I admit it: One thing I love most about starting a new project is the research. Beginning with a kernel of an idea, selecting books and surfing websites to fertilize that kernel, pulling together disparate mythologies and cool modern science, and then watching my little kernel blossom into a carnivorous flesh-eating plant….*sigh* It’s magical.
In Part 1 of the “Writing Urban Fantasy” series, I said that — aside from the basic rules of grammar, spelling, and story structure — there are no rules to writing fiction, and this is true. However, this doesn’t always mean you can make the stuff up willynilly and trust readers to buy into it because you, the author, says so. Readers are far more savvy than that, especially readers of urban fantasy. There is a proliferation of urban fantasy on the market and readers who enjoy this genre tend to read A LOT and have seen multiple mutations of various supernatural beasties so you’re going to have to create something a little (or a lot) different as well as make sure your real world facts are in order.
With that said, I’m going to lay out my rules for researching an urban fantasy novel. Yes, I said there are no real rules to writing urban fantasy. However, there are rules for research…or at least there should be…and these aren’t “rules” so much as “guidelines.” They’re holdovers from my college days and have served me well. Hopefully you will find them equally useful.
Research Rule #1: Wikipedia is NOT an acceptable primary source.
First, let me just say that I like Wikipedia and use it often. However, I do NOT accept any information I gather from the site as valid without verifying it in at least two other non-internet sources. Why? Because anyone can add information to Wikipedia and the information presented on the site is often inaccurate or unverified. Therefore, unless I can verify the information through outside sources, I usually discount it.
This is especially important for information regarding the real world. If Wikipedia tells me the state capital of Mississippi is Hattiesburg, I’m going to refer to A) a map of the state, B) the state’s official website, C) a book on Mississippi state history. If verified, I’ll run with Hattiesburg as the capital. (FYI: Hattiesburg is not the capital of Mississippi — Jackson is.)
When we enter the supernatural realm of mythology, folklore, and things that go bump in the night, this level of inaccuracy isn’t as important. After all, the key word in “urban fantasy” is “fantasy.” Find the information that suits your particular project or make it up as you go along.
Research Rule #2: When in doubt, leave it out.
Confession: I know a little more than jacksquat about police procedures, and yet I write a series in which the main character is a federal agent. How am I able to do this? I researched my butt into oblivion before ever setting fingers to keyboard, and I probably used a tenth of the information I gathered.
Much of the information I left out dealt with forensics. I’m not an expert in the field nor do I want to become one. I have rudimentary understand of most procedures, especially with regards to crime scenes, and the rest occurs off-page because I don’t fully understand the various tests and procedures. I gloss over the parts I don’t know or understand and then manipulate the results to achieve my goals.
As an expert in the field told me several years ago, it’s better to gloss over those bits and just present your results than to include inaccurate information because the real experts will call you out for it.
Research Rule #3: Go beyond the books whenever possible.
Writing a novel set in Grand Rapids, Michigan in November when you live in Honolulu, Hawaii can be challenging. Unless you’re originally from Michigan and are familiar with the Grand Rapids area and all the nuiances that come from living in the northern US, you’re going to have to do some research. Yes, books and websites are wonderful starting points, but nothing beats walking the city’s streets in November and experiencing it first hand.
The same is true of law enforcement or hospitals or most professions. Nothing can compare to the actual experience of traveling 100+ mph along the interstate at 2:00am with lights and sirens as you respond to a radio call of “shots fired.” This is something I’ve experience first hand and will never forget.
If you’re setting a story in an unfamiliar location, try to arrange a trip to that location. Stay a few days. Take pictures. Talk to locals. Try to pick up “the vibe” of the area. You may not use everything you learn, but your story will be much better because you have that knowledge.
If you’re writing a story about law enforcement, check with your local metro police or sheriff’s departments. Some cities and counties offer “citizen acadamies” in which people from the community can interact with law enforcement officials from different branches. Many programs such as these will offer a ride-along program — you get to spend time with an officer on patrol and see what they see. (That’s how I ended up traveling 100+ mph along the interstate at 2AM.) If your community doesn’t offer a citizen academy program, most law enforcement agencies have a public relations officer on staff. Reach out to him or her, explain your interest, and most are willing to work with authors.
The same is true of the medical field, although it’s more difficult to gain access to “insider information” due to patient confidentiality laws. However, many hospitals have a volunteer program. While you may not have access to “the action,” it’s a great way to meet staff who may be willing to talk outside of work about what they do, and you’re also giving back to the community. It’s a win-win.
