I must confess the following: I actually got into Scifi and Fantasy to avoid doing Research. I love Historical Novels, but there’s too much Research to be done, I thought, when you get involved in those things. SF&F means doing whatever you want. Actually, this is not entirely true, for two reasons. Reason One: I love a clean slate, inventing worlds, weapons, tactics, huge battles that never happened. That’s my main motivation to write SF&F. And Reason Two: you also have to do Research for SF&F – a large amount of it, actually. I have written two trilogies so far and an incomplete third saga I’m working on. Two SF and one post-apocalyptic. I had to do Research for all of them! From the way people ride and fight, to the way people breathe in Space or ship tactics. The more convincing the details and the way your characters act and move in Space or Medieval settings, the firmer and powerful will be your fiction. For a while, though, I didn’t like to do Research. It was as if it got in the way of writing. It was cumbersome and annoying. Nowadays, though, I love it – and I wish I did more of it. Last weekend I went to Alentejo to research a site for my WIP and decided to post something on it. So here we go.
The first time I noticed I liked to research was when I was writing a commissioned Historical Novel about the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal in 1807. I got some books and the more I read the more excited I got. There were tons of brilliant details pouring out of those books and after a while what was difficult was to decide what to use and what to leave out. Of course, the criterion is simpler than it seems: you keep the details that help your story, you shed the rest. Don’t use information just because you like it to be there. Use it in the story. Use it because it makes sense for the story. If the reader feels you are just pushing research into the pages, it will break the sacred contract of ‘Suspension of Disbelief’.
Now, how do you go about looking for information? There are two kinds of sources out there: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources provide you with information directly. So if a scene of yours happens at the European Champions League Finale 2019 in Madrid and you happened to be there, you have a primary source of research – you know about it because you were there, you know the stadium, the atmosphere, the feel as Salah got the first goal, etc. It’s also a primary source if you followed the game on TV – you don’t get as much information as if you were at the stadium, but it’s still direct info. However, if you are using the description in the papers about the game, you are using indirect information, you are using the information already digested by a third party (the journalist), and that becomes secondary information.
When you start researching, you usually start with secondary sources. You read books and articles on the subject you’re interested in. You find out about the Russian fleet that was anchored at the Tagus river in November 1807, for instance, or the British fleet that was waiting at the mouth of the river, in Atlantic waters. Nowadays, information is very easy to get: you have Wikipedia, you have Google, you have YouTube and the likes. You can always start your research there, but please don’t finish it there – get corroborating info, have several sources, preferably unconnected ones.
When you finally understand what you’re looking for, then you can actually start looking for primary sources. They usually are more costly and difficult to find, but also more reliable, of course, so use them only when possible. Primary sources also seem to be able to provide you with details you didn’t know you needed. Today, Google Earth is a major resource to use when looking at locations. You can use it to calculate distances, see places you’ve never been to, see differences over the years, etc. It’s a great tool, but it doesn’t substitute going to the place yourself, looking at it and feeling it.
I have been working on the second volume of my post-apocalyptic saga LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING for more than a year now, and much of the story happens in a Castle in the southern province of Portugal called Alentejo. It’s the Castle of Monsaraz, a beautiful 13th-century venue next to the border with Spain and the dam of Alqueva. I had been there in my youth but hadn’t been back for a while. I had planned to go there for a long time, to research for this book, but hadn’t had the chance. As I’m getting to the end of the book, I realized it was urgent to go and see with my own eyes where all the action was going to take place. For a while, I had trusted in Google Earth, but that wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
So I went to Alentejo this weekend. If you’ve never been to Alentejo, you must. It’s such a beautiful place and it is a completely different one in each Season of the year. Going there in Winter means you will see a lot of green. In the Summer it will all be yellow. If you are working a story about Medieval times, better still – you will find castle after castle, medieval building after medieval building. And you will also enjoy the food, I bet.
I spent a day at the Castle of Monsaraz and around it. And I got loads of ideas. Many of the problems I was having with plot and action just solved themselves right there. You can see some of the pictures I took. It’s such a lovely and inspiring place, with a tiny picturesque village inside the perfect walls of a Medieval castle. Then I went to Mourão, a village nearby and got more ideas. I actually measured distances and times on the roads to work some of my problems and found little details that will work brilliantly. I also saw where a lot of what I was assuming and thinking would go wrong or would be wrongly described – a lot of re-writing to do there. But that’s the job: I’m so glad I actually went to the place and found out about the mistakes.
So, fellow knights, time to go to work. Do your Research. It sounds boring but it will actually blow your mind. Get to your mounts and go. See you around the next campfire.