How to research your story before writing your book?
Probably the most sensible way to address this question is by way of a case study. I am in the process of marketing my factional novel The Last Finesse. When it was first conceived, it was to be about nuclear energy and it was to be a “prequel” to my first factional novel, Beyond Neanderthal, that was about over-unity electromagnetic energy.
All I knew was that The Last Finesse was to be about nuclear and, arising from my first novel, I had a mentor who was able to guide me on matters relating to physics in general and energy in particular. So, step 1: Get yourself a mentor if your primary theme is to be about a subject in which you are not an expert.
The first thing I did was I focussed on the fact that there was (and still is) wild disagreement amongst people whom I knew, about the merits/demerits of nuclear. Some people were highly enthusiastic and others were rabidly anti nuclear. Fukushima hadn’t happened yet but those against typically used Chernobyl as their basis for arguing. Those who were pro tended to have a better than average understanding of the science.
Once I understood the parameters, I went to Amazon and ordered five books on nuclear: Two were in favour, two were against, and one was “How to Build a Nuclear Bomb?” I came to understand that, if you have access to enriched uranium or plutonium you can build such a bomb in your back yard, or in a small, undetectable space. Whether you do or not boils down to “trust’. Maybe that fact will influence reader views on whether Iran should be allowed to continue enriching uranium?
I read all five books and, in the process, discovered where my main questions lay. Some of the questions I put to my mentor, but I wanted a different viewpoint. So I sent an email to the Director of Public Communications at the
World Nuclear Association, London. I looked up his contact details on the internet because I had seen that one of the “pro” books had been published under the WNA auspices. In my email, I explained to him what I wanted to do and I asked if he would be prepared to give me any guidance and respond to questions – provided I kept the volume as low as possible. He was very co-operative. I discovered that most questions that I posed had answers on the WNA’s website but he saved me from having to wade through the entire site.
Once I understood the “core” issues, I decided to link the story to climate change and I asked my mentor to describe the most outlandish scenario he could imagine. It didn’t take him long. Without divulging any “spoilers” he described a scenario that many climate scientists were genuinely worried about but didn’t want to talk about yet because they’re having enough trouble getting people to jump over the “warming/cooling/its all bullshit” hurdle.
I then asked him to point me a direction to research that subject and his response was to send me about 20 or 30 web links to articles on the subject, ranging from peer reviewed scientific papers to media articles. Any questions I came up with, he patiently explained.
It was at that point that I had a rough idea of what my story was going to be. I wanted the opening chapter to introduce the idea of a naval vessel from the “good guys” to intercept a naval vessel from the “bad guys”. The bad guys would be smuggling nuclear components to a rogue country, so I had to find a rogue country, which turned out to be Burma.
Then I had two separate problems:
- I didn’t know squat about the navy or maritime matters and
- I didn’t know squat about Burma
So I decided to cast my net to find contacts who could help me find mentors. It happened purely by accident or good fortune or however you want to describe it. Through one contact, I found a political refugee who was then living in Australia who had spent 11 years in jail in Burma. A mate knew someone who knew someone who introduced me to a retired Rear Admiral and he opened the doors for me to find an adviser within the Australian Navy who could act as my mentor. The key to finding help is to ask for it politely and respectfully. Most people are naturally helpful.
My Burmese mentor advised me on the high level problems of life in Burma (and its history) and pointed me in the direction of a website run by the Democratic Voice of Burma. I also bought a book on the history of Burma. The two together represented pay dirt! The website had specific information on what the junta were allegedly doing to pursue their aim of acquiring technology to build a nuclear bomb. The book explained about Burmese culture and the makeup of the countries citizenry.
The next step was to buy a couple of maps of Burma (now Myanmar) so as to familiarise myself with the layout of that country – both within and in relation to its neighbours – and to get a map that would show the likely route that an Australian ship would have to travel to get to Myanmar. My navy mentor told me that Australia regularly sends ships as far afield as the Persian Gulf and he helped me devise a credible scenario which would enable one of my main characters to travel from Australia and link up with a ship in the area – so as to save time.
I then started to dig deeper and deeper into Burmese culture and life to understand what the citizens of that country were going through. It turned out to be “hell” but the typical tourists were not allowed to see that hell. In particular, Burma is the second largest grower of poppies for heroine in the world, behind Afghanistan.
So, now I had the skeleton of a story. That’s when I started fleshing out my characters. Along the way, as I was writing the story, it became necessary to research other scenes. There’s one scene set in Hawks Nest, where I Iive, which hosted an international wind surfing competition. I went down to have a look, camera in hand, took a couple of hundred photos and got chatting to the organisers and competitors. They were very helpful. I needed to understand travel arrangements, so I went onto the internet and went through the motions booked an imaginary flight. This enabled me to get accurate flight times. I needed to have my character land at a particular airport, so I went onto the web and searched for an aerial image of the airport. I needed a scene that described a particular tourist attraction, so I got hold of a travelogue DVD from a caravan club that described the journey along the way.
And thus the story evolved. It all starts with research and the more research you do the better and more believable your story will be.
But let’s not lose site of the main challenge: The quality of the book boils down to the quality and structure of the story, and how well you communicate it.
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Genre - Conspiracy Thriller
Rating – MA (15+)
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Quality Reads UK Book Club Disclosure: Author interview / guest post has been submitted by the author and previously used on other sites.