Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Dealing with a Tricky Technique: Research Hills to Die On

By Ausma Zehanat Khan, @ausmazehanat

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Researching a novel is a lot of fun, and a lot of work. But the work is worth it when a story comes to life before our eyes. Ausma Zhanat Khan visits the lecture hall today to share some tips on researching your story. Let's give her a warm welcome. 

Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of the award-winning debut novel The Unquiet Dead, the first in the Khattak/Getty mystery series. Her subsequent novels include the critically acclaimed The Language of Secrets and Among the Ruins. Her latest mystery in the series is A Dangerous Crossing. The Khattak/Getty mystery series has been optioned for television by Lionsgate, and Ausma is also the author of a fantasy series for Harper Voyager. The Bloodprint, Book One of the Khorasan Archives was published in October 2017. Ausma holds a Ph.D. in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. A British-born Canadian and former adjunct law professor, she now lives in Colorado with her husband.

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Take it away Ausma...

What Do You Want to Write About

I write contemporary crime novels and what I like to call alternate future fantasy, and both my series require a great deal of research, though each is quite different in what it demands to make the books seem grounded in a world that is familiar. My crime series focuses on global human rights issues, and so the bulk of my research time is allocated to finding out more about the issues I want to write about. In the past, these have included the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian genocide, the detention of political prisoners in Iran, and most recently, the refugee crisis flowing from the war in Syria.

As a writer who grew up in Canada and now lives in Colorado, these are not places or subjects I know firsthand, though I do have a background in human rights law. But these are the subjects that inspire me—they draw me into a world that I think is important and that I want to know more about, so when I figure out what topic I want to write about, I focus my research there.

What to Read and How to Make it Stick

With research, the first step is always to read, and I aim for a balance of non-fiction and fiction. Non-fiction is essential for getting a clear grasp of the facts, but it can be tricky to figure out what to read from an often overwhelming body of information. I start with news reports—the BBC country summaries really help in that regard, and from there I’ll find links to other articles and sources. I also pull up human rights country reports, so I have clear reporting on what’s happening on the ground.

With my book, A Dangerous Crossing, which is about the war in Syria, for example, I read several searing Human Rights Watch reports on the subject of political dissidents inside the country. This material is immensely difficult to read, but what it offers is the direct testimony of survivors—which in turn helps me understand the story I want to write, as well as putting me inside the heads of people who have lived this reality.

It quickly becomes clear that when you’re telling these kinds of stories, you have a responsibility to get the story right. I’ll also read many of the leading books in the field, but then the real challenge is to sort out that material and figure out what the story needs, and what is simply of personal interest.

Whatever subject you’re tackling in your book—from technology to home gardening, from deathless love to a secret sisterhood of witches—the more you know about it, the more it will make itself a valuable part of your book.

Remember that You’re Writing Fiction

Research into fiction. I have to remind myself of this all the time, especially because I have an academic background and can easily get lost in minutiae that is fascinating for me, but not necessarily for anyone else. Reading novels and poetry that speak to the same subject always form the other half of the equation for me. Facts are one thing, but how people are affected them and what they think about their own reality, is equally vital to telling a story with depth. So the key is to collect, winnow down, and decide what’s made a real impact—and then to begin from there.

I usually find that I want to throw everything I’ve read into the book, but I’ve learned to accept the wisdom offered by editors who tell me that less is more, and that the story needs to breathe. Are there false starts? Absolutely. Have I sometimes cut 25,000 words that I personally found fascinating about a royal treasure or the various types of lifeboats out at sea? Definitely. But the value of reading so widely is that I always come across something new that really breathes life into my books.

Interviews – Ask and You Shall Receive

Writers spend a lot of time alone, locked inside their minds, so another tool I’ve found really helpful is the ability to conduct interviews with people who are kind enough to share their insights and their time. They may be experts in a particular field, or they may be people with firsthand experience about things you want to write about in your book. But how do you find these people?

I think most writers have a real curiosity about the world, so whenever I meet people, I like to learn about their histories, the journeys they’ve taken, and the things they consider important. Social media, particularly Twitter, has also helped me reach out to contacts and ask if they’re willing to answer my questions.

