Research Rabbit Holes #8 – with David Versace

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.

20140809_150443This 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.

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David Versace (www.davidversace.com) writes fantasy and science fiction in Canberra, Australia. His work appears in the CSFG anthology “Next” and in the forthcoming anthologies “The Lane of Unusual Traders” (Tiny Owl Workshop) and “At the Edge” (Paper Road Press).

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.

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Down the Research Rabbit Hole #7 – with Ian McHugh

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.

IanThis week’s guest is Ian McHugh, who sports what is surely one of the most resplendent beards in the Australian speculative fiction scene. His writing speaks for itself and has featured in publications such as Asimov’s, Clockwork Phoenix and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He is renowned as a blunt and fearless (and therefore extremely useful) beta reader, and his critiques often start with a variation of: “Your story starts here on page 3.” He can frequently be found running workshops at the ACT Writers Centre, or teaching at the University of Canberra.

Tell me a little bit about your latest book/story and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.

I’m currently writing a secondary world fantasy novel with early modern technology – steam engines and gunpowder weapons and whatnot – combined with magic. It’s not steampunk, I just wanted to step away from the standard medieval-era for adventure fantasy. So, I needed to know early steam technology, firearms and artillery, as well as naval warfare in the transition from sail to steam, siege warfare with early cannons and (because it’s a magical secondary world) golems.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing your research turned up?

This current project started with canals. The canal infrastructure from the early industrial revolution in Britain was incredible. They had actual mechanical lifts – not locks, lifts – for barges, where the barge would go into a gated tub and be lifted, water and all, straight up a cliff, with a counterweight tub coming down. So, that canal infrastructure became a bigger part of the story as I wrote, and a number of the pivotal moments in the story are built around canal things.

How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?

I tend to research big things before I start writing, then research details as I go. As such, research is important to both my writing process and my procrastination process. It also means I do a fair bit of backtracking to retrofit corrected details as I write, so forward progress some days can be slow even if I’m working hardly rather than hardly working.

Is research a distraction or an inspiration?

I think once you have writer-brain, everything and anything can become research and inspiration. Generally speaking, research is inspiration. Research is also incredibly distracting. So many rabbit holes to disappear down! For example: I recently wanted to know if a 1700s era cannon was in an elevated position – on top of a wall, say – how close to the foot of the wall could it shoot? How did they shoot downwards? Could a cannon’s barrel be declined to shoot downwards? Was it ever the done thing? I lost hours. Found a multiplicity of blogs and rants and treatises and articles and instructional manuals about the optimum angle of elevation for maximum effective range for every kind of cannon and carronade and culverin and mortar and firestick. But what about when the other fellas are nearly at the bottom of the wall? I know they used a cotton bung to stop the cannonball rolling out when the gun was pointed down, but beyond that, I’m as ignorant as when I started.

When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?

Something like how to shoot artillery from the top of a wall might seem like a detail I could write around, but it’s the little details that can catch you. If I want to have my characters defend a fortress when both sides have artillery, I need to know what the actual real strategies were for both attacking and defending a fortress with artillery. Just because it’s a secondary world, I can’t just make shit up that sounds good to me, because it will probably be completely wrong. Whatever secondary world you’re writing, it’s going to have a lot of real-world stuff in it. You have to get that stuff right first, if you want your secondary world to have any kind of credibility, then figure out how your magic and dragons and whatevs fit in with it and change it.

Tell me about a time when your research threw up something that changed your story or a character.

I think you need to approach research with the expectation that it’s going to change your story, because research is a critical part of the process of developing and refining your story idea. And, if you’re like me and keep researching as you write, it’s also part of your drafting process. As such, every bit of research tends to have consequential changes for my plots and scenes and worlds. Less so with characters, I think, unless they’re non-human (and I find a cool way to pimp them up some more) or based on historical figures (and I turn up an interesting factoid about the real person).

