I did mention in my previous post I am currently doing some research for a future project, yet another story that has been with me for some time. At least two of the characters in the novel are or have been alcoholics and I have no direct experience with alcoholism, so I really need to do my homework on this one, but it’s daunting.
Not everybody needs to research, you’ll say. My character flies on a magic shoe that speaks to him, you’ll say. I am writing high fantasy, you’ll say. Even in high fantasy, with its orcs and dragons and knights, you are going to have to do some research, except if you want to invent all your own words for all the paraphernalia attached to the genre, such as armor parts, etc, but you might be right that you won’t need as much research as somebody writing a military drama or a procedural story.
Research makes our stories more believable by providing us with the information that allows us to write “what we know”.
The dreaded sentence.
“Write what you know”.
Ursula K. Le Guin, in an article first published in 2003 in the Los Angeles Time as When to Bend, When to Break and now available on her website as On Rules of Writing, or, Riffing on Rechy gave use one of her most famous quotes:
As for “Write what you know,” I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them.
Ursula K. Le Guin (2003)
And this is something any fantasy or sci-fi writer holds onto for dear life, I assure you, but even in those cases, there is still, as I said, research to be done, even if it’s minimal. The authenticity of our scenes and characters depend on it.
This research is daunting, as I said. Not the minutiae, the small bits and pieces that you can often google, such as French names for a French character, etc, but the in depth knowledge about rocket fuel and aerophysics necessary to write about your story in this made up International Space Program, that can’t be left to google. Also, and this is becoming the wisdom of our age, you can’t believe all you read on the Internet.
In any case, I didn’t start this post as a How To and I feel I am slipping into one. There are hundreds of articles addressing this way better than I possibly could. This is more to share my own ideas on the subject and what I do when researching.
My first instinct is always to check Wikipedia. I use it only as a starting point and check their references. Wikipedia, being updated by right about anyone, can be filled with random information. The original sources tend to have higher credibility.
I was able to find websites in the US with good resources for writers, such as lists that compiled the American medical association, CDC, CIA, etc. I haven’t, however, been able to find the same in the UK. I’d probably have to dedicate some more time to it, but doesn’t that defeat the purpose of the Internet. Isn’t its fast paced, information-at-the-tip-of-your-fingers the very reason why it is so successful? If I have to spend so much time looking through it, wouldn’t I be better off going to a library or a book shop?
So that’s what I did. Or close. I actually asked my therapist (something I shall speak about at another time) if she had any experience with alcoholics. She recommended me a book called Games Alcoholics Play by Claude Steiner, PhD. This book, by the way, is out of print, but you can still get it online.
I like books more than I like websites anyway. It comes back to the fast paced identity of it. You don’t want anything to be too long because you’ll lose the attention of your readers, so the information is always “bullet pointed” to death because we love, and I mean LOVE, a list. Top 10 [insert anything here]. I know I loved them, and I spend hours reading through them. And for entertainment purposes, that’s ok, but for research you really need more substance.
Of course, this much substance might leave me with one problem: too much information. I might find, through some research for some other project, probably the one with the talking left shoe, this amazing piece of information about the mating ritual of ostriches. I might even manage to squeezing in the above mentioned project with the help of a shoe horn and a hammer, because I find this detail fascinating. It will not help the story in any way and, eventually, as so many other writers have said before, I’ll have to murder this particular darling. So it is important to remember that no matter how much amazing information we find, not all of it will help the story be more credible.
One important step I have taken while reading the book I mentioned before is keeping a notebook and a pen with it, to write down anything that will be applicable to building this character. I am sure there will be some unnecessary details there, but once I have gathered sufficient information through this research and further enquiries I plan to do after, is to rate each parameter or piece of information. I will have a system by which, at the end, and with the help of an excel spreadsheet, I should be able to order easily from most important to absolutely useless.
It is proving a really interesting process and it provides me some escape when I am getting tired of my current project, something writing related to retreat to when I can handle my own writing anymore, but self esteem about our own writing is a subject I’ll approach another day.
In the meantime, good writing to you all!