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Monday, February 29, 2016

How to do Research for Your Novel

Kerstin said: Hi, I recently stumbled over your blog when I was researching dieselpunk for our online rpg and not only did it answer my question, it also revived my buried passion for writing. Well done! 

But that also revived the old problem I always had when I sat down to put pen to paper: 

How do you do research for your story? 

I don't mean mere facts - we all know how to google. I'm talking of the little details in the setting and interactions of the characters that make the world you create "real."

. . . Say I want to write a sci-fi story that plays on a space station. The closest real world example could be an oil-platform, but to the average writer it's as exotic and unapproachable as the space-station itself. If you want to write something in a milieu that has nothing to do with your own life, how do you research that, especially when you're not an established author that can ask for interviews or an "externship"? 

Glad my blog was helpful and revived your writing passion! Yay!

Finding Exactly What You Need

Yes, a problem that many writers face. While Google might not pull up all the real details we are looking for (the kind that you can only know if you've experienced it), the internet can help lead you to people who do have the experience. One site I like, Jobstr (not to be confused with Jobster), centers on people being able to ask others questions about their jobs. They have private detectives on their site, police officers, referees, forensic scientists, magicians, gynecologists, flirting/relationship coaches and the list goes on. Sometimes doing research can be as easy as going on this site and asking them questions.

For places and methods on how to do things, Youtube can sometimes be a great source. People make videos on almost everything. Actually, I'm surprised about the kinds of things people do make videos of. The other day I was trying to figure out how to use a carpet shampooer that's decades old. I Googled it, and while I found the owner's manual, I went to a Youtube video instead. It was easy, simpler, and I was able to get personal insight from a person instead of text that sounded like it was written by a soulless robot. I have a character who has a hobby of breaking into places and things. I've learned quite a bit about bump keys and how to make and use them off Youtube. Of course, you have to be careful, just because it's on the internet and has a lot of views doesn't mean it's the most accurate or best way to do it.

For places, you can sometimes find vlogs. With these sorts of details, I feel like you are looking for the personal tidbits and insights--not the type of stuff you'd find in an encyclopedia. So personal videos, like vlogs, or even personal blogs, can be sources to get details like that. If you can't find exactly what you are looking for, you might be able to find someone who would know, and with social media and the internet, hopefully you can connect with them. You might not have a family who has served in the military, but chances are, you can find a family who has.

New York Times bestselling author, Brandon Sanderson, has an expert on poisons, remedies, and medicines (or things of the sort) that he regularly contacts when he needs help with them in his high-fantasy books. It's true, he's a very established writer, but you might be surprised who is willing to answer your questions about a topic they love or have spent years studying. (Sometimes the trick is to get them to stop answering.) With that said, it's also true that some experts, if you are looking for a very specific one, are unreachable. Then you have to settle for the next best person.

When You Can't Find the Exact Thing You Need

But maybe the details you are looking for are even more evasive. Maybe it is a place that next to no one can go, or a job that people aren't allowed to talk about. My recommendation is to try to find the closest thing you can. And don't forget, your job as a writer is often to make things up. Often that means just making them realistic enough. "God is in the details," they say. So try to imagine the firsthand details. Appeal to the senses--sight, smell, touch, taste, sound--that's often a great way to ground the reader and make whatever is happening in the story feel real.

Little Side Note: Sometimes you don't need to make anything up if you can get the personal details you are looking for. One writer said he was trying to figure out how to get the dialogue right for some characters (let's say they were truck drivers--I can't remember what it was), so he went to a truck stop and just eavesdropped on truckers for a while. Instead of trying to write new dialogue like them, he just used their actual dialogue. The result? Readers raved about how realistic the dialogue was. The author laughed because he basically wrote it word for word from real truck drivers.

When You Can't Find What You Need

If you really can't find what you are looking for, try looking for other novels that write about the same thing and see how they did it, how they handled it. You can learn from their examples. No one has personal experience with cryosleep. And yet the term is common knowledge and universal in the science fiction world, and writers still make it seem very real. We've never terraformed a planet, but dang, there are some convincing "firsthand" experiences from fictional characters. One trick to making these things realistic is to use comparisons--similes and metaphors--that the reader can relate to. "The walker moved in a swaying motion. It was more like riding an elephant than a tank." Comparisons can go a long way to making something feel very real in writing. Sometimes, you might have to resort to bluffing or BSing your way through it (which is actually acceptable if you don't have other options and you aren't just doing it because you are being lazy and you do it well). Again, remember to appeal to the senses. Your job is to make things up. It just needs to be realistic enough.

