Writing Work   9 comments

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

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I do quite a bit of research, but I rarely do it before I begin a book. As a character-driven discovery writer, I don’t know how to start a book through research. Sometimes I’ll read an article or meet someone who inspires me and a character will start to form in my mind. I suppose you could count that as “research”, but I don’t. It always starts with the character telling me his or her story. And generally, I don’t have a lot of research to go on when I start writing. Being accurate is overrated. Telling a good story is paramount.

But, yes, I like to be accurate. I’m a detailed-oriented person who thinks the big picture is made up of pixels and if you don’t have the pixels right, the big picture might not turn out so well. So at some point, I have to do some research.

I poisoned a king in The Willow Branch. Yeah, it’s a fantasy novel and it’s an alternative universe, so I could have been really loosy-goosy and probably been fine with that, but I researched a bit about poisons before I published. I talked to a University of Alaska-Fairbanks botonist who told me all about Alaska’s poisonous plants. I chose one with the historic name “wolf’s bane”, never realizing (and not alerted by my botonist friend) that what Alaskans call “wolf’s bane” is somewhat different from what Europeans call “wolf’s bane.” So someone emailed me about how you couldn’t just drink wolf’s bane and not know you were drinking poison. My botonist insists, if you mix Alaskan wolf’s bane with alcohol, you could get a fatal dose down before you realized it was poisonous. This started me to thinking – did I have to follow the rules that precisely? If Europe is that different from Alaska, perhaps Daermad would be that much different from Earth, but my Celts might call similar plants by the same name and not even realize they were different — because their ancestors left Gaul 1000 years ago. So, I killed another nobleman in Murklin Wood using a shellfish with a similar poison to cyanide. As long as I’m consistent within my universe, I don’t think I’ll have a problem justifying it. I do pay some attention to chemistry, but I don’t need to be slavish in researching European poisons for the medieval era.

In Transformation Project, the town of Emmaus lives and dies by corn. I knew very little about corn farming. My grandfather was a corn and wheat farmer in North Dakota in the first half of the 20th century, but I’ve never lived that life and so, yes, I researched corn. It’s a surprisingly complex topic. The Delaneys are the principle family in the novel series and they are not corn farmers. I established in Objects in View that Shane doesn’t need to know that much about corn in order to be useful to the community. He knows about things like border security and how to barter at a zocalo. He’s going to leave the farming to his brother-in-law and best friend Alex. The research works its way into the books as off-hand topics. Realizing at some point that I’m not writing a technical manual on corn farming, I decided I didn’t really need to know how to farm corn or all of its uses and how to process it in order to write a novel where some characters are involved in corn farming. In “Gathering In” (the 5th book in the series due out this fall) Shane admits that what he doesn’t know about ethanol production would “fit into a large football stadium and might flow into another”. I know slightly more than he does. Again, off-hand comments in dialogue makes it seem like I know more than I do.

It got a little more tricky with Shane and Jacob being pilots. Although I have flown right seat in a general aviation aircraft, I am not a pilot. I know the basic controls, I could keep one in the air until it ran out of fuel and I could probably crash-land one. Jury’s out on whether anyone would walk away from that encounter with the ground. Theoretically, I know how to land one. I don’t have a few thousand dollars and a couple of hundred hours of free time to become a licensed pilot. And, so I studied hard to sound like I know what I’m talking about and then I try to write flying scenes from a passenger’s perspective — though I can’t always do that. The point is that I don’t probably need to become a pilot to depict characters who love to fly, but I do need enough knowledge so I’m not making stuff up.

I based the town of Emmaus on a real town, but I didn’t want to have to be slavishly tied to the details of that real town, so I made up a town and then use the real town as a template. I hate when I’m reading a book about Alaska and an author makes up stuff out of whole cloth. So, I chose not to do that. But sometimes, if I want authenticity, I go to Google maps and “drive” the interstate that’s outside of my template town. Or I “drive” around and look at buildings, so I can describe them in the book. But I change it so it’s not really that town. There’s no ridge north and west of that town. There’s no salt mine. The county seat isn’t where I say it is and there’s no hospital or courthouse there. The Delaney home actual exists here in Fairbanks Alaska, and Alex Lufgren’s farmhouse (sans windmill and old-school barn, which I saw in Utah) exists in Idaho. Yeah, I research, but I am not slave to my research.

I researched PTSD extensively for the character of Shane and then added a paranormal element to act as metaphor for what he’s experiencing. Grandpa Jacob will tell a chilling tale about World War 2 in “Gathering In”. Yes. all research. Obviously I didn’t live when the Allieds landed at Normandy. I picked an uncle who did and “stole his identity” for Jacob’s war record.

Although my main characters in Transformation Project share libertarian philosophy with me, I am by no means an expert on the topic, so I frequently have to go to sites I enjoy to research some fine point. What would Jacob do in this situation and how might he differ from his son Rob or his grandsons? It gives them an opportunity for conflict and it shows readers that this is not a set philosophy, but one that adapts to real life situations. They are governed by the non-aggression principle — until others are aggressive toward them.

Bottom Line – I do quite a bit of research for an author who rarely researches before she starts writing a book. I just do my research after I’ve established the ethos of the characters and come to love the world they live in.

Posted July 29, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Uncategorized

9 responses to “Writing Work

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  1. great article

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Corn farming is different from one part of the country to another, depending upon the weather. Growing corn on the southwest coast of Oregon can e a real challenge.


  3. Wolf’s Bane? I’ve never heard of it. Would that be Deadly Nightshade by any chance? Interesting post by the way!


    • Deadly nightshade (belladona) is not indigenous to the west hemisphere and its relatives (potatoes and tomatoes) not even the greens are aren’t poisonous. So my botanist friend didn’t even cover that. I’d read about it in European books, but I didn’t even think of it until after I wrote the scene. Wolfsbane is aconite. It’s called blue rocket in the Lower 48 or monkshood in Europe. Alaska has a version with yellow flowers. Apparently all parts of the plant are poisonous (explains why my friend’s goats will eat all around it), but the distilled roots are used by African pygmy in their dart poisons. The European and Lower 48 varieties are apparently quite bitter, but the Alaskan variety is milder, though I think it’s got a pretty sharp and distinctive odor that might give it away if concealed in a drink. But I needed a poison that could be drunk and would produce fairly quick results and Alaska aconite served the purpose.

      Liked by 1 person

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