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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Research is Pleasure

The research is my favorite part. I just love it. It’s like I’m setting out on a big adventure, and I don’t know what I’m going to find. It truly is like a treasure hunt. And so every way you could think of doing research, I do it.


I guess the most obvious question is, why do you need to research if you’re writing fiction? Because facts, my friends, are your tools in creating a believable fictional universe. Even if you’re not writing “historical fiction,” your characters should have skills and experiences that you know little to nothing of, and it’s crucial to your story’s integrity that you don’t “wing it.” You won’t be fooling anybody.

That said, research is absolutely not a chore. Honor your curious impulses and a story will grow out of them naturally. Read up on something that really interests and excites you, and you’ll get your reader excited too.

What my characters are wearing. (From John Peacock’s 20th Century Fashion.)

Topics I researched in writing Mary Modern:

1. Human genetics and stem cell technology.

2. Military history.

3. Victorian domestic architecture.

4. Male celibacy movements.

5. Everyday life c. 1929.

These were subjects that already fascinated me (well, the military history not so much, although I’ve always been really interested in my grandfather’s personal experiences on a destroyer in the South Pacific. I’ll be blogging more on that soon.) Research can lead to inspiration, but you might also say it is the inspiration. If you don’t get nerdily, over-the-top excited to dig into a book on particle physics, then maybe you’re following the wrong thread.

There’s the “macro” research (general subjects), and then there’s the “micro.” I try to be as precise as I can, down to the phase of the moon on a particular date (I checked it here). Maybe nobody will bother to verify that there was indeed a full moon, but it matters to me that I have it right, and besides which, other facts may be of greater consequence. The same goes for checking etymologies when writing historical fiction. (For instance, I found I couldn’t use the word “allergy” in a story set in 1915. The word hadn’t been coined yet.) The copyeditor is paid to pick your nits, but you might as well pick them yourself. She’ll find even more you’ve overlooked.

* * *

As for the title, in doing my second, longer, version of the novel I decided I might well use the temperature at which book-paper catches fire.

I telephoned the chemistry department at several universities, and found no one who could tell me the right temperature. I made inquiries, also, of several physics professors.

Then, still ignorant, I slapped my forehead and muttered, Fool! Why not ask the Fire Department!I called the nearest station.

Just a moment, the Fire Chief said.

A long silence. And then the voice came back on the line: “Book-paper catches fire at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Perfect, oh God, perfect!” I cried.

–Ray Bradbury, from the 1966 introduction to Fahrenheit 451

* * *

Upcoming reading for research and inspiration.

Research can feel really daunting at first. So pick away at it, a little at a time.

1. Go to the library.
I like to browse in the general subject area. You might find something there that wouldn’t have come up in the online catalog with your particular search terms.

2. Pick up the phone.
Whenever I open a bottle of champagne I think of the scene in Bird By Bird in which Anne Lamott calls a winery to ask the name of that wire thingy you have to untwist and remove before you can pop the cork. (It’s a wire hood.)

3. Plan a trip.
Like this, and this, and this. Take photos, take video, take a crapload of notes; then relax and soak it in. It’s always better to have experienced for yourself a place you’d like to write about.

4. Google the heck out of it.
I didn’t know the name of that part of a piano that comes down over the keys when not in use, so I googled “piano anatomy” until I found it. (It’s called a fallboard.)

5. Keep your ears open
A few months ago I had the great pleasure of meeting, in person, two friends who’d started out as fans of my books. Kelly and I met Todd and Bill for dinner at Candle 79 (delicious gourmet vegan! cozy! great service!), and afterward we went back to their apartment for a nightcap. They introduced us to their parrot, Morticia, and mentioned in passing that female birds of her species tend to, um, eat their partners. It was a DING! DING! DING! moment. “That’s perfect!” I said. “I’m using that in my new novel!”

(I’m looking forward to the day when I can thank my new friends in print.)

3 Comments to Research is Pleasure

  1. July 2, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I LOVE that Ray Bradbury story about finding his title. That’s excellent. And how’s the fast(er) writing going?

  2. Kelly's Gravatar Kelly
    July 4, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Research is key! Among myriad other problems (e.g., terrible writing), 50 Shades of Grey, purportedly set in the Pacific Northwest, contains a number of Britishisms. Pram?! Now that would have been some pretty simple research. (I haven’t read 50 Shades, nor do I plan on doing so, but I was appalled when I read this fact in a review).
    I get a kick out of peeking at your current reads to see what you’re researching. I recall you poring over that genetics primer when we were on our southwestern adventure. Was cool to see the fruits of that research in Mary Modern.

  3. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    July 10, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    That’s so interesting about the word allergy! I agree that you should never underestimate what nerdy readers will critique you on and catch your inconsistencies.

Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.