As a writer, we often find ourselves in need of Research. I blame it on the natural curiosity, which drives us to put our stories to paper, a need, a thirst to see where “this” goes. In many of our works, our characters and worlds have elements we have never experienced, things new or oblivious to us, and at times, things we never want to experience. Not all research feels fun, yet other times we fall down a rabbit-hole, coming up for air hours later realizing we’ve been off topic and diving into unwanted information. If the internet wasn’t a way to procrastinate, it certainly will become one the moment you use it for research. Regardless, this is my breakdown, advice, and techniques involving research. Take and leave what applies to you and your genre, but I aim to inspire. To be as consistent as possible, I will be pulling personal examples from my novel, Romasanta: Father of Werewolves along with some of my favorite authors for comparison. So, Spoiler alerts! However, it’s the best way to paint a clear picture of connecting research with a final piece.
You read right; you can find yourself falling down the rabbit-hole much like Alice did when it comes to research. I use the following pep talks and plans of evacuation to keep myself on tasks. These work great with an outline, list or semi-planned plotline:
Decide what part you are researching; Character, event, world?
Make a Want list!
Make a STAY AWAY OF THIS list!
Declare your focus or topic and STICK TO IT!
If you find something useful for something else for the story, list the link/resource in a side note and revisit AFTER you finish current focus!
If you find something cool for a different story, save the link in a file or list it in a notebook and hide it away… far, far away!
Stop often to review the notes and research you have kept so far and evaluate where you should be looking next
Don’t be afraid to stop, start writing, and revisit notes and continue when needed!
Types of Research
When I say types, I am not talking about the different genres research and non-fiction materials fall into, since in this discussion I refer to those as “resource genres”. The first thing anyone should be focused on is what or whom they are doing the research for and how to best use what is found. For me, I focus on three areas or breakdowns: World Building, Character, and Events. I will walk you through these in this order since this is how I follow up outlining my story idea. My recommendation is have a rough outline, or list of goals, or some sort of “YES/NO” check list to keep your focus on what you need. Consider it your safety line when you fall into the rabbit-hole of research. Now, let’s talk about these so-called types!
If you’re writing a Historical Fiction, this section will be one of the more important aspects of your story. World building involves the time period, setting, place, ambience, and even mechanic or laws of the world your characters live and interact within. Research can vary depending on your needs and wants. A list of things commonly seen in this type of research are:
Geographical – a place, city, region, environment, location, landmarks, etc. For example, Delphi in Greece, New York, the jungle in the Congo region, Mt. Rushmore.
Timeline – a century, a year, an event/pandemic/war, turning points in time, etc. For Example, Victorian era, 12th Century, World War 2, the year 1978.
Culture – People, mannerism, customs, what should be “normal”, religion, social tendencies, governments, laws, language, common vocabulary, terms for objects may differ from present day language, etc. For example, Romans, Emperor with a council, Hinduism, always salute your superiors, lepers who fail to ring their bell are sentenced to death on the spot.
Architecture – Buildings, statues, shelters, daily environments, physical aspects to match your geography and timeline choices, etc. For example, Gothic style churches, character lives in a hut in the forest because that is the “normal” housing of the time, place, and culture.
Objects – Weapons, tools, clothing, transportation, everyday household items, special equipment, things that help readers identify place/time/culture, etc. For example, in the Victorian Era they had many unique items such as Dead Charlotte charms, creating hair art from dead relatives, and collecting one’s tears.
Background – Newspaper or News, overall attitude of the society majority, weather, anything to help establish tone/mood/ambience, tertiary characters, small elements that don’t apply to your character, but paint a more tangible world. For example, describing the abnormal amounts of orphans on the street and reflect back to why, the pollution in the air, it always rains here, the news is filled with the political smear campaigns and every person in the country is sick to their stomachs about it.
