Alice peered into the tunnel and grinned. “What wonders shall I find today?”
I don’t know about you but, for me, research (particularly that of the internet variety) can be like falling down a rabbit hole. Don’t get me wrong; sometimes the fall is exhilarating. Sometimes it is just another form of procrastination.
This month, my writing group’s toolbox topic was research tips and techniques.
Have you ever spent two hours searching for era-appropriate phrasing or whether a shirt sleeve had a button or cuff link as a closure? My Google-fu fails me regularly. (by the way, it was a button.)
Something unexpected was unearthed by our discussion. It seems even the term research can be defined differently. The online Oxford dictionary defines research as ‘the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions‘.
To some in our group, ‘research’ meant finding specific proof to back up facts in a pre-written story outline, with research done in response to specific requirements, depending on the plot points of their story.
To others it was a multi-phase method, sometimes initiated by an idea, a mood, a title or a picture. Most (possibly up to 80%?) research was done before writing – a form of background immersion in a world or timeline (like the writing iceberg.) Once drenched in the ambiance of the chosen topic, we write, letting the story evolve – sometimes plotting, sometimes pantsing – and making notes for further research along the way. Maybe that’s another difference between plotters and pantsers?
I’m a mostly pantser myself. Most stories start with a spark – a photo, a word, an idea. This is usually followed by weeks of research. A first draft follows. I then concentrated on the picky, specific research (see button vs cufflink comment above) as part of my first rewrite (usually when transcribing my handwritten draft to the computer).
My novella, Doctor Jack, is an excellent example of how I do my research.
Spark: I was watching yet another Jack the Ripper documentary. I find his story intriguing. Who was he? Why did he commit such horrendous crimes? Was it political? Was it a symptom of the endemic poverty of the area, was he a personification of middle class fears? Then the question formed: What if Jack the Ripper was being controlled by the Men in Grey, my fictitious secret society bent on taking over The Empire?
This question drove my background research. I investigated the details of the crimes, the political and social landscape of 1888 East London, the structure of the local police and London Metro Police, contemporary autopsy techniques and information about the main players – ie. suspects and Inspector Abeline himself. I watched various documentaries proposing new suspects, studied new forensic evidence (later discredited/dismissed). I watched episodes of Ripper Street and listened to various steampunk music to create an ambiance.
I was ready to write the first draft (usually this is handwritten. It seems to engage my creative side more effectively). As I wrote, specific questions arose, facts needed checking. I noted them using ‘TK’. This was a method other writers, like Gail Carriger, use. The letters TK are rarely found together in the English language. A TK computer word-search of the manuscript will pull up all the items needing further research.
My first rewrites involved transcribing my handwritten first draft onto the computer, researching specific ‘TK’ notes as I go. Sometimes clues or story specifics will be changed. Often I find reasons why I had added curious facts. In Doctor Jack, my cigar-smoking Inspector Abeline tinkers with clockwork mechanicals (a steampunk conceit and a way to connect with my female protagonist, Viola Stewart). Revisiting specific research on Abeline revealed the historic inspector had been a clock maker before entering the Police force.
Serendipity or research? I like to think the pre-research bubbled away in my subconscious and popped out when required.
This method isn’t for everyone. It takes time but I feel I get a better handle on my stories. I can let facts and ideas bubble away so I can either find specific points where my story deviates from traditional history, or add in twists, facts or clues based on the research. Sometimes the process is organic. Plot points present themselves to me. I love it when this happens. If I hadn’t done my pre-research I wouldn’t have these inspirations.
Here are some tips for writing research:
- What is your writing style/ How much time do you have?
Are you a pantser – letting your story evolve? Do more pre-research so you know your story’s background well – even if the reader only gets to see the tip of the iceberg. This can work for plotters too but can take more time. If you are more comfortable plotting a story, or have less time to finish your story, then researching specific facts as you go, or after your first draft, may work for you.
- Write a list of topics or questions you need answered.
And stick to these. Don’t go chasing a titbit just because it sounds interesting.
- Use ‘TK’ notations in your draft or manuscript.
A TK computer word-search of your manuscript will pull up all the items needing further research.
- Google search: be specific with your questions.
eg. ‘Who made jammy dodgers?’ / ‘What is the smell produced by the New Model No. 3 Smith and Wesson revolver, using ‘black-powder, centre-fire, metallic revolver cartridge (1882)?’ (is that specific enough?) – this was an actual question I googled for a short story. Maybe it was too specific? It led me to a YouTube video (useful to describe the sound) and book, Chemical Analysis of Firearms, Ammunition, and Gunshot Residue by James Smythe Wallis.
- Read and Use Wikipedia footnotes and bibliography
The problem with Wikipedia is anyone can add to the pages. This means you can’t always believe what you read. Read the footnotes, check out the references. Check facts for yourself.
- Don’t forget books!
Your library is your friend. I can order inter-library loans for research books, if my local doesn’t have it. If I use the book a lot, I search online second hand book stores. (I bought a copy of Chemical Analysis of Firearms, Ammunition, and Gunshot Residue and have used it many times.)
- Keep folders (paper or computer) of your research
I have both. I have boxes for specific story ideas, and computer folders and notebooks on specific research topics.
Some useful websites (I use for steampunk, alternative history)
- Boothe’s Poverty Maps – This is a colour-coded map of 1889 London, showing socio-economic categories of each street.
- British History Online – http://www.british-history.ac.uk/catalogue
- Centre for History of Medicine (Harvard) – online ‘Curated content from the Center for the History of Medicine’s extraordinary collections’
- Google Maps – I often use this in conjunction with Boothe’s Poverty maps.
- Gutenberg Project – digitised online books, from many countries, with searchable catalogue.
- Trove – historical newspaper clippings held by the National Library of Australia.
- UK Census (1881) – others also available online.
- Victorian Literary Studies Archive – list of various ‘Victorian era’ webpages
A shorter version of this post can be found on the Spec Fic Chic website.