Bones, flesh and clothes: research and the research-heavy story

And now for something completely different… I’ve been asked recently how I tackle research: what I look for and how I use it. Accordingly, here is a post about my research process and how I use it in a typical, research-heavy story (your mileage, of course, may vary; though I believe some of the stuff I cover in here is useful for pretty much every story).

I do write stories that don’t require much research: when I wrote “Mélanie”, a retelling of a French myth set in the world of my university days, I knew most of the stuff I already needed. I had a good idea of what my fictional college would look like, I knew the culture and the mindset my character was coming from; and I could fill in the holes about his origins (he came from Brittany, where my family and I spent numerous holidays). Similarly, the myth I was using was a French mainstay, of which I had read numerous versions. All I needed was a brief refresher course, and I was all set.

Some stories don’t work like that. My alternate history “The Wind-Blown Man” (published in Asimov’s, February 2010), dealt with a subject matter I wasn’t as readily familiar with: it’s set in a universe where the Daoist conception of science won out over the Aristotelician one, and where Imperial China has ascended to become the main economic power of the world. I know the basic concepts of Daoism, but in order to be realistic, I was going to need more than that. What would this new science look like? How would everyday life be different from that of today, and what kind of characters would be suitable protagonists?

There were three types of research involved in writing “The Wind-Blown Man”, and I’ve found I pretty much always use this classification when I write my stories.

The bones

The bones are the necessary groundwork for the story. This is everything to do with the universe: its rules, its mindset, the larger picture. It’s the sum of what is fundamental to the story: if I modify it, I’ll have to rethink large chunks of the universe, and make drastic alterations to the storyline.

In the case of “The Wind-Blown Man”, the bones were how Imperial China would approach science, and for that I researched both Daoism and in particular the Daoist Alchemy which flourished under the Tang dynasty. I decided that China would keep its distrust of things beyond its borders: when a way into space was found, it would be used to exile political dissidents, instead of conquering more territory or influence (as the West and Russia had done during the Cold War).

How to research : this stage might not be needed at all, or only in very small amounts. The closer the story is to a universe and culture I know well, the less research I’ll have to do.

When to research: I usually deal with the bones well ahead of time, often when I’m still at the brainstorming stage of the story. It’s the part that requires the most investment and time, and I’ve found that spreading it out over a few weeks (or even months) really helps it sink in. It’s important, because the stuff that has sunk in can dredged up much more easily: having some of the mindset internalised makes it easier not to fall back on my default 21st-Century mindset when I’m writing the first draft.

What to research: I’m looking both for mindset, and for plausibility and internal coherence. If targeting a particular culture or timeperiod, it’s a good idea to have some notion of the historical context; if I’m making it up, it’s still a good idea to think of how the culture got to be what it is. This one, I think, is the hardest to use Internet for: I generally end up with books from the library.

How to stop when doing research is always a tricky subject, but I generally know when I’m done with this phase: the story has gelled in my mind, and I feel comfortable enough writing about the universe that I wouldn’t have to stop every two minutes to fill in a missing concept (remember, all I have to do is keep up the pretence while the story lasts, ie have a pretty facade with 2cm of rooms behind it. I’m not meant to build a whole house).

An example: with the “The Wind-Blown Man”, the bones were laid over a few weeks, and cemented with several conversations I had with my husband over the politics of space exploration and the history of science (I’m fortunate to have a husband who agrees to serve as bouncing board for ideas, but not everyone has that–a friend or even a piece of paper will work as well).

The flesh

The flesh is the large details, the ones that I’m really going to need from the get-go because they give weight to the story. Their nature is a little harder to pinpoint, but for instance: ideas about the setting (what types of building, what layout), general ideas about the technology used (I’ve decided earlier it was nanotech, but how is it implemented in practise?). They loom large over the story, giving it its flavour, but not as large as the bones: they can be changed, but they’re not fundamental. If I decide to change the setting of several scenes, I’ll have to touch up those, but the underlying universe and mindset of my characters will remain the same.

How to research: unless I’m writing precisely about an area of my town that I know very well, pretty much all stories can benefit from flesh research. This helps me slip in telling details, but also to anchor the narration in a place that is quite definitely recognisable, and not a generic mashup.

When to research: I’ve found it difficult to do that kind of research while writing, because it involves a lot of long pauses while I look up pictures and articles–also, because I hate to draft a scene more than necessary. But a. you might not be as obsessive a planner as I am, and b. there’s always a part of the story that you haven’t foreseen, so it’s likely you’re also going to end up doing research midway through the story.

What to research: I’m looking both for a better idea of how to implement my high-level milieu, and for a better grip on the setting. I’ve found that a good visual is pretty useful at this stage, whether it’s an assembly line in a shipyard or a Chinese palace. Google Image Search is my friend here. Equally useful for nitty-gritty science details is Wikipedia (as long as you don’t go into PhD-level stuff, Wikipedia gets most basic science right).

An example: two, actually. In “The Wind-Blown Man”, the setting is a Daoist monastery in the mountains. I tried to research Daoist archictecture on the internet, but it turned out to be too hard; so, in the end, I modelled the layout of the monastery on that of White Clouds Temple in China; and I used a couple references from my bookshelves on monastic life to fill in the staff around my main characters. From a more recent story, I needed a feng shui master re-arranging the configuration of a spaceship with nanobots: I looked up a few websites on feng shui and derived a rough system that would apply to this universe, before writing the scene I needed.

The clothing

Almost there… The clothing is all the stuff I don’t stop for. It’s the small details I need while writing the story, but that aren’t vital to the plot or to how the scene plays out. I don’t stop for that because I often need tons of those (in an average story, I’ve got 2-3 of those per double-spaced page), and I need the momentum more than I need the accuracy. I’ve found that stopping is more damaging to my story than anything else: the details can always be filled in afterwards, so I just insert “[?]” into the manuscript, to be sure to find them later on, and move on before I lose trust in the story.

