GUEST POST: Why Authors Love Research – Days Of The Dead Blog Tour

Today, my friend Gail Martin stops by on her Days Of The Dead blog tour for a talk about writers and research. – BTS

By Gail Z. Martin


I love research. In fact, sometimes I almost think the book is an excuse to do the research. Almost.

Okay, I was a history major, so I came into this predisposed to be nosy about other people’s business. History is the best reality show. Forget the structure artificially imposed on history by textbook authors. History—the rise and fall of kingdoms, the great explorers, the conquest and colonization—was done by people who, on closer inspection, make the Kardashians look well-adjusted and the Mafia seem morally upright.

It’s really the story of grifters, grabbers, con men, connivers, liars, manipulators, opportunists and truly dysfunctional people who clawed their way to notoriety less from noble purpose than from unresolved psychological issues. And those are often the good guys.

Seriously, when you delve into real history—the letters and diaries by historic figures and the people who knew them and the contemporary records—you get a juicy, scandal-laden, slugfest that rivals any Jerry Springer episode. We like to make our historical figures into cleanly-delineated heroes and villains, but they weren’t—they were real people, no different from us today, no more noble or evil. A few people were in pursuit of a higher cause, but don’t cha know it, that cause usually included some benefit to them and theirs. People lied, cheated, stole, played politics, rigged the game, and had hissy fits. They also loved, grieved, wanted revenge, sought forgiveness, pondered the meaning of life, wondered if it was all worth the cost, tried to do the right thing, and occasionally rose above human nature to do something really heroic and awesome.

I write epic fantasy, urban fantasy and steampunk, so there’s a lot of research involved. Some of it is tactical, like double-checking just how far a trebuchet can throw something, or when an invention was patented, or when a word came into usage. But along the way, you stumble down more rabbit holes than Alice, finding unexpected and wondrous tidbits you can use in your story, historical oddities that add realism and interest, quirky or intriguing facts about people and situations that you can borrow and twist for your fictional universe. That’s when research is the coolest, most fun thing in the world.

DEADLY CURIOSITIES-VENDETTAWhenever I get stuck on what needs to happen in a story to get from where I am to where it needs to go, I research. Every time, I’ll find something either by design or serendipity that provides exactly the imagination fodder to get me around where I’m blocked. Often, this means poking around on the internet, following links from one site to another until the right bit of information appears. Sometimes, I go to my library and see what I can find in my books, where my memory can be jogged about a cool detail I’ve forgotten about that is perfect for the situation. Or I’ll go watch something on the History Channel, usually on military tactics or equipment. Maybe I’ll watch a movie with good fight scenes and pay attention to what happens for ideas. Research is better than WD-40 for getting you unstuck.

Research is also how you ground a story in its time and place. My urban fantasy series, Deadly Curiosities, is set in modern-day Charleston, SC. The steampunk series I co-author with my husband, Larry N. Martin, is set in an alternative history Pittsburgh, PA. A lot of the research we do—both online and by visiting the cities—helps to impart a sense of place and make the setting one of the characters. When you set a story in a specific place, ideally it becomes so much an outgrowth of its location that you (and readers) couldn’t imagine it being anywhere else. Even if you’ve lived in a city or region, you don’t know everything about it. In fact, sometimes we know less about places we’ve lived because we never even take a tourist’s view and do the landmarks, let alone a scholar’s view. Once you start digging, you’ll find tidbits of history, important historical figures, old controversies and buried incidents that provide great mental fodder.

One of the most valuable things research does for me is to take historic figures out of their wax-museum frozenness and the myths that have been built up around them and reveal their humanness, good and bad. (Read the bitter campaign feuding between Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson if you don’t believe me.) While many of these figures were well-known in their own time, they had achieved nothing near the mythic stature we’ve given them since then. Some were actually dismissed or overlooked in their own time because the ramifications and importance of what they did was not yet clear.

