Posts Tagged ‘research’

Where to Find Story Ideas: Research

Good afternoon, squiders. Today, in our search for inspiration, we’re going to talk about research.

This is exactly what it sounds like–you need to know something (or know more about something) for a story, and so you research it. This can happen at any stage of the process, from when you’re still in the outlining/planning/expanding premise phase to writing the draft to revision.

Personally, I like research at the very beginning, when you’re still considering what sort of story you’re going to write.

If you do your research before you get going, not only do you allow yourself the opportunity to make sure you understand the world you’re creating, so that it feels alive and real from the first page, but you may find some neat things that you can tie into your characterization or your plot. Some research may be integral to the very essence of your story, and if you don’t look first, you’ll miss it.

This varies from story to story. Sometimes you come into a story with a good idea of the story you want to tell, and you only need details to make sure you’re not going to sound like an idiot. Sometimes you have a vague idea, something like “I’d like to write about death spirits” or “alternatives to werewolves in modern day” or “would it be possible to hide an advanced civilization in Central Park.”

Your research can directly shape your story with the latter type. With my novel Shards, for example, I went into my research with “immortals that aren’t vampires” and the research that followed gave me my characters, their personalities, my plot, and a lot of important mythology that’s woven throughout.

With another story that I’ve yet to write, my research has given me two distinct paths to take: death magic or dark magic, both of which are awesome. As I flesh out the story more, I’ll be able to decide which set of research will be more beneficial for the story I want to tell.

Now, you can use research for other story aspects as well. If your story is set in a real place, you’d better be sure you have the details right for it. I have some authors I refuse to read because they can’t take the time to pick up the map and make sure they’ve stuck things in the right place, and there’s nothing more distracting than reading a book where every time something setting-related comes up it throws you out of the story.

(Also: check weather patterns and so forth so you’re not making it rain constantly in a desert environment, etc.)

Same thing for dealing with real cultures, communities, etc. No matter how obscure you think something is, someone who knows about it probably will read your book, and if you get it wrong, they’ll be annoyed.

NOTE: Just because you’ve done your research on a place doesn’t mean you need to hammer that in. It can be off-putting to read things like “She continued down Park Boulevard and turned right on Harrison Avenue, passing Jefferson and Washington before arriving at the CVS at the corner of Harrison and 15th right next to the Bennigan’s.”

Research can be time consuming, and you do run the risk of over-researching, where it’s taking up all of your creative time and you end up with more material than you need or could ever possibly use. (This can be okay if said research can be applied to multiple stories.) It can be helpful to periodically look at the information you’ve acquired to see if you have what you need or to see if you need to focus on a specific subject to round things out.

It also helps to organize your research so you get something useful out of it.

WARNING: Research is like a spice when it comes to actual story drafting. You just need a pinch of it here or there to give your story added depth and realism (even in a fantasy or science fiction world). Just because you know all the polite rules of etiquette for a particular time period doesn’t mean your readers want to read that. Authors can sometimes get caught up in a subject and want to show off their knowledge of it, but this is almost always detrimental to the story you’re trying to tell. Remember: just a pinch, just enough for some subtle seasoning.

As for where to do your research, libraries can be your best friends. They have nonfiction material on any subject you could ever want, usually in multiple formats (for example, I find videos helpful when doing place research because it gives you a sense of the life of the place) for whatever suits your fancy. The Internet is another good place to look, especially if you’re looking mostly for inspiration and are less concerned with how accurate the information is. Interviews with people are also a great source, for when you have a character that has a career you know nothing about or has life experience outside of your own. There are also specific writing resources to help you present things accurately, and most writing forums have a place where you can ask questions and get answers from people who know better than you on a subject.

For organizing, I find it helps to have a specific document for each story. General research that can be useful in the future can go into your idea file, but if you’re doing research for a particular story, having it all in one place rather than mixed in with your other ideas and research makes a huge difference. I usually make a big long list of useful tidbits and then periodically free write some connections between the information to get an idea of how the information can be used.

What do you think, squiders? Anything to add? Favorite place to do research? Best example of how research has helped you with a story?

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Using Your Phone as a Notebook

First of all, though, I’ve been remiss on telling you guys about stuff.

  • I have a new free short story, called Band of Turquoise, up at Turtleduck Press. Go read it! (It’s nice and short.)
  • SF Signal featured Band of Turquoise in its round up of free stories, which is pretty dang cool.
  • And I totally spaced on telling you guys, but me and the entire Turtleduck Press gang were interviewed by Full Coverage Writers on their videocast last night. You can find that video here. (There are squid. Just saying.)
  • On a similar note, we’ll be on FCWriter’s videocast again next week. I’ll hopefully remember to remind you guys about that in a timely fashion.