I have a draft of a historical fantasy novel currently filed in the Cry For Help folder, which featured a version of Peter Lalor, the leader of the Eureka Stockade gold miners’ rebellion. I originally conceived him as a fairly idealistic figure, but then reading about the real man, I discovered that, after leading this rebellion to demand democratic rights for gold miners, he became a member of parliament and voted against those rights. Although the men he led to take up arms were Chartists and other advocates of democracy, Lalor wasn’t. He was a republican and a liberal, but not a democrat. Given that the conceit of my novel is, in part, “what if Lalor’s rebellion was successful?”, this tidbit threw up some interesting questions. So my version of Lalor now became a kind of Australian Robespierre and his rebellion/revolution followed the template of the French Revolution – including the Terror. Suddenly my character had way more depth and a way more interesting arc.

Have you ever researched something that made you abandon a story idea?

I said before that research is inspiration. Sometimes it’s also an obstacle or a roadblock. I don’t know that I’ve ever abandoned a story because of something my research turned up, but research often turns up inconvenient bits of knowledge that then need to be accounted for. In my story (deep breath) Extracted journal notes for an ethnography of bnebene nomad culture, I conceived an alien species with five genders. Initially, I just said they had three available sex chromosomes which could be paired in five viable combinations. But then I read about the other non-chromosomal ways that gender is determined in nature, like temperature variance and haplodiploidy (look it up), so I had to not only have my scientist protagonist consider those possibilities as well, but I had to consider for myself whether they were more realistic than what I’d proposed.

What was the weirdest thing you had to research?    

Research for stories is often esoteric, but I think it’s only weird to other people. If you’re geeking out on it, it never seems weird. And if you’re (if I’m) researching for a story, then you’re (I’m) probably geeking out. You just end up knowing a lot of unusual factoids – for my recent story Demons Enough I decided I needed to know how much blood is in an adult human (five litres, for anyone who’s interested). Knowing it wasn’t critical for the story (read it, you’ll see) and finding it out didn’t change how I told the story, but I was geeking out on the story, so I wanted to know. Not weird at all, see?

What kind of research have you needed to do for stuff that doesn’t exist? How do you approach that?

If you’re writing speculative fiction of any kind you’re always researching for stuff that doesn’t exist. I think most of the time, you’re riffing on what’s real – extrapolating technology or politics, mashing things together to make a monster, filing off the serial numbers from some meditative technique and saying that’s what you do to work magic. And if you’re not riffing on what’s real, you’re probably riffing on something someone else made up before. So, for me, I don’t think there’s a difference in the research approach – writer-brain is always switched on. It’s more what I do with it once I’ve done the research. If I’m researching something that exists, then I regurgitate it as accurately as possible into my story. If I’m researching something that doesn’t exist, then I bang together things that do until I get sparks of something new.

A gigantic metal angel statue stands over a city with one arm raised. The buildings in the foreground are low and dark, the buildings at the angel's feet are tall and gleam with the reflected light of a setting sun.Ian McHugh’s first success as a speculative fiction writer was winning the short story contest at the 2004 Australian national SF convention. Since then he has sold stories to professional and semi-pro magazines, webzines and anthologies in Australia and internationally. His stories have won grand prize in the Writers of the Future contest, been shortlisted five times at Australia’s Aurealis Awards (winning Best Fantasy Short Story in 2010), reprinted in Australian year’s best anthologies, honourably mentioned for world year’s bests and appeared in the Locus and Tangent Online annual Recommended Reading Lists. He graduated from the Clarion West writers’ workshop in 2006. His first collection of short stories, Angel Dust, was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award for Best Collection in 2015.

Ian lives in Canberra, Australia and is a member of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild.

Down the Research Rabbit Hole #6 – with Cat Sparks

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.

Read on…

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?

Two things:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 portrait

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.

Down the Research Rabbithole #5 – With Nicole Murphy

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.

IMG_0100This week’s guest is Nicole Murphy, whose work as an author crosses a range of genres, including contemporary paranormal (the Gadda series), science fiction (the Jorda series), as well as contemporary romance and erotica with a hint of the unusual under the pseudonym Elizabeth Dunk.

Tell me a little bit about your latest book and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.

Much Ado About Love is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, so the
main bit of research was re-reading the play. It was working out the beats in the play, the main plot points, the theme and message of the play and also the characters. Part of this involved re-watching Kenneth Branagh’s version of Much Ado About Nothing – research can be fun! Otherwise, there were little bits of research I had to do for some facts. Eg I went through local council papers to find out how rezoning works. I had to find out how long it would take for a helicopter to get from Bankstown Airport to the south coast of New South Wales (Nowra-ish). Thankfully I based a lot of aspects of this story on places I’d been or things I’d done so it didn’t require too much research.

