Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Research

I recently received this and with the writer's permission will reply to it here:

Michael,

Hope all is well. I imagine Ridan is very busy with the approaching release of "Emerald Storm". Whenever you can spare a moment, I was wondering if you could share where do you turn for research for your books. It struck me how much of everyday life in your world you showed in your work, particularly the little village in "Avempartha" and the city scenes in "Nyphron Rising". Can you share where do you turn for research? Perhaps a blog post, or just a couple book recommendations. I am sure many readers and new writers like me would find it very helpful.

Thanks,

-Henry

I became serious about my writing career back in 1985, back in the days of continuous-feed, dot matrix printers, amber screens—and no Internet. I feel this is somehow analogues to Mark Twain reminiscing about the days before the typewriter. And yes, I had to walk through the snow to the library, uphill, both ways.

In the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where I lived during my most productive writing years, (prior to giving up the dream of ever getting published,) the nearest library was two hours away, and they wouldn’t let me check the books out. This made research a challenge. To make matters worse, at that time I was writing contemporary/realistic novels. Just about everything I wrote I needed to fact check. This slows the creative process dramatically. Here you are cruising along and your main character is thrown into the back of a police car. It is at that point you realize you’ve never been in the back of a police car and haven’t the slightest idea what one looks like. Are there handles on the door? Window cranks? Seatbelts? I can’t imagine a police officer buckling a cuffed suspect in, but who knows. It seems silly to visit a police station and ask to view the back of a squad car in order to write a single paragraph of description for a novel about gargoyles. On the other hand, you are acutely aware that there are many people who will read this who know exactly what the back of a squad car is like. This makes writing this kind of novel a pain, and it’s why when I threw the yoke of trying to get published off and decided to just write for fun, I chose to write a fantasy series set in my own invented world. As long as I stay consistent, no one can ever prove I am wrong.

Initially I wrote off the top of my head. The Crown Conspiracy is almost total imagination. I did go back afterwards and introduce a few more accurate words, but nearly all of it is pure invention. By the time I got to Avempartha, I discovered Google.

At first, I used the Internet merely for ideas or for those moments when I knew there was a term for what I was trying to describe, but didn’t know it. This was the case with Dahlgren. I had no idea what medieval peasant farmers lived in. Huts seemed too tropical and log cabins too Abraham Lincoln. I wanted something more period-accurate that evoked a sense of squalor. So in this case I did a simple Internet search. I don’t recall now, but I assume it was about as sophisticated as typing “What kind of houses did Medieval peasants live in?” into Google. I saw some references to “wattle and daub” and so I did a search on this and at this site I found:

“Medieval houses had a timber frame. Panels that did not carry loads were filled with wattle and daub. Wattle was made by weaving twigs in and out of uprights. Hazel twigs were the most popular with Medieval builders. After the wattle had been made it was daubed with a mixture of clay, straw, cow dung and mutton fat. When it had dried, a mixture of lime plaster and cow hair was used to cover the surface and to seal the cracks.”

I found some images and realized this was what I wanted.


The Internet was incredible, revolutionary for a writer. I had the answers to any question just a few keystrokes away, instantaneous. Wow. This was almost prohibitive as I began looking things up I really didn’t need know and would spend hours reading about the lives of peasants when all I was after was to learn if they wore wool or linen clothes. So I began limiting my research to those moments when I was stuck or stumped.

The Emerald Storm changed things.

A large part of the story would be set aboard a sailing ship, and I’m not a sailor. This time I had to do research. So for a full year in advance of even starting that book, while I was still writing Nyphron Rising, I began reading everything I could about the Age of Sail. I read Nelson’s Navy by Blake & Lawrence, the Hornblower novels by C.S. Forrester, Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr. etc. I have notebooks full of jargon, terms and even maps of ship’s decks.

This resulted in its own problem. When you have no research, you focus on the story and characters, but neglect the setting and details, but when you have a wealth of knowledge on a subject, you tend to want to share this. The result is that you over do it. I anticipated this. It is the same concept as over-world-building, something I feel too many fantasy stories suffer from. An author works for years creating a world, but so little is really needed to tell any story that it is easy to become frustrated that all this cool stuff you spent months laboring over will never be known. It is easy to dump it in telling yourself that the readers will love the detail and depth. A few may, but I know for my own part, I prefer a story that centers on the characters and the plot and doesn’t take side trips. So I had to be careful not to include unnecessary information, that while I thought was really interesting, didn’t add to the story and was merely more words for a reader to push through to get to the good parts.

The Emerald Storm did teach me that more research could help the books, so I did begin doing more. I picked up William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire, which gave me a clearer view of common life in the middle ages and the Renaissance. Sadly, I can’t recall all of them, there was a down-sizing move in there from Raleigh to DC that saw the loss of many things, but I read several other text books, and filled a moleskin notebook with notes and drawings that I referred to throughout the writing of the books.

Now this was at a time when I was writing Wintertide, and while I had an agent, I still had not found a publisher. So I could go back and add what I learned to the earlier books. This allowed me to beef up some of the descriptions and make them “more accurate,” or at least more consistent with Earth history. Then after being published, I used this information when doing edits and re-writes.

Avempartha improved from my having read that poor medieval families slept all in one bed and kept their livestock in their homes with them, and that they frequently did not have doors on their houses. Nyphron Rising benefited from learning exactly how a feudal manor actually worked, and from researching the inner workings of a castle. Most of this came from random Google searches to sites like the one I provided above. Again I simply typed searches into Google and scanned the various sites. Those that provided more detailed information I would bookmark, and I put all those bookmarks into a folder marked “book research.” Sadly the computer I had died two years ago and I lost that list. But there wasn’t anything wondrous on it. Most of the sites I found held only one or two bits of obscure information that I wanted. It wasn’t as if I had two or three sites that answered all my questions. I actually found it difficult to find hard data on the life style of the common man in the middle ages.

So to answer your question Henry, besides the listed resources, I have also read Chaucer and lots of old history text books that since I graduated high school I made a habit of reading when eating breakfast and lunch, mostly because they were big and lay open nicely, and because I like history. But the reality remains that I did very little research. I’m not sure why, but I feel that I should be embarrassed to admit that the vast majority of the series is just my imagination. Anyone one using my books to do a research paper on the life of a peasant farmer in 1100AD will be in big trouble. Despite this, I am surprised when people ask me if I am a practicing sword fighter. Some--who declare themselves as fencers or sword fighters themselves--comment on how accurate the dueling scenes in my books are. To this, I can only shrug. Who knew.

By the way, should anyone else have a question they would like me to answer, please ask.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks Michael. I suspected you would say that you were mostly using your imagination. Not because of a lack of accuracy or detail in your work, but because by reading your blog and posts in Goodreads I'd gotten a sense of how you work. It must be very difficult for a writer to strike the balance of giving enough for the reader to paint a picture in their minds, without slowing down the story. Specially when you really like history and find out so many interesting things!

    Thanks for answering my question, I am looking forward to sailing the high seas soon.

    -Henry

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  2. Thanks for posing the question. One less blog topic I have to think up.

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  3. I have been wondering a lot lately on authors and research. I would think that some would do great research for their books and others with more fantasy could do more from imagination. I really enjoyed this post, and learning more on that. Thank you for sharing this information.

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