Thursday, 4 February 2016

Tips for Affordable Research Opportunities

I'm probably not the only one who has a little spark of jealousy flare when I hear about an author taking a research trip.  Scotland, Japan, Savannah, Alaska, Rio... I could keep going but the point is that the world is full of great locations which would make awesome settings for novels.  Nothing creates authenticity as much as being able to absorb and take in the atmosphere, particularly if an author is fortunate enough to be able to make repeated visits.

For those of us who are still more in the budget-conscious income bracket, we're not stuck with writing about settings based on a fifty mile radius of our home.  There are some great research options which don't require a big financial investment: only time.

First recommendation: real estate listings and Google Street View.  The first serious novel I wrote was set in New York (and once I rewrite it to get rid of my obvious newbie mistakes in plotting and character development, I will share it with you all, promise).  I needed a location which would be affordable for 3 girls to share an apartment on relatively low incomes.  I spent three days going through sublet ads and real estate listings for different areas in New York until I narrowed down on one in particular.  Then I spent another few days using the Google Street View to look at what was in the area.  I found the local bodega, an amazing street mural, the route to the subway station, all sorts of details to help create authentic local colour in my writing.  I even found a floorplan for the apartments in one of the buildings.

Second recommendation: reality shows.  Hold on, before you groan and turn off your screen, I am aware that there is a dramatically low amount of "reality" in those shows.  But I've found them to be invaluable tools to pick up regional dialects and speech patterns.  Listening to the participants speak and interact can give you the rhythm of the words.  Do they tend to give longer answers or shorter ones?  Do conversations tend to be one-side monologues or more even exchanges?

Third recommendation: YouTube.  Take advantage of our "every moment documented" culture to explore different areas and cultural groups.  And not just for big events like major festivals or disasters.  Even a child's birthday party can be a great opportunity to pick up on scenery and dialogue inspiration.

Fourth recommendation: bloggers.  I wanted to know what issues native women faced in the North and I found a number of blogs talking about concerns which wouldn't even have occurred to me, such as subtle pressure to have children to repopulate tribal numbers or feeling torn between wanting to explore the world and supporting a traditional way of life which seems to be vanishing with each generation.

Fifth recommendation: friends and family.  The theory of six degrees of separation might be a little exaggerated, but I was surprised to discover how wide my reach extended when I asked for help getting in touch with correctional officers and prisoners.  You never know whether your friend might have an uncle who spent years teaching in Korea or a cousin might be friends with someone who works with veterans who have PTSD.  When I can't go in person, the next best thing is to find someone who's already there.

Someday I hope to be able to afford to do research trips to all the places which have fired my imagination.  (I'm still holding out hope for a time machine of some kind.)  But for now, my budget doesn't have to limit my inspiration.

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