Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3
Research—Don’t be a stranger.
Sponging may not cover it for prewriting. Sometimes you hit something you just don’t know enough about, and no amount of the life YOU’VE lived is going to make you able to portray something you don’t know about. You have to do some research.
You have to do SOME research.
You’re going to have to accept something that might be hard right now. Repeat after me: “I do not know everything.” Now go find a mirror and say that fifty times. Go ahead. I’ll wait. A lot of writers really think they’re too good for research. They “would rather actually write.” Noble...but bullshit. I’m here to tell you that your actual writing will suck rocks if you don’t take the time to learn the things you don’t know about a subject. And unless you want to spend your life writing about personnel meetings and TPS reports, you will probably eventually write about a culture, place, era, activity, or something that you don’t know about. Having emotional Legos won’t help you with this because you need to portray your topic accurately. I don’t care how poignantly you describe a character’s angst, if you’re ascribing a Catholic burial ceremony to your Inuit characters, you’re going to come off like a moron.
I know a lot of people break out in hives at the mention of research. If you’re picturing the lonely stacks of some giant library’s twelfth floor or a montage of pouring over first edition tomes with rubber gloves, you’re probably over thinking this. That was my parent’s generation. I mean I could go all gumtoothed voice and tell you about something called an Index of Periodical Literature, little slips of paper, and a weird smelling guy in a back room who handed you tattered magazines. We didn’t have the newfangled Lexus Nexus. But seriously, computers have been streamlining research more every year since I was about twenty. Not that a stern librarian in boots would be unwelcome—one who undoes her hair from a tight bun when she tells you how hot she finds your dedication to knowledge.....
You know what? This is probably more MY thing, really. The point is unless you like trolling for librarians by appearing erudite, you probably won’t have to do much of that kind of research unless you want to.
This process is as involved as you want it to be or your type of writing requires it to be. If you don’t like to do a lot of research, you can just do the kind of writing that doesn’t require a lot of research. Or you COULD go raid the most esoteric volumes on being a fifth century seamstress in order to have such a character in something you write, especially if that’s just the sort of nerdgasm thing that would really turn your crank. Remember this is your art. If you’re getting pleasure out of it, then you win. Other people can suck an elf.
If you’re not into deep research, don’t sweat it, but you still can’t get past this aspect of pre-writing completely. Now I am going to say something that I’ll say again and again, so pay attention because these are words to live by when it comes to setting and character—which are, you know, elements of fiction and sort of important and stuff.
Don’t be a stranger.
I like this better than “write what you know,” because “write what you know” is a cliché and it doesn’t even begin to touch the full range of writing that matters to me. We can recombine and reconfigure what we know into what we don’t if we take some time and effort to do so. I’m pretty sure Orwell didn’t KNOW 1984 since he wrote it in the forties, nor do I think he ever met a talking pig. I’m pretty sure Tolken had never had a conversation with a dragon. Most people use their sponged experiences like Legos to recombine and rearrange what they do know into what they can’t know. So “Don’t be a Stranger” seems to cover much more accurately what it means to be a fiction writer. You only KNOW what it means to be your gender, your age, your race, your age (or younger), your social status, and dozen other things, and while this will always inform your work in ways you should be aware of, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want all your characters to be exactly the same as you lest you end up in a world like when John Malkovitch went into his own brain tunnel. I don’t think that would hold up well for a whole novel.
“Don’t be a stranger” also carries with it the keys to the kingdom. “Write what you know” has sort of been perverted into a flip, dismissive way to say “Sorry, you don’t know, kthxbai.” People who are tired of bad portrayals of their life experiences sometimes make claims like “you can never really KNOW what it’s like,” and honestly, there’s some truth to that, but a fiction writer has to break out of essentialism unless they only every want to write a journal. Plus, it’s the sort of thing that leads to writers doing damn fool things like trying crack cocaine so they can describe it. A writer in today’s social landscape is going to have to navigate minefields like “appropriation” and avoiding stereotypes, and it can be intimidating as fuck when you realize you don’t know how to do that. Don’t be a stranger is how.
If you’re going to set a story in Santa Monica, you better know Santa Monica. Describe the shops, the air, a corner people will recognize, and the great pizza place near the pier because if you say “this is Santa Monica” and then describe Walnut Creek, bullshit detectors will go off in your readers. If you’re going to describe a culture that isn’t your own, you better understand that culture, how they look at death, what they think of life, marriage, morality, religion, and not from YOUR outsider point of view either—don’t be a stranger. Go find out from them.
