Wait…what? Research? But I became a writer so I wouldn’t have to do that stuff. What are we talking about here? Research papers, all-nighters in the library, endless Google searches? Maybe…but, then again, maybe not.
Authenticity is the name of the game, people. You can be the best writer in the world, with the best eye for stories, but if your lawyer doesn’t talk like a lawyer, you’re not going to impress your audience. Ever been to a movie with the friend who likes to yell out every two minutes how unrealistic the plot is? Yeah, something like that. People want to be taken to a new and different place, but they also want to be tricked (if just for a little while) that what they’re seeing is real. Or, at least, that it could be.
So how do you approach a topic that you are just burning to write about, but you don’t have the experience to give it the justice it deserves? You have the perfect character and plot for a jail-setting, but how do you make it authentic when you’ve never even cheated on a test? You want to take your journey overseas, but you don’t even have a passport? Do you just stop writing?
Of course not. Honestly, I’d rather write something and try it out without knowing diddly squat than abandon the work. But this should be worst case scenario. If you have the capacity, you should seriously look into livening up your subject matter by doing your homework. Depending on your lifestyle, certain things will be more natural for you to write about, while others will be as foreign to you as E.T. and his phone-home. As a writer, your job is to determine what those things are and whether its worth taking the time to increase your knowledge-base. For the sake of the story, of course.
Before you groan at the thought of ‘doing your homework,’ think of it this way: you’ve spent your whole life doing research. Your experiences, triumphs, failures, and observations all contribute to what you write. The catch is, you’re only one person, with only one life to live. But who’s to say you can’t take from the experiences of others? That’s what research for writing is: tapping into unused (by you) resources. This can be through interviews, day-to-day conversations, reading, or even putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Personally, I prefer the last.
Let’s say you were writing a novel and one of your characters just happened to be a police officer. What would you do, if anything at all, to give this character life? Would you be opposed to interviewing a cop? How about shadowing one for a day and riding shotgun in their cruiser? These are actual ways successful authors have added authenticity to their law enforcement characters, something that always intrigues me. It makes me wonder what kind of information you can get from these interactions that you can’t extract from television, movies, books, or the news. Why don’t those mediums suffice as research? If I read stories about police officers non-stop for a significant amount of time, will I be able to create my own? Or is that hands-on experience essential? Or is the mere ability to say you’ve done your research the real value?
I went to Ecuador a couple summers ago. I told people it was for ‘inspiration to write a book.’ I had the idea for a potential gem of a story involving your typical urban American youth forced to adjust to a sudden third-world life. The idea of travel came out of left field: I had never been out of the country before. But hey, I was in college. I figured it was the type of risky shit college kids were supposed to do. While there I tried to observe all I could, write everything down, and interview people left and right. Most of all I tried to be cognizant of my experiences–whether good, bad, or ugly–so that I could ring them up later when it was time to put it all on paper.
Was it enough for me to make something believable? Who knows. Did it give me a starting point? You bet. The important question, though, is whether I would be able to write with the same authority and authenticity if I had merely read up on the different cultures and lifestyles I experienced? Or watched multiple documentaries?
I honestly can’t say. And I guess that’s where the debate comes in. What is necessary when writing a story? When is research an asset, when is it an accessory, and when is it just a waste of time?
Thoughts, all around.