But the authors of the secondary sources–reporters, historians, and so on–are always trying to tell a story of their own, which requires imposing a narrative on found facts and re-interpreting existing narratives, filtering, shaping, and any other number of techniques familiar to nonfiction writers. If you’re trying to tell a new story, it’s very important that you try to pierce through the veil of that layer of narrative in secondary sources and get to the underlying facts and primary narratives.
M. K. Hutchins
When you’re creating new worlds, I feel like having a good grasp on how this world works is essential. Economics, politics, food production…I looked at these in college through the lens of archaeology, which has greatly impacted me. Even if it’s not relevant to what I’m currently writing, I try to soak up information and be proactive in continuing to learn new things. Recently I’ve signed up for Coursera, which has been amazing (it’s free and online).
On a more nity-gritty level: forums and Youtube. I’ve shot a bow once, over a decade ago. Most sources don’t have the kind of detail that I’m looking for. But the internet is an amazing thing. I can go lurk on archery forums and learn scads about how to make a self bow, including all the small ways in which things can go wrong. I can watch people on Youtube using the Mongolian draw — with or without a thumb ring. Both of these sources are excellent for the kind of detail that makes fiction come alive.
I love research. I love research so much that I can do it for months and months, to the point where I’m in paralysis because I just know I’m omitting some dreadful, embarrassing fact. This became a major issue with the new series I’m working on that’s steampunk set on early 20th-century Earth. The fact that it’s steampunk and alt-history does grant me some flexibility, but it’s still daunting stuff, especially when I’m delving into cultures that are not my own.
Here are some things that have helped me in writing this particular work of historical fiction:
– Google and Wikipedia are good starting points, but you have to take care in what you trust online. On Wikipedia, I search to understand the basics and then I look to the footnotes at the bottom for the source material. As Ken noted, primary sources are the best. It’s amazing how many old books are available for free online through Amazon, Project Gutenberg, or even state libraries.
– Sometimes a book is too recent to be in public domain, or looks so relevant that I know I’m going to need to stab a hundred bookmarks inside. I buy a lot of newer used books through Better World Books, which helps world literacy, offers great prices, and free shipping. If I had a larger public library handy, I’d certainly go that route to save money.
– Nonfiction is very useful, but sometimes it can be dry or so focused on unusual circumstances that it lacks a sense of every day life. Fiction from the time period you’re writing in is excellent for capturing the zeitgeist–it’s a primary source, in make-believe. That doesn’t make it an easy read, though. I trudged through Frank Norris’s McTeague and was appalled at the scope of domestic violence, but at the same time it’s also set in San Francisco at the exact period I need. None of my nonfiction spoke about the popularity of steam beer!
– Know when to ask for help. I’m thankful to be on Codex Writers, where I have asked many a stupid question and received fantastic feedback. In the past, I’ve also turned to Little Details on LiveJournal.
E. C. Ambrose
Several of my projects lately have actually begun with research, including The Dark Apostle series. I usually start with general history books or those written for the popular market, to get a handle on the overall subject or period of history. That sparks specific ideas that allow me to narrow down my focus, and often leads me to other, more detailed resources referred to in the text or bibliography–often academic texts. These I usually acquire through my local Interlibrary Loan Librarian, Emily. yep, we’re on a first-name basis. As the books become more obscure, often translations of primary sources, they take a little longer to come in, and I will ask for two or three at a time, knowing I’ll have to wait.
However, as lovely as books and websites are, nothing can be the real thing. I’ve taken a couple of research trips, either to actual settings I’m using, or settings similar to what I need. Can’t afford the $$ to go to England to visit a medieval church? Try your area art museums. The Worcester Art Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts both not only have medieval collections, but also recreations of medieval chapels. See what’s available in your area. When you get there, stand quietly and imagine yourself in your characters’ shoes to fill in the details of sound, scent, emotion that would infuse that space.
I’m a huge fan of material culture, and often spend time visiting (or handling, if they let me!) actual objects made by the people I’m studying. What techniques were used? What materials were available? Imported, or local, or does it depend on the status of your characters?
And when you can, don’t just look–do. Ride a horse if you haven’t (that’s an easy one). Take a falconry workshop (still my favorite tax deduction). Learn a trade or visit with re-enactors and craftsmen who practice old, unusual or foreign techniques. For virtually any research topic, there’s someone out there who has devoted their life to it–if you can find those people and gain their trust, you can access a wealth of knowledge to make your fantasies that much more real.
Lawrence M. Schoen
Research for me occurs in stages, evolving as the ideas that make up the novel evolves.
I start with things online, devouring what I can, usually of “entry-level” materials. This has the advantage of immediate gratification and will either cause me to drop an idea because the stuff I find out doesn’t quite ring with the vision in my head, or spur me on to the next level, where I want a richer, more detailed tapestry to play with.
Pursuit of that tapestry takes one of two forms. Most typically I’ll plunge into a library or bookstore, questing after specific books on the subject.
Sometimes though I’m able to take advantage of contacts from my professor days and reach out to an old friend or colleague. If that person is within a hundred miles or so I’ll hop in my car and have a visit, take that academician to lunch, and pick his/her brain on the topic that is my newest passion.
Finally, as these details are congealing in my mind, as they’re beginning to slip into specific plot points and character developments, I’ll move on to the last phase of research and (if applicable) go to a place where I can immerse myself in the topic firsthand. In the case of The Elephant’s Graveyard, my novel coming out next year from Tor, this meant spending more than a hundred hours hanging out with elephants at the Philadelphia zoo. Back then they had four of them, two African, two Asian, and I came to know them (and they me) as unique individuals. So much so that I could walk into the elephant house, where other zoo visitors might already be present, and greet each elephant with a faux-trunk wave (i.e., crossing an arm up to my face and waving the forearm) and they’d respond in kind. This last stage is best, as I find I really soak in the feel of what I’m after, getting it under my skin, taking it out of the realm of simple facts and making it personal.
J. Kathleen Cheney
Librarians. Research Librarians.
I wanted to point them out, since a lot of people don’t think about going up to that desk in the library and talking to them. But a research librarian can cut through the fog of information to the tidbit you want far faster than you can yourself. They’re trained for that.
I’ve also contacted research librarians on-line. For my Saratoga Springs stories, I emailed the librarian at the public library there for help with a strange little factoid I needed. In that case, it turned out that she didn’t have what I needed (I found it a few days later in the NYT On-Line Archives and sent it to her for the next patron that comes along), but it was amazing how willing she was to help with my silly tidbit.
Whenever you’re stuck, these people can turn you in the right direction!
What’s your best research trick?