Research and the Writer

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Under the heading of “Careful What You Wish For . . .”:

Fifteen years ago I was at a professional crossroads.  I’d recently completed my doctorate in history and had job applications pending at a number of colleges and universities.  I had also started work on the novel that would become Children of Amarid.  Within a span of 24 hours, I received a job offer at an excellent university out West to teach U.S. environmental history (my specialty) and a call from an editor at Tor Books asking me if I was still interested in becoming a published author (“Ummmm . . . yes, please.”)  I chose writing, in part because I realized that I didn’t love historical research enough to make a career of it.  I just wanted to write fiction.  I am reminded of an old saying:  “Men plan; God laughs.”

I have just sold a new series to Tor Books.  It’s historical fantasy, and I have a great deal of research to do.  So I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk a bit about the research writers do to prepare themselves to write a book or series.  I have no doubt that my fellow MWers will have lots to add to what I have to say.

To me, research is not at all dissimilar to worldbuilding.  Both are intended to give shape and texture to the world in which your characters live, both help to set the voice and tone for the books, both give context and weight to the narrative.  And both are incredibly time-consuming endeavors that can suck us in and keep us from ever turning to the actual writing of our books.  What is the right amount of research?  How much is too much, or, put another way, how do we know when to stop?  I posted here about worldbuilding not that long ago (see the link at the top of this paragraph) and at the time made the same comparison.  Much of what I said about worldbuilding applies to research, too.  As authors, we learn as much as we can about the place and time in which we intend to set our books, not so that we can share every detail with our readers, but rather so that we don’t have to.  As has been stated here before, we need to use the iceberg principle:  We show our readers what they need to know, while merely hinting at the background lurking beneath the surface.  I’ll be setting my new series in pre-Revolutionary Boston.  I could spend pages upon pages telling my readers about the political, economic, and social phenomena of that time, but they probably didn’t buy the book for a history lesson.  They bought it for a story.  So I’ll spare them the extensive discourse, but I’ll put in small details — references to historical figures and events, descriptive particulars about the streets of Boston or the interior of someone’s home — that will bring the period to life without detracting from the narrative.

In doing my research, I have to familiarize myself with all those details, and also with the broader historical context that makes them relevant.  I need to learn enough that I feel as comfortable with Colonial Boston as I would with a world of my own creation.  That, of course, is a very vague answer to the “How much is enough?” question, but the truth is, as with so much else that we discuss here at MW, there is no one right answer.  Everyone’s comfort level is different.   The key for me — and this is going to sound terrible — is to do as little research as possible to feel that I know enough.  This isn’t to say that I’m trying to cut corners or get away with being lazy.  Quite the opposite:  Both in terms of research and worldbuilding, my comfort threshold is pretty high.  But my highest priority is to finish my research and get to the writing.  As soon as my research begins to eat in to my creative time, I’m undermining what should be my main goal:  Writing a story.  There may be details that I have to go back and fill in as I write, but initially I want to learn enough to feel confident with the setting, to be able to see and hear and feel it in my mind.

What sources am I using?  History books recommended to me by a professor at the University here in town, and a number of books that I remember and still have from my days as a history grad student.  I also have found several books on the topography of the city, a collection of period maps, and some biographies of key historical figures.  These last are particularly valuable sources, as they tend to include information on day to day life — products found in a typical home, types of food people ate, distances traveled in a typical day — that are often absent from historical monographs.  I use the web for certain things, but try to keep that to a minimum, since web sources can be unreliable.  There are also historical societies for nearly all of America’s big cities.  These tend to be terrific sources, as they are run by committed professionals and have access to artifacts that other sources lack.

I will post more about this process as I go along, and, as I said before, I imagine my fellow writers here at MW will have hints and ideas to share, too.  But for me the most important things to remember are these:  1)Research, like worldbuilding, is crucial to lending a sense of place and time to our writing.  2) Research should never become a hindrance to the actual writing of our books.  Do too little and we can go back and fill in gaps as we write; do too much and we will eat into our writing time and might start missing deadlines.  3) Despite my desire fifteen years ago to write fiction rather than do research, this is fun stuff.  It is a chance to discover and learn, even as we improve our storytelling.

David. B. Coe
http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net


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20 comments to Research and the Writer

  • Congrats on the sale, David! If you need any ‘boots on the ground’ corroboration, I live just outside of Boston.

  • Great post, David, and congrats on the new series. It’s fascinating to me that you skipped out on academia to write fiction and then came back to the “academic” discipline of research since I rather did the opposite: committed to being an academic and taking well over a decade to have any success as a fiction writer. It is, as they say (usually in a bad cockney accent) a funny old world.

    I think your idea of research paralleling world building is right on the money and I commend your commitment to doing just enough. I really struggle with this (perhaps because I strayed down the academic path all those years ago) and tend to to over research. I then have to fight the impulse (not always successfully) to cram everything I’ve learned into the story. Your methodology is much healthier.

