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.
My first guest is Donna Maree Hanson, author of Shatterwing and Skywatcher, the two books in the dark fantasy Dragonwine series.
Since the moon shattered, the once peaceful and plentiful world has become a desolate wasteland. Factions fight for ownership of the remaining resources as pieces of the broken moon rain down, bringing chaos, destruction and death.
The most precious of these resources is dragon wine – a life-giving drink made from the essence of dragons. But the making of the wine is perilous and so is undertaken by prisoners. Perhaps even more dangerous than the wine production is the Inspector, the sadistic ruler of the prison vineyard who plans to use the precious drink to rule the world.
There are only two people that stand in his way. Brill, a young royal rebel who seeks to bring about revolution, and Salinda, the prison’s best vintner and possessor of a powerful and ancient gift that she is only beginning to understand. To stop the Inspector, Salinda must learn to harness her power so that she and Brill can escape, and stop the dragon wine from falling into the wrong hands.
Dragon Wine Book 2 :Skywatcher, the follow on book is also available in ebook and print from Momentum.
Thanks for agreeing to come on my blog! Tell me something about what you’re working on now.
I have a few books in progress and around the place so I’ll tell you about Ruby Heart because I have done quite a bit of research into that as it is a Victorian paranormal romance/gothic horror meld.
What sort of research did you need to do to write this story?
I have a motto. Never let research get in the way of a good story. Once I’ve started I don’t usually stop to research something unless it is majorly critical. I can get sucked into a vortex and not emerge for days and then it can take me a while to get back into drafting. That’s not saying I don’t research. I do.
Ruby Heart required a bit of research and trawling books and the internet for resources and double checking events and fashions. For example, people often equate the bustle with Victorian dress, but the Victorian era was quite long and the bustle (I believe there were two periods of bustles) was rather short lived. I love the bustle, but my heroine, Jemima Hardcastle, isn’t quite into that period yet so she wears bell shaped skirts. Also, there’s lots to read about what a young woman was expected to do in that era. Then there is working out what a classical education was. Now, I love researching England. I’ve been there a number of times and will go back. Last time I went I wanted to go into the sewers. I researched what I could on the internet, but it’s not the same. The sewers are only open in London for a short period in summer. Bugger! So I found a tour in Brighton. I held off booking it because we wanted to check if someone wanted to join us and when I went back to book the places were full and no more tours until 2016. So I still have the sewers to explore. The lesson here is be very focussed on your research if you are paying lots of money to travel! Lucky an author friend gave me a couple of books on what’s beneath London to ease my pain.
The world of Shatterwing is based on a couple of fascinating premises. How did your research for Shatterwing help you build your world?
I’ve been working on this series for a very long time so I’m harking back to the deep dark past here. I did some basic research on dragons…just the mythology and how dragons are represented in a number of cultures. I also did a bit about astronomy, but I’m a pretty bad study there so I had the help of a scientist to make sure my errors weren’t glaring. If there are mistakes they are all mine. Most of the research I did for this particular book was to really sit down and work out which were my favourite fantasy novels and why. For example, I love the Wheel of Time Series (a long time ago now) by Robert Jordan. I realised I that I loved the back story the most—the history, the mysterious devices, the clues that there was something vast and awe inspiring there before. So I wanted to invent something like that; rich in history. I also really liked The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; for that I think the characters are important and so on. I also love both science fiction and science fantasy, so elements of those genres exist therein Shatterwing also. What I didn’t do is read any books with dragons depicted in them. I think in doing that I was able to put my own slant on these creatures. That’s a case of not researching working best. I was also able to draw on contemporaneous events to fuel the imagination, such as the Boxing Day Tsunami. It helped inspire one small flash back scene. Terrorism also feeds into my work on Dragon Wine.
What was the weirdest thing you had to research?
