Thursday, August 29, 2013

On The Importance Of Ongoing Research

Status Update:  Saved from lack of coffee just at the nick of time. From the bitter failure of no-coffee-dom, a heroic venture to the grocery store last night restores my kitchen to full bean-hood. If life were a videogame, I'd have made a power-up noise. Instead, I'm just wired.

I've got notes for this weeks' story. It's going to be one thing unless it becomes another. Sometimes I make extensive plans and then surprise myself with something else at the last minute, partly because sometimes I'm a little bored by what I'm prepared to write, partly because I think of something better/more amusing and partly it's because my plans are overly ambitious vis a vis the amount of energy I'm currently bringing to bear on the project. I plan for Cecil B. DeMille, but wind up with Tommy Wiseau instead.

I've always been amused by people who think that writing is something that comes purely from within, like an author (any author, really, not even "pro's") is some kind of oracle sitting above a crack in the ground, channeling Greek deities from subterranean vapors. You sit down to write, a heavenly choir begins to sing, and then words appear on the page. Then you get a fat check from out of nowhere and you retire to a cafe somewhere with a heart-breakingly beautiful French girlfriend and a cardigan. I think single malt Scotch, clove cigarettes and a sailboat also factor in somewhere. Maybe a cool-looking hat. Fuck, I don't know. What was I talking about?

Right, preparation. Back on track.

Writing, of any sort, thrives on preparation. The more of it you do, the more authentic--the more interesting--the output. I don't mean you should compile a history of Scottish claymores or Hungarian wood-working techniques. I don't think it's necessary to have a degree in physics to write a book about space pirates. But it's nice to back off, realize that the segment you're writing is going to take you through a mental space you know very little about.

So, you wander off to the library and spend some time moseying through the stacks. Surf the internet for weird/cool pages. Your book might not need a four page treatise on the digestive habits of lemurs, but throwing in the odd authentic detail or two midway through an action sequence goes a long way towards immersing the reader.

And that's great. But you never know the sorts of strangeness you'll be writing about, the paths you'll wind up following. And that's why I think that, for writers, preparation is an ongoing process. If you're going to write a lot, you should be interested in everything.

Read everything that's not nailed down.

All genres, nonfiction or fiction. You never know when that "a-ha" moment will hit you. And having a huge bank of random crap sifting through your subconscious at all times will help your writing, let you draw on odd comparisons at will. Perhaps the image of the Tacoma Narrows bridge disaster will help lend authenticity to that bit in the horror novel you're writing when the zombie-chinchillas from Niflheim are swarming over the suspension bridge the heroes built to escape Robo-Hitler's prison. Maybe you'll find that knowing a bit about how the guts of a NASA space suit works will lend a bit of tension to the scene when your space pirate is about to be hoovered up by a giant space aardvark.

I tend to alternate books in my free time. I read everything, fiction, nonfiction, young adult, classic mysteries, plays, even the occasional bit of poetry. New science fiction, horror, historical fiction. Crap, I'll even read Harlequin romance if I find a book lying around and nobody's around to make fun of me. But never the same thing back to back.

My strategy for choosing nonfiction tends to revolve around "Hey, this looks like a boring topic. There has to be something interesting here." And there usually is. Hell, I once read a book called "Salt", which was about...salt. It was actually pretty cool.

The key thing is that you always have to be pushing past your comfort zones. Even if you think you're only going to write in one genre. Hell, especially if you think you're only going to write in one genre. There's always some kind of takeaway in something new. Ways to drive action and character development, a narrative focus you don't see often in your normal reading territories. Even something as small as the realization you hate/are extremely uncomfortable with what you're reading. You ask yourself why, and the answer might be interesting/illuminating/useful. If not, you'll at least have something new to think about and four or five years down the line, something might bubble up from your subconscious and push a story in an interesting direction.

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