Writing 101 – Research

Research

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

We sit in near darkness pouring over dust-covered, leather-bound tomes. We scour the internet until the wee small hours. We track through the Amazon, machete in hand, in search of the last of the lost tribes. And, why do we do this?

For the story.

Research is a necessary evil when it comes to writing. It is the author’s greatest asset and their worst enemy. Without research, we wouldn’t have ideas, couldn’t build believability (especially of the unbelievable), and we certainly couldn’t speak with the authority of our characters.

With this post, I hope to provide a few tips on how to navigate the minefields of research.

Types of Research

Research can be roughly split into one of four main categories.

1. Traditional

This is the research that springs to the minds of most writers over the age of 25. To me, it invokes images of a desk in a quiet corner of a library (is there such a thing as a noisy corner of the library?) or bookstore, covered in piles upon piles of open books; the writer feverishly scribbling notes into their notebooks. This method has its limitations: research material on some topics may be unavailable, research can only be conducted during opening hours, all information gleaned will have already been filtered by the material’s author. Despite these minor issues, this is still one of the best ways of conducting research, not to mention a great way to spend an afternoon.

2. Internet

These are the days of the digital revolution. We have information literally at our fingertips (and our names on federal watch-lists). Every conceivable topic has its place on the web alongside armies of “experts” all happy to share with you the benefits of their experience. With a click of the mouse and the clatter of keys, you’ll find data and facts on military might. A quick email will return reams and reams of folklore and legends. You can even make contact with a practicing druid (no, you really can) who will provide you with the patterns of the universe — maybe.

This wealth of material is dualistic in nature. On the one hand, it’s there and readily accessible but, on the other, the sheer volume can soon overwhelm us and leave us unable to separate the good from the bad.

3. Social

This includes any form of interaction with others and can be key to developing believable characters, character quirks, and dialogue. It involves anything from people watching to conducting personal history interviews. It is the research we undertake whenever we enter a social setting, sometimes without realising we’re doing it.

4. Field

Although this shares aspects with the above category, it’s worth thinking of this as scouting for settings. In much the same way that a TV location scout scours the globe for ideal settings, we writers must do the same. Real life settings give depth and tone to our scenes and allow our characters a forum in which to develop and nothing beats experiencing out potential settings for ourselves.

Research Tips

Make a Plan

Research can be a real time sink. Each discovered piece of information can lead to many more avenues of inquiry and sometimes make it difficult to know when to stop. It becomes far too easy to lose yourself in the research and find you have limited time left to write.

The easiest way to avoid this is it to make a plan. Identify what topics/points require research, break them down into workable chunks and allocate time to each. In addition to budgeting our time, working from a plan allows us to determine the best methods of collecting the information we need. Do you need ideas for a setting? Organise a field trip. Is your dialogue sounding a little unnatural? Conduct some social research (eavesdrop) at your local coffee shop.

Set Time Limits and Deadlines

I’d bet we’ve all lost count of the number of hours lost to research that was unnecessary to our current projects. How many times have we just checked one more link? How many hours have we wasted through distraction? How many times have we watched that video of the baby panda sneezing (you know the one)?

Use your plan and set yourself a time limit or deadline for each key piece of research. Try and stick to it as closely as you can.

Use the Best Tool for the Job

Research is useless without having some way of capturing it. Likewise, the way we capture needs to be relevant to the information and research method. Unless you’re an excellent sketch artist, a camera may be best used for recording that manor house frontage you’re considering for the setting of your horror story. Even an expert in shorthand finds tape recorders invaluable for conducting interviews (although be sure to take notes as recordings aren’t 100% reliable).

Organise Your Research

Research requires organisation. Just as unrecorded research is useless, so too are research notes you can’t find. What good is that great piece of dialogue if it’s scribbled on a post-it note and lost forever between the pages of a randomly selected book?

Highlight or underline important notes in your notebooks for easier reference, or group like notes together in their own folders, sections or notebooks e.g. keep a dialogue file and record all potential dialogue in it. Allocate time in your research plan to organising and processing the research and use it.

