In the name of research


I was never much into research when I was in high school or college.  Mostly I found it boring but also it was just kind of a pain.  Besides, I was never really in any courses that required tons and tons of research so I more or less got away without having to do much.  That is, until I went to law school.  Even then my research was half-hearted at best and it wasn’t until I started practicing law that I realized how research is pretty much what can make or break a case.

I’m not saying I fell in love with research at that point, but I did recognize the necessity of it and found that it’s a pretty great feeling when you come across the most perfect case or piece of law that’s going to make the other side pay for the hours they’ve made you slave over WestLaw.

And then over the past summer I was at a reading with Holly Black where we both talked about research for our books.  Holly told the story of having a friend drive her around in the trunk of a car so she could know what it was like and I told the story of setting fire to sheets of ice to see how it melted (unfortunately the fruits of that scene were cut from the book) and how I’ve made my husband run around at night under the full moon so I can figure out just how much detail I’m able to see.

I realized as I was talking, just how much I actually LOVE doing research for my books.  Because here’s the thing — most of it doesn’t feel like research at all.  I get to watch zombie movies and read zombie books and play zombie games.  I get to have long conversations with biologists and doctors about the theory of zombies and chat with forest fire fighters about how fire spreads, the heat at which a metal fence would be destroyed, what that forest would look like decades later.  I get to figure out how light bulbs are made to determine whether the people in my fictional world would have the proper supplies and go through the effort.  I even got to speak to a pandemic expert with the CDC about how a disease could spread globally and the effect that would have on commerce, governments, travel, etc.

I’d spent so much time equating research with boring that I never realized how fun and awesome it can be!  My friend, Diana Peterfreund, sat in a tree blind with a world-class archer to understand what her characters were going through in her killer unicorn books Rampant and Ascendant — how awesome is that?!

Sure, maybe there are some details that are dull and that perhaps I could fudge and no one would notice (I spent quite a while compiling lunar charts for The Dead-Tossed Waves since so much of it takes place at night and I wanted to make sure it could happen the way I wanted with the moon cycle and tides).   But I’m already asking my readers to suspend their disbelief and believe zombies are possible so I feel a duty that everything else in my world is as realistic as possible.

Besides, I know from my own reading experience that once you discover an author has fudged the details — not the truly miniscule things, but larger things that could be figured out with a modicum of research — you start to lose faith in the rest of their world.   You start to question everything and sometimes you stop trusting what you read.

Goodness knows I shouldn’t be judgmental on the issue of research — I’m sure that even with my best efforts I’ve gotten things wrong in my books.  Sometimes the pressure of deadlines makes difficult to take the time to do research or it doesn’t even occur to me to research a particular detail because I’ve just assumed my entire life that it’s one way and not another.

But I do feel like I’ve maybe figured something out and that’s this: if what you’re researching feels like a chore most of the time, maybe you’re writing the wrong book.  I’ve found that if I’m writing the right book (one that excites me) I can’t wait to research — I can’t wait to figure out how to incorporate the neat little details and I love it when a bit of research totally spins my ideas in new and exciting directions.

Some research is always going to be boring and I’m not saying we have to love those parts, but not loving it doesn’t mean we don’t have to do it and if we have to do it anyway, we might as well try to research things that interest us.

And if you want to, why not share something fun and interesting you’ve learned doing research for a book in the comments — I find it’s always useful to have some random tidbits to pull out during the holiday work parties.


12 comments to In the name of research

  • I have a love-hate relationship with research. Often I have to do research with the “I must find everything ever said about ‘x’ poem…” which irritates me.

    But, one of my WIPs is based, a little anyway, on medieval romances, and I’m teaching a course on those this semester, and so rereading all of these things has been a kind of research and SO MUCH fun! I read something and think “ooh! That detail is perfect!” And we even pulled the title for the work from medieval stuff, including medieval languages. Our character names sometimes come from Anglo-Saxon English–that kind of stuff I find fun.

    On the other hand, when I set another WIP in the town I live in, figuring out directions to places, while very important, was tedious and frustrating! 🙂

  • Carrie, what a fun post! Unlike you, I always loved research in school, and to this day can get lost in research to the detriment of the writing. Of course, as you said, it’s a *lot* easier to love it when it’s for your passion.

    The fun things I’ve learned along the way… Hmmm. Misty got me involed in belly-dance lessons for 18 months, which I adored. While *researching* it, I discovered that I actually abs. Mountain lion life, mating habits, territory, diet, etc. gave me a passion for big-cats. I learned that they’ll play like housecats. Researching the worldwide mythology of the seraphim taught me that all ancient peoples believed in humanoid beings with the power of flight. White water kayking became a lifestyle and passion. And while researching the Jane Yellowrock books, I learned I’m a really good shot. But I don’t really like guns.

  • Mikaela

    One of the coolest thing that have happend to me was when I got the Idea for Magi CIS. I scribbled down the opening idea. In opening scene the MC’s grandmother is killed by a shadow. Afterward, I thought: What if something like that actually existed. I decided that I wanted to use Native American mythology. I browsed Sacred Texts. And found this :
    Of all the Cherokee wizards or witches the most dreaded is the Raven Mocker (Kâ’lanû Ahkyeli’skï), the one that robs the dying man of life. They are of either sex and there is no sure way to know one, though they usually look withered and old, because they have added so many lives to their own.

