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Going to the Stacks: A Plug for Old-Fashioned Research Tools

You may have noticed that my presence on this blog has declined in the last month or so; this has been for a couple of reasons, some of which I’ve already discussed here, but one of the good ones that I haven’t crowed about much is that I’m actually starting to make progress on the book at faster-than-a-snail’s-pace (probably to do with having more focused writing time now that my teaching responsibilities are over for a while). In the last few weeks, my writing has been getting between 2 and 4 hours almost every day. Of course, not all of that time is spent putting words on paper; as I’m sure the other writers out there know, no matter how much research you think you’ve done ahead of time, you’ll inevitably find something that needs to be looked up in-the-moment.

I don’t always drop everything to go research; after a long process of trial and error, I’ve learned better than to dive blindly into the Internet and expect to come up for air before I’ve lost the thread of what I was doing. But sometimes, the question is one that’s actually intrinsic to the scene I’m writing. How might this animal behave under these circumstances? What could you do for a person with these injuries if you didn’t have professional help available? What weapons would these people  most likely be carrying?

For an immediate question like that, I find it works much better for me to go to a physical book to find an answer. The distraction potential is far less (there’s no link to Facebook on my bookshelf, for instance, unless my phone happens to be sitting there); I tend to be more familiar with the layout of the source I’m tapping, letting me quickly find the section I’m looking for; and since I’ve evaluated it before adding it to my library I can be more sure of its accuracy.

Of course, I can never be completely sure what I might need to look up on any given day, but here are a few categories of topic that I’ve found myself accumulating books on, that might be worthy additions to other aspiring fantasists’ reference libraries (you’ll find a partial list of titles at the end of the post):

  • Books with photos and drawings of clothing and weapons. This one was particularly important to me after I resolved that the world of my novels would not have a straightforward “faux-European” flavor. I wanted the cultures to feel more original, and so I wanted to make sure I exposed myself to the way things were done in other places besides medieval Europe. So far, I’ve collected three different books on costuming and body adornment, and two different books on weapons; when I bring a new character onto the page, I can sit down and consider the culture they’re coming out of (are they a pastoralist? a city-dweller? someone from a hot climate? a wet climate?), and quickly look at illustrations from a number of real-world cultures with similar elements.
  • Skill-based books. I have a few small clusters of “skill books” (some on falconry; some on sailing; one written for linguists on how to document an unknown language); more recently, I’ve been gathering books on survival in the wilderness. Because I’ve often got characters roaming through uncharted territory in my books, and it’s useful to have a quick guide to things like how to gut a carcass, sharpen knives, start a fire and transport an injured person — as well as stuff like basic nutrition for people living in a non-industrialized setting.
  • Natural history books. If animals play a major part in your story, it’s probably useful for you to have a few books about those animals (I suspect GRRM might have a wolf text or two in his writing room). Raptors have a pretty substantial role in the story I’m telling, so I have books that discuss their anatomy, behavior, and training, as well as a few big coffee table books just for the pictures.
  • Cultural overview books. These, of course, take all sorts of forms. I’ve got an ever-growing collection of compilations of mythology from around the world; I have a book whose authors went around the world taking photos of families with all their worldly possessions piled up in front of their house, and a whole series of coffee table books offering sweeping historical overviews of different parts of the world, plus the obligatory medieval Europe series and about three years of National Geographic back-issues that I can flip through when I’m feeling stuck for imagery. None of it stands on its own as a world-building tool; all of it informs my thinking.

And that’s just the stuff I’ve accumulated so far.

I know that my library will grow and change as my writing career does, but I don’t think I will ever move to an all-digital research approach. The experience of pulling a familiar book from the shelf and cracking it open to the old familiar pictures is just too powerful for me to let it go.

