Every so often (but not so that it’s high and mighty or obnoxious) I want to do a practical issues post on writing stuff. The thing is, I fully get that I’m not Stephen King (boy would that be the weirdest Freaky Friday ever) or a huge bestseller or whatevs. However, I find that I end up contributing to the same conversations about writing on social media a lot, and in panels I find that there area always similar basic issues. And sometimes I’m just going to cover stuff that annoys me (not today, though, we’ll start out gentle).
As The Maternal One says, It’s not that I know everything, it’s that I’ve just fallen in more ditches.
So today I’d like to talk a little bit about…research. Partly because I’m neck deep in it, partly because it seems to intimidate a lot of people. People seem to either assume they know what they need to know or they go hog wild and intimidate themselves out of starting a project in the first place. So first up is to find a happy medium. You should also get some sort of an idea about what you need to know to make your story or book at least seem realisitic. Sometimes it helps to know the rules to break the rules (or in this case know the area/time period/whatever to play around in them or to cheat a little bit). I was on a panel once about using real places as settings and while it may not always be in your best interest to call out a place of business or a city down to its flatware patterns, if you’re writing about Chicago it should feel like Chicago. If you’re writing about a small town and have never experienced one, it’s better to find a way to get some knowledge in ya or risk being called out. To make things easier, it does help to have a rough outline in your head about what to research, or else you’ll be overwhelmed pretty quick.
Example: My horror e-book Mooner doesn’t overtly give a year and a time period, though I had it in my head that it was somewhere around the 1870’s and probably Wisonsin or Michigan. Although I had some disappointed Canadians call me out for that once, so it can be wherever people want it to be where there are lumberjacks.
Speaking of lumberjacks, I knew that I was going to have to explore their world – but I chose to do it in a really limited environment. The historical fiction of other authors had inspired me, so I latched onto this idea of a saloon. At first I had just a very loose encounter in my head, but with some quick interneting of historical sites, I was able to get an idea of the dress, the lifestyle, the habits, the pure danger of choosing that type of life, and the speech. Which led me to online dictionaries because boy howdy, do lumberjacks have their own language and I do tend to get heart palpitations with interesting dialects.
That basic info, though, really gave me permission to play with the characters – to the point of adding in an extra bit at the end that hadn’t even occurred to me until I was fleshing things out.
Not that research is limited to historical stuff, mind. In the Red involved a lot of researching medical conditions (and some one-on-one conversations when I could get them), and as many rock urban legends and touring rock musician anecdotes that I could find (the latter is also a weird hobby of mine, so that wasn’t too much of a stretch). You would think that Olde School would just involve me making up stuff, but there was again a ton of research into fairy tales, politics, emminent domain, and dialects. If anything, making up your own world takes way more work than filling in the blanks in the real one. Currently I’m binging on a lot of history and pop culture from the mid/late 50’s through not quite today, because I’m a glutton for punishment who never learns her lessons. And a lot of rocker/groupie culture because apparently I have to entertain myself while inflicting self-torture.
So where do you do all this research, I hear you ask. Might I suggest…
- The Internet – the obvious choice. Google and Wikipedia do wonders. However, some stuff has to be taken with a grain of salt. Historical and school project sites are great for basic rundowns of time periods or issues.
2. The Library – it still exists, I swear, and there are handy librarians who can help you out (I’ve yet to totally freak out a librarian with an odd request, and that’s saying something). Not only do you have books, but they probably have resources on local events and history and things you might not have considered. Also, stealthy trick I’ve learned – never underestimate a kid or teen biography or nonfiction book. It’ll give you all the basics and get to the point much faster than trying to flip through a stack of big books. This is especially good if you need general information or have a basic idea of what you want to do but need filler or a guiding hand.
3. People – I know it can be weird and uncomfortable, but never underestimate good first-hand experience. It’s pretty common for me to ask if anyone knows about certain stuff on my media. You can also try calling places (be respectful), and make sure to be up front with people about what you need and what you’re using it for. I find that people generally are cool with being helpful, but don’t waste their time, either. Come prepared and be upfront. It also helps to have friends with varying experiences or who are willing to shove their other friends at you. I’ve got people I regularly text for local government type advice, I have a poli sci person, I’ve harrassed probably every musician and performer I’ve worked with, and even the stuff I’m generally pretty sure on I’ll check with people. If you need to know law for your lawyer pirate adventure story, see who you know first, then put out feelers for people who might be willing to talk to you. Usually there’s someone curious enough to give you a few minutes.
4. Documentaries, nonfiction shows – Plunk yourself down in front of some PBS. See what Netflix has to say about certain subjects. Of course,there may be some bias depending on the docu, but you are going to find different angles on subjects that you might not have expected.
5. Pay attention – No, seriously, all the time. It’s the same thing for the whole ‘where do you get your ideas’ question. If you don’t pay attention, really dig deep and become aware of your surroundings, your emotions, and those around you, you’re missing a huge resource. This kind of plays into the sense memory thing, but your perceptions and experiences are important, as well.
6. Go places and do stuff – I don’t expect you to fly across the world every time you have an exotic setting, but if you need a small town environment and haven’t been in one for a while, go road trip. Really get yourself in that environment (but do it safely. With all of this, safety first, please). Same if you haven’t been in, say, a DMV for a long time but want to set a scene in one. Go hang out, see what there is to see. This is also the cheap excuse I use for taking random classes or going out and about and doing different things – I need it for research.
Two final thoughts:
- As important as research is, you’re not going to nail everything. You’re just not. You want the details to work with your plot, so at times you may have to fudge things a little bit. You may get called out for it, you may not. The real art of it is making everything seem real instead of just a fill in the blank exercise to show that you learned stuff.
- Keep an open mind when you research. Know what you need it for, but don’t be absolutely married to your outline. I’ve found details that made me change course because they gave me ideas that were just too good to not use. Always keep an open mind.
Now, there is also the whole genre writing caveat, I suppose. How do you write what you know when you can’t know them? How do you write stuff you can’t research whole sale?
Lucky you, I did a guest post for mythic scribes about just that.
What are your favorite methods for research? Do you find one thing works better over others for you? Does research push you out of your comfort zone or do you love it?