Friday, May 23, 2014

The Answer, My Friend, is Waitin' on the Web
(w/ apologies to Bob Dylan)

How important is research in your stories, and has an error ever made it into print?

By Paul D. Marks

clip_image002How important is research:

They say "write what you know," but we can't know everything we write about. Hemingway may have experienced bullfights and African safaris, but we often write about things that either we haven't experienced directly or, if we're writing sci-fi, things that might not even exist yet. Or we might be writing about the past – a past we never personally experienced.

I'm not 100% sure, but I doubt George Lucas has ever left this planet, and if he ever has, I again doubt that he went to a place called Tatooine. Still, he managed to come up with Star Wars and created a whole universe around it. How did he do that without ever leaving Earth?

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Of course, that's where research comes in. Research is both fun and necessary to much of what we write. Without it how could we ever write about anything that we never directly experienced? So in answer to the question, research is monumentally important to writers.

It gives our stories verisimilitude, a sense of time, place and character that rings true.

Even though I lived through the "Rodney King" riots I couldn't see everything, be everywhere, experience every experience, nor was I a cop or rioter. So in writing my novel White Heat I turned to newspapers, magazines and the net, and since people are still alive who were there in the thick of it, I talked to them too, cops, and others.

I have a new novel I'm shopping now, a World War II homefront mystery set in L.A., based on a character that's bclip_image005een in three published stories. But that era is before my time, before any personal memories of mine. Still, I think I captured it pretty well because of all the research I did. On the internet, via old magazines, articles, movies, music, and maps. Maps are a great research tool and can be used in a lot of ways. But I also turned to first person resources. People who were there. My family goes back in Los Angeles well before the war, so I talked to relatives and friends of theirs. Plus I do have memories from after the war when things hadn't changed all that much, unlike today, so I could draw on them too.

Has an error ever made it into print:

There's always errors that make it into print. Some are innocuous, like typos or an out of place comma, some are big and make you feel stupid, especially when they're things you know but just got away from you. And then someone reads it and points it out and you feel like an idiot and think they think you're an idiot and will share your idiocy with the world. Makes you want to duck and cover.

clip_image007But sometimes you might make a calculated choice to put something in that isn't quite right because it works dramatically – poetic license. For example, I might fudge it with a song that came out a year after an event took place, but that just works so well for a scene. But then there's always that know-it-all who sat in the front of the class and knows that that song came out three days after the date of your scene. So sometimes you just have to throw a slapstick pie in their face and fudge things a little.

So research is extremely important to just about anything we write. But it does have one major drawback: it's just too much fun. Especially in the internet age when you can just bounce from hyperlink to hyperlink and spend all day researching instead of writing. In the ye olde olden days you had to go to libraries or have tons of research books, which are fine, but today it's so much easier. And it's not only educational and important for your story, but it's the best procrastination tool ever invented because you can pretend to be doing work while you're really just having fun.


Catriona McPherson said...

Procrastination tool - that made me laugh, Paul. And I couldn't agree more about old maps. They're good for so much more than where stuff was. An early Ordnance Survey Map with a Post Office Directory and census return is like a sociology PhD waiting to happen.

Anonymous said...

I've fallen down the research rabbit hole a few times, especially when it comes to learning about particular places and guns. My first two novels are set Asheville, a place I only lived in for three years and haven't been back to in ten, so I bounce around from website to website and use Google Images and Google Earth for pictures. Ditto with the guns, which I'm obsessed with even though I don't own a single one.

Great article and your WWII mystery in Los Angeles sounds promising.

Susan C Shea said...

The good news, Paul, with a 'gotcha' from a reader is you have a reader who's that into your story. I'm looking forward to your LA story set in WWII. From the little I've read, LA is a great setting for crime fiction in that era. Keep us posted.

Meredith Cole said...

I agree--your book sounds intriguing, Paul. I often caution my students about the danger of stopping writing their first draft to research (at least for little details). It definitely can suck up your time and make it hard to finish.

GBPool said...

I've made some errors that I can't undo, but oh, well, we get better or we show the world we really are lazy for not doing research. And since the Internet came along there are fewer excuses for making many of those mistakes. But I have created fictitious locations so I don't get the Chamber of Commerce down my neck or have to explain why I had two parallel streets crossing each other. Thank God for the Internet and Google Maps.

Paul D. Marks said...

Catriona, definitely the best procrastation tool ever invented :) . I used to have to actually get up from my desk and "do something" to procrastinate. And when I was working on the WWII LA mystery I bought a bunch of maps from eBay and found as many as I could online. They really made a difference in terms of how people got around, how they could get around back then, especially since there were no freeways, etc.

Thanks Max. And the net is great for bouncing around and doing research on locations, especially now with things like Google Earth, and just about everything else.

Susan, I agree, it's nice to know one has a reader who's that into your story. And I loved writing the WWII mystery. Really did get lost in the research for that one, as I love the era. If/when anything comes of it I'll definitely let you know.

Meredith, I think that's great advice to your students. The first draft, at least to my way of thinking, should just be fired through as quickly as possible, just get the basics down and then worry about the details later. Otherwise, as you say, it sucks up your time and you never reach the finish line. And the WWII mystery has some things in it that make it just a little different. I'd like to see that see the light of day.

Gayle, I think we all make mistakes we wish we could undo, but can't. But hopefully we've learned something in the process. I try to use a lot of real locations, but also fictitious not to get sued. And sometimes I have two or three windows of Google maps open at once so I can see where things are in relation to one another, things like that. The net has really made life most ways.

Pam Ripling said...

Paul! I almost missed this great article. Well written, my friend. I am especially intrigued about your new book, because MY new book (out 6/19) takes place (partially) during WWII Los Angeles. Specifically, during the Battle of Los Angeles. As you know, my series books are all set in CA lighthouses, and for this section, L.A. Harbor Lighthouse-Angel's Gate-figures prominently. Research was difficult because no one seems to know what was going on at the LH during that infamous night. So creative license prevails.
Can't wait to read yours, so you'd better get it going.