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Worlds Apart September 2007






There is an old cliché which says you should only write what you know, and it’s a good rule, but with today’s information and communications tools you can know far more than ever before, and far more quickly.  The golden word is research, and the successful creation of other worlds requires a commitment to serious research.  You don’t need to have a degree in history or anthropology, but you do need patience, and, above all, a plan. 


With your story outline in front of you, determine what you will probably need to know, and then work out the ways in which to find the information.  At this stage, you are only dealing with the broader, more general items, such as physical features, language, economics, political system and so on.  The finer detail will be required as you start to write, and you can pick it up as you need it.  Your specific requirements will vary according to your story, and you will be able to start your piece with much more confidence if you have given yourself a good background. 


Using the cultural elements we’ve talked about in these columns over the past two years, build up an initial picture of your world.  Whether it’s a contemporary one in another country, an historical world or a world of pure imagination, it is wise to do enough research and quiet reflection to give yourself a good understanding of what that world will be like before you actually start writing. 


When that is done, it often helps to describe your world for yourself, even if only in note form, and another useful idea is to map it out.  A diagram or map will help you be consistent about distances, directions and spatial relationships between cities, regions and other geographic features.  


Now what about the research process itself?  Pre-eminent among today’s tools is, of course, the Internet, and if it has not already done so, it should become your constant companion.  Text, photographs, sound and video are all available, and the range of subjects is infinite.  Whatever you are looking for, the World Wide Web is the place to start, but it is not necessarily the only place to look.  Despite the richness of the Internet, you should not ignore the time-honored sources such as libraries, museums, art galleries and interviews. 


Libraries are, of course, the original source of information, and the old adage that no matter what it is, someone has written a book about it, usually proves true.  A library search will often reveal books on subjects you need, and they will sometimes provide information in great detail. Thanks to online catalogues and interlibrary loan networks, collections of all sizes and specializations are now accessible.  Use the catalogues, use encyclopedias and general reference material as well, and steadily and carefully assemble the material you need.  


Museums are an excellent source of information on material culture, and there is no more accurate way to describe an objet d’art, a tool or a piece of furniture than by seeing it firsthand.  Museums often contain photographic collections and archives as well, and these can show you what people, places and things actually looked like as far back as the nineteenth century.  For visual representations of earlier times, a visit to an art gallery can be useful, but no matter where you find images of people or objects, you can use them to enhance the accuracy of your descriptions.  If you are describing the clothing worn by one of your characters in the seventeenth century, how better to do it than by finding a picture in a book, gallery or on the Internet?


The final research tool is the interview, whereby you acquire information by speaking to an expert: an historian, lawyer, mountain climber, yachtsman, physician, archeologist or whatever you need. 


If you do find specialists willing to talk to you, show respect for their time by going with prepared questions. Always avoid asking questions to which you could have found answers elsewhere, and make sure your interviewees know you will acknowledge their help in the published work.  It’s useful to provide a written synopsis of your story so that those to whom you speak will understand the context in which the questions are being asked and how the information will be used.  If they see you’ve done your homework, they’ll be more ready to help.


If your story is set in relatively recent times, then it’s an excellent idea to interview people who actually lived in that era.  A description of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy will be made much more vivid if you can incorporate the personal impressions you gain form interviewing a veteran who was there.  Pictures help, but there is nothing to match the human touch.  Additionally, personal memories can be used to glean a sense of what life was like in the days of our grandparents or great-grandparents.


Next month, we’ll have a look at more specific forms of research, and I’ll offer some suggestions about ways to access direct information from times past.

Write on,