When I Do Research, I Try to Have Fun

For many years, I didn’t write fiction that required a lot of research… on purpose. I wrote either short stories or fan fiction, and focused more on the characters and the situations than writing the sort of stories that needed research.

I did the generic sort of stuff — checking Wikipedia for setting information, reading that one sex site everyone recommends for fan fiction writers — but until I started writing Real Adult Novels with Actual Stuff in them, I didn’t do a whole lot of factual research.

I still haven’t done a ton. My NaNo’ing has left me in the habit of leaving notes and saving the research for stage two. I’ve only gotten one novel through that stage. There was a lot of boring research on diabetes and stuff. (I even called a medical professional friend!)

However. There are a few memorable moments.

What Must the NSA Think?!

I got stuck while deciding how the characters in a scene would be smoking opium. I’ve seen pot in action, but opium? Who still smokes opium? (Answer: lots of people.) Was opium even the right drug for this scene? It’s the future! Maybe they have FutureOpium!

I ended up sticking with opium, but there were a lot of little details I wanted to snag, so that a character walking in the room would recognize it pretty quickly. I found details on what the high would be like, and what the room would smell like, et cetera.

Yeah. I got a lot of hookah ads after that, and started doing the rest of my drug research in a porn “Incognito” window.

Slighty Crazy!

I wrote a story that was supposed to take place in eleven minutes. (I assure you it has a very clever title.) Since it was primarily dialogue-based — until the car crash — I sat in my room and timed the dialogue, trying to be careful of character cadence and emotion.


I’m so glad I had my own bedroom by then. My poor sister.

The Most Fun! And Frustrating!

When I was working on the fantasy story last summer, I got really caught up in trying to time the journey in the first book. This bothered me — because I know that I can’t do math, that I have no internal sense of scale, and I had been winging the setting from a map I made using some economic information from GURPS: Low Tech… while I was drinking. There was no scale. Have I mentioned yet there was no sense of scale?!

Ashley - Rudimentary Map

Scale is for pussies.

I had concluded that the river the party had to walk up and along was roughly the economic equivalent of the Mississippi River back in ye olde day. (And now? See, I don’t know this shit.) So, I made Google Maps spit out the distance between St. Louis and New Orleans, using the walking instructions.

I then spent a long, frustrated evening searching for the average speed of steamboats (and then, but what about when they’re going upstream?) and average walking speed. Then I tried to figure out how to translate miles-per-hour into something useful for the distance I had my characters travelling.

Finally — utterly convinced that my math was wrong because I can’t math — I threw it all into Paint and came out with this:

Ashley - Self-Made Distance Map

Nailed It.

It’s probably flawed. (It’s most definitely flawed.) BUT. Having that information allowed me to continue forward with the story and stop obsessing with the journey logistics. I was able to get through the rest of the journey without too much panic.

Until, you know, I later decided that it was all wrong. As you do.

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.

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