Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Research: Know what you write.

In the world of writers, there's a trite, glib statement that is often shouted at us, and just as often causes feelings of murderous rage:  Write what you know. It's really meant in the best possible way, I know, but it's possibly one of the worst pieces of advice that you could give a writer. "Write what you know."  Why is that so bad? Well, let's look at that statement for a moment. What, exactly, do you know? For most young writers, what you know consists of living with your parents and teenaged angst. And if that's all you write about, where did all the amazing novels about witches and goblins and historical romance and fantasy come from?  You don't know about any of that stuff, do you? Of course not.  Not unless you have a dragon in your back yard or you actually are a serial killer.  In which case, this blog doesn't pertain to you.

I prefer a different maxim:  Know what you write.

Let's say, for example, you're writing about hard science that is based in reality. Internet, nano probes, genetic engineering, prosthesis, bionics, etc. Every one of them are favorites of writers because they evoke the sense of wonder in the reader. They are rife with potential because no one really knows how far the technology can go, and your guess is just as good as the next person's as to what the next stage of technological evolution will be.
I, for one, welcome our robot overlords...
So does that mean that you don't need to research the tech? I mean, really, if I'm writing for the next step, or even several steps, in the future, why do I need to know about the tech now? Of course, you need to research it. How will you know where it can go if you don't know where it is? But, you say, the research is boring and I don't really care about the tech so much as I do the story! Well, here's the thing... If you don't care, why should your reader?
Says the voice of God...
Look, your readers aren't stupid. Your readers are a cagey bunch. If you don't care, they can tell, and there's nothing more off-putting for a reader than to read something where the author doesn't care. And if you don't care, they won't care, and then they'll put your book down. Say it with me:  If I don't care, the reader won't care. It's a truism. And this is where research comes in. If your story features tech of any kind, you owe it to yourself and your readers to have more than a passing knowledge of that tech. I'm not saying you can't create a whole new tech for your novel, but everything follows basic rules and laws. Everything. Everything. Little things like physics and thermodynamics still apply. And, no, I'm not saying you need to have a PhD in either subject to write about them, you should still know how to write about something that obeys said laws, or at least comment on why it doesn't.

Here's where things get weird:  You owe your readers. Seriously, you do. You owe them the best possible reading experience that you can muster. Why? They're buying your work. If you betray that trust, well, they won't be buying your work anymore, will they?

So, instead of relying on your own limited experience to write something and hoping it's in any way accurate, how about doing a little research? If you're reading this, you have access to the sum total of all human knowledge. It's called "Google." You can seriously ask anything about anything and the answers will appear. Then you can read about it and appear to know what you're doing. But it doesn't stop there. You can actually contact real, live people who know about stuff. For some of these people, the things you write about are, in fact, their jobs. Like, policemen, fire-fighters, doctors, lawyers... And people really like to talk about themselves and what they do. So call them up and ask them questions. It can't do anything but help.

But wait, there's more.
Tell 'em all about it, Billy!
Primary research is such an invaluable tool, I can't stress the importance enough. Let's say for a moment that you want to write a scene in which someone shoots a gun, but you've never fired one. How do you research that? Watch movies with lots of gun play?  No way. They're full of inaccuracies and can't possibly convey what it's really like to shoot one. No, if you want to write about it with accuracy, go to a gun range and fire off a few rounds! Use different calibers. Figure out what kind of gun your character would use, and how it would feel to him.

How about this... You want to write a scene of your POV character getting kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a car. What do you do? First off, you call your best buddy, someone you trust, who you hope doesn't have a sick sense of humor. Then you climb into the trunk of his car and have him drive around the parking lot. You think I'm kidding, but I've done this. And now I know what it feels like to be jostled around in the trunk of a car.
Seriously, I've done this. 
There are simple practical things that you can do for almost any situation, and for the few that there aren't, there are experts who can tell you about their experiences. You owe it to your readers to put in at least some effort. And, as an added bonus, you will not just write better things, you'll grow as a person. So do your research. You, and your readers, will be glad you did.

Until next time...