Even the best writers say, “Write what you know.” It’s an old mantra that writers hear all the time from key note speakers at writing conferences. Although it is important for you to write within the spectrum of your experience, it is also important to write a compelling story that convinces readers of the legitimacy of setting, feasibility, and character sincerity. Research then becomes essential.
If a writer is an American soldier, he might want to write about war. Great, he is writing what he knows. But what if that soldier wants to write about war in outer space, or war in ancient Rome. Time for some research. The soldier writer might well know the fear, physical toil, and psychological storms that happen on the battlefront, but he might not know anything about ancient Rome or space propulsion. Our soldier writer has some research to do.
Research happens to be one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I get to explore new worlds, experience fresh cultures, learn about unfamiliar art, food, history, and culture. Look at research as an opportunity to learn, whether or not you actually end up writing the piece for which you spend the time researching to lay a convincing tapestry of context.
Research can begin early in the writing process. So far, with your story, you have put down a few notes about theme, character, and a basic roadmap of your story in 3 acts. By now, you might be thinking about the setting in which you want your story to unfold. You might be slating the perfect time period, country, town, community, dimension, or whatever the flavor. It’s time for a few research assignments. There’s no Jr. High School teacher standing over you, giving you specific assignments. It’s all up to you.
An effective way to organize your research takes us back to your story canon. It’s time to insert a new file in the gospel of your holy story. Research assignments must be written down at the very moment you conceive them. These notes should be written in a document and placed in your story canon.
So far, in your story canon, we have established a styleguide for naming your files to keep them organized. It’s time to add another file, called RESEARCHASSIGNMENTS_YourStoryTitle.doc. this is the third document to be placed in your story canon.
This document will contain single paragraphs depicting what subjects you must research and why they tie into your story. Chances are, you already have a few research assignments in the back of your head. Chances are, you have probably started researching a handful of subjects already.
Entries in your RESEARCHASSIGNMENT document like look like these:
Read about modern weapons used in Iraq, particularly ground troups. What vehicles do they use, what are their top speeds. How heavy is body armor. What side arms, rifles, and grenades are used.
Find out about plant life in Iraq. What specific breeds of trees and vegetation grow in the most violent areas. Which breeds can be eaten in a survival situation.
Read about techniques Iraqis use to smuggle illegal substances, such as narcotics and firearms. Find out if there are any drug related supply lines and how they would get these drugs over their borders for distribution.
A series of assignments like the ones listed above can seem daunting. But remember, you are a writer. As a writer, you are also a reader. My advice, bite right in. Hit the books. I often start with Wikipedia to get a gestalt view of my subject matter. Wikipedia puplishes their sources at the bottom of every article, a treasure trove for any story teller. I often visit Amazon.com and key in the subjects I’m looking for. It’s a reare occasion when I don’t find more than a couple of good books on even the most obscure subject matter.
Your research assignments document will function much like your characters document. As you write your story, from the first word of your logline, all the way through to the last sentence in your novel, you will stumble upon subjects that you must research. You will not always have time to dive into research materials, particularly when you are slugging your way through a first draft. It’s better to put a note in your copy stating that you will research this subject, then give yourself the assignment by putting a sentence or two about it in your research assignments document.
There are times when you will write your story, there are time you will write about your story, like when writing research papers on important subjects to your story. It is difficult to mix these two forms of writing. It seems that the left brain handles the research, while the right brain handles the story itself. These two hemispheres don’t seem to get along on the same playing field at the same time.
Researching Gus the Plumber
Now to apply this principle to the growing story of Gus the plumber. Time to log a few research assignments into the story canon for Gus’s yarn. You might think, wait a minute, Gus is a plumber who fights demons from another dimension; why do you need to research him? The answer can be found by reading the 3-paragraph synopsis and looking for subjects that must be researched.
After reading through the 3-paragraph synopsis, it is clear that, should I want to write this story, I have a lot of work ahead of me. I would start by creating a file called RESEARCHASSIGNMENTS_GusThePlumber and placing it into my story canon. I would give myself the following assignments and document them into my file:
Learn about plumbing. What tools do plumbers use? How does one repair a sing? Fix a drain? What tools would an independent plumber put in his van to be taken out on jobs?
Learn about the Cthulu Mythos. Pick up a book or two by H.P. Lovecraft and by other prominent Cthulu authors such as Kutner.
Read about the old ones. Spend some time learning about Varvadoss, one of the Cthulu gods.
It’s your turn. For this week’s assignment, pull up your treatment document out of your story canon. Read the 3-paragraph synopsis section of this document. Create a file called RESEARCHASSIGNMENTS_YourStoryTitle.doc and save it into your story canon. Write a few research assignments into your research assignments document.
Begin your research by hitting a few Wikipedia articles about your assignments and see where they take you. You might even visit Amazon.com or another bookstore and try to find a volume or two on your selected subjects.
Make research fun. There is almost nothing more exciting in life than learning.
Good luck, I’ll see you next time.
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