Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Research pt. 2

In this and the next post I'm going to talk about specific, directed, research in the context of five books, Outside In (incomplete and temporarily trunked), Numismancer, The Black School, Winter of Discontent, and WebMage VI (which may or may not ever be written). I pick these 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 my 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 make 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 myself on 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 which I pick 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.


Another secret magical history book, in this case, the secret history og 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.

That's it for today. Next time I'll get to the other novels and wax rhapsodic about the wonders of Google's image search and a couple of great general reference tomes.

As always, questions or comments are most welcome.

*Actually, that's probably true of almost all of my directed research projects and I may adopt it for the rest of this essay.


Anonymous said...

I don't have a lot to say here, but I do find it interesting to see what sorts of things you used to get the thoughts brewing. :)

Kelly McCullough said...

Thanks for commenting, I was starting to wonder if anyone was still reading after the long holiday break.