R. LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORY-TELLING:
WAT R WERDS?
Lesson 4. You Can Research Anything!
(Just Open An Incognito Window First)
Good morning and welcome back to the Writer’s Workshop! I’d like to begin today’s lesson with a story. When I was sixteen—
Is that a phone, Caroline? In your hand. The other hand. Now your other hand…okay, you know what? I’m not doing this today. Out. Out of my classroom. Go on. Yes, I mean it, go.
When I was sixteen years old, I wrote the typical teenaged book about a genetically-advanced supersoldier. You know the drill—hinky top-secret human experimentation, abused children transformed into killing machines by mad science, random incident leads to all but one being killed and that one escaping into the world, where she is then tracked down by a mercenary assassin on the government’s payroll, who then falls for her, and blah blah blah, guns, explosions, gore, sex and twist ending. It was the first of my stories I allowed my parents to read, leading to a frank and insanely awkward discussion between me and my father on the matter of sex (I had no experience and, boy, did it show. He had advice. I wanted to melt through the floor and die. Little did I know that years later, he would be reading a blowjob scene I wrote aloud to a roomful of betas. Life is funny). It also gave my mother nightmares for years, a fact of which I am inordinately proud.
Anyway, in the course of this book, I had to conduct an autopsy on one of the dead subjects. This was a long time ago, before you could just search for an autopsy on YouTube (our family didn’t even have internet service back then) or watch shows like Dr. G: Medical Examiner. So after checking out a few unsatisfactory books on forensic science from the public library, I did what any sixteen-year-old author would do: the next time I happened to be at the hospital (my family fostered several special needs children, so this was a fairly regular occurrence), I asked who did their autopsies. I can’t say the doctor did it without batting an eye, but he did give me a name and a phone number. To protect his identity, we’ll call him Dr. Death. Later that week, I called him up, told him who I was and explained the broad strokes of the situation, then asked him what an autopsy was like.
We talked about an hour that first time. I had never attempted to interview anyone before and, looking back, I don’t think he’d even given one before, but the two of us blundered through some questions and answers until I felt comfortable writing my scene. He gave me his direct number in case I had further questions and I gave him mine, mostly to be polite. Flash-forward about a week, and my mother hollers down the stairs, telling me Dr. Death is on the line asking for me. He’s got a body on the slab and wants to know if I’d like to hear an autopsy as it is performed. Well, hell yeah, I would! So he puts the call on speaker on his end and I sit down at the computer on my end, and I type as he talks. In-between cuts n’ such, he gets to chatting over the corpse, as one does in this situation. I remember laughing quite a lot. He asked about the book and we discussed science-fiction in general and cloning in particular. It was a great autopsy. For me, anyway.
Flash-forward even further, and I get another call in the middle of the night. Now I’ve been a night-owl all my life, so I happened to still be awake and close to the phone, but everyone else in the house was sound asleep. It’s Dr. Death again, first apologizing for the hour, and then inviting me to view an autopsy. It’s apparently his turn to break in the new med students or something, and he says if I can be there in an hour, he’ll sneak me in and throw a lab coat on me if I want to see one first-hand. With deep regret, I decline, saying I don’t have a car or even a driver’s license.
Next day, I tell the story over dinner, and both my parents damn near drop their forks. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” they exclaim in unison. “I want to see an autopsy!”
Ours is a…special family.
Anyway, I tell you this story for two reasons. First, because I think it says a lot about me that this is sincerely one of the great regrets in my life, that I never woke my parents up to drive me to a morgue in the middle of the night to watch a dead guy get cut up when I was sixteen (and may also be one of their regrets as well; my mother sure never let me live it down). Secondly, because it nicely illustrates the subject of today’s lesson. Sooner or later, every author has to struggle with the question of how far to go when researching their books, and the answer is, you can’t go far enough.
At the beginning of this series, I brought up the old adage about writing what you know, and while I stand by my assertion that no one should feel bound to write only about those subjects of which you have firsthand experience, I do think we, as writers and especially as writers of fiction, have a responsibility to learn everything we can about those subjects we’re writing about. The distinction is subtle, but significant.
When it comes to research, I think most authors fall into one of two categories: those who have to be forced into it and those who become so fascinated by the research that they forget to write the book. I fall into that second category so hard, they named the crater at the bottom after me. I binge-watch documentaries like most people do Game of Thrones. I plan my vacations around museums, not theme parks. I’m that person you heard in the back of the theater when you went to see Catch Me If You Can, Argo, or The Conjuring, saying, “Yeah, but that’s not what happened…” I research, is what I’m saying, and in my opinion, nothing beats first-hand investigation.
Case in point: The book I’m writing now is set in southern Utah, so back when I was still in the notes-phase of writing, I hopped in the car and drove to southern Utah. The town itself is made up and frequent mention is made of the town’s unusual topography and climate, so I didn’t feel a pressing need to clone an existing area, but I did feel and still feel that a basic familiarity with the general setting was in order. I know what trees would be growing in my character’s yard and what the view from her attic window would be. I know how the air smells and the way the mountains roll along the edge of the desert, with little green pockets full of people between vast stretches of burnt-red nothing and skies so broad and blue, they hurt the eyes. And while I understand not everyone has the option of taking a road trip every time they write a book, we are fortunate enough to live in the Information Age, with an infinite number of destinations waiting to be explored literally at our fingertips.
