research for fiction writing

Cat eyes in the dark

Seeing in the Dark

The characters in my novels and stories frequently roam around in the dark, often on some sort of nefarious business. Writing those scenes can be tough. If I want a character to see something important, I have to furnish a plausible light source. In fiction set in the present day, there are reliable flashlights and the mobile phone’s flashlight feature. Imminent battery death can supply a bit of tension to the scene.

But what about earlier eras? Much of my writing is set in the past, specifically the early to mid 20th century. I’ve spent a good deal of time checking whether a specific light source existed at a particular time. When did electric torches (otherwise known as flashlights) come into common use? Eighteen ninety-six. What about car headlights? The earliest ones were carbide lamps. Integrated all-electric lights weren’t common until the 1920s.

Sources of Light

Other light sources include torches (the kind with actual flames), camp fires, glowing lava, candles, oil lamps, gaslights, street lights, moonlight, starlight, lightning flashes, and the ability to see in the dark. (The last is not to be bestowed on a character unless they’re really special, because for humans, it’s a superpower.) Whichever mode of illumination I select, it has to fit the situation. No flashlights (or electric torches) before the late 19th century. Lightning bolts aren’t predictable and usually involve other phenomena as well. If someone is close enough to molten lava for it to show details, they may be dead. Moonlight doesn’t show colours or details all that well, so forget about characters seeing eye colours or reading maps by moonlight. Starlight sounds magical, but is even dimmer.

Matches as we know them didn’t exist until the 19th century and personal cigarette lighters until the 1930s. (The match has an exceedingly interesting history, complete with bad smells, explosions, and phosphorus poisoning, both accidental and intentional.) For even earlier settings, it would be advisable to learn about fire starting methods such as flint and steel, and containers such as fire pots for maintaining and transporting the precious results.

Other Considerations and the “Ambient Glow”

Candles and torches (the flaming kind) are fire hazards, a fact that can be useful or annoying, depending on your plot. Light can reveal one’s presence as well as help one see. It can conceal as well as reveal if it’s bright enough to blind. The writer must exercise as much caution with light in the darkness as his or her characters. Unless, of course, the action involves the supernatural. In paranormal situations, the ever-popular ambient glow (sourceless, magical light) may be invoked judiciously, as I did in key scenes of my novel She Who Comes Forth.

Utter Darkness

In other scenes, the main character of that novel must endure absolute darkness — the kind where you can’t see anything, even your own hand in front of your face. That degree of darkness is hard to come by, but it’s worth experiencing if you’re planning to write about it. In fact, before writing a scene that takes place in any kind of darkness, the best research might be to replicate the conditions and literally see what you can see (or not).

Image by Михаил Прокопенко from Pixabay

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Crescent Moon

The Moon Over Luxor

For my current work in progress, the phases of the moon at Luxor, Egypt, in the autumn of 1962 are a moderately significant plot factor. I could have ignored facts and written the moon to suit my plot, but that didn’t feel right. For sure, once the book is published, someone will point out the inconvenient facts. So — research required. Thanks to the Internet, I found this:

Moon Phases for Luxor, Egypt in 1962

Lunation New Moon First Quarter Full Moon Third Quarter Duration
483 Jan 6 2:35 pm Jan 13 7:01 am Jan 20 8:16 pm Jan 29 1:36 am 29d 11h 35m
484 Feb 5 2:09 am Feb 11 5:42 pm Feb 19 3:17 pm Feb 27 5:49 pm 29d 10h 21m
485 Mar 6 12:30 pm Mar 13 6:38 am Mar 21 9:55 am Mar 29 6:10 am 29d 9h 14m
486 Apr 4 9:44 pm Apr 11 9:50 pm Apr 20 2:33 am Apr 27 2:58 pm 29d 8h 40m
487 May 4 7:24 am May 11 3:44 pm May 19 5:31 pm May 26 10:05 pm 29d 9h 02m
488 Jun 2 4:26 pm Jun 10 9:21 am Jun 18 5:02 am Jun 25 2:42 am 29d 10h 25m
489 Jul 2 2:52 am Jul 10 2:39 am Jul 17 2:40 pm Jul 24 7:18 am 29d 12h 31m
490 Jul 31 3:23 pm Aug 8 6:54 pm Aug 15 11:09 pm Aug 22 1:26 pm 29d 14h 45m
491 Aug 30 6:08 am Sep 7 9:44 am Sep 14 7:11 am Sep 20 10:35 pm 29d 16h 30m
492 Sep 28 10:39 pm Oct 6 9:54 pm Oct 13 2:32 pm Oct 20 10:47 am 29d 17h 25m
493 Oct 28 3:04 pm Nov 5 9:14 am Nov 12 12:03 am Nov 19 4:09 am 29d 17h 25m
494 Nov 27 8:29 am Dec 4 6:47 pm Dec 11 11:27 am Dec 19 12:42 am 29d 16h 29m
495 Dec 27 12:58 am 29d 14h 43m
* All times are local time for Cairo. Time is adjusted for DST when applicable. Dates are based on the Gregorian calendar.

Cool, eh?

Dates of moon phases for almost anywhere in any year may be found here.

Yet another example of obscure info needed by writers. How did we ever manage before the Internet? Libraries, librarians, and reference books — remember them?