Mechanics – Laws of nature, rules that drive the world and story from the background, things that should be set in stone, elements not necessarily in need of being written down but always followed, consistent action and reaction. For example, in Romasanta, Fenrir serves Mother Gaea who is nature’s law. In doing so, he has the uncontrollable urges to seek and destroy those who break the rules whether he wants to or not. This also can be elements like vampires always have to drink blood or like in the Manga/Anime AJIN they have to die completely before they heal.
Mechanics is a harder one to develop and usually involves more imagination than not. If you are trying to be historically or culturally accurate, then you need to add mechanics, or rules YOU can’t break, to the list to stay on point with your chosen time, place and cultures. This term is used in Game Development and often helps drive the story and tone for players (Extra Credits – Mechanics and Tone: https://youtu.be/YQ44hVeVdEw ). Adding in mechanics or consistent must-haves are seen in the popular stories being read. It’s like the complications found in the worlds of Harry Potter involving magic or even in The Lord of the Rings on how the cultures must function.
The first several elements listed here are straightforward, and at times easy to research. Be mindful on how a location and the time period you choose interact with one another. For example, what is a desert location today may have been tropical. In fact, a city you choose may have gone by a different name, under different influences or rulers, or even not exist. Double-checking these elements against one another can help you catch inaccurate information. You want to add a car, but your timeline says it’s not invented for another hundred years, so you need to dive deeper in what common transportation was for the time. Perhaps consider changing your characters social class to gain access to more objects and so on. Even then, if you are writing a Historical Fiction, being accurate and true to the time and place is a big aspect. I recommend reading Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian or even James Clavells’ work set in China and Japan. They both include large fictional aspects but keep true to the places and time they are living in.
This is my favorite type of research. I will lose myself to diving from one resource to the next when creating a character, especially for The Cedric Series. It may seem silly, but there are several things that can be pulled into your character, both strengths and flaws. World building is often the more common research for writers, but for me, CHARACTERS. I write character driven works. As I warned above, this is where I will be giving many examples pulled from Romasanta to express how I do this. Let’s first start with the different things you may find yourself looking up for your characters.
History – Historical people, class or caste, roles, positions, cultures, etc. For example, Joan of Arc, knight, peasant, the bodyguard, the shaman, Second Lieutenant.
Myth – Mythology, tales, fairy tales, folklores, urban legends, superstitions, etc. For example, many of the characters in The Cedric Series are based on several of these to make one character, including Cedric and Romasanta, and I will expose this below.
People – Relatives, friends, enemies, acquaintances, people watching, etc. For example, it is completely ok to take the people you see and mix match elements to create rounded characters.
Art – Pictures, artwork, statues, sculptures, etc. For example, there are some amazing artwork of the Greek gods that can influence elements of their creation and story. Lets not forget the talking pictures, statues and doorknockers!
Objects – Weapons, clothing, gear, jewellery, masks, talismans, wands, etc. For example, wands are a large part of representing the wizards in the Harry Potter series as is weaponry defines the type of warrior a character is, or could become.
Animals – Horses, pets, creatures, monsters, dragons, birds, etc. For example, Romasanta finds himself befriending Fenrir the God Wolf, Barushka the horse or Shag Foal, and each have their own elements and help draw out more about Romasanta himself.
Medical/Mental – Often our characters have medical or mental flaws to help make them more tangible or reflect their hardships during or prior to meeting the reader. Doing research on these can add a more accurate representation and make their struggles, and even accomplishments, more tangible for a reader. For example, PTSD, color blind, phantom limb, scars, etc.
You are probably looking at this list and seeing some ideas bubble. That’s good! More importantly, do not tie yourself down to just this list, or even just one of these on here. Mix and match your research, cherry pick the things you like best that compliment your story and character’s needs to grow and develop. Let’s unmask Romasanta and expose the inner workings of all the different research used to influence him and his story. To keep this short, since I once gave a computer lap full of college students a two-hour lecture on his inner makings, which ended in applause, I will list them and do my best to provide resources. Each will reflect a category above, and even some of the World Building bullets to feed into the character! Fair warning, I may have linked mostly online resources for your viewing, but the riches, more in-depth variants came from a large collection of books on my shelves on Mythology and History spanning this subject matters. In fact, I prefer books over internet in most cases.
