We’ve all heard the “write what you know” mantra. To be honest, that has never resonated with me. I prefer to write what I want to know about.
This leaves things wide open in terms of storytelling, but it also creates an additional responsibility for the writer, because it requires us to do the R word.
No, not riverdancing. I’m talking about research.
Some writers I know absolutely dread the idea of research. Perhaps for them the word conjures up images of cobweb-draped bookshelves in the back of some musty library, or of conducting tedious interviews with less-than-willing subject matter experts, from whom extracting information is a task of periodontic difficulty. Or maybe they’re daunted by the overwhelming where the hell do I start? sensation that staring at a blank Google page can evoke.
Or there’s simply the chance that they consider research to be an obstacle that stands between them and where the real action is: in the writing, dammit.
To them I say: patience, Grasshopper. Today I’m going to explore how easy research can be, and how it can not only provide your fiction a more believable and authentic foundation; it can actually inspire your storytelling.
Around the world with the click of a mouse
One of the coolest things about living in the Internet age (in addition to all the funny cat photos and Kanye West’s deeply profound Twitter posts) is how incredibly easy it is to find and access information. I really have to tip my hat to all the writers who managed to get published pre-AOL. They actually had to leave their homes to go find out stuff – oh, the horror! In comparison, we’ve got it awfully easy.
True, even now it would probably be ideal to travel to Paris to get a truly authentic sense of its je ne sais quoi. But for those without the time, money or passport, the Internet has made it possible to find information – and, more powerfully, to connect with people – from all parts of the globe, all from the comfort of our own home or local coffeeshop. That’s the kind of research I’m going to focus on today: the incredibly powerful resources that are available to us online.
Beyond Google: asking the hive mind for help
Obviously search engines like Google are a first stop for any online researcher. But there are other less obvious resources that can often take you on a much deeper dive down whatever rabbit hole you’re exploring. A favorite of mine is the online discussion forum.[pullquote]We’ve all heard the “write what you know” mantra. I prefer to write what I want to know about.[/pullquote]
A confession: I’ve been an online forum junkie since the late 90’s. I’ve spent innumerable hours (seriously, we’re talking insane amounts) on forums for topics ranging from technical writing to drumming, from fiction to ukuleles. I’ve found forums are a great place to do research, giving you the ability to pose a question to a group of people deeply interested in the same topic. And from what I’ve seen, there’s a discussion forum for just about any topic.
For example, I recently discovered a large and densely populated forum devoted entirely to shaving with old-fashioned safety razors. There are many members with thousands of posts attributed to them, all just talking about razors and shaving. It’s like an entire society, with some clear alpha males (and females), and its own acronym-filled dialect in which they all seem conversant. Many of them post daily about their latest shave with lush – hell, nearly pornographic – detail, often including photos of the razor, brush and soap they used.
And that’s just old-school shaving. Like I said, there are forums for pretty much everything. In comparing notes with other forum-frequenting writers, I’ve learned there are forums for people into video games, people in loveless marriages, people who build homemade hovercrafts, people who are into “domestic discipline” (every bit as creepy as it sounds), people who hate Gwyneth Paltrow (apparently that’s a thing), “furries” who enjoy dressing up as stuffed animals, and – I kid you not – this forum about chewing ice.
Beyond the comedic value/eeewww factor of some of these forums, they can be an amazing resource for your storytelling. For example, I recently published a novel under a pen name, about a mafia goon who became a famous TV weatherman. It was a fun premise, and I had a blast writing it. That is, until I started hitting areas where I needed to write about meteorology, and realized I knew absolutely nothing about the weather. Fortunately, I was able to find a forum of amateur meteorology buffs that was great for reality-checking some of the weather-related plot points in my book.
They even pitched in to help me devise a crucial weather scenario for one scene where I needed a weather event that would be both powerful but plausible, in a spirited discussion peppered with suggestions from many different forum members. If you’ve seen the hilarious movie Galaxy Quest, where the captain radios down to Earth to some Trekkie-type nerds for help, it was that sort of thing – an utterly delightful experience, and my book was much the better for their assistance and expertise.
The key to getting people to help you
In addition to seeking help from online forums while writing that book, I also wrote to most of the major TV weather anchors in Florida. To my amazement, they ALL wrote back, happy to answer questions. And the head of the Key West branch of the National Weather Service (the focal point for monitoring hurricanes that threaten the US) exchanged a ton of anecdotes with me, and offered me a tour – and a beer – the next time I’m down there.
So how did I pull all that off? Well, much as I’d like to attribute it to my boyish charm and stunning good looks, I doubt that was it. From my experience, the two most helpful things are to A) tell them it’s for a book (which tends to get people intrigued), and B) put a box around the request. By that I mean: let them know this won’t take up too much time. When I reached out to all those Florida TV meteorologists, I wrote to them to first ask permission to send them five questions about their jobs. That way they knew what they were in for. And I gave them an “out,” letting them know that if they were too busy or would prefer not to respond, I’d totally understand.
It really comes down to showing them respect. By putting a box around the request, you’re showing your respect for their time and expertise. Whether it’s a finite number of questions, or a request for a ten-minute phone call to be scheduled at their convenience, you’ll probably get a good response by showing such professionalism and consideration.[pullquote]Research 101: Be nice. Show respect for their knowledge and time. Ask permission to ask questions, making it clear it will be a small and finite task. Ask smart questions. Then thank them profusely.[/pullquote]
And do your homework first, so that you can ask well-targeted questions. Don’t simply send them an open-ended request, like “tell me about what you do.” I know writers who’ve asked experts for brain-dumps like that, and invariably they got ignored. Don’t make them work too hard – remember, they don’t owe you anything.
Research as inspiration
I’ve described some situations where research helped me strengthen my story. But in some cases, it has even helped me create my story.
For example, when I started writing my mafia weatherman book, I knew I wanted to open with a scene that showed him as a kid in the late 70’s. So I did some surfing around to see what music was popular then, and learned that the song “YMCA” was a big hit. That gave me the idea of him singing “YMCA” at the top of his lungs, to the consternation of his father, a macho mafia goon who doesn’t feel comfortable hearing his kid innocently singing a double-entendre song by the Village People. Bingo – I had my opening.
I knew I wanted him involved in some cataclysmic weather event, and I was curious as to whether they had tornadoes in the New York area. I did some research and found that there was a freak tornado in Connecticut that killed several people and destroyed a big airplane museum. Perfect – I wove that into the story, making the kid’s dad an airplane buff. He is taking his family for a vacation trip to this air museum near Hartford, when the kid freaks out, sensing the tornado. It made for a powerful opening scene, and couldn’t be faulted for realism, because the storm actually happened. That last point was important to me – I’d given the protagonist an unrealistic gift for predicting the weather, but I wanted the actual weather events to ring true.
Later in the book, the father’s love for airplanes and frustrated dreams of being a pilot help him better relate to his grownup son’s dreams of doing something that would take him out of his pre-ordained mafia lifestyle. Hey, look at that: accidental foreshadowing and symmetrical character arcs, the kind of stuff that could lend the impression that I actually know what I’m doing as an author. But you and I know that it all fell together because of a random news nugget I found while Googling. Yeah, I love me some Internet research.
How about you?
What methods of research have fueled your own writing? How has research enriched your storytelling? And be honest: has your research ever led you to people or communities who surprised (or terrified) you with their particular interests, expertise and/or passions? Please chime in (or ‘fess up, if applicable) – I’m eager to hear about your experiences. And as always, thanks for reading!
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