Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.29: Field Research

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

So, you’re going to go someplace and learn something you can’t learn in any other way. Maybe it’s location research for setting. Maybe you’re off to interview an expert. Whatever you’re planning, you need to be planning it well. In this episode we discuss the field research we’ve done, how we went about it, and how we might do it differently.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson 

EPISODE ORDER NOTE: As of this writing, episode 14.28’s web-sized audio file isn’t ready. We’ll run it next week, and eventually swap the dates to get 14.29 and 14.28 in the right order.

Homework: Take photos of a place that’s new to you. Write descriptions from those photos.

Thing of the week: PBS Spacetime, by Gabe Perez-Giz and Matthew O’Dowd.

(Here’s Howard’s PBS Spacetime Chronological playlist, which is current through June of 2018).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Field research is mostly about the stuff you can’t get from books, the tiny details. Do your research before you go. Identify an expert who can help you. Offer an honorarium. Then go and experience visceral sensory details. Use the framework, known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns (a.k.a. Howard’s realm). Nothing replaces walking down a street thinking I’m going to have to describe this someday, what are the little details that can convince a reader of the large details. Try free writing everywhere you go, capturing sensory details. Do analog field research! Don’t forget, sights, sounds, smells, get it all. Tell your readers what someone else is feeling, so they can also enjoy the experience.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 29.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Field Research.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Margaret] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And field research is going to take more than 15 minutes to do.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Margaret] I’m Margaret.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We’re talking about field research. The fun, fun part of our job where we get to go places and write it off.


[Mary Robinette] It’s… It is actually my favorite part of the job.


[Howard] I remember talking to Jessica Day George, who we’ve had on the podcast before, who said… Basically, tweeted and said, “I’m going to Europe and I can’t tell you where because it’s all about my next book.” She was going to look at castles and to look at historical stuff. That is not the field research that I get to do, but I remember looking at it and thinking, “Oh, that’s actually a thing, isn’t it?”

[Brandon] Yeah. It is great.

[Margaret] You get to embed with a space mercenary fleet, though, right?


[Brandon] So, I guess my first question for us is, when we’re talking specifically about field research, you’re going to go someplace and do a thing or interview someone for a primary source, how do you approach it? What is your methodology? How do you take the notes, how do you decide where you are going to go, that sort of thing?

[Mary Robinette] So the… I’ve done this both as a writer and then also come at it from puppet theater. A lot of what you’re looking at is the stuff that you can’t get out of the books. Most of this is going to be tiny details. So, what I do first is, I do a ton of research before I go, so that I’m not asking the stupid 101 questions. Because that’s a waste of everybody’s time. The other thing that I do is, I, in the process of doing that research, I usually identify an expert that I can reach out to. For instance, we were working on a play about Mary Anning, who is the first widely recognized paleontologist, or fossilist, excuse me. Was born in 1799. So I found Dr. Hugh Torrins, wrote to him, said we’re doing this, I’d love to… We’re going to be coming to London to do research, I would love to connect with you. This is the honorarium that I can offer. It’s not a big honorarium. It was like $150. For that $150, he went with us to Lyme Regis, he was delighted to talk about this thing that was his passion. He introduced us to the paleontologist that he knew, he introduced us to the fossilists that he knew. He told us which fossil… Fossilists were worth talking to, which fossil sites to go and look at, what details were relevant. So we went and did those things. Having an expert to give you kind of a targeted in about the stuff that you don’t know about was incredibly useful. That… From that, we were able to bring back a lot of visceral sensory details. Similarly, when we did the NASA thing, I got to go into the NASA museums a lot, but the difference between doing that and being taken on a tour by an astronaut…

[Brandon] Right. Climbing through the replica of the ISS…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It’s a totally different thing. So you can go without an expert, but for me, if you can find someone who is an expert or knows the area, you’re going to get a lot more out of it. Among other things, they’re going to help you shift your lens, so that you’re seeing things the way they see them.

[Howard] Circling back real quick on the honorarium, it’s worth noting that what you are paying for with 150 or $200 is not their time. You are buying their belief that you are serious about this. It’s a small sum, but by offering it… Experts often know to look for that. Oh, there’s an honorarium. Oh, you want to learn things from me. Okay, cool. I’m happy to do this.

[Margaret] Depending on where you are in your career and what you’re doing and who the expert is that you’re approaching, the definition of small sum can become flexible.

[Mary Robinette] Very much so.

[Margaret] If you’re going to a local university because you would like information from someone who is a professor there, or something like that, take them out, buy their coffee. That can be a perfectly appropriate honorarium for something like that. Especially if you’re in the early stages of your career and you’re doing something that’s basically on spec for you.

[Mary Robinette] When I was getting information about meteor strikes, I thought I only had one question. So I took a person out for coffee, and then it turned out that I had more than one question.


