Thursday, February 11, 2010

How much research? How little time?

I don’t have much scintillating information to add to what my colleagues have already said on the topic of research. (And I apologize for the lateness of this post. Between doctor appointment and family night at son’s school, I was busy from 1pm till 8:30.) I do think picture books provide a wide range of topics to research. When I was writing a story about a kitchen band, I looked up a couple different sites that explained what kinds of instruments might be made from various kitchen items, and I also listened to a few children’s songs about playing in the kitchen so I could better convey what sounds those instruments would make. When writing a Halloween story, I actually looked up lists of spooky names. When writing a story about a girl who moved and changed schools, it helped to be familiar with the way many schools are laid out today and to visit playgrounds to see what modern equipment looks like instead of relying on my memory of what schools and playgrounds looked like back in the day when I attended elementary! I think it really helps to spend some time around children to get a good feel for the way they talk and the words they use. Even if your characters in a picture book are animals, you want the way they speak to be relatable to your audience. If you’re writing adolescent characters, you definitely want their dialogue and thoughts to be realistic.

If I’m writing about vampires, research might depend on for which age level I am writing. If it’s a beginning reader book, I might research how authors for young audiences have handled the issue of the vampires’ “diets.” If it’s a YA novel, I research some of the myths about vampires. Anytime you have a supernatural element, there are certain myths or rules that are commonly accepted, that the reader expects. If the author changes one of these (vampires can be out in the sunlight, vampires have heartbeats, etc.), there has to be a definite purpose and plausible explanation. If a vampire character has lived longer than a normal person’s lifetime, that’s a wonderful opportunity to choose which places and historical periods he or she has experienced and then research those times and places. For YA novels especially, it may be helpful to research how other writers have presented issues of violence, language, and physical intimacy.

Setting has to be one of the most fun things to research. If part of my story is taking place in Ireland or a character’s family has a strong Irish background, I research Irish surnames and first names, perhaps in which counties of Ireland they are prevalent, Celtic traditions and festivals. Of course I think the best research would be to actually travel there! I think traveling, even locally, is a fun way for writers to do research and feel connected to the world, not always holed up typing away. It can boost creativity. One woman I know was writing some animal characters but wanted their behaviors to be realistic, so she made an appointment to talk to staff at a local zoo where she could observe these animals. Brilliant!

As my fellow bloggers (Peabodies!) have mentioned, time must be spent researching the subject of writing itself. And as far as writing memoir-type stuff, it sounds silly, but you really do have to research yourself. Researching yourself is not a bad idea anyway, as I learned from Carmela Martino, in doing writing exercises to get ideas flowing. These two topics of research could easily evolve into their own blog entries at a later date!


  1. Trager, our research techniques are eerily similar. I think you just wrote my post.

  2. HAha! Sorry for you then because I am pretty much all over the place! It is ridiculous the number of sites I "bookmark" or the passages I copy and paste into documents in my "writerly stuff" folder! Or I even get to parts of my story where I will simply say "insert research here"!

  3. You are far and away a more thorough researcher than I. I must learn from this post. Thank you.

  4. So funny, I do the same thing. I may have ADD when it comes to writing. What's even worse is when I haven't done research for my setting yet, I write (say something about setting here). Yeah, like that's not one of the most important things to do before you start writing. Research your setting.

    And I bet my bookmarks are larger and way more disorganized than yours. Ha!