Research is incredibly important when it comes to world-building – even more so if it’s based in a world of reality, with a topic you might not know much about.
When I set out to write GIFTED, I began writing about a girl who could control fire. She would be familiar with her gift (as opposed to coming into it at a certain age or it surprising her with a particular emotion or event), but not so much with everyone else that I didn’t have good reason to explain to readers how the gifts worked. For a while I was stumped, until the imagination fairy smacked an idea into my head: put her in a supernatural circus.
There was only one problem: I hadn’t been to a circus since I was a kid and didn’t know jack about circus life. The solution? Research, research, research.
One of my biggest resources for my Donovan Circus books is the PBS documentary CIRCUS. Six hour long episodes take the viewer behind the scenes of the Big Apple Circus, where you learn about the performers, workers, leaders, and more. This was fantastic – I got to see how things worked in a real circus and see how I could apply it to my fictional Donovan Circus. I gathered ideas from their grounds setup, their performance acts, and their people. Like it or not, there’s a class hierarchy in that kind of show business. Several of the non-performers tend to run away to the circus to escape, from things like shady pasts or simply nowhere else to go and it’s the only job they can find. Even if I hadn’t been researching, I still found it fascinating to hear what it was like for some to “run away to the circus.”
Now, I wasn’t looking to make a historical piece full of facts or even imitate circus life completely. It’s a supernatural circus, so I took several liberties with what I learned. When I went to write out my circus setting, it sort of took on a life of its own.
I also bought “Under the Big Top” by Bruce Feiler. His book chronicles his journey with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. He spent a year performing with them as a clown, interviewing members and getting their personal stories. Reading some of their stories seemed outrageous (and perhaps they were – outsiders are not to be trusted, and clown or no, Feiler was an outsider, so they may have enjoyed messing with him a bit). Either way, the book was not only entertaining, but informative. I was surprised to learn a few common phrases come from circus life, such as “hold your horses”, “rain or shine,” and “get the show on the road.”
The whole idea of the circus is used as a backdrop, a setting where the story takes place. That being said, the circus itself isn’t of terrible importance – while some readers may have wanted to see more performances in the ring, for me, the story takes place outside the tents. The focus of the plot just happens to take place at a circus. So while my research was incredibly important, I felt it was okay to twist things to my needs. As writers, we can create any kind of world we want, no matter how big or involved. But I think, if there’s any reality-based settings or information, it’s the research that keeps our noses clean, if you will, and lets readers sit back and enjoy the ride without too many questions.
How do you go about researching for a book? Or do you just fly by the acrobat wire and jump right in to tell your own interpretation of the story?