Every writer needs to do research at one time or another, but it doesn’t have to be (should not be!) just hours in a library or staring at the computer. In both fiction and nonfiction, vivid writing that brings the reader the next best thing to “being there” requires research done right…from the best available sources, in the most hands-on way possible. But most of us (nearly all) don’t have unlimited time and funds to spend on research. How can we use the resources we can afford in the best way? How should a writer tackle the research mountain when all he or she has is sneakers and day-pack?
It’s tempting to say “Write only what you know” but that’s not the right answer: if you confine yourself to what you already know, your topics will constrict until you’re bored. But “what you know” is a good starting point. So take stock of what you know, leaving out nothing, no matter how small or “unimportant” and make use of it. You can thread a needle? There may be a place in a story where a character’s ability to thread a needle matters. (If not, learn: most writers don’t make much money and need to sew on their own buttons.) You can fry (or scramble) an egg? People eat, in books: now you can handle a realistic scene in which they fry or scramble one or more eggs. You know what good iron smells like? Great–someday a character can distinguish a good nail from a bad one by smell–when it matters. You know what it feels like to brush your teeth, put on a shoe–not only that, you know how long it takes, and how–in a scene–that act will take, and what the character can also be doing (nobody I know can shave and brush teeth at the same time.)
The more things you know from your own experience–tastes, smells, sounds, colors, textures, situations, weather, plants, animals, buildings, languages, emotions, cultures, people–the more ample your scope as a writer. Although you cannot rely only on your own experience, it is the only form of research that provides direct, input to your full suite of senses. So a prudent writer will increase awareness of this sensory input in all situations, and seek to expand the opportunity to stockpile more direct memories. Keep learning stuff–you will need it, but you won’t initially know when it will come in handy. You don’t have to become expert in everything you try to learn–the feel of being a beginner, then gradually increasing skill–is particularly useful in fiction, since characters should never be experts in everything anyway.
But let’s say there’s something you cannot learn from experience because the experience isn’t available: what it’s like to walk on the outside of a spaceship traveling between planets or stars, for instance, because no human has done that yet. Or win an Olympic gold in diving, because you haven’t got the physical ability to learn to do any fancy dives (or any at all.) What’s the next step?
For things no one has done, think of analogies. For working outside a spaceship: there’s the ISS. Granted, it’s in low earth orbit, but what if it were, instead, somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn? How do people now work outside the ISS? Look at the videos. Listen to the ISS astronauts talk about their outside work. If your character working outside the space ship also uses safety lines and other ways of attaching themselves to the ship, like those in the ISS…if you include airlocks for going in and out, suits (need not be exactly the same) for working outside, careful checks of suits and equipment before transiting to the vacuum, and if you’ve listened to the astronauts’ comments on what it feels like–both the physical sensations and their emotional reactions–then you can write a “believable” (willing suspension of disbelief) scene of that type.
For things people have done but aren’t doing now where you live or can get to (this will vary–some of you may still be hand-milking cows, using a drop spindle) there are now books and videos to help “re-enacters” do them. You may be able to find people who do them and watch, and even learn a little. By asking around I found someone with a scythe, and then another person experience with a scythe, so I could learn to scythe (and the results are in Surrender None.) If all you can get is the person’s experience relayed to you, that’s still excellent, particularly if you can ask questions: “When you were learning that, what was the hardest thing? How long does it take the average person who’s never done it before to do it? How many times do you have to do it before you’re confident and it feels easier?” If your informant lives within range, five fifteen minute visits and chats will give you more info than one hour and fifteen minute chat–you will think of new questions to ask between visits. Look for, and ask about, analogies to your own experience: “I’ve driven a single horse to a two-wheeled training cart–how is that like, or unlike, driving a four-horse team to a carriage? Is it just more reins to hold, or…?” “I had a chance to shoot a longbow at day camp a few times–is a crossbow kind of like that? What are the differences?”
When you find an informant, assess his/her level of knowledge, but politely. Find more than one, if you possibly can, and notice differences between them; it’s easy to find a person with one oddball view of their “topic” who can skew your understanding. Opinions are information about the person (oh, so you’re one of those …) and less about the topic.
