I was going to do a post about outlines and planning/plotting vs. “pantsing” today, but I decided to combine that post with one about my drafting method next week. So! Instead, we’re going to talk about Reading for Research.
As I mentioned in last week’s post about preparation, I make a reading list pretty early on in the process of starting a new book. While that list will include true “research”–non-fiction necessary to flesh out the world I am creating–it will also include fiction and graphic novels. Reading fiction helps me to see how other authors have handled the subject I will be writing about (whether it’s dragons or an epic quest or whatever). Even if our plots and characters are nothing alike, it is crucial for me to familiarize myself with other works in my chosen genre. Being a writer is being a reader, after all. There is absolutely no separating the two. Graphic novels, on the other hand, help me to visualize concepts which may be difficult to understand from historical texts alone. For example, my current book is set in an alternate Asia, so I was doing research on ancient China and Japan. And guys, I am embarrassed to tell you how much time I spent trying to figure out what a fucking DOOR was like back then. Did it open like a Western door? Did it slide like the doors do in Chinese and Japanese movies? If it slid open, how did it lock? It was a NIGHTMARE. But I picked up a couple of graphic novels and sort of figured it out. (I say sort of because it’s not like the graphic novels were ABOUT doors, but they were in the drawings and I kind of got the concept enough to make intelligent writing choices) (I also need to thank my cousin Alisa for explaining how sliding doors lock)
Look! Here’s what my reading list for this current book looks like:
This is back when the project was code-named “Bruise” (I have a terrible time thinking up titles, so my books all have one-word code-names for a LONG time). This is page one of like…*counts*…5. I didn’t finish the list, but this book turned into a series pretty quickly so I’m going to continue reading from this list when I’m working on books 2 and 3. This is page 1 of the “fiction” section. Stapled to it are my “non-fiction” and “graphic novel” lists.
I think the easiest way to explain how I ‘read for research’ is to go through the books I read for my current project and explain why I chose them and what I actually got out of them. This post is going to be huge, by the way. Be prepared.
Let’s start with a visual aid:
Here’s a selection of the FICTION I read for this project.
“The Once and Future King” by T.H. White: This is one of the most widely-known books about King Arthur and his knights out there. My original concept for Bruise was of an Arthurian legend set in an alternate Asia, so I started with this baby. It was excellent, and although I ended up scrapping the whole Arthurian thing eventually, I was still inspired by the scene where Wart pulls the sword from the stone.
“The Complete Chronicles of Conan” by Robert E. Howard: Another original concept for Bruise was of a Conan the Barbarian-style story starring ladies instead of hulking brutes. It seems that the sequel will have more of that flavor than this current book, but reading Conan was still important. I only made it through half of this book because it unfortunately started getting too racist for me to continue. Different times, man, I know, but damn.
“The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy by JRR Tolkein: I’m about to say something incredibly unpopular right now. I re-read these books (after last reading them in high school when I was obsessed with the films) hoping to be incredibly inspired to write my epic journey, but…I ended up really disliking them. Not “The Hobbit.” That one is awesome. But the trilogy…it was almost a lesson in how NOT to write. Tolkein was far too descriptive in his landscape for my taste (the books read like Google Maps of Middle Earth, and I really didn’t need to know where that one fucking stream goes, which was told to me over the course of like 5 whole pages). I found myself consistently bored. I did, however, love everything to do with Saruman. He was the most captivating character in the series, for me. Sorry Tolkein, I used to love you but now I don’t.
“Oathbound”/”Oathbreakers”/”Oathblood”/”By the Sword” by Mercedes Lackey: The Oathbound series is one I was suuuuuper obsessed with in high school, and it was so fun to come back to it as an adult. I read these because they star two badass ladies working together in a fantasy middle-ages-y world. I got a lot out of re-reading these. They helped shape one of my main characters and taught me to think about the details of war-strategy. “By the Sword” stars a different character, but was just as helpful.
“The Fox Woman” by Kij Johnson and “The Book of Loss” by Julith Jedamus: I read both of these because they are set in ancient Japan. Both helped me to visualize that time period and incorporate elements of Japanese imperial court life and customs (such as taboos and restrictions) into my own book. And robes. My gad, I didn’t even think about robes and color combinations and blossom-viewings and the life of court women until I read these. My book would have been far less rich without them. One entire (super important) character would never have EXISTED without them. Thank you, books!
“The Maid” by Kimberly Cutter: This book is about Joan of Arc and was one of the most important and crucial books I read for Bruise. My monk character reminds me a lot of Joan, and this book helped me to understand how to write someone who is maybe truly god-touched or who might just be insane. I wanted that delicate balance, that uncertainty for the reader of “is she visited by God or is she schizophrenic?” in my work, and although my book isn’t perfect, I got a lot closer to achieving that goal than I would have without “The Maid.” To this day it is also the one book that came very close to completely ruining me. One page…one single page…destroyed me for DAYS. I sometimes still think about it and feel sick. Not for the faint of heart.
