Walking aimlessly along the road, your eyes roam across the gravel, instinctively searching for an anomaly. Ah! There! A stone, about the size of a small nectarine, green with grey and yellow highlights. You pick it up, study its contrasting veins, and slip it into your pocket with satisfaction. You love stones!
Excited, you eagerly scour the ground at your feet for more, and the longer you look, the more you find: a purple pebble, a silver rock, a few rose quartz fragments, a shiny black one, and one shaped like a wine bottle. Before you know it, your pockets are crammed full and your pants are slowly sliding over your hips, too heavy to continue their job properly. You have no more room, so you fill your boots, your hat, and make a hammock out of the front of your sweater, spilling a stone every time you bend over to retrieve another one. Simply, you can carry no more, and you’re losing the ones you’ve already tucked into your rubbers and Toronto Maple Leafs cap.
I look at researching for writing in this light. There is no doubt that research is a priority during the brainstorm-to-final-draft process, especially in regards to historical fiction or fiction that has elements similar to our own past. I’ve heard of authors spending years on their research before they actually put pen to paper. Years. It’s nice to have a supply of background knowledge or informational tidbits on hand to insert, as well as making yourself sound knowledgable and dedicated to your topic. You don’t want to write a book about Shakespeare’s personal life and talk about him in the summer of 1617 — because he was dead by that time. You don’t want to write about a falconer who keeps her raptors in cages — because she would keep them in buildings called “mews,” which are akin to a large dog kennel.
But years? If I researched for years on every aspect of my story, I’d eventually have no story left. It would slip away and one day I would look up from my research and wonder why I was still in the library, full of facts about outhouses and the flammable qualities of alcohol, but with nothing to apply it to. I suppose your researching methods would differ depending on if you were writing fiction about a historical figure or event (Charlie Chaplin, the Battle of Bosworth), but where your tale takes place in a world similar to earth, you’re likely to take a different approach.
Take me, for example. Walking along the road (or storyline), I’ll occasionally look down at the ground and look for a stone (fact) that suits my needs. Then I’ll look back up and continue on until I need another stone. This way my pockets aren’t dragging behind me and I’m learning something new.
A lot of the time information I insert into my writing is accidentally
discovered (like I tripped in a pothole and did a faceplant, eating gravel). Just the other day, a Facebook page mentioned something called flap-dragon. Curious about anything with the word dragon in it, I searched it up and ta-da! Flap-dragon, also known as snapdragon, is a game dating from the 16th century and primarily played during the winter: the game entailed burning brandy in a bowl with raisins. Players then had to snatch the hot raisins from the bowl and eat them without being burnt. Shakespeare mentioned the game in 1594’s Love’s Labour’s Lost: “…thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s a pretty interesting concept. It’s post-medieval/early modern and would fit wonderfully in most fantasy worlds, especially among young men or at a family gathering at Winter Solstice.
So I pocket that lovely tidbit and store it away for a later reference.
Talking to people is just as valuable as spending hours sifting through dry, complexly worded texts. My uncle described to me how to skin and prepare a porcupine and how it sits in your stomach (heavy; you could never eat an entire porcupine on your own). Pocket that. You never know when your character might kill a porcupine.
I might be writing, or thinking about writing (which is just as productive, you know), and suddenly something will raise its attention to me, a question that needs to be remedied via Google. Just the other day I was struck with the notion that an outhouse will not last forever. Obviously I knew they weren’t indestructible, but I had no idea how long one outhouse would last. I asked around and visited the suspiciously helpful Wikipedia, and it turns out that after “many years” the solid wastes will form a pile and fill the pit; a new pit is dug close by and the dirt from the new pit is used to cover the old one. Helpful, isn’t it? Basically, my characters won’t have to re-dig an outhouse pit within the period of the novel.
Then there are the things I go looking for. One of my main characters is a falconer — that is, she uses birds of prey to hunt. I did my entire first draft without much more than a quick Google search for falcon breeds; the second time around I hit the local library and falconry association websites. It was only until I cracked open the books that I realized how complicated the sport is! Female raptors are favoured, because they’re approx. a 1/3 of the size larger than a male, and only the peregrine falcon performs the near-200 mph stoop (dive) to kill its prey. Goshawks are more ideal for hunting in the woods because their shorter tails provide easier, sharper, and quicker flying around tree trunks. Falcons and hawks are like horses in that they might have an off day, act ornery, and do nothing despite treats and urging from the owner. Falcon droppings are called “mute.”
And those are only coming from the top of my head. I have one borrowed book, a collection of stories from falconers, and a book on strange methods of hunting, in which falconry takes up a chapter. I’ve watched videos on YouTube of falcons flying, hunting, and resting, and plan on emailing a falconer later on in the year when things are a little less hectic. If you’re a falconer, please leave a comment below and correct any mistakes! 🙂
But because I’m not collecting information at an alarming rate doesn’t mean I have to wait for more facts to continue with my writing. I have some basic knowledge of my main character’s trade, and with it I can write about her, her life, and her routine without being an expert in falconry. Later, when I’ve researched more (in a calm, patient, relaxed manner) I can go back and add details or fix my mistakes.
I would rather spend more time editing than researching and letting my story slip away from me. I’ll answer any questions I might come across — how to make paint? — and pick up any facts that I think can be incorporated, but I’d rather have a little load and more time to write than a heavy load and no time to write.
Happy writing/researching! Why not go play a game of flapdragon with the boys this weekend?