Write What You Don't Know

Author, King's Silver, Lyssa Medana, Out of the London Mist -

Write What You Don't Know

Hi, I’m Lyssa Medana and this is the last in a series of articles with my thoughts on research and the fiction author. (Links to previous articles at bottom of post.)

A swift summary of what I have learned from Research

An orange and white tabby lays with a feather toy between it's legs.

The main thing I have learned about research is that I have no self-discipline. I have the attention span of a kitten in a feather factory, I am easily diverted, and I take really bad notes. But I have also found that research is useful. 

Any writer of fiction has to understand that research is not confined to the keyboard and computer screen. Are you writing a scene in a forest? Then you have to remember what it was like when you walked in a forest. What did you feel? What did you see? What did you hear? What did you smell? For a different scene, you may need to know how a character feels when they are hungry. That comes from remembering your own experiences of hunger.

A White person is shown from above, only lower legs and bare feet visible. Their feet are muddy as they stand on thick mud.

Keeping your eyes open and an awareness of what is around you and how you feel in relation to it is research. And sometimes it can be a comfort. When you slip wildly down a muddy bank, twist your knee, and land on your dignity, you can always console yourself that now you can describe it happening to a character. It may be humiliating but at least it’s research. The habit of keeping your eyes and ears open and your mind welcoming to new experiences is underrated and undervalued, but it can add depth and colour to your writing that hours spent in a library can’t.

Hours of work looking for facts has its place, though. This is the sort of research that reduces the chance of a writer looking like a complete fool. I’m based in the UK and have never been anywhere in North America. If I wrote about a character driving between Norfolk, Virginia and San Francisco, California in one night then everyone in the USA would rightly point and laugh. According to Google maps, it would take around 46 hours or so of non-stop driving. A quick check would stop me from looking like a doofus. If you read a book where the characters are lost in limestone caves in an area without limestone, or talk about the tide coming in when the town is inland, then you stop taking the book seriously and are not likely to read other books by the hapless author.

A serving bowl is filled with red crawfish.

There are all sorts of bits around that can help you pick up ideas to polish up the story. Typing in an area, town or even a street name to a search engine can bring up all sorts of details. While I am sitting very sensibly in my room in Yorkshire, I can learn that the Cajun Crawfish Queso is $16 at the Bourbon Street Drinkery in New Orleans (not including tip). There are swathes of small websites out there full of curiosities and quirks. And where there are odd websites, there are stories!

I have also learned that I have no self-control when it comes to historical research. You would not believe the hours I have spent getting further and further away from any part of my plot. When you are writing historical fiction, you have to do the hard work and spend the time looking at authentic documents. But if, like me, you write more alternative historical fiction, then you have a little more room. You can just pick a date and go with the facts from that point while fudging what you need to make the plot work. You don’t have to work out what has been invented/written/said in your fictional world. Just check what happened at that date in our world and add it in.

A toy vampire with his tongue sticking out stands next to an orange jack o'lantern with a purple witch's hat.

An example is Victorian vampires: in December 1888, London was ablaze with rumours about Jack the Ripper. I want to write about vampires. If I mentioned anything to do with Count Dracula or Bram Stoker, people would snigger at me. Dracula wasn’t published until 1897. Instead I could talk about The Vampyre by John Polidori, a retelling of a story told by Lord Byron, and published in New Monthly Magazine in 1819. That has a wicked lord, a fair and innocent young lady, a tragic death or two, and was well known enough to be common knowledge for would-be vampire hunters. And it is a lot easier than me fudging the timeline to have Bram Stoker write Dracula earlier and then trying to remember what date I moved it to and why I moved the dratted thing in the first darned place.

When I am writing about the exciting chase of a shadowy monster and the plucky heroes through the East End of London, the last thing a reader cares about is the difference between the street layout in 1900 and the streets now. Between the Blitz and some over-enthusiastic urban planning, there isn’t much overlap between the East End of London then and now. I may feel a warm glow at having the chase weave through authentic back streets taken from contemporary maps but I would rather the reader was too caught up in the action to care.

Screenshot of Wikipedia front page

Wikipedia

My personal opinion (and there are many differing opinions on this) is that Wikipedia is good enough for fiction. It’s not just the content of the articles, but also the wonderful list of references at the end that can lead you to all sorts of interesting places. Wikipedia isn’t just a list of articles. If you scroll down the front page and keep your eye on the left hand side bar, you can see a list of related sites. Wikisource and Wikibooks are free books and documents which are always a temptation. There is the Wiktionary and also Wiki Commons with some amazing pictures.