I&B final coverBy returning historic figures to human scale, I gain perspective as an author on how to create fictional characters who change the world. One thing I learned is that aside from a few megalomaniacs like Napoleon, most of these larger-than-life historical figures were pursuing their own personal agendas, not obsessing over their historic legacy. They were trying to solve a problem or gain an objective, beat a rival or win a prize. That their actions would leave ripple effects throughout the rest of history wasn’t on their minds. They were—as we frequently are now—oblivious to the fallout from their actions, at least in the grand scheme of things. So a general might want to win a battle, and have no clue that by doing so, the stage is set for a disastrous insurrection fifty years later that will topple the very empire he represents. A person in a position of power won’t countenance a new idea because it threatens his ego, and the ultimate advantage goes to his rival, changing the course of history.

Research makes the writing world go ‘round. It’s not only the font of ideas, it’s also entertaining in a guilty pleasures sort of way, like reading tabloid headlines in the grocery line. Just remember to bring popcorn!

My Days of the Dead blog tour runs through October 31 with never-before-seen cover art, brand new excerpts from upcoming books and recent short stories, interviews, guest blog posts, giveaways and more! Plus, I’ll be including extra excerpt links for my stories and for books by author friends of mine. You’ve got to visit the participating sites to get the goodies, just like Trick or Treat! Details here:

Book swag is the new Trick-or-Treat! Grab your envelope of book swag awesomeness from me & 10 authors before 11/1!

Trick or Treat! Excerpt from my new urban fantasy novel Vendetta set in my Deadly Curiosities world here Launches Dec. 29

More Treats! Enter to win a copy of Deadly Curiosities!

Treats! Enter to win a copy of Iron & Blood!

Treats not Tricks! An excerpt from Girl In The Hourglass

Halloween goodies! Here’s an excerpt from What Really Happened At Little Big Horn

More Halloween loot! Read an excerpt from “Coffin Box,” one of my Deadly Curiosities short stories


About the Author

Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications
Gail Martin, Dreamspinner Communications

Gail Z. Martin is the author of the upcoming novel Vendetta: A Deadly Curiosities Novel in her urban fantasy series set in Charleston, SC (Dec. 2015, Solaris Books) as well as the epic fantasy novel Shadow and Flame (March, 2016 Orbit Books) which is the fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga. Shadowed Path, an anthology of Jonmarc Vahanian short stories set in the world of The Summoner, debuts from Solaris books in June, 2016.

Other books include The Jake Desmet Adventures a new Steampunk series (Solaris Books) co-authored with Larry N. Martin as well as Ice Forged, Reign of Ash and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) from Orbit Books and the urban fantasy novel Deadly Curiosities from Solaris Books.

Gail writes four series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures, The Deadly Curiosities Adventures, The King’s Convicts series, and together with Larry N. Martin, The Storm and Fury Adventures. Her work has appeared in over 20 US/UK anthologies. Newest anthologies include: The Big Bad 2, Athena’s Daughters, Realms of Imagination, Heroes, With Great Power, and (co-authored with Larry N. Martin) Space, Contact Light, The Weird Wild West, The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, Alien Artifacts, Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens.



Guest Post: Historical Research & Science Fiction by Robert L. Collins

One of the benefits of Cons, without a doubt, is networking. You visit with old friends, discover new ones, and have a lot of fun along the way. One of those new friends from two cons this year, ConStellation Nebraska and ConQuesT, is fellow author Robert Collins. Robert’s published books include Stories Of Feminine Strength, Lisa’s Way, and True Friends. His short stories have appeared in venues like Aiofe’s Kiss from Sams Dot, Golden Visions, Pulp Empire and Tales Of The Talisman. But in addition to his speculative fiction, Robert also writes nonfiction. His works include the books: Ghost Railroads Of Kansas, Pieces of Kansas History, and Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan. So since research can be an area with which we writers struggle–how much to do, how to do it, etc.–I asked Robert if he had any thoughts he could share about research. Here’s what he sent me:

Historical Research & Science Fiction

by Robert Collins

Many Science Fiction authors know the value of researching history for their genre work. Usually they do so because they’re writing a time travel story and need to learn more about the era their characters are visiting. Occasionally, they do the research because they have the idea of,  say, “the battle of Trafalgar in space” and want to make certain the plot follows the real event. However, most Science Fiction authors don’t think much about researching local history to get story ideas.

