I write fantasy and the first thing that might surprise readers is that I do a lot of research before I ever sit down to put words on the page. Most of what I come across goes in a printed binder and use a fraction of the whole thing. Research a lot and then utilize only the choice pieces. That’s my motto.
However, it’s easy to get distracted from the actual task of writing by researching. For example, in my current release, Destiny’s Mark, I researched Hong Kong: the subway system, the harbor, the major hotels, the topography, and roadways up the mountains, the food. Ah, yes the food. That started to distract me. I reviewed blogs of recipes from the major hotels, pictures and commentaries on the local street vendors, traveler’s notes on what they like best and why. Hmm, it’s enough to make one hungry and waste time considering whether I can make one of the dishes for dinner.
The key for me was to remain focused. I knew which scenes I needed to depict local flavor (no pun intended), and what I lacked, which was a great deal. I didn’t have time or the money to hop a plane to Hong Kong and it was only one of the destinations in the book.
So, I plastered street maps on my walls and plotted a walking tour of my character’s routes and destinations. I made notes of physical characteristics as well as sensory notations for each point of significance.
I did the same when I researched China’s rules for marriage, death, births from unwed mothers, the use of Russian immigrants to build portions of the Chinese railroads, and more.
Now did I still spend hours reviewing information that I didn’t need. Well, yes. But frankly, most information is useful at some point. Perhaps just not for this book. The more I use this process, the more I find myself remember some old tidbit I’d run across that I can use now. So the details, URLs, and references to people and books get printed and put in the research book for that story or the next.
I’ve done the same thing for my current work-in-progress, which is set in Peru. Again with the maps, the travel guides, the online travel blogs from hikers and jetsetters that visit the places I want to highlight. I even read the online newspapers of the cities I plan to use as a backdrop for the story. This is a form of emersion. I can glance through the binder, look at the maps on the walls, bring up a restaurant or menu, and get the gist of the pace of life and outlooks for that region.
I’ve done the same research for everything from demons and ancient religions to the history of Tai Chi and the international cataloging of fault lines.
Now back to the key point. Research is valuable for creating the essence of small details in a story, creating reality in a fantasy world. The key is to know when to stop or you never get the story written. I give myself a week for the research, which coincides with my brainstorming of the plot points for the outline. Some research will add to back-story and some will add to secondary plots, but all will wind down after the first week. I’ll still look up occasional things as I write the first draft. However, I try to keep a lid on tangents once the story is in progress.
Guest Post by KH LeMoyne