Livin’ in L Space

Thank to you all for suggesting ideas for me to post about, or asking me questions. They were all great ideas (keep ’em coming if you missed it!).

This week I’m addressing two paragraphs submitted by Jessewave – here’s what she had to say:

I would be interested in the amount of research you have to do to write a book. It seems to me that you must spend most of your time in libraries hunting down obscure information and hope like hell that it’s correct, because some researcher will find the smallest error. I’ve seen all those reviews on Speak Its Name. 😀

Compared to historical writers, contemporary authors have an easy time – all they have to do is try to make everyday occurrences seem interesting and throw in a few murders or other ripped from the headlines events. Do you sometimes wish you specialized in contemps? (But then there would be no breeches to rip open) 😀 What would make you switch?

Thanks, Wave!

Regarding research, I know that the idea of doing research puts some writers off, but I think it’s kind of hard wired into some people, it certainly is for me.  I’m not a “historian” (although sometimes I wish I had a degree that I could flash on my biography, I get degree envy so often when I read other peoples’) but I am The Elephant’s Child.  I want to KNOW random stuff and always have.  Pre-internet I would always be asking “when did that happen?” and “what are the lyrics to that?” and “who wrote that?” “Where’s that piece of art?” and so on – and it was bloody difficult to find out – sometimes all you could do would be to write to the BBC and hope they would take pity on you.

For me, the internet is such a boon.  It’s a like some kind of huge, rambling library–with L-space–where you can dive in, get lost and never come up for air.  I can satisfy those random questions in life instantly–instantly!–and I wonder how I ever managed without it.

conan

As much as love writing, I know for certain that I would never be a writer without the internet. Not of historicals, that is. My mother wrote. She had a 3 volume family-type saga written, starting in the 19th century coming through to the 60’s, and she did it all pre-internet. She spent a lot of time in libraries. I can’t be doing with that. The internet is my pond and I know how to swim in it. I have Google-fu.

I’m not dismissing libraries, of course. I still use them! Out of my six or so books I get from a library each week, at least two are research books. There have been instances where the internet has failed me completely, and I had to go out to find it.. The most recent was with the English Civil War for Transgressions. The English Civil War itself has been documented to the Nth degree. You can find out the causes of it,  what the soldiers used as weapons, what the uniforms were like, who the commanders were, what the battles were like – minutely! – what each side was doing at every day throughout the war, how they trained, blah blah blah. But to find out what the people ate, what their houses were like, what they wore – there’s very little online. So that’s where a trip to the Millennium Library in Norwich came in. Thank goodness for it, too!

I know there are writers who immerse themselves in research for ages before they’ll even start a book. I have a friend who spends upwards of a year researching before she writes a word. I’m far too impatient for that, and characters are sitting in my head kicking me in the brain telling me to get on with it so I tend to do my research as I go. This can lead to a rather disjointed writing experience, as I find myself often stopping every two lines to check “did they have stamps in 1820?” “did they have newspapers?” “What’s the distance from Great Yarmouth to Acle by boat?” “What’s the name of the church in Horsey, Norfolk?” but anyone who’s thinking about trying the genre, that’s nothing to be scared of–to us, that’s all part of the fun. You’ve got to LIKE finding out this kind of stuff, and also the bazillion pieces of minutiae that you are never, ever likely to use…Like the History of Pews, how to manhandle a 22 foot pike, or how to make the best lemon posset ever.

The thing is, I research for any piece of writing. I used to write, as I’m sure most people know, Harry Potter fanfiction, and I used to research hard for that. I was rabid about getting the facts and the canon right. Even the contemporary short stories I’ve written have necessitated a lot of research: (what hours is London Zoo open? How is a log cabin constructed? What’s Juvie like in America?) I’m not content with just stabbing in the dark and then having people mock me for getting it wrong. I think the readers deserve it, and I’m sure that most contemp writers research a lot too.