Where there’s no experienced informant, you’re thrown onto videos (gives you clear visual input at least) and written materials, either in print material or online. If what you need is common-level knowledge (and always start with beginner level if you’re not) magazines on that topic and the simpler level of books are a good place to start. They will probably have pictures. A very basic book on horses will prevent many problems–there will be a picture of a horse with the parts labeled, for instance, and pictures of tack with parts labeled, and some mention of colors (black, bay, chestnut, gray, dun, roan, palomino, etc.) and markings (blaze, stripe, snip, sock, stocking, the pattern of a multi-colored coat) and some discussion of gaits (walk, trot, canter, gallop and maybe something on the lateral gaits: pace, foxtrot, running walk, rack.) Horse magazines have lots of pictures, and usually articles on specific training, riding, feeding, grooming, and other horse-related topics.
Once you’re into the video and print material, your need to assess sources becomes acute. There are lousy horse magazines as well as good ones. There are narrow-minded people who think they know everything because they know one particular thing (in horses, that may be a breed, a style of riding, a training theory, etc.) Look for a minimum of three sources (all good, as best you can determine) before taking a detail from them. Online sources are particularly shifty in that regard…though there’s a specialized listserv or group for almost everything (and maybe actually everything), this is where opinion trumps knowledge more often than the reverse. The larger the number of groups, the more likely that some (or most) of them are full of…opinion. However, online sources can give you quick pointers to better sources (online and off) and specialized groups (such as the one I found for naval info in WWI) can provide material you can’t get any other way without more time and money than most of us have. Go to the really specialized groups after working your way through general info–I posted a query in that group, citing the other resources I had tried without finding the very specific info I needed (the names of all the destroyers in the Royal Navy’s Adriatic Squadron–and their captains–during the first week of the war) and the reason I needed it (working on an alternate history story.) Nobody knew offhand, but one person, in the UK, knew where the information would be held–a specialized Royal Navy library–and how to access it. And did so.
For that one novella, set in a time, place, and situation about which I knew little other than from general histories like Tuchman’s Guns of August, I used direct experience (visiting the nearest ship actually built before WWI–the battleship Texas) talked to everyone I thought might know something (people interested in naval history that I already knew, who then sent me to others, and to reference books), read all or part of dozens of books–on ships specifically, on that period specifically, on the people of the time, on the naval battles fought along the west and southern coasts of Greece, on seamanship in that period: diaries, travelogues, technical stuff on naval gunnery and what damage it inflicted on other ships, books about WWI naval battles by survivors, by naval personnel doing after-battle analysis, by historians, etc. , ordered nautical charts of the relevant area in two scales, looked at old maps, at pre-war photographs of the area, made little models, to scale of the most details of the charts, of ships with their guns’ range included so I could move them on the chart and know when they could possibly hit the other ships.
The test of research is the reaction of readers who have more knowledge than the writer. Who those are varies with the type of story. If you have horses in it, you will have horse owners (experienced and first-time), horse-trainers, riders in every discipline, and even vets critiquing your work. It’s not what you leave out that will get you in trouble, but what you put in that’s wrong. Nobody says you have to infodump everything you know about horse anatomy and behavior if your hero is riding across country…but use the wrong word, or have a horse lap water like a dog, or your hero knee his horse in the flank, and you’re toast where the experienced horse people are concerned. If you’re writing alternate history, someone has spent a lifetime studying that period of history, and your fork in the trail–and where it goes–needs to satisfy that scholar. If you’re writing straight history, know as much as historian specializing in that period–in fact, you should know who those people are. (Connie Willis, after writing her Civil War novel, said Civil War buffs will get you for having the wrong button on a uniform in any given year…get it right or leave it out, but you should be able to get it right.) If you’re writing within a military viewpoint (historical or imaginary), you need not only the knowledge of military science, but the knowledge of how military people think and feel. Again, first-hand experience helps, but reading memoirs and first-hand accounts, and listening (it takes really good listening skills to get a veteran to open up) to veterans can get even a non-vet writer enough to go with.
Learn more than you think you need–lots more. Learn so much that you’re frustrated at not being able to share all the Shiny! you’ve learned…ideally only 1/4 to 1/3 of what you’ve researched will show up in the story. Never write to the edge of your knowledge (this is different from using analogies) because then you’ll salt your mine with details you’re “pretty sure” are the real thing, and readers will recognize fool’s gold. A writer’s life should be spent pretty much like a sponge or a whale shark–filter feeders, every pore (or that huge mouth) wide open to get fragment of information that’s in range, and tuck it away for future use. Watch, listen, notice. “It’s out there.”