This is an edited version of a talk I tried to give at the
WriterConUK Midimeet in Reading, August 2008. (I say tried
because everyone kept adding witty comments, and making me laugh
;-) The topic of the talk was suggested curiouswombat,
so thank you very much to her!
Whilst I was writing this talk, and panicking because seemed
to be getting longer and longer without having any content, a
LiveJournal user, rizny, posted a discussion of an article
shed read, in Scientific American Mind, which listed four
activities that can increase your creativity. When I read them,
I thought, Yes, thats what my talks really about! Thats
what research leads to!
So Ill start by quoting the four ways to greater creativity,
as summarised by rizny:
Capturingpreserving new ideas as they occur to you,
and doing so without judging them.
Challenginggiving yourself tough problems to solve.
Broadeningboosting your creativity by learning interesting
new things, because the more diverse your knowledge is, the more
interesting the interconnections you can make.
Surroundingenriching your intellectual environment,
because the more interesting the things and people around you
are, the more interesting your own ideas become.
Im going to talk about researchabout how you might capture
it, how you might use it, andI hopehow doing it might
broaden your existing ideas and surround you with
When I began thinking seriously about research, I decided that
it could be divided into three types
Accidentalthe information you pick up without realising
Backgroundthe information you seek out for a specific
Detailthe titbits of information you need to provide
those little points of colour in your descriptions
and your dialogue.
Accidental research is the stuff you pick up in the course
of daily lifethe things you learn at school or at work,
the things you see on TV or read in a book, the things that your
family and friends bore you to tears withall the things
you dont know you know until you find yourself using them.
My brothers a builder and hes forever talking about work. Hell
say, The joists were completely rotten, so I replaced them
all, and laid down two inch ply, because if the floor isnt solid,
the tilesll crack
And Ill think, Phil, I dont want to know!
But my latest storys set on a building site! Its an elven building
site, high up in the trees, but its still a building site, and
the victims a buildernot based on my brotherand
Eowyn even gets to do a little bit of woodwork herself. Ive mixed
in elements from other sourcesfor example, Ive given the
builders a ritual I found in a book about the archaeology of folk
magicbut the practical details of woodworking (which I keep
to a minimum), and the builders love of wood, and my willingness
to write about it allmy confidence in my own knowledgehave
all come from hearing my brother talk.
The moment I realised how useful accidental research was, I started
looking out for it, and saving it. Because you never know when
you might need it, and theres nothing worse than half
I have an original character whos a cartographerBy
Appointment to His Majesty, King Elessarand his particular
expertise has come in handy in several stories. And I can remember
watching a TV programme about a Tudor mapmaker which took us step-by-step
through the process of surveying using a cross-staff. But I didnt
make proper notes, and now I cant remember the process! Ive
Googled and Googled trying to find the equivalent online, or to
find a DVD of the programme, butso farIve found nothing!
So, when you see something you think might be useful, SAVE it.
Capture it. I now have an Ideas folder on my computer,
and an Ideas shelf on my bookcase because its important to keep
everything together, and look through it regularly, because that
will not only make it easier to find, and easier to remember why
you saved it, but it will also allow you to make those creative
interconnections between the ideas.
So, what sort of things might a writer capture?
Well, I save pictures of potential settings. I
save bits of castle, like this Mediaeval urinal, which I photographed
at Orford Castle in Suffolk. The urinals just a triangular hole
in the wall, beside the door of the Wardens office. Its quite
high up, on the second or third storey. The Warden would have
come out, relieved himself, and gone back to work, and let gravity
do the rest.
Ive got pictures of winding streets with detail I can put into
descriptions, bits of landscape, and loads and loads of Forest
This, as you can see, is a particularly green bit of Forest.
The moment I saw it, I thought of Robin Hoodnot the new
BBC version, nor even the old Robin of Sherwood, but a real, grubby
And I thought, Suppose a band of outlaws
moved into Legolas world and started terrorising travellers.
What would he do? So I saved this picture for three reasonsfirst,
to remind me of the story idea; secondly, to give me a physical
setting for the story; and, thirdly, to use the image in a story
| I often save pictures of objects
I think I might want to use.
I found this bolus because I needed a weapon that might allow
a man to take an elf by surprisewhich is a constant problem
with elves: how do you knock them out? It turns out, though, that
bolus is a very rude word in Spanish: if you type it into Google,
even with moderately safe search turned on, a whole new world
opens up before you!
