One of the jobs I find I both love and hate is research. In a short story (or in the past in the one novel I drafted) my tendency was to write first and do the research later. That way I get the story down and then look up what I need to improve either accuracy or detail.
One reason for this was a desire to get the ideas down on the screen before I forgot them, a second was to avoid putting too much exposition in the story and the third was simply a lack of info outside of physical books at the time I started part time writing.
A few things have changed now I am writing full time. One is using Scrivener as a tool rather than Word. Scrivener allows you to see notes, research, character descriptions, chapter or scene summaries etc at the same time as writing, and also means – for me at least – that I can have several outlines on the go at once and add thoughts and bits of information as I come across them to be written up later when I get to that project proper.
As an example, I have ideas for a short story and two novels set in Norwich – a city I lived and worked in for 25 years and love deeply. Although the stories are different – one is a dark fantasy short story, one a historical detective novel, and one a conspiracy novel – they share a common physical location and are rooted in the history of the city as well as my own life there. That means when researching one of these I will often come across facts that would be useful to one of the other two. I can park them in the appropriate place in the Scrivener file for later.
The second thing is the internet. This now has a lot more stuff on it, and of a lot better quality, than there was eight or nine years ago. Wikipedia was only created in 2001 (it says on Wikipedia). There are also a lot more original research documents up there – and more digitised historic documents. Public sector websites in particular have grown in quality and quantity. When I first started the main sources were printed books. I still use these but there are a lot more of those around as well thanks to Amazon and print on demand reprints of out of print material.
The internet is a mixed benefit. On the one hand you can generally find something useful. On the other it rarely gives you exactly the answer you want, and it is a very easy way to waste time. It is also really useful for cutting and pasting – how much time did we all waste rewriting stuff on index cards?
Its’ surprising main benefit for me is that it often throws up wonderful synchronicities. The story I am writing at the moment is set in Norwich and features the return of ghosts who possess two of the main characters as they are engaged in a battle to give the city independence as a unitary authority with an elected mayor. The ghosts are summoned after the hero – a retired council PR person who now works part time in a second hand musical instrument shop – is given a horn which turns out to be the one used by Roland. Playing this summons the ghosts.
Doing the research on the internet threw up two useful ideas which are now integrated in the story – the legend of King Gurgunt who is supposed to have founded Norwich Castle and who I had never heard of despite writing guidebooks to the city, and the fact that the Lollards Pit pub is on the site where protestant martyrs were burned and is supposed to be the most haunted in the City. The pub is now the place where the lead character’s band play and start the ghost summoning and Gurgunt will make an appearance at the end in the climactic benefit gig in the Castle to support the independent Norwich lobby.
I was looking for other things when I came across these, but they now will (hopefully) make the story a lot stronger. I may have come across the same thing in a book, but I think it is les likely.
Discovering things abut how I can use the internet for this story – and researching a real life person called Norman Peake of the Svientific Anglian Bookshop who will feature – then gave me an idea for the Conspiracy Theory novel. What if Computer Scientists at the UEA were using Norman to try and develop features of the Semantic Web? They use a combination of the books in his shop about Norwich and its history, geography and socio economic background together with his own knowledge of the City (which was extensive) to create a hypertext document which could be machine searched to find links which would not be possible otherwise? The story is set around the burning of Norwich Library and its rebuilding under what was originally called the Technopolis Project – later the Forum – which I was involved in together with the Computer Department at UEA and many others so it is a project that could have happened using the EU funding we were accessing at the time. Part of the Technopolis concept was a high tech visitor attraction about the City’s history so it would have been a good fit. The project can then help uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the thriller.
See – synchronicity at work.