How This Pantser Does Research

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.

18th century replica ship

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…

A Temporal Rift to Darkover Con

Thanksgiving Weekend (after Turkey Day!), I went to my first Darkover Con in Baltimore, and also my last, since it’s undergoing a name change.   The person who owned the licensing for the name recently died without passing it on, so they had to do a name change.  Next year’s will be called Chessiecon, which refers to Chesapeake.  Not sure I like the new name …

The con did start on a bit of a sour note for me.  They were so eager to promote the new name that I thought Chessiecon was the con this year.  I found flyers for Chessiecon but none for Darkover, and this was more than a year in advance.  Chessiecon also had a different website, almost identical dates.  This, by the way, is what happens when you’re not detail-oriented.  I booked the con in advance and wound up not being registered for the actual con …

I’m still not sure what I think of the con itself.  To be fair, the con was the last one, and it was a memorial for the person who had died.  Since I was attending for the first time, I didn’t have the context that everyone else did.  Since it was the last con with this name, they had a few workshops dedicated to variations of that theme.  The result was that it seemed a little content-lite for a newbie like me.

However, I also look for specific things in a con.  I like workshops on reading or reading-related, plus writing.  Demonstrations are also really cool to watch, and I like it when someone sets up a table and I can handle things.  I also have really enjoyed some of the science workshops (not all.  The speaker’s presentation abilities really make a difference).   Unfortunately, schedules are generally not available until right before the con starts.

But there were a few interesting workshops:

Military/SF.  Mike McPhail and Kathy Harmon (sorry, name was too common, and I couldn’t find her site).

Well, yeah, you knew I had to attend this.  Most of the panelists didn’t show up so the audience filled the void.  One of the things that was surprising to me was about a book I’d gotten, called No Man’s Land.  It’s a book about women soldiers in space.  The editor Mike McPhail mentioned that he had trouble getting promotion for it.  The SF side wasn’t interested, and the feminists decided that women in the military were wannabe men.

Hmm.  Hey, feminists, you do know that I enlisted because I needed a job?

Cross-Genre.  Panelists: Katherine KurtzMeriah CrawfordD.H. Aire, and Melissa Scott.

This one was on crossing science-fiction with mystery.  I know of writers who never ever read outside their genre, and I read where ever the books take me.  This panel discussed the appeal of mysteries, and of solving the unanswered puzzles.

Research.  Panelists: Melissa Scott, Leona Wisoker, D.H. Aire, and Electra Hammond.

I approached this one with caution because fiction writers can treat research like they’re being graded on a term paper.  Story has to come first and sometimes the best tale isn’t accurate, and sometimes the facts get in the way of the story.  I saw recently a writer saying you would only use 10% of what you researched — that’s a lot of time wasted researching and not writing.  I’d much rather it be closer to 50-60% and then reusing the rest on another project.

It was an okay con, but if I hadn’t booked the next one accidentally, I’d probably take a pass on it, since it wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

Tidbits from Balticon

This weekend I went to a science fiction convention in Baltimore, Maryland, called Balticon.  Every con has its own personality, and Balticon is more for the small press publishers.  These were some of the tidbits I picked up.

Social Media is Indirect Marketing

One of the points a panel brought up was that social media is indirect marketing.  That is, posting tweets or blogs doesn’t make a reader jump over to buy a book.  More likely, the repetition of the name is what will make the sale.  You’ll go to a con, see an anthology, recognize an author name, and that’ll trigger the consideration for buying.

All this lead to the comment that not to spend 55% of your time on social media, and instead focus on getting more stories out there.

A pink power strip with a pink plug
A shameless plug (sorry, I couldn’t help myself. 🙂 )  Photo is from

For Pantsers: Don’t Rely on Memory.  Keep a Story Bible

Yup.  I’m guilty of this.  I can see the problem because eventually I will forget things, especially if I’m not in the story for a while.  But simply filling up a notebook with random information about characters is not going to work for me.  So I’m thinking of doing it more visually, like the one below.

A family tree showing my main character and his parents, his mother's siblings, and his mother's parents.

A family tree for the main character.  Four additional characters on this appear in the book.  I did this using PowerPoint (I’m a PowerPoint speed demon.  Most of the time was looking up several of the character names).

Birds are dinosaurs!

Cool fact from Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. from the University of Maryland, who specializes in dinosaurs.  Scientists have learned a lot from recent discoveries of fossils in China.  Dinosaurs may not have looked like reptiles, but more like birds, complete with feathers.  The bones don’t give us a good idea of what an animal looks like.  If you want to see some surprising examples off modern examples like cats and elephants, check out the book All Yesterdays.

Sea gull on a fishing pier
Did you know you’re a dinosaur?  This is a seabird from Virginia Beach.  Yes!  Beach pictures are coming!

Was it a good con?  Hmmm, well, I’ve been to better and to worse.  The science sessions, at least when they got a good presenter, were exceptional.   The writing ones were things I’d already heard before.  It looks like the con committee lost control of the scheduling.  There were a lot of workshops that were the same thing, only slightly different, and with one panel, it was done twice.

I did have an opportunity to meet fellow WANAer and HTYRNer Rabia Gale, who wrote up her own review of the convention.

Anyone else check out Balticon?

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