How Do You Research That?

December 15, 2009 at 5:15 am (drafting) (, , , , )


Research is one of the essential tools of any writer, regardless of what they are writing.  Direct observation of people and places is one form of research that we all undertake every day but for most of us, this is only the beginning of the lengthy researching process.

I write fantasy and I don’t actually mind too much when someone tells me that fantasy isn’t real writing.  Mostly because when someone tells me that it tells me more about the person than about what I am writing.  I do mind when people tell me that fantasy writing must be easy because ‘you can just make stuff up’.  I can just make stuff up?  Why didn’t someone tell me that sooner?

Admittedly I do have a lot of leeway with facts and even after the research process if I haven’t come across something suitable I can create something new, but I have to do it in such a way that people believe it.  That means there are basic rules and preconceptions that have to be met or the reader is just going to roll their eyes.  How do I know what rules and preconceptions there are? I research.

My reference collection is a bit on the odd side but it has steadily been growing over the years.  Lots of books on mythology, all kinds of mythology.  The latest addition was a book on Japanese fairy tales.  This gives me a chance to look at similarities between mythical creatures across the world as well as the differences.  Dragons turn up in every single mythology but the differences are extraordinary.  So, when I say there is a dragon in front of my protagonist, people instantly get the image they are most familiar with, unless I give them more information to go on and I best not say it is a wyrm if it isn’t (learnt that lesson the hard way – one critique of a short story ended up being a five page list of types of dragons and why mine didn’t fit into any of them).

Mythological creatures however is only a tiny fraction of the research.  The online research is generally extensive.  If you have a knight carrying a sword, what kind of sword is he carrying?  Does he swing it? Thrust with it? Stab?  Could he chop through a log with it or would that just dent the blade?  Some readers are extremely picky about their swords.  To me, a sword is a long shiny thing you hit stuff with.  I don’t focus on sword fights in my stories but being fantasy, it is fairly inevitable that swords will come into them, even if just in passing.  I don’t want to make a passing comment and have a reader throw the book down in disgust and then send me a lengthy email explaining why I haven’t got a clue.

Then we have styles of dress and construction and various landscapes and on and on and on the research goes. It is a good thing I am curious by nature and that I like keeping trivia files of random facts.  It means that usually I have some information on a given topic close at hand but other times I need to go a little further in my research.

How do you go about your research and how much do you do before writing the story?

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24 Comments

  1. lawrenceez said,

    In a variety of ways. The internet helps but I can’t always find exactly what I’m looking for. Religious cults feature in one of my novels – in many ways, this was the easiest to write as I have had direct experience with one. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a struggle. I’m writing crime/thrillers, but am not really familiar with forensic procedures. Crazy, isn’t it?

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      That’s the internet – so full of information if only someone had bothered to catalogue it properly.

  2. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    I don’t do a lot during the process…I star the area of text (***), continue writing, and do the research after the first draft is completed. Otherwise I distract myself by going online. 🙂

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I try to do the research during the basic outlining phase and then at the end of first draft stage as I realise all the bits that are missing vital details. You are right, why break a good writing flow to get lost in cyber space when you can look later and fill in what you need. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Steve said,

    While working on my first book, I’ve done a little of both. I did some initial research to wrap my head around some of the general concepts and themes that I wanted to integrate, and now, as I am writing the first draft I frequently go back and read a bit more in-depth and do a little more digging. It may not be the most efficient way of going about research and sounds a bit schizophrenic, but I’ve always written like that and it seems to work for me. Of course, my book is slightly different than a novel in that it blends parable with commentary so there is a good amount of prose integrated that requires quotation and citation so having the research done ahead of time for those pieces is essential. One thing I also do is follow citations in other books I’m reading. Sometimes I’ll chase citations five or six levels deep to find the original source of a piece of information – guess I enjoy the chase. 🙂

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Sounds good and if it works for you that is great. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Carol Kilgore said,

    I love research. I do everything I think I’ll need before I begin writing. And usually on the first page something else comes up. Unlike you, I research as I go along. Usually this is because I need the answer before I can go further because the how and why of something I don’t know will make a difference in what my characters do.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Knowing the how and why before hand would sometimes be really helpful but I know from experience that if I pause a draft for too long (even for research) I don’t get back to it. I’d rather fully rewrite the scene should I put something in it that turns out to be completely ridiculous. Though, I sometimes ask people that to find out if anyone knows the answer to something so that I can make minor amendments as the drafting goes.

  5. Fiona Skye said,

    I’m probably the world’s worst writer when it comes to research. I try to do it before hand, but what *actually* happens is the following scenario:

    Me: typetypetype – “Oh, I need to see what the average temperature in the Syrian desert in August is real quick.”
    Me: Surf over to Google – look it up, find a promising site, go to promising site.
    Me: “Oh, look at this – food in Syria.” Click link, go to completely different website, forgetting to write down temperature.

    HOURS LATER

    Me: “Oh, crap. I still need to see what the average temperature in the Syrian desert is. And I’ve only written 500 words today?!?! Stupid distractions!”

    But yeah – I’m stickler for details. I will scream at a movie, book or TV show if they get their history wrong, or miss some other tiny little, probably inconsequential detail. So I tend to be really silly about details and research in my own writing. Plus, I’m just so fascinated by very nearly everything that I really do get distracted quite easily and will follow links like Alice and the White Rabbit. I’ve often said that I need to hire someone to sit next to me and look stuff up while I’m writing so I don’t get distracted.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Wouldn’t it be great if internet search engines actually just gave you links to sites with the information you needed. I know people say if you refine your search enough you will find the information, but even then it is usually about four or five links down the page. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Margot Kinberg said,

    Cassandra – Thanks for bringing up the all-important topic of research. If a novel of any kind is going to have any ring of authenticity, it needs to be supported, I think, by research. Of course, that research depends on the kind of novel and the topic, but it’s nonetheless an important thing to consider.

