Doing research: volcanoes, landscapes and teenagers

volcanoThis post is about doing research. In the past weeks I have been doing some research for my new novel, which is growing very, very slowly, but growing nonetheless (check out this post for some info about what I’m currently writing). Doing research, many writers will agree with me, is actually a bit tedious. When you’re itching to write but first need to figure out some things, it is a pain in the butt. Nonetheless, doing research is quite essential to every writer.

First of all, why do most writers have to do research for their novels? There are several reasons:

  • To avoid factual mistakes. I think we can all agree that there is nothing more silly than, for instance, an anachronism in a historical novel. For example: while no one eats more potatoes than Europeans and it is commonly considered an ‘old’ food type here (as opposed to for instance rice), there were no potatoes in the Middle Ages! They weren’t introduced to Europe until the 16th century.
  • To understand your characters. If one of your characters is a hardcore IT-person while you are a complete luddite, it is hard to understand his or her world. Diving into the world of IT will allow you to understand your character better, and thus to better convey him or her to your readers.
  • To get a better  feel for your novel. Whether it is the landscape, climate, people, situations or any other aspect of your novel, sometimes doing some research can help you get a better feel for it.
  • To achieve a sense of realism where realism is due. This is important for both realistic novels and the more imaginative genres, such as sci-fi and fantasy. Perhaps the latter needs it even more than the former. Personally, I find nothing more annoying than a fantasy world that ‘doesn’t make sense’. Even when all the ‘realistic’ bits are objectively utterly unrealistic, they need to make sense in the context of that fantasy world. Quick example: having spaceships in your novel is great. Having spaceships that never require any fuel (without a ‘plausible’ explanation for this fact) doesn’t make sense.

For my new novel I have been doing research for all four of those reasons. I have learned a lot of new things in the progress, but I also feel I have only just started. More research will undoubtedly be required! Here are some of the things I have researched:

  • Volcanoes. Specifically, super-volcanoes. More specifically, Yellowstone. Things I was interested in: what happens when the super-volcano under Yellowstone erupts? How strong would the explosion be? How much ashes would be released? Would those ashes be poisonous? How long would those ashes be airborne? How fast would they move? This is especially difficult research, since no humans were around the last time the Yellowstone volcano erupted!
  • The state of Lousiana. My protagonist, Zoe, is from Louisiana. However, I have never been to the US, let alone Louisiana. In fact, I have never been outside of Europe. Some of the things I wanted to know: what does the landscape look like? What kind of climate? Number of inhabitants? Economic background of the inhabitants? Major harbours? Culture? Some of these are questions that are easily answered, others not so much!
  • Teenagers in Lousiana. What kind of houses do people live in? What kind of clothes do teenagers wear? What hairstyles? What do they do on dates? Where do they go to school? What are those schools like?

louisianaMany of those questions I have been able to answer. Not all of them, so I will keep searching. Some of the answers have been quite surprising, so I am glad I did my research. For instance, I knew that there was a lot of poverty in the US, but I didn’t know there was that much! For instance, I found that in several cities in Louisiana, almost half of all children live below the poverty line. Half! :O I also discovered that most houses in Louisiana are bungalows; they only have one storey. Coming from the Netherlands, that is quite an astonishing thing. I am guessing that it is due to the space available in the US. There’s no need to go up when you can go sideways. I also discovered a great many things about volcanoes, such as the fact that one of the larger ones erupting might just be the end of humanity. Of course that fits perfectly into my novel, so I was horrified and pleased at the same time when I read that. 🙂

As for the sources of my information, there are several I found useful:

  • Wikipedia. Naturally.
  • Google. When wiki doesn’t provide the answer.
  • GoogleMaps/GoogleEarth. Sometimes I just want to have a look for myself. 🙂
  • Library. Actually I never used the library, but I feel I need to mention those good ol’ libraries.

I also found that creative googling is essential. For instance, you can’t just google ‘what do teenagers in Louisiana wear for school?’, because it won’t provide an answer. But I can look up high schools in Louisiana and check out their photo sections. They might be a bit censored, but they give me a basic idea.

What kind of research have you had to do when writing? Where did you find your answers?

More about doing research next week! If you enjoy my blog, consider signing up for email notifications. You can do so at the right-hand side of the home page

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