Tomorrow, I sit with a panel of authors at the Great Northwest Meet-Up devoted to how authors research their books. I imagine one of the big questions will be, “How much is enough?” Like most expert panelists, I will default to the safe answer: “I don’t know. It depends. What are you writing?”
Maybe I shouldn’t answer based on personal experience. I mean, I’ve done some crazy shit researching books.
- In Marin County, California, I bought a giant cooler so I could fill it with food and rope it to rocks jutting out of the ocean. This was an almost impossible task. And I was almost swept out to sea, so dangerous AND stupid.
- One summer, I bought a dozen ears of corn and spray-painted them each with a wide variety of fluorescent green paints. When these tests were concluded, I drove into the country to visit actual corn fields and spray-paint corn stalks to see which combination of paint and sparkles glowed in the dark. I painted at sunset and then came back hours later to conduct my tests.
- I convinced my employer to let me move to New York City for a month so I could research what it’s like to live in the city. I lived in a tiny studio apartment and slept on a mattress on the floor.
- While in New York, I pretended to be homeless for a day, begging for change on Wall Street, so I could capture the experience in writing (as much as one can after one day).
I’m willing to go quite far. Maybe even too far. But how much book research is enough?
There are a couple questions an author should answer before deciding how much to invest.
- Is the physical setting important? Follow-up question: Does the exact time frame (year, month, day) matter in this physical setting?
- Are you inventing a world? Follow-up question: What does the audience expect in your world?
- How familiar is the audience with the environment of the novel?
I’ll answer each one. Maybe these answers provide something more concrete than “it depends.”
1. Is the physical setting important?
The obvious answer is, yes, of course it is. But is it really? If your book takes place in Paris, France, you must ask yourself if the readers want to know that Rue des Barres is cobblestone, unlike its intersecting street, Rue Francois Miron. Does that matter? Or do your readers want to know that your main character “…strolled down a cobblestone street, admiring the cathedral gargoyles on either side who showered stone glares down upon him.”
There is no right answer here, just this question: are you going for accuracy or are you going for mood?
Readers enjoy Tom Clancy novels because of his unswerving dedication to describing every deck—every bolt—of a military-grade warship. They WANT accuracy. If you’re writing a thriller, and the secret documents are buried under a national landmark, every detail matters: the number of rooms, the year it was built, the security measures, etc. Readers want to believe in your accuracy.
But if they’re reading for mood….
Mood is created by a combination of accurate details and invented ones. Too much accuracy and you don’t create a mood. For example: “Babe, I picked up groceries for our romantic dinner. I got some organic, gluten-free noodles from a company that sponsors the right political candidates, cage-free, locally sourced eggs from a farm that treats its chickens humanely and does not feed them ground up chicken beaks, butter with no trans-fatty acids…”
One hundred percent factual and accurate. And horribly dull.
Follow-up question: does the exact time frame (year, month, day) matter in this physical setting?
If it does, it means you’re trying to capture a very specific mood which is essential for the story. Great! Be sure to capture those exact details which make it different from what was before and what came after.
In King John, I wrote about Burning Man in 2002. The year mattered. In 2002, Burning Man was roughly twelve years old, and was well established as an insane costume party in the desert. Crowds were up to roughly 30,000. Massive, but not the overwhelming 75,000 crowd event it was in 2014. More importantly, some of the deep criticisms that began in 2004 and grew through 2008 had not yet surfaced. Beginning in those years (and continuing into more recent years), burners felt the event had become too corporate, too top-heavy with bureaucracy, had imposed too many restrictive rules. The unpopular 2007 raffle for admission tickets created furious outrage among dedicated attendees.
The year 2002 is important because it’s possible to highlight the art, the music, the wild freedom and exploration at a time before more serious disgruntling began. (Disgruntling is completely a legitimate word. Do research. Look it up.)
