Scribophile: In general, how much research do you do for your novels? Does it take place before you sit down and write the thing, or do you work on both tasks at the same time? And how can you tell when you’ve done enough—or even too much?
Mostly I write and research in parallel. There are places where it’s straightforward. You need to give a character a sucking chest wound, so you read up on sucking chest wounds, find yourself a combat medic to chat with, and then get your knife ready and write. Easy peasy.
There are places where research is just procrastination. You need to launch a spaceship from a magnetic rail, so you start researching eddy coils etc, and before you know it you find yourself wondering if the magnets need to be supercooled, and deciding Loftstrom Loops are awesome and we should totally build one, who do I write to at NASA about that—forgetting that none of the characters give two figs about how the shuttle works.
The best and hardest kind of research is the research that builds the world. For instance, my current book in draft, The Swan Riders, has horses in it — in fact it takes place during an epic cross-continent ride. I’ve never been on or around horses, so I don’t know much about them. The tricky part about this research is that you don’t know what you need to know. So I did a lot of general reading, of the “horses for dummies” kind. A lot of hanging out in virtual communities like The Long Rider’s Guild. A great horse informant was found (hi Jen!).
The other kind of research (chest wounds and space ships) I mostly do as I go along, but the horses kind of research I have to do upfront. This is because I have to shape the story to suit the horses, not twist the horses to suit the story. I knew I’d got it (as much as it could be got) when horses stop being a problem and became an inspiration. When they moved themselves, the way stories move or characters move.
I call this letting-research-shape-the-story thing “writing from the inside out.”
Getting to inside-out is difficult. If you think that’s hard to do with horses — and it is — try writing about another culture. You can’t just pin some feathers and blood sacrifice on ye olde sword and sorcery story and call it Aztec. That’s writing a story from the outside in.
Appropriation is always a risk—and really, all stories are appropriation. But the second miracle of fiction is that it is possible. Writing about people who are in various profound ways Not You is possible.