FOR THE artistic & imaginative WRITER

Rabbit Hole of Research

That glorious rabbit hole of facts, figures, myths, histories, and opinions.

Personally, I find getting lost in the infinite strands of the Interweb and The Collected Knowledge of Humankind most delightful, but that can’t be said for many aspiring writers (and a good deal of uninspiring ones). However, whether you choose to do it or not could be the difference between a bestseller and a nonstarter.

Why?

Research is to writing what an accent coach is to an actor. The actor can try to pull off the accent without coaching, but the audience is definitely going to notice, especially if they are familiar with that particular accent. (At least, I always do, and it drives me to drink. (Gin and tonic, if you’re wondering.))You might think that only non-fiction requires research, but, unless you are writing high surrealism, your audience will expect you to get your facts straight. It doesn’t mean you can’t be imaginative and make things up. But every story needs a sufficient level of realism – the reader needs to believe that somehow, somewhere, this could happen (even if ‘somehow’ is magic and ‘somewhere’ is an alternate universe). Otherwise, they won’t be able to relate to the story.

Research is not an option. It’s a necessity.

So how do you keep things real without killing creativity? Human characters need to behave like humans. Laws of physics need to be obeyed (even if you’re making up new laws in a fantasy world). Real world places and people and things must be accurately portrayed. If something behaves unexpectedly, there must be a reason why. The audience will notice if you haven’t done your due diligence and write something that does not ring true. You want them chewing their nails, not rolling their eyes. You might think fantasy gives you a free pass to write whatever you want, but readers in this genre still expect a level of realism to your writing. Describing a 12-year-old human girl with no special powers stabbing a 4-pound broadsword into the heart of a foe directly through the chest is just not believable. Four pounds is a lot of metal for a small girl to be hauling around, and the chances of getting a massive sword between the ribs and just that itsy bit off centre into the heart without any training is highly unlikely. So, before you start flinging around medieval-style weaponry and human body parts, do your research.

Sci-fi readers are even more finicky when it comes to accuracy. It’s all very well setting the story 1,000 years in the future with flying cars and underwater worlds and so on, but these things can’t happen magically. There needs to be a plausible explanation, even if current technology is nowhere near that advanced. If you plan to throw around words like ‘quantum’ and ‘nuclear’ and ‘turbo’ and ‘ions’, you better make sure you understand those concepts. Get the basics right and you can stretch the science to where it needs to be. Alien civilizations still need political or hierarchical systems. Social structures. Laws and Justice systems. History. All life forms and machines need some kind of input (fuel) and output (bi-products of burning fuel). How you choose to incorporate these details is up to your imagination, but alien beings that need absolutely no form of food or energy input are just not going to cut it. Base your constructs on actual societies, systems, laws, and organisms (that you’ve carefully researched). Then go wild with the particulars. How? Now you know why you have to do your research. Here’s the how to:

Go to the right source.

  • Accurate. There is a lot of information out there, but not all of it is true. Wikipedia is infamous for unverified information. Even popular blogs and news sites are sometimes guilty of perpetuating false facts. Look for sources that have a reputation for accuracy, such as university and non-profit websites (usually ending in .edu or .org) or the websites of reliable journals, your local library, newspapers, or encyclopedias. Then cross-check your facts using different sources.
  • Up-to-date. Not only must you make sure that your source is accurate, but you also need to ensure that it’s up-to-date.  Science and technology are constantly advancing, meaning that your perception of the moon as A) earth’s only moon, B) one of the 5-18 moons or C) not a moon at all, but rather one half of a binary system will swing wildly depending on when you did your research. (link to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGgmmX-dzgU)
  • The right genre. Read widely in your genre. You need to get a feel for a genre if you want to hang on to your audience. While there is plenty of room to play, you still have to meet the expectations of an established audience. For example, the vampires in a vampire YA must have some link with blood, whether it be the traditional appetite for human blood, or an abnormal need for iron and other nutrients found in blood. You can’t have a ‘vampire’ who is vegan, loves to tan, and wouldn’t bite a fly. That’s not a vamp. That’s a panda bear. You gotta know your mythology and get the basics right.
  • First person. When it comes to behavior and personal experience – eg. that of the opposite sex, a different race or culture, someone with a mental or physical disability or illness, a marine biologist or fighter pilot, etc. – it helps to talk to a real live person who represents that demographic. Prepare a list of questions for specific input, such as how the person would behave in a certain scenario, but also spend time simply chatting or interacting so you can get a feel for the natural actions and reactions of that type of person. And don’t forget to record the interview!

