Any writer worth their salt has said in interviews that research is an important aspect of their writing process. Many acknowledgements mention countless people that have helped a writer in their research. Greg Rucka, for example, name drops several reliable sources of information in many of his books.
When I first started working on The City of Smoke and Mirrors, I had passing knowledge of an armadillo’s biology. When I looked into it more, though, I had to become an armchair expert on armadillos. Who knew there were different kinds of dillos? Or that very few actually roll into a ball like the 3-banded armadillo. Or that, of land mammals, armadillos have some of the longest penises? (That one’s a freebie for you.) I’ve gotten into contact with some armadillo experts, like the author of The Nine-Banded Armadillo: A Natural History (Come to think of it, I should add that to my Christmas list.)
But honestly, my mind is constantly working on characters, stories, world building, or just general ideas. Given that I want to ensure those ideas make sense in the world of reality and science, I do a lot of research. Maybe not extensive research, but enough. At least enough to have a good grounding on the concept so I can write about it.
And by god, if that research isn’t fun sometimes.
My brain isn’t one for math and science, so there are some things that go right over my head. For one particular idea I’ve had bouncing around in my head for years, I’m constantly seeking information on radio transmissions, satellite signals, deep space research, and the electromagnetic spectrum. But it involves a lot of math formulas that make my head hurt, so I’m still on the lookout for the most simplified, dumbed-down explanations so I can wrap my head around the concept(s). It’s a lot like in the first Portal game, where GLADOS explains momentum involving portals: speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out. For me, at least when it comes to science and math, I need things explained in the most layman’s terms. Like when Scotty exclaimed in a conversation with Geordie, “Yeh soured the milk, laddie!”
For Dill’s first adventure, I researched the following: armadillo biology and behaviours, revolvers, gun recoil, bullet penetration, motorcycle gangs, motorcycles, luchadore wrestling, dragons, komodo dragons, Voodoo, dog species, Batman, Batman creative teams over the course of his history, forensics, automobiles (specifically the Ford Model B), and probably another half dozen things I’m forgetting. Some were just quick information to read up on; others were entire books (like The Road to Hell about a police informant who worked their way inside the Hell’s Angels in Canada) or documentaries (like a great one on komodo dragons). Some I wrote down, some I just remembered.
Recently, I’ve been working on Dill’s next mystery. It’ll be my first murder mystery, which all started with a simple idea: a very strange and graphic way to find a dead body. I won’t say who, what, where, or how (why spoil the fun here?), but from that one idea, I needed to look into forensics and autopsies. Just last week, I had a fantastic conversation with a local medical examiner working in Fredericton. I already have a book called Whodunnit, which details – among many other things – crime scene investigation. I’ve owned that particular book for years, long before Dill had wormed his way into my brain, but I knew some of the basics. The medical examiner helped me a little more on how the body in this particular mystery might be handled, who might handle it, and why. There was one point that I hadn’t even considered, but when he informed me, it made perfect sense and will definitely add an interesting layer to the investigation.
Earlier tonight, I bounced ideas back and forth with my friend Kayne. We threw ideas around on the motives for the murder and especially who was the biggest target. The other thing I wanted to do with this new mystery was having someone hire Dill for protection. So I needed to consider how this person’s backstory would fit into everything. After the giant brainstorming session with Kayne, we hatched an incredibly interesting backstory; one that I can’t wait to dive into.
During the brainstorming, though, we looked into everything from another country’s culture, its society, the meanings of names from that culture, and even its entertainment culture, especially its movies. Additionally, we looked in to a particular species of animal that I honestly knew very little about. In that research, we not only fleshed out who this person was that was hiring Dill, but why they were hiring Dill, and the complications that come from that. On top of that, we figured out why the murder happened in the first place and how it ties in with everything. I especially learned some really neat stuff about the biology of an animal I hadn’t really researched before.
So it turns out, to be a writer, you need to continually consider yourself a student of new subjects. In grade school, especially in later years, I was the quiet kid in the back that rarely paid attention and sneaked comics under his desk. Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Dad. In my first year of university, I did the same. It’s no wonder I dropped out the next year. But when I returned years later, I became the keener in the front row with his hand up half the time and knowing the answer because I’d read ahead in the book.
And as a writer, that’s the sort of the attitude and behaviour I’ve carried over. There’s no subject that I won’t read into if I think it might make an interesting story or even add to whatever I’m working on at that time.
Now I’m extra excited for the next book! Great article too.
I’m working on a comic series. It’s going to have a lot of comedy and action in it, but I don’t think the readers will ever know how much research I put into it. I’m learning about the biodiversity/ecosystems surrounding giant Sequioas, the habits/slang/interests of a typical student at Humboldt University, the customs and laws of medieval Spain, and the naming conventions of the first nations peoples of California.