Greetings! My apologies for being a little late in this entry; my computer broke last week and I have just now procured access to another. But did my technical difficulties prevent me from writing? No, sir/ma’am! Not only did I write short scenes in a notebook I keep handy at all times, but I took the opportunity to perform some much-needed research on my latest novel. That brings us to this week’s topic, research!
My current project is a young adult book set during America’s First Great Awakening (1738-1742.) While fictional, it incorporates many of the famous people and events of the day, including Jonathan Edwards and his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (This sermon is often taken out of context, by the way, from the rest of his writings, which tend to be pastoral and encouraging.) “My project’s nothing like that,” you may say. “My story’s a romance novel set in the here and now.” I don’t care what story you’re writing, every writer must do some kind of research. This may come from personal experience, being a careful observer of people (the best way to create believable characters) or reading you simply do for fun. (We tend to write best what we love to read.) But nobody can write well while living in a box, totally unexposed to anything outside themselves. There are many different ways to go about research and I will hitherto outline some of those that I and my fellow writer friends have found useful in the past, depending on the project.
Book research: The most obvious, and one in which every writer must partake. One of the first steps I take before even writing a word of a new novel is to find out what other books are out there that are similar to my idea and read them. What’s been done before? What works/what doesn’t? What angle hasn’t been tackled yet? Some people think this dilutes your idea, makes it less “authentic,” but do you think Michelangelo became a great sculpture by simply hacking away at a bare rock? He studied the work of other great sculptors and set about making something that had never been created before, yet he knew was likely to be widely popular. Abraham Lincoln, though not well educated, read everything he could get his hands on, and learned to write such great speeches from the plays of William Shakespeare. You should be familiar with the genre you write in and your audience. (We’ll get more into audience and market research in a later entry.) And of course, many kinds of fiction works including science fiction, fantasy, historical and mystery, lend themselves to certain amounts of specific research into popular science, folklore, weapons/armor, investigative/courtroom procedure, etc. If you’re writing a historical novel or a book set in a foreign country, you should not only read other novels about that time and place, but books from those settings to get a sense of how people spoke, behaved, etc in their own words. One resource people often overlook is university Special Collections archives, if you’re lucky enough to live near one that’s open to the public. (I actually used to work in one.) You can find all kinds of original copies of old manuscripts, letters, author notes, original handwriting, anything you might need to know for your project. Check to see if there’s a particular university that specializes in what you need to know. The college I graduated from, the University of Tulsa, is internationally known for its James Joyce archives, so you can bet we get lots of scholars from around the world who are interested in that man, his books, his times, Ireland, etc. Science fiction writers often come to scour the R.A. Lafferty archive. Nonfiction of course requires even more of this kind of research, but as I’ve never written a nonfiction book I don’t feel I can proficiently speak on this subject. By the way, one of the things most writers don’t realize is that they can itemize any book or movie purchase on their tax deductions as “research” because every book you read or movie you see is improving your “story sense.”
Internet Research: Don’t down play this. I’ve found a lot of useful scholarly articles online about everything from the Gross Domestic Product of 1738 to archives of Pennsylvania newspapers. A bit of advice I’ve found useful: it doesn’t hurt for the life-long writer to enroll in a single hour at a community college every semester just to have access to their immense stores of scholarly databases and journals such as JSTOR, EBSCOhost, online periodicals, etc. It would cost a lot of money to subscribe to all of these independently. (Free library and gym privileges and the never-ending student discounts at local restaurants and entertainments are other bonuses.) And, I confess to using wikipedia/wikianswers if I need to find out something simple like the prevalence of glass windows in middleclass colonial households. Why spend hours scouring journals for a tiny tidbit of information?
Hands on Research: My personal favorite! In Treasure Traitor, my main character had a special relationship with a carrion-eater bird named Acha. Even though the story took place on another planet, I wanted the bird to seem real, so I spent a lot of time at the zoo observing various carrion-eaters (ravens, crows, buzzards, etc) and incorporating their behavior into my book. I went to bird shows, hawking festivals, and even got to go behind the scenes to watch the keepers train their birds. (All you need to do is tell people “I’m a writer,” and they’ll bend over backwards to show you whatever you want to know.) Again, these are events you can itemize on your taxes as “research,” even the gas it takes you to get there. A friend of mine who wrote detective novels actually became a private investigator. (That was back in the ’60’s; I don’t think it’s so easy nowadays, but visiting a police station or actually not avoiding jury duty couldn’t hurt.)
Ask the expert: I typically interview at a least one person for every full-length project I undertake. I actually had an internship working for a movie producer doing “research” for a racecar movie in which the research consisted entirely of interviewing racecar drivers. That was a lot of fun, and I got college credit for it, plus a really cool digital recorder I still use today. Which brings me to another good point: Doing research for other people can pay. I almost got a paid job doing it for a museum film producer, but I had exams on several of the meeting dates. Anyway, while writing my Treasure Traitor book, I interviewed a lot of bird enthusiasts, many of whom were simply my friends. I wanted to make sure Acha was someone they could love and relate to, as they would one of their own birds.
Well, I think that about covers it. There are a lot of useful research guides out there if you need more advice. Today we live in the “information age” and there’s no end to what you can learn in your own home! Which reminds me of my final piece of advice: research is great, but know when to quit and actually start writing. Personally, I enjoy both but often get frustrated with just one or the other, so I spend only a few weeks at most researching to begin with, then continue researching as I write. From day to day what I research influences what I write and what I write influences what I research. For example, for my latest book I stumbled upon the fact that Benjamin Franklin was living in Philadelphia for the short time my main character resided there, so I couldn’t resist staging an encounter between the two of them. On the opposite end of things, I knew I really wanted my character to meet the Reverend Jonathan Edwards in person and stay with him for a short while, so I’ve read a number of books about his family life, which have in turn opened up a lot of possibilities. (A small note on structure: I typically outline my books very carefully in advance but allow for certain scenes to simply pop up as they will, then decide what to do with them when the book is finished. This keeps me focused but still having fun and allows the work to evolve naturally. I’ll talk more about structure in a later entry.)
Enough of that! I am very excited about the upcoming agent summit at the University of Tulsa today! I have my query letters ready and am prepared to pitch! Besides that, the reviews from the Amazon Breakthrough novel award are available for my novel Treasure Traitor! Here’s one that I really liked: “This is a pretty good narrative. It doesn't weigh the reader down with tedious descriptions of an alien world, but introduces these ideas in a fairly natural way. Once I came to know Rena and Strong Beak (or Acha) as a team, I had a very clear and compelling impression of them. So much so that I was ready to follow them through the rest of the novel. That's a tribute to the strength of the work.” Pretty neat, huh? It didn’t win the contest, but after encouragement like that, I’m confident it’ll be published in no time!