Friday, February 26, 2010

How to Write a Novel 7: Research (and Jurassic Park)

Quote: none, still riding the ‘Q

Song playing: Don’t Cha by the Pussycat Dolls

First, some observations:

*Still sick. Nyquil consumption high. Switched to the daytime formula. A comedian once said that it won’t make you sleep, but you’ll spend the rest of the day staring at your reflection in the toaster. I find truth in that statement.

*My iTunes doesn’t appear to be shuffling songs very well, as I have heard the same five songs in the past hour twice, and it’s a playlist containing 207 songs. In the middle of this phenomenon I reshuffled the songs. Didn’t make a difference.
Conclusion? Steve Jobs is controlling my computer via iTunes. Apparently his favorites songs are All the Way Down by Ryan Cabrera, Don’t Cha by the Pussycat Dolls (don’t judge me!), Colors of the Wind by Vanessa Williams (you know you get teary-eyed every time you hear this song, too), All I Ever Wanted by Basshunter, and the one odd ball song, Dr. Online by Zeromancer. Why does it not surprise me Steve Jobs likes pop music?

*My Nyquil-addled brain made a connection between how writing is like Jurassic Park yesterday, observations of which I will share at the end of the post.

*I just used the gift certificate to my future in-laws gave me for Christmas, and spent it all on books. 50 dollars worth. All of them used, but in Like New condition. That’s twelve books. Spent almost as much on shipping though, Amazon’s downfall. They should make it easier to search from individual book sellers. Anyway, I am salivating with the thought of all of those books arriving within the next few weeks. All of them are books about writing with the except of two novels by Patricia Sewell. Expect cries of joy and book reviews to follow.

*I continue to blame all spelling errors and typos on the Nyquil.

Now, onward to research, today’s topic on How to Write a Novel.

Let me once again reiterate that every single writer has a different way to write. What works for one person might be the worse technique another writer ever did. Your mileage will vary. This is just to get you thinking, and maybe you’ll find something from the post you can take away.

1. Research

Research. I know. Most people hate it, they think it’s a dirty word. But you’re going to have to do some, at some point in time. Usually. Unless you’re writing some really weird, avant-garde thing, but then I still image there are aspects you aren’t as familiar with as you could be.

Some writers like to research while working on the plot and brainstorming, and others like to wait until after the first draft is written, to see what they need to do. Typically, there’s going to be a mixture of the two.

As you can probably tell, I love doing research, but I was also a huge nerd in high school (shocking, I know). You know, the brainy sort of nerd that seemed to be friends with everyone, but was a too weird to be considered cool. That was me.

It’s hard being a writer, for many reasons, one of them being you have to be an expert on a little bit of everything. It’s jarring to read a book that has characters doing unrealistic things regarding their jobs, their location, physics of the world, etc. It’s in your best interest to find as much information on your subject as you feel like you need to in order to tell a good story.

2. Profession

What is your character’s job? You might need to research their job if it has a large bearing on the plot events. That’s why there’s a lot of books out there for courtroom procedures, crime scene investigation, and law enforcement, but not so many on being a botanist.

I find myself doing at least a smidgen of research on the character’s profession, just so the character seems more realistic. Most of the information you need, like typical ages, salaries, educational requirements is on the Internet. There are also books out there about specific jobs, like the aforementioned books on crime scene investigation.

3. Setting

I am not going to rehash what I talked about in the post on Setting, so suffice to say, you want to have a good feel for your setting, wherever it is. This is a great excuse to take a vacation to oh, say, Hawaii. You could even start setting your books in locations you’d like to visit, justifying the travel expense with “research”. Just saying.

4. Exploration

I like to think of research as exploration. Research doesn’t just have to be boring reading up on facts and figures. You could take a day trip to a park, if you want to really capture the feel of a rustic setting. You could try to visit the city where your character lives, if it’s feasible. You could talk to people from the culture you are writing about (if they exist. Sadly, elves do not). You could talk to your elderly relatives about what life was like back in their era, and jot down your own experiences with transitioning into the digital age.

You could write down some specific details about your favorite restaurant, or the taste of your favorite meal, or buy a candle that reminds you of how your character’s beach house smells. If you’ve never been in a fight you could ask someone else how it feels to be hit in the face (I wouldn’t suggest starting a fight. I doubt the cops will accept the “it’s for my book” as an excuse).

Research is building your experience with the unknown, the untried. The more you reach out and try to understand new, the better informed you are.

5. Other media

(no, checking your email doesn't count as research. sorry)

I am also a big fan of watching movies as a form a research. I enjoy the movie, of course, but I also keep a pencil and notebook with me. I dissect the movie and try to figure out what did and didn’t work. If you’re writing a detective novel, try to watch a few crime movies. If you’re writing about aliens, you could watch Alien, or Predator (but not Aliens vs. Predator. I paid 50 cents to see that movie, and want my money back), and pay special attention to how people deal with encountering the unknown.

