Craft of Writing: Ah, Research!

Posted: December 20th, 2014 under Background, the writing life.
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Fantasy requires as much research as science fiction, but slanted somewhat differently.  Or so it feels in my head, because the SF stories and the fantasy stories are situated in different places, not just fictionally, but psychologically.  As it happens, I like both kinds of research (and I also like flying without wings, sometimes, as in the CHICKS stories–no research there, nuh-uh.)   At any rate, I knew the new Vatta book would demand considerable research, despite being set in the same universe, because it’s set largely on planet.   The nail-biting moments (well, most of them) will be down in the gravity well.   And–just because it had to be, the story demanded it–much of it is in environments I have never personally experienced.   (Of course, the space-based stories are in environments I’ve never experienced, but not even our current astronauts have either, so…there’s more wiggle room.  Still research, but not likely to find someone who says “I served in an interstellar empire’s space navy and you’re completely wrong about the tactics of space warfare and not only that your conception of ship design is ridiculous.”

But on an Earth-type planet, with characters who are at least recognizably descended from us,  a lot more things can go wrong with one’s research.   (I have already scrapped an entire sequence..)   Now the thing about writing fiction that needs research is that what ultimately matters is Story.  If Story doesn’t hang together, getting all the details right will please only a few readers.  And if you’ve been having trouble, as I’d had in the past year, getting a Story to come alive, putting in a lot of time on research is counter-productive.   So I had to get the story well started before I dared spend the time it takes to do the research–it was procrastination, and that point.

Now, however, I’m ready for the facts.  Lots of facts, loads of facts, every kind of fact that can pertain to the story:  big massive facts (like learning more about planetary weather systems given the geology, geography, etc. already set up for this planet) and the sensory facts that impinge directly on characters (and thus on readers), that motivate characters to do/not do certain things, that make the setting vivid to readers.  Years ago, I bought a book for research I thought I might need someday:  a manual intended to be in every lifeboat.  I read it cover to cover at the time, then thought no, I wouldn’t be needing it any time soon, but…kept it, because it’s not the kind of book found in most public libraries.  At least not in the middle of Texas.   Once I knew this new book was alive and moving,  I started, as one often does these days, reading online, including trawling through my Twitter follows for useful links, and emailing someone I know in the Coast Guard.  Facts began to accumulate.  Hence the discarded events of the “This will never work, nobody will believe it, it was a stupid idea” section.  It’s still in the ms right now, but it’s doomed–it’s just a placeholder until I get all the stuff that came before worked out. [Writing Rule:  Be flexible, be willing to discard anything that’s not going to work for either Story or Background reasons.  But don’t rush to destroy.  Something may be salvageable.]

The facts I was able to find more easily dealt with the background types of things,  and sometimes that’s enough.   If, for instance, you’ve got a lot of experience making things out of wood,  and you want to write about someone making an item from wood you’ve never made, all you really need for the story is a set of directions on how to make that item.  You know what the tools are, what it feels like to use them, what different woods are like…you can imagine yourself into the character who is, say, making a coffin.    If, however, you’re trying to create a character doing something you’ve never done–but it’s something a lot of people have done–then your research needs to encompass how people with that experience felt and thought while having it.  You need not just technical knowledge but the touchy-feely kind of knowledge–if you grab that (whatever that is) what does it feel like.  What does it sound like when you drop it?   Does it break or bounce or just go plop?  If  you’re dealing with a group situation (and I am) what are group dynamics like in that kind of situation?  What kinds of characters react well or badly or not at all to that situation?    How do people feel–physically, emotionally, spiritually?

A common way for stories of unfamiliar events to fail is for the writer to have researched the facts but not the human interface with those facts.  For instance, every military veteran has run across stories in which the apparent facts are OK–yes, that weapon fires that round, yes, that vehicle can move that fast–but the characters feel wrong because they do not think, feel, or react like real soldiers.    I was watching one of the Alien movies (I forget which–first or second anyway) in a movie theater near an Army base.   At one point, there was an audible mutter from all corners of the theater (including from me and my husband) about what would happen next, in reality–and it didn’t, in the movie.  Coming out, the military guys who’d watched it were all still griping that X would not have lived past Y because Z would have fragged the [redacted-redacted-redacted.]

So research includes that reality, that human emotional/psychological reality as well as the reality of spaceship design, lifeboat contents, probable intensity of a storm at sea on a planet of [many defined variables], etc.  And for that, you need to find someone who’s been there (ideal!) or someone who’s been in a similar situation where the translation to your fictional situation isn’t too difficult or written material (memoirs, interviews, etc:  nonfiction research) that covers the important points.  It’s necessary to be able to meld disparate sources to arrive at enough data to do the story justice, since it’s likely  that no one source will fit your fictional situation exactly .   I felt I had a lot of the facts I needed of the background kind, but far from enough to go on with of the human-interaction kind.

