Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.
This week’s guest is Cat Sparks, an award winning author, editor and artist who, among other things, can rightly claim to be the inspiration for the latest Fablecroft anthology-in-the-making, In Your Face (which is running a Pozible kickstarter at that link you can support if you hurry). If you’ve been to any of the spec fic conventions in Australia, you’ll have been lucky to escape without her snapping your photograph (well, not lucky. It’s actually kind of a privilege to be photographed by her).
She’s also penned my favourite line so far about an author’s relationship to research.
Bolstering my own ideas with research is like retrofitting the skeleton into a dissected organism.
Tell me a little bit about your latest book and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.
The working title of my current manuscript is The Salted Earth – a title that will probably change at some point. The novel forms the greater part of my PhD. My research investigates the way authors utilise scientific data in the construction of science fiction texts, specifically young adult climate change stories. All my own research has to be accurate. Everything has to be sourced. Not only has this PhD changed the way I write fiction, it’s changed the way I think about text in general. It’s turned me into a research junkie and I doubt I’m ever going back.
I need to keep up with climate science reporting as well as the fiction generated in its wake. These are rapidly expanding areas, not to mention terribly depressing. There wasn’t much climate fiction around when I began. Now everybody’s arguing about what terminology we should be using to describe it – anthropocene, hyper-object, slow apocalypse, cli fi – and whether or not it’s a subset of science fiction.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing your research turned up?
- The legitimacy of weather modification technology. I had totally presumed there to be no such thing outside of tinfoil hat wackjob conspiracy theory. But the Beijing Weather Modification Office is as real as the CIA. They spend millions every year trying to keep rain of their parades.
- Gaps in the literature. Many people are currently writing climate fiction but there are loads of stories not being told, avenues not being investigated, which makes me feel that I need to get in there first. But I’m too deep in to my own research to change tack now with my major project. This leaves the option of short fiction and essays, but everything takes so much time to research and get right – or as close to right as possible.
How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?
Here’s where the rabbit holes really kick in. Writing for me used to be a fairly surgical procedure. I’d get an idea, I’d write it down, flesh it out – produce a step sheet, and from that generate the story. Voila! That was back in the days when I could conceivably write a story in a day or three. Now it takes me three weeks just to work out what it is I’m trying to say. Ideas beget research, which begets further ideas of the vast, conflicting and potentially more interesting variety. Before too long I’m so confused I’m really not sure what I’m writing. That’s when archaeology kicks in; me with a metaphorical trowel on my knees trying to uncover structures in the narrative mud. Or something.
My story ideas ferment like liquor. Theme needs to be drawn out. I have many friends who churn out stories at an alarming rate, but I just can’t do that. Even when I think a story is finished, I’m usually wrong. I’ve still got three or four drafts left to do.
Is research a distraction or an inspiration?
Both. Constantly. Research seems to have become the entire point of the exercise. I’ve learnt that I don’t really know much about anything, not in a genuine sense. I’m just a spongy filter through which data passes, diverts and degrades. Bolstering my own ideas with research is like retrofitting the skeleton into a dissected organism. Add style for animation — then the story might take on a life of its own.
As a reader, stories not grounded in research bore me. We have become such technological creatures, with easy access data at our fingertips. It’s impossible to get through an Internet-fuelled day without learning stuff. Science fiction is a particularly research-needy field, which doesn’t make quality technobabble a requirement (although I am impressed with the writers who manage to pull that trick off convincingly). Science fiction readers are smart and they’re interested in real science. SF needs to come across as genuine and solid. Writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, Ian McDonald, Julie Czernada and Ramez Naam have set the bar very high for the rest of us.
When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?
Real-world examples serve as excellent templates for minting alternate world elements. Societies – be they real or invented – need economies and politics. Their food supply has to come from somewhere. People have been living in cities since the Neolithic revolution. Basing an imagined society upon the mechanics of a real one makes a lot more sense than reinventing the wheel. The writer doesn’t have to fully comprehend how everything in the alternate world ought to work, but they must be able to fake it with aplomb.
Fiction writers are like pirates. We steal everything that isn’t nailed down.
Cat Sparks is a multi-award-winning author, editor and artist whose former employment has included: media monitor, political and archaeological photographer, graphic designer and manager of Agog! Press amongst other (much less interesting) things. She’s currently fiction editor of Cosmos Magazine while simultaneously grappling with a PhD on YA climate change fiction. Her debut novel, Lotus Blue, is forthcoming from Talos Press in February 2017.