I recently had an idea for a story that would take place on a submarine. Problem is, I know nothing about submarines. And it’s been a long time since I’ve had to do so much research for something would be so fundamental for the story I was writing. I mean, if the entire story takes place within the confines of a cast-iron cylindrical tub, then this is basically the world I have to work with, and I wanted to know a few things about it before I got going.
I started off with Google–
–where any brilliant researcher begins her work. Finding articles about how a submarine works and what life is like living on one was not difficult, and I was able to save my finds using Evernote (whose praises I’ve sung on this blog before). But the problem I discovered with the internet (what?) is that articles tend to be short and condensed, which is a beautiful thing for a million reasons—just not when I’m really trying to get into the details of what hotbunking was like and what are all those pipes in the ceiling for, and just how big are these engines we’re talking about? I’m trying to worldbuild here. That takes more than a jackhammer—it takes a chisel. The internet provided all the jackhammer articles I needed, laying out what that world was like in broad sweeps of short, condensed articles. But now I needed the chisel to work out the details. So I went to the library.
Yes, I went to the library.
And I’m ashamed to say, I had not been in a while. I worked at my hometown public library when I was in high school, my law school library while I was in law school, and aside from that, I just love books and writers, so needless to say, I sort of got teary-eyed when I saw the sign on every floor of the Harold Washington library that said “Welcome Home.” I felt a little like the prodigal son, returning to my roots with my head bowed, only to receive a warmer welcome than I ever could have asked for. The periodicals especially thrilled me—not so much because I read them but because I shelved them in law school and let’s be honest, why isn’t there an “old pages” scented perfume? I’d buy it.
I found the submarine section and was kind of surprised at home many submarine books there were and how much detail the authors went into. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful, because if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have found what I needed. But I can report that there are a fair number of people out there who must really, really love submarines and somehow find the inclination to write a four-hundred page book about them. Nonfiction. I’m not talking about novels here. Well, please convey my gratitude to all your submarine connoisseurs.
I dove in. (Pun intended.)
I brought home a good stack of books and started reading and researching and summarizing. I also went to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and took their U-Boat tour. I’d done that before, but it was a pretty amazing experience—books and internet articles can’t really convey the feeling of hugeness that a person experiences when they walk up to a submarine. Likewise, they also can’t really convey the cramped feeling of being inside one.
The entire research project has reminded me how happy libraries make me, how happy books make me, and how much fun it is to work through a question and develop a new knowledge for a particular subject. I still have a few more resources I want to look into (submarine movies, in particular), but overall it’s been a fun project.
What’s your research process? How do you go about studying a new thing?
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