    In my own writing, I do some researching, mostly about technical things about which I’m not an expert. For instance, in one of my novels, the victim dies of anphylaxis, so I did some reading and research on the topic. For the same novel, I did some research on the process for getting a warrant for particular evidence. I think those details are important if a book is to “ring true.”

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Those details that may seem trivial to us are sometimes the details that make or break the story for the reader. Iti s important to get them right. Thanks for your comment.

  7. Elspeth Antonelli said,

    I write historical mysteries so I’m not going to place my plot in an era I find dull! I learn the dates, the main events. The main historical figures as appropriate. Then I write. If I don’t know something specific I mark it in the text and come back later. I love historical research, but it’s very easy to get so caught up in learning just that little bit more that your writing gets left behind.

    Elspeth

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I find that when I get into Greek mythology I get very caught up in the stories and forget to actually ‘research’ or to actually get back to what I was planning to write. There are topics that just really interest you and are very distracting. Thanks for visiting and thanks for your comments.

  8. Jonathan Danz said,

    I love the authenticity that research can help give to a fantasy story. It is precisely because we write fantasy that we must research. We need those details to pin the story down, to keep it from floating away on currents of disbelief. I research as I go, but have been working to pare that back by using square brackets to remind me to look something up or flesh something out. Like Fiona Skye, I definitely get lost in interesting side trips while researching, but sometimes that works out for the better or gives me ideas for other projects. Oh yeah, just because you researched the living stank out of something doesn’t mean you need to bore the reader with it (paraphrase of something Tabitha King told husband Stephen).

  9. jmartinlibrarian said,

    I dig the research part of writing. Give me a database and some boolean operators and I’m good to go. Of course, I’m a librarian. And a nerd. Whatever works, right?

  10. dystophil said,

    As a fellow fantasy writer I couldn’t agree more with your take on mythology research, Cass. The first draft of my current novel Light was indeed riddled with various references to Latin and Ancient Greek mythology (which probably relates to me being a Latin and Ancient Greek student back then and after seven or eight years you just can’t help but stumble across something that tickles you to write about it).

    By now the draft as well as the general premise of the novel has changed a lot, but I’d say my research methods are still the same: I still like to draw on things t hat I already know, on things I learn at university as a student of English as well as foreign languages and those random topics many of you have mentioned, those that just happen to peak your interest and you eventually get lost in them.

    Oh and did I mention that sometimes, doing “research” quite interesting things can happen? For Light for example, I felt that I had to do some in depth research on guns, because one of my protagonists, Damian, happened to be an assassin and I for one didn’t know the first thing about guns. Since I’m usually very talkative about my writing, I happened to get talking with a guy I tutored back then about guns. Turned out he knew a lot about them (seriously, by now I believe that you ask ANY American who likes guns about them and get that glimmer in their eyes from which on they launch into 2-hour lectures about guns, their mechanisms, advantages, disadvantages….).

    Anyway, he mentioned that he had quite a collection of different guns and I happened to never have shot a handgun, hence he took me to a shooting range and I learned that while I personally am way on the liberal side and used to frown upon gun-loving Americans, I actually quite liked shooting them. Oh and the guy I shot them with. So I suppose I can say that this particular research experiment worked out two-ways for me: now I know exactly which kind of guns both Damian and other characters in my book would use and why (although I hold it with Jonathan Danz and avoid getting into detail, because honestly, what’s the point?) and by coincidence met my wonderful boyfriend Ben whom I’ve been dating for nearly a year now over a completely arbitrary topic of research. And no, he doesn’t JUST like guns. But still, that story still amuses me as it’s quite a wonderful bridge between writing and real life and shows how it’s all connected after all. In the end, how can we even write, or do research, without drawing on our every-day life in some fashion?

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      That is the fun of research, you never know what you will find out or how. Thanks so much for your comment.

  11. Corra McFeydon said,

    I love researching and could wrap myself up in it if time permitted.

    I write historical fiction and used to attempt to research before I even commenced writing. Now I get the story down, let the people interact, and verify the facts after.

    I’m currently working on a novel set in France during WWI. I have no knowledge on the topic, and since I’ve forbidden myself to research until the first draft is finished, the characters are driving the story–not the history.

    I figure I can tweak and play after I start my research. Editing and researching are my favorite parts of the writing process.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I love that you have ‘forbidden yourself to research’. I guess that removes any possibility of distracting yoruself.

  12. dystophil said,

    Corra, you must be a masochist for liking editing this much then =p No, but serioulsy, whenever I edit the blood red pencil and something to throw against the wall are never far…

    I do however love to come up with shiny new things that make me feel brilliant. Anyway, I guess the joys and woes of editing would deserve their own post so I’ll refrain from beginning a rant here 🙂 Good luck with the novel!

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      The joys and woes of editing definitely deserve their own post. Probably several.

      “I do however love to come up with shiny new things that make me feel brilliant.” – Agreed.

    • Corra McFeydon said,

      LOL. Thanks!!

      I adore editing. I could edit my work forever and never be satisfied. I edit while I read and watch movies. A passion of mine that makes no sense to most.

      I’ve forbidden myself both research AND editing while I write. I find editing uses a different part of my brain that suppresses my creativity.

      Good luck with your writing as well, dystophil! 🙂

  13. Corra McFeydon said,

    Sorry — that last comment was meant to go under dystophil’s. 😉

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