MYC: Research – Make Your Story Believable

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Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with a post on voice. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on research.

Research can mean different things depending on the type of book you’re writing. Rebecca writes science fiction based in contemporary settings. Gita writes historical fantasy. You can probably guess which of us spends more time doing research. Since we are critique partners with extremely different approaches to research, we thought a conversation might be fun. Here we go!

Rebecca: I love sci fi and action-adventure stories both in books and movies, and this drives what I write, but I can’t help thinking that my lack of excitement about research also drives my choice of genre. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ll never write a manuscript without doing research. I’m all about filling in the gaps in my knowledge that will allow my stories to come to life, but I start with a story and let that drive the research agenda. I can’t imagine studying a time or place for the fun of it and then following the story that bubbles up.

I might dive into questions like:

  • How could I plausibly explain technology that teleports my character across the planet?
  • How could my protagonist disarm a gunman with nothing more than her bare hands?
  • Or, what relevance might Frankenstein have to my theme of a revolutionary technology that is turned against its designer?

Gita: I’ve always been that person who, while visiting an old French palace or a Viking grave site, turns to you and whispers: don’t you think this place is haunted? To me, the past is strange and mysterious, full of fascinating stories that might want telling. That said, while I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, I don’t consume many history books for fun; I’ll get the spark of an idea—what about something to do with the French Revolution?—and then start digging.

My research questions go something like this:

  • What did Paris look like—all the way down to the streets and bridges—in 1789?
  • Which factors contributed to the French Revolution? (HUGE topic.)
  • Why did people powder their hair—and how did women get theirs to be three feet tall?

Rebecca: Gita is much more serious about her research than I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m not organized. If I’ve used a source, I want to remember what it was so I can refer to it in revision. Much of my research is from the Internet and is organized there too. I use Pinterest to save pictures of people that have inspired my characters, locations I’ve used in settings, and objects that find their way into my stories. I use YouTube to save “How to” videos. I also save websites links and articles right into my project on Scrivener.

Gita: When I begin researching, I start with secondary sources, such as histories of the French Revolution or a cultural history of fashion at the end of the 18th century. In order to write these second-hand accounts, their authors rely in part on primary documents: letters, clothing, books, paintings, magazines, maps, newspapers, diaries, and more. This stuff is gold, because it was created by people who lived during the period—people just like my characters. With some detective work (try starting with the bibliography at the back of a secondary source) and the help of a librarian, I can gain access to many of these primary documents. But how much should one research? I want to be responsible, but at the same time I don’t want to squeeze the life out of my story for the sake of historical accuracy. I recognize that the Paris of 1789 I depict in my novel will be my Paris of 1789, not anyone else’s. Well researched historical novels, films, or series (I’m currently obsessed with “Harlots”) can also help provide texture and inspiration. I’m a hyper-visual person and maintain several Pinterest boards where I collect images of places, clothes, and objects that play a role in my current project. I’ll use my boards to double-check a detail on a dress or for inspiration.

Rebecca: Research, for me, is the stuff that makes story credible, taking it from creative to plausible. It’s the work that allows you to drop bits into description, action, dialogue and characters’ thoughts that breathes believability into an imaginary world. For the reader to trust a writer and feel a story, even a story set in a world very close to the one they live in, research is a must.

Gita: As a reader, I’m always looking for that incredible feeling of stepping through a door into another world. As a writer of historical fiction, I can’t bring a reader into that world unless I figure out for myself what it might have been like to live at that time—and in order to do that, I research. Then I try to dream myself back there. The truth is, I never really know what I’m going to find. That’s part of the fun.

Next week, Gita will be back to talk in more detail about her approach to research for historical fiction.

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

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