How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?

It depends on the story. For example, in my gadda series, I’m often having to do research prior to the story in order to build the alternate world its set in. Otherwise, if I get it wrong, it can involve huge re-writes and that’s annoying. For the contemporary romances, because so many of them are set in places that I know, or in work situations I’m experienced with, there’s not a lot of research required. In that case, I’ll leave it until the editing phase and hope to blazes I’m not going to discover something that will completely change the story (although I did have to stop to work out the rezoning stuff for Much Ado About Love to make sure what I was thinking would work). Every once in a while, you reach a point in a story where you have to do research to move forward. An example of that was in the third book in my Dream of Asarlai trilogy, Rogue Gadda, where I just couldn’t write the scene I needed to write without knowing exactly where in Boston it was taking place and what the houses in that area looked like. I even needed to find some floor plans of the houses in the area to get an idea of how the inside of the houses would work. As a result I have a deep, abiding love for Google Street View and real estate websites.

Is research a distraction or an inspiration?

Prior to writing – an inspiration. The research I did on Irish mythology for the gadda books really informed a lot of the history and thinking around the world (including the name ‘gadda’, which is taken from the word ‘Dagda’, the name of one of the Irish gods). During writing – definitely a distraction. I like to get started with writing and plough through until the end. I think despite all this time, I have a fear that if I get pulled away from a story, I won’t come back and finish it so I don’t risk it by stopping.

Have you ever researched something that made you abandon a story idea? 

There was a point in researching the rezoning stuff for Much Ado About Love that I had a terrible, awful feeling that it wasn’t going to work in the story and I was going to have to rethink everything the antagonist was doing to get at the heroine. It made me sick to the stomach. But then I found a little clause, and realised there was a way around it. You see, generally councils can re-zone an area, but even if that means the wrong type of building ends up on it, the building is not illegal because the correct zoning was in place when it was built. So your block can be rezoned light industrial, but the family home is still safe. It simply means if the people who buy your house wanted to, they could knock your house down and build a factory on the land instead. Doesn’t threaten your building at all, so rezoning in itself wouldn’t cause a problem for my heroine. However, further digging showed if (for example) your family home wasn’t built on the correct zone in the first place or wasn’t properly approved, it becomes an illegal dwelling. At that point, I just had her grandfather forget to fill in some paperwork a few decades ago and hey presto – her livelihood and home are at risk. Phew!

What was the weirdest thing you had to research?

My favourite research story was for a scene for one of the gadda books that didn’t actually end up in print (although a version ended up in a short story). The gadda needed to touch something that contained evil that could contaminate them so couldn’t do it with bare skin. They couldn’t use their power either – it had to be a man-made thing that protected them. No gloves around, so they wrapped their hands in Glad Wrap. To find out if it worked, I did it to myself. I worked out you really do need another person to  wrap your hands in Glad Wrap and make it work but if done properly, you can make a Glad Wrap glove that will enable you to still use your hand while protecting your skin. Got some interesting looks from the husband that day.

***

Much Ado About Love

Opposites attract—but that doesn’t mean the road to happy-ever-after runs smooth…

Much Ado About LoveTrix Leon and Ben Anthony have two things in common—they don’t believe in love and, together, they set the sheets on fire. Their relationship is safe, uncomplicated, and just what they both need—until John Aragorn shows up and gives them a third thing in common: an enemy.

When their friends decide it’s time for Trix and Ben to admit to themselves—and each other—how they really feel, Trix and Ben are caught in a whirlwind of emotion, a promise of something more. But Aragorn is determined to destroy everything: Trix’s hard work, her future, and her chance at something more with Ben.

Now Ben and Trix are left fighting for the one thing that neither of them knew they wanted: love.

http://www.escapepublishing.com.au/product/9781760370015

Nicole Murphy is a writer, editor and teacher who writes contemporary romance as Elizabeth Dunk. Much Ado About Love is her tenth publication. Follow Nicole at her website (www.nicolermurphy.com), on Twitter (@nicole_r_murphy) or on Facebook (Nicole Murphy & Elizabeth Dunk – Author).