In my case, a lot of the things I want to ask are very sensitive and are usually painful for my interviewees to speak about. For example, I’ve interviewed former political prisoners from Iran, and refugees from Bosnia and Syria. In cases like these, it’s important to build trust, and to listen more than you speak—people are sharing some of the most traumatic moments of their lives, and it’s important to treat that with utmost respect. You’ll often need to take breaks in the conversation, or let the person you’re speaking to determine where the conversation should go.

It’s also important to be clear about why you’re asking for the interview, and how you will use the information you’ve been given. I’ve met some of the most inspirational people through this process, and their words breathe through my books.

Travel – All the World in A Book

Travel is undoubtedly my favorite part of the research process, though it can also be prohibitively expensive. So rather than just travel for work, I plan my vacations so that the locales coincide with what I want to explore in my books. It takes a lot of foresight and scrimping and saving to do this, but the rewards are immeasurable in terms of how they enrich the sensory experience of my books.

My fantasy series is set in Central and South Asia, as well as the Middle East, and nothing made as big of an impact on those books than my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the fabled cities of the Silk Road. But just as often, I can’t afford a trip, or I don’t think it’s a safe place to visit, and in that case, I have the following tools at my disposal:
  • Online photography: For my book on Iran, I looked at thousands of local photographs, and they were indispensable to setting the scene. 
  • Videos: Everything from YouTube clips to PBS or BBC documentaries. 
  • Travelogues and the Travel Channel
  • People: And if I’m lucky enough, I’ll meet someone who will let me take a stroll down memory lane by canvassing their personal photographs.

Are You Ready to Write?

Do you need to do all of these things to write a book that feels grounded in truth? This is just the research  process that works for me. As deadline pressures increase, and I end up in more of a time crunch, I can no longer read as widely as I used to, and I’m often gathering snippets on the sly. But as I’m sure you know, no experience or observation is wasted on writers, so some mix of the techniques I’ve listed—with the balance falling differently each time—helps me take a subject that seems vast and daunting and focus it into the story I want to tell.

Do you have any research tips to share?

About A Dangerous Crossing

For Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty, the Syrian refugee crisis is about to become personal. Esa’s childhood friend, Nathan Clare, calls him in distress: his sister, Audrey, has vanished from a Greek island where the siblings run an NGO. Audrey had been working to fast-track refugees to Canada, but now, she is implicated in the double-murder of a French Interpol agent and a young man who had fled the devastation in Syria.

Esa and Rachel arrive in Greece to a shocking scene, witnessing for themselves the massive fallout of the Syrian war in the wretched refugee camps. Tracing Audrey’s last movements, they meet some of the volunteers and refugees―one of whom, Ali, is involved in a search of his own, for a girl whose disappearance may be connected to their investigation. The arrival of Sehr Ghilzai―a former prosecutor who now handles refugee claims for Audrey’s NGO―further complicates the matter for Esa, as his feelings towards her remain unresolved.

Working against time, with Interpol at their heels, Esa and Rachel follow a trail that takes them from the beaches of Greece, to the Turkish–Syrian border, and across Europe, reaching even the corridors of power in the Netherlands. Had Audrey been on the edge of a dangerous discovery, hidden at the heart of this darkest of crises―one which ultimately put a target on her own back?

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  1. This one resonates with me - as someone who likes to write historical fiction, research is an important part of the proces. I recognise some of the tricks mentioned (google earth is a blessing if you want to see an ancient battle field from a few different angles!) and I agree that ideally you have travelled to the places that your characters are visiting, however something I have learned as well, is that I have to let go of the facts sometimes. Adhering to reality too much can hinder the flow of the story - it is sometimes okay to consiously deviate from the truth - it is a work of fiction after all...

  2. We have so much technology at our hands there is no excuse when it comes to research. An abundance of information is at our finger tips and if we can't find it all we have to do is ask. Excellent article. Thank you.

  3. Great advice, Ausma. I've turned my Roman-era research into a history website that is a big part of my platform, so research time can pay back double as historically accurate novels and a platform the Google searchers can find. One research tool I've found that is fun is the history courses from The Great Courses. Real university profs who have won teaching awards from their students present DVD and streaming versions of lectures about their specialties. If anyone is writing historical, check them out. Full prices are high, but something interesting is always on sale at a very good price. I watch while washing dishes and cooking, and I don't even notice I'm working then!