Friday, February 21, 2014

Researching Your Novel for Fun and Profit

Writing is about more than creating. Yes, creation is an overwhelming part of it, but even if you write fiction (and this includes speculative fiction), eventually you're going to have to do a bit of research.

But why? I hear you cry. If I'm making up an entire world, then what I say goes, right?

Well... almost.

Even if you're starting with bare-bones worldbuilding, you need to start with some point of reference, and this goes triple for if you're writing a story set in "The Real World" or "Like Earth Except". Most fictional societies are, at their base, analogues of real-world societies, because that's what our brains understand. And, really, if you don't put some familiar structures in your setting, sooner or later the reader will hit a point where they throw the book against a wall because nothing makes any damn sense.

Don't worry, fellow writers... research doesn't have to be brain-crampingly hard. This isn't going to be like that term paper at school that you absolutely hated, mainly because you're picking the topic and approach. (It will use the same skills, though. Sorry.) In fact, since you're using your novel's outline as a framework to hang your research on, things will actually be a lot easier.

For example, my novella Sheep's Clothing is set in 1864, in what isn't yet Colorado. Already I have a whole pile of research topics to explore: How heavily-populated is it? What sorts of plants and animals can be found there? What are frontier-dwellers like? What are the social norms? What weapons are commonly available?

Next, I have my narrator, a doctor who was born and educated in New York City. What is his skillset? What is the extent of medical knowledge at that time? Would he know herbal medicine? Would he need to specifically learn how to use a gun? Can he fight at all?

Third, I have my supernatural critters: three vampires and a werewolf. I found this to be the most fascinating part of my research because I got to explore what the local myths were about these creatures, and what the average person was likely to know about them if they came from different backgrounds. I learned that vampires weren't exactly a pop culture monster yet, because Dracula hadn't been written yet, and there wouldn't be an iconic media werewolf until 1931. However, Native American lore had passable examples of both, giving me another avenue for research that I happily explored. Also, I discovered that the average frontier-dweller wouldn't have even heard of vampires, offering another angle for fun.

From there I Googled and wikiwalked and dug around for the little factoids I needed, and even hit up one of my co-workers for setting-related details to keep readers who are familiar with the Western genre from screaming "WRONG!!!" and throwing my book across the room. Even nailing down the details can be fun, as I discovered that Lakota (Wolf Cowrie's native language) was kind of light on swear words. Apparently Native Americans never learned to swear until the white men came. No, seriously. But I was able to supply dialogue for his moment of frustration by finding a Lakota phrase roughly translating to "idiot". (In case you're wondering, it was "takuni slolye sni". Literally "crazy white man", which fit the context better than anything else I could find.)

Now, my example is a fairly lightweight one, since the setting was "Like Earth Except", but you can use this as a jumping-off point for more worldbuilding-intensive stories. Writing medieval fantasy? Research tech levels and costuming. Writing military sci-fi? See what you can dig up on military protocols and physics. Writing horror? Get down to the roots of a monster and take it in a new direction, or dig up some obscure urban legends and turn them into something fresh.

It is said that baseball is a nerd's pastime, but in my opinion, writing can be the equivalent for geeks. Just imagine how much you can dig up on any topic thanks to the internet, or books, or local experts. Then imagine how much of that you can incorporate into your world, and you might just discover that your story is half-written for you.