Down the Research Rabbit Hole #4 – with JT Clay

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.

Today’s guest is JT Clay, who writes books as bitingly funny as they are thrilling and adventure-packed. Prior to focussing her career on writing, she worked in counter-terrorism and law before switching to waste management, which generated much more dinner-party debate. People care about rubbish. She now works as a technical writer and looks after her mixed-species family. A Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse won a 2010 Olvar Wood Fellowship Award and is her first published novel. She lives in Canberra, which she claims is not as dull as people say, but she is notorious for making things up.

Pork Sausage

My first novel, A Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, involved more research than you’d imagine. I watched Bear Grylls on repeat, read up on SAS survival techniques and hung out in zombie chat rooms (which are exactly as weird as you’d expect).

Lately, I’ve been working on a time-travel farce set in Auckland in the Roaring Twenties. Although a sci-fi comedy, I approached it like a historical project. I read textbooks, biographies and fiction written during and about the period. I browsed old photos. I watched reams of period TV and endured The Great Gatsby in many, many formats. I kept a log of anachronistic terms and discovered, for instance, that back then you could take your gimp in hand and make love, in public, without social or legal repercussions.

So when Leife asked me to blog about research, I jumped at the chance. I’d already done the groundwork.

When I began writing this time-travel farce, I gave myself a three-week research holiday, during which I wrote only notes. No outlines, no scenes, no dialogue. No fiction. Between the library and the Internet, this research cost only my time.

A lot of primary material lives online. I watched Charlie Chaplin reels. I perused posters exhorting men to ‘grow a mustache – that’s one thing the girls can’t do!’ I listened to old Dippermouth sing and heard a Model T Ford sputter down the road. I read the ‘Auckland Star’ and ‘New Zealand Truth’ for the month of February 1923. I found a recipe for asparagus ices.

What can’t you get off the Internet?

Smells, it turns out. My biggest problem was working out what the place smelled like. I tried searching the Web for scratch ‘n’ sniff sites. Don’t do it. The results are unsavoury.

So I did what any decent author does. I made it up. As a result, I’m much more sympathetic to all those fantasy novels that open with a standard stinky wharf description. They may not be original, but they’re tangible, and more importantly, they meet reader expectations.

I’ve learned about those.

There’s a duel in my novel. If you’re thinking that a duel in 1923 Auckland sounds unlikely, you’d be right. But not impossible, with Auckland’s final duel being fought in 1935.

I couldn’t decide whether my hero would select pistols or swords. Then I heard about Bismarck’s sausage duel, featuring two pork sausages, one laced with roundworm. More of an eating contest really, but an exciting one.

And why not? I was writing a farce, after all. A specialist historian had offered to review the whole thing for free. All I had to do was take copious notes so that, when he challenged the pork sausage incident, I could defend myself.

But first, I tried it out on my partner. The idea, not the pork sausage. The ‘scratch n sniff’ Web search had turned me off practical experimentation by this stage.

My partner nixed it.

But it really happened! Or it would have, if Bismarck hadn’t chickened out.

He didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Too silly, he said. Stick to the pistols.

So I slouched off and learned how to fire a Webley Mark IV revolver via an Internet demonstration delivered by an alarmingly bearded Texan who sounded familiar. I may have met him before in a zombie chat room.

What’s the moral? Do your research, but remember – authenticity beats accuracy every time.

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J.T. Clay
Author of A Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
jtclaywriter.wordpress.com

Down the Research Rabbit Hole #3 – with Alan Baxter

down-the-rabbit-hole

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.

Today’s guest is Alan Baxter, award-winning author of dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi, including the Alex Caine and Balance series. I threw some questions at Alan and here’s what he had to say.

Tell me a little bit about your latest book and what sort of research you needed to do to write this story.
My current novel in progress is a kind of supernatural crime noir thing. Hard to describe, really! It’s set in London and there’s research as well as memory there, as I lived in the UK until my mid-20s and know London well, but still needed to confirm things and double check locations. Google Earth is great for that kind of research. I also needed to research some organised crime and police procedural stuff. All kinds of fun!

How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?
I do some research first, then more as needed as I go along.

Is research a distraction or an inspiration?
Both! I love it though – one of the best things about writing fiction is the research avenues it can send you down.

magesignWhat was the weirdest thing you had to research?
Probably cults and brainwashing for my novel, MageSign. Weird, but fascinating.