I save pictures of potential OCsmaybe screen capped
from DVDs, or torn out of magazines, or found on the web. I find
that its much easier to keep an OC in character if I have a face
orbetter stilla face and a voice to work with.
This is the picture I use for King Thranduil, Legolas father.
He is not an OC, of course, but I was having real trouble writing
him until I read a discussion in which someone suggested that
Alan Rickman should play him. That gave me a voice and an attitude,
and I already had this wonderful picture
And, suddenly, the
Elvenking was a real person and all I had to do was watch and
I also save snippets of text.
This is part of an article that was linked to on LiveJournal
by angevin2. She had already posted a quote from Henry
VI part I, in which one of the French says that the English
are fighting like the Duracel bunny:
Their arms are set, like clocks, still to strike on
And the article talks about
a mechanical angel that greeted Richard II for his coronation
in London in 1377
The contrivance had to perform on cue and
the moment of Richards arrival was unpredictable, so a puppet
seems more likely than a clockwork automaton.
There are so many possibilities in that snippetLegolas
and Eowyn fighting clockwork robots, or metal puppetsso
I saved it. I save useful web pages, and I set aside books (with
bookmarks and dog-eared pages marking the passages I think will
come in handy). Ive collected books on Mediaeval siege warfare,
which are ready for my next story but two, and a book on early
flight, which I recently inherited from my Dad, because the moment
I saw it, I thought, Im going to write a story about Legolas
and a flying machine!
I put DVDs aside for screen capping, because my stories tend
to be set beyond the edges of the films, so Im always looking
for stuff I can photo-manipulate. But I also save them for fights,
because Ive found that a good way to write fights is to find
a film fight, watch it carefully, then write it up.
One great place to do research is on a field tripgoing
to a place where you can take pictures, make notes and sketches,
and just generally soak up the atmosphere.
This picture was taken on a trip to a mediaeval pageant, which
has been really useful because these people were living, as authentically
as possible, in mediaeval tents, wearing mediaeval clothes, sleeping
on mediaeval beds, eating mediaeval food
And the archer told
me lots of valuable stuff about bows and arrows.
Now this was a very special field trip!
This is one of the Forest walks at the Capilano Suspension Bridge
in Vancouver. If you imagine carved wood in place of the hefty
timbers, and swirling patterns instead of the mesh, and red leaves,
you are standing in Eryn Carantaur. I made a lot of notes about
the atmosphere herehow the sunshine and the shade falls
in unexpected places; how the pale wood looks like bone; how the
patches of water on the ground may look like snow, or like bits
of fallen sky; how three trees, growing through one of the platforms,
look like living pillars, and branch out to form a natural ceiling
I find that A6 notebooks are ideal for this sort of thing because
they fit easily into a bag or a pocket and, if they dont already
have one built in, you can put an elastic strap round them to
keep them closed. I jot down ideas, bits of dialogue, names, quick
diagrams of things, and I slip bits and bobs torn out of newspapers
and magazines into them
Background research is different from accidental research
because youre doing it for a specific purpose, and probably against
some sort of deadline, and because it may be about something that
you wouldnt normally be interested in, so it can feel a bit superficial.
The most important thing about background research is to mix
it in thoroughly with the story. It mustnt stand out; it mustnt
say, Look at me, Im research! If youre not sure
how well youve incorporated it, I think the best thing is to
ask a beta. A good beta will be able to point to anything that
jars, and help you decide how to blend it in betteror whether
to delete it altogether.
Im going give some examples of how Ive gone about doing background
research and using it. I have a story called The lady vanishes,
which is set in Minas Tirith at Yuletide and I wrote it because
I wanted to give Legolas and Eowyn the sort of Christmas wed
all love to havea real Dickensian Christmas with roaring
fires and roasted chestnuts. And, apart from having to deal with
several murders, and defeat the Minas Tirith mafia, I think they
do have a pretty good time!
I wanted to do more than just include a lot of Christmassy detailsI
wanted to make the story more memorable. I knew nothing about
Yuletide, so I Googled it, and found masses of information, which
I copied and pasted into Word, and ended up with a file about
40 pages long. Obviously, some of the material was repetitive,
so I quite quickly cut it down to about 20 pages.
