Wordslinger: Research and Employ
The first story I ever published online was set in 1881 in Paris. At the last minute (and I do mean last minute – my wife had already loaded the prologue and first chapter and we were writing the summary), I changed the date to 1891 on the whim of eventually moving the story to New York. I thought I might be able to write about the New Year’s Celebration for the year 1900, but didn’t want to let nearly two decades pass in order to do it.
Five chapters in, I thought that the top of the Eiffel Tower might be a nice location for two lovers to meet and was horrified to discover that had I not changed the year at the last minute I would not have had the Tower to work with at all! The setting became a very important part of the story, and the things I found out with just a cursory search of the Eiffel Tower’s appearance in 1891 were fascinating. As a result I was able to write about Thomas Edison’s experiments adorning the observation platform.
It was in that moment I realized that not only would proper research save my ass, but it would take me in new directions. It’s funny, I wrote a post all about writer’s block a year ago and never once thought to mention how much research can be an equally powerful inspirational tool.
There are two ways to research a subject matter for a story you are writing: Presearch, the work you do before you begin your first draft, and Seatsearch, the stuff you do as it comes to you while you’re writing. As great as it is to set yourself up with plenty of knowledge about the locations, customs, languages, and beliefs of the people in your stories, it’s the ability to add new things as you think of them that will season everything.
If you don’t like the distraction of doing research on the fly, (and sometimes, that’s totally me), just put in something generic in big bold letters like: THAT COLLEGE MY SISTER WENT TO IN IOWA WHERE EVERYTHING SMELLED LIKE PIG CRAP. Later, you can call her up and be reminded that it was Northwestern College.
However, it you’re having one of those writing days where you’re also answering tweets and keeping an ear out for the buzz of the clothes dryer, then I encourage you to pull up your favorite search engine (I adore Bing), and type in something non-generic about your subject. If you want to know about Pittsburgh in 1944 you will want to keep adding different key words like, jobs, buildings or newspaper articles. You may also want to do an image search of your subject and let the visual exploration guide your clicks.
The best research however, is with people who actually know the subject matter. They can give you the nuance as well as the biological. You wouldn’t believe what you can accomplish by just asking.
I remember a few years ago when a British writer was interested in information about Portland and Seattle for a story she was writing. My wife and I gladly joined others in helping her with things like street names or interior hotel descriptions. Hell, we gave her more information than she could possibly use. It was fun. Many others chipped in and since it was a popular story we felt important. Later, when the fic became a book, we ensured that same hotel (which boasted an exclusive library) received a copy of the book to display.
That author was E.L. James, someone I consider a friend to this day. She is a kind-hearted person and honored us by thanking us by name in the acknowledgements page of Fifty Shades Darker, but the pleasure was completely ours. It’s fun to help someone with their story, and she wasn’t afraid to ask for human details to strengthen her books.
In this age, we have access to each other like never before and the friendships we make in these online book communities have so much more than fun and easy research to offer. I just spent a week on the East Coast with almost a dozen authors, editors and readers I admire and we were delighted with how much stronger our connections have become.
Hell, I even got a breakthrough on my next novel by making the trip.
Talking about your stories, asking questions, searching the web for new and interesting facts – these things will spice up your words, deepen your story, send you in new directions, and keep you excited.
Please take the time to enrich your fiction and your heart by truly delving into the worlds you create. You might even try a few local dishes, or sample the music listened to in your story’s time period and setting, or even try some new funky sexual positions you read about in the Kama Sutra.
Just don’t sell yourself, or your story short, by finding out something later that you regret not including.
And for Pete’s sake, stretch, (especially before practicing the Kama Sutra)!