[Howard] There’s a framework that I use for a lot of things knowledge-related. Which is this grid that says there are the things that we know that we know. There are the things that we know we don’t know, the known unknowns. There are the things that we don’t know that we know. We have information, but we don’t know how to categorize it. Then there’s the unknown unknowns. I don’t know… I don’t even know how to ask the question that will get me the information that I need. Acknowledging upfront to yourself that there are unknown unknowns… Mary, you said you don’t want to ask the bonehead questions, you don’t want to ask the stupid questions. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that I’m going to ask some stupid questions because I just don’t know how this works. But you own that upfront, and then when you get thrown a curveball… You wanted to ask one question about meteor strikes and now suddenly you have 100. You’re not surprised by that happening. You accept, “Oh. Oh, my goodness, the unknown unknowns’ space was larger than I wanted it to be. Now I have a known unknowns space and a long list of questions, and I am prepared to forge ahead into that.”

[Mary Robinette] When I say I don’t want to ask the bonehead questions, again, working on Calculating Stars, there was no way I was going to learn the amount of orbital mechanics that I needed to know for those books. But I knew the area of information. Like, I knew this is the kind of thing, these are the effects I’m coming for. Whereas what happens to me a lot as a puppeteer is that I’ll get people who will email me and say, “Can you tell me how to make a puppet?” I’m like, “Okay. So there’s five different types, five different major branches of puppetry. Within each branch, there are subtypes. What is your budget? How… What is…” Like, that’s a question I cannot answer. I mean, there are books and books and books about that.

[Howard] It’s the same measure of complexity as can you teach me to build a bicycle.

[Margaret] Or the… I feel like the equivalent in my area of the biz. “So, how did you get started in the business?” Or, “How can I break into television?” Like there are a lot of blogs and a lot of books and a lot of information on that topic out there. If someone approaches me with that question, I’m sort of like, “Uh, Google is your friend.” If you have… If someone has done their homework and they have a more specific question, that’s when it’s like, “Oh. Yeah. I can help you out with that.”

[Mary Robinette] I just spent hours answering the “How do you build a wing?” Because they had watched a video and they came to me with a specific question. Then we did some follow-up stuff. Totally happy to do that.

[Brandon] This is 100% my experience as well, writing on books. Like, I just recently did a fighter jet book. I thought I had done my 101.

[Mary Robinette] Ha Ha. Oh, yeah.

[Brandon] Then I went to the fighter pilots and it turns out I was full of questions I didn’t know that I didn’t know, in Howard’s realm. But at least approaching it, once my eyes were opened, I was able to kind of get it closer, send it to the fighter pilots, have them say, “No, you still got it wrong, but your closer. Here’s this and this and this.” Kind of just work towards getting it right.

[Howard] You just named the unknown unknowns space Howard’s realm.


[Brandon] Yeah, Howard’s realm.

[Howard] Thank you. Thank you for that. When I sat down to draw the Munchkin Star Finder deck… I’m going to take this into a visual space for a moment. I needed lots of… I needed ways to do shorthand for a space pistol, shorthand for a helmet, shorthand for a Velcro pocket. Where with just a very few lines, I could do a thing. So I found myself googling a lot cartoon image noun. Then I would look at clipart, I would look at things so that I could get silhouettes of them. My favorite example of that was in the Star Finder book, there is this giant space creature that we just kind of acknowledge is a space whale. I wanted an iconic whale, that everyone would look at and just see whale. I ended up with the silhouette of the whale that eats Pinocchio and Geppetto. I used that as the silhouette. It looks incredibly simple when you look at it, but there’s 2 1/2 hours of research that went into that card because there were so many options for things which, when I simplified them, started looking less like a whale and more like a shark.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is actually not a book. It is… Howard.

[Howard] It’s not a Howard, either. It’s a podcast.


[Howard] PBS Spacetime. We’ll post the link in the liner notes. The original host was Gabe Perez-Giz. He never actually says his last name. Gabe. The current host, Matthew O’Dowd. These are astrophysicists, who, for about 15 minutes, talk about astrophysics. They go into the math. It is hard-core stuff. But the very first episode, introductory episode, is Gabe talking about let’s look at the Super Mario games and determine what the gravity is on the planet of Super Mario.


[Howard] What’s funny, the answer is it’s a lot heavier than Earth. Because he comes down so quickly.


[Howard] Which means Mario’s legs are like rocket engines. But there’s another thing that I’ll put in the liner notes is my playlist of chronological episodes. They been doing this, I think, since 2013 weekly. At the end of each episode, there’s an astrophysics problem for you to look at and try to answer. If you get to the problem… I didn’t do any of the problems. I don’t do math, I draw pictures. But I would listen to the problem very carefully and ask myself, “What realm does the solution lie in? Am I going to have to do calculus? Am I going to have to do astronomy?” Then, at the end of the next episode, they give you the answers to the questions from the previous. It’s super educational.

