I’m working on a new writing project with a company (I’d tell you what it is, but then I’d have to kill you…it’s in my contract) and recently wrote a short story about a third grade teacher who is trying to gain control of an unruly class. My editor thought the story was very well done, except for one small (read: crucial) thing: I obviously hadn’t done my research.
The editor pointed out that the teacher solved her problem by having someone else dish out the authority for her. She said that I should talk to an actual teacher to see what policies they follow and techniques they use when faced with the specific situations I conjured up.
This might seem like a no-brainer to you, but why didn’t I think to research before? I guess I assumed I knew what I would do if put in my character’s situation, or at least I assumed what the type of character I was creating would do. It didn’t seem like it needed that much thought. Bad ass kids, nice ass teacher, pushed over the edge, What Would Jesus Do, voila, I got my answer. Or not.
I talked to a couple teachers (one of which is the editor’s husband, which was convenient) and got some good ideas that not only make the story more plausible, but more interesting. It is less drastic than I originally intended it to be, but the audience will most likely be able to relate to it more.
Now, this one incident didn’t ‘open my eyes’ to researching. I have been aware of that step to writing since I started putting pen to paper. Stephen King once said that no long-piece of work is written alone (I really have to get some more writing memoirs under my belt, as I’ve quoted the King to death…any suggestions?). But, I admit, I have shied away from it quite a bit. My problem is that I like the writing process so much, that stopping to look something up is so unappealing. Sometimes I hit the nail on the head. For example, a character in one of my books worked in construction. I’ve never set foot on a construction site in my life, but one person in my writing group was impressed at how close I got it when writing the character. Other times…not so pretty. We tend to think we can do well at guessing about things we lack knowledge on based on what we’ve seen from television, read in books and the news and, of course, experienced in real life. Sometimes we can. Other times you can’t really know for sure unless you….well, unless you consult someone who knows for sure.
It’s hard not to bring up the ‘write what you know’ mantra when discussing research. Yes, definitely write what you know, but unless your story takes place in a box, the elements you know will most likely run across some elements you aren’t an expert on. You could probably write your way around these, but it will make your story much more interesting if you take the time to discover something interesting about it, and include it.
If you read my last post, you know I am re-writing one of my novels from the beginning after doing some soul searching (more widely known as restructuring). Originally, I didn’t like the idea of stopping in the middle of writing every time an element I wasn’t the most knowledgeable on came up to research it. But I had to adapt. Now, I keep a checklist of things I have to research and mark in the text where I may or may not have to make changes. Hopefully, it will allow me to keep the story rich, and it won’t limit me in the type of characters I can use, settings I can create, and situations I can include.
Just for shits and giggles, here is my current checklist:
- The kind of fish people usually fish for in small town country lakes
- Major highways around Martinsville, Virginia
- How small towns deal with heatwaves
- Who in a city would be in charge of making sure a local lake is safe to skate on during the Winter months
- Technique for skipping rocks.
Some of those require simple Google searches (the fish and skipping rocks, for example). Others I could learn a good deal from a Google search, but may benefit more from talking to an actual city official, for instance. Currently, I did my best guess in the text as I was writing so as not to disrupt my creative flow, and if it needs to be changed after research, it will be. The thing is to not let the list get too long, as you don’t want to build your story around an element that you realize much further down the line needs to be cut.
Obviously, this is not the only way to research. You might want to do all of your research before you start your book. Or maybe you want to do it all during the editing phase (that seems too overwhelming for me, but to each his own). What are your thoughts? How do you research? DO you research?