This month in the Witty Nib Writing Club, we’re looking at research! I’m hoping this is fun enough, and you can join in the prompt here. I’d love to see your participation!
5. Historical Research
This is a very fun type of research to do because you get to read stories about people who lived in the past. Long-time readers of my blog know my time period of choice, and you can expect that I’m fair at looking up information on it. That being said, I don’t have a degree in history, so take me with a grain of salt.
Something I like to do with historical research is look up historical sites and find recommended books from their website. Even better, you can visit – most of the time, historical sites have at least one historian working there who can help you really get into the way of things. I’ve been to the USS North Carolina battleship museum multiple times, and I love what I learn there.
If you are studying a period of history before the stupid “1924” public domain year (though, luckily, that cutoff is actually moving again), the Gutenberg Project is a trove of good info. I have found several 19th century books that help me with my research, and that’s fantastic!
Also, there’s video. I’ve mentioned the ration reviewer YouTube before, and that’s incredibly helpful if you’re doing a war-focused story (sorry, civilian rations aren’t as common on those channels). If you’re looking at 18th (and some 19th) century information, Townsends on YouTube is so good. For my focus, I’ve also loved the BBC series Lords and Ladles, which looks at how to make 19th-century feasts.
Do you have any advice on historical research? I’d love your comments!
4. Science Research
This is my day job, so I do this all the time. There’s a few things I find important about research for science fiction, and the main one is science communication is garbage.
Science writing is very different from literary writing in that many fields purposefully use convoluted language, esoteric buzzwords, and horrifyingly stupid organization. Beyond that, “peer-reviewed” science writing is often in journals behind ridiculously expensive paywalls (something like $40/article, in certain cases) if you’re not at a company or school with general access to journals. Beyond that, these articles require a reader to have a certain amount of background information and access to other information in order to understand any paper, even at a basic level.
A graduate student takes about 6 months of training to get up and running in one (1) field.
So what can a normal person do to get up on the new research?
Pop science articles can be helpful to find a subject to research further. Often, once you establish a subject to start with, you can go to a library or do further research on the internet. Sometimes, authors of a journal article will pay the publisher to have their article be open access, and you can read it. Seminal papers are also often free to access. For important science info that will help you build a sci-fi story, this should be adequate (and people who give unsolicited advice otherwise are probably just trying to show off). Accurate scientific knowledge is helpful, but most people do not have access to information and can’t refute you.
You can also try to find a scientist in the field willing to work with you. If you email professors, you can ask if there are graduate students willing to help. It’s probably better to email someone in the departmental office to ask their grad students in general, and even then you need someone special to happen to read that email.
Beyond that? Lobby your congressman to force scientific information be more readily available to everyone. The scientific publishing industry is a scam, and everyone knows it.
Once you start researching etymology for your writing, you won’t stop.
If you’re doing historical fiction, etymology becomes essential to making your dialogue distinct and timely. One of my favorite old-timey words is “poltroon”, a 19th-century word for “coward”. Because it came from Italian to French and coward came from an older French, we can assume that “poltroon” carries out a very specific function in only a small time window. When the word came into English, the French were very powerful and culturally influential, which implies this word may have also had a haughty air to it.
The subject can help you determine how to regionalize your speech, how to add nuances that you might not have been aware of, and more.
2. Locations and Climates
It’s a pretty famous fact that Stephanie Meyer had never been to Forks, Oregon before writing Twilight, which takes place in that sleepy little town. Yet, you can tell there’s been a lot of research into the town because she does describe things that seem realistic (I’ve never been to Oregon, can’t confirm).
And now, with the internet being basically ubiquitous, you can look up info on almost anywhere.
- You can get basic info on almost any small town off Wikipedia.
- You can digitally walk through many towns (and rural areas) using Google Street View. This is one of my favorite ways to get inspiration about a town.
- The USDA gives a Plant Hardiness Map that’s pretty neat-o for American locations. The country you want to write about probably has a similar map available.
- Annual rainfall maps can be helpful to determine how wet it is. I swear, it doesn’t rain enough in books.
Beyond that, just read about your setting, read about inspiring settings, and think about how it will affect your book.
1. Diversity Based Research
Location and climate often go hand in hand with diversity based research, and there’s something we all need to realize while we’re doing it:
If we don’t live it, we probably will never get it perfect.
As a Southerner, I find books about the South written by non-Southerners always miss nuances. There’s something about being Southern that is impossible to put your finger on but absolutely necessary to make it feel right.
That doesn’t mean avoid the culture, gender, sexuality, age, ability, religion, etc. that other people may have a better handle on. It means realize your limitations and do your best to overcome them. Read forums, articles, books, whatever it is to help you get into the mindset as best you can.
I’ve found this type of research to be very difficult. When I’ve written about black characters (which one must when writing about the South), it’s been a struggle to get it right. Getting even the representation of hair right is difficult for white-bread me, but I do my absolute best to find advice (and, lucky for me, I did already know that hair is a difficult issue). Even little things are major elements of getting other people’s lives represented correctly.
So, for this category: do research diversity, and do include diverse characters. Be bold. Try not to make mistakes but forgive yourself for failure.
Have you done book or story research recently? Tell me something you’ve found out – or, better yet, make a blog post about it join in the prompt here!