WHEN RESEARCH GETS IN THE WAY OF THE STORY
As much as I love learning obscure details about things I never knew before, I’ve been endlessly reminded, especially with a book I’m currently reading, that I never want to tackle a story where I have to spend six months to a year researching minute details. Some authors, who I won’t mention, go through considerable expense, grief and probably much downtime from their regular jobs, if they even have one, travelling to exotic locales to get details correct.
I’ve talked about this before and it really struck me as I’ve been reading this story that’s a mix of Indiana Jones and Davinci Code. A lot of it takes place in either Qumran Israel, the source of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or at the Vatican. If I were to take this type of story on, there’s no way I’d travel to either place to do the research and I know, especially for me with my total ignorance of such details, I could never glean enough off the Internet to even make a stab at a believable story without any amateur biblical sleuth crying foul from the first paragraph. I’m enjoying the story though I have no idea if the details are correct and could care less. To me it’s a thriller and an adventure and all the trappings are just that, trappings.
I, like most of you that are likely to run across or read anything off my site, are not big name authors, are not rich, and are not at least independently wealthy enough to be able to drop everything and take off for wherever you want to do this kind of research in person. Some of you may already have personal experience in whatever you’re writing about. That’s called write what you know!
When someone says to write what you don’t know (because it challenges you), I have to raise an eyebrow because they don’t seem to consider not only the mental research and time involved, but the fact that there’s nothing like being there. You can write all you want about Whitechapel in London if you want to do a story about Jack The Ripper, but there’s no way you can get the feel of the place, see the streets and know what-is-what without actually going there for yourself.
Does that mean you must travel to every single place you write about (unless it’s in a fantasy world)? Of course not. However, it helps fill in little things that make the story more real. Most of us don’t have the budget for that, so especially if the story takes place in multiple locations, we keep those details vague and may use the locations that we’ve actually been to as the main settings. If the story is about a subject that’s widely studied, such as the Vatican, you’d better have your facts straight because that word Vatican is sure to be on the book blurb somewhere and that’ll attract attention from readers that are familiar with the subject. They’ll call you on it in an instant!
The thing is, where do you draw the line? It’s certainly an individual issue. In my case, I have the idea for the story and just start writing. I know ahead of time that I’m not going to spend months doing research. I pick and choose my battles and spend my effort on the story itself. When I come to a spot where I need a detail, I seek it out. I’ve come to spots where I’ve had to read a bit, search the net, make a few phone calls, send a few e-mails. That’s stopped the story until I got the answers I needed. If I couldn’t get them, I changed tactics and took a slightly different path. No big deal. It’s never affected the main plot.
If I were to sit down with my nose in books for months, writing notes, taking trips, photos, journals, all for a story, I’d forget what I was writing about! My muse would be gone by the time I finished the research and I’d have gone on to write something entirely different! I don’t work that way. If you’re the outline, note taker type writer, this may be the formula for you.
The trip to Disneyland last week was, in a way, an example of research without a story in mind. Was it research in reverse? I had nothing to start with but came away with a half-baked inspiration. There were no actual facts, no details, nothing but cartoonish scary images that set off a spark. I already know of a bunch of spooky locations, intimately. The research is already done in my head. I could apply that spark to any of them at will. The problem is the beginning and the end…