What I was left with was some general stuff about traditional
foods, traditional decorations, gift givingall of it pretty
similar to Christmasand several named feasts or rituals,
but no clear picture of what should happen when, because the sources
were either quite vague or, in some cases, disagreed with each
So I decided to draw up my own timetable. I knew that the festivities
lasted for twelve days and started, more or less, on the winter
solstice. That gave me this:
21 Girithron, Mother Night: Lighting the Yule
Greeting the Sun.
24 Girithron: The Dressing of the Yule Tree.
26 Girithron: The Killing of the Wren.
1 Narwain, Twelfth Night: The Burning of the Yule Wreaths.
Now I had several fixed points that I would need to weave the
rest of my plot around, but I found that that worked wellit
stopped me wandering off the point and kept the story moving along.
Having drawn up the timetable, I went back to the research and
pasted the relevant details into the right days. Then I pasted
the entire timetable into the end of my story file and, as I wrote
each chapter, I copied the relevant research into the chapter,
and edited it into the narrative. For example, for 1 Narwain,
I started off with some material about the Yule Wreath,
Modern tradition uses a Yule wreath as an oath ring. This
wreath is oathed upon as well as wished upon, and then burned
at the Twelfth Night.
This became the following scene:
A large bonfire had been built in the courtyard of the Kings
House and the guests were taking turns to cast their Yule Wreaths
into the flames
"Make your wish! said Legolas.
For a moment, they both bowed their heads and closed their
Then, "Ready? he asked.
Eowyn nodded and, together, they threw the wreath into the
fire. The dry leaves curled in the heat then suddenly flared brightly;
and their light and smoke bore the couples hopes and resolutions
upwards towards the stars.
Several sources had mentioned a Festival of Light but had not
given any precise details. I thought that a good time to celebrate
light would be on the morning after the shortest dayas
a sort of thank you to the sun for rising againso I made
up a ritual, which I called the Greeting of the Sun (and I was
really pleased with it, so I used it more than once, but a certain
member of WriterConUK has since pointed out that it bears an uncanny
resemblence to a scene in The Rocky Horror Show, LOL):
[Everyone has gathered outside, and is waiting for the sun
to rise.] At last, a tiny sliver of light appeared above the mountains
of Mordor. Eowyn touched the lighted taper to the candlewick.
The flame flared, died down as the wax melted and pooled, then
rose up again, steady and strong. Together with the other revellers,
Eowyn lifted her candle to greet the rising sun.
Another element in this particular story is a Boar hunt, which
gives Aragorn and Eomer the opportunity to discover two bodies.
Id always intended to include a hunting scene but, on holiday
in Vancouver, I was lucky enough to find a bargain book called
The Art of Mediaeval Hunting: the Hound and the Hawk, by
John Cummins. Cummins quotes from several mediaeval hunting manuals,
including one Gaston Phoebus, who describes how
The[boars] eyes roll in rage, and it takes two or three
steps towards him, ears pricked. As soon as the hunter sees this,
he must prepare himself, for let him be sure that the boar will
come so quickly that it will seem that not an instant elapses
between the beginning of his charge and his arrival on the spear;
or, if the hunter misses his aim, on the man himself.
So as to be able to move his hand wherever necessary, [the
hunter] must never grip the spear in his armpit, but after the
impact he should put it there and thrust hard. And if the boar
is stronger than him, he must jump about retaining his hold, and
push and push until God gives him aid or help arrives.
Eomer gripped his spear and watched his adversary carefullyhe
knew the signssnout low to the ground, ears flat against
the head, tusks clashing together. He raised the spear to waist
height. "Come on, then," he cried, "show me what
you are made of! Come! Charge!" The boar rolled its eyes
and pricked its ears, took several small stepsThis
is it, thought Eomer. The beast charged.
Eomer stood firm, one foot forward, leaning in towards the
boar. May the gods protect me, he prayed. Now! He
strucka perfect hit, his spear sinking deep into the beasts
massive throatthen he gripped the shaft under his arm
and thrust hard.
But the boar was strong. And Eomer was forced dance
with it, holding his weapon firm as the animal writhed and thrashed.
I must hold on, he thought, till the gods give me
more strength, or help arrives.
(Which should, perhaps, as my WriterConUK colleagues pointed
out, carry an Eomer/beast warning).
My second example is just an excuse to show the picture that
inspired it, which is by a lady called Dawnlyn.
