Learning to Love Research

The word “research” used to fill me with dread.  I equated the term with long hours spent pouring over dry texts to extract snippets of information that no one would care about.

I was so wrong.

I think part of the problem is that in school, I rarely got to pick the topics that interested me, and the information and sources available at the time were limited.  Somewhere along the way, I discovered that learning wasn’t something reserved for classrooms, and that I could learn about virtually anything through books, the internet, traveling, and interviews.  I can indulge my curiosity about topics I wish I’d studied, hobbies that fascinate me, or places I’ve longed to see.

One of the great joys of fiction is creating worlds from your imagination and grounding them with real facts and details. I get to choose what I write about, what interests me, and what I want to explore.  Inevitably, research leads me to look at my story in a new way, or helps me find the missing pieces of a plot puzzle, understand a character, or just helps make everything a bit more real. 

But learning to love research and embracing it took time.  I started with a toe in the water.  An   When I started researching myths for the Bandia series, I had to overcome a huge barrier and actually (gasp) explore large tomes in the nonfiction section of the library.  I learned about science and math theories because my character is interested in those things.  I read about witchcraft and magic, the Crusades and how religion and magic intersect in Irish culture.  I read a lot, which I think is a good foundation for researching a book.  But there is so much more out here.
internet search, which usually led to a broad overview on Wikipedia.

For my new project, I pushed myself much further into the research vortex.  I set my story in a real city, New York.  I began by using the internet to map out routes and locations for my characters.  I had a general idea of what neighborhoods and landmarks I wanted to write about, and I was able to pull up maps and street views from the comfort of my desk.  I purchased books about some of the landmarks online, visited websites and travelogues on the internet, and looked at pictures others had taken and posted online.  A Google “Images” search can yield informal photos snapped by tourists, capturing things the guidebooks don’t show you, and leading to blog posts about the place with even more rich detail.

Then I visited the city, and actually visited the places where scenes took place, taking in subtler details, sounds, smells and tastes.  I brought my netbook with me, and along with taking photos of everything that caught my eye, from people, to artwork, and architecture.  I would often sit down in the middle of place and start taking down notes about what I was seeing and feeling.

I talked to people whenever I could about the places I was seeing. I learned about the history of the place, took tours, and tried to find out things that weren’t in the guidebooks (though I read those too).  Along the way, I was amazed to find little details that mirrored or contradicted the themes in my stories, symbols that I could use as anchors in the narrative, and the occasional surprise that made my story come to life.
I also talked to people who were experts in their field, mining them for information and brainstorming with them about plot threads or character arcs.  I spoke to a historical archivist at a church, a psychologist who treats depressive disorders and a doorman in a Park Avenue apartment building.   

I can’t believe I ever hated research.  It’s become one of my favorite parts of writing.  

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