Research, how do I love thee?

Let me count the ways…

The WIP leans towards being historical fiction, therefore set in a precise time and place. It requires much in the way of meticulous research – I may want my characters to do such and such, but would they actually have done it, living at that time and in that place? What clothes would they have been wearing, and what would the dust on their shoes smell like? I thought at the outset this need for veracity might prove tedious, as I’d never approached writing a novel in a ‘real world’ setting before, and my experience with historically-inspired short fiction certainly wouldn’t prepare me for the business of researching a full-length book. Don’t get me wrong – writing fantasy novels involves research, but it’s of the cherry-picking kind, where one co-opts the political system of one country and century and marries it with social and religious customs from another and weaves in geographical elements from a third… you get the picture.

Well, I needn’t have worried. The more I sink myself into this type of ‘total’ research, the more fascinating I find it. I go overboard, in fact. I study the geological makeup of certain beaches, the names of local construction companies, processes for making yoghurt and other minutiae, as well as broader political and historical contexts. It’s a blast. In this task the internet is my friend – work that would previously have taken daily trips to the library or even a major fact-finding voyage can now be done from home, with the aid of some enthusiast who has written a web page (or several) on precisely the obscure matter I need to research. Amazing.

Of course, an actual journey with the aim of talking to people, sniffing dust on my shoes and sifting through pebbles on the beach would be the proverbial cherry. But failing that, here on the other side of the planet, I’m very grateful for the obscure-fact-enthusiasts of the world.


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12 Responses to Research, how do I love thee?

  1. Helen Lowe says:

    That does sound fun, Mary. Do you have have issues aorund verifying information on the ‘obscure fact enthusiast’ pages?

    • MaryV says:

      That’s a big issue. I go by a few off the cuff rules, though nothing’s guaranteed on the web.

      1) References. The more a webpage cites sources, the happier I am. That way I can double check!

      2) Subject matter. If the subject is geology, say, and the study is underwritten by some university or government bureau, I’m fairly sure I’m on safe ground (argh sorry about the pun.) If the subject is highly controversial, for example an account of a war seen from one very biased and angry perspective, then I know I have to be careful. The likely truth in those cases is that the webpage content is true, but another webpage saying the opposite will also be true – simply because events like wars result in a vast array of contradictory experiences, everyone suffers, and everyone feels the other side is to blame.

      3) Who sponsors the page. Is this transparent propaganda? If so, file under ‘unreliable.’

      4) Is this a wikipedia page? Then it will contain elements of all of the above…

  2. Gillian says:

    One of the things I’ve been working on (all this work – I’m in danger of…something) is the level at which that history research turns into good writing. By ‘turns into’ I don’t mean automatically – I mean when a writer internalises enough so that the world comes to life. I’ve only been looking at history-based fiction – one day I must look at the difference between this and fantasy. I guess I one day ought to publish my findings…

    Anyhow, there is a distinct moment when the writing improves. When the history becomes integral to the narrative rather than information that gets dropped in or that is evidence for a thesis upon which the writer has already settled. The novels that get written when the writer reaches that stage seem to be far more effective emotionally ie they take us into that place and time more effectively. Also, the history stops being a backdrop or information dumps informing us of what we’re supposed to see and actually becomes the world of the novel. It’s magic. It’s magic that takes a lot of work by the writer, but it’s magic.

    • MaryV says:

      I agree, there’s an element of hocus pocus going on! It seems (and I say this knowing I’m just at the start of the process) it seems to me the net result should be almost invisible. So we don’t ‘see’ the research in the final product – we just feel it. It the hard work that goes into making something feel authentic; we shouldn’t be seeing info dumps, just hearing a tale. And by that I don’t mean the misunderstood adage, ‘show don’t tell’ – because I do believe one can tell, and tell beautifully, without making the reader feel like he or she is chewing on a lump of history…

  3. Ooh, yes, couldn’t agree more about the joy of research, but the Net is good for specific stuff, the rest of the time I just immerse myself in a good book or two or three or more, soaking up the info. I love going to discount bookshops like the Book Grocer, where you might come across anything from herbs to ancient Egypt, from the history of chocolate to book about the Antikythera gadget. You never know what you’ll find and sooner or later it will come in handy.

    • MaryV says:

      That’s a lovely notion – research in a second hand bookshop! I doubt I could find books on the subject I’m after, but you never know. Perhaps something would turn up…

      Actually, that sounds like a fantastic way to come up with an idea for a novel in the first place. Wander around a second hand bookshop, and wait till something jumps out at you…

  4. Bahiyyih says:

    This is all so thrilling, to hear you talking about how writing can become imbedded in the soil of historical research in order to branch into a credible world of fiction. I have been grappling with this issue for years – the science of research, the art of making it invisible – and I’d love to know what you all feel happens when you lean forward, or perhaps backwards, to hear the voices from the world you are recreating. I mean it is not only the facts – the hard material circumstances, the dust, the yogurt, the local construction companies, even the manoeuvrings of war – which are important and which give rise to interpretations. It’s the sound of peoples’ voices, and the speech patterns, and the human echoes of that other time and place. How do you get that “right”? How do you conjure the kind of language appropriate to that world, the thought music that is “in tune” with its paradigms, the metaphors that make up the sum of its mental arithmetic? How do you avoid anachronisms? What I find even more challenging than selecting from the internet is sifting through the lingo of our own 21st century pop psychology in order to find the “right” shape of words that would suit the story of another age and place. Here I tend to agree with Sue B. that other books are the best. Reading Vasily Grossman captures the intonation of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin better than anything in Wikipedia …

    • MaryV says:

      I think that’s right, the net is good for hard facts (within limits and with caveats,) but fiction oddly enough is where you find a different set of truths. I think you’d find it in poetry, too, and in myths and traditional stories. The soul of a place, rather than its flesh and bones, as it were.

      As to the voices… the problem is the same in any fiction, historical or otherwise. Does it feel authentic? Is the character speaking with his or her own voice? I don’t think you can second guess these things. Either they flow or not – either they work or not.

      At the end of the day, it’s always the author’s voice, anyway. Disguise it as you will.

  5. Bahiyyih says:

    I rather disagree with the last point. Yes, it’s the author’s voice, but no, that doesn’t mean that is always the “same” voice. The author can have a myriad different voices. AL Kennedy manages to get under the skin of a WWII tail gunner in a Lancaster bomber with such fluid ease that you have a hard time not believing the novel is not an autobiography. I’m not saying you should second guess the process. I’m saying that it is a marvel and the experience of having it happen is something worth pondering – after the event. Any thoughts you might have on the subject would be interesting…

    • MaryV says:

      Naturally I don’t mean the same voice. Of course. Indubitably. But it’s still us, underneath that skin, empathising, expressing and verbalising things which we sometimes disagree with completely. That’s a writer’s job, and it’s an honorable one. But it’s illusory to think you’re actually giving voice to someone else – unless you’re an author-medium channeling ghosts of people who never were, except in your imagination!

  6. Bahiyyih says:

    “But it’s illusory to think you’re actually giving voice to someone else – unless you’re an author-medium channeling ghosts of people who never were, except in your imagination!”

    This is the nub of the question: not “giving voice” to another, because that is almost like a violation of the rights of the dead, but how to pick up on the vibes of their voices from a long-ago past?

    • MaryV says:

      Do you mean, when dramatizing the life of an actual historical figure? Because I imagine that’s a whole different kettle of fish…

      My ‘dead’, as it were, are just fictions. I find them easier to listen to that way…

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