Tag Archives: how to research your novel

Do the research before you do the murder #amwriting

I recently began reading a murder mystery where the author used a mushroom to kill the first victim. That’s where this book fell apart—the idea was good, but the facts and execution weren’t.

Using a mushroom stroganoff to poison him was a poor choice because fungi is an undependable weapon unless you are an expert. Also, individually, one mushroom may be more or less poisonous than another of the same kind, rather like people are. Judging how many one would need to kill a three-hundred-pound man takes more thought than I am capable of plotting out.

Also, it was stroganoff, which is basically beef and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce. This author danced over the fact that serving the food at this dinner party would have been a tactical nightmare. It would have been nearly impossible to ensure the intended victim got the poison mushrooms and no one else did, which is how this murder was written.

Agatha Christie knew that and regularly poisoned entire dinner parties, literarily speaking. Her murderers made everyone at the table sick but only the intended victim actually died.

This particular mystery was set in Scotland, and I don’t know how poisonous their mushrooms are, but I think that logic would hold true there as well as it does here in the Pacific Northwest.

If I hadn’t been on several nature walks with Ellen King Rice, a wildlife biologist and amateur mycologist who writes well-plotted mushroom thrillers, I would have accepted the slightly contrived fatal dinner as written and focused on the other failings of this novel.

This experience reinforced my belief that readers are often more knowledgeable than we authors are. E-readers can do the research just by highlighting the word and hitting search.

For this reason, having a solid base of information to back up what we are writing is critical.

My disappointment as a reader could have been avoided if the author had gone out to several mushroom hunter websites or even if she had found a local person to talk with. With only a small amount of effort, she could have made her plot a little less flimsy.

Targeted research is essential if you want your fiction to convey a feeling of truth. Identify what you want to know, use the internet, ask an expert, and create a searchable file or database of information that backs up your assertions.

Once you establish the technological era you are writing in, you know what you need to research and how theoretical you may have to get.

Here are some of my go-to sources of information:

If you seek information about low-tech societies (the past) :

My best source of information on low-tech agrarian (farm) life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid-to-late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This textbook was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who personally knew the people she wrote about.

I also find a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons.  Under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830), you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands.

These painters created accurate records of ordinary people going about everyday life. Their genre art depicts how they dressed, and what was important to them.

Talk to police, talk to doctors, talk to lawyers–many are willing to help you with your quest for accuracy about their professions. Also, you can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there.

Looking things up on the internet can suck up an enormous amount of your writing time. Do yourself a favor and bookmark your resources so all you have to do is click on a link to get the information you want. Then you can quickly get back to writing.

Resources to bookmark in general:

www.Thesaurus.Com (What’s another word that means the same as this but isn’t repetitive?)

Oxford Dictionary (What does this word mean? Am I using it correctly?)

Wikipedia (The font of all knowledge. I did not know that.)

TED Talks are a fantastic resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.

ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.

Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.

Nerds on Earth has useful information about swords and how they were used historically.

If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Big Name Bookstore, and look at the many publications available to the reading public. You can find everything from mushroom hunting, to culinary, to survivalist, to organic gardening. If people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.

We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.

SpaceX

NASA

Digital Trends

If you write sci-fi, you must read sci-fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the era of classic science fiction is today’s current tech.

Ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy.

Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side, and your teenagers won’t put theirs down long enough to eat dinner.

MAPS: If you are writing a story set in our real world and your characters will be traveling, walking a particular city, or visiting landmarks, bookmark google maps for that area and refer back to it regularly to make sure you are writing it correctly.

USE GOOGLE EARTH!

If you are writing about a fantasy world and your characters will be traveling, quickly sketch a rough map. Refer back to it to ensure the town names and places remain the same from the first page to the last. Update it as new locations are added.

Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the many bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing. And for the love of Agatha Christie, make sure your literary murders are done in a way that doesn’t fly in the face of logic.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Jan Steen, Dutch (active Leiden, Haarlem, and The Hague) – Rhetoricians at a Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Jan_Steen,_Dutch_(active_Leiden,_Haarlem,_and_The_Hague)_-_Rhetoricians_at_a_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=355150081 (accessed September 10, 2020).

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#amwriting: do the reasearch

People always ask what you do for a living, as we are a society of people who define ourselves by our occupations. For many years, I was a bookkeeper, and also, I worked in data entry for several large corporations. Before that, during the 1980s and Reaganomics, I worked as a hotel maid, a field hand, and had several other odd occupations, often holding down three part-time jobs.

When you tell people you write books, they are, generally, interested. When you tell them you write speculative fiction, you get a range of reactions, from pitying condescension to confused, but sincere, respect.

Sometimes people laugh and tell me how easy it must be since I can make any old thing up and it will fly. Despite the old saying that “in wine there is truth,” nothing could be further from the truth.

Readers know when you have gone off the track and into the shrubs of “that can’t possibly happen.”

This means you can’t just make any old thing up because world building must combine enough realism with the created world to make the fantasy plausible. It involves research.

I spend hundreds of hours researching the most trivial details for every book I write. If I get it wrong, it’s because I failed to do the research in the right place.

In the process of writing Huw the Bard and the subsequent stories set in that world, I’ve learned as much as many medieval scholars about how people dressed, what they ate, how they earned a living, how they preserved food and every intimate detail of their lives that is researchable.

I know all of this because I read scientific papers written by experts on the subject, all of which are available to us via the internet. My files are full of the fruits of other people’s efforts, with the sources documented and the authors credited, so I know where to go to find out more if I need to. Lists of links to websites for further research is critical because when one book goes to press, a new book is already falling out of my fevered mind and onto the paper.