And I do get it wrong. Everyone makes mistakes! But I think that a reader – even one used to reading historicals – can tell if you are trying your best to get it right, and whether you’ve just made it all up as you go along.

Ironically, the only story I’ve done absolutely no research for was “Whatever The Risk” in “Queer Dimensions” which is pure Space Opera. It was such a joy to make up my own universe, my own spaceships, my own worlds. Sci-fi purists would have a hernia but I’m afraid that my boys just drive their ships, there’s no explanation as to how they go faster than light. They treat their ships the same way I treat my car. I get in, I press a button, it takes me to the shop. I have no idea of the history of the internal combustion engine and I don’t want to know, either.

That sort of bleeds over into Wave’s next question, as no, I don’t think there’s anything that would convince me to switch from my beloved historicals to contemporaries. I kind of live in the past, and hermitted away in the lakelands of The Norfolk Broads I have very little contact with the real world. I don’t think I could write convincing contemporaries, and there are far too many people doing a sterling job, you don’t need me blundering around getting it wrong.

The thing about gay historicals is that it hasn’t been done much before. The field is wide, wide open. When you look at all the hetereo historicals that have been written over the last hundred years or so, everything’s been done over and over. I doubt there’s any era or subject that hasn’t been touched at least once. It’s hugely exciting to be here at the birth of a genre, where everything is yet to be explored. There have been gay men since Ig and Ug moved in together and became the first hunter-gatherer same sex couple so who’s going to be first one to write The Gay Clan of the Cave Bear, eh?

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Author

Erastes is an author of gay historical fiction. Her novels cover many time periods and locations. She lives in Norfolk UK with demanding cats and never seems to have enough time to serve them.

20 comments

  • I love you already! Research is the glue that makes the story stick properly; even if you don’t use the detail, you’re that much more steeped in the right mindset. I haven’t rewritten any historicals for publication, but I have written some, and know just what you mean. How do you get from point A to point B in eighteenth century St. Petersburg? It can be the burning question!

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  • I can’t imagine not having to do research. I think the only time you don’t have to research is when you’re doing Fantasy, but then you have to world-build instead. Certainly when I wrote a contemporary recently I was always having to break off to find things out – what’s the internal layout of a luxury yacht? What are the names of the nightclubs in Newquay? If you went to France for the day from St.Ives, where would you be likely to land and what would you find to do when you got there?

    And it is fun – I now know a lot more about the coast of Brittany than I did when I started, and that’s a gain in itself.

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    • Exactly, Alex. That’s exactly how bad I get with contemporaries too. “What hotels are there in York?” “What’s the street plan?” Even for Harry Potter I not only researched the canon obsessively, but when my stories went out into the real world I had to make sure I was being accurate, Lucius stayed at the Paris Ritz and I spent DAYS researching the hotel…

      hopeless…

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    • I would say even with fantasy you’ll still end up doing research, for the more everyday bits of life. Unless the characters are riding magical horses then a fantasy writers needs to know as much about travelling on horseback as a historical writer does for example.

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      • Don’t get me started on horses…. There will be a special post just for them coming up in the next few weeks. I wish more authors did the modicum of research in that respect.

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  • That is what I like about SF you can make your own world.
    The only character I ever made up myself was the son or grandson of a man who developed a thing to make spaceships go really fast. And become really rich in the process.
    This kid did not care about one thing or the other so he did not know how it worked. It was my way of working a way around not knowing how the engine thing worked.

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    • My NaNoWriMo novel in 2006 was sci-fi, but was in first person, and the main character, a soldier, didn’t know or care about how spaceships worked. They were just transport to him. He was more interested in food, and sleep and not getting shot, and the other character he was kind of obsessed with and those damn dreams… So that definitely saved me having to go into any detail.

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  • WOW Erastes
    I had no idea that my questions would have produced such a wonderful post. Clearly you love research for its own sake as well as part of your writing.