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

 

Priming the Brain Pump: Research for Fiction Writing

So I’m finally going to write another novel. (I figure I have three more books in me). This one will be a sequel to the Herbert West Series. The main character is Herbert West’s granddaughter. The setting is Egypt, specifically Luxor and the Valley of Kings, in the 1960s. Which means I need to do some research.

There is a vast difference between a piece of fiction whose subject is a place and its history and one that uses a place or a time as a setting. Historical fiction explores and extrapolates real events and people. My book will not be about the political or social situation in Egypt in the 1960s; the story will unfold against the background of the archaeological sites near Luxor. It must of necessity unfold in the 1960s because the main character was born in the early 1940s.

It’s a given that writing historical fiction requires intensive and extensive research, but all writers are obligated to get their backgrounds and settings right. Many mystery and romance novels feature occupations, professions or crafts. Amateur detectives who are veterinarians, potters or chefs abound. The main character of my Herbert West series worked part-time as a mortician while in medical school (in the 1910s). Getting the details of that situation right required considerable research, as will my new project.

So how will I go about doing research for the new book?

The first and most important thing is to load up my brain with stuff about Egypt and Egyptology — the landscape, the climate, the texture of the grit underfoot as one walks in the Valley of Kings, the smells and sounds of dawn, midday, sunset, evening and night. The language of archaeology, the types of people encountered in the bureaucracy of antiquities and at sites being excavated. I’m doing this by reading — a great deal of reading. Accounts of travel, contemporary and historical, descriptions of archaeological discoveries, even the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Once I’ve absorbed this material, some of it will colour my writing in the correct hues and shades. I will be able to speak with authority as my plot unreels.

The best thing, of course, would be to go there, to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. The brain-loading process would then be direct and personal. But I can’t do that right now, so must be content with vicarious experiences. Reading about travel is much simpler than doing it. I can benefit from others’ distilled experiences and impressions without having to spend time, energy and money on the mechanics of travel and tourism. A great by-product of all the reading is that in the process I get ideas for scenes and plot details.

This kind of research is different from fact-checking, which is important but relatively easy, now that we have Wikipedia and other online information troves. Would my main character travel from Cairo to Luxor by train? Exactly when did the Six-Day War start? What was the political situation in Egypt at the time? I need to know these and many other things so as to avoid embarrassing blunders, but I can track down such facts when I need them. The background reading must be done first, to prime the pump, as it were.

I read somewhere that research for fiction writing is like an iceberg — only about one tenth of it should make an actual appearance in the story. Just because I gather a raft of interesting facts doesn’t mean I have to weave them into the plot. It isn’t like writing an essay in school, where you have to show all the stuff you’ve learned. The writer’s business is the fictional story and the characters playing it out.

Finally, I have to say that this feels weird. So far, I’ve written all my books off-line, beavering away in my subterranean writing room on a computer without an internet connection. Writing a blog post about writing a book is doing things backwards. On the other hand, having committed myself here, I had better just go and deliver. The plan is to have a first draft by spring.

Facts From Fiction?

I learned a lot about ancient Greece from Mary Renault and quite a bit about the French Revolution from Hilary Mantel. Reading Mary Stewart’s novels about Merlin and Arthur made me want to learn more about the facts behind the legends. I knew nothing about the business of making and selling fine china and porcelain until I read Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (which also has an unexpected mini-travelogue of central Florida).

All of these books are works of fiction, but with the bonus of facts, or at least gateways to facts. Fiction is fiction, however, so it’s unfair to expect hard factual information there. Or is it?

Some would say that if a writer decides to use a historical period as the setting for their work, they must learn all about it and be true to the facts. If a novel contains information about a profession or craft, the author is obligated to find out all about it and not guess or extrapolate. Others would argue that unless the plot of the novel directly involves historical events or technical processes, it’s all right for the author to blur things a bit. After all, how many readers are going to bother checking whether a battle was fought on a Tuesday or a Sunday, or what the exact temperature is for firing porcelain? And anyway, no one should expect to learn history or science from novels. If you want to find out about Athens in the time of Socrates, or what Alexander the Great was really like, there are plenty of serious, well-researched books about these subjects.

Well, what do I think?

Except for students, it’s very unlikely that anyone would read a serious, well-researched book on anything if their interest in that subject hadn’t been piqued by something, such as a story in the media or a work of fiction. Authors of novels can contribute to knowledge in this way, and they are most likely to do this by incorporating into their fiction subjects about which they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable.

I also think writers must exercise responsibility when they incorporate elements from the real world into their fiction. For example, World War I appears several times in my Herbert West Trilogy. It was such an enormous and terrible part of history that I decided I had to treat it with respect, which meant doing a lot of reading about the conditions the soldiers and medical personnel endured. Writing about quasi-fictional places in H.P. Lovecraft’s New England, such as Arkham and Kingsport (thought to be Salem and Marblehead), made me uneasy, as I have never been near these places, but I rationalized my ignorance with their quasi-fictional nature.

Even though fiction is fiction, therefore, it presents a unique opportunity to entice people into reading and learning more about the real world. Writers of novels must keep this in mind, and writers of nonfiction would do well to sharpen their technique and present their facts in prose that is entertaining as well as educational.