How to research: that’s a tricky one. Chances are, I need a very specific and telling detail, like, say, the description of a uniform for a particular military grade, and another uniform or another grade are just not going to do (though if I can find a way to loosen the constraints on what I need, I won’t hesitate to do). If I can’t find it on the internet with a specific, very well targeted google search, then it’s time to hit the library again, and any academical resources I might find. I might also ask a friend who is expert in the matter.

When to research: after the first draft is completed. I put comments, or special signs, that mark where in the manuscript I need to come back to. That kind of detail can often be long to look up, because they tend to be very precise things (like, say, the length of a particular bridge, or the colour of a uniform in a certain timeperiod).

What to research: usually, I’ll know what I want at this stage, and it’s usually very focused information.

An example: “The Wind-Blown Man” had a fictional monastery that was used as a space centre, which meant I had to make up suitable names for its various parts. Most of those names (like “The Hall of Cultivating the Body and the Mind” and “The Pavillion of the Nesting Phoenix”) were derived afterwards from descriptions of Daoist monasteries: they remained blank in the story while I was writing it. I also very frequently write stories where secondary characters have placeholder names, and replace those afterwards with stuff that have a more appropriate meaning and connotation.

So there you go, my research approach. What about you? How do you deal with research? How do you use it in your stories?

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  1. 1. Marie Brennan

    That sound about right, though I think I’m more prone to pausing and looking up the clothes.

    In my experience, you generally can’t rush the bones stage; you have to let that stuff settle into your head and build connections between this thing and that, until the foundation has set well enough to support weight on top of it. Rush that, and you’ll regret it later, as you realize the idea you’re pursuing isn’t half as good as it could have been, or falls apart entirely.

    My ideal is also, with the bones and flesh level of things (and in some ways the clothes, too), to get to the point where I know the stuff well enough that I can integrate it smoothly, just as I would integrate details if I were writing a story set in my hometown. They say to use only 20% of your research; I say use 100%, but 95% of that should be used in a subsurface way, shaping what you put on the page without ever actually showing up in words. When I find myself coughing up big hairballs of research into the text, it’s because I haven’t digested them well enough yet.

    (And with that appalling metaphor, I’m done.)

  2. 2. Aliette de Bodard

    Rush that, and you’ll regret it later, as you realize the idea you’re pursuing isn’t half as good as it could have been, or falls apart entirely.
    Oh yeah, definitely with you there. I’ve lost count of the number of times the story’s come apart for me because of lack of planning.
    I do try to shoot for subconscious integration, but I think that to some extent, I do need to be aware of my research: if I were to write a story set in my hometown, I’d put in far too few details because I’d assume everyone knew the scenery. I need to be aware of the stuff that’s different so I can point it out, if that makes sense…

  3. 3. katyusha

    This is actually pretty close to my process, though I prefer to think of it as the set and the props (what can I say? I did crew for school plays.)

    My current WIP is a serious historical take on Homer, involving primarily the Mycenaean and Luwian/Hittite civilizations; major research involved two books on the Trojan war (one military, one archaeological), one on the Greek Bronze Age, one on Greek religion, one on the Hittites. That gave me the set–my characters’ cultural background and their history, an overview of their belief systems and general outlooks on the world, and the major players in the big picture. In tandem with this was my planning and outlining stage and the fleshing out of my major characters.

    “Props” came next–lists of names for the major cultures (and Hittite names are next to impossible to find), major gods and festivals. I started working on maps and collecting (well, alright, hoarding) images–artists’ renderings of people, of places, photos of archaeological sites and findings. I started writing at this point, and doing minor fixes based on new findings. I still consider myself to be in this stage, since I’m always looking up details either online or back in my books or notes; I guess I’ll be in it until the thing’s finished, with the prop work eventually slowing down to minor touch-ups and costuming changes.

    So to further extend this metaphor, I would say that the research is like the crew work backstage, largely unseen except for the finished projects, but entirely necessary. The writing itself is the rehearsals, and I guess that editing will be hell week.

  4. 4. JJ

    I rather think that whatever you put into your novel should be plausible, more than realistic. After all, you’ve already put your characters in a fictional environment; whether the pips in a military uniform or the boots he uses are calfskin or snakeskin is not really going to add much to the narrative, and can get you bogged down in long descriptions that hinder the pace of narrative.
    My point is that research should be right enough to keep the wonks that will ready your novel at bay, but not too much beyond that.

  5. 5. Aliette de Bodard

    katyusha: kind of funny how a lot of historical-based novelists have similar processes (I was talking with Ruth Nestvold, who’s writing historical fantasy, and we had a loot of research points in common).
    JD: it’s definitely possible to overdo research, but when you’re writing something that’s based on existing cultures (as I do), you do have to know what kind of boots the main character uses (or whether he has boots at all). Sure, I could make everything up, but the risk, as I said, is that I’d reach for the first cliché that popped along. I do agree that you should shoot for “plausible”, but it’s sometimes difficult to make the difference between that and realistic. I think we all have different kind of limits on that.

  6. 6. katyusha

    Aliette: Makes sense, I guess. Ya don’t know what ya don’t know until ya know ya don’t know it, ya know? And history necessitates a lot of not-knowing, with progressively less knowing the further back you go.

    JJ: That’s the problem, though, especially for history buffs (or me, at least): NOT getting bogged down in the awesome little details. >.<

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Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the upcoming Aztec fantasy Servant of the Underworld, published by Angry Robot. Her short fiction garnered her a nomination for the Campbell Award. She lives in Paris, France. Visit site.

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