By Kasie Whitener
Columbia II Chapter
Recently, when speaking with a writer who claimed to have penned a modern military novel, I asked, “How did you research the military aspect of the novel?”
Her response: reddit, documentaries, and Call of Duty (a military-style video game).
I’m a little judgey and I think these resources are insufficient. In graduate school, I learned the different levels of research credibility. From original source data to seminal theorists, I think I can spot the right kind of research.
Then again, I’ve also been known to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia because it’s easier to navigate than the tome Byron: Life and Works I got from the library.
So knowing all of the resources available, how does one determine which research is appropriate?
Ask yourself: What do I need to know?
I needed to know if people smoked cigarettes in 1816 and if so, how did they ignite them? When were matches invented?
Tobacco was regional and my vampire smokers are Yanks (a concurrent term) so they can smoke. But I don’t want my work to be discredited over a small error like the existence of matches. So a quick Google search brought up sufficient information on how, when, and why matches were invented. My smokers must use taper candles.
Lord Byron limped due to a club foot and the years of bad medicine associated with attempting to cure that malady humiliated and embittered him. In my novel, he pronounces the limp whenever he’s embarrassed or annoyed. Other times, he hides it ably, indicating years of suppression.
A bigger portion of my research has been about the conventions of the two genres I’m combining. I’m writing about time-traveling vampires. Both time travel and vampires are fantasy genres with their own conventions. I’ve been reading as much genre-pertinent fiction as I can.
Unfortunately, the scholarship on pop-culture genres can be rather thin. Few literary scholars apply themselves to genre identification. Yet, it’s very interesting to me that most vampire novels spend at least some time on the origin story – how one became a vampire – and the rules – how they feed, how they die.
I consider anything with Byron in it to be an attempt at literary fiction, even if that same work includes vampires. So I’ve spent time researching the criticism on Byron (turns out he made frequent reference to vampires in his poetry) and on Dracula.
I may not have thought of the Byron connection to my vampires if it hadn’t been for the embedded link to The Vampyre in the bit of Byron’s Wikipedia entry that dealt with John Polidori. Polidori’s original story, mistakenly attributed to Byron, is known as the first Western appearance of vampires in fiction. It also happened to be written during the very week my vampires hung out with Byron and Polidori in Switzerland.
And what has all of this research done for me? It helped me get ready to revise.
When to Revise
Once you’ve nailed down the historical details and familiarized yourself with the conventions of the genre and criticism, it’s time to revise.
I’m a pantser which means I write everything “by-the-seat-of-my-pants.” I simply sit down and create. This is as opposed to planners who outline first and then write. Being a pantser is fun because the characters really can take over, hijack scenes, and turn stories into something completely unintended.
During revision, though, I tame the pantser and take a more organized approach. I’ve written about revision before so this blog focuses on revision within the scope of the research I’ve conducted.
Adding Historical Details
Many writers commit the crime of fact dumping, or pouring all of the historical information into a single passage. The location, political climate, costumes, and manners are all thickly embellished and saturate the story. Fact dumping is boring.
Including historical accuracies takes finesse. My approach is to write the passage as if it were happening today and then provide the historical accuracies only when required.
For example, my time-traveling vampires frequently smoke cigarettes. I explain how they light them using taper candles in 1816. I explain costumes when my narrator sees someone for the first time, or when he struggles with the intricacies of 19th century dress.
I used Lord Byron’s club foot to show the advancing trust he had in my narrator, Blue: at first Byron hid his limp, then he pronounced it to gain favor, then he showed the deformity completely, without shame, in an intimate moment.
Including Literary Research
The 1816 vacation at Villa Diodati is usually described as having included a storytelling contest. I included the literary research I’d done by having Byron read from Fantasmagoriana, a French translation of German ghost stories. Blue, the primary storyteller, declined to read the text because he does not speak French.
Byron’s sister translates as her brother reads and the intimacy of her whispered translation in Blue’s ear creates sexual tension between the two. Had I not chosen Fantasmagoriana in its French translation, I would have lost the opportunity to bring my lovers together.
Blue is a story teller. The framework for the novel is his recognition of the five types of stories vampires tell: origin, demise, transformation, redemption, and journey. Reading vampire fiction is what revealed four basic types. Blue is a student of literature and the novel is his (and my) literary criticism of vampire fiction. The journey story is an original addition to the genre.
Understanding where my fiction fits in the spectrum of existing literature and criticism helped me identify a new position for my work. To have an idea of the landscape, I read deep into the genre and criticism. If I hadn’t, I’d have written just-another-vampire book. Snooze.
Revision is where I add depth and breadth to the story my pantser-self generated. Research helps determine the right details to include and the critical approach to take.