Project Gutenberg

This is the most amazing resource of free ebooks. Most are old books and out of copyright, but contemporary travel accounts of, for example, nineteenth century Greece, are great background.

Time and Date

This is where I go when I need to check things like time zones, sunrise, sunset, and average weather patterns in places like Khartoum.

Long aisle of a library, with books shelved at each side. A wooden staircase comes up the center of the aisle.

Libraries

If you head to a central library, they often have an archive of old newspapers and magazines. I can, and have, spent hours enjoying the adverts and advice mixed in with the news and opinions. Their reference section is usually reliable and the librarians are amazingly helpful. 

Going Official

Local and national governments have all sorts of bits of information tucked away. This can range from street plans to records. It can also have details like the opening times of public parks and contacts for local history groups.

Company Records

That’s where I’ve found information on the history of aluminium smelting and the timeline for tinned tomatoes. It’s always worth checking to see if there are insights there and quite often there are snippets and stories that give an extra polish to some detail.

A vintage TV set shows YouTube logo

YouTube

I’ve already mentioned that re-enactment videos are a great source of background. Did you know that a lot of universities have their own YouTube Channels, including Yale. You can dip into all sorts of lectures for free. Many big museums and art galleries have channels as well. Away from the academic channels, I strongly suggest reading and watching a variety of sources as some YouTube channels are more reliable than others. There are some really great and trustworthy sources, but also some that are seriously misleading.

Social Media

Speaking of reliability, you can find all sorts of local history groups, interest groups, hobbies and schools on social media. I do not suggest that you take social media advice on anything concerning health, wealth, or religion.

Sporcle

I admit it, I sometimes go on an online quiz site for information. But did you know that they have quizzes with lists of the most popular boys and girls name by year including Most popular boys names by decade. If you’re scrabbling around for a common name for a boy from 1931 Chicago, there are worse places to look. When you have done your best, the correct answers come up at the end and you can take your pick. 

Here’s a tip if you are struggling: if you need to know a detail but aren’t sure, go on Reddit or Quora and post the question. Then change to a different account and confidently post an absolutely, definitely, completely wrong answer. Then go make yourself a beverage of your choice and come back in about five minutes. You will find there at least fourteen pages of hotly disputed facts, some serious feuds, a few off-colour jokes, and in amongst the wreckage, the correct answer.

A spiral staircase as seen from above swirls downward for several floors. Writing research fiction writer

Research for fiction writers comes down to putting in the hours, even when you’re not sure what you should be looking for. You can chase every detail, unearth every fragment of information, and scamper down rabbit holes to find that small detail that makes your story shine.

I have yet to really learn how to stop. My editors have a lot to put up with. Two full moons twelve days apart. A land-locked town with a port. Victorian vampires wearing running shoes. Writers get caught up in the flow and stuff gets missed and everyone does it. The important part of your research is to put in enough correct detail to give a strong backdrop and to help the flow of the story. It shouldn’t be noticeable. Your reader should be too worried about whether the gentle heroine’s malicious sister will cause trouble than to fret about whether the tide is too high at that time of day for her to walk along the beach.

A reader who picks up your book is giving you a certain respect. They are choosing to spend some of their precious time reading what you wrote. They may have allocated a percentage of their spending money on it. They are paying you a compliment when they choose your book to read. It seems only fair that you respect them enough to get the broad details of the background right.

I hope that you can use these articles as a starting point for your own research journey. Now, go have fun writing!

 

Find the rest of the series here:

https://threefuriespress.com/blogs/musings/researching-writing-and-rabbit-holes-part-1

https://threefuriespress.com/blogs/musings/research-and-the-199-steps

https://threefuriespress.com/blogs/musings/location-location-location

https://threefuriespress.com/blogs/musings/historical-facts-and-fictions

https://threefuriespress.com/blogs/musings/too-much-of-a-good-thing-part-5

https://threefuriespress.com/blogs/musings/write-what-you-dont-know 

Lyssa Medana is a 50-something author living in West Yorkshire, UK. Her works include The Forgotten VillageDigging up the PastCats in the BibleDinner at Dark and Tales from the White Hart.  Lyssa also regularly publishes poems and short stories on her blog, Always Another Chapter. You can find the first book in her Aether Trails series, Out of the London Mist, here: https://threefuriespress.com/products/out-of-the-london-mist-by-lyssa-medana. The first of the Magic Awakening, King's Silver, is available on Kindle Unlimited https://amzn.to/3MkEHVe

 


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