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Yesterday, I talked about the rabbit holes of research. Today, I want to discuss what it means to research when you write genre fiction.
I write mostly urban fantasy. It’s highly imaginative and almost entirely speculative. My characters are mine, not based on anyone, anywhere, from any time period. The rules of my world are also mine. I have developed entirely new, never-seen-before, magic systems, alternate realities, creatures, beasts, and beings.
So, Shanan, that means you don’t have to research, doesn’t it?
Absolutely not. In fact, research is critical. It just takes on a different face than if, say, I was writing historical fiction.
Where does one research something that hasn’t been invented yet? In my experience, the information needed to write solid genre fiction lies in three key locations: myth, masters and mind.
As humans, we have created stories from the first moment we realized we could etch buffalo on walls with ink made from crushed berries. Ancient civilizations recorded both their deeds and their myths, much as we do today. One only has to start down the path of mythology to become completely consumed by its enormity.
However, the magic is in the similarities. Zeus, Jupiter, Perun, Ukko and Thor all share similar aspects of deity, even though they are from different regions and eras. Major religious constructs hold strikingly similar truths at their core. Magical beings of mythology typically follow set patterns or have specific limitations — much like the physical world, where we are bound by physics.
In the creation of a modern myth, one only needs to look at the framework presented by tens of thousands of years of stories set down by our ancestors. Devising a system that falls within specific parameters keeps the modern myth from going askew, and makes it read authentically and believably.
How many times have genre writers been told “Read in your genre!” Probably roughly the same number of times they’re told “Avoid your genre!”
Writers are nothing if not entirely contradictory with their advice.
I read in my genre. Jim Butcher, Kevin Hearn, Richard Bach, and Neil Gaiman are some of my favorites. For pure fantasy, I love Piers Anthony, Terry Pratchett, Guy Gavriel Kay, Glenn Cook, and many others. I also read in the thriller/action genre, because my books tend to be action-packed and suspenseful. John Grisham, David Morrell, and Dan Brown stand out in my mind as wonderful examples of “how to keep your reader sweating.”
When I read in my genre(s), I look for what works, what doesn’t, what was researched, and what is wholly the domain of the author. I pick apart the characters to learn their connections with humanity, and to discover their separation from the “normal” world. I find the immersion points into the author’s invented reality, and I study them closely, determining why they work.
I study my in-genre authors with much the same eye that I use to learn new facets of technology. Software engineering can be described as a finite set of ideas extrapolated out to an infinite number of possibilities. I view my genre – urban fantasy – in much the same light. By studying the rules, I’ll know how and where to bend them, mold them, and fashion them into my own, unique configuration. My result is a world that is completely my own, inspired by – but never stolen from – my master mentors. They are my springboard, but the pool into which I dive is flooded with my own inspirational waters.
There is a rich and powerful creative database wrapped up in the gray matter between my ears. It’s a wealth of information — some of which is even useful.
When it comes to character research, I dig into my own brain. Usually out loud.
Yes, what I’m saying here is: I talk to my characters.
Sometimes my character interviews are a pen-and-paper process. While I admit that sticking to silent conversation and writing out answers keeps the sideways glances from others to a minimum, sometimes I find it constricting.
I find that the best place to explore the mind of my characters – which some insist is my own mind – I’m still on the fence – is while doing mundane tasks. My commute to work is often spent having a conversation with my characters. Or spent answering their questions. Or asking them questions. Or placating them and telling them I promise I’ll get to their part of the story soon! No really, I will! I’ve just been busy, dammit. I know I left you dangling from a cliff, tied up in enchanted rope, with a demon threatening to torture you for information… but you’re just going to have to be patient.
Anyway… the point is… asking questions of your own mind and writing down whatever pops up is sometimes the best research of all.
Interpreting your own inspiration is critical to your writing success. Your story is, ultimately, inside of you, watching for the open door to come rushing out. But you have to do the work to build that path. You have to fiddle with the locks, walk down the dusty halls of your memories, play with your inner demons, and run through your own fields of joy. Sometimes you have to coax your characters out of a corner and give them the permission they need to expose their truest selves.
And then you sit down with your myth, inspired by your masters, and partnered with your mind. You put it all together, and you write.