My version of research usually involves thinking things up and then pretending they’re true. Since I work predominantly in the urban fantasy, horror, and sci-fi realms, that approach works fine for me. Were I to, say, switch to historical fiction, it might not work so well. Fortunately for everyone, UK author Lyssa Medana is here to teach us how to take a more disciplined and realistic approach to research. So, pads and pencils, everyone; class is now in session. -EL
What is Research?
Research is a tricky thing. You may think that you are just strolling along, admiring the flowers in the neighbours’ garden and enjoying a sunny afternoon. However, three years later, when you need to describe a sunny suburban garden, you have that memory. You have already researched the flowers in a sunny suburban garden. You didn’t realise that you were researching. You thought you were just enjoying yourself.
Or you could be knitting or working on a crossword with a YouTube documentary running in the background. The gremlins have led you to a surprisingly entertaining video on medieval food. Six months later, when you are describing a medieval feast, a memory prods you. You may not be able to remember the details, but you know enough to start you off.
Or there’s the more traditional methods. This involves visiting libraries and bookshops to find books and papers on the subject. Or perhaps it involves visiting an area so that you work out the atmosphere and the layout of roads and buildings. And there is the wonderful time spent reading and watching things that aren’t exactly about the subject but are vaguely background material. That background material can point you in the right direction when you are looking, for example, for what sort of saddle was used in tenth century France, or when sugar reached Europe.
The main reason to research your material is so that you don’t look like an idiot. No matter how obscure, no matter how arcane, if you get a detail wrong there will be some kind soul out there that will helpfully correct the tiny, tiny detail and post it absolutely everywhere. They will make a meme and share it in places you never knew existed. It will haunt you.
And, to be fair, it is also to help your readers. I remember reading a book set in an alternative London around 1900. It was a cracking book, which I really enjoyed, but I ended up feeling a little let down. At one point the heroine served a breakfast that was sausage gravy and biscuits. Most of the readers here will enjoy the thought and recognise that as a good and substantial breakfast. To me, and any other Brit, it sounds weird. I have no idea what sausage gravy even looks like. To me, biscuits are things like chocolate chip cookies and Oreos. The thought of that lot with any sort of gravy first thing in the morning is not inviting. It’s normal in all sorts of places, but not in any sort of London, not without an in depth re-writing of history.
The reason I mention the biscuits and sausage gravy is that it is the first thing I remember when I think of that book and that is such a shame as it was a great story. It was a minor detail that was easily overlooked and yet had such an impact on me and lessened my enjoyment. I haven’t followed up any of the sequels yet, as that silly, simple detail took off some of the shine.
How to Research
This will vary from writer to writer. Despite all these notes, I don’t spend hours and hours poring over research material before writing. Sometimes I don’t really bother much at all. If you are writing a little flash fiction as a writing exercise, you do not usually need to spend much time on the background. The research is to keep your ears and eyes open. It’s remembering situations and conversations that you have had or overheard. That sort of research is ongoing as you slot details away in your memory.
Other background research can be reading and browsing around a particular subject. If you want to write a swashbuckling tale set in late eighteenth century France and the French Revolution, you can settle down with a snack, a drink and a comfy chair to enjoy some background research. For this period I would start by re-reading some of the Scarlet Pimpernel books by Baroness Orczy (which are great fun and possibly less than accurate) or watch some of the Sharpe episodes with Sean Bean (also great fun but no idea of the accuracy). Depending on the detail I needed, I might look at some YouTube videos of re-enactments of the Napoleonic Wars. The amazing people who take part in the re-enactments can be fanatical about authentic detail and will discuss the implications with anyone standing still long enough.
The next part depends on your style of writing. If you are a writer that has a meticulous outline of the story, then sorting out the research is easier for you. You will know the settings and locations and will be able to check contemporary maps (urban planning can do far more damage to a road system than two world wars and a few revolutions), buildings, clothing and food. You can make notes in a methodical manner, informed by background reading, and be ready to go. If, however, you are a pantser like me, you will find yourself breaking off in the middle of writing a tense confrontation to quickly check what canned soups were available in 1893. But as you have still done the background reading, you know that not only were canned soups available in 1893, but where to start looking for ideas.
However you go about it, the first general sweep over the background will let you know of websites, books, papers, videos and people who are able to help you with the fine details and give you a chance to make notes of the information that you need. I also suggest that after you have finished the first draft, go over some of the background information and any notes again before starting to edit.
