If you are a writer, you have probably at some stage of heard of something referred to as ‘the iceberg principle’. It’s pretty simple really. The premise is based on the idea that 90% of the iceberg lies invisible, under the water, with only 10% visible above the surface. This is a metaphor for what you know about your story, world and characters, vs what actually makes it onto the page for your reader to see.
Just by way of example, here’s a sentence from one of my WIPs:
If she had been at home, she most likely would have been abed with a hot brick and one of her housekeeper’s restorative tisanes.
That might have taken you all of two seconds to read. And it probably took me a couple of minutes to craft the actual words that went into it. But that sentence also represents at least 45 minutes worth of internet research on:
18th Century remedies for period pain
Lydia E Pinkham
Liquorice root, including where it grows and what its medicinal properties are
the medicinal properties of Dandelion root
Which is basically just my way of reassuring myself that it’s OK to have only produced 200 words after getting up at 5.30 am and writing for 1.5 hours before the family gets up and we all have to get ready for work/school/etc. And also goes some way to illustrating why it takes so damn long to write a bloody novel.
And now I have had that stupid Lily the Pink song stuck in my head all day. Yeah. You’re welcome.
Blood on sink by winnond, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
This week I’ve been back at work after a lovely two weeks off in which I got a huge amount of work done on the WIP (but didn’t finish it – boo.) One of the pleasures of writing is all the bits and bobs of interesting research I get to do. This can vary from a quick check on Google images to make sure I’ve got a thing right in my mind’s eye, to a two hour rabbit hole from which I emerge blinking and cursing myself. Research topics over the last week have included:
I have been doing some research on pre-18th century paintings of Greek myths lately, and I came across this interesting description by the Museo Del Prado of the Peter Paul Rubens painting “The Rape of Ganymede”, which is in its collection:
Jupiter was so taken with Ganymede´s beauty that he transformed into an eagle to carry her off to Mount Olympus, where she became his cup-bearer. Rubens drew this story from the classical poet, Ovid´s Metamorphoses (X, 155-161). He depicts the moment when the eagle catches the young shepherdess and lifts her into the air.
Uh…just one problem. Ganymede was a bloke. The story is otherwise bang on.
I am fascinated as to how or why the Museo Del Prado has fluffed this one up. The fact that Ganymede is male is key to the enduring fascination with this particular story. By all (other) accounts, the Ganymede myth was held as an expression of the acceptance of homosexual relationships in Ancient Greece.
And it’s not like you could actually mistake the Ganymede in Rubens’ painting for a girl. It also doesn’t look to me like Rubens was tiptoeing around the core element of this story. I mean, look at the placement of that quiver, for goodness sake.
I’ve been doing a bit of trawling through Wikipedia today, building up a list of historical personages to use as extras in my current WIP. And I came across this lady:
Emily Lennox was (according to Wikipedia) married to James Fitzgerald, the Earl of Kildare (and later Duke of Leinster), in 1747, when she was “almost 16”. That is, when she was FIFTEEN.
Apparently the marriage was a happy one.
Well, good. Because the couple had 18 children. That was not a typo. Here, I’ll write it out, just to make sure: eighteen.
Actually, there were 19 children “of the marriage”, but the last kid, born in 1773 was actually the son of the tutor of the Fitzgerald brood, one Mr William Ogilvie. When James Fitzgerald died, in November of 1773, Emily married Ogilvie the following year (which, understandably caused something of a sensation.)
She then went on to have THREE MORE CHILDREN with her new husband!
So that’s a total of 22 children. In an age where childbirth was absolutely a matter of life and death for the mother. No antibiotics. No blood transfusions. No safe surgical procedures. No anaesthetic.
Sadly, and predictably, twelve of her children predeceased her. Of those, nine died by the age of 10. Her eldest child, George, died when he was 17 and two others died in adulthood.
Just one other interesting thing I noted concerning the difficulties posed by such an enormous amount of offspring: obviously finding suitable names posed a challenge. She had two daughters named Louisa, two named Charlotte and two named Caroline, as well as two sons called George (ironically, George and George were her eldest children by each of her two husbands.)
For anyone writing about or interested in Britain in the 18th and early 19th century, the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue: a dictionary of buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence, brought to you by Project Gutenberg, is an indispensable resource.
Here’s a little gem I came across today:
BEILBY’S BALL. He will dance at Beilby’s ball, where the sheriff pays the music; he will be hanged. Who Mr. Beilby was, or why that ceremony was so called, remains with the quadrature of the circle, the discovery of the philosopher’s stone, and divers other desiderata yet undiscovered.
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 David Versace. I urge you to look out his stuff if you haven’t seen it before, because what comes out of his brain is often startlingly original and beautifully written. By way of example, and because he’s too modest to mention it below (or maybe he forgot), you can read his latest story, the flash piece Incidental, on Evil Girlfriend Media.
Tell me a little bit about your latest story and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.
The story is called “Silver the Moon in Ascension”; it’s a military adventure about magic robots fighting against werewolves. Stop that, I’m serious! As you can probably tell, it’s a secondary world fantasy, so I didn’t need to dive too deep on the research for this one. This was a Wikipedia-skim over the history of alchemy; the general beliefs behind alchemy, the purported qualities of various base metals, their symbolic significance and in particular the weird rivalries and status games of its practitioners. Much of it has been (ahem) transmuted for story purposes, but the real stuff is more than weird enough for future use.
How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?
With short stories, about half the time something cool I’ve read will prompt further reading and inspire a few ideas – and more reading. The rest of the time the general idea might come first and then I will realise I know nothing about international currency exchange laws or how a dog pound works, and then I hit the books. I try not to kill my writing momentum by going off to research, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I find it’s usually better to know enough about what I’m describing before I start than it is to rewrite after I discover I was completely wrong.
Is research a distraction or an inspiration?
Both. So very much both. Many of my best ideas have sparked from an “I did not know that” moment – especially when I take an occasional plummet into some corner of history or another. On the other hand, nothing puts the brakes on a story draft like the sudden realisation that you have no idea how the pre-Columbian Mayan economy operated, and your story hinges on whether they kept bees.
(Just an example. I know almost nothing about the Mayans…but now I have an urge to visit the library).
When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?
The real world is a pretty good resource when you’re making up a secondary world. The fact that the Mayans kept bees (or not) is a delicious detail that could open all sorts of avenues for your dragon-ravaged, kite-riding fantasy culture. I like to grab cool details from all over the place and then figure out how they could plausibly work together. Semi-plausibly, maybe. If you squint. Those small details, extrapolated outwards, can shape societies and economies and ecologies in ways you’d never expect.
What was the weirdest thing you had to research?
Over the last couple of years I have spent a lot more time thinking about the economics and politics of different track gauges – the distance between the rails on a train track – than I would ever have expected to. Those weighty contemplations have had sadly little bearing on the train story that originally prompted them.
Now that you bring it up, I have a dark suspicion I may have wasted quite a lot of my time.
He is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, who can vouch for his whereabouts on the night in question. He is a voracious consumer of speculative fiction, comics, wine, and television drama. He is teaching himself basic coding, bass guitar and how to write novels.
His heartfelt dream is to stop drifting aimlessly through the Australia Public Service, where he has worked for over 20 years. Until the dream becomes reality, he remains focused on corporate governance, risk management and business continuity, the sexy invisible lifeblood of well-regulated government.
He lives with his wife Fiona and two children. They tolerate his interests with patient good humour.