Eoin's Writing Tips: Research I 

You might remember the familiar admonition that writers should, "write what you know.” This is probably good advice for a first novel; it has the advantage of keeping your story moving – call it your life fictionalized. You might even squeak by with a second novel but pretty soon you’re going to feel a need to branch out, to use different subject matter to flesh out your characters’ lives.  These areas are also needed to give your story context as to time and place.  This context will also allow you to experiment with mood, the life of the times, the zeitgeist.  Further along will come tone (attitude) of both your characters and you, the author.
Let’s examine a scenario and discuss possible lines of research for some of the elements.  A well used plot device is to have the actions of your story take place in different historical contexts and interweave them into the present.  This structural strategy allows the current time period to resemble the history from which it emerges and to establish continuity in the reader’s mind.  You might not (probably don’t) want to write a historical novel per se as the demands are quite different and more stringent than the process under discussion.  We will examine this aspect of research, time and place, in another column.   But the key is: if writers have courage, they also should have curiosity.
An example I would like to use is a novel I wrote a few years ago, "The Caves of Broken Dreams.”  This is a story about a 2000 year hunt for a Christian relic, the Crown of Thorns.  I staggered time frames throughout the story so that the current time could be seen in the same light as the past.  My protagonist of "now” is a miner who is also a geologist and a university professor and his introduction sets the theme that runs through the story – a relic hidden in a series of caves waiting to be discovered.  What did I know about mines, geology and modern archeological methods?  Practically nothing.  I had to research a few elements to lend the story verisimilitude but not necessarily with excruciating detail.  Just enough to give the scenes the appearance and likelihood of truth without getting bogged down in minute detail.  How does this work?
Familiarity vs. Direct Knowledge
My geology professor protagonist has way more knowledge than I do.  For instance, he uses a ground penetrating radar device to locate buried objects, unusual forms that would appear to be manmade, perhaps the foundations of long destroyed buildings.  Things like that.  He knows the science behind all his modern archeological tools but I don’t.  Nor do I need to know in order to establish the appearance of truth.  I could look up such a device on the internet, get the name, model number and general description and have him use it to discover something, even an empty space underground – a cave, say.
Okay.  He discovers the cave and finds a way in – now what do I need to know?  Probably something about spelunking – cave exploring – not much, just enough to descend into the cave. Information about ropes, ladders, modern laser depth measurements, other equipment that might be of use. 
But now that he’s inside I’ll probably want to describe something of what he sees.  He’s the geology guy, not me, so he’ll have in his mind a ton of geology references of which I can pluck a few, crystal and limestone formations, stalagmites, stalactites.  Not everything in the cave, just enough to give the reader a sense of place, the likelihood of truth – verisimilitude.  The story is driven by the characters, not their surroundings which are, essentially, props.
Modern research tools abound and it’s fair to say the internet is becoming the most valuable and useful, but it is not the only method of research. Dictionaries are helpful for researching the proper word to use – yes, looking up words is research. If you don’t have a large library in your city, you might be able to use a University Library.  Art Museums and Natural History Museums are quite useful to give you an idea of the feel and depth of an era and also to prod further research. And don’t forget to talk to people! Interviewing your subjects’ real-life counterparts can prove beyond invaluable.
Research begins when the writer asks herself: what do I need to know about my character’s life; what do I need to know about the zeitgeist in which my characters' lives play out; how can I use my natural curiosity to enhance the stories I want to tell.  


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