Tuesday, July 28, 2009

KEEPING IT REAL: When Research Is Essential

By Writer X

When I wrote the last post about Book Slogging, one of the Commentarama regulars asked about the research involved in creating a novel. The answer: Not all books require massive amounts of research; it kind of depends on your story. And you.

Even though I write fiction and most of my characters and plots come from my admittedly warped imagination, that doesn’t mean I get a free pass on research. For example, what if I wanted my novel to take place in an outpost somewhere in, let’s say, present-day Antarctica. Well, I’ve never been to Antarctica. That doesn’t mean I can’t write about it. It will mean, though, that I’ll need to research the place so that I can write about it authentically. How cold or warm does Antarctica get? What does it look like, exactly? What about vegetation? Penguins? People? And doesn’t Santa Claus live somewhere around that area? For me, pictures are preferable to words and seeing a place up close and personal is always best but that doesn’t always happen. Thank goodness for Al Gore and his Internet. And National Geographic.

And, let’s say my main character at my Antarctica scientific outpost is from New Orleans. Maybe I might need to research New Orleans to get a better feel for my character’s background, speech, or favorite restaurants. Not all of your questions can be answered from research but the more you know, the more authentic you can make your story. And I’m not advocating that you create a completely clichéd character either; in fact, I would encourage you to create anything but a clichéd character. A lot of times I model characters after quirky people I meet—like in airports, at restaurants, malls, even waiting in line at the post office. Still, a little research can get your juices flowing and jump-start your writing.

When you’re writing fiction, you’ve got to reach a point where you can “see” your characters. They’ve got to become real people; you should have conversations with them, although not in public. And the more real they are, the clearer your story can become along with dialogue that will move your story along in a compelling way. (Creating believable dialogue as opposed to drivel is another topic completely.)

I spent about two months doing research before I sat down to write my last book. I had a rough outline of the plot and a few of the characters but the story had a historical setting, and I needed to learn more about the time period. Then as I wrote each chapter, I continued to do more research to ensure my descriptions—from everything to clothing to how food was prepared—were accurate. As an example, I wrote a scene where my main character had to start a fire without matches (matches hadn’t been invented yet). After researching it, I’m now fairly certain that I won’t freeze to death if I ever get stranded in the wilderness. And the character in my book didn’t freeze either.

I do most of my research online, although sometimes I venture to the public library. It’s quite helpful living close to a university, too. Sometimes, though, books don’t help and you might need to talk to an expert or even allow one to read your manuscript or parts of it if he is willing. While it helps to know your experts personally, most of the time that’s not the case. Again, any experts you choose depend on you, your book, and how deep you want to go with the development of your characters and your story. Example: If you want to write a thriller about a police detective, it might be helpful to talk to one. As an aside, I have found that most people usually love to talk about what they do. Finding experts isn’t as tough as you might think.

Finally, just because you do a lot of research doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to include every detail in your story. Not every bit of research will advance your plot; remember that you’re not writing a term paper. But you are attempting to create a page-turner, something that a reader will pick up and not want to put down until he’s devoured every last word of your story. And then cry crocodile tears because it had to end.

Learning that fine line that exists between over-writing and “just right” (like the porridge) will come with practice. I still struggle with it and work to perfect it each and every day. You must weave the researched details into your story as if they’re meant to be there. Your pages shouldn’t read like a throat-clearing.

For example, back to the Antarctica example, I wouldn’t just write an entire chapter describing the place. That would be throat-clearing and that’s usually rather boring. Instead, I might drop details about this frigidly cold and desolate terrain in lots of places—like in the dialogue between characters or a character’s actions (e.g. rubs hands together) or maybe it’s reflected in the tightness of the air or the wool caps they wear or the wispy clouds that float out of their mouths every time they speak…

See what I mean?

It just takes practice and some imagination. Even a little research can go a long way to helping you create a compelling story.


AndrewPrice said...

Good informative article as usual Writer X!

