An author of Speculative Fiction, speculates about fiction.

Research is your friend

It strikes me that I don’t talk about my writing process very much and, contrary to popular belief, I do have one. While I do most of my plotting in my head, only setting it down in notes when it’s exceptionally vivid to me, the rest of the idea-to-page process is pretty normal. One of the things I think are incredibly important, possibly beyond all others and especially for writers of Speculative Fiction in all its glorious forms, is research.

If you’re going to make your story/novel/flash fiction/novella as realistic as it can be (and by realistic, I mean believable despite the wierdness) then research is where it’s at. As an example let’s use my current WIP, The Adventures of Alan Shaw. This is a very different beast to Greaveburn. Alan Shaw is an Alternate History/Steampunk novel based in the very real Victorian era of England, albeit with some technological flights of fancy. But in order to make my Neo-Victorian elements work, I had to understand what the victorian era was really like. If I had a motto, it’d be:

Learn the rules before you break them.

And so I do research. A lot. Of course, the internet is your friend. There are sites or wikis on every subject known to humankind somewhere in the unending virtual vaults. But call me old fashioned, I still like my books now and again.

Here's what I used for Alan Shaw so far.

As you can see, there’s quite a mix in there. Let’s break down what I think is important about researchas the groundwork for your writing:

1. Know your genre

When writing Greavburn, I had no idea that I was actually working on a Steampunk novel. I was aware of the Gothic literature sub-genre and loved its aesthetic. Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake is one of my favourite books, and that was the kind of grand darkness I wanted to instill in Greaveburn. But Steampunk wasn’t even on my radar. And so, when I discovered that it existed, and that Greaveburn fit the bill, I panicked. What if someone had already done what I had? How restrictive to Greaveburn’s reception would that be?

I learnt my lesson for working on Alan Shaw. I’ve read James Blaylock’s Homunculus, J.W. Jeter’s Infenal Devices and pretty much memorised The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer and co. And now I can confidently say that I know what to do and what not to do, what’s old hat and what’s relatively new (hey, that rhymes. I should write that down). Knowing your genre makes sure that you hit your demographic while avoiding any “it’s all been done” style comments.

2. Go simple

Finding reference books that are quick to read, while still being representative of the subject you’re researching, can be a real struggle. People love to bash on about their expert subject to the point of mind-numbing boredom. But you dont need a huge tome, reaching 3000 pages across four volumes about Victorian London by Lord Cyril Fanthorpe the 3rd esp. to know your stuff. In order to make your story realistic, all you need are the little touches. Those little details make the difference between just some woman in a dress and a young governess wearing a crinoline pinofore. You never have to mention it again, but that’s the kind of period detail that shows you’ve put the effort in.

But as I was saying, there’s an easy way to find those things out. Go for children’s books. They’re brilliant! They have pictures to help get the right feel in your prose, they hit only the important topics and give you great overview of any subject. The Eyewitness series is brilliant for historical stuff, if you’re interested in that stuff.

3. Get your facts right

If you’re writing about a certain place, be it a city or town or foreign country, get your facts right. Never forget that your readers know their stuff. Don’t think you can flim-flam them with sweeping references to places. With Alan Shaw, I have to evoke an image of Victorian London that rings true to someone who’s never been to London and someone who walks its streets every day. Google Maps can take you anywhere you need to go, and even tell you the quickest way for your character to walk/drive around their environment. You dont have to give an itemised list of corners turned between your Detective’s home and the mortuary, but it helps if you know how long it would take and what’s in between so you can describe it if need be.

While Google Maps is great for the present day, historical settings pose a little more of a problem. And so I got myself some maps:

Victorian London, imprisoned in plastic.

They came in four pieces, originally, but with a little industrious folding and one of those frameless plastic frames (contradictory, I know) I now have an easily accessible map of Victorian London. What’s better than that, with the plastic covering, if you get some dry-wipe markers, you can plot routes, circle areas or points of interest to your heart’s content without ruining the source material for later use! (This is an Art Attack!)

My doodles marking Covent Garden Market, and routes for Alan to take around London.

 4. The Counter-argument

 

Just remember: There’s another side to research. Don’t get too bogged down with it. Learn what you need and move on. It’s a tool to help you write, it’s not words on the page.

Well, folks, that’s it for now. I hope this post has been as useful to you as my researching endeavours have been to me. If you have any researching tips of your own, then feel free to share. I’m always looking for new ways to do what we do.

 

Thanks for reading!

Advertisements

8 responses

  1. WOW!

    Always good to get an insight into how someone else does this old research lark. I have been known to download house details off rightmove to remind what that person’s house is like, but I LOVE the maps. Inspired.

    April 28, 2012 at 10:06 am

    • It’s an excuse for me to geek out and make things hahaha. Rightmove is a great idea. I’m definitely using that.

      April 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm

  2. Excellent advice, Craig – you have to know your subject/genre/location, or risk alienating the reader. I guess this is particularly true when creating a fantasy environment, based on actual places and history – you can’t just ‘wing it’. I found it incredible when members of my ex-writing group said they didn’t read!! This seemed particularly true of those writing children’s fiction – they were dumfounded when I asked whether they ‘d researched current trends, or if they actually knew any 21st Century children. Yet they thought they could write for them, because they’d loved reading Enid Blyton books when they were young. Fashions change, times move on and successful authors are aware of that! 🙂

    April 28, 2012 at 11:05 am

    • Oooooh, that’s bad form. Kids are so sharp. And logical. I think you might have to work even harder if you write for kids. I’d be very wary.

      April 29, 2012 at 1:04 pm

  3. Great post! Love your motto and adhere to it.

    April 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm

  4. Hi Craig,

    I do agree. I think artistic licence can only get you so far, and unless one is so brilliant at suspension of disbelief then for the rest of us it’s research. 🙂

    May 2, 2012 at 7:48 am

    • Story Addict – So do I! Practice what I preach, so I do (went a bit Yoda there).

      Ava – I think it was in the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook where I read an article by Terry Pratchett (master of fantasy as far as I’m concerned) that said the only way for fantasy to be effective is if it APPEARS to be realistic. Attention to detail is everything! And that’s what it’ll say on my gravestone when all this research kills me hahaha

      May 4, 2012 at 6:08 pm

  5. Excellent post and great advice here. Some of the basic and obvious things are there, but you have given a more detailed and thought-provoking post about research here – all without making a long and mind-numbing post/essay as some people can do.

    I particularly liked the map covered in plastic idea, I think I might try that! 🙂
    Thanks!

    May 14, 2012 at 10:29 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s