Sunday, November 29, 2009



by Sophie

RESEARCH


Here's just one of my dirty little secrets - but it's a big one:

I hate doing research.

Oh, I don't have any objection to learning, as long as I can do it my own way (which is to say, solitarily, in a circuitous fashion, stumbling onto facts like pretty shells on a beach). I was terrible in the classroom. I don't have much luck with reading lists or bibliographies or course outlines. I can't stay on track for anything.

But if, instead of thinking of learning as a point-A-to-point-B exercise, wherein a specific question is put to rest by a focused search for information, you consider it as a lovely amorphous cloud, I'm all in.

Oh, would that all learning could look like this!!



"Reading room" - surely that has to be one of the most delightful phrases in the language. A place you can go, and - and - and just sort of glom about, soaking up bits of this and that. Gorgeous leather-bound dictionaries on stands. Hoary old thesauruses and collected works and compendiums listing on dusty shelves. Rows and rows and rows of volumes in the stacks, each one a little world unto itself, a peek into the mind of some like-minded book person.

Because everyone here is a book person. Right? or they wouldn't be here.

(So NOT like today's libraries. I'm digressing, but... They built a zillion dollar library up the road across from the new middle school. And this is in a neighborhood of well-heeled folks, my friends. People who don't have to send their kids wandering over there after school for a little free babysitting. Try to work on your novel there - just try - while hundreds of texting, chattering kids carom through the place sticking gum under the tables and making out and eating Dip'n'Stix and basically anything but reading.

And I'm a person who actually adores teenagers!)

Wait wait, back to the subject. The reading rooms of yore are, sadly, mostly of yore. They're an anachronism, ill-wired for digital mod cons, their soaring ceilings bringing unsupportably high heat bills, their mullioned windows and carved balustrades and intimate galleries merely souvenirs from another, quainter time. Any coffee shop with free wifi is, to many, a more hospitable environment, one in which one's pinging iPhone and headphones are welcome and stray intelligentsia are not, so much.

And of course a preponderance of research can be done online. Not all, or so I hear, though you couldn't prove it by my oeuvre. A guideline I've adopted, somewhat defensively, for recent books might be summarized as: "If you can't google it, readers won't really care."

(I might point out that the book before the one that sold - book number eight, for anyone who is counting - marked a yeoman's - yeowoman's? - effort on my part to get the facts straight. Actual research, of the phone-calling, appointment making, site-visiting sort was done, along with the usual interweb claptrap. Verdict: no takers.)

Some of my friends adore research. (I'm sure you'll hear from them shortly, right here at PF.) Some of my family members have built entire careers around it. I remain uncharmed and resistant.

Recently, I made a happy discovery - by a mere shift of genre, one can land oneself in a place where research is not only not required but might actually get in the way. It's called worldbuilding, and it's the domain of those who write scifi and historical and horror and a variety of other things where the only fact-checking to be done is in one's own imagination.

8 comments:

Mike Wiecek said...

Your SF-writing readers may object to that last sentence :-) Hard SF in particular tends to be solidly grounded in real fact (for an example of how overboard a writer can go, see Robert Silverberg's recent columns on worldbuilding in ASIMOV'S.) Just as a thriller writer will never get the weapon details wrong, a decent SF author will never get, say, the planetary science wrong.

That said, you really only have to CONVINCE the readers that you know what you're talking about, and research is often not necessary to that end ...

Sophie Littlefield said...

Yeah, you're right, I always seem to piss off sci-fi readers without meaning to! In LA this summer I had a guy explain to me very clearly why that was so...and I suggested we exchange reading lists so we could learn more about each other's genre. He wasn't very interested, sadly. But I do understand the point and I was mistaken - sci fi is extra hard because you have to get everything right AND you then have to create an entire new world to boot!

Dave Fitzgerald said...

Even though I DO love research - for me it's half the fun; I totally feel your pain about libraries. Makes me sad...
xoxo
-D

Rachael Herron said...

Ha! Always the SF...
Amen, though. A-men.

L.G.C. Smith said...

It's interesting how you hate research while I love it, and yet we have some of the same limitations. If I have to talk to a live stranger about something...gag. Hate that. I don't even like to e-mail people I don't know. I would make the worst reporter ever. If what I need to know isn't in print, preferably accessible through the internet, I may fret about it, but I won't pursue it. However, I will relentlessly scour written resources and the net. That I love.

Before the Internet (oh, I am SO old), I used to go into the stacks in the Doe Library at Cal and get lost for hours. Do they still have those? I can't imagine. They were horrible rickety metal shelves that went for nine levels with industrial glass floors separating them. You could kind of see through in places. But the only thing that could dislodge me when I was in book research mode was my fear of earthquakes. Those stacks would have been a bad place to be in a 7.0 on the Hayward Fault. No wonder writers love Google so much.

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

I don't call it "research," as that does sound dusty and dull. I think of it as immersive investigation. I do grab at random sources (because my first two projects a gay western script set in 1870s and then a Mongolian story set in 12th Century had precious little available to read. So it was a contest between me and the forces of...obscurity?), follow tangents, get distracted by brght and shiny information that has nothing to do with my story...So far I haven't actually used it as a delaying tactic, but you never know :)

I read tons of stuff for every bit of info that makes it into the book or script--and worried I was being a lightweight. I love rolling around in fun new information like a kid on a pile of Tiggers.

I even took a whole *course* to get info on casino surveillance. It was fun. You wouldn't believe what people do even when they know the videotape is rolling.

That said, I don't see anything wrong with writing about what you already know (have already researched by living through it), and saving yourself some time.

Whenever your post used the the word "research," it sounded like "homework," "cod-liver oil" and "mandatory exercise" all rolled into one. But you are a very curious person, always investigating things, able to remember facts and sources quite well (or, even more rare, willing to note when you don't). So I think you do it, in your own way, and just don't call it research :)

P.S. There's tons of info coming out of Mongolia, and somewhat more info on gay men in the old west, so don't feel sorry for me!

Juliet Blackwell said...

World-building...gotta love it! Lynn, I know what you mean about getting lost in the stacks--I used to love to do that! But to my chagrin, it's been ages since I've done so. Now, like so many of us, I let my fingers do the work right here on the keyboard.

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