No matter what kind of genre you write in, you will have to do some sort of research. Whether about zombies, or murder, or even downtown Kansas City, you will have to do research.
Back in the old days, before computers, I bought books. I would go to library sales, and garage sales, and scooped up whatever I thought might be relevant to my research. Now, I do 99.9% of my research online. Some authors might say that's cheating, but I don't care. I don't have time to read 3 biographies on Napoleon to know he was a cruel dictator. I don't have time to read Shakespeare's plays to find the right quote. I just don't have the time to read period.
And sometimes, being on the internet is a time suck as well. I can't tell you how many writing hours I killed
with research for THE CAPTAIN'S COINCIDENCE. It was all about ships and boats, and traveling time and knot tying, throw in a little American history as well. Nine months later I had a story. Problem was, when I first started writing this story, there was going to be an abolitionist theme to it. The second time around, I had to delete all that. Some research you just can't use without your story sounding like a 7th grade history project.
And sometimes, for all the research you do, you can't use ANY of it. I once spent 5 hours researching boats/ships looking for the perfect boat for Richard to use. I spoke to a learned sea faring man about it, and he told me I couldn't use any of them. They were either too big, or too small, or wouldn't be able to carry the gun load I wanted. So, I built my own ship. I drew up makeshift blueprints and everything. (Another time suck but well worth it.)
Yes, sometimes you can fudge the research, I've done it on numerous occasions. BUT, there's always truth behind the fudge. In THE DUKE'S DIVORCE I found out that gaining an annulment was harder than getting a divorce. So I tweaked my story to fit the research because Robert was going to get rid of Fiona one way or another.
So, what do we do with the research once we find it?
As I mentioned in previous blog posts, there's Evernote, and Scrivenir, and Google Drive, and let's not forget my favorite "Favorites" on my dashboard. You find something on the internet and just click on the "star" at the top of the page. (On Internet Explorer it's near the little house. On Google the star is at the end of the search bar.) Once you have it "starred" it remains on your "Favorites Bar" until you put it into a "folder". I have almost 50 folders and cannot even tell you how many "pages" I have in those.
Organization is the key here. Folders are labeled according to "stuff". I have --
to name a few
So, if we go back to our series about Susie and Bob, the firefighter and the nurse, where do we start? Well, I would start with what shift Susie was working when Bob was brought in. Second, third? And what unit is she in? Critical care, emergency, surgery? What hospital does she work at? Is it real or imaginary? What town does she live in? Is it real or imaginary. If she works in ICU and Bob comes in with burns, what kind are they? 1st, 2nd, 3rd? What does he need to survive? Who would treat him? Doctor? Burn Specialist? ER doc? What exactly does Susie do for Bob?
Okay, so you can see how this scenario would spiral out of control. However, if you don't know at least a little of what you're talking about, the writing would sound flat. "Bob was rushed into the hospital with burns, and brought right upstairs to the ICU."
"Bob was rushed to St. Barnabas Hospital with second degree burns on his hands and face. His breathing was shallow, sweat dripped into eyes, and he trembled uncontrollably. X-rays could wait. The attending physician in the ER sent him to the ICU without a preliminary exam, and had the nurse call upstairs to the burn unit requesting Dr. Traeger, the burn specialist, to take a look at him. He also had her call the optician on staff to take a look at Bob's eyes. They were unfocused. Could he have burnt his corneas?"
And in the second paragraph, I ask, could he have burnt his corneas? I have no idea. I wrote it out like that, but in keeping it real, I would have to look it up, (or ask somebody) if a firefighter could actually burn his corneas, OR is it retinas? I don't know. Do you? Research. It will make or break your book.
So, in my Favorites Folders, I would have subjects such as
to name a few
Now, once I started writing my story, I will naturally have to do more research. Here is where "real" people are your friends. With the Susie and Bob story, I would get in touch with my local fire department and see if they have someone I could talk to about, not only firefighters, but arsonists. Perhaps the Chief could recommend a retired firefighter to speak with. Same with a nurse. I might know one who could take me around the local hospital to check out how the shifts work, which department handles what, etc. (Because hospitals are pretty much zipped up now, you can't just walk around by yourself. You need a tour guide.)
In speaking with Real People, you need good questions. You don't want to take up their time with nonsensical ruminations -- you shouldn't really play the "what if" game with them. Write your story, do your own research, and then, when you feel you need "more", ask the tougher questions.
One thing I will tell you when you're looking up anything on the internet that has to do with firearms or bombs or arson or murder, will set the spam bots onto you, and if you do too much research in one area, or land on a secure site too many times (like the RN and USN) you might get a letter, or a visit perhaps, from the local constabulary. (My story was a little easier to explain away, I was doing research for a Regency romance and needed the history of both. Hence my need for cannons, weapons, and gunpowder research.)
And research can happen anywhere, not just in libraries, or on the internet. On my vacation this summer, I met a man who played the bagpipes. We talked for maybe 20 minutes about his bagpipe playing skills. Do I need a bagpipe player in any of my stories? Not at this time, no. But perhaps later, I may need to know the exact key one begins playing Amazing Grace. OR how many tubes there are? OR where the wind comes from to make the pipes sing. Or just how much pressure does it take to make the bellows operate?
Everything is research, and sometimes you just don't know it.
I always keep a notebook and good pen in the car. If I'm stuck at a soccer game, doctor's appointment, whatever, and there's 45 minutes to kill, I'll whip out the notebook. I won't necessarily write, but I will take notes, make up names for characters, places, perhaps eavesdrop on a conversation and jot it down if it works within my story. I'll flesh out a plot, or write down a character sketch. I'll play the what-if game.
If I'm at home and have 45 minutes to kill before I have to go somewhere or do something, I'll get on the computer and search for characters (remember I'm a "visual" creator) on Pinterest or IMBD (the movie site) or go to ReMax and search for houses and neighborhoods, use Google Maps to look at a city.
I love Google maps because not only do I have correct street information, I also have the "street view". For instance, yesterday, I needed to find another parish in London besides St. James. I plugged St. James's Parish into London, got the map, and then moved my cursor until I found another smaller parish in Grosvenor Square. I looked at the street map of the church (after looking it up on Wikipedia to make sure it was in use in 1812). The church looked exactly as it had in 1812, right along with the neighborhood and street corners. Now I can write my wedding scene using the visual of the church, and not have to worry about where the horses will stand, or how the bride and groom will exit the church.
Another example -- Everyone knows Hyde Park in London. Then there is also Regent's Park. Did you know that Regent's Park wasn't there until after 1812. It was called Marylebone Park.Yes, it is sort of a no-brainer, George wasn't named Regent until 1812, but I did not know that it was called Marylebone Park, and that its history went back over 400 years and that it belonged to the Monarchy as a hunting ground. Did you know that?
Of course, we all do research our own way. Some people research at the beginning. Some after the first draft. Some not until the book is finished. It all depends on how you work. There is no right or wrong way. However, what you need to know, is that research is crucial for every story and you will have to do some.
Next week -- Mash-up of Marketing and Publishing. Hope to see you.
Anne Gallagher (c) 2014