Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Blog Chain: Research - Keeping Your Story Straight

Quote of the Day:
Fiction is the truth inside the lie.
~Stephen King
I love this quote - it is so true. Yes, fiction is is an author spinning a tale, sometimes based on real life, set in real settings, centered around real circumstances, but ultimately a story. But I think most writers try to put as much truth in their "lies" as possible. I make sure my stories are as accurate as possible. Yes, they may be about nagging ghosts or 5000 year old gods, but dangit, those supernatural beings are going to be as realistic and accurate as possible! If my character has to go to the bathroom, I make sure toilets were in use at the time, and if not I make sure I point out she's on a chamberpot.

Why do I do this? Because nothing pulls me out of a story faster than reading something I know to be historically inaccurate. Maybe it's because (before I switched and got my master's in English) I got a degree in history and I worked very hard for many years to get my historical facts straight, so it drives me nuts when something is blatantly WRONG.

Here's an example: I love the movie's touching, incredible, epic...but so historically inaccurate that most of the time all I'm thinking about when watching it is "That princess was a baby when William Wallace was alive!" or "They didn't wear kilts back then" or "Whatever...that prince lived for YEARS and ruled with hardly a peep from his wife (who by all accounts got along with him just fine for a couple decades until he got nasty and she overthrew his butt)..." Sorry, I digress ;-D

In any case, the last thing I want is for this to happen when people are reading my books. So I do my best to make them as accurate as possible.

Which brings me to our Blog Chain topic for this round. Since today is my turn on the Blog Chain, our regularly scheduled WIP Wednesday will be moved to tomorrow…that gives me an extra day to get something done anyways :D

But for today, Kat picked our excellent topic, and Christine gave an excellent response before me. Elana is up next so be sure to head her way next!

Kat wants to know:

How do you do research for your settings, your story and your characters' quirks? What interesting tidbits about yourself and the world you live in have you learned along the way?

*sigh* I love this topic :D I love to research, most of the time. Even for me it can get tedious. But mostly, I really enjoy it. In fact, as I said before, I got my bachelor’s degree in history – which meant I spent a lot of time researching things. But even for a history major, I was on the unusual side.

Believe it or not, a lot of historians don’t like to research (according to one of my professors anyways). Oh, they like to discover new things and when it’s their specialized topic, of course they enjoy it. But when it comes to hanging out in the library for days and weeks and months at a time, that is the type of research that most people don’t like. And that I love :D It’s amazing the interesting stuff you can find when you are on the hunt for that perfect tidbit for you story.

How do I research?

Well, I always start the easy way, with Google and and any other search engine I can find. I have two small children. There is no way I can spend all day at the library anymore. But there is a lot of information you can find online. There are even many books online that you can search through. Or, you can usually at least look through the index or table of contents (Amazon is very useful for this). Then, if I need to get a book, I can request it from my library.

Online groups are a great source of information also. I once needed info on a certain type of gun that was used in 1600s England, and I found a wonderful site run by pirate aficionados – they had pictures of real guns, replicas, and a wealth of information on how they were used. And these people are usually extremely friendly and very willing to share their knowledge on their chosen subject. So never hesitate to ask.

A few things I’ve researched in the past for my stories, settings, and characters:

If toilets were commonly used in 1850s England
  • If trains were a main form of transportation then
  • What kinds of flowers bloom in Jan in England (a very nice lady from a horticultural society sent me a whole spreadsheet on this!)
  • If a 100 year old body/skeleton would still have any hair
  • Different aspects of Egyptian gods and goddesses
  • Daily life in ancient Egypt (and all other things Egyptian, though I knew some of this anyways)
  • I always research at least a few of my character names…I like them to mean something
  • Junior boxing leagues
  • Weather patterns
  • A certain lake in NV that will remain nameless for the moment :D
And many, many other things…..

I don’t know if I’ve discovered anything about myself while researching. I always discover tons of interesting tidbits about the world as I’m looking up info (no, 100 yr old skeletons will generally not have hair still, and toilets where not yet commonly used in 1850s but there are a surprising number of beautiful flowers that bloom in winter in Jan) :) And I have actually discovered that I don’t always like research. Sometimes, especially if the info I’m after is really well hidden and hard to find, I get a bit impatient with it. I want to get back to my story instead of spending time hunting. But for the most part, I just enjoy discovering fun new things….and I usually pick up a few ideas for new stories along the way as well :D

Head over to Elana’s blog tomorrow for her response!


Elana Johnson said...

You shame me. But actually learning about toilets and dead bodies with hair might be fun. Maybe.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

If you think that's hard, try researching the future. You would think you can just make stuff up, but like your ghosts, It all has to work and make sense.
I remember the moment when I was editing my first draft and a character picked up a phone to make a call. (or the phone rang...something like that)
Um...wait. 100 years from now, there won't be phones, especially land lines. But what will they use? Research time...

Anonymous said...

Love it...if you have any great info on European life in 1589 (especially in Bedburg Germany), send it my way...that is my latest stuff I'm having to research in painstaking detail.

And about Braveheart...sometimes I can just get lost in a story and not care at all of the inaccuracies :D


Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I can't say that I notice, or even mind, a little fudging of historical accuracy when I'm reading or watching something - unless it is to the point of absolute ridiculousness. Like there was a "Joan of Arc" movie a few years back where the dialogue sounded like it had been written by a Vally Girl.

I think if you are going to change something it should serve your dramatic purposes (like Braveheart without kilts, no matter how inaccurate, just wouldn't be the same), and not just be that the writer was too lazy to do required the research.

Unknown said...

I've never been a fan of the advice "write what you know." But even when you're writing about things and places and people that you couldn't possibly know personally, it's vital that you research it down to the point where you *do* know it!

Michelle McLean said...

LOL well, perhaps I should clarify on the Braveheart thing....the first couple times I watched it, I didn't notice anything off. Or if I did, I was, like Kate said, too wrapped up in the story to care much. But after watching it a few times...yeah, things start bugging me. (although Mel Gibson in a kilt...accurate or not, umm yes please!) ;-D

Now there are some movies I won't watch at all because even the inaccuracies in just the trailers drive me in point - that animated Anastasia movie (was that Disney?). That one I just can't bring myself to watch.

Kathryn Hupp-Harris said...

I get a bit impatient with it.

Whew! I'm glad I'm not the only one.

I'm with Elana, I bet learning about toilets and dead bodies would be kind of... well, fun.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

The Stephen King quote is great! And yes, I do want my stories to be as accurate as possible.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

You are the Researching Queen! You dig up the most obscure facts -- really fascinating!

Annie Louden said...

I guess it's nice to know that even die-hard researchers get impatient with it. I either get overwhelmed by not knowing where to start or upset I can't find something.
I loved your anecdote about Braveheart. Also, thanks for describing your research process. A lot of great tips in there!