This story is a vignette about Little Legolas trying to teach
his father archery and, with a bit of Googling, I managed to download
a pdf, called the Reference Guide for Recurve Archers,
which has this to say about shooting:
Stand tall and relaxed (one foot either side of the shooting line).
Dont lock the knees.
Keep the feet about a shoulder-width apart.
Check that shoulders are square and head is level.
So I pasted the extract into the story, and it became Legolas
Stand tall, he said, drawing himself up
to his full three feet nothing, and adopting a voice that sounded
suspiciously like a certain bow masters, with one
foot either side of your shooting line. He shifted his
little hips from side to side to illustrate the point. Do
not lock your knees. He bounced up and down a few times.
Check that your shoulders are square.
He raised the bow to his waist. Curl your fingers round
the bowstring in a deep hook. He exaggerated the movement
of his hand
Detail research. The third type of research is what Ive
called detail research. This is looking for the tiny details you
need to flesh out your descriptions or dialogue. Most of the time
these details have no bearing on the plottheyre mentioned
and then immediately forgotten. But its worth taking a little
time over them because they add atmosphere to a story, they add
credibility to a story and, if you get them wrong, they can seriously
annoy the reader!
In my current story, Season of Mists, one of my OFCs gets
burned putting out a fire. This raises the question: how does
an elven healer treat a burn? I Googled herbal burn remedies and,
after scanning two or three websites, found an ancient Indian
treatment using cotton ash bound in vegetable oil, which I liked
because it had a homoeopathic quality that seemed appropriate
Take a large piece of cotton wool and burn it (in a metal
pot). Mix the ash with olive oil (or any cooking oil) to get a
thick black paste. Spread the paste on the burned skin. Cover
with cling film.
So my elven healer says, I have treated [it] with an ash
poultice. I didnt go into extensive detail (though in this
case I was really tempted) because I think the shorter you keep
a detail, the less likely you are to make glaring mistakes, and
the less attention it draws to itself!
Becausemost of the timedetails like these dont affect
the plot, if you dont have web access, or you dont have other
reference materials to hand, you can just leave a gap in the textI
usually type a series of xsand carry on writing, and then
do the research and fill in the gaps later.
This is something that I was writing on holidayKing Thranduil
is talking to his gardener:
Yes, your Majesty, said the head gardener. There
is xxxI believe the edain call it the butterfly bush. And
the young of the xxx butterfly live on cabbages, and the xxx on
thistles. But whether they can be lured underground by planting
Next morning, I went along to a bookshop and looked at a book
on butterflies and worked out how to fill the blanks. The first
blank turned out to be buddleia, which I had to convert to blue
blossom and then translate as Gwaloth thlhûn; the second
blank was a Cabbage White butterfly, which I converted to a Radiant
butterfly and translated as Faen; and the third blank was a Painted
Lady, which became a Jewel, and was translated as Mîr.
Sometimes, what you think is going to be a throwaway detail does
turn out to be something that affects the plot. In one of my stories,
Eowyn falls into the sea, and shes submerged for a few minutes.
And I vaguely remembered having seen something in an episode of
Baywatch about salt water drowning, so I looked it up. It turns
out that if you get salt water in your lungs your body mayup
to eight hours afterwardsdecide to flush it out and, if
youre lying down, or sleeping, you can actually drown in your
I could have ignored this, because Eowyns a heroine and so not
limited by normal physical constraints, but Im constantly worried
about the fine line we tread when we ignore things like recovery
times in order to keep a story moving, so I decided to treat the
incident realistically. Enter a healer:
the next five hours are of most concern. Give her
sweet cordial; keep her temperature normalif she feels cold,
cover her up, if she feels warm, cool her downsponge her
with cold water, if necessaryand, if she wants to lie down,
try to keep her head and shoulders raised. If she feels no worse
after five hours, I think you can assume that she is fully recovered.
This meant re-writing the rest of the chapter to fit the treatmentbut
that was OK because it meant that Eowyn got to make her confession
whilst being fussed over by Legolas.
So thats about it. To sum up:
Save your accidental research, keep it together, and look through
it regularly for inspiration.
Make sure that your background research is thoroughly incorporated
into your story and, if in doubt, ask a good beta reader to check
Take a little time over your detail research, because details
add atmosphere to the story, but keep them short, unless you find
something that affects your plot.