Reference Books I’ve Found Useful:

For weapons, armor, and general attire (all basically coffee table books):

  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Knives, Daggers & Bayonets (Dr. Tobias Capwell)
  • The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Swords and Sabres (Harvey J.S. Withers)
  • The Illustrated History of Weaponry: From Flint Axes to Automatic Weapons (Chuck Wills)
  • Warrior: A Visual History of the Fighting Man (R.G. Grant — lots of pictures of weapons and armor from the earliest records to the present day)
  • Costume Worldwide: A Historical Sourcebook (Melissa Leventon, ed — unlike the others, this one draws on paintings as its source material, so may not be quite as accurate, but it’s a good place to start and the broadest book I’ve been able to find so far)

For wilderness/survival skills:

  • SAS Survival Guide (John “Lofty” Wiseman — written by a veteran of the British special forces. Includes everything from how to test the edibility of plants and make your own bow to surviving a shipwreck)
  • Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook (David Werner, Carol Thuman & Jane Maxwell — mainly focuses on disease prevention and treatment in low-technology settings, but there’s some useful first aid and preventative medicine here too)

For raptor natural history info and photos, and falconry basics

  • Understanding the Bird of Prey (Nick Fox — the bible of falconry management, as far as I can tell; out of print and quite expensive to get a copy of, but I’ve found it worth the hefty pricetag. Includes anatomy and physiology, behavior, training, breeding and most anything else you can think of).
  • Falcons of North America (Kate Davis — a natural history text focused on wild birds, with great pictures)
  • A Falconry Manual (Frank L. Beebe — decent photos and brief overviews of the species used for falconry in North America, as well as the basics of training, housing, etc.)

For cultural stuff:

  • Life in a Medieval Castle (Joseph & Frances Gies)
  • Life in a Medieval City (Joseph & Frances Gies)
  • Life in a Medieval Village (Frances & Joseph Gies — if you’re looking to draw on the medieval-Europe model, these three books cover it pretty comprehensively, and also get a thumbs-up from a real-life medieval historian in my social circle as adequately accurate in their summaries)
  • Favorite Folktales from Around the World (Jane Yolen, ed — this book joined my library when I had to write my story’s first folk tale earlier this year; good representation from around the world and a good overview of the most common types of stories.
  • Material World: A Global Family Portrait (Peter Menzel & Charles C. Mann — the coffee table book illustrating the experiences of different families from around the world; a good reminder that even in the same time frame [mid-90s, in this case] people in different places live dramatically differently)

On Writing Diverse Characters: Reports from the Trenches

In the last month, I’ve moved into redrafting the second quarter of my novel. While the first quarter centers around a very small central cast, this new section, when my hero steps out into the Big Bad World, adds roughly double that number of new faces — and since a number of these new characters have core identity elements that I don’t share (including aspects of occupation, race, ethnicity/background, sexuality, and ability/disability status), part of my writing work this month as I develop formal character profiles for them has been to do some homework.

The above link connects to a NaNoWriMo blog essay by author and surgeon I.W. Gregorio, in which she quotes discussions by fellow authors Ellen Oh and Gene Luen Yang about how best to write characters from other cultures. The homework metaphor is Yang’s; as he puts it:

We have to allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes, including cultural mistakes, in our first drafts. I believe it’s okay to get cultural details wrong in your first draft. It’s okay if stereotypes emerge. It just means that your experience is limited, that you’re human. Just make sure you iron them out before the final draft. Make sure you do your homework. Make sure your early readers include people who are a part of the culture you’re writing about. Make sure your editor has the insider knowledge to help you out. If they don’t, consider hiring a freelance editor who does.

As someone who spent 24 years as a full-time student (13 years K-12, 4 years undergraduate, 7 years graduate school; roughly 80% of my life to date), I know how to do homework. In the last month, without exaggeration, I’ve checked out more than a dozen memoirs from my local library, plus a couple big coffee-table books and academic texts. My goal is to read 3 or 4 books touching on each aspect I’m trying to incorporate into one of my major characters: I figure that should give me a fighting chance to steer clear of at least the biggest generalizations and stereotypes. And as I do this work, I’m also mentally adding categories to my list of desired beta reader experts. Besides the (maybe-not-so-obvious) fact that I want some men and male-bodied folk to give my first-person male protagonist’s story a critical read before I send it out into the world, I already knew that I’d have to find a falconer or two willing to lend their expertise to my final editing process, as well as someone familiar with rapier fighting. Now, I’m bringing in one major character who’s on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum and another who’s Indian-American, not to mention four or five other supporting characters with major aspects that are different from mine in a whole plethora of ways, and my list of desired specialized beta readers just keeps growing.

