MisCon 28: Writing What You Don’t Know

by syaffolee

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Writing What You Don’t Know
Panel members: Diana Pharaoh Francis, James Glass, Joyce Reynolds-Ward
Panel description: Maybe you love researching for a book or story, and maybe you hate it. Regardless, you have to do it, or you risk having your book thrown across the room in disgust. In this panel we’ll learn the best ways to research, how to organize your notes, and how to achieve balance between research and writing.

JG: What if you don’t know how to research?

DPF: My book, The Black Ship, was set on a clipper ship. I have never sailed in my life so I realized that a lot of research would be involved. The language of sailing. The captain’s orders. Weather. Navigation. Even if it’s fantasy, you also need to get it right. I looked at fiction and nonfiction about sailing. I did a three hour tour in Seattle on a ship. I talked to people, like captains and workers at maritime museums. I kept notes and kept it in my head so it could flow naturally from my tongue. If you still have to look things up, you’re not ready.

JRW: I wrote a book on neurobiology so I had to take a course to become familiar with the concepts and the language. I learned how people reacted to stress. In my weird west and alternate history stories, in order to do it right, I needed to know the change points in history and how to extrapolate from that. For writing an alternate history about how the Oregon Territory became independent rather than part of the US, I needed to study books on Northwest history since you still have to get the details right. I use Evernote to clip articles and tag it.

DPF: Scrivener also does it.

JRW: It helps especially for online research.

JG: Life can also be research. Live life. If anything interests you and you have the opportunity, do it. Write from your own experience. If you need to know about biology, read it. If you have a problem with science, read a freshman textbook.

DPF: You can also take online classes.

JG: TV, science news, subscribe to their feeds. Read up and keep up about it. Live life to the fullest.

JRW: I wrote books about politics. I drew on my experience as a political activist during my 20s. If you’re doing fantasy or historical, then you should embrace living history, museums, and historical reenactments. Get all the senses, not just hearing and seeing. You need sensory knowledge.

JG: I wrote a story about ballet dancers. I was the president of a ballet company, but I also had to read ballet reviews and used the library for research.

DPF: Living history is a great resource. There are people out there who still work in traditional ways. I have links on my webpage for research. It could be about clothing, tanning, fighting, etc. Keep track of where you did your research, you can milk it more than once. Transcribe interviews. But don’t overload the narrative with detail to prove that you know it. 90% of the research won’t make it into the story. Characters should act and speak appropriately.

JRW: Know and acquire the correct word. It can make a huge difference.

DPF: In one book, I had a goshawk. I did research by asking a colleague of mine who knew all about them. A goshawk “stoops” which is a falconry term. However, the copy editor decided to replace “stoop” with “swoop.” If I had let that go, I would have been killed by the readers. It would have killed my credibility. It would have been like mistaking manual for an automatic transmission.

JG: Copy editors can be dangerous. I thought Dan Brown described Istanbul beautifully and brought it to life. If you can’t afford to go, then read books about the place. Look at pictures. Travel is best if you can. If you’re going to put in a restaurant, ask permission for their name. If not, then change the name.

JRW: P.R. Frost needed a picture of a location in Las Vegas for her book. Since I was going there anyway, she got me to get a picture of it. Getting your friends is another resource.

DPF: I was writing about San Diego so I used Google Earth. I needed to know what was at a dead end street near Balboa Park, but Google didn’t show it. So I asked online and got a stranger who lived there to get pictures for me. With Facebook and Twitter, take advantage of social media.

JG: If you’re writing about a place on earth, you should be able to visualize and experience everything.

JRW: Be careful with what resources are reliable. Don’t count on Wikipedia. It’s a starting place. Sometimes, though, you want to get the crazy stuff if you’re writing about that.

JG: YouTube is a resource, but make sure you screen it. There are some good crash course material. John Green has some good YouTube videos.

DPF: If you don’t know where to begin, get an overview from places like Wikipedia. Then start digging.

JG: Even if you think you know the subject, you get to a point that you don’t know. I’m a physicist, but I needed to get the position of Titan so I had to go back to research it.

JRW: I have experience with horses for 15 to 16 years, but I also have to look up references for writing about horses. Even if there’s stuff you know, you need to do the research.

DPF: Sometimes you don’t know you have to do the research until you run into it.

JG: Don’t hesitate to call the local university.

DPF: They want to share their research.

JG: Research can also be used to generate ideas. Do interviews.

JRW: Sometimes you can get ideas from your Facebook friends by looking at the feed.

DPF: Discovery Magazine.

JRW: Boing Boing.

JG: How much is too much? When does the research stop and the writing begin?

DPF: When I can start writing without looking up things constantly. When the story pushes, I do it by feel. I still look stuff up, but when I can start, I start.

JRW: When I write and need to look something up, I put it in brackets–look up X, Y, Z–and do it later. If you can explain the concept to someone else, you’re ready to write.

JG: Research enough for a general idea. If you need to get a detail, just lie and circle it. Then go back later and check. I don’t let the details stop me. Get the first draft done. Then the corrections.

JRW: It depends on the scene. If I’m in the middle of action, I write that first.

Q: Do you have to be 100% accurate in fantasy?

DPF: Physics still works in fantasy. Unless specifically something doesn’t.

JRW: There’s still geography in fantasy. Think about the implications.

DPF: Make maps. Where do they get the food and other supplies? Where would they build cities for trade? What makes sense? Can it be that way? There’s one place in the maps that’s wrong in my book.

JG: You want your magical system to be consistent. Establish the rules and stick to them.

DPF: People don’t like deus ex machina, especially when you violate your magical system.

JG: You need rules and limitations. Otherwise it’s not believable.

JRW: A planet with only one ecosystem is not believable.

JG: In science fiction, you need to get your science right. In one of my stories, I said that methane smelled. But it is actually an odorless, colorless gas. If you have the tiniest error, the readers will nail you to the cross.

Q: In fantasy, if you need to know the geology, you can do the research. But if you’re doing science fiction, how can you research alien physiology?

JG: In that case, you can make up your own. Balonium. But if it’s carbon based, you need to research that.

DPF: Make it consistent. Think about the world on which they developed.