Wednesday, July 4, 2012

On Research

I write speculative fiction and to date (not including the paranormal story and the near-future post-apocalyptic story lurking in my Now Editing folder) I have written stories heavily based on some form of historical/mythological reality. This is to say generally speaking I don't make my worlds up wholesale, instead I construct them from actual historical times and places and actual mythological creatures, figures and events. Therefore these stories require quite a bit of research.

While writing Heart of Water and Stone, The Kraken Lord and the Eater of the Sun and a still unfinished WIP called The Forest God's Thegn which is set in the same universe I used a lot of research sources owned by my brother. My brother Gabe's academic field of interest is archaeology specializing in Viking Age Iceland and Icelandic metal working. So I was extremely lucky to have not only his knowledge but also his extensive library of books as a resource.

I've also been lucky in that, as habitual student, I have had access to University libraries and data bases. This is extremely important for me because I have no money to buy my own research materials, although my Amazon wishlist is full of them. My library access came in especially handy when I was writing Regarding The Detective's Companion and needed resources on things like 1840s British cotton mills.

It's always a challenge though for me to decide where to draw the line. I don't write historical fiction, I write speculative fiction which means although there might be lots of historical details at the end of the day all my stories take place in other worlds where trolls, magic, angels, demons, mythological Gods and almost two hundred year old super computers really do exist. So I'm always asking myself how much historical detail is enough?

This became even more problematic with Like Fire Through Bone, which is set in an empire which is based on a combination of Byzantine and ancient Rome with come cultural elements from what is now modern day Turkey. Like this suggests the setting is not clearly based on any one historical time or setting but a kind of writerly mash-up of a whole bunch ( the academic in me cringes to even say that).

I did a lot of different kinds of research for this one. I did a lot of historical research into the Byzantine Empire and the Roman Empire for one. I also did search into early Christian mysticism and early Greek Orthodox mysticism. Several of my characters are eunuchs and physically castrated so I did a lot of reading first-hand accounts of modern male bodies people who have been castrated for various reasons. I went onto online boards to hear what they had to say about how castration affected their sex lives, mood swings, body changes and so on. I read a lot about ancient forms of castrations and historians debate what kind of social role eunuchs played in the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

At the end of the day though looking back on all of these stories I know I could have done more research (if there is one thing degrees in history and law have taught me is you could have always done more research). There were also places were I very purposefully went against actual historical fact because it fit better into the fantasy aspect of the story and I worry about that. I worry if that's okay. I wonder if I should have done more.

I've read several articles recently where authors talk about research and the research they've done for their books. The moral of the story in these articles basically, leave no research stone unturned.

In reality I know that's not possible. One small aspect of the historical research for one of my stories I know is what some historian or archaeologist somewhere has dedicated their life to. I worry though when I can't get a book because I can't afford to buy it and the library cannot get it for me. I worry when I leave out or change a detail to encourage the fantasy elements of the story. I am still worried about the setting for Like Fire Through Bone being a amalgamation of a bunch of different times and places. I worry less, I think, that someone might disagree with my writerly choices and more that someone might accuse me of shoddy research (I'm an academic its my worse nightmare anyway) So when have we done our due diligent as writers with the research?

Don't get me wrong, I do not condone a lack of research on the part of a write. Research is essential, as far as I'm concerned. I just wonder how much is enough?

What do other writers think, especially other fantasy and speculative fiction writers? What's the signal for you that you've done enough research? In your opinion how much is enough?

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