Archive for the 'Research' Category


Just ask

I recently ran into a bit of an issue while working on the third book in my Demon series. I’d sketched out a rough outline months ago, with the idea that the central mystery would have something to do with the music industry, since music is as integral a part of Louisiana culture as food is.  I didn’t plan on going into too much detail–since I have pretty much no knowledge of music/recording contracts, etc. –so I figured that I’d do some hand-wavium over most of that stuff, and just focus on the character of the singer instead of all of the inner workings of the industry. But, I did have someone with a lot of ties to the Louisiana music scene lined up to answer basic research questions for me, so that I didn’t come off sounding like a complete doofus.

I started writing, and as I got further into the story I came up with a laundry list of more research questions that I needed answered, and I realized that “hand-wavium” wasn’t going to cut it, especially since I take a lot of pride in the accuracy of all of the forensic and police procedural details in my books. Unfortunately, by that time my “music man” had apparently dropped off the face of the earth, and I had no one on tap to answer questions.

I briefly debated scrapping the entire music industry concept (which would have basically involved scrapping just about everything I’d written so far.) But before I did that, I did what any modern writer should do: I put out a call on twitter for help. To my surprise, within about ten minutes I had two people offer to give me what help I needed–and I should note that both of these people had industry credentials that put my first research contact to shame! By the end of the week I had my questions answered in more depth than I could have ever hoped for. (Let’s just say that I now know enough about the music industry to make me NEVER want to try to be a professional singer/musician!!! LOL Holy crap, if you think breaking into publishing is brutal… Yikes!)

Now here’s the irony: I still ended up scrapping several chapters that Id already written. But this time it was because I now had a FRICKIN CLUE, and had a much stronger story in mind. Go figure, huh?

The thing is, most experts/artists/professionals are extremely eager to help out when it comes to research. It drives me crazy when I see forensics or police procedures depicted inaccurately,  just as it drives medical professionals crazy when hospital/surgical procedures are mangled in prose or on TV, and just as it drives [insert professional here] crazy when [profession] is inacurrately depicted… You get the idea. Trust me,  experts & professionals WANT to see things depcited accurately. If you have a research question, don’t be afraid to go ask someone who knows the answer. Ask nicely, explain what your project is, respect their time constraints, and give proper acknowledgment, and you’ll be quite pleased with the result.

(And, of course, the other lesson to be learned here is that social networking can be a pretty powerful tool! Thanks, twitter!)


The Research Readers Don’t See

I often get asked — generally by writers from other literary traditions, like creative nonfiction or mystery or thrillers — whether I do research, as a fantasy writer, or whether I just make it all up.

This question flummoxes me, and it also tells me just how (poorly) these people regard fantasy. Or maybe it’s not that they have a poor regard for it; maybe it’s that they have no regard for it, and they’re speaking out of ignorance. Maybe they genuinely don’t understand what goes into writing a typical fantasy novel. So at the risk of stating the obvious for the fantasy writers/readers in our audience, let me answer that question here.

Of course I do research. I do a metric ton of it.
Continue reading ‘The Research Readers Don’t See’



I’ve just gotten back from Launch Pad, a week-long astronomy workshop sponsored by NASA. The idea is that, since the American public seems to pay little attention to actual scientists (resulting in many, many misconceptions and outright falsehoods gaining traction), they’ll work through people who might have more of an impact — i.e., people who use science to entertain, like science fiction writers, prominent science bloggers, science comedians, and the like. The workshop helps those people get the basics right.

“But wait!” I hear you saying. (C’mon, play along.) “Aren’t you a fantasy writer? You don’t use science!”

Au contraire, mon strange doubtful random person. (I’m practicing my French for Anticipation.) First off, I’m not purely a fantasy writer. Like most writers, I do a little bit of everything. I’ve had science fiction stories published in a number of places, and I’ve even gotten an Honorable Mention in the latest Year’s Best Science Fiction. My first few novels, including The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, are fantasy — but the next project on my slate is a YA cyberpunk novel. I’m a writer who likes fantasy, not just a fantasy writer; the difference is mostly academic, but important.

