Jul 152009

We’ve just launched the mini-site for Sword of My Mouth, making the first two issues (and commentary from me and Shannon) available for subscribers and people who’ve pre-ordered the graphic novel. It’s the first third (48 pages) of the book so far, and we’ll be adding a chapter every other month until we launch the complete graphic novel edition at next year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival. UPDATE: The Globe and Mail just ran an article about our publishing experiment.

One of the things we did differently with this book was research, and so I’ll take this opportunity to write a bit about that.

I’m a big believer in the notion that just living a varied life is a valid kind of research, and most of my creative work has pretty clearly drawn from my life in one way or another. (I have to rely on my recent history because, frankly, I have a pretty shitty memory — I’m envious of writers who can dip back into their childhood with ease.)

I’ve never liked research because it felt like homework. Obligatory. But I definitely needed to do it for Sword — I’d only visited Detroit once very briefly and I didn’t want to fuck up my characterization of that troubled and unique city. And it really helped — not only did it make me feel less fraudulent, but it gave the book a thematic core and direction I wouldn’t have hit upon myself.

Here’s five approaches to research that worked for me.

1. Choose a research subject that you’re fascinated in — not just something you think would make a good story subject. I’ve been interested in Detroit ever since a brief visit in ’94, but despite it only being 4 hours away I’d never visited again. Writing a book set there was a great way to spend some focused time learning about the place. Even if I decided not to write the book it would have been time well spent.

2. Talk to people. Let everyone know what you’re researching. Talk to experts & enthusiasts alike. On the phone or in person — email interviews are just work for people. Be social, have some fun, meet some characters and see how far a conversation with a stranger can go.

3. Go places. There’s a million details that even a gorgeous photo won’t expose you to. Get a list of places of interest you’d like to visit and maybe go with one of the strangers from #2. Research as adventure! Shannon and I went to Detroit twice for a few days — she got tons of photo refs, and I got lots of story and character ideas.

4. Niche websites and blogs are good starting places. Especially when they can connect you with people and new places to go. For me it was a good starting point for cultural touchstones like scrappers, 8 Mile, political corruption.

5. Read some books in a style you enjoy. Long form non-fiction generally makes me glaze over (which allows me to daydream about the subject at hand, so admittedly still useful) so I went with some more entertainingly written books. While a bit sensational, Devil’s Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit by Zev Chafets was a compelling read and gave me some ideas about the racial dynamics that are still relevant today, 20 years after it was written.

Final thoughts: in excess, research can be a procrastination method with diminishing returns. But for someone like me, who is more on the make-it-up-as-you-go school, it’s helped bring a richness in ideas and specificity in detail to my recent work — and has been enjoyable to boot.

  2 Responses to “How To Enjoy Research”

  1. Hey Jim,
    These are all really great points, even for those of us who really like doing research. But don’t forget about librarians! Your local reference librarian should be glad to help find books, websites, and other resources on the topic, even if it’s fairly obscure (we like challenges). Being as specific as you’re comfortable being about what kind of information you’re looking for and why can help them find you more relevant information, of course. Just wanted to remind folks of my profession’s helpfulness when it comes to research; people aren’t always aware of the skills we have.

  2. Timely advice, I just got back from the library with a stack of books for some pre-project research.

    “Even if I decided not to write the book it would have been time well spent.”
    -very true, and you never know when the information picked up now will come in handy later.

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