Thursday, January 22, 2009

How is a Sears home like a mound of broccoli?

I have an aversion to doing real-world research for fiction. I do it, but I drag my feel about it like a little kid staring down a mound of broccoli at dinner. In any other medium, I'm fine. Looking up real estate comparisons to flesh out my daydreams? Fun times on the internet. Twenty-five page paper on zombies, with at least that many works cited? I am all over that shit. Doing research on witchcraft for a novel in the works? No no no NO NO WHY DO I HAVE TO EAT IT MOM IT'S GROSS! The poor book I've borrowed from the library sits at the foot of my bed for three months and then gets returned unopened, while the novel project gets shelved for another year.

I always forget how much I enjoy actually doing the research. Starting is the daunting part - once I'm in, it's all a playground. I've developed a couple of tricks to get myself started.

First, there's the obvious: just do it already! Setting goals and incentives works (when I finish reading up on snowfall levels in the Pacific Northwest, I can have a cookie!). But only sometimes. I'm far more stubborn than I give myself credit for, and I'm likely to get distracted by webcomics and eat the cookie before my goal-setting mind catches on.

My second option, and the one that I unfortunately took at the beginning of my first fantasy series, is a clever line of thought that goes like this: "Oh, what the hell! I'll just make up my own world instead!" Making up your own world instead of doing research is like building your own house instead of buying the bungalow down the block that needs new paint. Not only does it take an epic amount of planning, but you need to research the basic building materials anyway: culture, language, environment, and all of that other fun stuff you were hoping to avoid. I didn't realize how backwards this idea was until I'd been writing the story for five years and found myself hunkered down with a linguistics textbook, plotting out building blocks for a plot-relevant language that my cast might occasionally run into. The next time I write fantasy set in an urban environment, I'm placing it in St. Paul, where at least the languages are ready made.

The third and best option I've found for getting myself to do research is letting stories stray into subjects where my interest is piqued. I'm interested in a wide breadth of topics, so this method never gets old. Nuclear bombs, small town gossip, psych ward policies, and zombies aplenty have wandered into my writing due to curiosity. Sometimes a topic wanders in and becomes a tangent, but that's what revisions are for. More often than not, I've been able to make space for the random interests.

Today, I wandered into researching Sears homes from the early 20th century. The idea that people once ordered their houses out of catalogs has fascinated me since I was a kid, and today when I decided to work a Sears house into the short story I'm writing, I found an archive of the catalog home ads, including floor plans. Not only do I now have a floor plan for the house in my story, I got about two hours' entertainment out of looking for it. (And a strong desire to own a Maytown home, though they haven't made kits for it since the 1910's.)

Gee, this broccoli isn't so bad once I'm actually chewing it. Why was I complaining so loudly again?

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