Thursday, April 28, 2011

My mad research skillz

So I opened the box, and now I have to close it.  The box in question, of course, is a research How-To; yesterday I talked about how important research is, but I ran out of lunch hour before I ran out of talk.  Not an unusual problem for me, of course, but it's OK...lunchtime happens every day.

So...a research How-To.  It's a task I've become rather used to through my various jobs and educational programs.  As a teacher, I was always researching part because I was curious about new stuff in the IT industry as well as questions of why it got where it was the way it did, but also because my students pretty much demanded it.  Granted, none of them ever said "You need to research," but they did ask lots of great questions, many of which stumped me at the time, and the only way to maintain credibility is to come back with answers.  Later, then, in the business and in my Ph.D. program, I had to research as a matter of course in order to generate the thousands of pages of reports that I haven't read or seen since.

Research as a fantasy author still draws on the basic techniques of academic research, but it's fundamentally different.  For one thing, nobody really cares if I'm "right," only if I present a believable argument that keeps their suspension of disbelief going.  While there's still a significant burden of factual reliability inherent in that, it's not like I'll have a Ph.D. expert in the field skeptically reviewing every fact and opinion.  In other words, for the first time in my researching life, "wiki" is no longer a four-letter word.  Well, OK, it's got four letters.  But it's not a dirty word any longer.

Used to be.  In fact, I've seen teachers who threaten to fail any paper that cites a wiki as a source.  The reason is that it's a popularly-edited site.  I, for example, could go into the page on Saturn and write a blurb about them finding a new moon for Saturn at CERN, and that blurb would stay there till somebody challenges it...which hopefully wouldn't take long.  Sure, I could...but why would I, you ask?  Well, most of us wouldn't, but there's enough possibility of it happening to render anything coming from there as a target for skepticism.  Instead of wiki, then, an academic researcher is supposed to use credible sources, such as primary sources (them what saw it) and peer-reviewed sources...if ten people in politics say something's a good idea, it's probably a dumb idea, but if ten people in any academic field say something's a good idea, then by definition it's a good idea. is, though, a great resource for researching for my book.  For example, when I tried to figure out what the primal emotions in a list I could use...I opened the site up and typed in "list of emotions".  The list I found on the page that appeared magically before my eyes was from a work a decade or so ago...or at least, I think it was.  I didn't follow the citation and check the reference, because...well, who cares?  All I wanted was a list I could use.  The list I got could've been a crackpot's listing of another crackpot's list, but it sounded right to me, so I used it.

I've had to research other things as well.  For example, there was a scene at Stanford University.  Now, I've never actually been to Stanford University, so I started from a bit of a deficit there.  True, I could've picked any other school on the west coast, but it would've been the same deficit, and Stanford, by reputation, has the best physicists.  That, and I wanted Matt to have had experience plot spoilers, though.  In any event, the scene at Stanford took me a few solid hours to research enough to write. 

My computer, by the way, hates me when I'm researching.  I typically open Internet Explorer and start going, leaving each screen open as I continue moving toward other information, and I open as many tabs in IE as it will allow (yes, there is a limit!) and then launch another copy of IE.  With Stanford, I think I had two windows of IE maxed out and a third started with a few tabs open. I also only close a window or a tab once I realize it's useless to the matter at hand...which does happen to some, but for most only occurs after I'm done writing the scene. 

The process is straightforward and fairly standard.  First, I open Google and launch a search for whatever keywords I think will get me closest.  Since the Stanford scene was set in the physics area, my keywords to start were "physics Stanford University."  Google opens a bunch of hits...I have Google set to display the maximum number of results per page, which is 100, since it's much easier to scan the top 100 than it is to dink around with 10 at a time.  There's another setting in Google that requires each link to open in a separate window, but I prefer to use tabs, so instead I right-click anything I want to see and select the "Open in Separate Tab" option.  I'll usually open 8 or 10 different tabs...typically, many of the top 100 are repeats, so 8 to 10 is the total relevant options. Once I've read each one, some of them generate another several tabs each, with links coming from links.  Anything that's potentially useful is opened. 

Stanford was a special case, in that the university maintains its own pretty sophisticated web site.  You can get a lot there, which in my case meant looking at the map (they have an interactive map, so you can search by room number or building name, which was nice) and perusing the list of faculty and seeing where on the map their offices were.  Not trying to be creepy, but there's no point saying that the noble heroes wander down a hall of first-floor offices if all the offices are on the third floor.  There were some guesses I had to make, but again--writing fantasy isn't an exact science.  I had to be reasonably close, but not perfect. A class schedule was also mildly useful, as it said which rooms classes were held in, and lab classes are usually held...well, in labs. 

I was able to find reference to the vibration-resistant labs two stories beneath ground level in an article I found on somebody (can't recall who) who did some famous research in those labs, and the journalist who covered it was kind enough to describe them for me.  I had actually been hoping to put the physicists to be rescued in a metal shop, since I know that research physics departments always have a well-appointed shop to build all their 30kV capacitor charging circuits and other doomawhatzits, but I couldn't find anything pinpointing where that was in the Varian building.  Ah, well...the underground labs made a good Plan B for the scene location.  I was also kinda thinking how nice it would be to have something happening in SLAC, but there's really not much information out there readily accessible in the public domain on that little secret spot of Stanford, and I'm not interested in hacking for it, and I'm also not interested in putting the book writing on hold for weeks as I conduct extensive research.  Basically, when I'm researching fantasy fiction, I'm a low-hanging-fruit kinda guy. 

The San Francisco main public library was another interesting bit.  You can get a listing of the least, the important of their site.  This is where my own background comes in, because I have spent enough time chatting with the librarians who have worked for and with me to have an idea how many people would be working there based on the structure of the primary staff.  I'm probably off by a few, but again, it ain't rocket science.  As for imagery, Google's image search helped me a lot.  When you do a Google search, you can select Image from the text links at the top of the screen to just pull up a page of images, and there were enough pictures of the library out there that I was able to successfully build a description into the story. 

Had some trouble with flowers early on.  There's a scene where the family gets to a country cottage, and I decided it oughtta have some ever-present flowers to decorate the English-cottage style landscaping.  So, in the initial draft, I wrote about it having lots of perennials such as pansies (Heide's favorite) and columbine (my favorite).  Second time through, I got this nagging little doubt.  Once again, I turned to Wikipedia, and bam!  Columbine is a perennial, but pansies aren't.  Oops.  A little verbiage change, and I was OK, but I'm glad I checked.  Based on what I've read by other authors, every person who read the book and knew anything about flowers would've written me an e-mail yelling at me for calling a pansy a perennial when, in fact, it's a biennial.

Hope this helps somebody.  As I said, I've done a lot of opening links from links, usually in a separate tab, and spinning through them to see what I can learn.  I close the tab immediately if there's nothing useful on it, but most tabs I leave open as I then write the section I was researching...there's nothing like knowing you've seen something, but having no idea where, and not being able to find it again.

Happy researching!  

1 comment:

  1. My research skilz are similar... open tabs until the browser crashes... read a paragraph here n there, n keep the tab open until I can get back to finish reading the article...

    After all that reading, I allude to the article, provide the link that nobody clicks... I've started to work at describing the reading better... there's always room for improvement, but nothing improves until I make a the concerted effort.