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Research

August 25th, 2008 (01:25 pm)

This is an edited version of a talk I tried to give at the writerconuk midimeet in Reading last weekend. (I say 'tried' because everyone kept adding witty comments, and making me laugh ;-)

The topic of the talk was suggested by curiouswombat, so thank you very much to her!



Whilst I was writing this talk, and panicking because seemed to be getting longer and longer without having any content, januaried posted a discussion of an article she'd read, in Scientific American Mind, which listed four activities that can increase your creativity. When I read them, I thought, “Yes, that's what my talk's really about! That's what research leads to!”

So I'll start by quoting the four ways to greater creativity, as summarised by januaried:

  • Capturing—preserving new ideas as they occur to you, and doing so without judging them.
  • Challenging—giving yourself tough problems to solve.
  • Broadening—boosting your creativity by learning interesting new things, because the more diverse your knowledge is, the more interesting the interconnections you can make.
  • Surrounding—enriching your intellectual environment, because the more interesting the things and people around you are, the more interesting your own ideas become.
I'm going to talk about research—about how you might capture it, how you might use it, and—I hope—how doing it might broaden your existing ideas and surround you with new ideas.

...

When I began thinking seriously about research, I decided that it could be divided into three types

  • Accidental—all the information you pick up without realising it.
  • Background—the information you seek out for a specific story.
  • Detail—the titbits of information you need to provide those little points of 'colour' in your descriptions and your dialogue.
Accidental research is the stuff you pick up in the course of daily life—the things you learn at school or at work, the things you see on TV or read in a book, the things that your family and friends bore you to tears with—all the things you don't know you know until you find yourself using them.

My brother's a builder and he's forever talking about work. He'll say, “The joists were completely rotten, so I replaced them all, and laid down two inch ply, because if the floor isn't solid, the tiles'll crack...”

And I'll think, “Phil, I don't want to know!”

But my latest story's set on a building site! It's an elven building site, high up in the trees, but it's still a building site, and the victim's a builder—not based on my brother—and Eowyn even gets to do a little bit of woodwork herself. I've mixed in elements from other sources—for example, I've given the builders a ritual I found in a book about the archaeology of folk magic—but the practical details of woodworking (which I keep to a minimum), and the builders’ love of wood, and my willingness to write about it all—my confidence in my own knowledge—have all come from hearing my brother talk.

The moment I realised how useful accidental research was, I started looking out for it, and saving it. Because you never know when you might need it, and there's nothing worse than half remembering it.

I have an original character who's a cartographer—By Appointment to His Majesty, King Elessar—and his particular expertise has come in handy in several stories. And I can remember watching a TV programme about a Tudor mapmaker which took us step-by-step through the process of surveying using a cross-staff. But I didn't make proper notes, and now I can't remember the process! I've Googled and Googled trying to find the equivalent online, or to find a DVD of the programme, but—so far—I've found nothing!

So, when you see something you think might be useful, SAVE it. Capture it. I now have an Ideas folder on my computer, and an Ideas shelf on my bookcase because it's important to keep everything together, and look through it regularly, because that will not only make it easier to find, and easier to remember why you saved it, but it will also allow you to make creative 'interconnections' between the ideas.

So, what sort of things might a writer capture?

Well, I save pictures of potential settings. I save bits of castle, like this Mediaeval urinal, which I photographed at Orford Castle in Suffolk. I haven't used in a story yet, but it's proudly displayed on my website.



The urinal's just a triangular hole in the wall, beside the door of the Warden's office. It's quite high up, on the second or third storey. The Warden would have come out, relieved himself, and gone back to work, and let gravity do the rest.

I've got pictures of winding streets with detail I can put into descriptions, bits of landscape, and loads and loads of Forest...



This, as you can see, is a particularly green bit of Forest. The moment I saw it, I thought of Robin Hood—not the new BBC version, nor even the old Robin of Sherwood, but a grubby mediaeval outlaw... And I thought, suppose a band of outlaws moved into Legolas’ world and started terrorising travellers. What would he do? So I saved this picture for three reasons—first, to remind me of the story idea; secondly, to give me a physical setting for the story; and, thirdly, to use the image in a story header.

I often save pictures of objects I think I might want to use.



I saw this arts and crafts desk in Manchester City Art Gallery and later it became the villain's desk in The lady vanishes, complete with a secret compartment full of evidence.