When you’re writing secondary-world or alternate-world stories, how does real-world research contribute to your world-building?
Suspension of disbelief is essential, especially in alternate world stuff, so the more you make the little things convincing, the easier it is to sell the big fantastical things.

Have you ever researched something that made you abandon a story idea?
Not yet! You can always accommodate it, but it does often mean changing what you were planning.

Tell me about a time when your research threw up something that changed your story or a character.
A novella I wrote recently was another one based around crime and police work. Every time I discovered how the police would respond to a certain part of the story, the next part had to change to accommodate that. The whole story kept changing to prevent the police solving the situation before my ideas could play out!
Alan-by-Nicole-BW-crop-website

Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.warriorscribe.com – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.

 

 

Down the Research Rabbit Hole #2 – with Donna Maree Hanson

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.

Dragonwine Postcard

Shatterwing

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.

Thanks Donna!

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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!

Down the research rabbit hole

This year I have made a concerted effort to concentrate on Novel Project #4. It’s not the 4th novel I’ve started writing (lost count on that score), or the 4th one I will actually complete a finished draft of. It’s the 4th one I’ve put a serious and concerted effort into creating. Basically, a project gets a number when I feel like it’s a going concern. Otherwise it’s just fiddling around.

Novel Project #4, however, is the first one that I have spent a serious amount of time planning, and some very serious time researching. By natural inclination, I’m an inveterate pantser, but (for me, anyway) an approach based solely on flying by the seat of my pants is not conducive to getting novels written in a professional time frame.

For the last two months I have had a heavy focus on doing the actual writing part. This has been by turns intense, exhausting, exhilarating and frustrating, and it’s used up most of my word ju ju (yes, that is a Thing), which is why I’ve been so slack about blogging. I’ve done bits and pieces of writing throughout the year, but, seriously, I have spent most of this year doing planning and research.

Project #4 uses a paranormal historical setting, which means, as I mentioned, the research burden for this story has been quite high. Naturally I’m using one of my favourite periods of history, so I’ve enjoyed this immensely. But this means there is an ever-present lurking danger of being sucked down into a Research Rabbit Hole.

Rabbit hole

These 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. So I thought I’d share some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes with you. I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination, and I’ll begin putting up a series of guest posts on these tomorrow.

Recently, I was doing a little bit of research on a peripheral character. Primarily, I was just checking to see whether I could find out who was the Rector of St Paul’s Church Covent Garden in London in 1765, or whether I had to make someone up. I found him, one Reverend James Tattersall, and managed to glean a tiny bit of biographical information about him. But nothing substantial; nothing to suggest the kind of man he was. Then I discovered this snippet: a 1768 register of baptisms by Reverend Tattersall in St Paul’s Covent Garden.

Scipio

Right there on the 25th of March 1768, is an entry that indicates the Reverend Tattersall owned an 11 year old boy as a slave.

Rabbit Hole 1: What kind of person owns a slave? Was it an issue of status for Tattersall and his wife? Was it an act of charity? Was it unusual for people in his position to own slaves? Were they nice to him? Where they horrible?Why baptise him then? Why wasn’t he already baptised?

Rabbit Hole 2: Who was the poor kid? He was only 11! Where was his family? Were they alive? Were they even in the same country as he was by this time? Where was he from? Did he speak English? What was his life like after joining the Tattersall household? How long did he stay there? Did he learn a trade? Did he marry? Did he ever live as a free man?

Rabbit Hole 3: Interestingly, this was around about the time the conversation about the ethics of slave-ownership got started in the UK. In 1765 the grandfather of abolition in the UK, Granville Sharp, met Jonathan Strong, an escaped slave (for “escaped” read: beaten so badly by his master he was abandoned in the street as useless) and, with his brother, a doctor, helped him get the treatment he needed to recover. In 1767, Sharp provided further legal assistance to Strong, when Strong’s former master attempted to kidnap Strong and sell him to another slave-owner.

I could go on.

This, though, is a perfect example of just how far down the rabbit hole you can fall. And it’s also a perfect example of how, just from peeking through one tiny keyhole you can discover a wealth of material to help you build the world of your story.