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    I love this piece and I agree with you that we don’t always need to know the “how”. Sometimes when I read a book I wonder why the writer is doing an info dump about things in which readers can’t possibly be interested. It’s like going back to school or university. I remember when I was very young, doing my research by way of the the Encyclopedia Brittanica and Colliers Encyclopedia. How the world has changed – now they are online.

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    Thank you so much Erastes.

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    • It’s hard to rein myself in, in post like this. less is more less is more i keep repeating to myself. 🙂 I can get a little over-passionate.

      It’s a fine line and sometimes it can be subjective – I’ve had people say that I write immersively and don’t info-dump, but then I’ve had other reviewers accuse me of info-dumping. What I try to do is show the past without dumping, but it can be difficult. The worst case of it I’ve found is in Nick Heddle’s books (in the case of m/m, that is, Dan Brown is the master of info-dumping of course). If I can have the reader say “I did not know that!” or tell me afterwards they researched more on the period because I whetted their appetite, then I feel I’ve done a good job.

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  • Let the hard SF purists go whistle. I LIKED “Whatever the Risk.” (QUEER DIMENSIONS is the best anthology I’ve read this year, actually) I don’t care HOW the ship goes. Just make it go. Hyperdrive, sublight engines, warp drive, steam engine, the point is to get them to the adventure part. (Don’t explain horses in a western. Don’t explain ships in space opera)
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    Research is an interesting thing. One of the more interesting sources I use is children’s nonfiction. It usually has a lot of photographs of actual artifacts.
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    When the sources start repeating each other, it’s time to write!

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    • Thanks Angelia, how kind! I have a second story written and the plan is to have a whole book of short stories involving them, with an over-reaching arc. – and I agree – even when we get space travel for all people aren’t going to have to know how the blooming things work, they’ll just press buttons and go. How many pilots know how to repair their planes?

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  • I agree that liking research is something that must be hardwired into a person. When I need to know something, I’ve got an annoying tendency to stop the writing and go looking for the answer at that second. Of course, this could also be procrastination. A few weeks ago I got stuck for half an hour trying to find the name of a bay in Japan just for one line of the story. I could have written around that line but by that point I HAD to know, damn it!
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    But seriously, research is the fun part. It’s an excuse to buy loads of books and tell OH that it was a ‘necessary purchase’ *g*

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  • I find the idea of researching for a year and then writing kind of boring. What if later your story takes a turn and all of your research (or a good part of it) was for naught? Well, maybe you’ll use it someday but maybe not and now you need new stuff because suddenly it seems the ship took him to China instead of Arabia. Ooops. Seems to me it is more efficient and make more sense to do it as you do, as you go along. But I guess whatever floats your boat and it works for some people obviously.
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    Perhaps I don’t like fantasy and sci-fi as much because it does tend to get bogged down sometimes in the HOW of things. I don’t care how a lightsabre works or if the laws of physics allow it to work, just slice him in half and be done with it. Making it up on the fly sounds way more fun.
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    Interesting look at research Erastes.

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    • Hi Tam! (sorry I didn’t reply yesterday, but I was wiped out)

      I suppose people who really take the time to go in depth with their books might have an advantage – Look at Bernard Cornwell (Sharpe, etc) for example, he has the time and the money to travel to the places he writes about to get a feel of the geography and location. I have to do the same with the net. With Google Earth now, it’s a lot easier!! Being mainly a writer of English things, at least I can travel to the areas I write about, and for Trangressions I did that, I went to Edgehill and Kineton, where David and Jon met – and I went to Mistley where Hopkins (actually in reality) had his base of operations. It surprised me that there was very little tourist trappings saying “The Witchfinder lived here.” Even The Thorn, the pub where he lived, and where Jon lived with Michael, has nothing about him in it.

      I agree with you about the sci-fi – “Hard” sci-fi bores me rigid. The best story I heard was when some fans asked the makers of Star Trek how the inertial dampeners worked, they said “just fine, thanks.”

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