Now, on to the show.

A common writing tip is to carry a notebook with you at all times. A little one, pocket-sized or so, and a pen or similar writing utensil. That way, when you have an idea, whether it’s a new story, an idea to help you break writer’s block, or just something that may prove useful later, you can whip out your notebook, jot it down, and save it for later use.

In practice, I find this problematic. I don’t carry a purse, and women’s pockets are tiny and mostly decorative, which makes notebook/pen combos difficult to stow. Also, tiny notebooks tend to wander off when you most need them, so the result is that I have half a dozen tiny notebooks, two of which I can find at any given time and none of which have more than a few pages used.

I’ve found it’s much more useful to use my phone as a tiny notebook. I already have my phone with me most of the time, and there’s a tiny of apps you can put notes in, many of which are backed up elsewhere on the cloud so you can access them from your computer or from a new phone should something happen to the old one (unlike a tiny notebook of mine which suffered a traumatic and fatal incident with tea).

Here’s a sampling of apps that can be used for this purpose:

  • Google Drive
  • EverNote
  • Google Keep
  • OneNote

No doubt there are others, but these are the ones people I know use. Personally, I mainly use Google Keep. I find the Drive phone apps non-intuitive, and I haven’t managed to get my act together enough to check out the various Notes.

How about you, Squiders? Leave a comment about your note-taking method of choice and what, if any, justification you have for making said choice.

Writer Problems: Weird Searches

Sometimes, Squiders, I’m thankful I’m a fantasy author. Well, a lot of the time. But, in this case, I get to avoid some of the more macabre searches that mystery and other genre authors probably have to do.

Luckily, in this day and age, your search history is between you and the NSA, and you don’t have to, I don’t know, make friends with police officers or surgeons or undertakers to get information or whatever it was people did before the Internet existed.

But we still need information, and in order to make stories interesting, sometimes we need really strange and disturbing information that would make people think you were a serial killer if you brought it up in normal conversation.

I imagine mystery/thriller writers have it the worse, what with having to come up with new and inventive ways to kill people. But I’ve had to make some odd searches myself from time to time.

There was the time where I did a ridiculous amount of research on blood to see whether it was possible for an intelligent life form to have blood that was not oxygen-based, only to have one of my betas point out a fatal flaw in my evolutionary logic anyway.

There was the time I needed to figure out if being stabbed in a certain location would kill someone.

I’ve done a lot of research on stabby things in general.

Also with setting people on fire, and drowning…

Okay, I take back the earlier comment about it being better to be a fantasy writer.

Ever done any especially disturbing bits of research, Squiders, that it’s probably just better to never tell anyone?

Writer Problems: Too Much Research

So, my husband and I were chatting last night, and he repeated something someone had said about guardian angels.

Me> Did you know that the Muslims believe that you have two shifts of guardian angels? And people are most at risk at dawn and dusk during the changing of the guard, as it were.
Husband> …what does that have to do with this conversation?

Research. I’ve talked in the past about how it can enhance a story, even if you’ve got it set in the real world in modern times. And I think, to some extent, that writers really like research, because it seems like we tend to go overboard with it and end up with way more than any sane person would ever logically need.

Part of that may be because we’re not quite sure what we’re looking for (with Shards, which is of course why I know random guardian angel trivia, some of the stuff I researched directly impacted the entire plot and worldbuilding, but it was not stuff I was aware of beforehand), part of it may be that we want to be as informed as possible (because I’ve noticed when other authors get things wrong about things I know about in their books), and part of it may be that we just like learning, and if we’re writing a book on a related subject, it’s probably already something we’re interested in.

But, anyway, writers do more research than necessary, in most cases. And then you can’t actually put it in a book. You use your knowledge to create the right atmosphere, to make sure your characters are acting appropriately, maybe twist it into your plot, but most of that information just sits behind the scenes, necessary but not really there.

But you, as the author, knows it, and then it tends to come out at inopportune times, like dinner parties or to your extremely religious relatives that probably don’t want to know how the Bible was constructed or when, and how Moses probably did not write the books attributed to him because there’s four distinct writing styles AND the whole thing was probably written a good thousand years after Moses lived, and…

…you get the point.

Any research that tends to seep out into your normal lives, squiders? Do you have any embarrassing, random knowledge stories? If so, please share.

Working With Mythology When No One Agrees On Anything: Angel Mythology

How’s that for a mouthful of a title? I’m rather proud of it.

So, my book Shards, coming out in December, has a lot of mythology mixed into it. The main mythology is Biblical, specifically relating to angels, so I got to do a whole bunch of research before I started my initial draft.

