Wednesday, October 3, 2012

45. Five Truths About Researching a Novel

1. All writing requires research. This is as true for fiction as for nonfiction, even if you’re just writing a short story. I was once assigned to write a short story about Jack Frost for a children’s “horror” anthology. All I knew about Jack Frost was that in some mythologies “he” represents winter. Before writing, I spent some time looking up legends of Jack Frost, to get an idea of what “he” might look and act like. I didn’t use much of the material, but it made me more comfortable in my depiction of Jack Frost as a mischievous but dangerous sprite, which made the story easier to write.

                                14963852-whimsical-cartoon-jack-frostJack Frost

2. You must always sweat the small stuff. As a novelist, your job is to make the world your characters live in as believable as possible. For those who write historical or present-day fiction, it’s important to to at least touch on the minutiae of daily life. What do your characters have for breakfast? What are their leisure-time activities? In science fiction, these realistic details make your world more relatable. In my sf novella The Ptorrigan Lode, which takes place on a space station, there was not much room for detail, but I tried as best I could to give a flavor of the clothing (working women wear chadors, while tourists wear revealing street dress) and eating habits (they “dial up” food at home, and also visit restaurants).

3. Every detail must be followed up. In Pandora’s Genes and Pandora’s Children, I gave long, hard thought to what life would be like in a future world with none of the conveniences we take for granted. I did quite a bit of research on medieval life, and even bought a book on “the forgotten crafts.” Since the Pandora’s world has no petroleum products, my characters use “fish-oil” in lamps. I envisioned some sort of mutant fish that were used for this purpose, but neglected to ask myself how these fish were harvested and processed. Was this done by each household, or was there a small industry? I didn’t think of those questions till they were pointed out by an attentive reader. I have since worked out the answers for myself, and will use them in the third book in the series, which I am now writing

4. No research is ever wasted. As a former writer of nonfiction books, I have researched many, many subjects in depth. One of the topics I used to write about is sports, and I’m finding that my in-depth knowledge of American professional sports is coming in handy while writing the Pandora’s sequel. So is my first-hand  knowledge of the “flyover” parts of this country, which I visited many times on cross-country drives and bus trips when I was younger. Which leads me to:

5: Everything is research.