Thursday, September 17, 2009

How I spend my time writing. Part Five: Research

Oh research, how you like to wile away my time! I love research, Jennifer doesn't. When it comes time to figure out what new mattress we should buy, or the best price/performance ratio for a new TV, I’m all over that. I could spend hours (and have) doing nothing but researching. Some might call it surfing the web, but I prefer to call it research.
So how important is research for novels? Depends. I always imagined Dan Brown or Tom Clancy doing copious amounts of research to weave such an intricate tale into modern or recent history. Finding obscure references from ancient texts or linking ancient masonic symbols into the latest thriller novel seems like it’s something you definitely need research for. Or you could just make shit up. It works for many authors, like Stephen King, who wrote stories about places he'd never visited.
Which sorts of things should I research? I say research what you need in order to make the story come alive. In reading the Twilight series, I wondered if Stephenie Meyer ever visited Forks, or if it was just a made up town. Turns out it’s a real town, and their official website is capitalizing on her novels. Regardless of wether she visited the town or not, Stephenie needed to understand enough about the town so that she could represent it well enough in her books to make it come alive. Things like how long it takes Bella to drive from her home to high school or La Push help bring the story alive to the reader. Things that we can relate to, like driving distances or falling down on the ice after living in Phoenix your whole life give us relatable experiences that draw in your reader. 
How much time should I dedicate to research? You probably can’t research a topic too much. But I’m also (ahem) a newbie writer and will probably redact that statement as time goes on. I say it from a standpoint of a writer who’s still working on getting into the groove. Some might say it’s hampering my creativity, but it makes me feel more comfortable when I know more about a topic. Not all that research should make it into the story, only the parts that you need to convey to the reader. The more I know about a topic, the more minute details I can convey to the reader without having to give the bigger picture. It makes me seem smarter than I really am, knowing those details.
As for finding the time, good luck on that one. I can literally spend all day surfing the…I mean researching things. The trick I use is to keep a list (long list for me) of topics I need to research and when I find 10 minutes here and there I snag those, grab the topic at the top and start. A smartphone with internet connectivity comes in handy here if you’re on the go a lot. I count reading in your genre as research.
How do I do it? My favorite tool is an RSS reader. I also use Wikipedia and of course my favorite Professor of all, Google.
What am I working on right now? Well I recently pulled up a small town in Vermont on Google Maps that I’m finding pictures of so that I can incorporate those into my story. Google Maps, or the more robust Google Earth is great because it incorporates pictures that users have uploaded from that area. Now I can see exactly how that lake looks, or the pipeline that hangs 14 feet over the dirt road. Those are details I can incorporate into my story to make my characters (and the reader) seem like they know the area.

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