But beyond that, who the heck says fantasy writers don’t use science? Some of my favorite authors — C. S. Friedman, in her Coldfire Trilogy; Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels — set their fantasy tales on planets settled by colonists from Earth. And while the distinction between magic and psi-power is a matter of considerable debate, there’s no doubt that these books are equally loved by readers of both genres. Frankly, looking at these writers’ careers, it seems clear that science fiction/fantasy blends can be very successful if handled correctly. So why wouldn’t I try? McCaffrey’s work accurately (for the time) explored genetic engineering and the sociological impact of planetary colonization in a time of crisis. I think that made her readers more willing to accept the frankly non-scientific dragons who couldn’t possibly fly in anything resembling Earth gravity. Friedman tackled evolution, introducing a unique ecosystem that adapts itself to intrusions (read: colonists from Earth) in non-Darwinian ways (read: magic). Understanding Darwinian evolution is crucial for the reader because in Friedman’s world, the most powerful magic users are those who manage to impose Earth rules on this fundamentally alien system.

All of these very fantastic novels are rooted in real, hard science, without which I believe they simply wouldn’t work as well. Nobody wants to read fantasy these days — if they ever did — in which Wizard X simply waves his hands around and causes Magical Effect Y. Readers want structure, plausible chains of cause and effect, conservation of energy and mass, consequences. Mercedes Lackey and other authors have been paraphrased as saying that any sufficiently complex magic/knowledge is indistinguishable from technology, and this goes for science too. One of the most effective recent fantasy novels I’ve read is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, in which the magic system is modeled on the principles of metallurgy and metals’ atomic structure. You don’t have to know inorganic chemistry to follow the book, but it makes for a more interesting experience if you do.

So I’m looking forward to incorporating astronomy into my fantasy in the future. I’ve dabbled in it a little already; one of the characters in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms can turn himself into a black hole at will. I had to research one scene, in which he transforms in order to destroy an oncoming army, by figuring out exactly what would happen if a 3-solar-mass black hole hit a planet. Unfortunately I didn’t discover this guy until after the book was done, so I think I got a few details wrong. Oh, well.

Next time, though, I’m totally going to get it right. Because nothing says fantasy like spaghettified unicorns!


Wait, I have to do what?

So I’m editing editing editing sleep eat dayjob editing crying editing right now, and sadly found myself without time to write the long post about villians I had slated for this week. (But strangely not without time to read Mark of the Demon, nom nom nom!!)

ANYWAY, instead, I thought I’d take the opportunity/copout to ask a question I’ve been quietly fretting over for some time and, as several of our Magic District denizens have had first hand experience with this of late, now seems to be a good time to ask. Namely, how does one go about marketing ones book?

I know Diana has a great ad up on Smart Bitches, and internet ads on sites full of people who would be interested in your book does seem pretty optimal, but I was wondering, what else is there? What else have my fellow authors tried, and of those, what worked the best? How do you even tell if advertising/promotionals work? What was the most fun to do?

I’ve read several articles on self promotion, but most of the advice doesn’t feel right for my book. If I had a romance, I think it would be easier. Romance reader have well known online hangouts. But my series is light action fantasy, all swordfights and magic mixed with comedy. I don’t  know where I should focus my efforts, and with a baby on the way and a day job freshly given notice, I don’t have the luxury of boucou bucks to experiment with lots of different approaches.

And so I turn to you, gentle, clever reader! If you ever saw something and thought “man, that’s an awesome way to promote a fantasy!” I’m all ears! If I try something, I’ll report back on how it works! If you read a good article, I’d love to see it, and if you tried something that you wish you hadn’t bothered with, then I’d really love to know. Even if you were just wandering around and saw something that made you want to buy a book, I want to know what and why. Nothing is too small to further my knowledge!  Thank you in advance, anything at all is greatly appreciated.


