Thursday, May 24, 2012

Oh! The Randomness of Research

Those of you who write probably know what I'm talking about already.

Those of you who don't, well . . . let me give you some insight into the strange workings of the Writer's Life. Specifically, research. Very specifically, research for a fantasy novel.

I have never written a historical, but I have a fairly good idea what that looks like. While I was growing up, my mother pursued a successful career as a short historical romance novelist (you can see some of her works listed here). I have vivid memories of her seated on the couch with piles of research books all around her and a notepad in her lap. I remember the eye-widening horror that crossed her face during some of the reading (Wow, those Tudors were crazy folks!), or the bursts of sudden laughter at others (looking-for-love letters in 1800s are at least as funny as online dating profiles today!).

This type of research made a lot of sense. You get your story idea; you select a time period that suits it; you order the books, you make your notes, you write your story and, hey presto! You have a book.

Just not quite how it works in the fantasy world, is it?

Not that I haven't pulled out my own piles of research books. For my recently-written Book 5, Dragonwitch (working title), I had out books on the Norman Conquest, James Frazer's The Golden Bough, a work or two on the life medieval peasants (which I didn't end up using), and others. But do you know what ended up being one of the most interesting bits of research I did for this novel?

Night terrors.

This weird sleep phenomenon possibly runs in families, though the mind in sleep is difficult to research, so no one knows for certain. Members of my family get them, some more regularly than others. I had them myself as a child, but nothing quite like what I've experienced in recent history!

Night terrors are a dream state, different from nightmares in that they happen during the first few hours of sleep, the NREM stage (non-rapid eye movement stage). While nightmares happen fairly often for most people, only 1% of adults experience night terrors in their lifetime!

What it is, on a broad scale, is an overwhelming feeling of utter terror that comes upon a sleeper in the night, without provocation, but with very, very real sensations that often include hallucinations. Many people scream when they experience them. Most people don't recall ever having them and simply feel unrested the morning after. But there those precious few who remain completely lucid through the whole thing.

I am one of those. Lucky me!

Actually, odd as it may sound, I ended up being rather grateful recently when I experienced the second of my lucid night terrors. During the episode, I was more terrified than I have ever been in my entire life. My heart rate must have been through the roof, and it was sore in my chest the whole of the next day. During the episode, I felt what seemed to be electric explosions in the front of my brain. I was so terrified, beyond all reason terrified, that I opened my mouth and tried to scream. But my throat closed up. I was literally scared speechless.

Then it passed. I was awake. My husband slept sweetly beside me. There was nothing in the room to fear. Nothing whatsoever.

I lay for some time, my heart racing out of control, and I thought to myself, "Wow. That's just what I need to make that one plot point in Dragonwitch believable."

Yeah. Such a writer.

But, as many of you who have read my series know, dreams are a very important, recurring element of my work. The Lady of Dreams Realized and her brother, the Death of Dreams, are my primary two antagonists. So you know what? Night terrors. Research! Fantastic research, just what I needed for my novel!

I got up the next day and read up on this parasomnia disorder (isn't that an intimidating phrase?), talked to family members to see who among them have experienced it as well. This was the practical side of research. But I have found for my work, the actual live experience, while not always as much fun, often produces the best results when it comes to writing "convincing fantasy."

This was true when it came time for those fencing scenes in Heartless. Sure, I could read up on fencing and pour over famous swashbuckler novels. But it was in the going and doing of the sport that I felt I was able to bring an authenticity to those scenes in my novel.

The problem with fantasy is that there are so many otherworldly elements that you really can't go out and experience firsthand. This makes it even more important to be sensitive to your daily experiences, to see the supernatural in the everyday, to know how to take and twist (just a little bit) something completely ordinary so that you can see the extraordinary within.

Well, I suppose night terrors are in and of themselves plenty extraordinary . . . The point is not to take experiences like that and say, "That stinks. I hope that never happens again," but instead to say, "Wow! What an interesting thing just happened to me that I would rather not happen again but, hey! I can use that!"

Bad experiences like heartbreak, like loss of a job, like an ornery sibling, like a broken limb, like . . . you name it! These are the things that, once taken and reoriented slightly, will make a fantasy story--with all its dragons and magic and other worlds--sing with honest realism.

So your turn. What sort of "random research" have you experienced? What interesting, odd, or unfortunate happenings have played into your work? I'm very curious!


Eszter said...

You know, thats really cool how you turned something bad into something good. Very few people would choose to view their night terrors that way, and I'm impressed that you do. I've heard the best stories are the ones that you've experienced yourselves. Thats true, isn't it?

I don't know about researching for fiction. so far, all the research I've done are for school essays, so I wouldn't be able to answer that question. What I DO know is that I'll be reading your novels through a new perspective, and appreciate more just how much effort you put into it. They're great. :)

Jenna K. said...

I'm planning to write a novel on the Titanic....I've been doing quite a lot of research lately...wathin videos and reading stuff! So this would be like my first real research project! =D

Galadriel said...

I have those sorts of moments all the time. It's really ironic.

She Will Move Mountains said...

I feel you on the whole night-terrors bit. I used to be a sleepwalker as a young child, and now my nightly ordeals have turned into super lucid dreams as well as horribly frightening night-terrors (screams and all!) on occasion as well. I LOVE that you are choosing to use your night-terrors as research material, as I do the same thing. Actually, some of the most vivid dreams that I've ever had have given me many novel ideas that are currently in the works.

You should watch the documentary on dreams that is found on the BLU-RAY edition of the film 'Inception.' It's really intriguing and educational, to say the least.

I'm a BIG FAN of researching all things Ancient Celtic and Norse Mythology! =)

Some of my favorite websites/books to find research materials from are: Fairy Tales (Hans Christian Andersen & The Brother's Grimm), Fairy Tale Re-Tellings (by Various Authors), Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli) films ('Howl's Moving Castle' & 'Spirited Away' to name a few), 'The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures' by John & Caitlin Matthews, 'The Broonie, Silkies & Fairies: Travellers' Tales of the Other World' by Duncan Williamson, and

I guess it's true when they say that anything, and I mean ANYTHING, can be used as research to the writer's mind to fuel our stories.

Rachel6 said...

I had never heard of night terrors before; this post was absolutely fascinating! And now you have me absolutely dying to read "Dragonwitch".

When I was fourteen, I fell off a rope swing. I broke one wrist, skinned the fingers of my other hand, and knocked myself clean out for a good five minutes. The research part? How might a concussed person feel about her concussion? For me, I don't remember waking up at all. My family tells me I answered questions, and that I didn't recognize anyone. All that I remember is staring at a picture and trying to figure out why it was familiar.

Any quirks are now blamed on that bit of head trauma. ;)

Clara said...

I've been trying to think of an answere for this post, when the answere was staring me in the face the whole time!

When I was seven and my brother was 15, he was diagnosed with Leukemia. He had to have brain surgery, have a toe amputated,and have a bone marrow transplant (my sister was a perfect match, thank the Lord). Through this, I know what it's like to almost lose someone. I hope to transfer what that might have felt like into the emotions that one of my characters experiences. My brother is perfectly healthy now, and is in Nursing School. :)