Writing Tip: Research the Obvious

Photo © 2009 Thomas Heyman CC BY-NC 2.0
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Let’s say you’re writing a scene in your story, a scene that takes place in a beauty salon. Now, if you yourself have spent 20 years working in beauty salons, maybe you can write that scene off the top your head. But if you’re like most of us, you have only passing exposure to life in a beauty salon. And if you’re like me, you’ve never actually gone inside one.

The classic way out of this, of course, is to “write what you know.” So if you don’t know beauty salons, don’t write them…

Yeah, right. <sarcastic sneer and rolls eyes>

Don’t get me wrong: it’s nice when you can write in a field in which you have some expertise. But if you plan to write more than one or two stories, you’ll need to get into the details of many fields and situations, settings and cultures, in which you have little or no direct knowledge. To some extent, this is always true of a fiction author, because you’re writing events that never actually occurred, in places that may not exist, in cultures that you may have made up, using technology that may never be developed, in times that have not even happened yet. How, pray tell, in the nature of reality do they expect you to “write what you know”?!

The best that we can hope for is to get it as close to plausible as we can.

One way we can accomplish this is by researching areas we’re unfamiliar with, then describing and explaining them to our readers. The problem is that we tend to assume we “know” things we don’t.

For example, this may come in handy the next time you have to write a drowning scene: Neil Shurley posted on Facebook a fascinating article explaining that real-life drowning doesn’t look like movie drowning. Who would’a thunk it? Our widespread popular misperceptions of what a drowning person looks like and acts like— You could be swimming, and your kid could be drowning only a few feet from you, and you would never know it, much less how to save him. So how would your fictional scene play out? What would your average, everyday character see and perceive? But a lifeguard character would know what drowning looks like, because he’s been trained. And if you needed to describe the scene from the drowning character’s perspective, you’d need to understand the realities of drowning, what happens to the human body and mind.

Never assume you know how something looks, or acts, or what the rules are. Because our perceptions have usually been distorted by popular television and movies (and novels, too), for dramatic effect. If you’re a Mythbusters fan, you’ve seen them tear apart numerous movie myths, documenting the reality of each situation. Why these movie dramatics seem plausible in the context of the original fiction, that’s a topic for a different post. But if the unrealistic dramatics can be made to seem plausible, how much more so the reality?

The first time I wrote a scene that involved a gun, I was proud to have gotten the details right. Just a little research, on gun technology, types of guns, real-world best practices, things that anyone who has taken an introductory gun course would know. And integrating this knowledge into the scene did not compromise the integrity or drama of the scene; in fact, it enhanced it.

Even if you decide you want to stick with the dramatic myths, you should at least know what the truth is. Because this research can uncover related information that you can use to improve your story. When I was writing “The Widow’s Granddaughter,” my first idea for the hero character, Jeffrey, was to make him a repo man. But the only reason he’d be in a job like that was to be successful, and when was the last time you heard of a “successful” repo man? So I made him a bank executive instead. He hired the repo man. That worked for a while. I got several manuscript pages into the story, and then I needed to look up a detail about repossession. So I asked Google, read some stuff, and ran across a piece of advice written by the owner of a small dealership that self-finances many of its sales. That means the owner himself has to repossess some of the cars he finances. That’s it! I thought. That’s the perfect job for my character. It had an aspect of success, as well as a hands-on aspect that was perfect for my story. So I changed Jeffrey’s career once again. I’m still happy with the way the story ultimately turned out.

When it comes to research for my stories, Google is my friend. Whenever I realize that I need details on a setting, profession, activity, or situation, I pull up my web browser and start typing queries into my favorite search engine.

I’ve also found Holly Lisle’s “33 Mistakes” series of ebooks invaluable for broader subject areas. These ebooks aren’t actually written by Holly, but by authors, experts each in his subject area, whom she’s signed to share their knowledge. Each ebook in the series lists 33 common mistakes fiction authors make when it comes to disappearing in the U.S., blindness, camping, guns, hostels, ballet, construction, San Francisco, or whatever.

Now, don’t go research-crazy. You don’t have to become an expert in every field you write fiction in. We’ve all gotten into research mode, where we keep studying a topic, delving deeper and deeper into it, like there’s gonna be a test on it later. One reason we do this is that it feels good to discover new truths about realities we previously didn’t know about. And that’s cool, and I think every author should allocate time in his schedule to study non-fiction, and to study people.

(As I write this, I’m half-eavesdropping on a pair of obviously successful businesswomen—one of whom apparently owns several Starbucks franchises, if I understood correctly, and the other who is wearing an engagement ring the size of the Pink Panther. They’re hobnobbing loudly at the next table, chatting about their histories, experiences, business values, best management practices, organizing techniques, and so forth. They’re talking at 90 miles an hour, moving from topic to topic at lightning speed. Someday, I’m going to have to write a character based on them.)

So, reading non-fiction is fun. Watching documentaries is also fun. Watching people, way fun, if you can get away with it. But when you’re writing a story, you need to focus on getting the story written. That means, you research until you know enough to write or revise the part of the story you’re currently working on. Then you put the research back up on the shelf and…

Keep writing!


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