“Hild” by Nicola Griffith: This book is fabulous, for those of you who like historical fiction. I read it because the main character is someone who, like Joan of Arc, sees things (Hild is the king’s seer) and uses them to influence politics. Hild also became a saint. She definitely helped shape my monk character.
“The Hero and the Crown” and “The Blue Sword” by Robin McKinley: I re-read these because they are about women who go against their society’s norms and become heroes. That’s one of the themes of Bruise, so reading these was a natural choice. I highly recommend them. I’ve read them several times already and will probably read them several times more.
“Kushiel’s Dart” and “Kushiel’s Chosen” by Jacqueline Carey: (I didn’t include the third in the trilogy, “Kushiel’s Avatar,” because I finished my book before I got to it. I did read it, though) Again, these are books I read in high-school and absolutely loved. I re-read them to learn how to write sex scenes, actually…I’ve never written sex scenes before in my books, and I wanted to handle it well without being incredibly graphic. These books, however, gave me much more than I had bargained for. They are are a MASTERCLASS in plotting fantasy fiction. Oh my gosh. The amount of threads that Carey weaves into the tapestry of her writing is insane. I felt like I became a better writer just by reading them. WOW.
“The Song of Ice and Fire” series by George R. R. Martin: These books completely changed Bruise, for the better. My book started off with two first-person POVs, and I was struggling so much with how to tell such a huge story with just these two characters. Their knowledge was so limited, and yet I had so much information to include. It made for a LOT of telling vs. showing. Then I read “Game of Thrones,” and it blew my mind. I immediately re-wrote Bruise from several POVs, including the “enemy,” and the book just opened up and took flight. I will ever be in my man Gerogie R R’s debt for that. He changed how I look at POV completely. He changed how I think about storytelling. Just…damn. That man. Fucking visionary. Not to mention the insane levels of detail. He also helped me think about battles and strategy and affiliations and all the complications of the aftermath of war.
“The Chronicles of Prydain” series by Lloyd Alexander: I read these for the simple fact that they were about an ordinary boy (an assistant pig-keeper) who gets tangled up in extraordinary events and becomes somewhat MORE than an assistant pig-keeper. They were cute, but a little too young to be helpful to me. I stopped reading after the third one, I think.
“Legend of the Five Rings: Clan War, First Scroll: Scorpion” by Stephen Sullivan: I was having difficulty with the “flavor” of my book at the time I read this, and picked it up because it’s a fantasy set in an alternate Japan. It wasn’t helpful enough for me to continue reading the rest of the series, but it did get me out of my world-building rut. For that, I am grateful.
DAMN, that’s a lot of reading, right?? But wait, THERE’S MORE!
Here are the NON-FICTION and GRAPHIC NOVEL books I read.
Non-fiction: “China,” “China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty,” and “The Secret History of the Mongol Queens” helped me to build the world my characters live in. “Kwaidan: Japanese Ghost Stories” was what I read when, for a brief moment, I thought I wanted to include a chapter with some ghosts/demons. That didn’t make the cut, but I’ll use what I learned in Book 2. “On the Trail of Genghis Khan” had some useful information about the Mongols that I used for one of my nations. “The Middle Ages: Everyday Life in Medieval Europe” had some great information about knights. I kind of strayed away from the knight stuff when I gave up on the Arthurian connection, but it was still interesting and might be useful for one of the other books.
Graphic novels: “Pang The Wandering Shaolin Monk Vols 1 & 2” helped me visualize what my monk character might be like, “Lone Wolf and Cub” helped me visualize feudal Japan, “Okko” helped me wrap my head around what a fantasy book based on Japan might be like, and “A Bride’s Story” helped me understand nomadic life, and shaped how I wrote my nomad nation.
I also have a large stack of internet research (from Wikipedia, mostly) that I used for details like armor, clothing, and etc. I printed out a LOT about the Forbidden City. For awhile I was obsessing over ancient messenger services…so much paper. So many articles. Oh! And I watched a ton of videos of trebuchets firing, which was fucking awesome.
Generally I’ll read the non-fiction before I start writing, and read the fiction and graphic novels while I’m writing. I read for research the entire length of the project, which means I’ve been reading for Bruise for almost 2 years, with a couple of cheat-books in between.
So, there you have it! That’s how I read for research when working on a book project! Are you exhausted? I sure am!
Next week I’ll talk about outlines, planning, pantsing, drafting, and all those other horrible technical things you have to think about before you get to the fun part of writing.