Here’s the thing about mythology. It’s super interesting but nothing is set in stone. You can very rarely make any sort of absolutes, because someone out there has found some version of a myth where what you were thinking is absolutely true is not true. That’s even true if you look at Arthurian legend, which, in the great scheme of mythology, isn’t very old. Morgan le Fay is Arthur’s sister. No, she’s not. She’s a sorceress. She’s not. Etc., etc., et al.

Angel mythology is especially non-cohesive because of the many different types of people who believe in angels. Besides Christians, Jews, and Muslims, you have people who are not religious at all, people who think of them as some sort of nature spirits, even people who see them as some sort of cosmic energy manifest.

And even if you stick within a single belief system, the mythology varies between time periods and subgroups.

I think perhaps the most telling of how insane angel mythology can get is the Archangels vs archangels madness. You see, there’s a hierarchy of angels (well, several, depending on who you’re talking to, which really just proves my point), and one of the tiers is “archangel.” Yet the Archangels–Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, etc. (more on this in a moment)–don’t belong to the archangel choir. Generally, Michael and Gabriel are considered to be Seraphim, which is the highest angelic order. (There’s more leeway with Raphael, but he’s generally portrayed as at least a Throne.) It’s like somewhere along the way whomever was in charge of sticking angels in the hierarchy felt like the angels that actually dealt with humans needed to be bumped up a few notches.

And the Archangels themselves–there seems to be no agreement on how many there are, though it does seem to be split between four and seven. And there’s about 20 different angels that fit into that four/seven depending on who you ask, which names such as Chamuel, Zadkiel, Jophiel, Jeremiel, Salathiel, Phaltiel…you get the point.

And various angels, such as Sammael or Azrael, have positive or negative connotations based on who you talk to as well.

If you try to make everything agree with everything else, you’re going to have a major headache.

So, what do you do when your mythology is all over the place? You pick what works for the story at hand, and you run with it.

And then you save the rest for other stories later on.

What’s your favorite mythologies, Squiders? What discrepancies have you noticed within them?

Research Makes a Story Richer

Ah, research. I know it doesn’t necessarily sound fun (unless you’re one of those people, like me, who goes, “Oh, I don’t really know anything about evil spirits. Time to go to the library! Glee!”) but a little realism can go a long way.

Even if it’s something as simple as looking at a map to see where things are in relation to each other, research can be the difference between taking your reader on a fantastic read and distracting them to the point where they’re pulled out of the story.

To continue on with the post from a few weeks ago, I have a book I’m editing that partially takes place in Greece. I wrote that section based off random tidbits I’ve picked up from pop culture over the years. However, one of my beta readers had been to Greece, and the whole section distracted her because she could tell how wrong I was.

But it’s not just places that can benefit from research. Mythology, science, history, societal customs, languages–all of these can bring richness and fullness to your story. It’s one thing to have a Hispanic character, but another to look into common customs in Hispanic households. Looking into mythology can teach you little known facts about legends that provide the direction you need to bring your story together. And it’s one thing to write about a Victorian-esque society, but actually knowing something about the Victorians will help you sell it.

So, how do you go about researching? Well, I recommend choosing the media that appeals to you the most. I always hit the books first because that’s my preference. (Assuming the library has books on the particular subject.) Then I head to the internet. I try to stick to somewhat legitimate sources, such as Wikipedia. But if you find it hard to pick up facts from the written word, you can listen to podcasts or watch movies.

Take notes as you go, or you’ll never remember everything you want to.

Any researching tips you’d like to pass on, Squiders? Any books you’ve read recently where someone obviously didn’t bother?

Ghost Stories

I have been reading a ridiculous amount of ghost stories lately.  Usually in the bright daylight, because I’m the sort of person that will freak myself out and then I will end up spending the night with the lights on watching Disney movies.  (I watched Cartoon Network once, but I either found or managed to dream the most disturbing Flintstones episode of all time, so that is no longer an option.)

I swear this isn’t random.  In the science fiction serial I’ve been working on, there’s a black cat.  I knew I wanted the cat to be important, but I wasn’t sure how, and so I put “cat protectors” into Google and somehow found a website called yourghoststories.com.  It’s user submitted stories and pictures, and while some stories are obvious hoaxes, a lot of them read “true” enough.

I did end up finding a purpose for my cat (elsewhere) but I find the stories to be interesting and I’ve found some things that I might use for a dark fantasy novel I’m planning.  The comments are a treasure-trove, full of people offering solutions to various ghostly issues and recommending things not to do.  It is brilliant.  I do wish the search function worked better so I could search for stories pertaining to certain things (mirrors, doors, portals) because right now I have to haphazardly jump from story to story.

I am a bit worried that I will eventually manage to scare myself silly anyway, but I persist in my reading for now.

How do you feel about stories of the paranormal?  Silly, scary, good story fodder?  Inquiring minds (and landsquid) want to know.