Day Three: Research
Now is the perfect time to start your research while the month is still early. If your Nano project is a research-intensive topic, you may need to plan to spend the entire month on research.
Just what should you be researching? That, of course, depends on your individual story. Below I will provide several tips for areas that you might want to explore. Thorough research can help to paint a vivid and rich story world that fully immerses the reader. Lack of research can saddle the book with generic descriptions or incongruous details.
Let’s break down the various areas you might want to research:
First question, is your setting real or imaginary? Or, if you’re like me, maybe you have a mix.
In the Real World
- Geographic Places (e.g. a village in Viet Nam, Paris, Machu Picchu)
- Types of Places (e.g. Coffee Shops, Airports, Football Stadiums)
If possible, explore your settings. Take photographs and copious notes. I like to use Evernote to capture notes on investigative tours because I love the fact that I can speak my notes into the app. Even if the setting is something mundane like a grocery store, a trip to a local store can give your brain a rich warehouse of details to add to your story.
When exploring your setting, ask what is different about the setting on the day and time that your characters visit. How do they experience this world? What might make your grocery story unique and in keeping with your story world?
If you can’t physically check out your setting–for example, I couldn’t make a return trip to Canyon de Chelly just to refresh my memory—use the internet to take a virtual tour. Search images, use Google Maps street view and Google Earth. Take a virtual stroll down a critical block. Check out Yelp reviews and other materials to get an intimate perspective on what it might be like to visit, say, a London used book store. I incorporated a complaint that I read about a shooting range into my story.
Culture. Another critical dimension of setting is culture. Cultural immersion is the best way to illustrate culture within your fiction. If that is not possible directly, trying do so through interviews or books, or through cultural proxies like music and literature produced by cultural members.
This will be the subject of a separate post, so I won’t address here.
History is intimately related to culture and setting. In fact, no setting exists independent of its position in time.
When considering history, think in terms of
- Costume, technology
The events are the stuff of high school multiple choice history tests. What are the important dates, places, and activities of your story’s historical period? This broad perspective is helpful to know, but what is more important is how these events shape your characters and their understanding of the events that are directly relevant to them. Think Downton Abbey, which deftly weaves the events of history into the daily lives of the characters.
The context of history engages the meaning of the events at a deeper level. How do we make sense of those events and how does our identity affect the meaning that we make? It is said that the history books are written by the victors. How can you bring the minority perspective forward as you seek to understand the historical underpinnings of your story?
Zeitgeist represents the spirit of the times. What did it feel like to be alive during the time period you are writing about? How does your character relate to the overall zeitgeist? Is she resisting like Robert, Carson, and the Dowager or ushering in change like Rose and Tom?
Costume, technology, and language are all additional aspects that you will need to nail in any period piece.
What are your characters wearing and what does it say about their position in society and their personality?
Technology is critical because it can drive plot. Think of all the story premises that would fall apart with the advent of the cell phone. What role does technology play in your story? How does the presence (or absence) of technology limit or enable the characters?
What sort of language do your characters use? What is their diction and vocabulary like?
One of my professors liked to say, “Most people do what they think is right, given the world they think they live in.” I love this idea. I think it is accurate and it points to the role that differences in perception play in our disagreements. What world does your protagonist think she lives in? What ideologies shape her? What is the political milieu of the story? How does her culture influence her belief? If any of these factors differ from your own perspective, researching the topic will provide a layer of depth to your writing.
The props you use may require research. Weapons are a classic example. They often feature large in fiction, but do you know the proper language of guns? What specific firearm does your villain use? Relics, medical instruments, automobiles, prize possessions all merit research.
Aspects of Character
The concerns of your character’s life stage, his socio-economic status and level of education, and his cultural heritage and ethnicity are all areas that might warrant further research.
Finally, you might cover certain territory in your story that needs an in-depth understanding behind it. You might need to understand the criminal justice system, the ins and outs of a particular profession, the symptoms and treatment of a medical condition. Make a list of the topics you’ll be covering and rate your familiarity with each topic. For those that you are weak on, consider weaving these into your research plan.
For my Nano novel last year, I had a pretty long list of things to research, including:
- Losing Faith in God
- Conservative politics
- Senatorial procedures
- Brain Injury
- 2-year old children
- A number of settings, from Chicago neighborhoods to Assisi, Italy
- Higher consciousness
Guide your research by asking yourself some story related questions. Some of mine included:
Where should Sidran live? Is there a Bosnian enclave in Chicago? What is this community like?
What kind of a paper trail is created when someone visits a shooting range? What credentials must be presented to shoot at a gun range in Illinois? How about Indiana?
What are the language skills of a twenty-month old baby? What would she eat?
Why does David lose his faith? What causes someone to lose their faith in God? How do they cope with their church community afterward?
Finally, create a research plan to get your questions answered before November. In addition to answering your story questions, you are also looking to be inspired by acquiring a level of detail on your subject matter. For example, looking at photographs of Mont St. Michel reminded me that the tide comes in and cuts off access to the island monastery. I was able to work a detail about this into my story.
What areas do you plan to research for your novel? What approach do you plan to take?
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