Friday, July 17, 2009

Research? Please, no, anything but that!


People seem to fear it, but for me, research helps to get the creative juices flowing.

People say write what you know, so I devour information about places I've never been, people I've never met, and situations that I've never experienced. Human emotions I know and understand-- and can sympathize with-- even if I can never truly share in the experiences I want to write about.

Writing based on research has its pitfalls. Aside from an overwhelming soporific effect and a high probability of waking up face-down in a book and covered with ink, it also forces the writer to accept the responsibility to write carefully, to abandon their particular point of view in order to properly experience another's. No one likes to be misrepresented in, or worse, offended by a book they're probably reading to escape the slings and arrows they suffer in real life.

Now on to the nitty gritty.

This is not going to be a post on how to research so much as how to enjoy researching for your novel. Research doesn't have to be a chore, a thankless task. The internet can be useful for more than just its wealth of baby names and automatic plot generators. While Wikipedia is, as I'm sure you've heard countless times, NOT an academic resource, I'm here to say that it can be a great starting place as long as you check the sources at the end of each article.

But more than that, Wikipedia serves up its information in broken down chunks, addressing history, or science, or culture under different headings. This can help you get your bearings, and at the very least familiarize you with the basics. ALWAYS double check dates with another source, preferably one that does not cite Wikipedia. ;)

I bet if you are studying, say, the Victorian Era in England for the setting of your new book, you might feel overwhelmed with researching the society of the upper crust, the fashions, the social morés, the dances and carriages and what they used to light their houses at night. Specifically, Wikipedia's article on "Victorian Era"gives a short general overview of the time, followed by highlights: "Culture", "Events", "Entertainment", "Technology and Engineering", "Health and Medicine", "Poverty", "Child Labor", and "Prostitution" that might give you just the type of general details you need to familiarize yourself with the time.

Here's the fun part. Does anything stand out to you? Interest you, excite you? The increased popularity of the Bandstand? The Indian Sepoy Mutiny? The development of tenements? Youths forced into prostitution, "The Great Social Evil", by poverty and other societal pressures?

Ah, history. You've never failed to provide me with examples of the depths of human depravity. But I digress. Even if you are not researching history, keep your eyes open for that spark, that one topic that makes your blood boil, or your heart sing, and you've just got to write a story about it.

Okay, maybe I'll add a little more about the act of research, which you might do if you want to learn more about the development of Victorian tenements.

This is where we leave Wikipedia. Its works cited, and the "Further Reading" section that this article on the Victorian Era luckily has, can help you discern who the academics are in this field. Search Google Scholar with these names and the subject "Victorian tenements" in the hopes that one of these academics has written an article on the subject. There might even be websites devoted to the subject, but as you know, always double-check those internet facts.

While Google Scholar might lead you to articles that you don't have access to online, like articles provided through JSTOR, the same articles might be available at your closest university or large city library. No access to such depositories of scholarly articles? You can always search for books on your subject, which usually provide more general information on a topic, rather than the narrow, specific focus an article might address.

Sites like the eBook Directory have free scholarly e-books available on many topics, and with a little judicious use of Google, a wealth of pdf files can be found for many scholarly articles without having to pay for them. Of course, the more obscure your topic, the lower the chances of finding what you're looking for without going to a university library, which is the source for research that comes the most highly recommended by yours truly, researcher extraordinaire.

Most importantly, be open-minded in your research. Truth is stranger than fiction, but that's just because real life is random and cruel and novels are supposed to make sense, because novels offer themes we can all understand, from the Satyricon to The Hunger Games. If your research is making you uncomfortable-- and I mean too uncomfortable to write about, not the kind of discomfort that comes from tackling a controversial or unsettling topic that you simply have to tell everyone in the world who will listen-- then you might need to stand back and figure out just what attracted you to this subject if it is now bothering you. Maybe you just need to look at the topic in a different way, from your main character's point of view, perhaps.

Maybe you'll discover something that can't be learned from all the books and scholarly articles in the world.

Something about your main character, yes, but maybe you'll discover something about yourself.


Danyelle said...

Great post! I usually drag my feet when I think of all I need to research, but when I'm in the middle of it, I don't want to stop. It's fun learning new old things. :D

Sarah said...

I totally admire your optimism and motivation. I'm grinding my teeth just thinking about the research I'll have to do for my next novel.

Jennifer Hudson Taylor said...

I love research as well. It does inspire creativity.

Icy Roses said...

Psh, I hate research. But when I am forced to do it, I try to enjoy it. Thi is why I will never write a straight-up historical fiction. Extremely ironic of a history major--you'd think I'd want to write one of those things, but no! I love reading them, but I can't write them for the life of me.

The irony of life, I suppose.

Wikipedia is a godsend. JSTOR is my lover.

Abby said...

While I love to learn new things, I have to be really into a subject to do extensive research on it. I prefer to stick with stories where I get to make most of up and set all my own rules. :) But I will do research if I have to. Works good for procrastination.

Dave King said...

I must be having a senior moment - several of them! I thought I was coming to check out your blog, and I find I've been here before! No matter, it's an excellent mistake to have made - ah! if only they all worked out that well...
(loved the post.)