You’ve talked a lot about research and reading other writers to learn from them. How do you go about researching a novel? Do you research before a first draft, after, or while you are writing it?
Depends on the novel. My current novel, as regular readers of this blog will know1, is set in New York City in the 1930s. I’ve been researching it pretty much my entire life. I fell in love with early Hollywood movies when I was a kid. I used to fake being sick so I could stay home from school and watch Bill Collins’ midday movie presentations. I’d also stay up late cause they used to play old movies way into the wee hours. (Still do on ABC1.) I was also a regular attendee of the local revival cinemas. This was before videos, let alone DVD.
More recently I wound up doing doctoral and post-doctoral research that touched on USian science fiction in NYC in the 1930s. This included reading a tonne of letters from back then. By at least October 2006 I was already thinking about a novel set in the early to middle part of last century.
Before I had any idea of the story or characters, I was reading, watching and listening to material that would wind up being useful. None of that research was on purpose but it meant that I went into my current novel with quite a lot of background. But as I write I keep discovering things I don’t know. Like how private and public schools operated in Manhattan in the 1930s, how much it cost for a first-class passage on an ocean liner to England, what tooth paste and tooth brushes looked like back then, and how commonly they were used and so on and so forth. The first draft is full of [how would that have worked?] and [find out how much this would cost] or [when did nylon become commonplace? Second world war? what were the earliest readily available synthetics?].
Every novel I’ve written, no matter how much I knew going in, has involved further research as I wrote.
I knew virtually nothing going in to Magic or Madness about mathematics, number theory, or Fibonaccis. I researched as I wrote.2
I’ve never written a novel that required no research. For How To Ditch Your Fairy I had to find out a lot about sports I was unfamiliar with. For the liar book I learned about the difference between compulsive and pathological liars and theories about why people lie and how best to detect lies and much other spoilery stuff. Sometimes I think I write novels solely to force myself to learn.
Another thing that can happen when you’re reading—like me reading 1930s related stuff—is that it can set off big ideas that reshape your novel entirely. Scott puts it this way,
People tend to think about research as a way to get the details right. But it’s also about understanding big ideas. What makes Dune so interesting is Frank Herbert’s big idea that water is everything. Practically every detail in Dune serves that big idea. While writing Leviathan3 I realised that the big idea for airships is aerostatics. There are about five plot points on Leviathan that have to do with the fact that every time you put something on an airship you have to take something off.
I come across some beginning writers who look upon research as a chore. It’s really not. Sometimes the research is the most fun part of writing a book. I love making unexpected discoveries that change my book entirely. Like with my 1930s novel discovering that . . . oh, wait, that’s a massive spoiler. Never mind.
A really cool resource for online research is research maven Lisa Gold’s blog. Go read, enjoy!
NOTE: Please ask your writing questions over here. It’s easier for me to keep track of them and answer them in order if they’re all at the end of that one post. Thanks! I’m taking writing advice quessies for the whole of January.