Finally made it to Book People (indie story in Austin) this past Wednesday and–not seeing what I needed right away (other than several Christmas present books)–I asked one of the store clerks, who pointed me to a small “Adventure” section. Aha!   Four books came out of that shelf with me.  None of them are exactly what I want/need, but they overlap very well, and two of them are foundation-level, meaning they’ll underpin multiple areas of the book.   Another one may be (but I haven’t fast-read the whole thing yet.)

Prize of the lot, probably (until I’ve read all the others I won’t know) is Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival.   It has theory of, personal experience, and (by interview) personal experiences of others, written by someone with both intelligence and human understanding and also–really good writing.   Just as Dave Grossman’s book On Killing has been a foundational book for me when writing POV characters who kill people,  Gonzales’s looks to be foundational for all survival situations.   It dovetails beautifully with the book that started me toward this particular story, Alfred Lansing’s Endurance (read sometime back)  and with Gregory Freeman’s The Gathering Wind (about the Bounty’s loss in Hurricane Sandy) and Adam Rackley’s Salt, Sweat, Tears: The Men Who Rowed the Oceans.

So far I’ve read all of Deep Survival (some parts twice),  a couple of chunks of The Gathering Wind, nearly all of Salt, Sweat, and Tears.  And from those I’ve been pointed toward additional “background facts”…for instance, today’s dive into portable desalinization equipment for lifeboats–types, sizes, limits of, requirements of, details of maintenance, etc.     Including some not-yet-proven ideas for improvements…and my own consideration of “What kind of desalinization device would you find on a lifeboat say 500 years from now on a planet far, far, far away from here?  What materials tech would have improved.  What common problems might still remain?”  Water itself will still behave like water–but getting from sea-water to drinkable water…might be very much the same or different.

Note that all these are nonfiction.  Researched nonfiction.   Fiction is not real–it’s a combination of real (the writer’s experience, or some real person’s experience–you hope–)and the writer’s imagination, shaped to the need of Story.  Even the best writers, the ones that you read and then later, experiencing something very similar, think “Wow–just like the book” are not the research source you want in writing your own fiction.  You want the guy talking about the salt sores he had and how he couldn’t lie down to rest, they hurt so much.

So this is where I am and what I’m doing with the new Vatta book, which is now progressing strongly but slowly because I’m wallowing in research through the holidays and building up stores of good thick chunky real-life-stuff to use in the next howevermanyhundred pages.


  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — December 21, 2014 @ 1:36 am


    I enjoy these posts. You know we’ll all be looking for the results of all this research when the book comes out. 🙂 Maybe not on the first read, but by the fourth…

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — December 21, 2014 @ 2:35 pm


    To bring the research point back to Paksworld, I just saw in today’s paper that the latest Cirque du Soleil show is entitled, “Varekai: Tales of the Forest”.

    I immediately thought of Paks then noted that the leading a and e are reversed from the usage in Paksworld. Was there any forest thoughts in plucking Verrakai out of the list of names for possible use?

  • Comment by elizabeth — December 21, 2014 @ 11:56 pm


    Daniel: That’s a question the Lost Notebooks might answer, if I ever find them. Right now I haven’t a clue what I was thinking…in part because I’m now involved in name-generation for the new Vatta book, which has a completely different mindset on the matter of names. (Having to think about where the original inhabitants of Slotter Key came from (and why) and what other immigrants arrived–from where and when–to produce the names that work for this story.)

    Nadine: Ideally, on first reading you’d be captured by the story and yanked through it–only noticing that the background details feel right. Later, yes, you should be able to say “I wonder what book she got THAT bit out of–I didn’t know that–” and then (esp. if you read the research books) “Aha! I think this took this bit from A, modified it, combined it with this from C, and somehow made it seem more futuristic.” What I hope doesn’t happen is that in the first reading you’re bounced out of the story with something you just can’t believe or that is too obviously taken from one particular source.

    But readers are so variable it’s impossible to have a book that works for everyone. I got email from someone who was bounced out of a book because a male character bathed often and enjoyed it. Real men, I was informed, don’t enjoy taking baths and certainly never luxuriate in them. I immediately thought of Turkish baths, Roman baths, etc., but didn’t argue. One person’s sensuous pleasure is another person’s unfortunate necessity.

  • Comment by Julia Coldren-Walker — December 23, 2014 @ 7:45 am


    My mother owned Endurance. I remember reading it as a teenager and being enthralled. Such courage and bravery and a touch of luck. When they heard the whistle of the station after crossing the island I felt like crying. I would read it every summer until I joined the Army. I can’t wait to see how this impacts the new book.

  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — December 24, 2014 @ 12:21 am


    Elizabeth, the only thing that “bounces” me out of your stories is the realization that it is oh-dark-hundred in the next day in my “real” world. Oops!

  • Comment by Stroppy Brunette — January 8, 2015 @ 3:05 pm


    So glad to read there is going to be another Vatta book. I’m currently rereading the Serrano series for about the thousandth time, but they are so perfectly complete I would not expect another one.

    On a totally unrelated note, have you read We Joined the Navy by John Winton? Published in the 1960s/70s and now available on Kindle. Winton was a Royal Navy officer writing comedy with a kick about stuff he knew very well.

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