Sometimes RL sources are no help whatsoever in worldbuilding. Take ghosts and hauntings. Please.
I’ve been trying to research some RL ghosts and haunted places to add a bit of spookiness for a character. Said character’s a night-creature himself, so another monster isn’t going to freak him out. A human ghost, however….
I thought I’d lucked out with a series of books in the library specifically on Florida hauntings. Ghosts set in specific locations, should be fairly easy to come up with descriptions, alter them slightly to fit a fictional town….
Of a ten-page entry on, say, Naval Air Station Pensacola, one page is contact info. Three pages are history of the location – which, good, that’s useful. And the rest of the entry is a whole lot of speculations, legends and feelings, with only a few paragraphs on what the suspected ghosts are actually doing. When I read about a haunting I don’t want the author to spin pages of “visit X place and imagine the hardships and tragedies that took place here,” I want info on what actually happened.
Grump. Grump grump grump.
I am particularly less than impressed because the author makes noises at several places in the books about being associated with the ghost-hunters organization S.P.I.R.I.T.S. that’s supposed to observe and make reports of exactly what they found at hauntings. It’d be nice to know some of that information, instead of more “feel this, imagine that”.
So what can you do when RL sources let down your worldbuilding research?
First allow yourself some time for sheer argh. Research time is usually stolen from writing time or sleep. Feeling like you wasted that time can be frustrating to the point you can’t even think. Get something to hydrate with – research tends to dry you out due to the concentration involved – and take a minute to sit and breathe out the fiery snarl.
Then go back to your disappointing source and skim it. Don’t bother reading in detail. Let your eyes slip over the pages and see if they hit anything worthwhile. If so, stop and see if it’s intriguing enough to take a note. Otherwise just go on.
(If you’re really wrought up, grab a pad of small sticky notes and just mark any “might be useful” spots for later so you can power through the whole thing. Come back after you’ve calmed down for the actual notes.)
For the NAS Pensacola entry one of the reported ghosts is Captain Guy Hall, a flight instructor with the USMC who died in a training mission, trying to land on Correy Field in 1926. Apparently he was an avid poker player and the barracks and officers’ quarters still hear the crashing and snapping sounds of the captain dropping his poker chips on the table. That’s pretty much the sum of the info available on what the actual haunting is like.
For worldbuilding you’d have to take that little fragment and add info gathered from other sources. Maybe a history of Marine aviators of the time. Possibly biographical info on the captain himself. And then you need to decide what a ghost is in your story. A spiritual “recording” without a conscious being behind it? The actual spirit of the captain himself? Something else? Once you have that, you can come up with something more dramatic than just the sound of poker chips in the night.
Though I have to admit, the idea of a Big Scary Monster getting unnerved by just some unexplained noises is amusing….