Reversing the Process: Pulling from Your Experiences, First

 While you brought up writing in milieus that have nothing to do with your own life, you can make even those milieus seem more realistic by pulling from your own experiences. One thing I love about The Hunger Games is how Suzanne Collins (who has obviously never lived in a place like Panem or been through the Hunger Games herself) clearly pulled from her own experiences to make her world. Her dad often talked to her about war and war tactics. Her mom was into fashion and taught her about the fashion world. Suzanne Collins worked in the t.v. industry before she ever penned novels. She pulled all those odds and ends into the milieu--she worked what she did know into that milieu, and it made it very real.

Okay, I've been pulling a lot from science fiction, but this can apply to other genres too. What if your setting is in a different century in Asia? If you've studied martial arts, chances are you can pull firsthand experiences and knowledge you have about martial arts into your story, to give your story that touch of insider's knowledge. So you can think about what you do know and what you have experienced and try working it into the story. That's a different angle to come at the story, but it's an option.

Be as Accurate as Possible, but Don't let Inaccuracies Stop You

One thing that I want to point out though is that I believe it's better to write a story that has some "insider" errors than it is to not write a story at all. I've seen movies where the character is playing the guitar and their fingers don't match the music--or at least that's what my brother tells me. It bugs him because he's a guitarist. But that little error doesn't stop me from enjoying a good story. Sure, the filmmakers should have just had a stand-in guitarist, or cut the scenes in a way that it wasn't noticeable; they could have fixed it. (And frankly, sometimes you need to just "cut the scenes" differently to get away with it even in fiction writing.) But I still left the movie feeling good inside.

One of my favorite bands, Muse, has a song that has some sciencey lyrics in it, and someone (my brother again--guess he notices these things) pointed out to me that the science was wrong. We laughed for a second, but moved on. Muse is still one of our favorite bands, and we both still listen to that song. Basically, what I'm saying is, we should all do the best we can, but even then, there are going to be things from time to time that we get wrong. Don't let it stop you from telling a great story. Chances are that the worth of the story and what it does for you and others outweighs any little "insider" errors.

So those are my thoughts on the topic. I hope they help or at least give some direction. But I'll be honest, most of the settings I've dealt with haven't been too extravagant, so I actually asked some other writers who have more experience than me on it so they could give us their advice:

More Advice

I would look for personal narratives or memoirs from people in those fields. My debut is set in 19th C. Hungary, and one of the best resources was 19th century travel narratives, published by British travelers through Europe. - Rosalyn Collings Eves, (The Blood Rose Rebellion)

Read other books that do it well. Don't knock google either. You can find snippets of blogs, journals, and more of people who have been where you want to write from. Talk to people who live in a similar world. Imagine yourself in the environment and how you would interact. Watch documentaries and films that are acclaimed for getting things close to reality. - Charlie Pulsipher,(Zombies at the Door, Crystal Bridge)

I've found websites for enthusiasts of things, like 18th century warships, and have emailed or even facebooked them with technical questions. I think people actually love being able to share their expertise with outsiders! And then, there are always small things you can do to give you a feel for bigger things. For instance, I went deep sea salmon fishing to help get a feel for what it's like to be on a small ship in the ocean, and did a weekend of SCUBA because I have some underwater scenes. YouTube is also an awesome resource where you can get lots of opinions and viewpoints on all sorts of things, and often raw footage with the sights and sounds as well. - Christine Tyler

Two suggestions I use come to mind: street view in Google Maps and travel podcasts.

Street view allows me to visit cities I can't afford to travel to. I've wandered Dublin, Ireland and Ronda, Spain, each time getting a flavor for the locations and people on the streets.

Tourism podcasts are helpful too. Not only for information, but speech patterns. Sometimes you can even find local interest podcasts on politics or cultural heritage. Tourism websites can even mail you brochures and maps for your areas of interest. - Tony Dutson

In writing the Setting Thesaurus books, Becca and I tried to visit each location we profiled to make sure we got the smells and sounds right, along with the terminology, but there were some we couldn't access for one reason or another (a funeral home--asking for a tour of their embalming facilities and crematorium? um...no. A Psychiatric ward? They aren't big on letting people see inside those. A submarine and tank just wasn't doable for either of us (but I did check out a military helicopter).

In these cases, we found you tube videos to be very helpful. There are walkthroughs and tutorials on just about anything. (I have the unfortunate life skill now to actually process a roadkill squirrel after watching a few videos on taxidermy for that setting, LOL.) For some settings, we then also sourced experts. For my ambulance entry, I had a paramedic go over my content for the book because I wanted to make sure I'd gotten the terminology right and I was able to ask about if there are smells or tastes associated with the oxygen mask, a detail I can't get from a video. For the police car entry, I was pranked by relatives who knew I needed the details and falsely arrested so I could get the "real experience." Anyway, the point is, think creatively about locations that might be like your sci-fi locations (jobs that are similar, people who would have similar "real life" roles as those on your spaceship or space station, things like that) and then find people who do these jobs/have these roles, or search them on google. You can also find experts through twitter too. - Angela Ackerman, (The Emotion Thesaurus)

And there you have it. Good luck!


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