Readers are smart. If something is impossible, and you don’t somehow make it probable, you will lose your readers. The best way to make the impossible probable is to mix your fantasy with a good dose of real history. Be historically accurate as often as you can, so that when your blacksmith makes a weapon, readers who know about smithing will not be jarred out of the story by inaccuracy.

Most of the time, these things you spend untold hours researching will only get one line in your narrative, but if that line is inaccurate or impossible, your readers will know you were too lazy to do it right.

The following is my short list of go-to websites for in-depth, accurate information for when I am writing, including grammar questions. They are self-explanatory and are easy to make use of. Submit your questions via their query box and, while figuring out what you really need to know may take several tries, you will soon have answers.

Medieval Histories  http://www.medievalhistories.com

Academia http://www.academia.edu/

NASA https://www.nasa.gov/

Physics http://www.physics.org/

Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Grammarist  http://grammarist.com/

I’ve learned a great deal from reading the literature of medieval times. If you really want to know how people lived, read a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They were bawdy, irreverent, and loved nothing more than a good joke.

For example, if you are writing a story set in a medieval environment, you may need to know what clothing the common European people wore in medieval times. Or you might want to know what their home looked like, or a village. For that, I suggest you seek out the art of the Flemish Painters. There you’ll see what men and women looked like and how they dressed, both for celebrations, and for working. You will see what their towns looked like, and the public places they gathered in. The interiors of their homes are also found in the great Flemish painter’s works.

Any time you want an idea of average European village life in the Late Middle Ages through the 17th century, you need to look no further than Wikimedia Commons.  There, under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830) you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters. These were artists living in what is now The Netherlands, and who were creating accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, along with stylized religious images.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Peasant Wedding (1526/1530–1569) via Wikimedia Commons

They painted their subjects with a heavy dose of religious allegory, but that was a part of village life—both the Inquisition and the Reformation were under way, and the politics of religion was in the very air they breathed. If you are going to write medieval fantasy, you must understand how strong the influence of the Church was and how entangled it was in politics. You must inject that religious realism into your work, and show how the Church, even a fantasy religion, and its politics affect the common person’s life.

My regular readers know I love the work of one family of early Dutch painters from Flanders, the Brueghel Family. Five generations of their family were well-known painters and printmakers.

The internet is your friend, and researching your fantasy novel can be incredibly entertaining. Research is what slows me down more than anything. I spend far too many happy hours on Wikimedia Commons, looking at 16th-century Netherlandish paintings.

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#amwriting: When reality meets fantasy

800px-Flexham_coppice_bluebells

Bluebells in Sweet Chestnut coppice at Flexham Park, Bedham near Petworth, West Sussex, England. via Wikimedia Commons

Over the weekend, I discovered how to make charcoal, in a sustainable way, learning how it was done in medieval Europe. Of course, I learned about this by going to the internet, to one of my favorite go-to sites for research: Medieval Histories.

I’ve read before about how the massive production of charcoal in the Middle Ages was a major cause of deforestation—everyone needed it to heat their homes, and entire economies depended on it.

However, as time went on, people learned how to create sustainable sources of wood for both firewood and carpentry, by coppicing. Coppices were cut and regrown cyclically so that a steady supply of charcoal would be available.

Archaeological evidence for this style of forestry management goes back 5,000 years in England. Timber in the Sweet Track in Somerset (built in the winter of 3807 and 3806 BC) has been identified as coppiced lime trees (also known as linden or basswood).

According to the Fount of All Knowledge, Wikipedia: Coppicing is an English term for a traditional method of woodland management which takes advantage of the fact that many trees make new growth from the stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level. In subsequent growth years, many new shoots will emerge, and, after some years the coppiced tree, or stool (what we think of as a stump), is ready to be harvested, and the cycle begins again.

So, in doing research for a tiny portion of my new, just begun work-in-progress, I learned something new.

Over the years, when I tell people what I write, some have laughed and said I’m lucky I write fantasy because I can make any old thing up and it will fly.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I spend hundreds of hours researching the most trivial details for every book I write. If I get it wrong, it’s because I failed to do the research. In the process, I’ve learned as much as many medieval scholars about how people dressed, what they ate, how they earned a living, how they preserved food and every intimate detail of their lives that is researchable.

I know all of this because I read scientific papers written by experts on the subject, all of which are available to us via the internet. My files are full of the fruits of other peoples efforts, with the sources documented and the authors credited so I know where to go to find out more if I need to. Lists of links to websites for further research is critical because when one book goes to press, a new book is already falling out of my fevered mind and onto the paper.

Readers are smart. If something is impossible, and you don’t somehow make it probable, you will lose your readers. The best way to make the impossible probable is to mix your fantasy with a good dose of real history. Be historically accurate as often as you can, so that when your blacksmith makes a weapon, readers who know about smithing will not be jarred out of the story by inaccuracy.

Most of the time, these things you spend untold hours researching will only get one line in your narrative, but if that line is inaccurate or impossible your readers will know you were too lazy to do it right.

This is my short list of go-to websites for in-depth, accurate information for when I am writing. They are fairly self-explanatory:

Medieval Histories  http://www.medievalhistories.com

Academia http://www.academia.edu/

NASA https://www.nasa.gov/

Physics http://www.physics.org/

Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Grammarist  http://grammarist.com/

The Wedding Dance, c.1566 (oil on panel) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69)

The Wedding Dance, c.1566 (oil on panel) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69)

I’ve learned a great deal from reading the literature of medieval times. If you really want to know how people lived, read a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. They were bawdy, irreverent, and loved nothing more than a good joke. If you want to know how they dressed, look no further than the “The Wedding Dance” a literal painting, steeped in allegory by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The internet is your friend, and researching your fantasy novel can be incredibly entertaining. For me, that is what slows me down more than anything. I spend far too many, but happy, hours on Wikimedia Commons, looking at 16th-century Netherlandish paintings.

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