According to Robert Graves, the Roman emperor Claudius was a stuttering, gimpy intellectual who nevertheless managed to conquer Britain with minimal Roman losses. Instead of praising him for it, his critics complained that his victory “smelled of the lamp”—meaning it was not the honorable result of straightforward manly action, but a cheap trick conjured up by an overgrown schoolboy fingering his books in the unwholesome light of stinky oil lamps. The implication being that by studying the problem in great detail, and solving it without vast casualties, Claudius had cheated.
Ah, the rewards of research.
Research has changed a lot since I first started writing. It used to mean spending a lot of time in libraries and bookstores, which I loved doing anyway, but now of course Google has made that kind of fact-finding obsolete, so that with a minimum of effort anybody can find out anything about anything. Knowledge is cheap: the smartest person on Earth is no match for a schmuck with a Smartphone.
Ah well, life experience is the best kind of research for an author anyhow. That’s been the basis for most of my books—I always start with a solid core of personal experience and then build the story around that.
For instance, my first novel, Xombies (re-released as Xombies: Apocalypse Blues), is about a girl escaping from a zombie-like plague, who takes refuge aboard a nuclear submarine. This sub plot was no accident—I actually worked at a company that manufactured nuclear submarines, which was where the idea first hit me that a submarine could be the ideal vehicle for an I Am Legend-type story. Once I had that piece of the puzzle, the book came together very quickly.
Personal experience also informed my novel Enormity, which is the tale of a nebbishy American living in Korea, who suddenly finds himself transformed into a sky-high colossus. Well, the colossus part I made up, but I already knew a bit about Korea, having lived there for three years. The main research I had to do for that book was on the physics of scale, with a bit of quantum mechanical jargon to “explain” how it all happened. There is a kind of poetic Jabberwocky quality to this stuff—it’s not necessary to know what any of it means.
Likewise, technical jargon is used satirically in my novel Mad Skills, the story of an ordinary teenage girl whose brain is damaged in an accident, but who is given a second chance by the miracle of science—specifically, a computerized brain implant that makes her a walking, talking, ass-kicking search engine. Of course, total knowledge has its downside; not many of us want to know the whole truth about ourselves, or the horrors perpetrated for our convenience. When the girl fights back against those who would exploit her, she turns ordinary household items into deadly weapons. This was a fun part of my research on Mad Skills, playing MacGyver by combining a bicycle and a chain saw to make a motorcycle, or building a shotgun out of a blowdryer, a shower-curtain rod, and a can of hairspray. Don’t try this at home, kids!
My most recent book, Terminal Island, is practically a memoir of my experiences on Catalina Island…though with the addition of a murderous death-cult. In setting the scene for Terminal Island, I deliberately avoided researching modern-day Catalina, preferring to draw on my more dreamlike childhood memories of the place. Most of my research was on ancient religions and their rites, particularly the cult of Dionysus, but I already had a bit of background on this, having studied the Greek Myths in college. Once again, the point of using such material wasn’t to deliver a history lecture, but to plausibly bring the gruesome past into the present—the reader is not required to have any expertise. In fact, the book is probably is more horrifying without knowledge of its historical basis, because then it is all just a surreal nightmare.
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