Researching For Your Fiction

I promised a post by today, so here goes…

This week’s homework assignment is concerning research. You need to research for your fiction, of course — all of you realize this, whether you want to do it or not. You’ve almost certainly run into points in writing your stories where you weren’t sure whether what you were writing was plausible or realistic.You probably just made up an answer and continued on writing. This is natural and normal, but when it’s time to edit your work, you need to try to better than that.

Of course, certain things, you can make up on your own.. for example, what do unicorns eat? You don’t really need to research that! You can:

  • try to research it directly, even though it’s imaginary. Probably you can figure out what other fantasy writers have decided unicorns eat by reading famous books about unicorns, or looking at paintings of unicorns, or whatever.
  • make up an answer that seems natural, like, “Unicorns eat whatever wild horses eat” and then research that.
  • make up an answer that seems unnatural or surprising, like, “Unicorns eat young maidens who try to walk around in the forest picking flowers.” This sounds crazy, but it’s probably the most interesting solution since, after all, this puts in a world where unicorns are nothing like what we usually imagine.
    • This probably means more research, of course. In a world where unicorns eat young women, what kind of a society would we have? How many unicorns are there? How do people protect themselves from unicorn attacks? Is there a big organization of people devoted to killing the violent, scary unicorns? And are there people who oppose this, and fight to protect unicorns from these killers? Do unicorns speak? Can a unicorn go to unicorn jail? When a unicorn eats a young woman, does it swallow her whole, or only eat certain parts of her?
    • This, of course. is impossible to research directly, because girl-eating-unicorns are imaginary. But we can research indirectly. For example, in a society living in an area where large, dangerous wild animals that could eat humans (like, say, tigers, or lions, or bears — bears don’t eat people, but they can kill them easily!) how do people handle the threat of those animals?You can use that example to make up something plausible for your story.

Of course, most of you are writing stories that are basically in our world. But you can still use research to make your imagination work harder, and come up with more interesting things. Sometimes, a secondary storyline can make a story more interesting, or make a character feel more human and believable. It doesn’t need to be related to the main storyline, either.

For example, a young woman who is struggling to deal with her new job is a great character for a story. Just because, say, she starts seeing ghosts, or is deciding to break up with her boyfriend,  or whatever — that is, just because the main plotline happens — doesn’t mean the struggle with her job goes away suddenly. In fact, the struggle with her job can make her more interesting and believable, and add some variety to the story. Let’s say, her boss is sexually harassing her. What are the most common forms of sexual harassment in the country where your story is set? What are the laws about sexual harassment, and how do women usually handle it in the society in which your character lives? This is all something you can research, so that you can write well about the minor subplot of her problems at work — even if they’re not the main point of the story.

One author I know sometimes just jams together two seemingly-unrelated themes to thicken stories. For example, an old man who is dealing with his terminal cancer; he is also a butterfly collector, and has a huge collection of rare butterflies he wants to give to his son, except his son doesn’t like butterflies at all.  What do butterflies have to do with cancer? Well — we probably can find a symbol there, but really, nothing… just like who you’re dating these days has nothing to do with that professor you’re having problems with these days. Life is full of supposedly unconnected things. Making stories where things are (or seem) somewhat unconnecte, at least at first, makes it feel a little more like life.

(Though, of course, at the same time, sometimes the deep connection really is there, and you can feel it though it’s not totally clear to you. The cancer/butterfly-collecting idea probably would work that way, for example.)

Another example is the details of your world. For example, a few students in our class have been writing stories set after some kind of war or disaster in Korea. If you’re going to write about disasters, you need to research how disasters work. Of course, a nuclear bomb has never exploded in (South) Korea before. But there were two atomic bomb explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Lots of people have done research and calculations to figure out how most major cities would be affected by such an explosion, or the explosion of a stronger nuclear weapon. There’s lots of detail, too: the way an electromagnetic pulse would destroy most circuity in electronic devices — no more iPods and cell phones! — and the effects of the radiation of people at certain distances from the blast. But you can also research stuff like where people would get their food. What happens to canned food after a nuclear blast 50 miles away? How does botulism grow in (some) dented cans? How long would it take before all the canned food in your character’s city disappeared and people had to find another food source? Where could they find it?

Your homework for next week is to choose two books (in Korean, if you prefer!) on two different topics.

  • One book should be related to the main plot of your story. You will skim the book, looking for useful or interesting information to fit into your story, but also so you understand your character, his or her religion, life, culture, or job better, and so on.
  • One book should be unrelated to the main plot of your story. I don’t care if it’s related to a minor plot, or totally unrelated to your story. It could be a book on baseball, or on knitting. It could be a book about the history of the popcorn business, or a book about making beer. It could be a book like What To Expect When You’re Expecting (about pregnancy) or it could be a book about how to tie different kinds of knots. You will read up on some subject you know nothing about, and find a way — however small — to introduce it into your story. It could even be a fiction writer you’ve never read, but whom you think your character might be a fan of (or hate, or whatever), or a book in a similar style to what you’re writing (such as, for someone writing a story after nuclear war, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker).

I don’t expect you to read both of those books for next week. However, I want you to have both books on hand — bring them to class — and submit for me a report including the following for each book (which you can call your MAIN BOOK and your SECONDARY BOOK):

TITLE: (in Korean and English, if it’s a Korean book)
SECTIONS MOST RELEVANT TO MY RESEARCH: (which chapters, pages, etc. seem most relevant for your interests)

This report is due for next Wednesday (ie. May 12th).

Finally, we’ll be doing critiques all next week. All the stories to be critiqued should be online this weekend if possible!

Have a great weekend!

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