Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Digging for Story Gold - Making research pay off

I like to be taken into other worlds. Hammett’s Continental Op stories present the attitudes, people, and criminal behaviors he experienced working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Dune brings together the interplay of culture and a carefully worked-out ecosystem in a vibrant way. Among Moby Dick’s many virtues is the detailed picture it provides of the whaling world.

Experience and research make these settings (along with the characters who live in them) compelling. Sometimes, the facts are shoved in your face by circumstances, like needing a job. Sometimes, it’s all serendipity — an article your run across, the chance meeting with a talkative stranger, witnessing a dramatic moment in someone else’s life.

Most often, writers create their own luck by researching topics related to the stories they’re working on. This can take many forms:

Fun facts. The right, largely unknown fact presented clearly at the right time in a story can propel a story forward and delight readers. Bits of the Koran appearing in  Renaissance paintings. Koalas thriving on normally poisonous eucalyptus leaves. Madame Curie’s notebooks, still too radioactive to handle.

Getting it right. One key reason to do research is to avoid embarrassing yourself. When I was in grade school, I wrote a story where, instead of the last out in an inning, the clock ran out in a baseball game. Oops. When I wrote a story taking place in Singapore (this, before the Web) I collected maps, pictures and travel guides so the sense of place would come through. (I have since visited Singapore, and the scenes still feel accurate to me.) So getting it right is essential for authenticity.

Immersion. I took that research a step further and had a friend send me the local newspapers. This helped me get a feel for the culture, especially the perspectives of inhabitants. That sort of virtual tourism is easier to do nowadays. I often will read highly specific articles, flash through pictures, and watch videos to get the right feel for something in a story. (I’ll even seek out newspaper content, including the ads. Reading personal columns in foreign newspapers is a treat.) The only caveat here is not to get sucked in. I usually set a timer when I do this kind of research.

Not so fun facts. Obviously, it’s a mistake to show off by including everything learned in research. Most people get past what I call “book reporting” early in their writing careers, but there is one common slip, even among professionals. It’s easy to get sucked in by stuff that’s geeky but irrelevant. I’ve read pages (often fascinating) that took me through details of jewelry making or harvesting in the Middle Ages or the important use of car horns in New Delhi traffic. It’s great to dig into obscure areas and it’s fine write about such things in early drafts. But, ultimately, it’s best if such deep dives are used  in service of the story. It may hurt to cut these, but, when the narrative thread is interrupted, you risk losing your readers.

Premise. Sometimes, whole books can be built upon research. I explored the life of a female scientists erased from history and used that as a basis for a novel. H.G. Wells used single concepts — what if you could build a time machine? What if a person became invisible? Exploring fresh ideas can be entertaining, especially if people are pushed to change. (Ray Bradbury said the best science fiction movie ever made was Singin’ in the Rain. The premise? Sound added to movies, and how that changes everyone working in the business. That had already happened, of course, but the treatment exploited the best SF methods.)

Much of what writers do is deliberate research, with an emphasis on fact-finding. I do this, of course, but I also will give it a turn when I already have story characters in mind. I consciously try to see my findings through the eyes of specific characters. I look for emotional responses and what the ideas and concepts uncovered mean to them. (This may be a holdover from research I’ve done on speeches, w where everything explored is in terms of the individual speakers and the audiences that will be addressed.) I think that looking a research through these different perspectives makes it fresher and raises out-of-the-box questions. If yours is the only perspective in research, that can become very limiting.

And I’ll put in a word for curiosity-driven research, too. It has two obvious advantages. First, it will take you to unexpected places (and surprises are pure gold for storytelling). Second, your curiosity always connects you with things that already interest you. With luck, those interests will grow into passions you can share with readers. 

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