Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Researching Your Novel

I couldn't quote the statistics but I'm curious to find out how many hours authors spend researching their novel behind the scenes.  Even when we draw on personal history and experiences, if we go into the past we often end up researching things which happened during our childhood but we didn't pay attention to.  We were kids.  It didn't matter.  I've discovered that about half my published novel, Shaman Circus, and maybe even more for my two WIPs, Shaman Exile and Fireworks: Interference Equation involves a ton of research, many hours.  When I first started writing novels 29 years ago, I had to run to the lbirary, request inter-library loans on books unavailable locally, and write letters to experts.  I also trolled used books stores and bought many volumes which related to the storylines of my books. Maybe that's why my house is full of books and I never finished my first three novels. 
 I like a lot of back story for my characters in addition to a variety of locations. So I need to do lots of research even on the places I've lived.
 It's so much easier now with the internet what with online historic news and town histories as well as immediate answers through e-mails with experts.  And wow, I wish I had places like Amazon and Abe Books to locate the books with the necesssary info instead of always hunting used book stores in person to find such resources.
But even in 2910, rresearch takes hours and hours, sometimes entire days. But it's fun and the payoff is huge.
In the past year or so, I've researched a lot on my father's French Canadian family because I was never told much.  He died when I was very young and even though I spent a lot of time at his aunt's, who raised him, his family didn't tell us many stories. As kids, my sister, cousins and I had to eavesdrop on  conversations between the adults instead.
 So while I broke my recent writing drought yesterday with over 2,200 words for chapter 26 of Fireworks: Interference Equation, only two of those hours was spent on writing. I've tallied it up and so far for Chapter 26, I've spent 12 hours doing research for two hours of writing. Wow that's an eye-opener. I never tracked it time-wise before.   
This chapter, number 26, takes place in a flashback to Great Boar's Head, New Hampshire, a strange promintory which hulks out over the Atlantic, part of the mere18 miles of New Hampshire coastline.  Boars Head, known to geologists as a  lenticular moraine or drumlin deposited years ago by a glacier, has a long, often spectacular history, some of it plesant, much of it not. Howling storms, fires and other natural disasters have assaulted the cliff-top community which has witnessed much on the shale of North Beach or Rocky Beach below on one side and the sand of Hampton Beach on the other. John Greenleaf Whitter wrote poetry here. 
It's been a part of my life ever since I can remember as we swam below its cliff's or hunted seaglass on the rocks below. The shale side was once the launch spot for whalers and  the last resting spot of The Glendon, a three-masted schooner. In 1896, when in danger of splitting in half during a snowstorm, The Glendon was pulled ashore with ropes shot by guns, by people from Hampton Village. All crew were rescued. Up until recently remainders of the ship could be seen rotting away on shore. 
To find the info for just this chapter, I consulted Babelfish to translate French, went to a site to translate a large Roman Numeral into Arabic numbers so I could know the date on an old pamphlet.  Read three historic newspapers online, read and printed out about five different sites on this part of New Hampshire and on Prince Edward Island. Printed out a couple of sites on The Glendon, which I already knew about from a book of postcards of Hampton and Hampton Beach. I viewed 30 or 40 images to get the lay of the land since the 1500's when it was first settled, printed out a number of sites on the Port La Joye settlement on Prince Edward Island, one of the first settlements of the French Canadian seamen, and got sidetracked by videos of the Feb. 2010 fire which took out five blocks of oceanside property at Hampton Beach..  I also used about five books I have in my library, one on shipbuilding in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, another one from the shipbuilding museum there which has photos of whaling boats launched from my beach, books on Hampton and Rye Beach and one on New Hampshire.
Whew - that was a lot of work.  But well worth the time. 
So how do other writers out there conduct their research and what would be the ratio between hours spent on research and hours spent writing? Have you ever kept track of the hours and the resultant word count?  How many authors research the histories of their ancestors for their characters and books? 
I know Brian K. Ladd in my writers' group puts in probably five times as much research as I do because he goes into all the various linguistic aspects of individual words.  
So I'm wondering how other authors view research too. I'd be curious to see how other authors conduct their research and how many hours the figure they spend.  


  1. I do some research on what I'm writing, but not as much as it sounds like you're doing. My research is mostly to get the tone of a setting correct - like when I went to the peach orchard last year to get a feel for the people working there and to ask some questions about working a fruit farm in the South. I guess I personally stick close to what my screenwriting teacher Scott Gould told me years ago... "Don't write what you know. Write what you know well enough to lie about." I just need a little touch here and there to make it convincing. To make you believe I know WTF's going on, when in all actuality, I'm almost as blind as the reader. I'm only interpreting what the Universe has passed to me, you know. ;)

  2. Internet and reading books! I've also interviewed people in the job positions of my characters.


Web Analytics