As writers of fiction we have all come to a time when what we want to say in our stories won’t be as polished or believable without applying a little research.
You know what, I’m talking about – your heroine has escaped from the evil clutches of her captor and flees across The Hindu Kush; or your protagonist has upped his external struggle when he is struck down by a debilitating outbreak of Shingles.
All well and good, but if you’ve never traversed the ranges yourself or been unlucky enough to endure a bout of shingles; how are you going to believably throw your character into the setting; create a sense of place through dialogue, culture and landscape; use imagery and prose that resonates with authenticity; or just give your readers the gift of losing themselves in your story?
Simply put, unless you apply a certain amount of research, you are going to fail on at least some, if not all, of the above. Your readers are very smart. Don’t insult them with improvisation.
The good news is that research doesn’t have to be the laborious chore of poring over voluminous tomes in your library, or endlessly googling keywords and scouring Wikipedia for little known facts about the lesser spotted dogfish. Chances are someone you know, knows a little – or a lot – themselves.
If I’m working on a story that incorporates something that is outside my realm of expertise, I draw on my social, professional, family and online networks first. You’d be amazed at what people know, where they have traveled; worked at, owned, eaten, or experienced.
For example, I have been playing with a story that contains a strong element of surfing. Furthermore a good part of the story is set in remote Sumatra. Now, I have never even waxed a surfboard, let alone been to Sumatra … but I figured someone I knew would, or would know someone who had.
So, I put it out to my Facebook network. Bingo! Not just a surfer, but someone who was able to give me the most gorgeous detail about various remote Sumatran villages, beaches and surfing conditions. My friend was good enough to oblige me with some top notch answers to the questions I needed answering to give my story credibility. In return, I offered to name a character after him. (By the way, Brett, if you’re reading this, you have been cast as the lead . . . but you are about to undergo some very surreal circumstances! As promised though, you are all class 🙂
People that know stuff are everywhere. Your work colleagues; your extended family (especially the old timers); the dude at the petrol station; your neighbour with the gammy leg. Mother’s groups are a particular goldmine. Before us gals became mothers, we were doing something else. My playgroup boasts a pharmacist, an entrepreneur, an IT freak, a casino worker. Heck, we even have a geotechnical engineer!
In our cyber world of social media and online networking, there are countless thousands of “experts” you can hit up. And you know what? Most people love to help, especially if it’s something they know a lot about, and are passionate about. It’s flattering.
So, don’t be put off setting your next story in Patagonia. Someone somewhere will be able to supply you with a wealth of information. What’s more, they will be able to give you “first hand” accounts of their experiences, which can make such a difference from reading generic text in an encyclopedia.
Just remember to stick to a basic code of conduct and decency when you are hitting up your targets: –
- Don’t take the piss with people’s time. Everyone is busy, and answering fifty questions in detail about the atmosphere on Mars may not be at the very top of their priority list (just because it may be on yours)
- Do ask their permission first, before you email questions or ambush them with your pen and notebook in hand.
- Make sure that your target has the right credentials. For example, someone’s opinion on what the spice markets of Marrakesh might look like because they watched a documentary last week will be very different from one who has actually been there.
- Use online forums with grace and respect. For example, don’t just drop yourself into a topical forum, rape the brains of the boffins and leave without a goodbye or thank you.
- Do mention that you are writing a story or a book. You will be amazed how responsive people are when they learn this.
- If you are approaching a professional or expert in their field, use the same professional courtesy that you would in any normal job. Ask people for their time, respect their limitations, and thank people for their time.
And by the way, if you are one who likes to research the old fashioned way, more power to you. I still adore having my nose stuck in a fact finder at the library as well … I just have less time these days.
Happy writing, happy reading and, of course, happy days 🙂