In a famous display of writer’s integrity, guts, and stupidity, Harlan Ellison joined a street gang to research his first novel.
Yikes. Talk about writing what you know. Would you be willing to die just so you could write about what’s it’s like to be dead?
Not even Deborah Coonts is quite that bold. But her guest post “Writing Can Kill You,” over at Seekerville, reminded me of that Ellison account. She tells some amusing anecdotes.
The moment I met [my character], I decided to kill her. But how?
Well, I’ve always liked sharks. And yes, you got it, once again, I knew very little about sharks, but, this time, I knew right where to go…
I approached the guard at the shark tank and casually asked, “If I threw a dead body in there, would the sharks eat it?”
… I could hear him asking himself, “Should I call security? Or 911? Security? 911?”
Definitely 911. Just keep her calm until the men in white coats arrive.
Me, I could never do research using that method. I take a different tack.
To answer my questions, I start by asking Google. People love to share their stories, online as well as in real life. I search out pages, blogs, forum posts, and so forth, personal anecdotes from the front lines of my topic area. That provides fodder for the raw ideas that eventually become specific story-lines.
When I was writing “The Widow’s Granddaughter,” the male lead originally worked as a banker. But my online research revealed that small, used-car shops sometimes handle financing directly, instead of referring customers to a third-party lender. And that clicked: I realized that this character would do much better as a used-car salesman than as a banker.
In online forums, I may also meet industry insiders that can answer specific questions or check a scene for accuracy. There’s one particular scene in From the Ashes of Courage, set at Boston University— And I’ve never even walked through Boston University, even though it’s just a jot down from where I live. I wrote that scene completely from online research, then via an online writers’ forum, I ran it by someone who had actually studied there. He confirmed that I had gotten the layout and facts correct, and suggested a couple of insider phrases.
Similarly, also with the Ashes of Courage book, at some sort of celebratory luncheon, someone told me that the sister of a friend, whom I had met through another friend, worked in the same field as Gail, my female lead. And she just happened to be there at the same luncheon. So I got myself introduced, asked if she could help me with accuracy in my novel. She lit up at the idea. So I contacted her online and asked her to look over a couple scenes, with Gail at work. I had already done loads of online research for those scenes. And she confirmed that I had gotten the facts basically right, and suggested a couple additional elements that I could add.
So, I could never just walk up to a security guard and ask about dumping a body into the shark tank. That takes balls I just don’t got. (And I’m a big enough man to admit it!) No, I would have started by searching for similar cases online: maybe someone’s actually tried it before. Then I would try to get in contact with a marine biologist or other marine expert who could tell me in more detail how real-life sharks would react in that situation.
What do you think? How do you research?