Monday, November 7, 2011

Research Bunnies

It’s a bit of a departure from speculative fiction, but stay with me—I have a proverbial itch that needs to be metaphorically scratched.

I love research. As much as I may complain about having to do research for a project, if you ask anyone that knows me even a little bit, they’ll tell you just how much I love research. In fact, somewhere in the long-lost annals of this blog, I have a previous post about research. Something to the tune of taking up new hobbies as a form of research. I digress.

The problem is, when most people hear or see the word research, their heart rate skyrockets, memories of restless nights studying meaningless equations about pointless anomalies all to pass a test that may or may not hold any importance in your life five seconds after turning it in—at least, that’s what I’ve heard from other people.

That issue stems from a lack of anything interesting to research in school. Now, I can’t complain too terribly much myself—learning the atomic weight of every element on the periodic table is something I probably would have done on my own eventually, just like I did with quantum mechanics and string theory—but that’s no longer as fun for me.

What we need to do to make our writing research fun, and hence infuse new life and excitement into our work, is research things that interest you, but you’ve never put any real effort into learning about. I can’t say what that will be for you exactly, but try this: think of something you wish you could do, but have next no or no experience and/or skill with/at. Anything could work, not just the traditional jobs for heroes and heroines. There a thirteen-billion-and-four books about cops, cowboys, and knights—I can only think of one with an assistant fashion editor as the main character, and it’s one of my favorite books (The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger). The only really important thing is that your desire and passion come through—that alone will make the character believable.

Why, then, should you research what it is to be an assistant fashion editor, a tornado chaser, or a gunsmith? All you need is passion, right?

Mostly, you research because you love what you’re learning about, but you’re also trying to infuse that knowledge into the collective of your lifelong knowledge, and pick up on those tidbits, those holy nuggets of information you can deglaze with the broth of your novel, to add that intense, otherwise unreachable flavor.

Does a hobby or profession not make your blood dance? That’s perfectly all right—think of a place you desperately want to visit—the best thing about it is you can visit anywhere, at any time in the present or past with your writing.

Again: why does it really matter? Sure it adds flavor and realism to your work, but are those things really that important if the rest of your manuscript is to die for?

Let me give you an example of a scene—one version written as someone that put almost no time into learning about their main character’s job, and one that allowed him/herself to live and breathe the profession:

He kneaded the dough, the soft mass squeezing out between his palms and the cutting board. Behind him, too many pots to handle boiled and bubbled, but he maneuvered through the kitchen with mastery, stirring this pasta and that sauce as he let the dough rest. The chef below him handed him a nearly finished plate, his eyes hopeful. With a flourish of his hand, he sprinkled the final ingredient on top, “Perfect.”

All right, I know that was unbelievably bad, and no one would probably ever write that, but I had to make a point—someone that had no understanding of the culinary world could craft something similar.

The same scene again, but from someone that actually knows about cooking:

He leaned his full weight into the dough, kneading the sticky mass into submission. Push, turn, pull. Push, turn, pull. The mantra repeated in his head. He pressed the dough down and out into the flour, turned it up a quarter turn, and pulled it back over itself. Soon, his hands moved the dough into little more than a blur, the vibrant yeast accosting his nose. Picking it up, he pulled the dough taut, plopping the pale, silken sphere into his pre-oiled bowl. He gave it a quick turn and covered it with a tea towel, placing it next to the full stove—the heat would be enough to make it rise, for sure. A popping, burbling pot of fresh marinara called to him. A simple stir released the acidic smell into the air. He joined the flavor of the sauce with the sweet, wheaty tortellini in his head—the dish was nothing new for him at this point. The gentle footsteps behind him signaled his sous chef, a plate of chicken parmesan held out in front of him. The executive chef dipped the back of his spoon into the sauce, careful not to drip any on the edge of the plate, and tasted it—it was a common mistake. He grabbed a jar of Worcestershire from the counter and carefully added a few drops, watching them bleed across the dish, “Perfect.”

Same scene, but much different—you can see that someone knew something about cooking when writing this scene as opposed to the first. It comes from research—the person that wrote the second scene could probably make you a delicious meal thanks to all that he/she learned—I’m not so sure I would let the first author make me rice.

So, join me—learn. There are a whole lot of ways to learn about these sorts of wonderful things as well: books, movies, documentaries, professionals, natives, teachers—I bet, with a little scratching, you’ll find that your friends and families are veritable wealth-springs of interesting information. One of my uncles knows a scary amount about munitions. Another used to pan gold for a living. My first cousin once removed makes his living sewing costumes for the local drag queens in Portland. My friends range from entomologists and geologists to cake decorators and Broadway stars—use them, and I’m sure they’ll understand. I read somewhere that, if you tell people you’re writing a story, they’ll talk to you. I’m strongly considering talking to a pair of Indian Sikh that run a convenience store near my house, just to hear the tales they could tell me—and I’ve never met either of them.

So, grab a cup of coffee (two, if you’re planning to have an informative chat with someone) and get to it.


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