History – His name is inspired by Manuel Romasanta who went on trial for being a serial killer and confessed to being a werewolf. Ironically, his mother was superstitious and believed in many Romanian based versions. He was also an accomplished farmer, merchant and soap maker, which I also brought into the picture. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manuel_Blanco_Romasanta )
Myth – Fenrir is part of Romasanta for a good portion of Book 2. He is from Norse Mythology and I dove into those lores and used Romasanta as the “Stone” in which Fenrir is “chained” to concept. Again, I didn’t feel the need to use all of the lores, but often used them in a metaphorical manner involving the complications I wanted to achieve throughout Romasanta’s origin story. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fenrir )
Superstition – Romanians and many medieval superstitions believed someone who died with unfinished business would come back as a werewolf or skin changer. There was many instances where bitten/clawed by this cursed would come back a undead who fed on the living. ( A Book I borrowed – Can’t find the list I wrote it on! NO! )
Myth – Apollo had some interesting and vague lores mentioning a relation to wolves, even House of Wolves and King of Arcadia. That was more than enough for me to take interest in various myths with him to add into the mix. For example, Romasanta shares a lot from Apollo such as a twin sister named Artemis and a lover named Daphne. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo )
Urban Legend – In Haiti, there is a belief of werewolves like digging up bodies to eat them and steal their valuables. You see a glimpse of this in a very important moment between Romasanta and a younger Cedric. ( Encyclopaedia of Gods, Monsters & Legend by Carol Rose )
Geographical – Cerdanya and the nearby Lepers Colony were indeed places in the 12th Century and central hubs of trade and the ill. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cerdanya )
Objects – Vodka is an important aspect. In my research, there were accounts of a new liquor in Cerdanya that meets its description and was reported as an item received from Lepers. On that note, Lepers were the top producers of potatoes at this time. Also, mind you, “vodka” was medicine and used for medicine and cleaning wounds, not necessarily seen as a main drink choice. ( http://www.ginvodka.org/history/vodkaHistory.asp )
History/Geographical – Historical version of Romasanta grew up in the same Spain/France region where Cerdanya once was located. (See Manuel Romasanta Link above )
Folklore – Black Dog/Black Wolf were known to hunt those who had done Mother Nature wrong or were ill natured. ( Encyclopaedia of Gods, Monsters & Legend by Carol Rose; Dictionary of Mythology from A to Z by JA Coleman )
Legend – Romulus and Remus were twins raised by a She-wolf. SPOILER! It was only natural for their father also be wolflike and a twin! Rhea, their mother, had insisted their father was Mars and in some weird variants even Apollo. There were a lot of discrepancies, which only gave me more room to add my own flair and imagination. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romulus_and_Remus )
Architectural/History – As the story progress and the change in the surroundings, the buildings and the background characters show the passing of time best to express Romasanta’s immortality.
Animal/Myth – Fenrir being a wolf, a lot of what is normal for a wolf to do, act, and so forth is added into Romasanta himself.
Object/Myth/Legend – The Eye of Gaea or Philosopher’s Stone plays a huge part in Romasanta’s destiny. So there was a large mixture as well as a large pull of my own imagination involving these items.
I know, that’s a lot of crazy research tunnels I travelled through to create ONE character. In fact, you don’t grasp all of this when you first meet him in Book 1, Cedric the Demonic Knight, but as you read book 2, Romasanta: Father of Werewolves, you can see how each element flows in and out of the story. Some of them are used to help me weigh the sort of decisions and skill set the character has in a situation, other times it is part of their heritage and drives their development. If you read Romasanta, it may be easy to see how I incorporated these, but I at least wanted to express the magnitude of the mix and matching can happen to design a character from research. I did my best to focus on wolf related lores and as I found one, or part of one, that met my needs I added it to my list of research to focus on.