You could also view art, look though magazines, and read poems. Whatever it takes to make you feel like you can talk confidently about the place, and characters, and themes of your novel. There is no right or wrong way, and it might change with each novel, depending on the demands of each book.

6. Jurassic Park and Writing

So, yesterday I watched Jurassic Park (love that movie, and the special effects have withstood the test of computer graphics era well) while on Nyquil. Good times. Ian Malcolm was chewing the geneticists out, saying that they were so excited with the fact they could clone dinosaurs, they didn’t stop to think if they should. The geneticists stood on the shoulders of those who did genetic research before them, took a few short cuts, and BAMN! Cloned dinosaur time. Malcolm further made the point that the geneticists didn’t earn the knowledge they received, so they didn’t have the skill to control what they created.

Which was the point my brain told me this is surprisingly similar to writing. It made immediate sense to me, but for those of us not following my Nyquil logic, here’s the gist.

To be a writer you have to pay your dues. Not because everyone in the publishing industry is mean, and don’t like to play fair, but because it’s how things operate smoothly. You have to learn how to write properly, how to craft a story and sentences and characters and when you’re done all that, you have to learn how to write a book from start to first, and then when you’re done that, you have to teach yourself how to edit. After that, you have to learn all about publishing, and submission guidelines, and agents, and how to balance your time effectively.

It’s a lot to learn and it can take months, years, or decades to master depending on how you apply yourself. You write a book, it’s terrible, you learn why it sucked, and then you write another book that sucked marginally less. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The steps and time frame is different for every writer, but almost everyone goes through some version of this learning process.

However, there are some writers who write a book or two, and then suddenly, a book they wrote gets published and receive commercial and literary acclaim. Sometimes these writers are geniuses, and other times, just super-doper lucky. At any case, these writers will still go through the same learning process that us poor, unpublished, un-bestselling novelist smucks do, just in the limelight. Just with the entire world watching what they produce next. Sometimes the follow up novels to these “amazing debuts” are great books, and sometimes, they fail miserably.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that J.K. Rowling has yet to publish something non-Harry Potter related. Stephanie Meyer has yet to produce something non-Twilight related. Dan Brown continues to produce Da Vinci Code-esque novels. Whatever your personal feelings on these authors, it’s hard to take your first few steps at all, much less in the limelight.

So the next time you’re staring at your ceiling, wishing God/Allah/the universe/the flying spaghetti monster will make your first novel the bestest seller there ever was EVAR, think about all the pressure that comes with that sort of fame.

And think about Jurassic Park.

Maybe the publishing business does have the right idea, that by the time you have something in print, nine time out of ten, the book is good enough to be published.

So what do you think? Do you spend a lot of time researching, or very little? Do you want your first book to shoot straight to the top, limelight be darned? Or would you rather published a few successes, gradually building in popularity?


  1. I usually do my research before I write a book. I learn something random and then I end up using it in a story. That said, I do look stuff up all the time just to make sure I'm getting things right.

    I never saw the end of Jurassic Park. We watched in high school biology class (don't ask; teacher was weird) and the movie was longer than the class was.

    Oh, and Stephenie Meyer HAS written something unrelated to Twilight. It was better, too.

    Great post - I could never write that coherently while being sick! Hope you get better soon...


  2. Has Stephanie Meyer published something after the Twilight saga? I think Dan Brown also wrote some books before the Da Vinci Code got popular, but my obeservation is AFTER their success.

    But then, it could just be the Nyquil telling me this makes perfect sense.

  3. "The Host" was published in between Twilight books 3 and 4, I think.

  4. I love to research, but I have to contain myself or I get carried away, spending far too long on minor details. I have been trying to find an agent for so long that just getting that far and being picked up by a publisher is a dream to me.

  5. I do enjoy researching, but it can sometimes get completely in the way of my writing thanks to the wonders of google street view and wikipedia (...just don't ask... it sometimes feels like I've discovered a whole new level of procrastination..)

    Oooh yes, Meyer did write "The Host" as a break from the Twi-verse. I read it recently out of curiousity. It's nice, not a sparkly vamp in sight. :~)

    I think your Jurassic Park analogy is brilliant, although I find that film far too scary (yes, I am freaked out even after the hundredth veiwing) to really think in depth about the need for them to earn their knowledge... I am usually too preoccupied with the dinosaurs rampaging over the island to consider the overall morality behind it...

    p.s. Although I really hope you get better soon because its never fun being ill, and that you don't get too distracted by your reflection in household appliances, I think I LOVE Elizabeth on Nyquil :D