Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Research, Research, Research!

[sarcastic voice] Who doesn’t just love homework research? [/sarcastic voice]

Most writers likely will agree that research is a very large part of the job. I also figure I’m not alone in that I tend to run hot and cold on actually doing the research, depending on the topic. For example: legal matters or politics? Yuck. Military history or blowing up stuff? I'm there.

As one who toils mostly in the realm of science fiction, the research I sometimes have to undertake is of its own special flavor. There are many, many occasions when I have to do a fair bit of science homework, mostly so that I can understand a “real world” concept or piece of technology in order to be able to sound like something less than a total moron when I’m writing about it.

Results on that tend to vary, by the way.

For science fiction writing, that also can mean being able to grasp the concept well enough to then extrapolate from the real information in order to take a stab at where that idea or technology might be fifty or a hundred years down the road. Even if you’re making up a chunk of technobabble, more often than not you still need to ground it in something that’s not a bunch of stuff you just pulled out of the air, or some other place we probably shouldn’t mention here in this more or less family-friendly blog.

When it comes to licensed works like my Star Trek novels, there’s also the requirement to be updated on that universe, its characters and technology and, yes, even the internal “mythology” which spreads across six television series and eleven films comprising a “future history” of hundreds of years. In some cases, there’s more to track, because I might be writing a book in an ongoing series which carries forward story arcs spanning multiple novels written by other authors. And if I get something wrong? There are legions of fans and readers out there, just waiting to pounce. Hey, I knew the job would be tough when I took it, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Of course, sometimes the needs of a project end up taking me in the opposite direction, too. A project on which I’m currently working has a plotline that unfolds over a period of many years, beginning in the 1940s and extending to the late 1960s. My research has caused me to read up on such topics as the Cold War and the Space Race, but also more mundane subjects like how telephones worked, what people wore or the newspaper they might read or the brand of cigarettes they smoked. Everybody smoked back then, right? And it was good for you. What was on television or the radio on a given day? Which day of the week did a particular date fall? Was it a full moon? The Internet makes research like this so much easier than it might’ve been even ten or fifteen years ago. If you can conjure the right search query, there’s likely at least one website out there with all the information you might possibly want.

Naturally, there’s a pitfall here: You risk becoming so fascinated with a particular topic that you end up spending hours reading just for the kick of it, rather than taking notes for use in your story. This has happened to me on my current project, in which I found myself reading about UFO sightings in the 1950s, and the Air Force’s Project Blue Book. I’ve even tracked down books on the subject written during that time period, just so I could get something approaching a genuine firsthand perspective of the era. Of course, another danger comes from getting so caught up in your newfound knowledge that you’re unable to resist sharing all the minutiae with your readers. I’ve caught myself doing that over the last month or so as I write. Danger, Will Robinson!

How about you? What sort of research do you do for your particular brand of writing? Do you like research, or dread it?


Eugenia O'Neal said...

I adore research! In fact, I think sometimes the writing is just the excuse for spending hours reading up on all kinds of esoteric things. Right now, I'm working on a non-fiction project for which I spent more than a year on research - when five came, I would zip away from work and spend the next couple hours or so poring over old books. In addition, to my actual project I kept a spare notebook to jot down interesting stuff that had nothing to do with my current subject. I was in heaven!

KeVin K. said...

Funny you should mention this, Dayton, I was just doing some research on this very topic...

A fun toy on the internet is calendar generators for Jewish, Muslim, Chinese and other systems. I've been known to have characters of different cultures refer to the same day differently. I've also been researching the same time period for an alternate history I've been working on; a common frame for a projected collection of stories and novels. (One short story of which is available on Kindle.) FDR's health doesn't let him run for a third term and the Dixiecrats are in power for over a decade. Tracking down all the 'what would change how if...' possibilities is both maddening and addicting. I think it's called Turtledove Syndrome.

I must strictly limit my research time or it will eat up my day. Unlike you I don't have topics that don't interest me; every internet journey has the potential to become a black hole. But. Quality research, accurate and relevant, is essential to any writing.
(Though most of my self-editing does consist of cutting out great blocks of information no one but I care about.)

Charles Gramlich said...

Like you, I enjoy some kinds of research. I love figuring out things about planets and stars for example, extrapolating from current knowledge. I don't much like politics, although military history is a lot of fun. I just don't write about baseball or golf, which I'd have to do research on and would hate. :)

Dayton Ward said...

I once had to research about golf, but it was only so I could figure out the best way for an assassin to take out a group of golfers. :)