on research


I don’t typically do my research–hm. I’d better start this again. 🙂

I’d been about to say, I don’t typically do my research until after the fact, except that’s wildly untrue. Before I started the Walker Papers, I read every book about shamanism I could get my hands on (and I’m really looking forward to an excuse to buy a few more when I start that series up again in a few weeks! ahahah!). I’ve been an Elizabethan-era buff since I was a little kid, though I’ve got nothing on many of my friends in enthusiasm for the topic. So I do groundwork research before I start, but when I get down to the details…

Well, my manuscripts have a lot of notes in them. Literally: when I’m writing and I can’t, for example, remember what the proper word for the back of a ship is, my manuscript reads, “toward the NOTE: NAME FOR THE BACK OF THE BOAT O.O they went”. Injured a character in a modern-world story? NOTE: LOOK UP HARLEM HOSPITALS. Can’t remember a character’s name? NOTE: FIND OUT HIS NAME AND FOR GOD’S SAKE, CATIE, YOU SHOULD WRITE THIS $#!7 DOWN! I only stop to go find out that it’s called the stern if there’s some reason I can’t continue forward without actually knowing that. There usually isn’t.

I have a friend who–when I’m not working quite as close to the wire as I am now–plays unpaid research assistant. She’ll read my rough drafts and I get emails back full of answers to my NOTES. I’m *desperately* grateful to her for this, and have dreams that someday I’ll be rich enough to make her a paid research assistant. But with my last few books I’ve been tapping into another research resource, which I like to call Livejournal knows all.

It’s amazing what you can ask the internet and get back instantaneous answers on. For HOUSE OF CARDS, I needed, oh, a handful of legal terms that I just didn’t even know enough words about to know where to /start/ looking, much less get the right ones. Turned out there were lawyers and legal aides on my friends list. I needed a high-end fountain pen, the kind that runs to silly expensive. *Lots* of pen buffs on my friends list. I just now needed a couple of translations to Italian and French, and a Latin declamation, and lookit that, one of my friends has a PhD in Latin, which I had no idea until now.

I swear it feels like cheating. I don’t know why (probably because I’m of the last generation to grow up using libraries for research instead of Google, actually, now that I think about it). I mean, it is not in fact cheating to go to people and say, “Hey, you know more than I do about this, can you tell me about it?” That’s precisely what research is. But somehow flinging it out to five hundred people to see if any of them *happen* to know seems like a shortcut somehow.

I *love* it. 🙂 Usually what I get back is a barrage of information that I sift through and … gosh. Use what’s appropriate. Kind of like real research. Or a barrage that at least gives me the right language to use to find what I /am/ looking for.

So today I’ve been running back and forth from my work computer to my ‘net computer, asking questions and getting answers while I’ve been doing revisions on my manuscript. It’s not the most efficient way to do this–usually I don’t address the NOTES until the very last thing before the spell check–but I’m in the revision stages and have been looking things up anyway, so why not. All part of the process. 🙂


6 comments to on research

  • It’s a bit comforting to know that I’m not the only one who leaves herself notes in all CAPS throughout her manuscript. I worry that I’ll forget to fix one someday, and convince my editor I really am nuts.

  • I *have* forgotten (which is why they are now all prefaced with NOTE:, because that way I always have something specific to do a word search on), but my editor apparently didn’t think I was too insane. *I*, however, was humiliated beyond reason. (It was my first book. :))


  • I LOVE it when you guys do the same thigns I do. It makes me feel a lot less alone and a lot more normal.

    I type ZZZ when I have something that needs to be fixed later. And I do XXX if it is something I need to check back on fairly quickly. My own personal NOTE code.

    I have also left notes to my mystery editor. Like this:

    Please note that this scene needs a few post mortem details from my forensic guy, who is in France on vacation for three more weeks. Please ignore the spaces and xxxs.)))))

    She sends me back smiley faces on them.

  • Beatriz

    I used to teach writing to 7th and 8th graders. One of the things I taught them when they were stuck for the right word or detail was to leave themselves a note and we would “fix the small stuff” when we edited it. It was hard enough some days to get them to write; I didn’t want them to get bogged down and loose their interest in the story.

    It’s really neat to me to see that is a trick the pros use!

  • *nodnodnods at Beatriz* And it’s sooooooo easy to go look a word and somehow discover you’ve been online for five hours and the book hasn’t progressed at all… 🙂

  • I guess I’m the outlier on this one. I can’t leave that one word for later or skip over the details of, say, the wheelwright’s shop where the action takes place for one scene. I’d love to, but I can’t seem to get myself to do it. Too compulsive, I guess. It makes it harder for me to write subsequent scenes. Too bad. It would probably make my life a bit easier mid-book.

    I do my research much the same way: lots of books, lots of web searches, and some calling of friends with expertise in a given area. I haven’t tried throwing a question out to LJ or WordPress, but I’m sure I will one of these days. It’s a great idea.