I like the idea of getting to the point that you could carry on a conversation with your characters. I wonder if a lot of authors (and most screenwriters) don't bother getting to that phase? Far too often, I get the feeling that characters (even main characters) are there primarily to bring about plot points and to feed THE main character lines (i.e. they don't feel like they're real in any other way)?

There was a line from Mystery Science Theater 3000 from years ago that I always think about when I see these kinds of uber-shallow characters: "So this guy's job was to slow the plot down and then leave?"

Joel Farnham said...

Very good article. Gordon Dickson rewrote a novel because he didn't do the proper research on wolves.

The finished novel is

Wolf and Iron.


Writer X said...

Andrew, I so miss Mystery Science Theater 3000. That was such a great show and I'm a fan of those campy horror movies!

Yes, characters have to be real. I should also add that they have to have believable emotional layers, too. You get to that place by fully developing your characters. And I've read many a book too where the characters are very one-dimensional. They might as well be mannequins. That's not good. That's why it's also helpful to have someone else read your manuscript before you start submitting it to agents/editors.

There's nothing more rewarding than when I hear someone say Character X or such and such scene made me cry/laugh. That's the layer I'm talking about. That's always the level you want to reach.

ScottDS said...

Writer X - I was the regular who asked about research. Thank-you very much for the article - it was quite educational.

I was on another writing website and a screenwriter said he sometimes looks at children's books. Let's say you need to know about volcanoes. A kid's book will have all the basic facts and some photos whereas one could get easily bogged down with an encyclopedia article on the subject.

Andrew - good line from MST3K! Having taken screenwriting classes, I can say exposition is often quite difficult to execute without making it seem like the characters are simply doing it for the sake of the reader/viewer. I watched that crappy movie Mission to Mars (Tim Robbins, Gary Sinise) and the opening is full of lines: "You remember when...", "You know how...", etc. I always found a good rule of thumb is to never begin lines with the phrase "As you know..." You might as well flash a subtitle that says, "Pay attention!"

Writer X said...

Joel, thanks for the info! Rewriting a novel is not uncommon--especially once your agent or editor gets a hold of it. I recommend putting aside a book you've written for a month or two and than re-reading it when it's a little more fresh. You might be able to tell then too at that point whether your story/characters are missing the mark.

Writer X said...

Scott DS, thanks for asking the question!

Good tip too, reading children's books. Believe it or not, children's books can be some of the most well-written books you'll ever read, simply because you can't pull the wool over kids' eyes on a good story. And, it must also contain the perfect balance of visual and emotional writing in a limited amount of words. Not easy.

CrispyRice said...

Very interesting stuff, WriterX! And probably things that most budding writers haven't even considered.

The post just took me forever to read. I got to "Thank goodness for Al Gore and his Internet" and had to go to my AlGore altar and sacrifice a tree sapling in his honor. Do you know how long that takes? ;)

MST3K rocks.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I love MST 3k! I still quote those guys every day! LOL!

I may take some heat for saying this, but I felt that Ron Weasley was a shallow, non-existant character in Harry Potter -- particularly as the series progressed. His sole purpose in almost any instance seemed to be to show up and say whatever needed to be said (whether it made sense or fit his character or not) to give Harry an excuse for not solving the problem just yet. He would then leave until the plot needed him again.

In fact, I felt that as the series progressed, Rowling cared less and less about his character and I almost expected her to off him just because she didn't want to write him anymore.

P.S. If you ARE J.K. Rowling, then I apologize, I was just kidding. . . oh, and can you sign my copy? :-P

Writer X said...

CrispyRice, Thanks! And don't let Uncle Al know about the tree sacrifice. He might send Janet Napolitano after you...

Writer X said...

Andrew, rest assured, I am not JK Rowling. Now, I might take some heat for saying this, but I never got past the second book in the Harry Potter series. But, like in art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I am definitely in the minority on Harry Potter. In my humble opinion, there was too much narrative, although the narrative was very visual. And, with kids, you need visual to keep them engaged in a story. Bottom line, it connected with adults and kids worldwide and the rest is history.

AndrewPrice said...

I'm glad to hear we have so many MST fans!