[Brandon] Awesome.


[Howard] Super educational.

[Brandon] So, we’re talking technically about field research. We’ve kind of strayed a little bit. I knew that we would with this topic. Let’s talk about going places. I find that nothing can replace just walking down the street with the mindset of I’m going to have to describe this someday. What are the little details that I’m going to notice? We’ve spoken many times on the podcast about how small details can convince a reader of a larger reality. If you get the little details right, they will actually assume the large details. So, for me, even if it’s I’m going to put this specific café in my book, and it’s a café down the street from me, it doesn’t mean I’m having to go to Paris. Just saying I’m going to put this building in, what do I notice that’s real about this building, has been super helpful for me.

[Mary Robinette] I usually try to do some free writing in whatever place that I go. I give this exercise to my students. It’s one of the first exercises, formal writing exercises, I was taught. Which is that you go someplace and you write for half an hour. You don’t let your fingers stop moving. You try to capture all of those sensory details. You’re basically banking them for narration later. The thing that I would say, also, while were talking about this, is that not everyone can afford to go to NASA or go to Europe. So you can also look for analog field research. So, it’s like, I can’t go perhaps to Europe, but I can find a narrow street. I can find a narrow street and feel what that’s like to walk down. I can’t go to that cemetery, but I can go to this other cemetery and I can notice these details about it. I can’t go into the NBL pool, but I can go into a pool.

[Margaret] I think, sort of what you’re talking about, is getting those sensory details. Because as much as I love my camera, when I’m going out and I’m going to a place, or I’m documenting something for research that I’m doing… It’s sort of like when you’re going on a vacation and you’re snapping so many pictures, you sort of forget to look at things outside the lens. What your camera captures is different than what your eyes capture. So making sure, even if you are photo documenting details, if that’s helpful for you, that, sort of, taking a step back, breathing literally and figuratively in the place where you are.

[Howard] One of my favorite research moments… It wasn’t really research. Going to Phoenix ComicCon. A bunch of us stepped out of the airport, and, boy, it was hot. We were in the shade, okay. We all commented, “Oh, wow, this is hot.” Then we stepped into the sunlight.


[Howard] David Willis, fellow cartoonist, said, in a very deadpan voice, “We’ve made a horrible mistake.”


[Howard] Everybody laughs. But that sensory experience, you look at the picture of the line between shade and sunlight, and it looks like that line anywhere that shade and sunlight might fall. But that was not what we experienced.

[Brandon] Along those lines, a reminder. Don’t just write down what things look like. I have to re-emphasize this time and time again to my students. You will naturally focus on sight, at least most of us will. Try to get the sounds, try to get the smells. Try to get how it feels to step out of an air-conditioned area into the heat. Get those details as well.

[Margaret] I had an apartment fire in the first apartment I was living in after college. The fire was actually in the apartment immediately underneath ours.


[Margaret] So, our apartment… Not so much. There was some fire, that had come up through the walls, but it was mostly smoke and the fire department coming in and wetting everything down. The most profound memories that I carried forward from cleaning out the apartment after that was the smell of smoky mildew.


[Margaret] Because it is summer in Boston, it is humid, there’s no air circulation because all the windows got busted out and are covered in plywood. Whenever I… I was writing something else, I described a fire, and it’s like, “The smell of smoke and mildew hung over the place in the following week.” It’s one of those things…

[Mary Robinette] Very, very evocative. 

[Margaret] I never would have thought about it until I was there, trying to get stuff out of that apartment. So, smells are like hardwired to your memories.

[Howard] On the 2017 Writing Excuses Retreat, I got to tour a World War II era Russian submarine. One of the things that I noticed most was not how cramped the large spaces were, but it was when we peered into the cabins and I realized these one… I’m not a tall person, but these people must not have been very tall either, or they were curled up. There’s just not much space. A physical description of what you see can convey the size of things, but there is an emotion related to cramped, there is an emotion related to open space. There is an emotion related to all of my things that smell like burnt cheese. That, as writers, is one of the things that is the most critical for us to try to convey. You don’t want to tell your reader how to feel. You want to tell your reader how someone else is feeling, so that they can come along for that experience.

[Brandon] We are out of time. Hopefully, this has been helpful for you guys. Howard is going to give you some homework to kind of push it along.

[Howard] Yeah. Go someplace close to you, where you’ve never been. It can… A side street, a store, a restaurant, whatever. Bring your phone… Your phone. Your camera. Take a few pictures. Then go back, look at the pictures, and look for things in the pictures that your eyes didn’t notice. Sit down and describe what is in this photograph as if you are writing that is a setting for a story. As if a character is noticing these things. Teach your eyes how to look at the camera and see the things that the camera saw that your eyes didn’t see the first time around.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.