Six impossible things

Three kinds of research

Every so often, somebody asks me if I do research for my stories. I suspect this is because I write fantasy, and there is a perception among non-fantasy writers and readers that fantasy can simply be made up straight out of one’s head, without regard to tedious things like facts. This is, of course, nonsense, but you’d be surprised how many otherwise intelligent people hold to this view.

There are three basic kinds of story-research: specific, general, and accidental. I don’t know any writers who don’t do all of them, though I don’t think anyone else breaks it down quite this way (or if they do, I haven’t heard of them).

Accidental research is the kind of thing every writer does all the time, in the course of living. Some of it is common everyday life experience; some of it is stuff you stumble across when you’re watching TV or talking to a friend; some of it is uncommon, unsought events that a writer stores up for later. It’s the reason my writer friend who got caught in Hurricane Sandy spent her spare minutes scribbling notes (and when she didn’t have a pen and paper, focusing on things and mentally chanting “I have to remember this, I have to remember this). It’s the reason another friend, after crawling on hands and knees through a smoke-filled hallway to escape from a burning apartment, spent the next ten minutes cursing the fact that she hadn’t grabbed her glasses before she left, because without them she couldn’t get a really clear view of the progress of the fire and, later, what the firefighters were doing, so that she could remember it for later.

It’s also the way the sky looks on a clear autumn day, the annoying jingly Christmas Muzak that’s everywhere in December, the way the air smells near a freeway, the sounds the pots and pans make when someone’s cooking in the kitchen, the way bare trees develop a green haze for a day or two in spring when the buds break just before the leaves come fully out. It’s the way your best friend wrinkles his forehead when he’s thinking, or your sister flaps her hands (you can’t call it waving) when she gets excited. It’s all the little details that everyone glances at, but writers work at storing up and remembering for when they have to write that scene in the spring woods or on the summer beach or at the Grand Harvest Festival.

Accidental research is about paying attention to whatever is going on around you, because everything is material, and you never know what you’re going to need one of these days. It’s not about going out hunting for experiences to have; that comes under general or specific research…and really, if you aren’t paying attention to what’s already happening around you, going out to experience something new isn’t likely to be a lot of help.

General research, on the other hand, is about going looking for things you don’t know that you need to know. When I decide to write a book set in another place or time, the first thing I do is read a bunch of books that I hope will give me a feel for that place and time – biographies, historical overviews, social histories, books about daily life. When I’m between books, I read random things that catch my eye – books about pirates, women mine owners, castle building, Roman engineering, British diplomacy in the 1800s.

Writers are intellectual pack-rats; we store up interesting facts and curious stories from every source we can find, from Uncle Joe’s terrible jokes to scholarly works on obscure subjects. Sooner or later, it all comes back out in the work.

Specific research is what you do in order to find out the things you know you need to know. If I’m writing a book set in London in 1816, I go looking for street maps of London in 1816 (or as near to then as I can get). If I have a character who speaks thieves cant, I reach for my copy of The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. If my characters are mixing up a potion, I look through my various herbals in search of ingredients a) that people of whatever time I’m writing about thought were associated with the things I want the potion to do and b) that my modern herbals agree are harmless (I don’t add mercury to anything, for instance, even though according to some of my sources, it was considered a good remedy for quite a few things in the 1600s).

Accidental research is continuous. General research is usually a pre-writing activity – it happens between books, or when one has settled on a type of book that hasn’t been fleshed out yet and needs more real-life background before the writer can pick a direction to go. Several writers of my acquaintance allot particular amounts of time for pre-book research – two months, six months, a year or more, depending on the project and the particular writer’s temperament.

General research shifts into specific research gradually, sometimes imperceptibly. By the time I’m through the opening chapters of a book, I’m usually not reading general background any longer; I’m looking for specific bits of information. When and where was the first railroad built in New England? How much did a pair of stockings cost in London in 1822? How much of a load can a donkey carry, for how long, and how much of it has to be feed if there’s nowhere to get any along the route? When did armies start using drum signals, and how old were drummers when they were recruited and trained?

Those sorts of questions go on all through writing a book, right up to the end and on into revisions. They start to taper off during the copy-edit, which is when I go back to reading about typhus and geology and the history of coffee, until the next book comes along and the whole cycle starts over again.

  1. I do really general research — that is, I read a lot of history, particularly primary source.

    It’s the sort of thing that let you be aware of how societies fit together, and — still more important — alerts you to the ways in which 21st century industrialized nations are strange stand-outs.

  2. I really, really want that dictionary. It would be useful for absolutely nothing that I’m working on, but I swear to god, I’d read that on its own. The fact that it exists just made my day.
    Also, I’d be tempted to use some of the more esoteric terms on my brothers and watch them try to figure it out. Yeah, I’m petty.

  3. …it’s free on Kindle! (As of this posting, anyway.)

    It might be on Project Gutenberg, if it’s free here.

  4. It is indeed on Project Gutenberg:

  5. Thanks A. Beth for the link! I’m excited to dive in. Also – I have no idea how I would do research for my books without the Internet. It’s nice to have such a quick resource.

  6. Marvelous! I too am delighted just that that dictionary exists, never mind that it’s free for download.

    Also, now I very much want to know, when *did* armies start using drum signals? (This could be useful for that book that’s fourth or fifth down the line.)

  7. Liz:

    The short answer is ‘several times’. They seem to have been used in China, India and Mesoamerica completely independently, well before appearing in Europe. Mind you, it’s always tricky saying who is independent of whom unless you can demonstrate that there were no contacts whatsoever between cultures [really hard to do, that] Don’t ask me for dates, please. I’d have to go hunting for sources to be more than generally vague about it.

    I’m guessing that what Ms Wrede had in mind is the modern tradition of using drums to exert tactical control over troops. That, AFAIK, got its start with the reintroduction of pike formations to European warfare in the 13th century – maintaining cadence is critical for tight infantry formations, and drums are an excellent way to do that. It’s a simple extension to vary the beat in standard ways to convey instructions like ‘mark time’ or ‘left turn’ or ‘Charge!’

    For story purposes, recall that drums are mainly associated with infantry, although not all infantry armies use them for signaling. The Romans used trumpets, for example, and by the 19th century the British Army used both drums and bugles. Horses tend not to be too fond of people banging large noisy things right behind their heads, not to mention the awkwardness of charging into battle with a set of bulky drums getting in the way of your swing, so you don’t find them much in cavalry. There are examples, however, IIRC, in the Middle East and Central Asia.

  8. Louis – Thanks for the response. The infantry connection makes sense — I’ve had occasion to do a little formation marching, and man, trying to keep multiple pairs of feet in step is *hard*! For the story in question, I’m envisioning mostly cavalry, but there’s also a Central Asian influence… hmm. Clearly, the different sides will need different signaling methods; I foresee many happy hours of research. 😉

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