on research and museums

I don’t really research. I was asked at a book event once how much research I did for The Night Circus and I responded “I didn’t research, I made things up.” I think people clapped.

It’s true, I mostly just make things up. For the circus I would occasionally check to make sure certain elements weren’t historically anachronistic (that’s why there’s no cotton candy, alas), though I’m sure a few anachronisms snuck in there anyway, and I relied on my own instincts from years of books read and movies seen as far as getting the tone right. And of course, my late Victorian/early Edwardian era circus exists in its own fantastical version of the past anyway.

But now that I’m back in the development stages while working on the new book I’ve been thinking about research more and I think I do research, only I view it more as digging around for inspiration than actual research-research which I mentally associate with term papers and laboratories.

I oscillate between input mode and output mode. When I’m in output mode I’m writing writing writing, usually in caffeinated marathon sessions where I rarely self-edit and accumulate lots of words. (Later there will be self-editing but we are not concerning ourselves with such matters at this stage.)

In input mode, which I’m in at the moment, I’m not writing a lot (though I will jot down random bits if they float into my head) but I am reading a lot and pondering a lot and trying to marinate in the flavors associated with what I’m working on while constantly looking for new ones to add. Unsurprisingly this mode also makes me hungry. And it is research in its way, even if it’s not all book research.

Things I have done in research/inspiration mode for the new novel have included reading lots and lots of detective novels, playing (including getting other people to play the difficult levels for me) Bioshock I & II, exploring art deco hotels in Miami, visiting cocktail bars and peering at artifacts ensconced in glass cases in art museums.

I love museums, maybe because they tend to be library-quiet and story-filled. While I was in NYC I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art which is one of my favorite museums. (I don’t know how I managed to miss the Cloud City.) I spent a lot of time wandering around the Egyptian galleries, not particularly searching for inspirations but keeping my imagination open since there’s an Egyptian mythology flavor floating around the edges of the not-yet-novel-shaped novel. I didn’t have any epiphany moment but it got some wheels turning in my head.

Where do you get your ideas? people ask. Sometimes they’re at the bottoms of cups of tea. Sometimes they’re lurking in my shower. Sometimes they’re waiting patiently in glass cases in museums.

And having peered in glass cases so recently, I was particularly delighted to see my author-friend Simon Toyne doing very much the same sort of research only on the other side of the Atlantic with a lovelier accent and a camera in tow.

Of course, his new book is all shiny and book-shaped and available in stores and mine is…

I should go back to researching now.

6 Thoughts on “on research and museums

  1. That’s an intriguing and fascinating set of inputs for your marinating/research! It also sounds like it could be a lot of fun. I hope you’re enjoying it.

  2. Just wanted to say I love Bioshock. Hope you’re enjoying the writing and I love the Metropolitan. And anything to do with ancient Egypt.

  3. Love this post! well, really, I love pretty much every word you write. Reading what inspires your research has me excited for your next novel.

  4. Thanks for introducing me to Simon Toyne. His video is most interesting; a glimpse into a writer’s process from eyes to ideas. We never know what will trigger a story. We can’t help but take it all in, just in case something wants to hitch a ride on our imaginings.

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