When it comes time to impress someone with how much goes into writing a book, it’s easy to start listing endless complicated steps. When it’s time to really break it down for the writer on the way to becoming an author, it’s just as easy to take heart. My habit of pointing out that Today’s Writer has it easier than ever may delight some, and annoy others; nowhere is this more true than in the realm of research.
There used to be a lot more know-it-alls in the world, if you don’t remember. Google almost single-handedly put them all out of business, except in the most remote or web-controlled areas. They still talk their shit, of course; but we can point out that it is indeed shit they are talking now. It’s pretty wonderful, except for all those out of work know-it-alls.
For those of us accustomed to doing our research, Google is a Godsend. It’s not always the starting point, and it’s seldom the end point…but to deny that it has shaved hours off nearly every writer’s research schedule is to deny reality itself. If you aren’t doing internet searches as at least part of your research, you aren’t doing your due diligence as an author. It’s not an author’s job to turn their back on the very technology their readers have in the palms of their hands, and risk looking the fool that they are being. It’s the author’s job to ask the questions that few others think to ask, and put the answers into their screamingly entertaining story.
An example? I thought you’d never ask.
In ‘Walking Between Worlds’, my first fantasy trilogy, I explored an easily discovered but little-known fact. It’s enough to make nearly anyone stop and think, without disrupting the flow of the story.
Would you like to know what it was?
There are quite a few children in the world that are mistaken in thinking that their parents are who they say they are. No, they aren’t spies or fugitives…at least not the parents I am talking about. They’re just liars. They found it more convenient not to tell their kid or kids that the guy who stepped in after their father took off is not really their father. He’s Dad, and should get credit for that…but he isn’t the guy whose genes they share. His family history is not their family history; more importantly, his medical history has nothing at all to do with theirs…simple knowledge that could save or end their life someday. It seems like a big risk to take, just to deceive someone that should probably know the truth regardless…but, surprisingly, the choice is a common one.
I found that very interesting. I had to do a lot of research to make sure it was true, it seemed so utterly ridiculous to me. Google is what they call it…a portal. It led me to studies and scientific journals and all that other stuff I have always loved to read. If I wanted to quote them, I could have delved more deeply into it and footnoted the hell out of my fiction book…but that would have been silly. It made a great side note to the story, without getting as dark as I do when I think about how these privileged custodians treat their charges…and it finally made that annoying statement that’s so popular somewhat true for me.
“If I just reach one person…” is a great way for a lazy artist that doesn’t truly believe in their work to start a sentence. The rest of us should avoid that phrase completely. The purpose of art is to reach as many people as you can, and great art deserves nothing less. If you don’t think your art is great, you should get better at it or stop doing it. If you do think your art is great, you should be making damn sure it reaches more than one person. Don’t ever say that one is enough; aim higher, work harder, or both. Your books and readers deserve better.
In this case, however, I’m thrilled at the thought of just that one person. If one child who is now an adult realizes that Santa Claus was the smallest deception they had to worry about because of that seed that I planted…well, that’s enough. Of course, I personally think that everyone has a right to know the truth about their family history…but it turns out that many folks disagree. So, maybe I can help just one discover the truth.
The world is full of shocking little facts, and I like the ones that folks can verify with a quick Google search. There is a lot more to research than Googling, though; and I would be remiss to leave it at that.
If your main character is a carpenter, and you know nothing of carpentry, a Google search won’t do you much good. You might want to take a class, or build something complicated, before you write from that perspective. Think you can write a convincing monk without spending some real and serious time meditating? I won’t buy it, nor will anyone else who can sit comfortably in full lotus for long periods.
There’s a reason they say ‘write what you know’…as any author that has had to reach outside of their comfortable boundaries of experience can attest, that’s not always easy. Sometimes one paragraph needs a month’s work to be written convincingly, or even years’…the author cheats themselves, the story, and the reader by forgoing that experience. They would have been better off sharing something they knew, or learning something new, than skipping over that valuable research and potentially misleading a reader.
At this juncture, you might point out that I am talking due diligence more than research. I would argue that they fall under the same umbrella. If you think you can write a convenience store clerk convincingly without being one, I would say that it depends on how central the character is to the story. If you think you can write science fiction without any research on science fact, I would be assured of your delusional state. Every character and genre has a different set of requirements when it comes to doing the research, but there is seldom a scenario where the author can do too much.
Want to know the easy path? Write a story about a writer. There’s a reason it’s been done to death; writers are people, and people are often lazy. There’s only one reason for a character to be a writer, unless it’s a central theme to the story: the author didn’t feel like doing their due diligence. If it’s not easy for a writer to write about a writer, there’s something seriously wrong. If a writer takes that route, there’s also something seriously wrong: they are cheating themselves, the story and the reader. Those are some serious trusts to break, if you ask me.
I would rather do my research. I can combine a few weeks’ or months’ work with my imagination to learn what a mind-numbing job can do to a once bright and hopeful worker…but I can’t hope to connect with the worker living that life unless I do my research. Personally, I would rather write less books that may ring true for more people than write more books that show what an inexperienced blowhard I am; but that’s just me. I love me some due diligence. It helps with the characters too, of course…there’s nothing like real world research to show an author what unbelievable characters real life folks can be.
But we’ll talk about that next week, after you’ve made sure your parents were completely honest with you.
(At least about that one thing.)
Thanks for reading!
All the best,