    Some day I hope you’ll let us in on the logic behind releasing your new series under a different name, something I’ve also been wrestling with.

    Thanks

    AJH

  • Congratulations! Can’t wait to read to new work (though I know I have to).

    As for research, one thing I find works well is to remember that (at least, for me) the research doesn’t stop when I start writing. Like you, I want to get to the writing part as soon as possible. So I research what I need to get started. But I keep reading pertinent material all throughout the writing process. Sometimes, particularly with biographical material, things I learn can alter a character’s path in magnificent ways. Also, if there’s a scene I know is coming in 100 pages, I don’t need to research that in order to start writing, so I’ll save that for later. Just like writing itself, research is something that can be paced throughout.

  • Beatriz

    Looking forward to savoring the new series, David, and seeing how your research has paid off.

  • Research is a crucial component of worldbuilding for me. Even if it’s a world entirely of my own creation, there’s going to be something I need to know, whether basic facts about life at that technological level, or how people respond to similar circumstances (reading about World War II to understand the “feel” of an occupied city, for example).

    There’s a quote I can’t quite track down to the effect that if you get the rabbits right the reader will believe the dragons. Anyone know who said it and the correct version? I thought it might have been Tolkien, but can’t relocate it. Anyway, I completely agree – the little details have to be as correct as possible, to lull the reader into believing the fantastic ones. I’m reading a popular YA novel by a big-name author, and while the worldbuilding is wonderfully creative, there’s a basic error of fact that the author repeats several times, and while it doesn’t matter, it’s driving me nuts! Research!

  • Deb Smythe

    David, congrats on the new series. More books to add to my TBR pile. Not that I’m complaining!

  • Liz

    Dear David – massive congrats on the new sale to Tor. I saw it mentioned on Publishers Marketplace but didn’t want to be rude and email you outside of the blog!

    Really excited for you.

    Also, as for the research, I have found that I love doing research and did a lot for my MG novel I had finished earlier this year. My beta readers have fortunately said that the research shows only slightly as I’m introducing foreign cultures and places to young readers, so I needed to be entertaining and interesting but not dull. It is a difficult balance but one I enjoyed investing time in.

  • Congratulations on the sale, David. 😀

    I agree about limited Internet research. I’m all about going to the library and other “real life” resources because they’re so much more accurate. Great post. 😀

  • >>And both are incredibly time-consuming endeavors that can suck us in and keep us from ever turning to the actual writing of our books. >>

    David, I love love love the research part of any book. Unfortunately, I often end up living the research. (See the 9 kayaks [for every kind of water] in the basement. The breadmaker. The remains of the extensive herb garden from 10 years ago. A fortune in jewelry-making supplies.)

    Have fun with it all, and don’t forget the medical and surgical and burial practices of the time for your new series. Always my favorite! (Yes, I know. It’s the medical background. Sorry.)

  • Wow. I’m away from the computer for a couple of hours and the comments just start piling up. Sorry for the delay in responding.

    Lisa, thanks very much for the good wishes and offer of help. I may well take you up on it. I’ll make a trip up your way, but even if I’m there for several days I’m bound to miss something.

    AJ, I’m not sure the way I did it — leaving academia and then coming back to the research thing so many years later — in the best approach. I feel like I’m working muscles that have been allowed to atrophy for too long. I suppose I’ll get the hang of it again eventually, but right now it’s harder than I remember. And I’m hoping that will keep me from overdoing it. At root I’m pretty lazy, and so the “do as little as I need” approach works well for me…

    Stuart, I like the idea of keeping up the reading after I’ve started writing — that would be a nice way to keep myself steeped in the period. Thanks. I do like to have things set up a bit before I begin to write, so knowing that around page 250 I’ll need to know x, y, and z, means that I’ll probably research those things now rather than later. Once I start writing, I do better if I don’t have to take time out to hit the books again.

    Thank you, B. I’ll be interested to see how this one turns out myself….

    Phiala, I agree with you — when I’m worldbuilding I do a fair amount of research, too, so that I can get those little details right. But this is the first time I’ve tried to do something as steeped in history as this. I also agree with you that a recurring error like the one you describe can ruin a story for me. I think a lot of us are that way, which makes me feel that much more pressure to get it right.

    Thanks, Deb. Fortunately, these books won’t be cluttering up your TBR pile for some time yet. But I hope you enjoy them when they come out.

    Liz, I appreciate the congrats, though such an email wouldn’t have been rude at all. Thanks for thinking of me. That is the balance: keeping the story moving so that it’s entertaining, while also lending authenticity to your background work. It’s a challenge, but it’s also fun, and again, not all that different from balancing narrative and the introduction of an imagined world.

    Tyhitia, thank you. And yes, beware the internet. There are some great resources to be found online. But I feel more comfortable with history books, particularly those by authors whose work I read during my academic days.

    Faith, I expect that I’ll quickly be sucked in by this research. I don’t know if I’ll be buying boats, but I was looking at Boston maps the other day and found a framed version of one that is from the perfect period and immediately thought, “That would look great in my office….” Actually, I desperately need just the kind of medical/forensic information you mention. Any sense of where I’d find it?