Another line of research I do is based on the event or scene I am writing. Often I do this research in more depth when I hit the point of needing to write it. Before this point, I often leave myself notes on the outline of topics to research in order to keep true to the other research I’ve done on the world and characters. This is where we tend to look like Murderers from our internet search history! Regardless, it’s unique to the story plot and something our characters are experiencing. You may find yourself diving into all sorts of resources about some of these topics.
Skill/Trade/Talent – A lot of times our characters have a skill, trade, talent or something similar. Not all of us share these with our characters and diving into research can help us show and develop appropriate habits. For example, soap maker, air conditioner contractor, bounty hunter’s ability to re-assemble a gun, etc.
Historical – If your characters are involved in a Historical event, this is a good thing to research in detail so you can describe the event and your character’s involvement or interaction with it. For example, James Clavell’s Gai-jin covers the Yokohama fires and how the characters were all dealing with it differently.
Natural Disasters – Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and even plagues are a few of the things that can happen in even fantasy based worlds Researching witness accounts can give you ideas of how your character should and would react to what is going on when you throw them in these scenarios. For example, Romasanta takes refuge in a lepers’ colony. Even though he is immune to this pandemic, the impact on watching these people and their struggles as they die.
Mechanical Disasters – This covers car crashes, train wrecks, spaceships being sucked into black holes (that’s really both Natural and Mechanical), and buildings collapsing are just a few ideas for what can be researched and help you describe the details of what is happening. For example, in my novel Judgment, Talib is trapped under a collapsed building and the ordeal of figuring out how to get out from under it sends him and the readers into questioning how daunting being immortal is in this scenario.
Wartime Catastrophe – War is a plethora of weaponry and pushing the limits of men and machines. In a fantasy piece, this spans in magic and in science fiction, this pushes the nastier outcomes of science. Historically we see this as trench warfare and atomic bombs. Either way, the research here can be heart-breaking, so tread lightly. For example, the war in which Harry Potter and friends find themselves fighting.
Goals – A vague term, but it’s in conjunction to the things we force our characters to do to achieve a goal in the storyline. This includes murder, fighting, learning a new skill, undergoing some sort of character/story developing moment, and more. These are events and often a combination of the other categories that pull together in a special way. For example, Romasanta using his past knowledge to outsmart getting by the dragon by tricking his sensitive nose with soap.
By no means are any of these concrete and there are plenty more I could list in all three types, but this will get you thinking. Again, I am to get you thinking about the sort of things you can dive into for research and how to connect your event to your character to your world. There should be a since of belonging and overlapping happening on occasion, if not consistent enough to make things tangible. Now, how did I pull all this Romasanta research together?
Example from Romasanta
Pay attention to how a lot of what I listed about him, being a farmer, Fenrir, being an animal/wolf, and more come together in this scene. Again SPOILER ALERT! I cannot express any more clear way than the complete transparency of Romasanta’s design and finished novel. I hope this serves a clear means to connecting the pieces.
