There are two maxims you tend to hear a lot when you look for advice on writing. The first is “show, don’t tell,” which is a crucial point to remember, but I’m going to be dealing more with the second one tonight.
That second maxim is “write what you know,” and it does make a lot of sense. If your writing is informed by your experiences, it’s inevitably going to feel more real than if it isn’t. The converse of that is not everybody has a wide and esoteric enough breadth of experience to infuse a story with. Equally likely, and rather more prosaically, your characters are going to come into a situation, location or time period that you don’t know. Simply put, at some point, your story is going to raise a question, and you’ll have to admit that you don’t know the answer.
That’s where the dread beast known as research comes in. Sometimes the things you might be researching are fairly prosaic. For example, my 2011 NaNoWriMo was set during World War II and I wanted to make sure that the slightly ostentatious side arm that I’d given one of my characters was both manufactured and available in the 1940s, without being ridiculously expensive. Most of that information I managed to find by the twin magicians known as Google & Wikipedia (not sure why I made those links, you all know how to get to those sites…)
That isn’t always enough, and information gleaned from those sources should definitely be double checked and verified later. If it weren’t for the time crunch that NaNoWriMo authors have to operate under, I’d say “immediately,” and not “later” on the verification. Myself, I tend to use the books and citations listed on Wikipedia’s source annotations as a starting point. I’ll visit a local library and see what’s there, or perhaps browse a couple of pages in a book store (I try to make sure I purchase something if I’m abusing a book store for research purposes, even if it’s only a coffee and one of the “bargain price” books.) Last year I was fortunate enough to have accumulated $100 in amazon.com credits and bought a few books online that I couldn’t find locally. I favor local stores as it helps keep them in business and most make great write-in spots.
Of course, getting information from the page & screen is great, but it really is no substitute for experiencing things first hand. My 2012 NaNoWriMo had two primary settings locales, Nacogdoches, Texas and Washington, D.C. I’ve never been to Texas and my budget didn’t stretch to being able to change that just for the sake of NaNo. I had to resort to travel guides and online sources. So, while reading back, I had managed to work in a decent approximation of the sights and distances associated with Nacogdoches, I couldn’t convey the full experience with the sounds and smells and the little things you only notice about a town just by being there. I’d try and contact a beta reader from the area to allow me to fix the more egregious oversights, but that’s no guarantee.
Washington, D.C., by contrast is a little over a hundred miles away and is about a two and a half hour drive depending on whether traffic is terrible or merely bad. I’ve been there plenty of times, and it’s a city I love hanging out in. (I think I could live in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum), and consequently the sense of place when my characters are in D.C. is so much stronger. I feel like I better convey the feel of the place, the sounds, the odors and most importantly the energy and impatience of a city that has been described by John F. Kennedy as “a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm.” You also don’t get a sense of just how much of D.C is bound up with the federal government without going there, and it’s truly quite staggering.
If money were no object, I’d travel to every city and buy every item mentioned in all of my writing just to have that sense of connection to the world. Sadly, that’s not feasible, so I’ll be trawling through libraries until it is.
How do you research? And do you do more or less when preparing or writing for NaNoWriMo?