I write Kansas history as well as SF/F. I’ve done a great deal of research into the history of my home state. I’ve used that material to jump-start several of my fictional works.

One example is my biography of the “Bleeding Kansas” leader Senator Jim Lane. I found a newspaper story that claimed that Lane, in the run- up to the reelection for his Senate seat in 1865, had promised a federal post to 17 men. He made these promises to secure their support for him in the Kansas legislature come election time. Sure enough, the men came to Washington demanding Lane keep his promise to them. Lane gathered the men together one night. This is what he said, quoting from my book:

“What I did last winter, I did with the purest motives,” he asserted boldly.  “I thought the state of Kansas needed me in the senate, and it was with that idea that I made those promises which I cannot now fulfill.  If I have deceived you gentlemen, I believe that heaven will forgive me.  But you, gentlemen, who should have voted for me from the purest and highest impulses–you were actuated only by sordid motives.  You voted for me for a price and I do not think you are worthy in the sight of heaven of any recognition or consideration.” Lane lowered the boom.  “I renounce all of you, and in the interest of the state of Kansas I will select an entirely new man for the position that you all covet, and have him appointed marshal.”  With that Lane dismissed the men for the night.

Great, huh? But how to turn that into a story?

I chose to set my fictional version in the universe of my Frigate Victory stories. I’d already established that colony worlds are governed in a similar way to how United States territories were governed during the frontier period. All that I had to do was adjust the anecdote so that it fit into the established background. My research not only led to a story that sold, but helped me fill in details about that universe. Finding such useful material will take some effort, but you’ll can control how much. Start by checking state histories. Look for events or personalities that appear interesting yet aren’t well-known. From there you can either take what you have and build, or dig deeper. If you’re willing to look, and send out inter-library loan (ILL) requests, you should be able to locate biographies on important state figures and histories of state events, periods, and trends.

Statewide sources aren’t the only places where story and character ideas might be hiding. Most towns and counties have histories published. A local library will have their town or county history. Books on other communities can be obtained through ILL. Some states, like Kansas, have a State Library that handles ILL requests. If so that State Library will probably have a searchable website as well.

If you want to go as far as possible, consider historical newspapers. The Library of Congress has a handful of newspapers from each state digitized at their website. A few states like Colorado are doing the same with newspapers in their states. However, for most local papers you’ll have to look at microfilm. Libraries and historical museums are the first places to look for local newspapers on microfilm; state historical societies typically have all that state’s existing newspapers on microfilm.

Keep in mind that this is research for fiction ideas, not nonfiction books. Don’t get bogged down with accuracy or verification. Also remember that, when it comes to local history, there may only be one source.

One last point: there’s always a need for more books on local historical subjects. POD now makes it possible to publish a book without requiring a large print run. If an event, person, or trend interests you, writing a book could allow you to make use of your research, earn back what you spend, and maybe get you a few more readers.

Thanks, Robert, for those helpful tips. For what it’s worth…

10 Mistakes SFF Writers Make With Research

Research, hate it or love it, is something every speculative fiction writer must deal with at one time or another. Most deal with it often. Research is an easy thing to neglect for many reasons. Above all, it’s usually less fun than writing and creating and it’s time consuming. Still, research is necessary. Here are ten mistakes writers make with research. Consider the costs of making them yourself.

1) Skipping the research. I don’t need no stinking research. Mistake number one. You may be able to fudge some things, especially in science fiction stories set in worlds far distant from our own, for example, but in your historical fantasy, your contemporary urban fantasy or your medieval epic fantasy, you’d better know the facts. If you don’t, readers will and they’ll be unhappy you didn’t care enough to make sure you did. In any world building or story crafting where facts and details readers could know or research are required, research it yourself. Know what you’re talking about. That’s usually impossible without research.

2) Relying on novels by other genre writers. How do you know Terry Goodkind or Patrick Rothfuss got it right? Where did they get their facts? People make up inaccurate facts all the time and write them into their novels. (I am not saying Goodkind and Rothfuss did. I have no such examples. Just using them as examples.) There’s nothing worse for fantasy fans than reading another stereotypical novel set in a stereotypical fantasy world that gets it wrong. Don’t trust anyone but yourself to do the research and do it well, unless you can afford to pay a research assistant, in which case, be sure and hire a trustworthy one.

