Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Researching a Book

I had a moment of triumph today in physical therapy: I managed to put my hand on my hip easily, with no effort or sense of resistance. I've been able to put my hand on my hip, but my elbow still was more back than to the side, and I felt like I had to overcome a lot of resistance to do it. Today, I just put it there. However, it does seem to be hurting more the closer I get to "back to normal." I guess that scar tissue is being stretched to the limit. Meanwhile, I spent most of the day yesterday writing something, only to realize at the end of the day that I was doing it wrong. Fortunately, the fix will mostly involve deleting stuff, without much new writing.

By reader request, I'm discussing my research processes. Last writing post, I talked about doing market research. Now I'll talk about "research research."

As a disclaimer, I want to make it clear that this is my process. It's what works for me, and it may work for other people, but I'm not saying that this is the one, true way to do things.

I generally do research in two phases. First is what I consider world-building or idea-generation research. I do this research at the beginning of a project, when I have just enough of an idea to know what to research. As I read and research, my ideas firm up, and I come up with more areas I need to study. I make a list of topics I need to explore, and this list grows and changes as I go.

Depending on the book, this research may involve things like the physical location, the time period, the occupations of the characters, any folklore or mythology I'm working with (since I write fantasy), any applicable technology, and some things to do with theme or style.

For instance, when I was preparing to write Enchanted, Inc., the first book in my series, I just knew it would be about a magical corporation in New York. I researched some long-time businesses based in New York. At first, I was researching some of the old financial institutions, since those are what you think of for businesses in lower Manhattan, but then I realized that what I really wanted to write was more a spoof of the software industry, so I read some books about a few start-up software and computer companies. Since I was dealing with the corporate world, I read a few books on dealing with difficult bosses and co-workers, office politics and women in the workplace. I read several travel books about New York and some books about the history of the city. I was using fairy tale elements in the story, so I read some works about fairy tales and some sociological/psychological theory about them. I was thinking of this book in terms of being a satire on the corporate world, so I read a few books about satire. When I'd gone a little further in the plotting and planning, I'd realized that Merlin would be one of my characters, so I read some of the more popular/famous works about Merlin, as well as some scholarly books about the role of Merlin in Arthurian legends.

For world building purposes, you could also read novels written and published during the period you're writing about, or books written about that period by people who lived through them. If you're writing in a historical period, that's a good way to get a sense of the mindset and use of language. That does not mean that novels are a source for facts or that you can do your research by reading any books set in your setting. But there are novels that are considered to be a good reflection of that segment of time and place. For instance, if you're writing about early 19th century England among the country gentry, you should probably read Jane Austen. If you're writing about the Gilded Age in New York, Edith Wharton will give you a sense of that world. One great thing about books written during the time period is that it lets you know what words wouldn't have been used during the period because they weren't yet a part of the vocabulary. For instance, the word "okay" is pretty recent and a big anachronism trap (word nerds cringe during the opening scene of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie when the 18th century British girl uses the word "okay"). If you read novels written during your time period and the word "okay" (or any other word you're fond of) never occurs, it's probably not okay to use it.

All this research is what helps me develop the germ of an idea into a plot because it gives me a sense of what could happen and what can't happen in that milieu. You wouldn't want to have put together an entire plot only to then do your research and find out that the key elements are impossible. On the other hand, knowing what can happen gives me ideas for plot developments or events. This research might also spark ideas of the kind of people who would be in that situation, which helps in developing characters.

The research comes back when it comes to actual writing. That's when specific questions pop up -- how does this work, exactly where is this, how long would this take, how much would this cost, etc. I may go back to the same books I read for idea-generation research, but often these questions can be answered with proper use of Google. Sometimes I just go on and fill in the specifics later, but sometimes there's a question that comes up during writing that determines how a scene will go, so it's worth the time to stop and do the research before going on.

Books aren't the only source for information. There are also Internet sites put together by people with a passion for the subject (but check your facts against other sources). You can sometimes find newspaper or magazine archives either online or at a library. For some subjects, you can get great information by interviewing experts or people with some experience with your subject matter. Visiting the location of your setting makes it come to life. Before writing each book in my series, I visited New York to walk around the locations (except for the fourth book, which was set in Texas, so for that one I went to some small towns in the area where the book was set). That gives you the feel, the smells, the sounds and other things that you can't get properly from books.

I find a lot of my sources by just wandering the library, but I may also look up one book I know relates to the topic, then see what the "people who bought this also bought" lists on Amazon say. I've found great related books that way. Museum gift shops are a good place to find reference books -- especially museums that focus on your subject area. For instance, if you're using the medieval area, the shop in the Cloisters in New York is full of great reference books. Library book sales and used bookstores are a good place to find odd, out-of-print books you might never find in a regular bookstore or even the library.

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