It’s All Research; It’s All Good

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Don’t let this imposing library at Yale University intimidate you! I attended an amazing session of the Rare Book School there in Summer 2016 and they didn’t boot me out.

Research: some folks love doing it, while for others, it’s up there with painful dental procedures. My professional background plants me in the “love it” category, but since I work with first-year college writers, I also understand the plight of the reticent researcher. I attended college in the pre-Internet 1980s and am grateful to the Web for making investigation, scholarly and otherwise, easier and more accessible to everyone. But for those who would rather be subjected to that nauseating regimen astronauts must endure to get ready for zero-gravity environments, please bear with me while I explain that research opportunities, like the Force in Star Wars, are “all around us.”

“But I’m a science-fiction (or fantasy) writer,” I hear you rumbling. “Why do I need to do research?” Maybe you’ve invented a new alien species. Or perhaps the technology you’re writing about is so far-future speculative that it doesn’t compare to anything available today. So why would you need to interview an expert, read mountains of technical material, or watch documentaries when you’re creating a world from raw materials wandering around your imagination?

Fantasy and science-fiction worlds may be imaginary, but they still operate according to rules. If your world behaves at variance with Earth-based Newtonian physics, the reader needs a good reason to suspend their disbelief. You don’t have to excel at mathematics to learn about the universe’s rules for the road…heck, there’s even a series of board books that distills the laws of physics into toddler-sized apothegms. Reading widely in your genre also gives you a sense of where you can flout physical laws, what’s a convention of the genre that you don’t have to explain, and which weird phenomena readers are more apt to believe. Lots of fun primers on physics, biology, chemistry, and other sciences are available for the general reader. You can also chat with scientists in your community–although busy, they’re usually excited to share what they’re researching with the non-specialist, especially when they learn that it’s for a book.

At the most recent Norwescon, I attended a session on alien biology, and a scientist reminded the audience that so many of the species that share the earth with us seem alien, from their life cycles to their reproductive activities. If you’ve created a Slug Queen from the Oort Cloud, doesn’t it make sense to learn about real slugs? Find a life form, or more than one, that shares features with your invented species and spend some time with them, by observing them in nature, watching a wildlife video, reading, etc. The information you gather about their growth and behavior will add realism to your portrayals of your alien characters. The reader will recognize, and enjoy, the depth of knowledge on which you’ve built your world.

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Even monks fall asleep in the library, as this fellow did during my Advanced Medieval Manuscript Studies course at Yale, offered through the awesome Rare Book School. 

But research isn’t just something you do in a library or archives or on your computer. Observation is the most natural research process, and it’s immersive. Sometimes this means going where the action is. If you’re trying to come up with a holiday celebration for your alien society, why not check out parades, festivals, and other public occasions to gather ideas? While you’re there, take note of not just the organizational part (what happens) but also the participants’ emotional state and behavior. Is this a formal, restrained occasion or a lively, no-holds-barred street party?

At other times, you don’t need to go anywhere or do anything special. You just need to pay keener attention to what’s going on around you. I hike with my family every week and like to spend time listening to the local sounds, feeling the air temperature, smelling the soil, flowers, snow, autumn leaves, or dried pine needles on the ground, and checking out the blend of light and shadow on the path. Often these impressions percolate in my mind and emerge as a description later on.

I also like to listen to conversations as I take my daily lunchtime walk down the beach from my office to pick up the mail. (Yes, I work two blocks from the beach. It’s wonderful.) I listen to people’s word choices, the structure of spoken syntax, the feelings that come through, the back-and-forth rhythm of dialogue. While taking care not to pilfer anything personal that I overhear, I find these real-world conversations an enriching inspiration for dialogue on the page…minus the circumlocutions and fillers of ordinary conversation.

Relationships with family and friends can also provide you with inspiration for your characters’ interactions and motivations. Of course, you must tread lightly and not expose your friends’ and family members’ secrets. The idea is to learn from your experiences and let that wisdom manifest on the page, not to fashion your characters as alter egos for your loved ones. Some incorporation of your own and your intimates’ traits into your story-world is inevitable. The key is to do so consciously, with compassion and sensitivity.

One way I do this is to listen to and watch others for some specific feature. For example, one of my characters has a brother who’s older than him by two years, and their relationship is by turns loving and stormy. I’m an older sibling, a sister rather than a brother, and my brother and me have a close, amiable, and uncomplicated relationship. What to do? I listened to and watched my male friends and their brothers interact. My intention wasn’t to “steal” a conversation and slap it onto the page. I took what I observed, applied it to the characters’ scenarios, and in one case, shared scenes with one of the brothers I’d been inspired by to check for verisimilitude. Would he treat his brother this way if he was my character? Did the interaction ring true? Was it off base?

I do authenticity checks when it comes to something I’ve researched but with which I have no personal experience. I run battle scenes by veteran friends, or hand-to-hand, one-on-one combat vignettes with a martial artist I know. I also block my scenes as an actor and a director would, in two dimensions or three. I draw battle maps, move miniatures around, create model buildings and other structures, and even work with more knowledgeable people, like my martial-artist friend, to choreograph a fight scene or a dance. Would the character really move like this? Could she get across the room that fast? Could he ride a horse and shoot an arrow at the same time? As much as I can, I test it out physically. I don’t want an expert reader to groan, “That’s impossible!”

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Practicing ancient Roman infantry formations at Norwescon, April 2018.

I’ve been involved in community theater for decades, and the experience always enriches my writing. One of my favorite things, in acting as well as writing, is to play or write about a character who’s different from myself. Research can save your gluteus maximus when it comes to creating authenticity rather than something ridiculous in its unreality. My most challenging part, physically, was Martha in that wonderful, sinister classic comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Martha is an elder. I played her when I was 42. I’m physically fit and, I hope, move fluidly. In order to create a realistic impression of someone at least 30 years older than me, I paid conscious attention to the way my 70- to 90-year-old patients move. My goal wasn’t to create a melodramatic, stereotypical hobbling old lady; I strove for subtler suggestions of age. I noticed that my patients took more time and care with getting up and sitting down, took shorter steps, and because they were starting to experience balance problems, they would put their hands on furniture and other objects as they made their way through a room. So I practiced shortening my stride, adding a shade of hesitancy to the way I lowered myself into a chair, and let my fingers skim over the furniture as I moved around onstage. I knew I’d succeeded when an audience member waited for the actors to emerge from backstage after the show and was startled to see that I wasn’t really 75.

Sooner or later in your writing life, you’ll come upon a fact you need to verify or a historical event you need to learn more about. Readers, and the publishing professionals who get your work into their hands, recognize and appreciate the time and care you put into doing your homework. And sometimes that homework is as accessible as your own home and the gadgets, people, and laws of physics at play inside it.

Research can be found right where you are.

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