Monday, January 21, 2008

Research pt. 1

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.

In list form and starting with the general stuff:

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 and I'll talk about it more in part II), 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.

That's probably enough for today. Tomorrow or Wednesday I'll go into more specific detail using a couple of my books and the stuff I picked up for them as examples.

Thoughts? Questions on my research process? Questions on specific projects of your own? Other questions? Criticisms?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm nodding along with most of this... but the atlases/encyclopedia suggestions I haven't thought of! I'll have to look into them.