How to Research Your Story Before Writing Your Book
Eric J. Guignard
An Informal Chat About Online Research
I recently wrote a novella as part of the DoubleDown project (a resurrection of Ace dos-à-dos books, which are a pairing of two novellas together), and my friend and paired author, Lisa Morton, thought it might be interesting for me to speak a little about how I researched my novella, as I’ve received kind praise on its historic atmosphere. I jokingly responded that the blog answer would be quite brief; all I’d done was use the search feature in GOOGLE.
On further contemplation, however, it got me thinking how much the process of research has changed in such a short period of time. The power and convenience of the internet is apparent enough though, like everything, it has its drawbacks. In addition, perhaps I learned a few ‘net-surfing lessons’ that might inspire one of you with your own plotting ideas.
Here’s the backdrop: BAGGAGE OF ETERNAL NIGHT is my first novella, recently published by JournalStone as Book II of the DoubleDown series, alongside Lisa’s Smog. My contribution is set in 1963 and follows two men who bid in the baggage auctions of Detroit. Of course, I’ve never been to Detroit, nor was I even alive during the timeframe of this story, so that dictated a certain need for research in order to set a modicum of historic authenticity.
I’ve spent many years in college, especially during the late 1990’s and, back then, research required a lengthy visit to the local library. Oh, you wanted to study late in the Library? Too bad. It just closed. Oh, you wanted to make copies of relevant passages or quotes? Too bad. The Library charges ten cents per page, on a special “payment” card that was another added cost, and you didn’t have any money. Oh, you desperately need a book that the Library said was available? Too bad. Someone else just checked it out, and it won’t be returned for two more weeks.
Of course now, marvels of the net are boundless. Especially when one got past those awkward years of dial-up, every person with a computer literally has a library at their fingertips. Global information-sharing is the best thing since the invention of the wheel… no, strike that; It’s BETTER than the wheel. Better also than sliced bread. Better even than fire. After all, I can curl around my laptop and bask in the warmth generated by its 5 dual-core ARM processor.
But I digress. Internet research is wonderful but, like drinking at an open bar, it requires a certain amount of self-governance and savvy. One must go through the process many times to appreciate lessons learned and not find oneself lost eternally within the labyrinth of net porn.
In the case of my novella, I researched everything online. But that research also entails sifting through a lot of dreck that you may not normally find while in the dominion of traditional research.
To start with, simply typing in key words and phrases into Google or Yahoo or Lycos is great to get a basic sense of what’s available. If search engines come back with something that has millions of hits, it’s probably pretty common knowledge. If it comes back with only a couple hits, that means it’s either not well known, or incorrect.
If I want an overview of a topic, Wikipedia is great, but of course that just provides the basics, much of which is not always accurate. Whereas search engines provide the “scope” of available information, Wikipedia may provide “inspiration.” Still, at this point it’s a good idea to search further.
Next is to locate primary source notes. Have you used Google Books yet? OMG! It’s a searchable service that scans digitized books and magazines within its database. In 2010 alone, Google Books included 129 million books. In the last three years, that number has increased more so. These are original records, available 24-7 for free, just incredible source material to skim. http://books.google.com/
Here are a few other sites I find trustworthy (depending on your definition) material:
http://scholar.google.com/ – This is like Google Books, but focuses on academia.
And: http://www.noodletools.com/debbie/literacies/information/5locate/adviceengine.html – This is a fantastic overview of the best websites to cull topics of information.
And: http://www.dmoz.org/ – Directory of subject matter, very thoughtfully organized though not incredibly comprehensive.
Anyway, to tie all this in with how I researched my own story, it began as such: I had no idea what I wanted to write about it.
Aimlessly reading up on a million topics, I came across a memoir-excerpt about carnies that bid in the baggage auctions. On further investigation of this quip, I found there to have been an entire culture developed around this practice during the mid-1900s. Of course, as television shows about “found” or bid items are so popular today, I thought the basis would be perfect to translate to modern audiences. I then wanted my story to have a haunted object found inside, and was particularly drawn to the gramophone (no other reason than it seemed cool). I next decided to tie an early model gramophone to the spirit of a dead—though historic—villain. Google-search away and discovered Grigori Rasputin died in 1916. I’ve always been enamored with Rasputin’s lore; his mysticism is naturally viewed in so many different perspectives: some consider him a saint, others an anti-hero, and still others the beast of Hades himself. I was sold on his character, and there’s plenty of online research material to fill many textbooks of his life.
Such was the basics for my plot. I then Google-searched maps and photographs of Detroit in the 1960’s and used what I saw as descriptions or inspirations for settings. I needed to utilize Russian language, so Google Translate to the rescue! Of course, I didn’t entirely trust the Translate page, so I did my best with it, and had someone fluent enough to oversee my writing in that language. There were a couple minor corrections for clarification, but otherwise the online translator worked well.
Personally, I like to research online and compile notes before I write. Then, as I write, I regularly look up additional ideas/ explanations/ descriptions, etc. Overall, it may seem like a tedious process, but it worked for me. I edited as I wrote, and turned in the 35,000 word novella in about eight weeks, plus about four weeks more before that used for brainstorming.
I was pleased with my final version, and I hope you, dear reader, will be as well!
Thanks again, for checking out my ramblings. Thought I’m not a diligent blogger, please connect with me at: http://ericjguignard.blogspot.com. Otherwise, I’m also on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ericjguignard.
Eric J. Guignard
Eric J. Guignard writes dark and speculative fiction from his office in Los Angeles. His stories and articles may be found in magazines, journals, anthologies, and any other media that will print him. He’s a member of the Horror Writer’s Association, the International Thriller Writers, and is also the Horror Genre Correspondent for Men’s Confidence Magazine. In addition, he’s an anthology editor, including: Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations (2012, Dark Moon Books), which was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award®, and this year’s critically acclaimed release, After Death… (2013, Dark Moon Books). Read his novella, Baggage of Eternal Night (2013, JournalStone Publishing), and watch for many more forthcoming books. Visit Eric at: www.ericjguignard.com or at his blog: www.ericjguignard.blogspot.com.
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Genre - Dark Fiction
Rating – PG-13
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