Friday, July 20, 2012

Story Research

           When I began writing fiction I had no idea about the amount of research that awaited me. Some of the smallest details would send me away from my writing into the research jungle, providing pages and pages of reading. I love to learn, so I don’t think of this as painful. But because of this passion for knowledge, I often found myself with much more information than would ever show up in my story.

I have researched towns, looking for the perfect combination of small-town and mountain/forest. Clothing, food and activities had to be researched as well. Although I have had survival training, for one of my stories I more specifically researched wilderness survival, with things like types of shelters to poisonous plants and finally making a latrine or outhouse. I finally had my characters settle on a compost potty. Now, nowhere in my story, beyond the name, do I go into any details on what the compost potty is or how it works. So why do it? Because I needed it to be real. I didn’t want to just say whatever or make up some nonsense to explain away a detail.

When I wrote Amethyst Eyes (AE), although where Tommy lives on Earth is never even mentioned in the book, this piece of information took the most research. I needed to find a place where he could live with his mother in the Rocky Mountains, not only about an hour up from a town, but there also had to be Native Americans living nearby. I had not even decided whether he’d be American or Canadian, my research determined that in the end. He’s Canadian, by the way, living near Invermere, British Columbia. The Native Americans there are Ktunaxa or Kootenai (which led me to research their culture and language, found more in Emma, and the AE sequel).

I think situating your story is important, because it grounds it. You have to be careful if you name a place because the people who know it will be quick to catch any slights. I was proofing a MS for a friend who’s story took place in Ireland, a place I’d love to visit but have never been. On the same page, she’d spelled the name of the town two different ways. I went online to verify the correct spelling, only to find out that this town didn’t exist. She later explained that she wanted to avoid comments like “we don’t have that in our town” and such. Ahhh, so, I had been racking my brain and spending an unimaginable amount of time researching a location that ‘fit’ and she just made hers up. I will continue torturing myself for now, but it’s something to consider in the future.

Sometimes there are details that cannot be easily found online and you have to turn to real people to get your answers. Again, for AE, I decided Tommy would be home schooled. I personally know several families who have gone this path, and I have also had the pleasure of connecting with more families online. One thing that struck me was comments about how polite or well adjusted these children seemed to be, (and I have read studies that have backed up the well-adjusted claim). But of all the people I knew, it had been the parents who had initially made the decision to homeschool. So, when a reviewer made the comment “I don’t know any kid who’d be happy to be homeschooled,” I decided to take my research even further. Here is one answer from a homeschooling family about their son ‘wanting to be homeschooled’. (BTW, I have yet to come across any negative comments).

    • Ha! My son begged to be homeschooled during his 2 1/2 years in public school. He's 11 & going into 11th grade. I bring up private school or other non homeschooling options & he gets very upset & begs to continue to homeschool. We are very active & busy with many activities & friends. He prefers other homeschoolers as friends too. We're working towards a golf scholarship for college. I homeschool because I want a better education for him. As a matter of fact, he's in my bed reading his Summer fun book while I'm working. I have a problem with kids being in a mind controlling box for 7 hours a day where they aren't allowed to think creatively & grow their gifts & talents. Our traditional school structure is ok for some, but not for most. I also think many adults shouldn't homeschool as they struggle to train up their kids. Many parents like being part time parents & enjoy the time away. Some parents need to work. We have sacrificed a lot to homeschool our son because it's what's best for him.

This also covers the “creepy” comment when talking about Tommy being close to his mother. But then, my kids are very close to me, so I guess we’re creepy too.

When it comes to my characters, though I maintain that I let them come to life and act out on their own. I have to admit that I have met a lot of people in my life. I have 4 children, ranging from 4-24 years of age. I have had a summer camp, a martial arts school, taught gymnastics, coached figure skating and baseball, taught both elementary and high school, worked with cadets, taught in the military and worked as a nurse…all things that have put me in contact with people of all ages and stages, from varying walks of life. I am lucky to have such an amazing collection to feed my creativity.

Character interaction and attitude aren’t difficult for me to imagine, but if you find yourself struggling, then I suggest you try people watching. Go to a mall, a park, a sports event, a fair, a restaurant, or any place you can easily watch people (without being mistaken for a stalker). Study body language, the way people grimace, gesticulate, listen or ignore others. Watch the dynamics between two kids on a playground, between lovers or a mom with her kids…whatever you need. Oh, and take notes.

Technology in sci-fi is not something you can readily Google, unless you want to take other peoples ideas, and I didn’t really feel like borrowing someone else’s work.  I found a magazine that compared sci-fi technology to present day technology and based my technological items, as much as possible, on what was real. The rest I had to make up, try and describe it in a way that made it believable, and make sure I had an idea of how it would work. In Star Trek, Gene Rodenberry came up with the idea of the transporter because it was easier on his budget to just have the crew ‘show up’ on the planet. Today, a group of scientists have managed to ‘transport’ groups of billions of atoms over a distance of 18 inches from point A to point B. A far cry from the transporter, but hey…on some level, it’s no longer sci-fi.

The link in my story comes from pushing the limits of human awareness. In many cultures mystic people have been shown to have these gifts, but in reality we are all able to sense another’s presence or distress. At one point, we’ve all thought of someone a second before running into them, or getting a phone call from them. I also wanted my characters to be more sensitive and caring to those around them and this helped.

The legend I chose as the premise to explain the existence of Tommy’s father (the Sirians, from the planet Sirius) does exist amongst Native Americans, Egyptians and some African tribes. They all spoke of our forefathers coming to seed this planet, and stated that they came from a planet around the Dog Star, Sirius. When scientists discovered this common legend, they were intrigued. This discovery came long before the internet era, so these people had no way of communicating with one another…and yet they shared the same legend. I thought that was cool. Unfortunately researching this was long and I had to read through a lot of nonsense to get what I needed. In the end aside from a mere mention of the forefathers, none of the legend really shows up.

When all else fails in your research, try talking to friends, other authors or even asking for help on your blog or facebook. Make a note to come back to it and try again later. You might also want to try a different search engine. Hubby swears by Google, while I personally prefer Dogpile. I get better results too ;o).

What’s important in all this is to have fun with your research. The more information you collect, the deeper and more realistic your story will be. Don’t forget to keep notes with all of your information. You will probably have to fall back on it to clarify some point later on in the process, and trying to find that one site that held the tidbit of information can be a nightmare. I use charts with my information and I also have a listing of all the sites that provided useful information. You don’t want the whole process to become too daunting because it takes away the pleasure in building your story. Don’t hesitate to ask me for help, I’ll be more than glad to share what I can.


  1. Really interesting article. Thanks.

  2. Debbie, this is a really great article. Thanks for sharing. Research can be fun but sometimes I get carried away:-)