What to Keep and What to Lose?

Not everything you research will be relevant to or make it into your latest project. It may not even fit your style of writing. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be loath to throw any notes away. Still, you’ll need to filter the good notes from the bad, the relevant from the irrelevant.

You need to decide what information you need for your story and refile the rest for later viewing/projects. Each piece of research needs to be interrogated for added benefit to the project you’re working on. If it has none, file it away and move on but don’t forget to revisit these notes later, especially when brainstorming your next project.

Write Your Story

Research is a means to an end and that end is the story. There comes a time when the research has to stop and the writing needs to start (otherwise you’re just a grad student and not a writer). The biggest difficulty for some of us will be resisting the urge to research during the time we’ve allocated for writing. We always feel the need to just double check that fact. The problem with that is that a break in your train of thought can create difficulties in getting back into the flow.

While writing, make a side note of any items you wish to check or research and add them to your plan at the end of your writing session. A journalist once taught me a trick for dealing with names or facts that you can’t recall easily while writing. He said to mark the place in the text where the fact/name will go with a “TK”. “TK” rarely occurs together in English and it is easily spotted during editing. If I come across a “TK” during edits – that’s the time for research.

I hope these tips have been useful and I would like to hear from you with any tips you’ve found during your own research processes. Likewise, I’d love to hear of any unexpected ideas and tangents research has taken you on. As always, please share in the comments below.

 

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Don’t make me call BS!

We are human, which enables us to inherently perceive bullshit.  Hemingway once said that a writer must develop an internal bullshit detector.  In other words, a writer must be able to look at their work and distinguish that it is not flat out full of mumbo-jumbo.  One small piece of BS could figuratively force a reader to throw out a book.  A reader must feel like they can attribute factual merit to a writer’s work.

A sure fire solution to prevent a piece of writing from being, well, a load of crap is research.

Ah, I see I now have the attention of the fact checkers!

Yes, research.  It is quintessential that any piece of writing has a hearty amount of research to back a story, a plot, a character, a scene, etc.  The best part is that there is no such thing as too much research.  The more research, the stronger you can make a story.

Take for instance a writer in the Fantasy genre.  Say this person is creating a world on a far off planet with races, cultures, religions, wars, climates, and architecture completely unlike our own here on Earth.  That author is quite extensively creating a whole new world from within their mind.  If this writer were to just take pen to paper, scripting out their story without one ounce of research, there is a very high chance that the story could come off as highly unreliable.

Because of all the different little slices that have to go into creating a new realm on a distant planet (think: languages, fashion, weapons, technology), no one can possibly have extensive knowledge in all of those areas.  Someone who may be well versed on the art of war may have little to no knowledge on how to build languages.  That is where the research comes in.  In order to create a world, you need to learn all you can about what makes up civilizations.

Do you think Tolkien could have created all of those languages, races,  and cultures within his works without a substantial amount of research?

I apologize if I sound like I am standing on a soapbox, screaming out to the world, but I am a fact checker.  A rather hardcore fact checker, much to the annoyance of my author friends who ask me to beta-read their works.

I am getting tired of the new literature out there that is full of inaccuracies.  I have not ounce of remorse for putting a book down and walking away if the text is so unreliable and completely full of BS with un-researched material.

So, as I want every writer to succeed, I would like to offer a few things to keep in mind as you prepare for your next piece work and some tips on how to conduct research:

