Sometimes (like right now) I wish my legs were longer, and bendier, just so I could kick my own backside.
Over the school holidays here in New Zealand I have done zero writing. Fair enough, I justified to myself, it is hard to get into the mental space to write when your days are filled with childcare, managing a home renovation, finalising a first book for publication, and obtaining consents and quotes for a community construction project. So instead of writing my novel, I wrote a post on why I wasn’t able to write (here), and let myself off the hook.
Two weeks ago, the school holidays rolled to an end and the kids went back to school. I sighed a big sigh of relief, savoured the silence for a second, then sat down at my computer and opened up my manuscript ready to get writing. Up popped the opening scene I had written before the holidays. The scene where my protagonist wakes from his cryogenic sleep in an abandoned cryogenic laboratory years after a cataclysmic event. I really like it, all 1500 words of it (not much to not like – if you know what I mean!). As I sat there, coffee in hand, ready to tap dance a frenzy on my keyboard, I realised that I could not continue writing.
Why? Because the upcoming scenes require knowledge that I don’t yet have. I want the setting to be plausible so I need to make a decision about exactly what cataclysmic event has decimated Earth in my story. Only then can I figure out the details of the setting (the climate; what infrastructure is left; how many survivors there are and how they survived; whether there are plants, animals and food, and where these are located). To some extent I have a picture in my mind of how I would ideally like the post-apocalyptic Earth of my story to be, so I am researching to find the circumstances that might give rise to it.
Secondly, before my protagonist can leave the cryogenic facility I need to decide where on the planet the facility is.
By now you are probably guessing why I am so cross with myself. I could easily have done this research over the holidays. For me, research doesn’t require the same level of concentration or emotional and mental investment that writing does.
Feeling very frustrated with myself, I closed my manuscript and pulled up my internet browser instead. I had already done some preliminary research online when I first had the idea for this story, but only just enough to convince me that I should be able to create a plausible (at least to non NASA scientist-types) post-apocolyptic setting.
After an hour or so of intensive googling, I hit a roadblock. After trawling through site after site, I had read the same sort of information over and over again; most of it superficial and none it in enough depth for me to figure out what life on Earth might be like after a massive solar flare or coronal mass ejection (CME) had struck. I need details, like: how long would it take for people to die? How would the plants, machinery, and animals be affected? How long would the radiation take to dissipate? How much warning would Earth have of such an event arriving? How might people survive the event?
So I abandoned google, and started browsing the city library catalogue to see if they had any resources that might answer all the questions I had. It was easy to find books on my proposed location (Arizona). Why there? I have never been to Arizona, and I don’t remember consciously deciding on it. I suspect it’s because when I briefly researched cryogenics online, I found a useful website belonging to a cryogenic laboratory in Arizona. From what I have seen of Arizona in movies and on TV, it strikes me as being a excellent location to start my story. Finding books on what the world might be like after a big solar flare is not so easy. What do you type into the catalogue search?
Fortunately I lucked out when I tried searching on ‘Solar Flares’. The first book listed was non-fiction, and looked as though the subject matter was the effects of solar flares on ancient civilisations. Even better, it was available at the local library branch where I was planning to go anyway.
For the past two weeks I have been reading through the book I found, and making notes. It has been extremely fascinating reading, and the scenarios that the author outlines of how a large scale solar event could impact Earth are very scary, yet I am relieved to have scenarios I can use for my story. I think I’m close to having enough knowledge to create a plausible post-apocalyptic setting. Not all of my questions have been answered by this book, but I suspect that no one has all the answers I need – they simply aren’t known.
After I finished reading the book, I decided to email the author and ask for his help with my unanswered questions. I have to admit that I felt cringy doing it! I let him know how helpful his book was, and set out the questions that I still had. I also described the world I would ideally like my story to be set in, and asked him what event or chain of events he thinks might lead to it. I’m hoping that saying I am an author is enough justification for the shameless picking of his brains. Fingers crossed that he answers – with answers! I will let you know.
This post should serve as a lesson in how not to research. In hindsight I should have done a lot more research before I committed to my idea. The fact that I haven’t just shows my inexperience writing this type of book. I don’t have a roadmap – I’m making it up as I go. The one thing I do have is an (unfounded?) belief that I will be able to make it work, and this book will get written.
There are lots of resources out there on how you should research for your stories – you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I haven’t read any of them! So if you want to avoid my hap-hazard approach, click here to read a post from the 4am writer, Gwen Stevens on researching.