Active Story Research: Making It Real by Doing It Real

I was sitting in a coffee shop one night working furiously on a short story for one of the Twisted Tails anthologies (The editor, J, had mentioned that, if I didn’t have the story to him pronto, bad things would start happening to me.) when I felt someone nudge my shoulder. I quickly grabbed my Saint Christopher’s cross to ward off evil editors before turning to see who it was. It wasn’t J.

It was a pimply faced middle aged wide eyed short paunchy balding man wearing the ugliest sweater I’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil your appetite by describing the sweater. He asked if I were Biff Mitchell. I said no, but he just ignored me and waved two crumpled sheets of paper in my face.

“I need you to tell me what’s wrong with this.” He sounded pissed off and disappointed at the same time. I thought for a moment on whether or not I should take the paper out of his hand and shove it up his nose, but I don’t do things like that anymore, so I took the sheets and looked at them.

“There’s something wrong, but I don’t know what it is.” His eyes looked like they were almost ready to burst into tears. “Ashley, my sister, read it and laughed.” I think he called her a fucking bitch, but I’m not going to use that kind of language here. I told him to calm down and I started reading. He moved to the empty chair on the other side of the table as though he was going to sit, but I told not to sit down, that it would ruin my focus. I read the first page.

Surprisingly, the writing wasn’t bad. In fact, it was good enough that I continued reading into the second page. And that’s when I almost started to laugh.

He described the cockpit of a Formula 1 racing car going full out as smooth as a bar of soap sliding across ice. Now, I’m not going to get into a critique of the imagery, but I will take issue with the description itself. I’ve never driven a Formula 1 racer myself, but I once saw a video clip of the inside of one going full out…and it was anything but smooth. In fact, it was bumpy as hell and it seemed to me to be a miracle that any car could hold together under that kind of stress. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve had my Accent up to 100 miles an hour and it was plenty shaky.

His sister obviously saw the same video clip. In his case, a simple search through YouTube might have given him a little more insight, but, obviously, he just used his imagination and figured that a car built for those speeds would probably drive smoothly at those speeds. His research obviously sucked.

Good research is one of the key ingredients in a well-written novel. Lack of it shows, not just in terms of inaccuracies, but in terms of convincing descriptions of settings, procedures, operations, cultures and everyday rituals…just to name a few aspects of convincing fictional world-building.

Sometimes, it’s not enough to scour the web for information, or even to read books. Sometimes you have to get up off your ass and do things. I know this because I’ve done it.

Heavy Load

In my first novel, Heavy Load (a laundromance) I got up off my ass and plopped it down in a laundromat pretty much every evening and a few weekend days for about a month. I took a notebook with me and recorded every sensation I could imagine as I sat on hard plastic chairs, leaned against washers and dryers and strolled around the laundromat examining everything in minute detail. I noticed lint balls in corners, gum under the folding tables, pint bottles of vodka and rum in the trash cans. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of buttons clicking in the dryers, water gushing into the washers. I felt the rumble of machines and noted the smell of detergents and clothes. I watched a woman reach orgasm with her thighs pressed against a washer. I noticed there wasn’t a lot of conversation, even between couples and friends on a night out to restore their wardrobes to wearable condition.

I studied the people in the laundromat, the students, single mothers with kids attached, elderly couples, middle aged career men and women and a strange array of people who, like me, seemed to be there for more than just the suds and duds. Some people actually go to the laundromat to meet people, chill out or just read. There were three people who frequented the place to read books. Never saw any of them show up with laundry. Just books.

I drew maps at the laundromat, recording the movements and paths of my characters as they moved through the fictional laundromat in my novel. I drew on the regulars for minor characters and incidents in the novel. For that month I steeped myself so deeply in that laundromat that I dreamed about it. At work, I could close my eyes and read the signs on the walls and hear the tick tick tick of small buttons in the dryers. I could smell the bleach.

I didn’t use all the material from that month, but it’s like gold mining: you collect a few billion pounds muck and harvest an ounce of gold. If you’re lucky. In the end, I had all the material I needed to make the laundromat in my novel real and I had enough character studies to populate my laundromat with real people.

Active research can take you in new directions, add substance to your writing and give you new ideas.