  1. There is never “too much” research.  Go overboard.  Whatever you do not use, file away for your next masterpiece.  There is no such thing as too much information being held in a stockpile.
  2. Information is everywhere!  Quite literally, information seeps into each fiber of our everyday life:  TV, radio, Internet, newspapers, magazines, books, the list can go on and on.  Garner all the information that you can from these sources.
  3. Research is (in essence) FREE!  With the Internet, it is impossible to make up an excuse that you cannot find information.  The Internet is a plethora of free information ripe for the picking.  Just be mindful of unreliable sources.  Also, do not discount your local, public library.
  4. Triple check your source.  Since the Internet is a conglomeration of people’s ideas, there is a lot of unreliable information out there.  Make sure that the bit of information that you are looking at is truly factual.
  5. Use creative license, but keep it real.   Fiction is fiction.  It is for the most part made up.  But do not go overboard on making things up or trying to be too creative, especially when it defies Earth-bound nature and physics.  If someone is being shot at with a 9mm from a few feet away and the victim holds up a leather briefcase as a shield, if that bullet is a direct hit on the briefcase, it is going through it and most likely the victim too.   Don’t say that the briefcase was hit squarely and shielded the victim from the bullet.   It is completely impossible unless the briefcase was lined with some kind of metal.

Now that I have gone overboard on the research aspect, keep in mind that once you have collected your information and started writing, do not ‘data dump’ on your readers.  Just give enough information to keep your readers attention and to keep the text reliable.  Do not inundate or bombard readers with every bit of information on a subject.  Even though Call of Cthulhu is one of my favorite stories, Lovecraft had a tendency to sometimes data dump on the readers and it becomes overwhelming.  (Sorry, H.P., but it’s true…)

So, fellow writers, always keep your facts in check and make sure you have conducted enough research on a topic to make you the most reliable author out there.  Remember, the fact checkers are watching.

'Silence in the Library'  (c) Kevin_P

Beware of lurking fact checkers (c) Kevin_P

 

Historic Settings: Researching Your Novel

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Novel research falls into two types in my experience.  There’s the voracious, grab-all-you-can-find research before the draft, and there’s the I-need-specific-detail research after the draft.  Both serve a purpose, but the methods are different.

First, let me state up front that I do not believe research should be happening while you are in draft.  Use a trick passed on from more experienced authors:  type the word ELEPHANT any time you need a bit of information you don’t have and move on.  Unless you are writing about big gray beasts with trunks, you now have a searchable word that will take you to any spot in your draft that needs a fact or flavor element.

So what do you look for in the front end “before” research?  This is what works for me:

  • Archeology on digs of the time period
  • Architecture for the various classes of society
  • Art the people saw or had access to
  • Religion – this is a big one as it dominated daily life through much of history, including times of day
  • Literature – what were they reading if they were literate and in what languages?
  • Politics of the times both locally, nationally, and internationally
  • Daily Life by class
  • Clothing by class
  • Diet by class
  • Household expenses, routine, and tasks for nobles, merchants, workers
  • Class differences & Distinctions
  • World events
  • Wars, weapons, armor, defenses
  • Pestilence, medical practices, mortality rates
  • Opinions of historians on how people of the time would have viewed all these things.

Initially, I might not have a specific story idea, so my research is general, but I do follow the bits that interest me, fascinating side-shoots, and tangential material I find intriguing. Because I am a visual person, I spend around 20-50 hours watching documentaries as well so I can see the art, the architecture, and the rest.  Other research information comes from books, encyclopedias, and the web (be careful, check that your source is reputable).

When I feel “full” or glutted on research, I bundle all my notes into a binder and put it all away.  I’ve been doing this long enough to trust that the seeds will sprout in their own time.

And here’s the interesting thing.  Even small details you don’t consciously remember will make it into your story without effort.  That part of our brain that writes is quite adept at adding the richness of detail it has learned from our research without our effort.

“After,” or “back end” research is specific. What colors of cloth were rare enough to cause remark?  Which were the most popular radio broadcasts that summer? How would he have said this?  What brands of soda would be in the nickel vendor?  These are the concrete details that you add for specificity and dimension, important tidbits to give your reader a sense of time and location.

Generally, this research is quick as you know exactly what you are looking for.  Your notes come in handy here, and anything not in notes is usually available in books or on the web.

Research can get as detailed as you want it to be.  I enjoy research so I go overboard.  If you don’t, that’s okay.  Just be aware that, at some point, your story will start to tap at the back of your skull.  When it does, put away your notes and just write.