3) Using only one source. How do you verify facts? Check them against multiple sources. Don’t assume the source you are using has it all right. Check their facts against other sources. The internet is a great resource as are libraries. You can find multiple resources on almost any topic you’d want to research. So make use of that and be sure you’ve got it right.

4) Researching only when and what they have to. To a degree, you only need research for a science in your science fiction, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean you should stop there. How do you know your world makes sense geographically? How do you know the dietary patterns and plants you place in various locations are correct for the climate or environment? Who cares? Informed readers, that’s who, and all it takes is one to blow the whistle and cause other readers to doubt you. Once they doubt you, they have trouble trusting the stories you tell and if they can’t suspend disbelief, your science fiction and fantasy can’t succeed very well. So research details whenever you can. Even if you’re not sure they’re important. This doesn’t mean you need to research every word, of course, but play detective and ask yourself what you can research to make your story better and more skeptic-proof and true to life and then get busy.

5) Using questionable sources. Just as one source may or may not be reliable, the validity of any source must be verified. A good sign is when you use sources commonly used by many other people. You can also check data about the author and publisher. And you can find reviews and evaluations as well. There are many ways to check the sources, even comparing them to other respected sources to see how they compare. If you find one source that says “it happened like this,” and no other source agrees, perhaps that little factoid might not be the best one to put in your story.

6) Thinking every iota of research must be in the novel. Info dump and listen for the thump as readers drop your book on the floor. They may never pick it back up again, either, so don’t make this mistake. In world building, you have to know everything but your readers don’t. Neither do your characters.  Include what’s necessary to tell the story and make the world come alive and leave the rest for a sequel or your files. The point of researching wasn’t to add fluff to your novel but knowledge to your head. The more you know, the smarter you write. And smart writers don’t info dump.

7) Making stuff up without checking. Making something up is part of fiction writing, yes, I get that. But if you make something up which actually exists and the facts are wrong, you’ll look foolish. And nothing turns off a reader more. Make sure that things you invent don’t exist before you put them in your story and make up facts or science to explain them.

8 ) Including research that’s hard to understand. Just because you understand it, doesn’t mean your reader will. If you think the story needs it, make sure the research is explained well when you write it in. Quoting scientific jargon from your sources is one way to blow it. Put it in simple, every day language so readers of all backgrounds will get it. Include only what’s necessary and forget the rest. Tom Clancy used to spend page after page describing weapons in intimate detail. If his books hadn’t been so compelling, readers would have left. Instead, they just jumped ahead. His books sold, so he kept doing it, but unless you’re a bestseller, don’t count on getting away with it. Explain it simply, fast and well, then move on. It’s the same as anything else in your prose, communicating with the reader is the goal. If you don’t do it well, your work won’t succeed. So first, make sure you understand it well before you write it, then write it as if you’re explaining it to a child.

9) Underestimating readers’ expectations. A lot depends on the genre and subgenre, of course. Space opera fans and hard SF fans have different expectations. But don’t make the mistake of assuming since you don’t know, readers won’t either. I struggle with this myself. Research is one of my least favorite past times, but when someone comes along who knows better, the illusion is blown and it can turn off fans and readers in droves once word spreads. Take the time to be informed so you can inform your readers. Assumption is the mother of all screw ups, they say. Don’t assume your readers aren’t smarter or more informed than you are. Most often they are.

10) Rushing through research. As the other 9 points prove, research takes time. Just like writing prose does. While you probably shouldn’t include time spent researching toward your writing word count goals, you should set aside quality time for research. How much you need depends on what you’re researching, how much you already know about it, the subgenre, genre, and many other factors. But research, when done, should be done right, like anything else. It’s an element of craft and quality writing as with anything else done to complete your novel. Treat it accordingly and don’t rush it. Research is just as much a part of the writing job as creating prose and thinking up ideas are.

Well, there’s ten common mistakes speculative fiction writers make in regards to research. I’m guilty. What about you? And do you have other suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.

‎3 5-star & 8 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindle or Nook $14.99 tpb