I save pictures of potential OCs—maybe screen capped from DVDs, or torn out of magazines, or found on the web. I find that it's much easier to keep an OC in character if I have a face or—better still—a face and a voice to work with.



This is the picture I use for King Thranduil, Legolas’ father. He is not an OC, of course, but I was having real trouble writing him until I read a discussion in which someone suggested that Alan Rickman should play him. That gave me a voice and an attitude, and I already had this wonderful picture... And, suddenly, the Elvenking was a real person and all I had to do was watch and listen.

I also save snippets of text.

This is part of an article that was linked to by angevin2. She had posted a quote from Henry VI part I, in which one of the French says that the English are fighting like the Duracell bunny:

Their arms are set, like clocks, still to strike on

And the article talks about

...a mechanical angel that greeted Richard II for his coronation in London in 1377 ... The contrivance had to perform on cue and the moment of Richard’s arrival was unpredictable, so a puppet seems more likely than a clockwork automaton.

There are so many possibilities in that snippet—Legolas and Eowyn fighting clockwork robots, or metal puppets—so I saved it. I save useful web pages, and I set aside books (with bookmarks and dog-eared pages marking the passages I think will come in handy). I've collected books on Mediaeval siege warfare, which are ready for my next story but two, and a book on early flight, which I recently inherited from my Dad, because the moment I saw it, I thought, “I'm going to write a story about Legolas and a flying machine!”

I put DVDs aside for screen capping, because my stories tend to be set beyond the edges of the films, so I'm always looking for stuff I can photo-manipulate. But I also save them for fights, because I've found that a good way to write fights is to find a film fight, watch it carefully, then write it up.

One great place to do research is on a field trip—going to a place where you can take pictures, make notes and sketches, and just generally soak up the atmosphere.



This picture was taken on a trip to a mediaeval pageant, which has been really useful because these people were living, as authentically as possible, in mediaeval tents, wearing mediaeval clothes, sleeping on mediaeval beds, eating mediaeval food... And the archer told me lots of valuable stuff about bows and arrows.



Now this was a very special field trip!

This is one of the Forest walks at the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver. If you imagine carved wood in place of the hefty timbers, and swirling patterns instead of the mesh, and red leaves, you are standing in Eryn Carantaur. I made a lot of notes about the atmosphere here—how the sunshine and the shade falls in unexpected places; how the pale wood looks like bone; how the patches of water on the ground may look like snow, or like bits of fallen sky; how three trees, growing through one of the platforms, look like living pillars, and branch out to form a natural ceiling...

I find that A6 notebooks are ideal for this sort of thing because they fit easily into a bag or a pocket and, if they don't already have one built in, you can put an elastic strap round them to keep them closed. I jot down ideas, bits of dialogue, names, quick diagrams of things, and I slip bits and bobs torn out of newspapers and magazines into them...

...

Background research is different from accidental research because you're doing it for a specific purpose, and probably against some sort of deadline, and because it may be about something that you wouldn't normally be interested in, so it can feel a bit superficial.

The most important thing about background research is to mix it in thoroughly with the story. It mustn't stand out; it mustn't say, “Look at me, I'm research!” If you're not sure how well you've incorporated it, I think the best thing is to ask a beta. A good beta will be able to point to anything that jars, and help you decide how to blend it in better—or whether to delete it altogether.

I'm going give some examples of how I've gone about doing background research and using it. I have a story called The lady vanishes, which is set in Minas Tirith at Yuletide and I wrote it because I wanted to give Legolas and Eowyn the sort of Christmas we'd all love to have—a real Dickensian Christmas with roaring fires and roasted chestnuts. And, apart from having to deal with several murders, and defeat the Minas Tirith mafia, I think they do have a pretty good time!

I wanted to do more than just include a lot of Christmassy details—I wanted to make the story more memorable. I knew nothing about Yuletide, so I Googled it, and found masses of information, which I copied and pasted into Word, and ended up with a file about 40 pages long. Obviously, some of the material was repetitive, so I quite quickly cut it down to about 20 pages.

What I was left with was some general stuff about traditional foods, traditional decorations, gift giving—all of it pretty similar to Christmas—and several named feasts or rituals, but no clear picture of what should happen when, because the sources were either quite vague or, in some cases, disagreed with each other.