Fenrir and Romasanta shuddered as they stood over the broken body. It was giving off a foul smell and Nyctimus refused to be near the heap any longer. Shifting back into a man, he disregarded the need for clothes. Instead, he grabbed up a knife and pot, going to work on the carcass before him. Digging his fingers deep, he removed skin and pulled slabs of fat from Boreas’ misconstrued body. What are you doing, Farmer? Fenrir’s curiosity was vibrating through him as he filled the pot with fat. Do you aim to consume Boreas? If so, this is not the best part… Romasanta shook his head, engulfed with his labor as he poured salt into the pot and set it on hot coals. “I am making tallow, for soap.” Fenrir snorted, This is no time to bathe, Farmer. Chuckling, Romasanta explained what he intended on doing with the tallow, “My dear Fenrir, you humor me at times. This soap I will not be adding flowers to, it serves a different purpose. Instead, I will be adding Boreas’ hair and slithers of skin so when I bathe with it, I will be scented the same as he. Did you not tell me Aitvaras has poor eyesight in the day?” Excitement rattled in his core. This is the clever man I have come to envy! “You do me too much honor to envy me. I am nothing but a farmer, Fenrir.” With the greatest care, he cut thin, small slithers of Boreas’ skin and fur, adding them to the boiling pot of fat. “I am doing this to avoid being burnt alive. If it overwhelms our nose, it will fool him for sure.” Nyctimus crawled closer to Rhea, whispering to her in hopes Romasanta could not hear. “Who in the Gods is he talking to?” “Fenrir.” She beamed, enjoying the interaction between man and beast. “They were cursed to share Romasanta’s body.” “How do you know which one you are talking to?” Furrowing his brow, his hazel eyes seemed big against his brown wolven head. “Is there a secret to recognizing the man from the wolf?” Sighing, Rhea watched as Romasanta hovered over the bowling pot. He was dipping out large chunks of meat that broke away from the melting fat. She turned back to Nyctimus with a reply, “You are always talking to both.” Looking over his shoulder, Nyctimus gave a sorrowful gaze to the cursed naked man at the fire. “And I thought my curse was difficult. I am simply a man who turns into a wolf, but he is two beings…” Satisfied he had only fat in the pot, Romasanta let it continue to simmer without his aid. Gripping the putrid corpse, he dragged it with him. Nyctimus awed at the ease in which he shifted from human to wolf. The entire process was painful as muscles stretched and bones shattered to make room. Anyone who was near them could hear the snapping and popping of the forceful metamorphism that took place at incredible speed. Romasanta left them at the fire as he carried the body far away.
Find the novel here on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Romasanta-Father-Werewolves-Cedric-Book-ebook/dp/B00UCEK31U/
Resource Types & Genres
Resources types come in many shapes and sizes. Heck, some of my best resources are college PHD thesis written in the early 1900’s or older. You are familiar with internet and books being resources you can search for materials, but there are several other ways, places, and techniques. Let me break these down and give you a good run through of some that I have used, or suggested to fellow writers in the last few years.
Internet – The internet is a great starting point for most research. It can lead you to many of the other resources, but I do not recommend depending on it alone. Venture out and team this resource with some of the others.
Books/Journals/Newspapers – I still find some of the best stuff hidden in the pages of books. Even my best resource of photos from the Civil War and World War II are on my shelf and not online. A lot of material and research captured here never makes it to the web or internet sources. Don’t underestimate these tomes even in the digital age!
Experts – Call them, email them, go to them, find them. Never hesitate to reach out to a college professor or the neighbour lady whose a whizz at knitting. Asking someone about the very thing they are good at, or experts of, is a compliment and can give you insight on how to best illustrate something in your world, characters or story.
Field Trip – Never underestimate the need to take a drive or trip some place. This can be harder for someone like myself, with no funds and writing about Delphi, Greece. On the same note, it still didn’t stop me from looking at travel guides, vacation packages and similar resources to discover a more personal aspect of visiting and being in Delphi. Asking around, and I found someone who has been there, and being able to confirm my findings was a bonus! Also, if you are writing about your hometown or someplace close you can drive to, VISIT THERE! Ask for the local historian! It’s a chance for them to be able to share information that only living there would be known!
Fiction – This may seem odd, but fictional sources can be very helpful in revealing more about a time period or understanding why something was so popular. For example, the Dead Charlotte charms were based on a popular sonnet/song at the time titled “Poor Charlotte. Even then, looking at Grimm’s Fairy tales and similar books record common fears and morals being pushed onto children and society.
Non-fiction – My personal favorite, though I tend to favor those that also have great photos or illustrations. This is mainly due to the fact I am a visual learner. Regardless, these often work as good means of creating leads of where to check for further, and more unique, resource topics.
If you are still having research headaches and woes, let me know. I am still refining this topic, but I hope what I have managed to write down so far will aid everyone who need some help of where and what to look for. Breaking it into the three core needs, teaming it with the kinds you can pull from, and finally, understanding your resource options can help tremendously. Happy hunting and beware of the rabbit-hole!