Now, I mentioned books and websites at the beginning of this post. I’m a bibliophile. I collect books. Yes, I have an e-reader and I love it, but I use it primarily for novels — fun reading. When I’m researching, I prefer the feel of a real book. Plus, I also tend to make notes in margins and use a ton of stick notes to create a “road map” for myself. Again, it’s something I’ve done since college and I doubt I’ll change.
How much research you put in to your “fantasy” elements is really up to you. It does pay to know basics, especially if you’re writing about spellwork or something in the magical arts. Again, people who really do know this stuff will call you on anything that seems to far outside the realm of believable. That doesn’t mean you can’t make anything up as you go. In fact, it’s best if you do. However, a little research can spark all kinds of new ideas. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole leads you. You’re story could lie on the other side.
Below is a list of some of my favorite research books. Most can be readily found on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or even better, grab the ISBN and ask your local indie store if they have it in stock or are willing to order it for you. Others may be out of print and harder to find — check eBay or Half. com for some of the harder to find books. Also, do be afraid to check the shelves at the local Goodwill, Salvation Army store, or other charity-based outlet. You may be surprised what you find. Estate sales and garage sales are also great resources for older books, as are library sales. Second-hand book stores are also great.
Here’s my list of some of my fave research books…and please be aware these represent only a fraction of the books I actually possess and actively reference:
The Elements of Style – Strunk and White
Vampire Universe – Jonathan Maberry
They Bite! – Jonathan Maberry
Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and other Monsters – Rosemary Guiley
The Science of Vampires – Katherine Ramsland
Psychic Vampire Codex – Michelle Belanger
The Vampire Book: Encyclopedia of the Undead – J. Gordon Melton
The Vampire Encyclopedia – Matthew Bunson
The Vampire in Lore and Legend – Montague Summers
In Search of Dracula – Raymond T. McNally
Our Vampires, Ourselves – Nina Auerbach
Vampires and Vampirism – Dudley Wright
Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend – Mark Collins Jenkins
Vampyre Sanguinomicon: The Lexicon of the Living Vampire – Father Sebastiaan
Werewolves, Demons, Zombies & Other Critters:
Zombie CSU: Forensics of the Undead – Jonathan Maberry
Dictionary of Demons – Michelle Belanger
The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology – Rosemary Guiley
Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels – Gustav Davidson
The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Rosemary Guiley
A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits – Carol K. Mack
The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King – Aleister Crowley
Fallen Angels, the Watchers, and the Origins of Evil – Joseph B. Lumpkin
Werewolves: A Field Guide to Shapeshifters, Lycanthropes, and Man-Beasts – Bob Curran
The Werewolf Book – Brad Steiger
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures: The Ultimate A-Z of Fantastic Beings From Myth and Magic – John Matthews and Caitlin Matthews
The Fae World:
Faeries: Deluxe Collector’s Edition – Brian Froud
Brian Froud’s World of Faerie (v. 1) – Brian Froud and Ari Berk
Good Faeries Bad Faeries – Brian Froud
Goblins! A Survival Guide and Fiasco in Four Parts – Ari Berk and Brian Froud
Gnomes 30th Anniversary Edition – Wil Huygen
Giants – Julek Heller
Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia – Carol Rose
Fairies (Mysteries, Legends, and Unexplained Phenomena)- Rosemary Guiley
Note: Books listed here are for reference only. I do not advocate the practical use of any information found within these tomes without proper research, study, guidance, and/or training.
The Element Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells: The Ultimate Reference Book for the Magical Arts – Judika Illes
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs – Scott Cunningham
The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews – Scott Cunningham
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Crystal, Gem & Metal Magic – Scott Cunningham
Practical Candleburning Rituals – Raymond Buckland
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols: The Ultimate A-Z Guide from Alchemy to the Zodiac – Adele Nozedar
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Wicca in the Kitchen – Scott Cunningham
The Alchemists Handbook: Manual for Practical Laboratory Alchemy – Frater Albertus
Three Books of Occult Philosophy – Henry Cornelius Agrippa, James Freake, and Donald Tyson
Liber Null & Psychonaut: An Introduction to Chaos Magic – Peter J. Carroll
This concludes the second installment of the “Writing Urban Fantasy” series. Up next…character development!