Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Writing Research

In this installment of The Lough Down, we'll tackle a problem that has confused and distracted writers since, well, since the dawn of writing...research:

Q: Loree, please help me! How much research is sufficient in preparing to write a novel? I mean, if one of my characters is Chinese, do I need to visit Moscow?

A: Well, gee. Of course you don't have to go to Singapore just cuz a guy in your book is a former citizen. There are dozens of ways to research for accurate details without going straight to the Asian's mouth:

Surely someone you know knows somebody who's from Asia. Set up a lunch date with that person and enjoy some lively, one-on-one discussions about the homeland.

Visit your local library and/or bookstore, and read everything you can get your hands on about Asia, its history, climate, customs, etc.

Call a nearby college or university to set up an interview with a professor of Asian language or history.

Did someone you know visit Asia lately? Ask them to share photographs, memories, maps, etc., of the trip. Find out what s/he liked and disliked about the place...and why.

Rent some videotapes. Visit a travel agency. Get online and find out about the country's folklore, lullabyes, clothing styles, food. Experience the culture and the people any way you can. And if you can afford it, by all means, book passage on a Asian-bound 747 (keeping in mind, of course, that I'm handy with a travel iron, should you need a valet...).

And when you have a tidy stack of information available to you, sprinkle some of those facts and details into your story!

One thing you do NOT want to do: Put everything you learned into the story.

I know a writer who did a ton of research for a novel. I'd have to guess after several years, there was a couple hundred pounds of paper in her office, all related to South America. Trouble was, she felt obliged to show off all she'd learned about the continent by inserting every shred of the stuff into her story. So much so that the characters stopped talking like real people and started sounding like history professors. BORING history professors. The plot slowed to a plodding, hum-drum pace. (I remember one scene in which her characters were walking through a museum, listening to the drone of an overhead speaker; "much-needed" information wafted down to her readers appearing in italics....)

Would you be surprised to learn that, although she 'shopped the book around' to dozens of agents and at least as many publishing companies, she didn't sell the story...and ended up shelling out $30,000 of her husband's hard-earned money to have it self-published? Would you be shocked to know that she can't give copies away fast enough, and that of the 2,500 books delivered to her garage five years ago, nearly 2,000 still sit in their original packing cartons in her basement? (Her husband, sons and daughters-in-law claim to love the book...when she's within earshot. But I've been present on many occasions when she isn't near enough to overhear what people say about "that so-called novel". All I can say is, God bless her friends and family [myself included] for protecting her from the ugly truth!)

Research is like makeup: Too much and you just look silly; too little, and you look, well, flat. And it's a little like medicine: "If one pill works in 20 minutes, FOUR will work way faster and better...." The end result of nonsense like that get sicker. You might even die!

The bottom line is simple: When we over-do research, we end up with dreary, meandering plots that, even when self-published, disappoint and/or bore our readers. (And remember, our first readers are agents and editors!)

So exercise extreme caution when positioning research...or prepare to wonder what unspoken thoughts lie between the parantheses when your friends and family say, "Great story (that reads like a high school history book)!" or "I couldn't put it down (fast enough)!" or "I had to wait my turn to read it (thank God!)."

Now, off with you, and may your own writing be 'research perfect'!