Author Amber Royer joins SciFiChick.com today to talk about researching for her Chocoverse books. Her latest novel, Pure Chocolate, book 2 in The Chocoverse series, is available now!
“Research and Empathy”
At a recent science fiction convention, someone asked me what was the craziest thing I’d done in the name of research for my Chocoverse books.
A few images popped into my head.
One was me with a hairdryer and an extension cord attempting to winnow cacao beans on my apartment patio. (Cacao has a papery hull that must be removed if you want to achieve a smooth texture when you process it into chocolate.). But many a would-be craft chocolate maker has done the same thing. Because commercially-purchased chocolate processing equipment is expensive.
The second was me in the passenger seat of a jeep, trying to take pictures of the many cows tethered along the side of a road. While we were moving at speed. I wound up with a ton of pictures of blurry foliage — and of cow butts. We had visited Samana, Dominican Republic, to take a tour of a cacao plantation, and someone gave us a whole pod, directly off a tree. Everyone we were traveling with seemed to think we were crazy for eating raw fruit in a foreign country. But we didn’t care as we were sucking tart-pineapple flavored pulp off the cacao beans. And we suffered no ill effects, so that wasn’t really crazy either.
Third, there was me watching the World Cup, trying to get into it the way a true fan would. Which probably doesn’t sound crazy at all, until you realize that prior to designing Brill (my story’s male lead) and Bo’s brother Mario (who is a HUGE soccer fan) I’d never really watched sports. What IS crazy is that I lied about this fact back when I was in high school to get a job as a sports intern for the local paper.
I learned fast and hard that you can’t fake fandom, of any sort. The first time you go looking for Arnold Palmer in the football photos file, everyone is going to know you have no idea what you’re doing.
There are a ton of geek references in the Chocoverse books, and I come by them honestly, from a lifetime of consuming science fiction films and books, starting with The Flight of the Navigator and Space Camp when I was a kid. So I didn’t have to actively research that at all.
The soccer thing isn’t huge to the plot, and I still couldn’t tell you the names of all the real-world players, but I learned enough to understand the rules of the game and WHY my characters enjoy watching it. I understand them better now. (And I enjoy watching soccer sometimes now too.)
Different aspects of a book are going to require different levels of research, depending on how much of the plot centers around them, and how detailed you will need to be in your explanations, and how much you already know. (Even if you think you know facts, though, you should probably still look them up to verify you remember things correctly.
There’s a lot more detail in the series about chocolate production and botany, so I needed to do more hands-on work to get it right, so that the reader would feel like they’d actually traveled with Bo inside that rainforest to obtain a forbidden cacao pod. This book also involved a lot of YouTube time, from trying to get a feel of what an arial approach to Rio would look like from inside a helicopter to seeing how it really looks when a corgi tries to sit with those impossibly short legs. (The answer is they don’t— they just sort of sploot backwards from standing to lying down in one motion — and sploot is an actual term corgi lovers use, so better get it right. And yes, now I want a corgi, but no, I haven’t gotten one. Yet.)
I once heard writing described as a sustained act of empathy, and several people have permitted the advice to write what you know to instead writings what you would like to know. Put those two ideas together and you can begin to understand how much each project changes a writer, if you let yourself be true to the details.
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