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Research is Hard

July 11, 2011

I am probably showing my lack of experience in posting this, but I want to be honest, and if I’m going to be talking about my strengths in these accounts, I should probably be thorough and throw in some of my weaknesses as well. Writing is about improvement, right?

When it comes to reading I enjoy sampling from a variety of genres. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, realistic or historical fiction, classical literature, a bit of non-fiction here and there, the occasional Hercule Poirot murder mystery, even (but very rarely) romance when I’m feeling particularly emotional – as long as the story is enjoyable, the characters are relatable and the writing is decent, I’m usually interested.

When it comes to writing, however, my tendencies are far less diverse. I focus primarily on fantasy – mostly low fantasy, sometimes dark, sometimes whimsical, sometimes modern – and supernatural/Lovecraftian horror. This has had an interesting result in my writing experience: I have never really needed to do any research to support plot points or world details.

I’m sure there are times when I should have done research, but that doesn’t mean I did it, and it was never really necessary. That’s the nice thing about fantasy and horror – often you can just cheat and go with the not-recommended-but-oh-so-easy “because I’m the author and I said so” explanation rather than try to write something based in scientific fact.

However, over the last few years I’ve developed a great deal of respect for those authors who have clearly done their homework. And I’m not talking just scientific research, but cultural and historical as well. I’m coming to believe that details can make or break a novel, and when a writer really knows what they’re talking about, you can tell.

On the flip side, I neglected to do any sort of research for the first draft of The Gray Regions – and you can tell. It’s almost laughable. Of course, I was much younger when it started, and I could barely put a solid plot together, much less make it believable. Now, though, I have no excuse. And so, wielding the power of the internet in my right hand and a shiny library card in my left, I have been frantically compiling notes in preparation for the big Second Draft. I have spent hours digging through speculative articles, reading too-long forum thread arguments about what is and is not physically possible, and bugging the heck out of friends and writing buddies for opinions on what I can get away with.

At the same time, I’ve been plotting a truly terrifying future project: a science fiction novel.

I have always avoided writing science fiction simply because it inherently requires a lot of research. This is also why I don’t write crime or historical fiction. I’m not lazy, I promise – just somewhat intimidated by the thought of having to sift through and keep track of so many facts and events. And to fully capture the mood and feel of a time period long past? I couldn’t do it justice.

And, of course, the plot I’ve been developing is a far-distant-future swashbuckling space adventure drawing inspiration from Star Trek, Star Wars and Firefly. And while I like technobabble as well as the rest of them, the truth is I would feel horribly guilty and, shall we say, insufficient as a writer if I wrote a science fiction story and did not research the hell out of everything beforehand.

Knowing that adopting this new approach of tossing in a bit of plausibility into my stories was going to severly affect my “writing groove” as it were, I decided to practice before diving head-in.
For NaNoWriMo ’10 (the first NaNoWriMo that I’ve successfully “won”, go me!) I purposely went with a plot that would require a lot of prep work beforehand. My plot synopsis was: An energy vampire plays cat and mouse with a hunter who’s after him in 1891 Seattle.*

I called it Mortality. Spoiler: the energy vampire is a jerk and he dies in the end. You’re not missing much.

I read books on the history of Seattle. I read websites about Victorian fashion, colloquialisms, careers of the time, social norms of the time, etc., etc. I took extensive notes and outlined my story with great detail. I went in feeling more prepared for a personal writing project that I think I’ve ever felt. I was READY.

And I tanked it.

I mean, I hit 50,000 words with a few days to spare, but all of my research went out the window right away, in every sense. I don’t think I used any of it at all. And while I technically finished Mortality, it was so awful that I couldn’t even bring myself to take them up on their offer of a free self-published copy as a trophy. It wasn’t fit to be professionally bound, or even printed off of a personal printer and stapled together. It was crap.

Apparently applying research is a skill that needs to be learned. I have to admit I’d been expecting it to be a bit more like adding mushrooms to a pizza – you just sprinkle it around and there you go, mushroom pizza. Somehow this elusive art of weaving fact in with fiction is completely beyond me.

Of course, that’s not going to stop me from trying. I have this vision of what The Gray Regions will be when it’s complete, and it involves a solid, structured, believable, true-feeling setting that requires both cultural strength and a good deal of scientific background. Not that I intend to bog the reader down with facts, but the world I’m writing about has some unique qualities, and I’d like it to make sense. And I have fallen in love with my science fiction plot, so I fully mean to see that through, as well.

But I have to admit I’m a little apprehensive about attempting research-heavy projects. I keep telling myself that I only failed with Mortality because I was so pressed for time. Quantity above quality is part of the whole idea of NaNo, after all. But as reassuring as that voice in my head is, I don’t fully believe it. There is somehow a strange disconnect between compiling knowledge and putting it to use. At least for me.

So I’m chugging away at it. If anyone has any advice on this matter, I’m all ears. But so far I feel like all I’ve learned is: Research is hard!

*Note: If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is and you haven’t Googled it already, do so now.

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