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.