Doing Your Homework

was planning to do this as a Brother’s Keeper segment – and still might – but my camera decided it didn’t want to behave today. Heat and gnawed-on charge cables do not a happy combination make.

But it’s still a subject I wanted to talk about, so I’m doing it anyway. Plus, this has the benefit of not making those of you out there stare at my ugly mug or listen to my atrocious accent while I do it, so bonuses all around! Yay!

Of course, now you’re probably wondering “What homework?” Many of you likely left the halls of education at some point in the distant (or not-so-distant) past, and thus will not be slapped with a wooden ruler if you don’t turn in “How I Spent My Summer Vacation.” Possibly two slaps, if you claim your dog ate it. I’m not talking about schoolwork, though to some of you it might feel like it. I’m talking about research.

Research forms the heart of a lot of writing projects. Whether it’s a non-fiction piece on what the weather was like a certain November day in Dallas circa ’63 or a science fiction epic about genetically modified demonic cats, there’s going to come a point where you probably have to boot up Google, head to the library, or start asking some seemingly ridiculous questions of people who have already done either or both of those things.

On the non-fiction front, research seems obvious and easy; for the most part, that’s true. You’re starting with a definite point of view, event, item or person and trying to find out more about them so you can either present the facts or make arguments as to how our understanding of those facts are wrong. But they’re not really what I wanted to talk about today.

It’s research in the realm of the fictional that has captured my attention today. Which may seem like a bit of an oxymoron. “But… it’s fiction! Why should I be researching that, especially if I’m making it up as I go along?”

There isn’t really a single answer to that. It really depends on what you’re writing. If you’re doing something completely outside the boundaries of reality as we know it, you’re probably free to just go wild, admittedly. It’s not like anyone could say “Hey, that’s not how that works,” because it doesn’t work, so far as we know at this point. But often one of the main objectives in fictional writing is to make the reader believe, just for a little bit, that your world is real. Research can help you with that, by building your totally-imaginary constructs on a bedrock of similar, real-world concepts.

If you’re doing something a little more grounded in reality – cop fiction, crime novels, romance, historical lit – then research becomes even more important… and even more noticeable when it’s lacking. Someone, somewhere, will one day read your book, and will unfortunately turn out to be an expert in whatever field you so gleefully murdered, and is likely to send you a very stern e-mail. This is the digital age’s equivalent of that wooden ruler. It might hurt less… but depending on how easily bruised your ego is, it might hurt more. Or it might not bother you at all, because you wrote the book, you shipped it, you sold it and now it’s old news, on with the new.

But still… when just a little bit of your time could avoid the whole scenario – or at least set you up with a handy explanation list of why you made the choices you did – why not do it?

As an example, from my browser history alone I can conjure up articles that detail exactly what happens when you put metal in a microwave, how nanomachines are built and what some of their theoretical capabilities might be, several interview examples between lawyers and their clients when the clients are sitting in holding cells, a police procedural manual detailing the detainment and confinement of a potentially dangerous suspect, family “staff charts” from a mafia family circa 1960, several videos taken at BBW and FA conventions, and a list of flavors (with pictures and reviews) that Krispy Kreme produced. That’s all stuff going into Blood and Steel; perhaps not directly as described, and in some instances I’m going to deliberately break “reality” on those issues (the microwave is going to suffer the most in that respect, I think) but I studied up on them just the same. Partly because I’m rabidly curious about the dumbest things sometimes, and partly because I wanted to have a touch of something real, even if the novel is one part adventure, one part romance, two parts horror set to a humorous backdrop where Dracula is a cyborg who got run over by a cop car.

I’ve got folders in my Bookmarks Bar for different projects. I have hidden playlists on YouTube. I’ve got piles of handwritten notebooks (no easy task for a guy wearing the medical equivalent of shackles and suffering from severe arthritis, I tell you) of random things I found in books, newspapers or just talking to people.

Any writer probably should. Even if they’re not immediately applicable to a project, even if they seem totally off the wall, bonkers and random, you never know what may trip a story idea or connect to something else in a new and entertaining way, leading you down avenues you never would have known existed, if it hadn’t been for a little poking in the right places. Plus one day, you too can scare the bejesus out of any government official who may or may not be monitoring your e-mails and browsing habits. 😉 Sometimes I like to imagine the FBI is dissecting my computer, just so I can ask them what they think it all means when they’re done… sometimes I think that’s a story seed waiting to happen in and of itself.

Something that comes up often, when writers are dispensing advice, is “Write what you know.” It’s trite, and pithy, and probably makes as much sense or has as much “Aha!” value as “Show, don’t tell” – and is probably just as readily ignored by aspiring writers the world ’round – but there’s something important to be learned in there. If you should write what you know, don’t you think it’d be better to know more? Even if it seems useless – for example – to know just what happens to metal in a microwave? Or how alpacas got domesticated? Or what the original meaning of the name “Cain” was? Knowledge is power, and the more of it you have, the more of it you can bring to bear on whatever you choose to write about.

I could keep talking in circles around this issue, but I think I’ve made the point. Go forth, become a sponge for knowledge, both “useless” and practical. Do a Google search or two on subjects related to events or themes in your book. Make a game of it on YouTube; type something seemingly unrelated into that search bar, and then watch videos, hopping through the “Related and Recommended” links until you find one that catches your interest or is about your specific subject. (I have friends who call this game “Find Hitler.” Because they believe – and thusfar have proven correct – that you can find a video about Hitler from anywhere in YouTube, within ten clicks.) Go watch some TED Talks, or scour the documentaries section of Netflix. Not only will you probably find something to apply to your current project, you just might be educated and entertained in the bargain.

Just because I found it amusing, here’s one of the videos about microwaves:

So what about you folks out there? What’s the weirdest subject or thing you’ve ever found yourself digging for info on? Did you find any? How do you do your research? Let us know in the box below!

KA Spiral no signature

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4 responses to “Doing Your Homework

  1. I’m always searching for one random thing or another on the net. I don’t know what my weirdest search might be but there are many competing for the title.

  2. I spent a month recently checking up on details for the latest novel. I can now tell you which regions of Hell are governed by which demon, that the University of Wurzburg has not one, but two auditoria in its mathematics faculty, that the police station in Anderlecht only has a small car park round the back, and in superstring theory it’s possible for a brane to attach itself to the open end of a superstring. However, I still haven’t found out if Bamberg Cathedral has a project manager or how many steps go up the inside of the Gothic tower.

    But you’re mentioning Youtube might have given me a clue. . . . Thanks very much.

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