Research

September 18, 2013 in Books, Reblogging Project, Writing

So, quite a while back I promised I’d talk about research a bit. With 18 books either completed or attempted this is something I would seem to know a bit about. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, since it’s an awfully idiosyncratic process, and not just in terms of writer to writer, but even book to book. Still, there are a few commonalities that are worth mentioning.

Part I Open Research:

1) Ongoing and general research. I would recommend that every writer do this in whatever way is most suited to them. Which means:

1a) Read. Read constantly. Read non-fiction. Read widely. In my case I do a good bit of web reading–following interesting links from news and science sites. I also always have at least one non-fiction book going, usually several. Right now I’m reading How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (anti-mumbo-jumbo, pro-science screed), Plants in Hawaiian Culture (just what it sounds like and just started-this one is directed research for WebMage VI should it ever happen), The World Without Us (a book on how fast and in what ways the Earth would change if people were removed tomorrow), A book on Indian (India) myths and legends, and two novels. I’m also reading–as a part of my regular ongoing reading–articles in Discover, Science News, and Popular Science–I get an amazing number of fantasy ideas from science magazines, not to mention a few science fiction ideas.

1b) Take notes. Every time I go somewhere or do something out of the ordinary I encounter new and interesting bits of information. Anytime that any of them tickle my writer-sense I write them down. Sometimes a bit leads nowhere, but just the act of writing it down fixes the whole experience in my memory and other things that happened near the thing I thought was potentially useful are the ones that turn out to be useful.

2) Directed/Undirected useful habits.

2a) Bookstore browsing. Everywhere I go I try to spend some time looking at the local book selection, especially the local used book selection. I’m especially careful to do this in places that are geographically remote from my home ground (Hawaii, Halifax) or intellectually focused (Cultural Museums, History Centers). No matter the topic there are a jillion books on it, but without being able to physically browse through them and see what the local authorities think of as important, it can be difficult to figure out just what you want to pick up. I look especially for small press and/or scholarly work on topics relevant to the place/mission. That’s how I ended up with the Plants in Hawaiian Culture book which promises to be fascinating.

2b) Big Books of ______, Cultural/Historical Atlases, Visual Histories, Timelines, See How A _______ works, Encyclopedias. Scour used bookstores for these. Pick a price point and buy anything that falls under that price point, because you never know which ones are going to be terribly terribly useful three books down the road, and these kinds of book are priceless.

You want something aimed somewhere between the smart 12 year old and the seriously curious tourist, because that’s really the level of detail most readers are looking for, the cool stuff. The really deep, deep expert stuff is usually too much. If you care too much about the really deep details, you will often end up including stuff that bores the daylights out of the reader.

Read them, especially the encyclopedias–juicy little fact bits make great grist for the writing mill and can provide fantastic telling details. The atlases are also especially useful, allowing you to orient yourself both physically and historically. There you’re looking for things like a historical atlas of London with neighborhoods and landmarks shown, or an Atlas of World War II battles that gives you strategic and positional information on the war.
Part II Specific Research:

Here I’m going to talk about specific, directed, research in the context of two books, Outside In (incomplete and temporarily trunked) and Numismancer. I’m picking these two because the primary research process for each is fairly accessible and is really just an extension of the general techniques described in my last post.

A brief digression here on the value of librarians and other human sources. One of the secrets of my research success is knowing a number of good librarians and keeping track of who in my social network knows what about what–i.e. if I ever need to know anything about felt or felting I’ll call Paula. Many research problems have been solved by  emailing my librarian friend Jody or others in my network of experts, and some of that happened with each and every one of these books.

Outside In:

This book was intended to be a dark contemporary fantasy exploring the secret magical history of architecture. I’ve written several novels of this sort–though none has yet sold–and it’s a genre I really enjoy writing. This particular iteration was closer to horror than I usually get and that’s part of why it got trunked.

As with any book I write, a huge portion of the overall structure rests on things already in my head at the beginning of the book. In this case, a bunch of stuff on the Roman household gods (particularly the Lares and Penates–the gods of the cupboards and doors among other things) tied itself together with the grounding I’d gotten in architecture while taking Art History classes, and the construction techniques I’d learned as part of my technical theater training. There were other influences, but that was the core of it.

My research for the book broke down into three major components: setting, context, and history and I’ll address them in that order.*

Setting: In this case, St. Paul/Minneapolis ~2006, a made-up but plausible curriculum for a special Masters program in architecture at the U of M, a huge and semi-haunted mansion in St. Paul’s Summit Ave neighborhood. To cover all of that I needed: 1) a good St. Paul/Minneapolis atlas (already owned). 2) the online course catalogs of a half-dozen architectural Masters programs. 3) Websites detailing several historic Summit Ave. mansions including the James J. Hill house, as well as websites for a couple of other non-Summit mansions. Because the setting was so terribly important for a story built around the magic of buildings, one of the very first things I did was to draw up top elevations of the multiple floors of the mansion.

Context: Magical and architectural. In this case, the Roman gods structure provided a good deal of my underlying magic and was something I’d already refreshed in the course of writing and researching the WebMage books—which reading was in turn built upon intense childhood interest in mythology. The main part of my magical research was to look for more extensive sourcing on the Lares and Penates. Sadly, a perusal of Google and the ERIC academic article search system demonstrated that there isn’t much written on them. What there is, I’ve mostly read at this point. My other primary sources were a copy of Trachtenberg and Hyman’s Architecture, which I read cover to cover and extensively highlighted and bookmarked, and The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (used as a secondary source rather than read through). The former was the suggestion of a friend who’d spent some time in the U of M’s architecture program, the latter is an Oxford reference book—I pick those up whenever I find them cheap enough.

History: Mostly my research here came from the Trachtenberg and Hyman and Oxford Dictionary of Architecture mentioned earlier, with a leavening of historical summaries from the various mansions I’d studied.

Numismancer:

Another secret magical history book, in this case, the secret history of money. This one came out of a dream I’d had in which coins from a fountain drove away a bunch of dark fey that had been chasing me. Set in Edinburgh and Brussels around 2007 with strong references to the Scottish Parliament, the E.U. banking system, small craft sailing, and schizophrenia.

Setting: For this book I drew a great deal on the almost two months I’ve spent in the Edinburgh area over the past fifteen years. I also picked up a good European atlas (which covered Brussels) and an ordinance survey map of Edinburgh (the primary setting).

Context: My main book reference for the context and history of money and coinage was The Teach Yourself Guide to Numismatics which is a sort of history and lexicon of numismatics in alphabetical order, and is absolutely fantastic. It breaks the study up into easily digestible and fascinating info-nuggets. I will buy any of this series if I ever see them again. My sources for the E.U. banking system and the Scottish parliament were primarily the websites belonging to those institutions. They contained more information than I could use or digest laid out in a relatively straightforward format. Sailing? I’m no longer certain what reference books I used for that. I’m not seeing them on the current dig through the heap, though What’s What: a Visual Glossary of the Physical World probably played a part. For the schizophrenia sourcing I mostly called on a lot of memories of what it was like to spend a good deal of time with a close relative who is a paranoid schizophrenia. This last is a rich source of information but can be hard on both the schizophrenic and the observer.

History: Various general histories of Edinburgh originally read because I love both history and Scotland and because I read non-fiction voraciously as fuel for the fires. Also, many text and sites focusing on Edinburgh features that became important to the story as I went along, including the parliament site, websites and books about the history of the Forth bridge, the University of Edinburgh’s website and many others.

2013 update: That’s all for now, though I’d originally planned to go over several more books.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog as two posts on January 21 2008 and, January 23 2008. Original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)