A couple weeks ago, we talked about outlines and how important they can be. Outlines are not for everyone, and it’s totally cool if you’re not into them, but research? Yeah, that’s pretty much a requirement for everyone.
For this topic, I’m going to be focusing on one of my characters, Rafael Vilar, who stars in vampire detective. Like I said in the outlines post re: sister witches, you don’t have to know anything about the story as a whole going in, but in case you’re curious, I did pretend I was going to write it for NaNoWriMo last year (and only managed a few chapters before switching to sister witches, which approximately no one was shocked by), and I did break down each of the main characters (which includes Raf, and uh, also uses some of the pictures I’m going to feature here, damn).
Anyway, research! Even if your main character is not a vampire, research is important. For example, take my bookstore boys story. It’s just about two boys in their mid-20s who fall in love. It happens to take place in a bookstore because one of them works there and the other one loves books. But it’s got no magic, the plot is fairly straightforward, and it’s just a single, standalone contemporary. But did I research it? Of course!
The bookstore that the MC, Will, works at is one of my favorite bookstores in Rockport, MA. It’s now closed and being renovated into something else entirely, but you can bet I a) did a last sweep of the building before it closed, b) emailed the historical society for a blueprint, and c) called the contractor to see if I could get inside before they started demolishing. Because I wanted Toad Hall to be as close to the real thing as possible. And even beyond that–the other MC, Émilien, works on a farm, so I pooled my resources. Erin could help me with the regular farm stuff, and Alex could help me with the horse stuff. There was also French dialogue to get right, schools to research, and books to read for Will’s very specific taste.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the wine paragraph.
Okay, wait, I love this story. So Émilien is from France, but I realized somewhere toward the middle/end that I had no idea where in France he was from, and there’s ONE PARAGRAPH where he tells another character that the wine he’s drinking is from his hometown, and I was like OKAY WAIT. First, I don’t drink wine, but I know that it pairs very specifically with certain foods, so I had to find out a) where Émilien was from, b) what kind of wine would most suit him from that region, and c) what food he should pair that with.
Thus, you can see me panicking in the first picture. I almost always had Google translate open to help supplement my knowledge of the French language. I had three recipes open because I knew they were having rataouille & alligot, but Will’s a sugar fiend, so they should probably also be eating dessert. But then comes the panic, which doesn’t even really do this justice, because all you can see is that I decided he was from the Provence region, so I had a list of Provencal wines open, as well as THREE regional maps and Google maps so I could figure out where exactly in Provence he was from.
FOR ONE PARAGRAPH!!!
I think this is a really good introduction. Let’s talk about researching for writing.
Alright, Rafael Vilar.
Most characters are tricky because they’re literally people that you have to build from the ground up, but vampires are even trickier because they have the added bonus of centuries of history, depending on when they were turned. Now, realistically, you could just write your vampire story with no cares and call it a day, but it’s definitely going to show in the final product. Thus, when I set out to write vampire detective, I knew I had to figure out two things–when Andrew & Rafael were turned. From there, the research begins.
We’ll stick with Raf because Andrew’s history is shrouded in mystery forever on this blog to maintain his secretive personality. I knew a couple things going into Raf’s character. I wanted him to be Portuguese, and I wanted to somehow involve the church. I love a good religious theme to undercut one of my characters (or the story as a whole, Saintsverse), and I knew it would work well with a vampire.
Alright, I decided. How old should he be? Andrew’s ancient, but I didn’t want Raf to be quite that old, nor did I want him to be all that young. Old enough that he’s lived a hard life up until now, and old enough that he’s definitely got a few doctorates under his belt. He’s one of those crazies that definitely keeps going back to school because that’s 100% what I would do given the vampiric opportunity to learn forevermore.
It was settled, then. Probably about 700ish years old. Great, where does that leave us?
Portugal, late 1300s.
I just want to try to explain the rabbit hole that led me here because it’s wild. So, I started out by Googling Portugal monarchy because I felt like it’d be fun to give Raf some kind of connection to the royals. Well, fun fact, their monarchy was split into four different houses.
- The House of Burgundy (1139–1383)
- The House of Aviz (1385–1581)
- The House of Habsburg (1581–1640)
- The House of Braganza (1640–1910)
Once I got here, I decided on which I liked best purely by dates & names. It has a certain chef’s kiss to it–Rafael Vilar of the House of Aviz. The rest of them–Burgundy, Habsburg, Braganza–don’t really do the same thing. Braganza could have worked, but the dates were wrong. I needed him to be older than that. Sold, then. What the heck is the House of Aviz?
Ohhhhhhhh, yes. So I spend some time reading about the House of Aviz and John I, who is, of course, a bastard. And what do you know, just like our very own Jon Snow, there’s a massive battle that acts as the turning point in Portugal’s royal history–the Battle of Aljubarrota. Wikipedia is great because it just links these things no problem for you, which means I’m very quickly led to this:
At this point, I have no choice, Raf has got to be in this time period, I need to utilize that church somehow. But it doesn’t end there. Because it’s not just a church. It’s a burial church that was built as a victory for winning this epic battle that is then headed by the Order of Preachers, and at this point, I’m frantically reading as fast as I can. If you know me, then you understand why I’m so hyped up about this.
I love me a good religious story that I can twist with some darkness, and Raf is the perfect kind of character for this historical angst.
It doesn’t end there, either! Because last month, one of my friends, Bethany, asked if I would act as a guinea pig for her so she could conduct a reference interview as a librarian. UM HECK YES. She told me all I had to do was pick a topic, and I was like “PORTUGAL IN THE LATE 1300S HOUSE OF AVIZ GIVE ME YOUR KNOWLEDGE.” Did I walk away from that meeting possibly also giving Raf a small background in being a pirate during the height of Portugal’s insane maritime prowess? YOU BETCHA.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What does any of this have to do with writing? Honestly, a lot of it is probably not going to make it into the story. I saw this Tumblr post the other day:
And I’m totally here for that. Vampires remembering every tiny tidbit of history is unrealistic & boring. What’s more interesting is a vampire who’s like wait WHAT COME AGAIN??? about some really important historical event because they were too busy napping or something.
But I want to know what Raf’s been through. I want to understand his character. I want to be able to get into his head when he’s pissed off at himself for still wanting to worship God because it brings him back to being basically tortured by the church. I want to know why some things affect him like they do. Because if I don’t know my character inside and out, you, as the reader, definitely aren’t going to.
Plus, when you’ve got a character, like a vampire, or you’re setting your story back in history, your readers are going to expect you to do research. They’re going to expect things to add up. Even beyond that, they’re going to sniff it out if you use a Parisian wine when your character is actually from southern France. It’s little details that really make or break a story, and it’s important to have them come across accurately.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you whether or not you research. When my witches use spells, I can promise you that every crystal/herb/item used is done so with a purpose. I’m not just going to throw a quartz point in there and hope it works. It needs to mean something. Research, for me, is as important as outlining. I’m approaching the end of a trilogy right now, and the horizon is full of history. I’m going to be writing vampire detective next, and I want it to make sense. I don’t frequent Boston a lot, so you can bet I’ve had Google maps out a lot to make sure I’m aware of my surroundings. Because research are those little things–naming the church that Andrew lives near and that Raf skulks in the shadows of–that give your story depth, that make readers want to explore it beyond the pages you’ve given them.