  • David, It’s a dirty little secret — yes, my secret love — the history of (and current developments in) medicine.

    While once-upon-a-time I’d never go to the internet for medical info on *anything*, with Yale U (and a very few other sites), I now make major exceptions.

    http://www.med.yale.edu/library/historical/
    is where I’d start. They are currently in a program to scan old medical books and make them available online. For info on it, go to this page on the site:
    http://www.med.yale.edu/library/historical/siderits.htm

    Then there’s the National Library of Medicine, historical section:
    http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/collections/books/index.html
    They also have films and videos. I know you have access to universities in your area, so you could get the local U. library to request most anything on loan and study it locally. Lots of U.s do this.

    Tons more info (and a MD. contact at St. Mary’s in Knoxville) if you need a human to ask questions.

  • Big congrats on the sale! Ever since you first mentioned that series as a possibility I wanted to read it. Sounds awesome.

    A part of me likes learning all the new things I need while researching and another part just wants to get it over with and wishes I could just touch the book and just immediately absorb the knowledge so I can move on. I had a LOT of research I had to do for the RPG pirate supplement I did (still hoping for it to see the light of day…) and it was fun, but also very time consuming. Writing for an RPG is a bit different than a novel. The more I researched, the more I found that seemed essential to add for completeness of the rules. One of the fun bits of research, though I couldn’t find a whole lot at the library and had to go to the websites of actual practitioners, was Vodou.

    Heck, even books have their hazards. I pulled info from a book on piracy and later some other guy/researcher, basically said he didn’t care for that book and thought the guy who wrote it wasn’t very reliable. Urk…

    I tell people that I now know more about the Age of Sail than anyone who hasn’t gone to school for it should have to. 😉

  • Thanks for the links, Faith. I’ll start looking into them. I can totally understand your fascination with this stuff.

    Thanks, Daniel. I hope the books come out as good as they sound. There is that tension on the research thing. On the one hand I do enjoy aspects of it, and getting to work those cool little details into a scene is great fun. But it’s time-consuming, and there is always the danger of getting things wrong. But by the end of this I will know a good deal about Colonial Boston.

  • Tiffany

    David- I can helo with the medical stuff. Ask Faith about my platform:)

  • Sarah

    David, your books really disprove the idea that “too much” research and planning kill creativity and momentum. A bunch of my students are doing NaNoWriMo and while i appreciate the good things about it, the more I hear, the more I think it’s a recipe for bad writing. Even accepting that first drafts are crap (mine certainly are) I find that I can’t sustain an idea if I don’t think it through first. Even a long short story, for me, needs some plotting. More power to the pantsers who make it work, but I’m really disliking what I hear from NaNoWriMo that discourages the plotters among us.

  • Thanks, Tiffany. I appreciate the offer and may well be calling on you at some point.

    Sarah, that’s very nice of you to say. As for NaNo, I’ve never tried it, in part because of the sprint aspects of it. Like you, I like to take my writing more slowly. I polish as I write, I plan things out ahead of time and do a lot of plot tweaking along the way. I admire those who do the NaNo thing and are so productive, but I don’t think it meshes well with my creative process.

  • I am a research hound! I love research. It gets me in trouble. I tend to spend too much time researching and forget to work on the actual book! I am an anthropology major, though. I think it runs in our blood :)

    Jen

  • Right, Jen. That’s the danger. The whole “this-is-so-much-fun-I-can’t-stop” thing. Research is important, but writing pays the bills….

  • Interesting article, David. Research into fiction books, I beleive, needs to be enough to lend credibility to characters, their behaviour and the environment; but we can all get caught out. For example, my recently published book, Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings, is the first book in a fantasy adventure trilogy. It contains characters who have command over magic so, to make that whole thing credible, I read several books on witchraft and ‘the old crafts’ and, while I was in Boston, visited Salem. I think, I got a good feel for making the main hero a credible ‘magician’ able to ‘manipulate’ natural forces. I was proud of myself as I received the first copy of the published book and received much positive feedback, reflecting this and other research I had completed to make the whole thing work well.

    The book is set in a medieval environment and the main character starts life as a humble wandering minstrel tavelling the road with his lute and piccolo. My father-in-law is a professional musician, particularly interested in historical music, and is arranging the songs in the book so we can issue a CD for readers who may wish to actually hear them sung. As he was starting work on this he told me that, while he had had enjoyed the book, their was one small point – the lute was not around in medieval times.

    I, like most people, thought that all medieval wandering minstrels played lutes. The inacurracy doesn’t detract from the story in any way (as most people are not music historians), but it does put a perspective on the interesting question you raise of ‘How much research is enough?’

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings

  • Interesting, Chris. Sounds like a fun book. Your father-in-law is mistaken, however. Lutes were first played by the Mesopotamians more than 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, and were introduced to Europe, specifically Spain, by invaders from the Middle East beginning in the 8th century.