Leonardo diCaprio prepared for his role as a mentally challenged teen in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by spending a few days at a home for mentally challenged children. He observed and chatted to them, and his portrayal was so convincing that he was nominated for an Oscar.

  • Your personal experience counts as research. Any time you’ve spent observing particular situations or people or things or places will contribute to an accurate portrayal in your writing. That’s why it’s important to take notes and photos and videos of your experiences for future reference. You never know when you might want to put them to use in a story. And actually going to a place to see what it’s like is so much more powerful than simply reading about it or looking at pictures.

Keep it organized.

  • Plan how you’re going to attack your research. Make a list of topics you need to investigate and decide how long you’re going to spend researching each day. Focus on the topics that will have the biggest impact on the story first. You’ll likely find that research begets more research, but instead of veering off in multiple directions, add each new topic that arises to your list, and schedule time to work on it according to how much it will affect the story.
  • Organize. Simply allowing all the research to rattle around in your head is not going to be terribly helpful in the long run. Keep track by organizing the information into sections: setting, character, plot, props, timelines, language & dialects, etc. You can save it in a physical file, bullet journal, writing app or desktop program, or your laptop filing system. You might need to experiment to find a system that works for you. The aim is to be able to find what you need when you need it.
  • Back it up. Whatever system you choose, always have a backup. Upload it to the cloud, keep copies on two or more devices, stash folders under your bed and up the chimney… Just make sure you don’t lose weeks and months of works when the iniquitous blue screen of death shows up.

Don’t put all your research in your book. It’s a story, not an encyclopedia. Knowing the design of the uniform worn by British cavalry during the battle of waterloo may help you capture the impression given to an onlooker, but there is absolutely no good reason to list the amount of buttons, epaulettes, piped seams, braiding, and other decorations upon said soldier’s person.

This pulls the ader out of the story and bashes them over the head with unnecessary information for the sole purpose of proving that the author can use Google. That’s not entertainment. You want to draw the reader into your setting through the five senses and the reactions of the characters, not by copy-pasting a paragraph from sciencemag.org.When Andy Weir wrote The Martian, he spent a week working out the orbital paths and launch dates for the Mars mission. He even wrote his own custom software to do it. How much of that research showed up in the book? Just this sentence: “It took 124 days to get from Earth to Mars”. The reader didn’t need to know all that stuff about orbital paths or launch dates to understand the story. The important thing was the time frame that would dictate the survival of the hero – the crux of the plot. Remember that when deciding what facts and figures to include – how does this affect the plot and character development? Does it draw the reader into the setting or help them relate to the characters? Or is it a side point you’d expect to find in a Time magazine article?

At Some Point, Stop.

Believe me, there is no end to the things you could research. I’m a self-confessed research-a-holic. But at some point, you have to stop and actually write the story. You’re a storyteller, and you’re allowed a degree of poetic license. As long as the main pillars of your story are accurate or plausible, you can get away with making up the details. Why research…yes got that…How research…covered…ah yes.When?

At this point, I’m going to borrow from a beloved dancing nun of the Alps and say, ‘Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.’Yup, research has to happen before you dive in. The outlining stage is the perfect time to research your setting and characters and any historical or scientific info that will impact your plot. What you gather will build the world in your head and help you to write from a fully developed perspective. If you can’t see and feel what’s happening and where and how and when, how will you describe it to your readers? But that’s not to say that, once you start writing, you’re done. Anytime you hit a snag or uncharted territory or even a writer’s block, do research. I find research inspires me and sends me down paths I hadn’t intended to pursue (but end up being so very glad I did). There you have it. Now go forth and research!

– A Ghost Authors, Erin Grey

Thank you for joining us for this week’s Ghost Authors. Leave us a comment below and tell us what you thought. This week’s guest wrter was Erin Grey. You can follow her on social @erintiffanygrey. Give us some love and share this post if it helped you in your writing. Farewell until next week, and have a happy Monday!

More about guest writer:

Erin Grey pretends to write humour, fantasy, scifi, and historical fiction as a front for her reading and research obsession. She is the errant author of a Channillo series (The Illustrated Diary of Jane Smith and the Voices in her Head – https://channillo.com/series/the-illustrated-diary-of-jane-smith-and-the-voices-in-her-head/) and co-creator of survivorbunny.com, but can most often be found talking nonsense on Twitter with the #WriteFightGifClub and eating lamingtons. Plays well with cats.

Written by: Erin Grey

Edited by: Sarah Robinson

Produced by: Bethany Lord

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