A slight variation from the usual routine

So, I was going to write an entry on gender choice in narrative fiction (i.e. why do we write girls or boys?), but then I realized something. You, you person, reading this on the internet, I don’t know who you are. Do you write books? Do you write at all? Are you a fantasy fan looking to find information on an author? Are you someone who knows one of us and gets forced to read this blog by association? (HI MOM)

So, today I’m going to take a crack at the fourth wall and ask you, dear reader, to introduce yourself. What do you want to see on this blog? Would you like to see more about the daily life of writers? The publishing industry from the inside? Agents? Literary theory and how it relates to fantasy? Writing tips? Internet drama? Lolcats? Winning lotto numbers?

Help us post to the subjects you are most interested in! Now’s your chance (well, every post is really your chance, but you get the idea), tell us what you like!


Nora’s Sunday Quickie: Favorite References

As an epic fantasy writer, I’m fascinated by the ways societies develop, rise, and fall, and the ways that people react to all these stages. So my favorite references include The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (I think we’re up to IV now), because it literally catalogs the vast array of psychological types and personality variants that make up the people of any society. Also, I like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, despite some misgivings; it’s still good research, and an interesting analysis of how some societies reach technological/resource dominance, or fall apart from stupid decision-making despite this dominance. By the same token, I’m fond of A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn — not only is it the first history text I’ve ever enjoyed reading, but it’s an interesting examination of how perspective skews reality; history truly is written (and heavily revised) by the victors.

This kind of stuff is the epitomy of epic fantasy, IMO; Tolkien’s Mordor was based on the German war machine, after all. So how better to develop fantasy ideas than to examine all the ways in which reality can be interpreted and reinterpreted, individually and on the “big picture” scale?

On a more personal level, I’m fascinated by how people resist oppression within restrictive societies. This means I read a lot of books about and autobiographies of revolutionaries, but also weirder stuff. For example, I like Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden — a nonfiction collection of women’s sexual fantasies, written at the height of the Sexual Revolution (1973). Seriously racy, and controversial even today. But it’s also an interesting examination of what repression does to the human psyche — how people naturally yearn for B when they’ve been taught their whole lives to want A and C.

I ref mythology too, and have read Hamilton’s book and the usual. I’m fond of Richard Cavendish’s Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia because it contains gorgeous color panels of artwork depicting the various pantheons and cosmologies of different cultures. But I’ve made a conscious effort to step beyond the usual Greco-Roman and Northern European mythologies that these books tend to concentrate on. It’s hard to find good scholarly material on other mythologies in English; unfortunately, time and experience have shown that Western scholars often “get it wrong” when summarizing and analyzing non-Western stuff, for various reasons. So when I can, I try to find the myths of other cultures as primary sources, though usually in translated form. Most recently I’ve read The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales, collected by Diane Wolkstein. I also seek out storytellers, even when I can’t understand them; one of my favorite travel experiences was listening to an old Italian storyteller in the common room of a quaint old medieval-looking inn, on a recent trip to Sicily. Had no clue what he was saying, but the way he said it was a work of art in itself. More recently I got to hear a storytelling competition by Navajo children “on the rez” in Chinle, AZ — and man, those kids were fierce. Hope some of them grow up to become writers.

(Why is it that I never manage to do these Quickies quickly??)


Margaret’s Sunday Quickie: Reference

Well, Tim already took the book that immediately came to mind for the question of useful nonfiction: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, though I find an older version much more useful.  The newer ones I found were all abridged — and there is nothing, nothing so frustrating as finding that the fascinating cross-reference you were caught by is one of the entries that got chucked.  The entries often serve as a jumping-off point for story ideas for me; I’ll have to go do in-depth research, but it’s good for sparking that first fragment.  I still love that it’s got several entries on famous frauds.

I’m away from home at the moment, so I can’t do what I usually do for questions like this: go and check my shelves for what I’ve forgotten.  But I do remember that the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology — both volumes — was an excellent source not just for old theories of magic, but for how people interact in this world — the paranoia of hidden knowledge, the vying for status as who was the true possessor of the Secret, and so on. 

And then there’s the Internet as a reference tool, but I’m not sure that it counts as nonfiction.


