I went up north for a writing get away. I was having issues with my opening and what I wanted to do with it. Try as I might, it was an elusive devil. So I went into our local “big town” where they had a book store. I picked up five fantasy books and a fantasy – sci fi anthology. I went to the local beer garden (I love Wisconsin), had beer and a brat, and started reading. I tried reading three pages into each book and about one page in the anthology. I marked what was good and bad, then outlined what I wanted for my own story. It was a research day.
While we all have different areas requiring this attention, we all do require research. That day I had issues with opening. Other days I just want something interesting that no one has done before. Maybe the city you built is so generic it bores even you, and you have to look into what has made villages and the like fascinating throughout history. Tolkien researched languages. George R.R. Martin researched history. If you want to be a great writer, you need to do your research.
Research has many forms. The most interesting is experience. You want to know what it would be like to walk through a hot forest when it is 90 degrees with high humidity? Travel to Missouri and go for a hike with a heavy backpack with provisions. Bring lots of water and a cell phone. By the end you will be exhausted, sweaty, and feel absolutely miserable. Remember that, because in most fantasy novels these individuals are heavily armored and it doesn’t seem like they’re all that uncomfortable. I’m doing Tough Mudder in large part to help me better understand what it is like to make your way through mud, to be uncomfortable, to exert yourself until your body is screaming at you to stop, and you’re telling it, “Two more miles and three more obstacles! I believe in you!” And your body’s telling you, “If I think hard enough that you don’t exist, do you disappear?” Obviously killing a dragon, dueling someone to the death, doing hard drugs, and other such experiences should more likely be read about and researched in other methods, but there are so many aspects of an adventure we really can experience that we get lazy about.
You can always interview someone. There are plenty of people out there who have done a number of interesting things you would never try. Ask them to describe the experience. My friend who went to war, I asked him all about it. Sure he didn’t see a lot of front line action, but he still saw plenty to give an idea of the reality of war. When you do this, don’t be shy to ask questions. Figure out where they’re coming from, ask for clarification, and most of all listen. If you’re asking about something sensitive, know when to back off. These experiences can be unbelievably personal and leave numerous bad scars. Don’t go beyond what they’re comfortable with. No means no, and no amount of alcohol should be used to change minds. This isn’t college.
Finally, you have books and the internet. We should all be familiar with secondary and primary resources. If you need a brief summary of a topic, go for a secondary. You don’t need to learn about physics to write science fiction, but it sure does help to have a broad overview of nanotechnology. On the other hand, when you are going to be delving deep into the information, go for primary. If you want to comprehend war and that is the focus of your story, pick up some journals from warriors throughout the ages, from today to Genghis Khan. I’m not sure if he had a journal, but it’s amazing what information there is on war doing those periods. George R.R. Martin actually used some of the information on his people to create the Dothraki. History is full of amazing stories that are nearly impossible to fathom. Science has incredible plot hooks throughout it. See how you can take an event or theory and turn it into a story. Since it is a story, take liberties with it. Make it yours.
So research diligently and write great works!
Let us know how you research and what tactics work for you. Do you go to the library? Have you gone on hikes for the sake of research? Would love to hear how you go about it.