Scott, I agree. Bad exposition stands out like a sore thumb, and you're right -- "as you know" is like a big red flag.

Writer X, It's funny you should say that about her writing. I don't think Rowling is anywhere near as bad as a Melville (YUCK!), but I agree that her dialog seems to be used mainly to back up what she's already said in the narrative: The tree was large. Harry looked at the tree and said, "look at the large tree."

(That said, I did really enjoy the series. . . until the clichéd ending.)

To me, Grisham is the other end of the extreme -- too much dialog, and it's too simplistic to boot.

Any tips on how you chart a good middle ground?

Writer X said...

Andrew, that's a very tough question. I think it all goes back to how well you develop your characters. In doing so, you get to a point where you know that Character X would say or do something particular. Too much narrative, IMO, is never a good thing, especially in genre fiction. And so is simplistic dialogue, especially if there's no point. Just know that after you finish your manuscript, and after you let some people read it, you'll probably have to rewrite parts of it, maybe even all of it. But, as you get more of a sense of your style, the rewrites will become less and less.

Not sure if that answers your question because what I'm really trying to say is that when you reach the middle ground you'll just KNOW.

I wish there was a magic formula (even a magic pill would be nice) but there isn't.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, One of the interesting aspects of writing to me is that it seems there is no right way. There are many wrong ways, but no particular right way.

I would think the best strategy would be to tell the story with the least amount of information necessary to convey what you want the reader to know about each scene?

Also, if you have the time, I think it would be very interesting to have your take on how to write dialog. Or maybe even a list of dos and don'ts?

Writer X said...

Andrew, I'll add dailogue to the series list. Good idea.

Regarding strategy, it kind of depends on the type of book you're writing. For example, if you're writing scifi, more visual writing (narrative) is important--but not overkill. You have to give the reader a sense of place, keeping in mind that your "place" can be considered its own character. Still, regardless of genre, overwriting is a no-no, too. If it doesn't develop the plot or a character, delete it. Throat-clearing = not good.

Joel Farnham said...

The hard part for me in writing is willing to rewrite. I find it hard to do.

What is interesting about that novel of Gordon Dickson is that it was already published. A fan of his read it and got upset that G D didn't portray the Wolf character as a Wolf. Gordon then used that fan as source material and proof-reader. It is in the forward of the new book.

Writer X said...

Joel, rewriting is hard but not unusual. When I send something to my agent and he tosses it back and says something like "there's no depth to Character X" or "I think this should be written in first person instead of third," a piece of me just wilts. But, rewriting is normal; it's a part of the process. It's the rare writer (Bionic Writer?) who can write the story perfectly the first time. I am certainly not that writer.

Another way, perhaps, to avoid a total rewrite is to belong to a writer's group where you can get feedback on your manuscript as it develops.

I'll have to check out that Dickson book.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel and Writer X,

Attorneys face that problem too. Many attorneys feel (not think) that because they did some research it should go into a brief. And once they've written a brief, everything in it should stay.

But that's a trap because you can't edit your way out of a bad foundation, and pointless clutter makes your work unreadable -- especially since there's usually a page limit.

When something just doesn't work, your best bet is to toss it aside and start over, not to try to tinker it into shape.

In fact, many of the best legal writers I know will tell you that it is not uncommon for them to end up with virtually nothing of their initial draft in the final product.

Writer X said...

Andrew, it's no wonder why many lawyers become successful novelists. Maybe lawyers are more used to the abuse? ;-)

Anonymous said...

WriterX: I couldn't agree more on development of characters and depth of detail. For instance, I'm a complete heretic about "War and Peace." By the time I got done with the excessive details and full character analysis of the four or five hundred main characters, I was rooting for Napoleon to put those people out of their misery. Despite multiple attempts, I have never been able to finish the entire book. Character development, good. Detail, good. Too much of either, irritating.

Joel Farnham said...

WriterX, I think it is more that a lawyer has to have specialized training in English and specific meanings for words. :-)

Writer X said...

