Soon, I’ll fly to Korea to do research for my coming novel…
Merry Christmas! I wish you and your family all the very best on this auspicious day. On to today’s topic: I know what you’re thinking: “a great excuse for a vacation…”, “he probably chooses topics based on where he wants to travel…” I wish it were like that, or that easy. And honestly? I couldn’t give a flying fuck what others think, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really want to fly to Korea for four days, just days after I return from vacation with my family. But, deadlines and the need for the research to be done, don’t give me much choice. I’ve read too many books where the author hadn’t done their research properly, and I just need my books to be factually accurate. Let me try to explain why:
I’m currently writing Martin, a novel about a man in his eighties, living alone in a retirement home in upstate New York. What started out as a project for an anthology of older LGBT characters grew. Martin had things to talk about, and his story grew. Back when I began, a looong time ago, on June 3rd to be exact, it was supposed to be a short story, and I honestly don’t remember why he had this love story in his youth, and why my brain concocted up this thing about him being drafted into the Korean War. Remember, this was June. I booked the flight to Seoul two days ago.
As the story developed, and as Martin told me more about himself, particularly this week, as he was talking about his time in Korea to friends over dinner, I realized there are a great many things I need to know to describe them, what Seoul looked like in the fifties, where people would meet, what the American military bases looked like, where G.I.s would eat etc. Lots of things I have no idea about. Sure, there’s the easy way out, avoidance, just to ignore certain details, improvise others, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t do that. I’ve read too many books where the author hadn’t done even the most basic research.
Gone are the days where I could just make up a city (The Opera House) where a novel could take place. Even Jonathan’s Hope, playing out in an imaginary mid-western city, needed to become more ‘real’ in the sequels, hence anchoring the story in Chicago. For Willem of the Tafel, research was easy and difficult at the same time. Easy, because I didn’t have to travel to Cape Town because it doesn’t matter what the city looks like now since the novel plays out five-hundred years into the future. Difficult because I had to do a lot of math, trying to compute how long it would take to sail or walk places without modern technology, difficult because I had to try to use documents from the seventies about nuclear fallout to try and assess what warheads a century into the future could do.
A turning point in research
Last year, writing Last Winter’s Snow, I had to take a completely different take on research. I was writing about a culture I didn’t know (the Sami), a landscape I hadn’t seen in person. Hence my trip up north in January and then again in August (a pure pleasure trip with my family, as I’d loved it so much up there.) I take my writing extremely serious, and I feel I must do my characters justice. I simply feel that I have no choice: either I write great books or I might as well not write at all…
Is it financially viable to do all this? No, of course not. I have no grants to help me, and no sales I make will ever compensate for the cost of a week in Korea. This isn’t about money either. It’s about credibility, about being able to deliver a book into the hands of my readers that I can be proud of, a book where readers can learn about what the world looked like, maybe learn about another culture, other people. Besides, and this is my other take: should my books ever become a success, isn’t it better to have written a factually accurate book than being trashed for errors?
“But most people wouldn’t know the difference…” I hear the objection from you, and true enough, the same is true for editing, proofreading and what not. Most people read books so fast these days, they don’t seem to care about such details. However, all it takes is one person who’s knowledgeable enough to notice something to get a bad review. Get a bad review for lack of proofing, lack of editing, bad research etc., and readers quickly get a pretty comprehensive picture of a crap book… Not sure that makes sense. I’m a bit of a quality freak. I work with great people, from Natasha Snow for my covers, Debbie McGowan who’s an amazing editor, and Beaten Track Publishing for proofing and publishing a high-quality novel. Bite me!
Planning my research
I’m currently planning my days in Seoul, trying to find a guide to help me around, as I don’t speak Korean, trying to find all the places where I need to go to find the pictures and information I need for my book, not to mention the inspiration for scenes I haven’t even written yet. I have a couple of weeks to get ready, and then a couple more to finish work on the novel which is scheduled for a spring release.
What is your working process? How do you do research? How do you handle things you can’t find online or in a local library? Alas, I need to get going. I’m writing this post ahead of time, as we’re leaving for our vacation tonight.
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