So I decided to draw up my own timetable. I knew that the festivities lasted for 12 days and started, more or less, on the winter solstice. That gave me this:

21 Girithron, Mother Night: the Lighting of the Yule Log and the Greeting of the Sun.
24 Girithron: The Dressing of the Yule Tree.
26 Girithron: The Killing of the Wren.
1 Narwain, Twelfth Night: The Burning of the Yule Wreaths.


I now had several fixed points that I would have to weave the rest of my plot around, but I found that that worked quite well—it stopped me wandering off the point and kept the story moving along.

Having drawn up the timetable, I went back to the research and pasted the relevant details into the right days. Then I pasted the entire timetable into the end of my story file and, as I wrote each chapter, I copied the relevant research into the chapter, and just edited it into the narrative.

For example, for 1 Narwain, I started off with some material about the Yule Wreath,

Modern tradition uses a Yule wreath as an oath ring. This wreath is oathed upon as well as wished upon, and then burned at the Twelfth Night.

This became the following scene:

A large bonfire had been built in the courtyard of the King's House and the guests were taking turns to cast their Yule Wreaths into the flames...

"Make your wish!” said Legolas.

For a moment, they both bowed their heads and closed their eyes.

Then, "Ready?” he asked.

Eowyn nodded and, together, they threw the wreath into the fire. The dry leaves curled in the heat then suddenly flared brightly; and their light and smoke bore the couple's hopes and resolutions upwards towards the stars.


Several sources had mentioned a Festival of Light but had not given any precise details. I thought that a good time to celebrate light would be on the morning after the shortest day—as a sort of thank you to the sun for rising again—so I made up a ritual, which I called the Greeting of the Sun (and I was really pleased with it, so I used it more than once, but a certain member of writerconuk has now pointed out that it bears an uncanny resemblence to a scene in The Rocky Horror Show, LOL):

[Everyone has gathered outside, and is waiting for the sun to rise.]

At last, a tiny sliver of light appeared above the mountains of Mordor. Eowyn touched the lighted taper to the candlewick. The flame flared, died down as the wax melted and pooled, then rose up again, steady and strong. Together with the other revellers, Eowyn lifted her candle to greet the rising sun.


Another element in this particular story is a Boar hunt, which gives Aragorn and Eomer the opportunity to discover two bodies. I'd always intended to include a hunting scene but, on holiday in Vancouver, I was lucky enough to find a bargain book called The Art of Mediaeval Hunting: the Hound and the Hawk, by John Cummins. Cummins quotes from several mediaeval hunting manuals, including one Gaston Phoebus, who describes how

The[boar’s] eyes roll in rage, and it takes two or three steps towards him, ears pricked. As soon as the hunter sees this, he must prepare himself, for let him be sure that the boar will come so quickly that it will seem that not an instant elapses between the beginning of his charge and his arrival on the spear; or, if the hunter misses his aim, on the man himself.

So as to be able to move his hand wherever necessary, [the hunter] must never grip the spear in his armpit, but after the impact he should put it there and thrust hard. And if the boar is stronger than him, he must jump about retaining his hold, and push and push until God gives him aid or help arrives.


This became,

Eomer gripped his spear and watched his adversary carefully—he knew the signs—snout low to the ground, ears flat against the head, tusks clashing together. He raised the spear to waist height. "Come on, then," he cried, "show me what you are made of! Come! Charge!" The boar rolled its eyes and pricked its ears, took several small steps—This is it, thought Eomer. The beast charged.

Eomer stood firm, one foot forward, leaning in towards the boar. May the gods protect me, he prayed. Now! He struck—a perfect hit, his spear sinking deep into the beast's massive throat—then he gripped the shaft under his arm and thrust hard.

But the boar was strong. And Eomer was forced dance with it, holding his weapon firm as the animal writhed and thrashed. I must hold on, he thought, till either the gods give me more strength, or help arrives.


(Which should, perhaps, as my writerconuk colleagues pointed out, carry an Eomer/beast warning).

My second example is just an excuse to show the picture that inspired it, which is by a lady called Dawnlyn.



You can see the rest of her work here.

This story is a vignette about Little Legolas trying to teach his father archery and, with a bit of Googling, I managed to download a pdf, called the Reference Guide for Recurve Archers, which has this to say about shooting:

  • Stand tall and relaxed (one foot on either side of the shooting line).
  • Don’t lock the knees.
  • Keep the feet about shoulder-width apart.
  • Check that shoulders are square and head is level.
So I pasted the extract into the story, and it became Legolas' archery lesson:

“Stand tall,” he said, drawing himself up to his full three feet nothing, and adopting a voice that sounded suspiciously like a certain bow master’s, “with one foot either side of your shooting line.” He shifted his little hips from side to side to illustrate the point. “Do not lock your knees.” He bounced up and down a few times. “Check that your shoulders are square.”

