Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Location, Location, Research?

Two years ago the West Coast Crime Convention, which is usually held on the West Coast of America, made a special guest appearance in Bristol -- the west coast of England. The organisers enjoyed it so much that they decided to create an annual event, using the American model, and Crimefest was born. The first one took place in early June this year, and a good time was had by all.

As Bristol isn't far from my home, I was able to hop over as a daily visitor. (Although this did involve crossing from one country to another.) I think everyone enjoyed the international mix of authors -- British, American, Canadian, Scandinavian and probably others that I didn’t find out about. So many panels – so little time. Sessions ranged from an interview with Jeff Lindsay, the creator of Dexter, to a very funny panel devoted to animals and crime – mostly cats, a few dogs, the occasional horse -- and a parrot.

The panel that got me thinking for this post was billed as being about location. Three authors who set their books in Scotland and the north of England -- Anne Cleeves, Aline Templeton, and Sue Walker -- and Louise Penny, whose village of Three Pines is set in Quebec. All talked knowledgeably about the importance of atmosphere, the relationship between story and setting, and the delights of visiting their chosen area in the name of research. Yet, as they were speaking, I realised that all of them were also talking about places they had created -- they were often writing about fictitious locations within a given landscape. What they invented had to be authentic, and make sense in its context, but they were dropping in the perfect house, a village green, even a whole new police force, when they needed to - and they were having a great time doing it. In other words, they were world building.

In apparent contrast, on a panel on police procedurals, author Lesley Horton outlined a different approach. Her gritty crime is set firmly in Bradford and her research has involved attending crime scenes, investigating the trajectory of a bullet in a drive-by shooting and being locked in a police cell -- not something she recommends, not because of claustrophobia, but because of the boredom of staring at four walls. Yet within that hard-hitting setting, she has also created the private lives of her detectives, in particular her Asian sergeant, who copes with competing loyalties to his job and his family's expectations. All world building.

All authors invent things. Making up stories is what it’s about. At the furthest extreme, if you're writing fantasy, paranormal, or sci-fi, then you have a complete world to create, with its own laws and logic. Even, if you follow Tolkien’s model, its own language.

The whole thing got me thinking about the spectrum between research and reality and creation of alternative worlds. Is creating more, or less, difficult than research? If you’re world building from scratch there is no one to tell you that you got that wrong, but on the other hand, everything is down to you. You need it all in your head before you begin. Research can take you into some interesting alleys and byways. I know, I've been there. I think most authors will admit to doing far more research than a book warrants. It adds richness and texture, but it's also a very seductive displacement activity, if you're not careful.

So -- research at one end of the spectrum, world building at the other, crossing somewhere in the middle?

I'd be interested to hear others thoughts on the subject.


Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Well first of all I'm soooo jealous! I would have loved to attend, especially to meet the author of the Dexter novels!

As to world building I don't think you can have too much research. To describe a place to someone else takes lots of little details to make it believable.

Even when constructing whole planets and cultures, it still takes research. You have to obey certain laws of physics or nit-pickers will eat you alive! :)

Have you based any of your stories on a real place?

Savanna Kougar said...

Evonne, absolutely excellent blog. Like Anitra says, I would love to have attended, just for the location itself. As well as all the attendees!
I think there is a balance point. And research can become too seductive in a way that actually defeats your story, just in how much time you're spending on it.
There's that moment when pen must meet paper, or fingers must meet the keyboard.
All the research -- and I love research, which is one reason I totally loved college -- won't actually get the story written.
BTW, I have a request. If you're ever up for it, a blog on animals as characters, a report on that session would be so cool.
I am having a guest blogger on, who is going to write on that topic, Jami Davenport. She rides in Dressage, and is quite accomplished at the equine sport.

Evonne Wareham said...

Didn't mean to make you jealous, honest!

Anitra - A lot of my stuff is set in real places, as I'm not so far into other worlds as some of you guys. London, Italy - and I try and get Wales in there too, whenever I can.
Savannah- I'll see what I can do about the animals. All but one of the authors were unfamiliar to me - which is one of the great things about going to this kind of thing - finding out about writers you've never sampled. I want to read some of the books first. All in the name of research, of course.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

I wrote a whole bunch of German Medievals and I wish, wish, wish I could have gone to do first hand research. Sigh. Someday... :)

But I had to rely on travel guides, websites, and stuff like that. I mean it worked okay but there is nothing like seeing the real thing.

For a made up world it can get tricky (cause I can't go there but in my mind) but as long as it's logical, people will accept it. :)

Savanna Kougar said...

Evonne, yay! for that kind of research.

Savanna Kougar said...

Anitra, you may not want to go with an e-pub/small print publisher. However, there a few established ones which will pub and want the non-standard historicals.
For example: BookStrand is publishing Flavia's Secret, which is set in roman times. I mean, I've seen calls for the unusual historical setting.

Mel Hiers said...

Hey, Evonne! Great subject! It's hard to find that balance between research and world building. One way or the other, I like to know everything (or as much as I can get) about my setting before I start. I don't use even close to everything but I think having lots of info to draw on helps with the drafting process.

I'm writing almost exclusively contemporary these days. I've developed a bit of an addiction to the Google Maps program in addition to all the print resources out there. You can see terrain, the shapes of roads, how cities and towns are laid out and how things like rivers, mountains, etc affect them.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

Sav--thanks for the info. I love your "never say die" attitude with placing a manuscript! Since I have a contract (yes, I'm bragging!) but I can't really do anything without the okay from them.

Kensington does have "first dibs" but if/when they pass, I am free to pursue other markets for my novels.

Hey, Angela Knight does it so why can't I? (Er, not like I'm comparing myself to a legend, but she really got her fans through e-pub markets and still writes for them today.)

I admire her and would love to follow in her footsteps! :)

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

(The deleted comment was mine because I'm tired and misspelled half the words. So...)

Mel--I had a very creepy moment when my BFF (Best Friend Forever) pulled up a Google map of my house! The camera came right down the street then captured my house! Really freaked me out! Not like a crazy fan is gonna know but it was just weird to see my whole street, my house, and my car out front.

Brrrrrr! Too much 1984 and Big Brother for my taste!

Savanna Kougar said...

Mel, I've used those Google maps too for terrain and how towns and highways are laid out. But I sure don't see what most people do. I don't think I have a good eye for reading the details.

Anitra, Angela Knight is a wonderful role model. And I think she understands there's not just one type of market place any more.
Sure, Kensington should get first dibs. However, if they aren't interested, I'm glad you're free to try other publishers.

Savanna Kougar said...

Anitra, that would definitely freak me out. And authors do have to be careful. There are some, I believe Mary Higgins Clark is one, who have to employ bodyguards. I read an article about that, and it really reinforced the need for a separate mailing address, if nothing else.