Sunday, June 29, 2014

Research - A Writer's Homework

Research is a kind of homework that comes with writing. Rarely, a writer knows already everything about his story, and then again there is always a dimension that needs research. 

Dimensions or Research
Every dimension is different with regards to sources. However, some sources are almost omnipotent, or rather do have a portal function to different sources. The best example would be Google, but I would also count the library or Wikipedia to this category. In any case it is beneficial to read books, that had the same topic or similar ideas. For example, if you write about time travel, you probably want to read The Time Traveler's Wife, Up the line, or Timequake or watch the movie A Sound of Thunder.

I see the following dimensions, that affects the most of the stories

  • Geography
  • History
  • Psychology/Anthropology
  • Physics/Chemistry
  • Other Areas

You have to know where your story plays. My first novel was playing in Burlington, VT in the near future. I had to use several sources in order to have a picture in my mind. Mostly, I used google maps and its street view, but I also browsed through an extensive number of photos on the web. I did the same with other locations or in order to estimate travel time by car between locations. Of course, the best would have been to visit and spend some time there, but you will probably not be able to do this for all your locations.

However, geography is more than just the location. Depending on scenes you might need to know if one can see a certain mountain or where in spring the sun rises. Additionally, in Fantasy and Science Fiction, the world you build must be cohesive. For example on an ice planet like Hoth in Star Wars, you might want to think about how a food chain could look like. Food chain would also be a topic in Pitch Black. You may not want to build in all research in the book, but for sure you want to have an explanation in the back of your head (and give away some glimpses here and there).

Main sources for geography: 

  • For a present-day view: Google maps/street-view, Wikipedia, Google (pictures), or Pinterest
  • For a deeper understanding of the context: National Geographic or similar geography specific resources, or the good old geography high-school book (or call up your old teacher - he might be happy to hear from you)
  • Special resources: If necessary and available, first hand information is always a good idea, such as calling up the local tourist office or similar. Sometimes, I go very deep and even look-up crime related websites in order to gain a feeling for how secure a certain area is.

History is another topic that affects most of the stories we write. In order to know why things happened, we want to consult history books or online sources, such as Wikipedia or Best History Websites. Again, the various history school books from the library are an excellent resource.

If you are writing a historic novel, the history research becomes crucial. To be honest, I've never written a historic novel, but I would suggest the best resources to start with are the library and historic films/tv shows. You might think the later is too much stereotype, but it will give you a good basis for your further research. Going from there you also might consider visiting a museum in order to get a feeling for the epoch and eventually talk to people who deal with it professionally. Have you ever talked with somebody, who survived a concentration camp, or with somebody who lived in East Berlin when the wall came down. You will understand much more than you could get from any other source.

Main sources for History: 

  • Wikipedia
  • Library (fiction and non-fiction, I'm sure the librarian is happy to help you)
  • Specialized Internet pages: history channel, Best History Websites, etc.
  • Museums
  • Professionals (history teacher/ -professor, museum curator etc.)
  • Contemporary witnesses

The same as with the two first dimensions, the third dimension is again relevant for most stories. Although I suggest to not overdo it, unless you write a novel like Kafka's The Trial.

Still, I think it is key to know some basics about the motivation in human behavior as well as the behavior of the different type in groups. It makes your writing more real, if you are aware of the human nature.

However, if you write a novel where psychology has a main stake, e.g. one of your characters is autistic or a serial killer you need to do in-depth research about this specific part. Outside the usual Internet research and some specialized books ( fiction and non-fiction), I definitively suggest to talk to a psychiatrist or even somebody who suffers from a specific mental illness.

One word to forums: I would stay away from them. Usually, you will receive generalized personal experiences, mixed with answers from non-professionals. It is very hard to filter them out.

Main sources for Psychology/Anthropology: 

  • Wikipedia
  • Library (again, the librarian can be better than google)
  • Professionals (ask your doctor if he knows somebody who can help you)
  • Specialized websites: American Anthropological Association etc.

Outside of the very basic knowledge you might need in stories, especially Science Fiction stories need more background know-how in physics. How far away are the next stars and how long would it take to get there at the speed of light? Why is it, by the way, that with the current knowledge it's impossible to travel at the speed of light?

Some basic knowledge might be found on Wikipedia, but I think the best source might be the SiFi-Forums on the Internet. There are also very good (i.E. digestible) books, such as A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. 

Main sources for physics/chemistry: 

  • Wikipedia
  • MinutePhysics (podcast or facebook page: Complex concepts, explained in an easy way)
  • The Classroom Physics in case you need to start with the basics
  • CERN
  • Hard Sience Fiction literature - these guy did their research

Other Areas
Additional fields of research might include medicine or botanics, for example when you write about the Spanish Flu or the next pandemic. It all depends on your story.

But let me loose some words about economics at the end. Even if you are not writing the next John Grisham, certain parts of economics are relevant for every story. Even if you are creating a new magic system, basic economics applies, such as magic has to come with a cost, or else, why not using it for everything.

Another example would be the Star Trek Holodecks - there must be a cost, otherwise I would enter and happily die in there decades later.

Note: I am aware of the fact, that Wikipedia is a semi-reliable source. While I think it is a good and reliable source in most of the topics, you still have to see it as a POV-library, rather than a reviewed source.

Note 2: My experience with professionals has mostly been very positive. The explanation, that you are writing a novel and need some help to get the background right, has opened many doors.

Happy researching,

Your writer in a foreign land

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