Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Joy of Research

Back when I was in high school, and later in college, the word "research" was a dirty one for me, a term that conjured dark and scary visions of musty piles of books surrounding a hapless redheaded stepchild (me) on all sides, closing in with their teeth bared.  Yeah, I know, books don't have teeth, but I have always had an active imagination.  So sue me.  Later, in my Ph.D. program, research was far quicker and easier due to the availability of large and diverse databases, most of which allowed me to pull up all the articles on, say, "student outcomes assessment," written in the last five years in less time than it took me to write this sentence.  Reading them was another story entirely, of course, but at least the information was readily available.  That said, I still hated the word as well as the activity it represents. 

Research, in an academic setting, sucks.  At least, it sucks, in my opinion.  That's not what you'd expect a Ph.D. candidate to say, I know, but it's how I feel.  Research in terms of "hey, let's learn something" is great and exciting and fun, but all too often academic research is more for "hey, I already know this but need to find somebody else who said it before I can say it" or "hey, I don't know this, and never really cared to, but I have a paper due on it" or, worse, at the dissertation level: "hey, I don't know this, and neither does anybody else...mainly because it's pretty boring and nobody will care even after I publish it." 

One might think at first that a fantasy author doesn't need to research.  After all, it's my world.  If I say the trees are all pink, then the trees are all pink.  Why are they pink?  Well, it's because this world's version of chloroform, or whatever you call the green stuff, is pink.  Why?  Because it is.  And when a reader informs me that the green stuff is actually called chlorophyll, I can get all author-huffy and walk away complaining of anal-retentive idiots. 

That's not how it works, though.  A quick Google search will prove it...see?  I did research.  Bruce Coville, author of over 100 books, says:
  • The best fantasy writers do the best research.
  • You better know your lore, because you’d better bet your reader knows it.
  • You can break the rules (lore, etc.) but do it with intent. You have to know it first, too.
  • Research can often help you find the solution to a story problem.
  • You have an obligation to do your research.
Other sites join in the wisdom, discussing the importance of research in the task of world building and such.  It's OK, it seems, to have things on your world defying laws of nature commonly accepted here on Earth, but when you do so, you'd better a) know why it's defied, and b) consistently apply it. Otherwise the reader loses engagement, and then interest, and the crime is committed whereby your book is put down, unread. 

In my efforts currently, it's even more important to do research, because I'm trying to create a quasi-realistic world based on our own.  Yes, I remember a lot from my physics and psychology and engineering classes, which helps, but I have to look up things all the time anyway.  An example is this morning's efforts to take on a god's voice as he explains emotional magic to our noble heroine.  When he does so, it's only natural that she'll ask questions, mostly about the distinction between primary and secondary emotions, because that distinction forms an important boundary for the magical powers she will be able to wield.  I vaguely recall there being a difference from some psychology class I took somewhere, or maybe it was a psych class I observed as Dean, but regardless I needed to really know it if I was going to speak, as a god, authoritatively. So...research.  And I enjoyed it.

I'm even having a bit of fun in the writing...I think this will be the first fantasy novel ever to mention Lagrangian mechanics, mostly because it brings me joy to bring them up in a fantasy book, but also because it plays into the system.  To do so effectively, though, I had to not only be able to simplify the topic so that the average fantasy reader could understand it, but I also had to solidly grasp, myself, how it fits into the magical structure I've built.  Otherwise, the reader would be greeted by a scene where two people just up and started talking about advanced physics.  Does that happen often in your circle of existence?  Doesn't in mine.  That said, though, in order to advance the story well I had to go back and research classical mechanics my grad school experience, we quit talking about Lagrangian mechanics, really, and just started using energy equations, so it's been a couple of decades since I studied them.  But once again, I found the research fun, because it was focused on something I really wanted to understand and then use. 

Lots of research, then, is involved in writing a good fantasy novel...and just as much in writing what I hope will be a great fantasy novel.  The "how" part of that I'll likely cover in a future blog...I have plenty of bits left in my blog for today, but my lunchtime is over.  It's been an interesting journey, though, refining my research efforts to meet the demands of fiction writing. 

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