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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

#5 - Doing Some Research (HOWNTWAN)

This is the fifth article in the semi-comedic series, How Not To Write A Novel (HOWNTWAN). The first article in the series can be found here: What's Your Story About? Keep reading during the next couple months for the rest of the series.

5. Doing Some Research

Wow, you’ve got this far! I guess you really do want to give up your day job.
There comes a time when you’ve decided what your story’s about; you’ve written a synopsis; you’ve settled on the genre; and you’ve decided to do some planning. Now what? It surely must be time to start writing? …Soon.
There are a few other things you might like to consider, and one of them is research.
“But I’m writing fantasy, Paul. Why would I need to do any research?”
You know, it’s funny, but I get this reaction a lot. So, how about I ask you a few questions instead?
1. What do swords look like and how do you wield them?
2. What are the technical words for swords and swordplay? And where would you keep a sword on your body? And how does that restrict your movement?
3. What are the houses in the village made of, and is there or should there be glass in the windows?
4. What about the beds; what are the mattresses made of?
5. What kind of underclothes do your characters wear?
I could go on, but I think you get my point. Even when you’re making it all up, there are a hundred things you need to know the answers to before you start writing. Otherwise you’re going to be writing something that’s either technically incorrect and impossible, or something that has no description at all and is very boring to read.
There aren’t any bestselling novels out there where the author has done zero research. Remember this. Tell it to yourself time and time again. So instead, spend a few hours thinking seriously about research for the novel you are writing. If it’s a political thriller, you’d better know a lot about politics and perhaps government. Maybe you need to investigate the way the FBI works, or even read up on several different kinds of sniper rifles and learn their effective ranges. If you’re writing a historical romance set in Elizabethan times, you’d better know all your facts and figures. Even science fiction has rules. How long does it take for a planet to travel around a sun? How does the spaceship manage to communicate with the home planet? Laws of science have very strict rules.
“You’re scaring me, Paul. I’m just trying to write a simple novel. Maybe I’ll set it the present time, and maybe even in my own hometown.”
“Sure,” I reply, “and does everything happen in one place? No one ever leaves? And are you going to use the places in town exactly as they are now?”
“Well, no. Of course not. I’m going to change a few things…”
This is exactly where a lot of people start. They write a novel using things they know about. And why? Quite simply because they don’t need to do as much research. And I say as much, but not none. Don’t be fooled into thinking you never need to do any research to write a book. You could do that if you want, but your novel will be weaker for it. And besides which, with today’s Internet so close at hand, you can find out all sorts of information, quickly and efficiently. For example, in one of my novels, I wanted to know about the types and hierarchy of servants in a lord’s manor. I quickly found something I could use as a reference document.
Research. Think of it as background reading. Think of it as learning the skills of the trade (in this case the skills needed to write proficiently about your subject matter). Sure, it takes a while to complete (and usually is never done until the book is done), but it can make the difference between a good book and a great book.
Or, you can skip this step and end up writing something along the lines of: Danny leaned out of the car window, as he drove rapidly around the bend, and steadied the Glock 22 in one hand. Susan was more than a hundred yards away, but Danny knew he could make the shot. He pulled the trigger hard, and retracted his hand back into the car. He watched as Susan somersaulted to the ground, as if in slow motion, blood spurting from her forehead.

No, don’t worry. Skip on the research and keep working your day job.

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