For most writing projects, you’ll need to do some amount of research. Just how much you must do depends on the nature of the project. Historical fiction always involves a hefty research requirement. Science fiction requires some knowledge of the science involved. And even non-Earth fantasy, if it is to be believable at all, requires some careful forethought and planning, which requires investigation into the mechanics of day to day life for your make-believe places.
Don’t let Gwyneth Paltrow’s smile deceive you. She’s twelve years into her book and still hasn’t finished the research phase.
I’ve touched on this subject at least once before, but there’s still a lot to delve. An overall treatise on doing good research is well outside the scope of this post, and would be far too lengthy to cover in a single installment, anyway.
No, today we will concern ourselves with that other pitfall that comes when doing research; namely, what do you do when you need to understand something you’ve never personally experienced, and for which there is no publicly available research?
Let me give you an example.
Suppose you want to write a scene where your viewpoint character gets stabbed in the back unexpectedly. Being the solid writer you are, you want the scene to feel authentic, with a description of the event in graphic detail.
But, of course, you’ve never been stabbed in the back before. And you may not be lucky enough to know anyone who personally has been stabbed in the back and is also available to tell you about the experience.
You can search for a description online. And you might get lucky, depending on how many stab victims are willing to open up on the internet about their ordeal. If you do find such a person, you may be surprised to learn how unwilling to help they may be, even after carefully explaining that you are a writer and need to know these things for a story you’re writing.
You might get lucky, but you ought to have a backup plan, in case your source decides to clam up on you. Unfortunately, any backup plan you use is going to be seriously flawed from the get go.
Aren’t We Allowed to Use our Imaginations?
Well, I don’t know if “allowed” is the right word for it. You may be put in a situation where you are forced to use your imagination (and I guess that’s part of the job description), but you’re going to run into the same problem every time you take that route. The problem being that you risk losing your accuracy.
Because anything you imagine will likely differ from the truth. You can’t imagine what it’s really like to get stabbed by someone in the back without warning. And when you fail to produce a realistic description, you’re always going to get that one stickler who won’t let it go.
Stickler: “That’s not what getting stabbed feels like. I can’t believe anyone allowed you to publish this.”
You: “So you actually know what it’s like to be stabbed in the back.”
Stickler: “I sure do.”
You: “Wait a minute: aren’t you the guy who refused to tell me anything about your stabbing experience?”
Stickler: “You remembered.”
You: “Yet now you’re trying to call me out for not being realistic enough?”
Stickler: “You got it. Hey wait, what are you doing with that knife?”
You: “Just finishing what someone else started.”
In the end, your story is less than it could have been, all because you were denied the proper research.
A Better Way: Authors Sharing with Authors
The willingness of the rest of the world to help with an author’s research varies from “quite cooperative” to “completely stonewalled”. Which is why it is so important that authors do good for each other when it comes to obscure experiences.
Because even though you may never have been stabbed in the back, chances are that some author somewhere has. He or she can share this experience through their own writing, giving other authors a lens through which to interpret their own imaginings of the event.
And it’s not just stabbing, either. There are all kinds of experiences that have passed you by, but that you will find yourself needing to put to paper. Seeing how reputable authors do it is a reliable method. But it is even better when those authors talk about their own experience on the subject. This is an area where autobiographical data can become crucial.
Adding My Chip to the Pile
I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite, so I’m going to pitch in with a unique experience of my own, which will become the focus of next week’s blog post (there’s a lot of ground to cover here).
Because recently, I went through the experience of having a suppressed traumatic memory resurface, and I was surprised at how different it is in real life than what we see in popular media. It’s apparent to me that many writers don’t get to have such an experience and may benefit from the perspective I have to give.
So be on the lookout for it next week, as I try to do my part to fill in our collective gaps.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…to the party.”]