Thursday, February 25, 2010

Researching Characters

I'd like to talk a little bit about my research for Richard & Amanda (I really have to come up with a title). Richard is a Captain with the Royal Navy (circa 1816). In my novel I have made him the person who captured Napoleon at Rochefort. I had to totally scope out how he could have done this at such an early age, he's only 36. I found a sight on Wikipedia (thank god for Wiki) who listed all the people who were in the Navy, on ships, at that time. I then had to go through that list and find men who were on boats at a particular time which corresponded with Richard's age and career track. Richard is now an amalgum of 9 different people with a career, that might be construed as totally fantastical. (That's why it's called fiction.)

Once I figured out how Richard could have his career, I made him chuck it. Once he captured Napoleon, what else was there? (Napoleon tried to sneak out the proverbial back door to get to the open sea, but the HMS Bellerophon received word he would try and escape from Bordeaux. The captain then sent two smaller craft to reconnoiter and watch the French coast at Bordeaux and Arcachon. The captain's suspicions were correct that Napoleon would try to leave from Rochefort. (Because he was a brilliant commander.) The HMS Bellerophon moved in and took Napoleon's craft, took Boney and his crew on board. The captain then spent a few days with Napoleon as his captive. They say, both the captain and Boney played chess and became sort of friends as they discussed Boney's attempted take-over of the world.) Just a little history lesson for ya'.

Any-hoo you may wonder why I spent so much time researching all that if I made Richard retire from the Navy right after it happened. And the answer is, to see if I could. The real captain of the Bellerophon did not retire, he went on to become a commodore and then an admiral. I wanted Richard to have had the conversations with Boney during those days/weeks about life, love and pursuit of the Empire's happiness. And guess what, after almost 20 years fighting for a cause, Richard found that he didn't need to fight anymore. Boney and the threat had been defeated. So why shouldn't he retire?

I felt I needed all that background to help flesh out more of Richard's character. I already knew he was going to be strong and decisive, used to handing out orders, and not being disobeyed, even-tempered, level-headed, a commanding presence. (no pun intended). Now I just needed a reason for him to be that way, hence a captain in the navy. Rather than the army, too much bloody battle.

The reason I made Richard retire was that I also needed him to be at odds with his life, now the war was over. His retirement was a disappointment to his father (who was an Admiral), his grandfather (who was Admiral of the Fleet), the Prince Regent -- (he and Richard and Robert were great friends at one time) but most importantly to himself. Having been hailed as the hero of the century for capturing Napoleon, where could he go from there? Richard is now loaded with angst. What could he ever do for the rest of his life that would compare to what he had already done? How could he ever live up to his own reputation? I suppose if you want to say, that is my character sketch for Richard. And truly the only one I've ever done. All of my other's I have pulled from the ether.

Now, most of this information won't be in the book. More than likely it will be alluded to, through dialogue and discourse, perhaps a dream, perhaps a memory, I don't know, I haven't gotten that far. I also have scores of information on the slave trade, South Carolina crops, what a full compliment means on a sailing vessel, the differences between a boatswain and a coxswain, geographic and ocean longitude and latitudes, and a whole boatload of other stuff that who knows if I'll use.

But I needed all this to make a believable book, to make Richard a believable character. I LOVE Richard. He is by far my most favorite character of all that I have in my head and in files. (In answer to a question Falen never asked.) He has the most sadness in his soul (until he meets Amanda). He has the most angst. He has the most incredible grey eyes. LOL

So I guess what I'm trying to say with this post, is that you CAN over research, you just need to know WHY you're researching it. I wanted Richard to be the best damn captain he could be, the best man he could be. I wanted Richard to be BELIEVABLE.

So tell me gentle readers, why do you do research? Or do you?


roxy said...

I could easily get carried away with researching. I love doing it. I have to reign myself in and remember that my research is for accuracy and to help me envision my settings. I get so inspired when I know where my characters are and what it looks like. Thanks for a great post, Anne.

Piedmont Writer said...

Roxy -- My problem too, I love research and could probably do it all day. (Maybe I should think career change if this writing gig doesn't pan out?)

Tara said...

I'm not big on researching which is probably why I stick to things I know. For my first novel I wrote two race car drivers--considering my step-father raced Porsche's and was a professional driving instructor, my mother raced here and there, and I grew up at the darn track, well I had things pretty covered, lol. Of course, when I was at any loss for writing something specific, I turned to hubby, who had been on Audi's race team for 5 years. So no real research needed: I know cars ;)

I didn't think I'd need research for my current wip, but lo and behold it turned into more than I thought it would. Luckily I have a friend who owns a record label, so I got all the music biz info from her (she was awesome!). The FBI part is more difficult. Not like the Counterintelligence department gives out info on the Russian trafficking/forced prostitution industry, lol. I found a great (and horrific!) documentary on the subject that helped. If Roulette is sold and I go on to finish book 2, I'll need to do a lot more in depth research since it will be less about hero/heroine and more about heroine's career.

Piedmont Writer said...

