August Q&A 3

Let’s talk research—with three related questions:

WDI (and thanks for the card) asks: How do you research speech patterns and dialect? I was struck with this while re-reading The Moor. I understand that “place” and “time” can be straightforward to research (at least in the obvious ways); but how the heck do you manage the dialects, vocabulary, and cadences of speech in the different times/places/characters?

Elizabeth asks: Do you have an idea of what you want the book to be about and then do the research, or does the idea for the book come from doing the research and having some detail spark you interest?

And from Erika: when you’re writing fiction about an actual place, like San Francisco or the San Juans, how much of an overlay of fictional detail do you create to keep it in the realm of the genre?
(She also wants to know, Is Tyler’s Road and Tyler’s Creek an actual place? My answer is, the map shows an area geographically similar, and twenty years ago when I wrote the book there was a hippie community up there, but after that it’s all LRK.)

So, research.

I know the parameters of the book before I write it, because I write under contract. This means I’ve worked out with my editor, a year or two in advance, whether the book is going to be a Russell, a Martinelli, or a stand-alone, and if the latter, then what kind—contemporary or historical?

So going into the book I’ll have certain things set by way of characters, setting, time. But within those limitations, the choices are broad. Who is the focus of this book? What is the flavor I want to aim at—dark or light? And—and here’s where the question of preliminary research comes in—what events or people or situations can I find that support what I want to do with the book? Note that I don’t say, What events etc do I want to write about? In THE MOOR, the presence of Sabine Baring-Gould near Dartmoor was an untold blessing for my purposes, but in the end, the book is not about Baring-Gould. And in the current long-suffering TOUCHSTONE, the story is set in the weeks leading up to the General Strike in England, but in the novel, that country’s 1926 brush with revolution is as much metaphor as it is central concern.

However, once chosen, an event or person must be researched to within an inch of its life. I change things, yes, but it is almost always with malice aforethought and not through ignorance. “My” Sabine Baring-Gould is more active than the old man would in fact have been, three months before his death, but I figured he was more interesting active than near-comatose, and I am writing fiction. I read closely the biographies, the autobiography, and a ton of the man’s writings, and then I took him and changed him slightly to meet the needs of fiction. The same with “my” version of Dashiell Hammett in LOCKED ROOMS, and the brief appearance of TE Lawrence in O JERUSALEM, when actually he was busy in Paris.

The same goes with places. Writing San Francisco, I make sure I get the one-way streets right (now, THAT is a challenge) and I don’t move monuments such as the Ferry Building or Chinatown. But I’m quite free to add neighborhood coffeehouses or buildings that don’t quite exist, but should, or to stick in the odd island to the San Juan chain rather than stealing someone else’s on which to plant my FOLLY.

However, in order to change something, I need to know it, and so I spend some time in the San Juans to learn the shape and feel of the islands that exist in this space-time continuum, and hike the Sussex Downs to get a sense of the terrain and the people.

As for dialects, it’s amazing what you can learn from books (and probably online, although I haven’t explored.) I have several on English accents and dialects, and I try to read the relevant parts before I go to, say, Wales or Cornwall, so I know what I’m hearing.

As I’ve said before, I tend to do the research in two parts. The first, before writing, gives me the flavor and general feeling of the time and place; the second part, done after the first draft is written, goes after the specific details that I was unsure about as I was writing, but didn’t want to pause to hunt down. Because I don’t know exactly what I’m going to need until I know what direction the book goes in, and because I’m a recovering academic who so easily falls back into bad habits, trying to do every bit of potential research before writing the book would mean I’d either shape the book around the interesting facts I uncover, ignoring the story itself, or else I’d never write the book because the research proved so fascinating, I disappeared into the library stacks, never to emerge.


  1. L. Crampton, LAc says:

    Laurie, I love the way you recognize, own, and manage your ‘bad habits’–such as the recovering academic tendencies! Brava! We should all be so wise. My guess is, if you really did disappear into the stacks, one or more of your readers would pursue you, drag you protesting out, give you coffee (or frozen yogurt) or whatever needed to snap you out of your research trance, place a pen in your hand and steer you towards your desk! :~)

  2. Thanks for the great info about research, Laurie. I heard a writer speak recently about spending about a year on each book–about 8 months researching and outlining and then just four months on the first draft. I was stunned. More time on research than writing? But, you make good points about knowing enough going in to do your story justice, writing “across” the unknown details, and then researching more to clarify them.

    Great stuff, thanks!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the answer, Laurie! It was just what I was curious about.

    Best wishes,

  4. GramMuzzy says:

    I am laughing at L. Crampton’s response to this research query and feel exactly the same. I’d be one of those to come haul you kicking and screaming from the research stacks and plying you with coffee. Thanks for the insight into research.

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