Or, more basically: How I research novels.
Research is the part of the iceberg you don’t see, and it’s crucial to creating a world that your readers can believe. Even if I was writing about central Ohio in 2015, I’d still need to make sure that what I was writing about could actually happen in this place and this time. Nothing takes me out of a book faster than an author who doesn’t do research.
Here’s a real-life example of the above. I read a book that was set in present day central Ohio a few years ago, but it drove me nuts, because the geography was all wrong. One of the protagonists was a professor at what was meant to be OSU, which is in a specific location downtown, within relations to hospitals, landmarks, and our freeway system. But the author clearly wasn’t from central Ohio, because she had this character going from the OSU-stand in to hospitals around the city in ways that aren’t possible because 1) we don’t have roads like she wanted us to have and 2) there were no hospitals where she wanted them. Since I’ve lived in Columbus and environs all my life, I know this area well. really well. I wanted to throw the book across the room every time I came upon another error in geography.
A good example of this is the novel The Weird Sisters, which also takes place near where I live. The family lives in a suburb of Columbus, and it’s described the way it actually it. OSU again plays a part in the novel, and the time it takes for the characters to get from their house to OSU is about what it would take to get there, from where they live.
Now, will anyone else in the world notice these things, other than crazy me? Maybe. Maybe not. But research, as I can tell you, is a critical component to creating a believable world, and thus, a believable novel.
When I was writing The Undesirables, I did a lot of research things like the federal appellate process, Korean food, time zones, and travel times. I also did a fair amount of research into the opera that I had my main character performing in at the beginning of the novel. In this case, Kate (my protagonist) is a contralto. Thus, I can’t have her singing Brunnhilde, which is not a contralto part. But Olga, in Eugene Onegin, is. I researched how operas are rehearsed, and looked up terminology, like a “sitzprobe” instead of a “music rehearsal”. (A sitzprobe is the term for the first time the singers sing through an opera with the orchestra. It’s also used in musical theater, occasionally.) In Undesirables, I did research as things occurred to me, because I didn’t have a solid idea of where the novel was going to go.
For The Gift of Snow, however, I had a clear idea of setting, and it’s a place I’ve never been–Northern England. I had to do a lot of research for this: the weather, which plays a key element in my plot; roads in the area; types of houses and what they looked like (I didn’t want Nottingham House to be Buckingham Palace, but it also couldn’t be Barton Cottage from Sense and Sensibility), and servant etiquette (Downton Abbey helped in this last part!) There was no way I could write the novel without doing preliminary research. It would’ve driven me crazy. So I got a notebook and began to chart things: average temperatures for November, road maps, a photo of the house I was using as Nottingham House, a topological map of the area, etc. I kept all this in the notebook I used for this project, and I still have it, because there’s no way I’m throwing away all that research.
Like in journaling, I prefer paper. I’ve tried to use online tools, but pen and paper work the best for me. It’s a lot easier for me to rifle through the pages in my notebook than to try to find the file. I do, however, like the Stickies on my Mac as useful reminders of things I may come across.
And I also use Facebook. Yes, Facebook. I have friends who are incredibly well-traveled, many who are lawyers, and most that are just full of Worthless Knowledge. When I was researching Undesirables, I often put up statuses that asked questions for my lawyer friends.
Lack of research can actually stall a novel. I think this is the problem with the piece I mentioned last week. The novel is set in 1920s Pittsburgh, and I’m having a hard time getting into that mindset, and more particularly, the day to day life of an Italian family within that time period. I’m going to have to do a lot more research than what I thought I was going to have to do in order to truly create a world for these characters to populate.
Never overlook research. It’s the thing that undergirds the whole story, like the base of the icebergs I’ve got here. Will most people ever see all this? No. But you need to have it so you can create a world that won’t cause your readers to toss your novel across the room because you’ve gotten it all wrong!
(Next week: how to create characters.)
How do you like to research–or do you research? Tell me in the comments.