Monday, February 25, 2013

Doing Research

When I write my Adept Series novels (such as Hammer of Thor) that are set in the past, I do a lot of research in order to get them as historically accurate as possible (and then I make Pearl Harbor Day December 6th just to tell the reader "this is not our world").  I enjoy the research, usually.  I love learning new things.  I encourage all writers to do as much research as they can.  Unless you lived it, you can't do too much research.

But . . . what you can do is show off how much research you did by throwing in extraneous details not germane to the story.

Movie makers will make this mistake with sets or special effects.  They want to show off how much work they put into their elaborate sets or special effects they will spend a lot of time (or so it seems) showing them off (see Star Trek: The Motion Picture).  This has become less of a problem with CGI since they are easier and cheaper to do than traditional miniatures/matte SFX.

To give you an example in my own writing.  There's a scene in Hammer of Thor (this scene, in fact) where I did many hours of research.  It is set in 1943 San Francisco on a foggy day.  I wanted the fog to be at a level where buildings would peek out of the top and being the writer, I could set the fog at pretty much any elevation I choose (maybe I should have researched how high and low fog gets in San Francisco, but I didn't).  But, what buildings would poke out of the fog, which ones would be just under it, and what else would protrude into clear sky?

This turned out to be a multiple problem problem.  One: what buildings existed in 1943 San Francisco? Two: how tall were those buildings?  And three: what was the elevation of the ground they were built one?  Because their absolute height would depend on Two and Three.  And San Francisco is a hilly city so the base of buildings could be anything from sea level to 407 feet (the elevation of Castro Hill).

The internet to the rescue! (When I think about how hard this would have been before the internet, I shudder.)  There was a website called  They listed every tall building in most larger cities around the world.  They listed when they were built, their address, and how high they were (and other stuff I didn't care about).  Through that I was able to make a list of tall buildings that existed in San Francisco in 1943 and their height (since then, the website has put all that info behind a pay wall).  Microsoft used to have a map online (still might) that was a terrain map.  Using one online map to figure out the address, I would then use the terrain map to estimate the altitude of the base of the building.  I set up an Excel spreadsheet (I still have it) and I listed each building, the height above ground, the elevation of its base, and added those together to get its absolute height over sea level.  I then subtracted the height of the fog (450 feet) to get how far above or below the fog the building was.  And I used that information in writing the scene.

Go listen to (or read) that scene.  Is it obvious I did that much work?  I hope not. But I wanted that scene accurate as possible.  And that's what, as a writer, you should do. Make sure you do enough research to be accurate, but don't show off how much you did.

Except maybe on your blog.

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