I love this quote by Zora Neale Hurston:
Researching is one of the most enjoyable things about writing for me, but it’s also one of the most dangerous. It doesn’t sound dangerous, does it? Who wouldn’t want to research how mail order brides were ordered in American West in the late 1880s? Types of pottery found on the Aeolian Islands dating to 1500 BC? Mythology relating to black dogs? Magical properties of herbs? Abandoned subway stations around the world?
I certainly would!
And therein lies the rub. I can – and do! – happily research for hours. Days! Weeks!!! If there’s something I’m unfamiliar with that is related to a story I’m working on, I want to learn enough about it to make sure I’m using it correctly. If it’s something mythological, I want to know that I’m following the standard tropes – or I want to know that I understand them well enough to veer off course, like I did with Emma the ghost in With Perfect Clarity, where I gave her the ability to read the thoughts of living people she came in contact with. Sometimes it’s fun to break the rules – but it’s a lot easier when you know what the rules are.
Right now I’m working on an urban fantasy novel in which mythological people are living in today’s world. For example: pretend you’re a dryad. You like hanging out with trees, but you might also enjoy eating pizza, or going to the movies. I have to guess that spending your entire life hanging out with your tree – no matter how much you love it – would eventually get boring. So … what happens when a normal person’s life crosses paths with someone like this?
I’m having a great time writing this story, but I need to research to make sure I’m getting the mythology correct (at least those parts I choose to use), that the setting is realistic (it takes place in – and under – a made-up city almost as big as New York), and that I correctly describe normal details that are unfamiliar to me (one of the protagonists is a barista). Here’s my list of what I’ve researched so far:
• How to make good coffee. So far this has been used in a single coffee-related sentence.
• Types and characteristics of mythological people. This turned out to be surprisingly less useful than I’d thought, so I’ve made up most of the qualities these characters have in the story.
• Images of underground tunnels. Wow. Who knew I would find this so fascinating? I originally thought I’d find a few pictures that would help me visualize the setting. Instead I’ve spent so much time looking at photos (you can see my Pinterest board) that I finally had to force myself to stop and get back to writing.
• Images of the outdoor patio of a restaurant I went to a while back in Palm Springs (Le Vallauris). I’ve started a Pinterest board for this as well. There’s one scene set in a similar restaurant (and yes, there is a dryad), and I wanted to look at photos to make sure I was setting the scene well.
• Mythology about black dogs. I looked this up after writing the first scene with a mysterious black dog. To my surprise, I’d followed the mythology without even knowing it. 🙂
I’m sure there will be more by the time the novel is finished … I’m on chapter six right now so there’s a ways to go.
So, what’s the problem?
I have to squeeze this research into nights and weekends, and while I truly believe it makes my stories better and richer, I also have to be careful to find a balance between researching enough for the story and researching just because it’s fun.
I had a great lesson on this topic last year, and I’m glad because I keep thinking of it as a reminder to (usually) not spend too much time researching. I was working on a short story set in about 1500 BC in the Aeolian Islands. They’re volcanic islands off the coast of Sicily. Here’s a picture of Stromboli, which is an active volcano.
And yes, finding that single image for this post took an inordinate amount of time.
Researching the Aeolian Islands was a huge help for my short story, but I spent a ridiculous amount of time looking at pictures, reading about the different periods of history to make sure my story was plausible, looking at recipes to describe realistic local food (I used lots of capers), and so on. My guess is that the total research time added up to multiple days – for one short story. I rationalized this by saying that I’d write something else in that setting – it’s a fantastic setting. And that’s great, but I don’t have any other ideas for that setting yet, and I do have a lot of other active projects. So … I learned a valuable lesson about how to balance time spent on research. And I’ve added a new location to my list of places I’d like to visit. 🙂
In the meantime, it’s been way, way too rainy here in Colorado…