    Jackpot! 😀 Of course, I will modify it a bit, but. I am very, very happy.

  • I can really get into the research. For a survival tale I wrote long ago, I had to learn so much — filtering water through clothes, different ways to trap animals for food, ways to create heat, ways to create cold storage, etc, etc. It was a blast.

  • I did a LOT of research for the Pirate supplement I wrote for an RPG company. The Vodou was the hardest to research because it was difficult to find decent sources of reliable info from real practitioners of Vodou (not voodoo or hoodoo). I wanted the real religion. I eventually found it, but it took a while. I think I’m most proud of the info showcased in that chapter of the book. It was fun to research for the book, though horribly time consuming, and I like to say that I know far more about pirates now than anyone who isn’t a historian really needs to know. 😉

    Since starting to write sci-fi I’ve learned quite a few facts that Hollywood likes to get wrong because it looks kewl on film. A big one comes to mind, which is bloating bodies and exploding eyeballs in space. It’s a myth. Astronauts say that if you breathe out and hold before you go into the vacuum of space you can actually survive it for a short period, about as long as you can keep holding your breath without passing out, assuredly, but long enough to get from one airlock to another if they’re close. One astronaut said, “expect to fart a lot.” 😉 You’ll actually asphyxiate and then freeze long before a human body bloats up or explodes. We’re sort of durable like that.

  • I’ve told this story before, but I once asked my husband to jump off the roof of our SUV and roll to a standing position so I could see how it looked. Bless him, he did it three or four times for me. I use my husband and son to block fight scenes, so I can be certain I’m not writing my characters into positions that would require three arms or two left legs to achieve. They love it, so everyone’s happy!

    But that’s not really research, is it? I’m like you – I hated book research and note-taking and all back in school, but I think that was because I was having to learn about subjects I didn’t really care about. Nowadays I like it, because I have to read books about pirates and cowboys and such. Before Mad Kestrel came out, I took a pirate tour of Charleston SC, which was great fun. I didn’t learn anything new, but I was able to get a flavor for the bays and the houses connected to the pirates of the Golden Age, and that helped.

  • Young_Writer

    When you do it for a book, and I know I’m being corny, it feels more like a mission than a task. It’s pretty fun. But research for school papers is another thing entirely…

  • My biggest problem with research is that sometimes I get to enjoying the reading part of the research so much it just turns into recreational reading. I’ll read a whole lot more about some stuff that I need to, getting totally lost in it. Not the most prodctive way to spend an afternoon, but damn enjoyable.

  • I thought I’d done enough research for my first manuscript, an epic fantasy, but about 75% through I realised I had a civil war going on but didn’t really understand why it happened, what the political and social reasons for it were!
    So I got to research about actual civil wars of the medieval period and found much inspiration from the trouble England had during the first and second baron’s war and the creation of the magna carta. I spent days reading through what was going on and it was fascinating. Then I remembered I was supposed to be coming up with some solutions for my story so I boiled it down and came up with a motivation for my own civil war: The King didn’t stop the church from taking land off the nobility. Rather than fight the church and risk falling out with God the nobility took task to the king. Hooray. It also means I’m going to end the war, not with a big battle and heroic sword fights but with the signing of a document and an alteration and limitation of the monarchy’s power and the church’s. I think that will be way cooler than just another dumb big seven army battle. I know it doesn’t sound cool, but I’m hoping it resonates more with people because of the allusion to the declaration of independence, magna carta, armistice, the federation of Australia and the potsdam agreement (world war 2 slice and dice in Europe).
    The research made me dead keen to write an historical fantasy set between wwI and wwII.

  • Unicorn

    Research is a lot of fun for me. I have always loved mythology and history and research for writing gives me one more excuse to study it. Often, though, I like a different kind of research; watching nature. My stories include a lot of magical creatures and watching the “real” creatures gives me an idea of how the magical ones would move and act – a hawk should fly something like a phoenix, a werewolf move something like a big dog. Names also hold great fascination for me and researching their meanings and origins helps me to pick the right name for a character/place. Of course, all this makes me really prone to dumping great big lumps of info into my narrative. Not good.
    Scion, I tried to write a historical fantasy about the Battle of Hastings once. It was a fun story but the Normans lost. 🙂 Have fun with yours.

  • It’s funny: When I was doing history research for my Ph.D. I kind of hated it (which is how I wound up writing fantasy…) But I’ve loved doing history research for the Thieftaker books, and it’s not because the research itself is that different. I think I’m enjoying it more because it’s feeding something creative rather than something scholarly. I’m finding ways to meld the facts I’m studying with the story I’m writing, and when that stuff works, it’s just too cool.

  • Sarah

    Research is one big reason I don’t write historical fiction. Blessings on those who can write it well, but I get so bogged down in nitpicky historical details and, worse, the question of accurate historical mentalities that the story just grinds to a halt. I either follow so many bunny trails of interesting information that I lose my own thread or the writing becomes dull, dull, dull, more a catalogue of facts than an actual story. And so many historical eras just look repulsive if you examine their lived reality too closely.

    On the other hand, I love stealing mythologies and archetypal stories. That kind of research I can do.