So, it’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog about something other than book releases. My apologies. Better late than never.
Over the past few months, I’ve been writing my short werewolf fiction series, The Decimus Trilogy, which takes place half in the 1st century Roman Empire and the other half in modern day Italy. What I’ve learned after over 150k words and months of mental labor is this: you cannot skimp on research if you hope to be a writer. Especially a writer of believable fiction.
Now, it’s one thing to write fantasy. Most of the time the writer has created their own world that is completely and totally imaginary. Take my first novel, The Princess and Her Rogue, for instance. The setting is loosely based on a medieval world, but the places, characters, and culture are completely fictitious. But it’s another thing to say your character is walking through Rome, Italy, but you’re describing the shops from Los Angeles. It just can’t be done.
I spent hours upon hours of meticulous research for this series, probably more than I have done for any book I’ve ever written. It was a grueling task, but in the end, I was glad that I had taken the time to make sure the facts were right. I’m sure there are things I got totally wrong, like if the Passetto Hotel in Ancona even offers room service. I still don’t have a clue, but I had my characters order the room service because I felt it was somewhat necessary. Some things you can fudge a little.
Below are some different methods of research that we, as writers, should utilize at every given chance.
1.) Google – There is absolutely no excuse for lack of research nowadays with the invention of the Internet. Even if you don’t have a computer or don’t have internet, if you live in a town or city with a library, there is almost always a public computer you can gain access to. And if you’re able to read this blog, you have the ability to Google how to say “Hello” in Italian. And if for some weird reason you can’t, go to your local library or bookstore and spend a few hours researching the old fashion way.
2.) Google Earth – If you have never physically stood outside of the amphitheater in Verona, Italy, but you need to know if there is some side of the structure that has low traffic volume so your main character can sneak in, Google Earth will tell you. I wanted to make sure my descriptions of a road or street were as accurate as possible, and sometimes you can search the images on Google all day long, but you won’t find out what kind of shops are around the Ludus Magnus in Rome, Italy unless you’ve been there in the flesh. Or just use Google Earth. It’s a handy tool. Perhaps a little hard to navigate at first, but still usable.
3.) Websites – Yes! More internet! This time, you’re trying to look for the nearest restaurant to a specific location for your characters to eat at. Simple. Pull up Google Maps, find the nearest pizzeria to where they are generally located, and often times Google will include a link to their website if they have one. And if it’s in Italian, German, or French, Google Translator can help. However, search on the page for that little British or American flag first before you copy and paste the whole website into the translation box. And yes, Google Translator is not always the most reliable, but unless you want to take the time to refresh yourself with old high school Spanish, it’s your best bet. And the same goes for places in the USA. Restaurants will post their menus with prices, which can make your scene that much more believable and realistic. And not only for restaurants, but museums, hotels, apartment buildings, stores, businesses, etc.
*Funny tangent. In Amber Ashes, Arria and the other slave women in Decimus’s household, take a trip to one of the bath houses in Pompeii. I searched all over the internet for how a Roman bath worked and what the one in Pompeii would have looked like. And there were separate baths for men and women at that point, so I had to be specific. I watched two documentaries that each ran over an hour in length, trying to find the key to describing the calderium where the scene took place. Then, while browsing on Youtube, I found one guy had actually taken a 12 second video on his phone of the inside of the women’s calderium in Pompeii. It was a short video, but it gave me exactly what I wanted. I was indignant that I had spent so much time sitting on my butt, watching a documentary that didn’t even pertain to what I was looking for exactly, only to find something that did and wasted little of my time. So, in your research, don’t exclude the tool of YouTube. It could make a enormous difference*
4.) Road Trip! – So, if you have the luxury of being close to some place you want to write about, just go there. If you’re writing about Boston or New York and never been there, but you’re only a couple of hours away, take the time off from work – if you can – and go see those places you want to write about. I have a novel that I plan to write sometime next year and it takes place in New York. While I was doing the outline, I researched the snot out of all the places my characters would go. I even went apartment shopping for them and saved pictures of what their home would look like down to the art on the walls. Of course, I’m a long ways from New York, so that will take some serious planning and money-saving to pull off. But, if you can, I totally encourage you to do it. There are some things that the internet can’t tell you. I continually joked to my husband while I was writing Amber Ashes that it would be fantastic just to take a weekend trip to Pompeii and walk around to jot down notes instead of hoping someone took a picture of just the right building and uploaded it to their travel blog.
5.) Interviews – Alright, I know most of us writers tend to be introverts. We don’t like socializing or talking to people we don’t know. But honestly, this could be a huge game changer in your writing skills. I hated the idea of personally interviewing anyone. I wondered what I was supposed to say. “Hi, I’m a writer and I’m conducting research for a book. Do you have time to answer a few questions?” It sounded so pathetic and needy. But you know what, I’m going to do it more often now if I can. Last week, I spent all day interviewing a friend of my husband’s who happens to be a firefighter for our local area. I have a book I’m planning to write and my male character happens to be a firefighter. But I didn’t know anything about what a firefighter did apart from what I’ve seen in movies. Boy, am I glad I got a hold of this guy, though. I learned so much that I would have never guessed and found out that a lot of movies like Ladder 49 did not accurately depict firefighters. He was a great sport about me asking all these dumb questions too. And interviews don’t always have to be in-person. I talked with this firefighter all day through Facebook Chat because that was the best way to reach him at the time. Just today, conducting research for the same book, I stopped by my local library to ask if I could sign on as a volunteer. Apparently becoming a volunteer is more of a longterm commitment than just coming on one or two Saturdays and stocking shelves. But the head librarian was very generous and allowed me to shadow her and the crew for a little while and learn the basics of what it is like to work in a library. Having served at my high school library before, it was nothing entirely new to me, but I got to see how a big-time library was operated. You can’t always learn that in a book or on a website.
6.) Documentaries – If you’re writing historical fiction in particular, documentaries and nonfiction reference books can be very helpful. They can offer general facts about a certain period of time, or specifics about a particular war or era. A very interesting documentary that was available on Netflix a while ago was “Death and the Civil War”. Not only was it about the Civil War, but it was about the culture of both the north and south, and how they related to death in their time. Any Ken Burn film is worth the time if you’re writing about baseball, the Civil War, World War II or Vietnam. I’m sure he has made more in the past, but those are the few I have watched and enjoyed. So, instead of catching up on the newest season of your favorite show, take a few hours to sit back and take notes from a documentary. You’ll learn a lot.
And not only does research prepare you for when you’re ready to sit down and start cranking out your next novel, it also gives you more credibility as an author. Someone who has been to Italy and reads about how well you described the colosseum at twilight will enjoy the story that much more. And sometimes, research can help give you ideas for scenes or plot twists. While researching about Pompeii, I was watching a documentary where they discovered the skeletons of mules or donkeys trapped inside a bakery. It gave me the idea that Decimus could… Well, I’d be spoiling some of the plot for you if I told you the end of that scene, wouldn’t I? *sly wink*
Comment below if you have any funny or interesting stories about time you’ve spent in research for a novel. Did it help you? Frustrate you? Leave you an aficionado about something that no one else would even care about? I’d love to hear from you!