Because books are a great start, especially first-person accounts of life through these different lenses; I feel like I’ve already learned a ton about how to accurately and honestly develop the people I want to include in my story. But I know that books have limits, the biggest one being that they’re one-way. By reading books about being an “Aspie,” I’ll get insights into some parts of that experience, but I’m still bound to make mistakes in translation, if only because my character’s life isn’t happening inside that book. If I want to meet my own standards for portraying the characters I want to develop, I know I’m going to need someone to spot my mistakes, as well as the new mistakes I make correcting them.

As any student knows, homework is time-consuming. I know that this research is one of the (several) reasons my writing has stalled in the last few weeks, as I try to figure out how the new contextual material changes the characters I’ve already got down on the page. But as author Malinda Lo puts it in her answer to the question “Should white people write about people of color?“:

Writing outside your culture is a complicated endeavor that requires extensive research, being aware of your own biases and limitations, and a commitment to delving deeply into the story. However, writing any fiction requires this. There are no shortcuts to writing fiction truthfully and well. There really aren’t. The writer must put in the time so that they become confident in their decisions, and there are a million and one decisions to make when writing a novel.

On reading Lo’s words, my mind goes first to the difficulty of working and reworking plot decisions, a whole other can of worms and another contributing cause to the writing problems I’ve been having the last few weeks. But worldbuilding certainly eats its share of an author’s time. My story takes place in a secondary world, albeit one that’s connected to contemporary Earth; my protagonist’s native culture, one of easily a dozen different indigenous cultures that readers will be introduced to throughout in the series, is pretty much invented out of whole cloth. As a sociologist, I resolved when I started this project that my novel’s world would feature original (non-derivative) cultures, that their composite elements would make sense, and that the characters who came out of them to join the arc of my central storyline would be more than just the sum of their cultural traditions (for example, The Merchant, The Scholar or The Warrior).

If I can commit to that level of detail for my secondary world, I can take the time to make sure my Earth-born supporting characters are realistically-depicted individuals from particular backgrounds too. And so I’ll keep reading and note-taking, and take my comfort from the knowledge that the story I’m writing is becoming ever more the kind of story I want to have on my own bookshelves.

The Joys and Terrors of Research

It’s a funny thing, how the different selves we carry within us overlap.

Specific example: after 25-odd years as a student, the last 10 of those in a college/university setting (starting my 7th year of graduate school these days… yes, I’ve been in higher education that long…), I know how to do research. Now that I’ve buckled down to trying to write what one writing instructor whose lectures I heard called a “real fantasy world” (i.e., one where, despite the presence of magic, everything NON-fantastical (i.e., the economy, the cultural structures of the people, what aspects of biology you mean to have function the way they do in the real world) “works,” I find myself researching some really strange stuff.

Recent novel-related queries that have sent me down the research wormhole:

  • What is the average /necessary/ human calorie intake? (i.e., not what we in the overfed Global North might consider to be necessary, but what actively keeps you from being hungry all the time) And, relatedly, what are the approximate caloric counts for (in no particular order) potatoes, yams, turkey, pork, fish and kale? (note that none of these exists as a staple food in my world… but I figured hey, the improvising had to start somewhere ;))
  • What’s the quickest, surest way to kill someone with a knife? (This would’ve got me some strange looks if I’d been researching it in the public library… thank gods for the Internet…)
  • What were the most common building materials for peasant cottages in the Middle Ages?
  • What are the do’s and don’t’s of petting a bird, assuming one wanted to do such a thing?

I’ve also been collecting some weird books on my shelves lately, covering everything from big photo collections of Appalachia to analyses of Celtic language structure to discussions of the ways in which cultures with non-binary gender systems handle pronouns and social roles.

I always tell people who are looking to go to grad school that liking research is a necessary component of it (though not the only one). Seems that might be good advice for the writing life, too…