One caveat to discussing the exact year or month. Usually, the important details are expressed in atmosphere and mood. If I have my narrator say, “Burning Man at this time isn’t so corporate,” that’s telling, not showing. (Also, how does he know what’s going to happen in the future?) You’ve got to do your research and then find a way to show your research, not tell it.
2. Are you inventing a world?
In 2014, I wrote a short story for the Goodreads M/M Romance Group event, Don’t Read in The Closet. The title was Broken Phoenix. I found this writing activity to be a lovely diversion from writing my series, which requires a lot of detailed research. Once I started writing, what surprised me was how much MORE research I had to do for a fake, invented world. As the world’s creator, I needed to understand and explain why the rocks on the ground lit up from the inside, how many kilometers between important geographic milestones, why the sky was the color it was. Why was the planet’s dog moon broken? Why was it called the dog moon?
One of the oddest things I had to “research,” was the exact process a phoenix goes through as it bursts into legendary flame. My main character (a phoenix) could not “flame on,” so I had to explore and explain where he broke down. What didn’t happen? Chemical malfunction? Did he not secrete the right hormones? Was he inhibited by some mental anguish, such as lack of confidence? My beta readers asked me questions I could not answer. Until I answered them, my readers were not happy.
Just because there’s no Wikipedia entry for your made-up world, doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. You have to “research” all the origin stories, the languages, the technology (or lack of technology). Do you have to communicate it all? No. Do you have to communicate all the details of this world in the first paragraph of your story? No. Only do that if you’re a terrible writer. But you must have worked through these details either in drafts or in your head.
Follow-up question: What does the audience expect in your world?
In reading the reviews for Broken Phoenix, I learned a curious thing. I had written a shifter story. Any being that can transform into something else (like a bird into fire and then back to bird form), is a shifter. Seriously, I had no idea. I don’t read shifter fiction. (I didn’t know the word “shifter.”) But apparently, there are a lot of expectations in shifter fiction.
Broken Phoenix was criticized for not giving the more detailed explanations in the backstory that shifter fiction traditionally provides. I did not provide the entire history of these shifters. I did not explain how they could or could not shift into other animals. Why birds? I did not explain (deliberately in this case) how phoenix traveled between worlds.
I would argue that, as an author, I can provide (or not provide) whatever details I want. If you don’t see what you were expecting, tough luck. It’s my story. That’s a pretty shitty attitude, however. Authors are in relationship with their readers. I had no idea I would frustrate readers who might have otherwise loved the story. I know now! In the rewrites for that story (a second edition), I’m answering some of the questions that I did not address in the first edition.
This isn’t just an issue of creativity. It’s research.
3. How familiar is the audience with the environment of the novel?
If your audience might know San Francisco quite well—and you’re writing about San Francisco—you could get yourself in trouble. Well, unless you do your research. Again, you may not have to know which streets are cobblestone, but you should know how long it takes to get from Chinatown to the Golden Gate Bridge, or from which buildings you can see the bay. Details.
I myself find research difficult, so I cheated.
My cheat? Well, my first book, King Perry, was set in San Francisco. I needed the book set in a time before cell phones were ubiquitous, so I chose the year 1999. I benefited from the fact that very few people could argue some of the city’s details with me. Ha! Can’t catch me with inaccurate building names for a city that existed in 1999! Another way I cheated is in the excerpt below. Vin and his weekend guest, Perry, drive up to a fancy hotel in the financial district.
"This chain isn't performing well financially," Perry says at last. "Their San Francisco location was a big investment, and first and second quarters were far below expectations. They could close this site before Q4."
"Is this big news on Wall Street?"
"Yeah," he says, uncertainly.
I watch him and wait.
He continues with a quick blush, "People in the bank are talking, because they want to see the duck parade before the hotel closes."
After the book was published, several readers emailed to tell me that there was “no big fancy chain with a duck parade in San Francisco.” I agreed and reminded them that Perry had mentioned the chain wasn’t doing well in San Francisco. They said, “Oh, that’s right…” That was back in 1999. I explained that in my imagination, the hotel closed down.
