Friday, June 19, 2009

Back on the Blog Chain: Research

I'm up again in our writing blog chain. This time, Kat chose the topic: How do you do research for your settings, your story and your characters' quirks? What interesting tidbits about yourself and the world you live in have you learned along the way?

Anne posted before me, and Archy will follow me.

We've had people in the chain discuss how much research they do. I'm a person who believes in research. Even though I write in a genre where you can "make everything up," I find putting real-world research and details into the story and setting makes it more multifaceted and realistic. (Sorry, Elana.)

When I started writing the first book in the Season Lords series, Google wasn't around yet. (gasp!) I researched my setting (based on Victorian England) the old-fashioned way: I checked out books from the library on my subject, read them, and took copious notes. (Why, yes, I did walk uphill in the snow both ways to the library too.) I also took the opportunity to tour Victorian-era houses when I had the opportunity. (There's actually one called the Tallman House in the town where my parents live. Lincoln slept there one night; we got to see the bed that he used.) I kept a book called What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England by my side when I wrote to look up the odd fact I needed. Even now, as I read non-fiction books and magazines, I make mental notes when I find some interesting fact I can use for world-building.

These days, of course, I tend to use the Internet for most of my research. I have less time to go to the library and read books, but the Internet is almost always available when I'm writing. I normally start with Google. Sometimes this will lead me to Wikipedia. I don't completely trust Wikipedia, but I haven't found anything blatantly false on there yet. I also look for other sites that might be useful. For instance, in my current project, my characters are taking a train from Denver to Chicago in 1980. I've spent a lot of time figuring out the route they took, schedule, ticket price, and accommodations on the train, even though the train ride will only take a few scenes. I came across a great site about the California Zephyr, a train that ran from San Francisco to Chicago. In its heyday, the Zephyr was famous, offering premier service and hostesses known as "Zephyrettes" to assist the passengers in any way possible. Alas, that era ended before Paul and his friends get to ride the train, but they do use the same track and even some of the same cars. I wound up using Amtrak's current schedule and pricing as a guide.

Social networks can also help with research. I happened to mention on my Facebook status that I was researching this particular subject, and a friend saw it and sent me an article on the Zephyr (she got it from someone she knew who was interested in trains). This is a great way to solicit help from other people if you're too shy (like me) to approach them directly.

It's interesting that Kat asked us about researching character quirks. I don't think I've consciously researched character traits, unless it's an illness like manic-depression. Character quirks tend to reveal themselves over time as I work with my characters. For instance, Paul's best friend goes by Scott, but that's actually his middle name. His first name is Oliver, after his mother Olivia; Paul started calling him Scott when he was too young to say "Oliver," and it stuck. I've always known that Yvonne likes flowers, but she told me on this draft that she'd rather study botany than

Kat asked us to share interesting tidbits from our research. I've already discussed the trains, so let's see what else I can come up with. For my current project, I've researched theater layouts, poisons, space ships and space elevators, and scene orders in Hamlet.

That's all for now. Come back soon for another Blog Chain topic!


Anonymous said...

I loved the whole I-walked-in-the-snow-to-get-to-the library thing - cracked me up. SOunds like you are a good surprise, right!

Michelle McLean said...

I have no memory of a time before Google...I think I've blocked it out :D No, actually, I really enjoy doing the book thing for research when I can. I like to hit the library sales and stock up on any books that look promising. I have a whole separate bookshelf for my research books :)

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

OMG the very little research that I do would be in the negatives if it wasn't for the Internet. I love the information you found out about the Zephyr train - that is cool stuff!

Carolyn Kaufman said...

Oh wow, love the idea of using your social network to help you with research!!

ElanaJ said...

I'm not saying research can't or shouldn't be done when writing speculative fiction. I do it, I just don't deliberately pick subjects where I'm forced to research just to write the main plot. Man, you shouldn't apologize to me because you like researching for your spec fic!

I find it interesting that you research the train kind of stuff and I mainly focus on character kind of stuff. People-watching and the like.


Annie Louden said...

I too laughed about the snowy hills.
You are making research sound fun and interesting. Urge to research rising... rising...

Robin of My Two Blessings said...

I use the internet for research quite a bit, but have discovered my world book encyclopedias are a great resource as well. With my first wip, I was buying all kinds of books. Discovered the internet is a lot cheaper. :)

T. Anne said...

This is fun I'm following the chain and enjoying the different research perspectives, thank you!

Kat Harris said...

You're right about the character quirks. Most of them do simply emerge by themselves.

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