Access to knowledge-wise, you are the most empowered human beings ever to walk the face of the Earth. I’m not just fellating you with en-vogue self help slogans either. You’re reading this blog, so I assume you have a computer with Internet. That makes you able to find more information in five seconds than your average surf had to absorb in their entire lifetime. Most of you can do this from a device that's smaller than a deck of cards. Seriously, the only thing slowing down your acquisition of knowledge in our era is how fast you can read and the 10 terabyte estimate of ultimate human brain storage capacity. You almost never have to go on some first edition book safari unless you kind of want to.
Let me share a story with you that is almost completely unrelated. As Will and Grace finished up its run they had a bloopers episode as part of their Will and Grace last night finale two hour event. My ex-wife was a huge fan so I ended up watching. In one of these bloopers Grace has a bottle of something, and they tell Debra Messing (who plays Grace) they want the bottle to be more empty for the shot. She goes to the kitchen and pours it down the drain. And then all hell breaks loose. She screams and laughs and says she’s sorry. See, the sink wasn’t really a sink. They weren’t in a real kitchen. She was on a set. The drain probably went to where they stored paint thinner or something. Everything “on camera” looked real, but it wasn’t, and Debra had just ruined some set designer’s day. How does this matter to you as a writer? You may not need to be some deep expert to reveal enough “on camera” to make a good story. You just need whatever you’re writing about to look like a real “kitchen” for the confines of your story.
There’s an element of "Hollywood magic" in what writers do. A writer might become an expert on just enough of a subject that their story is going to need. That’s why a lot of writers are strangely well informed about the most bizarre and random stuff. They needed it for some story. But you don’t have to find out everything on a topic to be able to write anything about it. You just need a few significant details to make sure you know what’s up, and to check yourself.
I constantly have a search engine open when I’m writing. I look up all kinds of things all the time. Who starred in this movie? What’s that word? What does an archery stance actually look like and what kind of advice would a coach give a beginner? How is this city laid out? I’m not doing a marathon session in a library (and I would probably personally eschew a character or setting that would require me to). But if you add up the amount of times I change my window over to Google something or other, you probably end up with hours of research.
As I wrote one story about a character in the mid 21st century involved in a water war, I realized that I was going to need more details about the setting to fill out some of the trouble that the story was having in its third draft. I didn’t really know much about water wars. So I spent an hour or two on Google learning where they were likely to happen and why. I picked The Danube, but I didn’t know much about eastern European geography so I had to look at Google maps. It was kind of fun really—if a little alarming and scary about the future of war. A couple hours and I had enough detail not to be a stranger for what I was doing. It doesn't have to be a big deal, but just think of how vague or misinformed that story would have seemed if I hadn't done that.
Be careful. One of the really important places to not be a stranger is when you deal with writing a character who is experiencing some of the difficulties of their own culture or group. You can’t use Hollywood magic here. You have to try to really understand with all the writer empathy you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. Google “cultural appropriation” if you want to see the epic insensitivity and resulting shit storms that can develop if you don’t take this very, VERY seriously. Some people out there are basically going to tell you that you can’t successfully write "their" story. And they’re right if you sit down and write it from your point of view about what you think their point of view would be. You’ll end up with something like that travesty of well-intentioned idiocy about what the middle class white guy would do if he was a black kid from the inner city. Oh. My. God. Don’t be that guy. Do your research. Instead be more like Jeffery Eugenides. He did enough research on five alpha reductase deficiency syndrome that people who read Middlesex assumed he HAD to be intersexed to have described it so well. He is not. And there are fantastic examples of fiction of people writing from perspectives that are not their own in ways that are so convincing that people didn’t realize they weren’t from that group. So don’t lose faith because P.C.-ness makes your job a little harder. Just don’t be a stranger.
The thing that is particularly cool about fiction writers and research is that “don’t be a stranger” can lead back to one of our core tenants. Research for academics and non-fiction writers can be an arduous affair taking months and even years depending on the subject matter. Fiction writers usually aren’t going for that level of detail and precision, and all we need is the right “Legos” for the job from a culturally accurate viewpoint so we have this totally awesome option of reading a few great stories on the topic. When I say "hear it from them," I don't mean you have to do a cultural ethnography. The voices of this culture (and almost certainly of this struggle) already exist--you just have to read them. And you thought this was going to suck! Imagine reading the great literature of a culture to try and get the sense of it. That doesn’t sound like unpleasant research; that sounds like someone just said “Okay, I need you to taste test the final products for my gourmet chocolate and tell me which one you like the best.” Only a stern librarian with a very healthy respect for a dedication to knowledge could be more fun.
Of course, sometimes you can’t research something because it doesn’t exist yet. That’s when you have to build worlds. [Continued next Monday.]