Research problem solved! Fake hotel demolished!
In the end, the solutions to research issues are all about your relationship with your readers. What do they want? How much do they need to believe? Where can they suspend disbelief? At what point do they shake their heads and say, “You’ve gone too far.”
It’s surprising, what matters to people. In King John, I referenced art that was displayed in 2002. I included historical events from that year’s Burning Man. Still, someone emailed me to say, “You never once mentioned where the Porta Potties were.”
Perhaps some research details are best left unshared.
If you’re attending the Great Northwest Meet-Up tomorrow, come visit our research panel! I’m joined by Anne Tenino, Ethan Day, and Jove Belle. We’re speaking from 11:10 am–12:00 noon, on the fourth floor in Room 5. We’d love to see you.
Oh, and feel free to ask me how to make a stalk of corn glow in the dark.
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Edmond Manning is the author of the romance series, The Lost and Founds. The books in this series include King Perry, King Mai (a 2014 Lambda Literary finalist), The Butterfly King, and King John. King John takes place at Burning Man.
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Winner’s Prize: An eBook copy of King John
(Leave a Comment here and then click the link below)
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Where to get your copy of King John:
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About King John:
English attorney Alistair Robertson can’t quite believe an astonishing tale of kingship and transformation he hears at Burning Man, the annual counter-culture art festival in the Black Rock desert. Who are the Found Kings? Is “being kinged” as magical as it sounds?
Determined to find the mysterious garage mechanic named Vin who helps men “remember who they were always meant to be,” Alistair catches his quarry amid the extravagant sculptures, fire worshipers, mutant cars, and lavish costumes. After searching for three years, he’ll finally get to ask the question burning inside him: “Will you king me?”
Wandering together through the desert, Vin Vanbly and Alistair explore Burning Man’s gifting culture and exotic traditions, where they meet the best and worst of their fellow burners. Alistair’s overconfidence in Vin’s manipulative power collides with Vin’s obsessive need to save a sixteen-year-old runaway from a nightmarish fate, and the two men spiral in uncontrollable, explosive directions.
In this fourth adventure of The Lost and Founds, beneath the sweltering summer sun and the six billion midnight stars, one truth emerges, searing itself on their hearts: in the desert, everything burns.
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King John Blog Tour:
Mon, Sept 7 My Fiction Nook
Mon, Sept 7 AJ Rose Books pre-release excerpt #1
Tues, Sept 8 Thorny, Not Prickly pre-release excerpt #2
Wed, Sept 9 Love Out Loud pre-release excerpt #3
Thurs, Sept 10 Facebook Release Party, 7p-9p Central, hosted by Bike Book Reviews
Fri, Sept 11 Reviews by Amos Lassen
Sat, Sept 12 Vanessa North.com
Tues, Sept 15 MM Good Book Reviews
Wed, Sept 16 The Novel Approach
Thurs, Sept 17 Purple Rose Tea House
Fri, Sept 18 Posy Roberts.com
Sat, Sept 19 Zipper Rippers
Tues, Sept 22 Joyfully Jay
Wed, Sept 23 Boys In Our Books
Thurs, Sept 24 It’s About the Book
Fri, Sept 25 Lou Harper.com
Sat, Sept 26 Love Bytes Reviews
Sun, Sept 27 Sinfully Addicted to Male Romance
Mon, Sept 28 Josephine Myles.com
Tues, Sept 29 Molly Lolly
Wed, Sept 30 Coffee and Porn in the Morning
Wed, Sept 30 Stumbling Over Chaos
Thurs, Oct 1 The Blogger Girls Reviews
Sat, Oct 3 Because Two Men Are Better Than One
Sun, Oct 4 The Hat Party!
Fri, Oct 2 Jessewave
Mon, Oct 5 Prism Book Alliance
Tues, Oct 6 Jaycee Edward.com
Wed, Oct 7 Hearts on Fire Book Reviews