I usually do background research in my day job as well as novel writing. Sometimes the research done for work comes in useful for writing. I look into amazing stuff that I never would do normally – eg how crude oil is refined; how fuel is distributed around Australia. I’ve also looked at geothermal power generation, such as Rankine systems and fracking. You should see that fracking equipment up close! I did. But you know these questions of yours make me realise how disorganised I am and how I need to be more methodical particularly in keeping track of my research at home. I think about how I want to be and measure it against what I do and I’m sadly disappointed in me.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing your research turned up?
Well I’m a bit of a sponge and due to my day job my head gets filled with a lot of interesting stuff. For me I like it when research turns up ideas for stories. They are the flint spark to the tinder! I’m trying to wrack my brain here…what is the most interesting…I know…I read a book on the workings of the human brain and how the eye and brain perceive colour. I remember being gobsmacked by that. Oh yeah and the Hayflick limit about cell division and senescence. I remember attending a lecture when that was discussed and it blew my mind. That actually featured into my first novel. Not published, but it was fun at the time.
How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?
I think I’m researching all the time but not in a directed way until I come upon a need. Everything goes into my brain and is refined into parts of story or character. Research is living and learning. Then there is the book reading, documentary watching and internet searching (maps etc), which is equally important to me. So I may do bits of research and make notes, like with Ruby Heart…a certain amount at the beginning to serve as a launch board. Then I may do a bit in the middle but that’s dangerous, because I can get derailed and then I do more after the first draft to fill in holes and gaps and to improve the work. So when I’m drafting, like I said above, don’t let research get in the way of a good story.
Is research a distraction or an inspiration?
Neither when life is in harmony. I think it’s part of being. Personally, I need to know stuff. Writing something gets me to learn more stuff. But then, if you talk about extremes, researching can be more of a distraction than an inspiration. You need an internal compass that lets you know you are going too far in one direction. If you spend ten years researching something, but don’t actually write anything, then then you have a problem if you are writer, I think. But if you only ever want to write one book that’s steeped in research, then maybe that’s okay. I’m a bit of a bird, I nibble here and peck over there and so I have to change what I’m doing, writing, reading, researching, crafting. My daughter thinks I have ADHD because I seem not to stick at one thing. Stuff you research or observe filters through in your brain and so it’s always there fermenting etc. I’m just not the years of research type of person -but I do have obsessive tendencies.
Have you ever researched something that made you abandon a story idea?
Not quite abandon. But I may have had to stop writing a story to see if something could be done. Then when I was satisfied it could, I went back to writing. Lucky these days it doesn’t take long to get the answers to some quick questions…the date something was invented for example. I have always found research inspired my work and made it more complete. The good thing about having something not work, is that you start looking for alternative and that can be even better than your first idea.
What kind of research do you need to do for stuff that doesn’t exist? (Like dragons!)
Lizards! Reading about them, observing them. Then also imagining what it would be like to live with them and also what their environmental function would be. I like using my imagination so that’s kind of liberating from having to research. However, I have to say the imagination is fuelled by everything, observation and research.
Donna is an Australian writer of fantasy, science fiction, horror, paranormal romance and romance. As well as over 20 short stories published in various genres, she had a small press publishing house, been an editor, slush reader and science fiction convention runner. She works for the Australian Government undertaking audits of other government departments and their programs. She lives in South Canberra with her partner Matthew Farrer (also a writer) . Since moving to the new house, which overlooks the Brindabella Mountains, both Donna and Matthew are amazed at how the mountains change with the light, the clouds and the weather.
In addition to Dragonwine, Donna has another series going: the Love and Space Pirates series, a young adult/new adult space adventure/romance. The sequel to Rayessa and the Space Pirates, Rae and Essa’s Space Adventures was out in May 2015. Another book is in planning.
Shatterwing is currently FREE in e-book for a short time. As part of spreading the word about Shatterwing, Donna is doing a blog tour and offering a give away of a hard copy of Shatterwing. Winners will be drawn from people who comment during Donna’s blog tour. So please leave a comment to be in it to win!