He raised the bow to his waist. “Curl your fingers round the bowstring in a deep hook.” He exaggerated the movement of his hand...


...

The third type of research is what I've called detail research. This is looking for the tiny details you need to flesh out your descriptions or dialogue. Most of the time these details have no bearing on the plot—they're mentioned and then immediately forgotten. But it's worth taking a little time over them because they add atmosphere to a story, they add credibility to a story and, if you get them wrong, they can seriously annoy the reader!

In my current story, Season of Mists, one of my OFCs gets burned putting out a fire. This raises the question: how does an elven healer treat a burn? I Googled herbal burn remedies and, after scanning two or three websites, found an ancient Indian treatment using cotton ash bound in vegetable oil, which I liked because it had a homoeopathic quality that seemed appropriate to elves.

Take a large piece of cotton wool and burn it (in a metal pot). Mix the ash with olive oil (or any cooking oil) to get a thick black paste. Spread the paste on the burned skin. Cover with cling film.

So my elven healer says, “I have treated [it] with an ash poultice.” I didn't go into extensive detail (though in this case I was really tempted) because I think the shorter you keep a detail, the less likely you are to make glaring mistakes, and the less attention it draws to itself!

Because—most of the time—details like these don't affect the plot, if you don't have web access, or you don't have other reference materials to hand, you can just leave a gap in the text—I usually type a series of x's—and carry on writing, and then do the research and fill in the gaps later.

This is something that I was writing on holiday—King Thranduil is talking to his gardener:

“Yes, your Majesty,” said the head gardener. “There is xxxxx—I believe the
edain call it the butterfly bush. And the young of the xxx butterfly live on cabbages, and the xxxx on thistles. But whether they can be lured underground by planting—”


Next morning, I went along to a bookshop and looked at a book on butterflies and worked out how to fill the blanks. The first blank turned out to be buddleia, which I had to convert to 'blue blossom' and then translate as Gwaloth thlhûn; the second blank was a Cabbage White butterfly, which I converted to a 'Radiant' butterfly and translated as Faen; and the third blank was a Painted Lady, which became a 'Jewel', and was translated as Mîr.

Sometimes, what you think is going to be throwaway detail does turn out to be something that affects the plot. In one of my stories, Eowyn falls into the sea, and she's submerged for a few minutes. And I vaguely remembered having seen something in an episode of Baywatch about salt water drowning, so I looked it up. It turns out that if you get salt water in your lungs your body may—up to eight hours afterwards—decide to flush it out and, if you're lying down, or sleeping, you can actually drown in your own fluids.

I could have ignored this, because Eowyn's a heroine and so not limited by normal physical constraints, but I'm constantly worried about the fine line we tread when we ignore things like recovery times in order to keep a story moving, so I decided to treat the incident realistically. Enter a healer:

"...the next five hours are of most concern. Give her sweet cordial; keep her temperature normal—if she feels cold, cover her up, if she feels warm, cool her down—sponge her with cold water, if necessary—and, if she wants to lie down, try to keep her head and shoulders raised. If she feels no worse after five hours, I think you can assume that she is fully recovered.”

This meant re-writing the rest of the chapter to fit the treatment—but that was OK because it meant that Eowyn got to make her confession whilst being fussed over by Legolas.

...

So that's about it. To sum up:

  • Save your accidental research, keep it together, and look through it regularly for inspiration.
  • Make sure that your background research is thoroughly incorporated into your story and, if in doubt, ask a good beta reader to check for you.
  • Take a little time over your detail research, because details add atmosphere to the story, but keep them short, unless you find something that affects your plot.


Comments

Posted by: Karen (kazzy_cee)
Posted at: August 27th, 2008 06:22 am (UTC)

Thank you for posting this. As I said to you before, I teach research skills to my students and I like the way you have phrased some of this. I'll be pinching some of the ideas for this term ;) It was very interesting!

Posted by: ningloreth (ningloreth)
Posted at: August 27th, 2008 07:59 pm (UTC)
wood_eowyn

That's great! (I was worried that it was too specific). I hope it works :-)

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