I’ve used historical examples but contemporary settings need the same care. I have never been to New York City. If I want to set an adventure there, I really ought to visit. Getting the indefinable feel of the place can make all the difference if you want to add atmosphere. If I can’t make it in person, I can still get a small feel for the place. I can use online maps to see how roads and buildings are laid out. I can check out Facebook pages, blogs, podcasts, contemporary films and tv programmes for more information. I can check house and rent prices from realtors, the cost of tickets to the theatre by looking on maps, finding the theatre and checking their website, and I can even find the cost of a subway ticket ($2.75 at time of typing which sounds like a bargain to me). You don’t need these huge swathes of detail, but they can build up a background and add colour. All you need to do is get a sense of the wider setting and then know that there are more resources than just the library if you need them.
When to Walk Away.
Earlier, I mentioned the biscuits with sausage gravy. It took a little of the shine from the story, but that story was still an epic story. It had great characters, interesting twists and great pace. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, I think that a great story with a weird breakfast is much better than a poor story that centres around the availability of sausages and savoury scones in late nineteenth century London. If the research gets in the way of the story, junk the research.
Authors write to entertain. Readers want to be entertained with tense confrontations, romance, daring deeds, excitement and horror. They aren’t concerned with the nature of the dyes in Fay Wray’s dress as she is swept up by King Kong. They want to get to the action!
I like to think of research as the shapewear of fiction. It isn’t particularly attractive by itself and you don’t need to see it, but it helps the story look more alluring, keeping the curves of excitement in just the right place.
Where to Research
Apart from the obvious resources of keeping your eyes open, long rambling conversations with strangers and anecdotes from family, here are a few places that I pick up information.
Wikipedia – My personal opinion (and there are many differing opinions on this) is that Wikipedia is good enough for fiction. It’s not just the content of the articles, but also the wonderful list of references at the end that can lead you to all sorts of interesting places. Wikipedia isn’t just a list of articles. If you scroll down the front page and keep your eye on the left hand side bar, you can see a list of related sites. Wikisource and Wikibooks are free books and documents which are always a temptation. There is the Wiktionary and also Wiki Commons with some amazing pictures. To take an example from above, I checked for images of New York and I found some wonderful pictures to get a sense of the place, together with a variety of maps of different dates.
Project Gutenberg – This is the most amazing resource of free ebooks. Most are old books and out of copyright, but contemporary travel accounts of, for example, nineteenth century Greece, are great background. There are also cookbooks.
Libraries – If you head to a central library, they often have an archive of old newspapers and magazines. I can, and have, spent hours enjoying the adverts and advice mixed in with the news and opinions. Their reference section is usually reliable and the librarians are amazingly helpful.
Going Official – Local and national governments have all sorts of bits of information tucked away. This can range from street plans to records. It can also have details like the opening times of public parks and contacts for local history groups.
Company Records – that’s where I’ve found information on the history of aluminium smelting and the timeline for tinned tomatoes. It’s always worth checking to see if there are insights there and quite often there are snippets and insights that give an extra polish to some detail.
YouTube – I’ve already mentioned that re-enactment videos are a great source of background. Did you know that a lot of universities have their own YouTube Channels, including Yale. You can dip into all sorts of lectures for free. Many big museums and art galleries have channels as well. Away from the academic channels, I strongly suggest reading and watching a variety of sources as some YouTube channels are more reliable than others. There are some really great and trustworthy sources, but also some that are seriously misleading.
Facebook and other social media – Speaking of reliable, you can find all sorts of local history groups, interest groups, hobbies and schools on social media. I do not suggest that you take advice on there for anything concerning health, wealth or religion.
And here’s a tip if you are struggling – if you need to know a detail but aren’t sure, go on somewhere like Reddit or Quora and post the question. Then change to a different account and confidently post an absolutely, definitely, completely wrong answer. Then go make yourself a beverage of your choice and come back in about five minutes. You will find there at least fourteen pages of hotly disputed facts, some serious feuds, a few off colour jokes, a reference to Hitler and, in amongst the wreckage, the correct answer.
Have fun writing.
I would love to hear your reaction to this, and if you know any great places for information, it would be wonderful if you could share.
Lyssa Medana is a wife and mother who loves telling stories. You can find her on her blog, Always Another Chapter and she would love to hear from you.
You can also find Lyssa on Facebook, so drop her a line and say, “Hi!”