This is a continuation of a series I started about just how science fiction and fantasy writers stay up on the latest to give their tales substance. This week we have Cindy Koepp, a teacher, an author, a craftsperson and the loving mother of an African Grey parrot. For Cindy research is a part of the fabric of life as well as an “as needed” exercise in her writing. From sword fights to aerial (or space) dogfights, seeking that perfect piece of information is what it’s all about.
Most days of the year, I teach 3- and 4-footers in 4th grade. In Texas, that means writing is a huge concern. Recently, I gave my students an assignment of locating three facts and three opinions in a little reading book they were given. One of my students lamented that he couldn’t find facts anywhere in his book. It was, after all, fiction. When I told the student that I do as much research for my fiction as I do for my nonfiction, he was flabbergasted, but it’s true. Sometimes the research occurs long before the work on the story ever begins. Sometimes I don’t go digging for details until I need them.
Real Life as Research
I find it hard to believe that most of twenty years have passed since the first time I put on some loaner armor, borrowed someone’s foil, and tried my hand at Renaissance fencing. Even at sundown in central Texas I often felt cooked wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a four-layer jacket and hood, gloves, and a fencing mask. Even with all the bulk and temperatures in the nineties, being properly suited up was better than risking a foil or epee up the nose.
During the next few years, I learned two styles of Renaissance fencing: Spanish and Italian. My studies were as much on the tennis court where the group practiced as in the library reading, and sometimes translating, books about Renaissance culture. At the time, I had no idea that this information would prove handy in my writing. After all, I was working on science fiction, and the characters were not armed with blades of any sort.
A few years later, I had an idea for a fantasy novel involving a regent who’d rather be training her griffin. I wrote the original rough – very rough – draft of Lines of Succession, a book currently under contract with Under the Moon Publishing. Since the main character loves fencing almost as much as she loves her griffin, all that study and practice came in handy. I ended up with three different styles of fencing in the story, one for each of the fictional countries known for their martial skills. One group uses a mutation of the Spanish style I’d studied. Another took on a close approximation of the Italian style. The last? I totally made that one up based on things I thought might be possible.
Last summer, I started a serial called The Condemned Courier with JukePop Serials, and that one, too, has had a lot of input from my fencing adventures. The main character is a fencing instructor who was tasked with discovering a traitor. For that tale to work, she has to be very competent with a sword.
I have another case of research long before any project was conceived. I’ve had parrots since I was in high school. Some have been little shavers like cockatiels. Now I have a goofy African Grey. Parrots are a real hoot, literally and figuratively. They have each had different personalities and their own flair for bizarre antics. I had a cockatiel who would wolf whistle, and if I either didn’t answer him or if I answered him “incorrectly,” he would repeat the wolf whistle very slowly until I “got it right.” One of my other cockatiels would have qualified for the parrot version of the X-Games. She would walk off the side of the cage and fall more than halfway before she started flapping her wings. At first, I thought she’d just been klutzy, but when I put her back on top of the cage, she did it again and again and again. She’d also fly to my purse and go exploring, taking everything out one thing at a time and inspecting it carefully. I had a cockatiel who made spitballs out of whatever bits of paper she could get her beak on. My dusky pionus beat up his toys. My white-capped pionus strutted around his cage and gutted jalapeños for snacks. My African Grey chatters and destroys oatmeal boxes. She’s also learning all the bird calls from a new clock donated by an interested student at Christmas.
A couple years ago, I came up with a wild idea: tell a whole story from the point of view of a parrot and a dog. I’ve recently finished the rough draft, and although I really do need to have the human characters tell parts of the tale, especially when the bird and dog are nowhere in the scene, the parrot in the story took on characteristics of each of the loony birds I’ve had over the last couple dozen years.
Research on Purpose
Not all of my research happens years in advance. Sometimes I’m working on a project and need information on how something works so I can give my stories more realism.
I am not a pilot. What I know about actually flying an aircraft wouldn’t fill up a sticky note, but when I wrote Remnant in the Stars, one of the main characters was a pilot, and a combat pilot no less. I had to find out how flight physics works so I could extrapolate for how it would change in space. While I was at it, I also studied up on dogfighting maneuvers. I never actually use the term “Immelmann turn” in Remnant, but the pilot executes one a couple times. She also experiences G-forces in a couple places and has to compensate for it.
Lines of Succession, for a fantasy story, had a lot of research. In addition to fencing, I needed to know how black powder weapons work. They were going to be loaded and fired on camera, so I really needed to know what was going on. Fortunately, I found some sites with videos and descriptions, and my editor and some pals pointed me toward some other videos, and the mission was accomplished.
Another manuscript that took a lot of research was Like Herding Wind. I needed to find out how old mines of the late 1890s and early 1900s in Michigan were built. For a scene that has since been cut, I learned about the early cars, especially the Ford Fordor. Then there was medical phenomena. Boy, did I have to do some digging for all kinds of information on medical phenomena. The main character is an alien paramedic, and the trouble she doesn’t get into…
Research in Fiction? Oh, Yes, Please!
So, true enough. I do indeed research very many things that I sometimes don’t use at all, but at some point in the tale, I thought I’d need it, so I paused to go scare it up. If I do a good job, you shouldn’t be able to tell the research has been done. In any case, I have almost as much fun learning the new stuff as I do writing the story that initiated the spark to learn.