The God Tangent

I’m a Battlestar Galactica fan. I like the original recipe version — hey, what’s wrong with cheese? — but I love the reimagined version. So as you might imagine, I and friends have spent the past few days reacting to BSG’s stunning series finale. In particular we’ve been reacting to the explanation of some of the show’s greatest mysteries as the biggest deus ex machina I’ve seen since Medea.

I’m not going to say more about BSG for fear of spoiling things for those who haven’t seen it. But I’ve been noodling something in the wake of those discussions, which is whether there’s a difference between fantasydom and SFdom on the subject of religion.
Continue reading ‘The God Tangent’


Just enough fact

“It is not necessary to doubt this solution of the problem.  We have so little of this kind of romance in our history that it is best not to disturb the tradition, especially as there is just enough of solid fact to allow it.”
— Edward Griffin Porter, Rambles in Old Boston, New England (1887)

I’ve come down with a nasty head cold, possibly the result of the weather going all New England on us again (60 degrees one day, big fluffy snowflakes the next), so I’m not sure how much sense today’s entry will make.

I came across the above quote while writing a new draft — specifically, pursuing a puppies-and-donuts detour — and it seemed to sum up a lot of how I approach the second stage of research.  What I’ve been working on has had elements of “secret history” fiction to it: magic in the context of documented places and events. 

Tim Powers, when researching Declare and The Stress of Her Regard, both of which use historical figures and events as characters and catalysts, set a few rules for himself: he could not change dates or recorded events. If a certain person was reported as being in Venice on a particular date, he could not just dismiss it and have the character running around Normandy.  As a result, the novels have a kind of grounding to them that supports the rest of the story.  If the setting, the details of history, the actions characters take, all seem in keeping with what I know of, say, Romantic poets, then I’m happy to accept lamiae and djinn.  (Of course, after that the characters and the internal plausibility of the plot have to keep me going.)

So that’s the main goal I have when I’m doing historical research: just enough solid fact to allow the fantasy to stand atop it.  In a general sense, this is true for any kind of research to flesh out your world; a character making an offhand erroneous comment about Gnosticism or particle physics will knock certain readers out of the story.  But what the quote from Porter above reminds me is that readers want to be convinced; if the story has its own power, there’s no need to doubt the structure beneath.  (It also tells me that I’ll have to be careful in using Porter as a reliable source for building my own histories, but that’s another matter.)

What kind of details kick you out of a story if they’re done wrong?  History, science, personal interactions, geographical impossibilities?


Tossing everything in the pot

I was on the “Kick-Ass Female Authors and their Killer Heroines” panel at NY Comic Con last month, and one of the questions that was put to us was about the kind of research we did for our novels.  There were a number of different answers (many stressing the importance of researching a setting; mess up a description of someone’s hometown and you will hear about it), but I’ve been thinking a little more about what research I did for Spiral Hunt and the ways I’ve put it to use or set it aside.

For me, research serves several purposes, each of which plays into different parts of the writing process.  There’s research to get the details right, either of setting or plot or character, and that can come in at any stage for me.  I tend to do a lot of this kind of research in between drafts, to make sure that Brilliant Idea #19 actually has some basis in fact or can at least be justified.  There’s internal research (also known as “making stuff up”), which last week’s worldbuilding post touches on.  But the most fun part of the process, for me at least, is the first flurry of research even before the plot’s fully crystallized.

At this stage, I usually read indiscriminately from both scholarly and less-reputable sources (I’ve never read so much undiluted crazy as when I was researching the Holy Grail for a currently-stalled novel), immersing myself in theories and histories, mythologies and exegeses, all the bits and pieces that might come in useful at some point but right now are just there to catch my attention.  Food for the muse, in other words.  Eventually I zero in on a few particular books as source material and keep coming back to them, though the reading has already done most of its work: I now have all kinds of information banging around inside my skull, ready for use.

A few of the books that I kept coming back to when researching Spiral Hunt are below the cut.  These were part of the original whirlwind that turned into the plot of the novel, but they were also the sources that I read and reread to come back into touch with the root of the story. Continue reading ‘Tossing everything in the pot’