Research came up as a topic on Facebook, one of those things where the writers want to know how you keep your research notes. I suppose I’m an oddity, because I don’t keep any research notes.
To start with, I don’t plan out my stories at all. I have no idea what will happen in them, or how they will end. Consequently, I also wouldn’t know what I needed to research.
I could try, but I would waste a considerable amount of time. I learned that on one of my book projects. I researched several subjects to death, dutifully wrote down cool things that caught my interest. Even went to a college campus, hit their library and looked stuff up, took notes.
Then I made first contact with the story. Used none of that research.
So what do I do instead?
Most of it is long before I write the story, and it’s not for any specific story. I go to some place like Old Towne, Alexandria, Virginia and wander around. Enjoy myself. Look at stuff. Smelled the malt of beer being made at a distillery. Be horrified at the cobblestone alleyways—how did people walk on them things?
Then, when I come with an idea, I do the reverse of what I think a lot of writers do. They get the idea and shape the research around the idea. If the idea involves a doctor doing surgery, they go out and learn everything about that type of surgery.
On the other hand, I start with the setting, which is where most of my research would be needed, so I can pick some place that I’m well familiar with and intersect other elements, then plop an idea there. I’m also not going to pick occupations for characters where I have to do research just to do the character.
As I write, the details filter into the story through my subconscious. I think that’s because I had fun at these places. Fun leaves an imprint.
I’m working on a story that started with Old Town as a basis, and I added bits from a fascinating lecture on Civil War maps I attended ten years ago, and the visit of a three masted sailing ship (isn’t the ship below glorious?). Oh, and also a Civil War fashion show from a few years back. Clothes are always interesting.
After that, it’s the writing. It’s a fantasy, so some of it is made up (magic and swords; no repeating rifles or muzzle loaders). Still some research, but it’s on the spot, as I discover what I need while I’m writing the story. For the story, that’s been food. I just look it up and put what I need directly into the story.
On the plate for the future is to visit the masted ship in Baltimore. I really want to walk on board and see what it was like to live there. Some of my ancestors came over on sailing ships like that. And it would be really cool to write a pirate story one day…