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For instance, my last novel, The Reality Wars, was set 2000 years in the future and the central action took place in what I initially envisioned as a futuristic triathlon. So, after six weeks of training, and one month after my 58th birthday, I participated in an Olympic level triathlon: 1.5 kilometer swim, 40 kilometer bike ride, 10 kilometer run. I survived, but just barely. Best of all, I finished, but just barely.

There was a particular character I wanted but couldn’t quite see in my mind. I had a vague picture of someone sleek, muscular and blue, with a sleek blue helmet. Or maybe someone dressed in black. But I knew it was someone bad. Evil. Nasty. Someone out to not just beat the protagonist, but out to do her harm. As I trained for the triathlon, I started to get a more complete image of this evil someone. Suddenly, one day when I was being chased around Killarney Lake by the biggest horse fly in the world (did my best running time ever that day), the evil one came to me. She was a woman and she had red eyes. She was running right beside me as I ran from that damned horse fly.

Other things came to me as well. Things like events that might constitute a triathlon 2000 years in the future. In fact, I pretty much scrapped the idea of a triathlon and opted for a series of deadly games played in the real world and in cyberspace.

None of this would have come to me if I hadn’t put myself into the situation I started writing about. I probably would have kept with the idea of a standard swim/bike/run triathlon and not even thought of the much more interesting series of games that were to be called The Reality Wars. And I would never have had one of the novel’s most compelling characters, the beautiful but evil Loac.

Oh…BTW…below is a picture of me finishing the triathlon…alive. Sort of. Proof positive that anyone can be a lunatic.

Tri9

I wrote a novella called Ladies of the Fountain that was published in Twisted Tails VII: Irreverence.

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In the story, three sculpted women holding up a fountain in a park area come to life and spread havoc through a small city after a very lonely man wishes for them to come to life and be his women. The fountain actually exists in Freddie Beach, where the story is set.

One Saturday morning, I walked to the fountain, looked around, made notes and took pictures. Then, I walked down the street, making notes and taking pictures of all the spots where things were going to happen in the novella.

When I started the actual writing, I had my notes (which included descriptions of smells, sounds and impressions) and a few dozen photographs to draw on as I wrote. In effect, I had almost lived the story before writing it.

And now things get a little weird.

murderbycoffee

I plotted a series of murders in coffee shops throughout the downtown core of Freddie Beach. These were for a novella called Boston Jonson in Murder by Coffee.

There were three coffee shops and one coffee house. (There’s a difference. Just ask Molly.) I sat in the exact locations where the victims were found and then in the locations where the witnesses were seated. While I was sitting in the victims’ seats, I closed my eyes and tried to visualize what it would be like to have just been murdered. I tried to visualize what it must have been like for each of the victims in those few seconds before they died, knowing that they were just about to die. I tried to get into their heads in those few seconds after they died, you know, those seconds where the recently deceased’s soul hovers over their former body and wonders, “WTF?”

I put myself in their heads that morning when they were getting ready for work, not knowing that this would be the last time they would ever get ready for work, that this would be their last day on earth. And, of course, I made notes.

Unfortunately, I didn’t use any of this material. All that weirdness for nothing. Well, not completely nothing; everything you do to get into any part of a story you’re about to write puts you just that much closer to the story and to making everything in it real.

Now, the locations where the witnesses sat were much more productive. None of them actually witnessed the murders taking place (or, at least, they weren’t aware of the murders happening) but they saw the victims in their last moments. Some of them saw the victims at other times and were able to give the sleuth, Boston Jonson, information for his investigation. I imagined seeing the victims and how I felt about them. I put myself in their shoes as they were being questioned. I answered the questions, either truthfully or not truthfully. I became the witnesses and, as I did, I came up with ideas about how the murders were committed and who might have been behind them (something I didn’t have a clue about until I was well into the story). And, of course, I made notes.

I know this seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to write a novel. I mean, it’s not exactly the ideal of sitting in a coffee shop with your laptop and spewing out sentence after sentence of brilliant prose, all of it culminating in a novel that will knock the socks off the entire literary world and have movie producers pounding at your door. But, it just might lead you into a few brilliant sentences that’ll knock your own socks off.

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