Tara -- good for you! it's nice to be able to write something that you KNOW. Yeah, I don't think the FBI will be forthcoming but now with the internet and crazy movies abounding I'm sure all you have to do is google it and wah-la, instant research.

Falen said...

i don't research too much, but i always find myself looking up specific plants in regions and for Foxfire i had to look up some woodlore (how to field dress doves, etc).
I had a plan, once, to write a romance and mine also took place during the napoleonic era. Fun Times!

Erin Kuhns said...

I don't research enough yet. But then I haven't gotten far enough into my novel. I mean, I've written a first draft, but it almost doesn't even count, considering how much rewriting I still have to do and how much deeper I need to go with my characters.

I do have one old guy in my novel who has an Irish accent. I don't have a whole lot of experience with Irish accents (ie: I don't have any Irish friends...kinda not cool for a girl named "Erin" lol!). But I won't let that stop me. I realize I will definitely be doing some research--watch Irish movies, find YouTube videos, read help me build this character correctly. It's gonna be work. But I just can't seem to drop the accent he has--he needs it. Not sure why, but he does.

Nicole Ducleroir said...

I love doing research! Site-jumping around the Internet is fun, but I learned the most when I did my first field trip-style research in a hospice center. One of the main things I learned was my MC didn't fit the hospice nurse profile. But that's okay! I have another occupation for her, more interesting than hospice, and I'm setting up another research outing for next week. Can't wait!

Bummer you can't come to France with me this summer, LOL. Seeing the countryside and being in an Old World European setting would definitely add some sights, smells and tastes to your Richard and Amanda narrative. I promise to share photos though!!

Great post today!

Teebore said...

I plan to do a lot more research when I start seriously writing historical fiction (right now I'm writing and trying to publish sci fi so I don't want to muddy my marketability by also writing historical fiction until I'm such a smashing success that publishers will take anything I write :) ).

But I LOVE doing research. And to me, it's the same kind of thing as doing those intricate character surveys of your MCs. Sure, the MC's favorite food or movie may not make it into the book, but YOU know what they are, and having a more fully-formed idea of the character will subconsciously make the character seem more real.

Same deal with research. The every little fact you discover may not show up in the book, but you'll write with more confidence.

So I'm with you there.

sarahjayne smythe said...

Argh! I saw this go up last night and typed in a great response only to see it disappear. :( I'll try to recreate my former brilliance here. :)

I love to research any and everything. I guess it's part of my teacher's makeup. I'll even go so far as to write about something just so I can have a 'real' reason to spend hours researching it.

Anyway. Mad props to you for your research. It's very in-depth and gives great backstory and I am impressed by it. :)

Piedmont Writer said...

Sarah A. -- Field dressing doves, now that's interesting. And as for Napolean, man that guy was an egotistical shrub and caused more crap for the Europeans than any other guy in history I'd say.

Erin -- Oh man what I would give to watch Irish movies for research. When my brain reconfigures I'll try and dig some up out of my memory box. Circle of friends with Minnie Driver and Chris O'Donnell springs to mind right off the bat, and the one with Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford, I think Ford's a cop and Pitt's a member of the IRA, set in Boston, great flick.

Nicole -- Oh don't talk to me about France in the summer, I'm so there!!! I watched A Good Year with Russell Crowe for the 27th time last night. I LOVE the French countryside. As many pictures as you can get!!!

Austin -- I hear you on the marketability. If I can get into this, maybe later I'll be able to get into that. And I like that -- "every little fact you discover may not show up in the book, but you'll write with more confidence." Great point!!!

Piedmont Writer said...

Sarah Jayne -- Yeah, the post went up but I didn't want it to be there and so got it down again. I'm sorry. What you've said here is equally as brilliant I'm sure. And I hear you writing something just to do the research. I think truly, that was the only reason I decided to do a book about a Captain in the Napoleonic Wars. Just so I could.

Donna Hole said...

Even though I avidly watch the news of the day, I researched 9/11 for three months before writing my third novel. Which isn't about 9/11 at all, but was a major event in the time period. I felt I needed to use some actual news reports in the time line to make the story believable. And, one of my MC has a son in the Service and I needed to figure out what type of job he'd have, how/when he'd send correspondence to his Dad. Stuff like that.

Yeah, over research can definitely happen. But I'm pleased with how I used the information - no matter how little actually went into the novel. It was a weirdly satisfying experience to learn all I did after the fact. I don't think half the info I found was available to the public during the actual crisis.

Distance lends perspective. Anyway, it sounds like you got as much enjoyment out of the research as I did my own. And it seems to have made your characters and story much stronger for the effort.


Your Friendly Neighborhood Palindrome said...

I research a bit...not overly though, because I really like to muddy the lines of reality. Also, my imagination is way more interesting than reality. I will need to do a bit for something I've been playing with for a while. Boo! :)

Piedmont Writer said...

Donna -- that's what I was trying for, the believable -- even if I never used it.

Hannah -- "My imagination is way more interesting than reality" yeah, I think mine is too. I should probably write steampunk but I can't build anything