LawHawk, couldn't agree more. Unless there's a reason for the detail, your finger must hit the delete key. A good agent/editor/writing group will help you to recognize this when you're too close to your own work to see it.

Joel, good point. A successful lawyer is usually a very good writer. Behold Andrew and LawHawk.

CrispyRice said...

LOL, so you're saying that Frank Herbert's _Dune_ -- with its own glossary in the back to help you understand the world he created -- is a bit "overdetailed"? ;)

Writer X said...

CrispyRice, Ha! DUNE has sold millions of copies so apparently readers didn't mind the glossery. Better to include lengthy definitions in a glossery, though, than in the narrative. It's been so long since I read it that I probably shouldn't comment on it. ;-)

Tennessee Jed said...

O.K. WX - see how cleverly I can shorten and initialize your name. Seriously though, I enjoyed your article. It would be fun to read some of your output (beyond the comments you post, of course.)

I have been consciously trying to support artists, authors, bloggers, I like and have met online whether it is Chris Muir, Michael Yon, or Burgand's documentary "The Border." Monserratt, Author Jack's first novel just arrived so I haven't read it as yet. Scott's series about Velvet Undergrounding of conservative artists has kind of inspired me even more in this direction so I'd like to read something from you. Just a thought . . . . lol (isn't that another blogging/texting device?)

Writer X said...

TJ, glad to hear you are supporting various writers and artists. It's a tough business. And that's why, at least for now, I prefer to stay rather anonymousy (is that a word?). If my NY agent knew that I was a conservative, I'm fairly sure his head would explode. Glad you like the articles, though.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Lawhawk and I are just luckee at picking word-thingies. :-)

Actually, it's true that one of the things you learn in law school is to pay much more attention to what words actually mean, specifically where they have multiple meanings.

That definitely helps with the writing skills. Although, I have to say that legal writing is a very different creature than fiction and it's not easy for attorneys to shift from one to the other.

Jed, don't worry, we're figuring it out piece by piece. We now know that Writer X is not JK Rowling. I figure if we just go down the list, whoever is left must be her. That shouldn't take too long right? ;-P

StanH said...

Great article Writer X! I don’t mind depth in my characters, but …like Lawhawk said about “War and Peace,” you can also make your reader doze off. I enjoy your column, as I’ve said before (I think) …my daughter is a budding writer, and your columns helps me to not look completely dumb when I’m asked, “Dad, how do you get a book published?” Luckily, in my advice prior to “Comentarama” my instincts have been correct, writing a book is like any “professional discipline” and your articles have confirmed my instincts, thanks : )

Tennessee Jed: Scott G’s articles over at BH using Warhol in over arching point to put conservatism/freedom into Pop Culture was brilliant, “conservatives” are now indeed the new counter culture, cool.

StanH said...

Oh… WX! Be careful blowing any sunshine up Andrew and Lawhawk’s skirts we’ll have three articles--each a day, at some point we have to earn a living. LOL!

Writer X said...

Stan, good luck to your daughter. Glad to help. I think the biggest mistakes I see writers make is giving up too soon. It's not a career (for most) where there is instant gratification. It takes time and work, like any other career.

Regarding LawHawk and Andrew, my comment was meant to encourage them to write MORE, not less. I'd say six articles a day and two hours of sleep each night is quite sufficient, don't you? ;-)

StanH said...

Indeed Writer X …indeed! LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Gee thanks Stan and Writer X. I can positively feel the love.

Just remember, too much something or other and not enough sleep makes somebody or other very, very cranky. . . and stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. If you want us to hit 6 articles a day, we're going to need some help finishing the cloning machine. . . and then some help with crowd control.

Monica said...

Regarding character conversations - I was writing the other day and all of a sudden my two main characters were in an argument over issues I didn't even know they had. Are imaginary people supposed to have baggage you don't know about?

Writer X said...

Monica, Congrats! You've reached character nirvana if your characters are arguing without any prompting from you. As an aside, I recently finished a book and made one of my secondary characters more important in the ending on my first rewrite. He said things that floored me. As I typed, I remember thinking, "where's this guy coming from??"

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