Never underestimate the value of desktop research. I could have seen those mountains on Google Earth. I could have walked through those trees at a national forestry service database. Because an accurate timeline was necessary, I made sure to have a calendar for the year in question, making notations of all my character’s major movements, as well as the actual sunset times for that location and date. I check through the recorded weather in the area so I know whether a heavy storm is, “the usual mid-March typhoon,” or whether a heat wave is, “infernal, even for July” and I can do it all without ever leaving the office.
Having said all that, the internet is a fickle bitch and computers, even ficklier. Servers go down, hard drives don’t get backed up as often as they should, and sometimes the power goes out. So, and I realize I’m falling into my Luddite habits here, but if there’s a subject that really interests you or that you know you’re going to use on more than one book, you should really consider a more permanent, tangible reference. Yes, I mean books.
I know, I know. Print is dead, they say. They say there’s no reason to have more than one bookcase in your house and you should never keep any book you have not read in the last year. They say paper is unhygienic. You know what I say? I say buy books. And when you run out of shelves to put them on, buy more shelves. And then buy more books. And when your friends call you a hoarder, you will have lots and lots of heavy books to hit them with. Use their bones to make more shelves. You do not need friends like that in your life. You don’t need friends at all when you have books.
Seriously, though, the internet is a wonderful tool for research, but that doesn’t always make it the right one. If it’s something you need to know for this line of dialogue or that description, it’s quicker to look it up online, get what you need and get on with your book. Heck, easy access to information, that’s what the internet was made for, but if it’s a subject you know you’re going to come back to time and time and time again, having to sort through the haystack for that one shiny needle you only sort of remember (no, no, that’s not it…it had a blue banner…or was that the funguphilia website?), dealing with ads, clickbait, broken links and the ever-present threat of malware, may not be worth it.
But isn’t it more of a hassle to look things up in an analog format? God, you’ve got to get up and walk all the way over to the bookshelf, find the right book, then find the right page, and then actually sit and read, and meanwhile, there’s paper cuts and, I don’t know, bookworms? Where’s the advantage here?
Okay, first of all, bookworms? Really? What’s so scary about that?
And secondly, just because there’s a lot of websites doesn’t mean there’s a lot of useful and/or applicable information. There are many, many, oh so many websites out there that discuss the middle ages, for example, but although some of them contain jewels of information that are not present in any of the reference books on my shelves, the vast majority merely parrot the same information as can be found on every other site, in a medium that is, let’s face it, tailored toward an audience with a short attention span. A website with more than ten pages is considered in-depth, and a page may only contain a few paragraphs and pictures, with links to other sites that do little better. Yeah, okay, a book doesn’t come with a search feature, but come on! We like to read, don’t we? If not, why the hell are we writing?
“But R. Lee!” you say. “That’s all well and good if you’re writing a book in a contemporary earth-bound setting, but what of us poor slobs who write sci-fi or fantasy? How do you research something that doesn’t exist?”
Well, look, even in a sci-fi setting, physics are still a thing, or at least, they should be. I am not a hard-science sci-fi writer. Far from it. But even I make a stab at realism when the situation requires it. When I wrote The Last Hour of Gann, for example, I saw that world as having a green sky (uh, spoiler? Maybe? Gann has a green sky), but I still made myself stop and research what affects a sky’s color. Not why is the sky blue, mind you, but what could make an alien world have a green sky and still have an atmosphere breathable by humans. I also did a lot of research on the various biomes that my characters would pass through over the course of the book. True, it is an alien world, but that world still has weather patterns and animals and plants and geography, all of which combine to form a realistic (I hope) environment. It should feel alien to the reader, who is, I presume, a human, but it should also feel natural.
And if I could direct your attention back just a hair, note that I said, “when the situation requires it.” Sometimes, it just doesn’t. In Land of the Beautiful Dead, I never really tried to explain the physiology that allows the dead to move around (uh, spoilers again?), let alone talk, think and teach grammar. It just isn’t important, in my opinion. Azrael exists well beyond the boundaries of Normal and whatever power he possesses to animate and imbue the dead with his will, it is equally beyond the scope of human understanding. Not important. As I’ve said elsewhere, you should only use science to explain stuff in your book if it can be explained by science. If it can’t, don’t.
One more thing before I let you go, and it is perhaps the most important point of all. I firmly believe that an author should know everything there is to know about his or her characters, their world, and all the fine details of whatever it is that happens to be going on in any given scene, but that does not mean the reader should be treated to a point-by-point breakdown of the action. I’ve been called out in the past for, and I’m quoting here, ‘nattering on about little details that interest no one but the author’. That was, I believe, in reference to the extensive ‘tanning scene’ in The Wizard and the Woods. Apparently the reader didn’t feel I needed to go to quite so much depth of detail in describing how to prepare and brain-cure a hide, which didn’t exactly stop me from doing it again in The Last Hour of Gann, but it is worth a warning. Is this information vital to the scene, the character, and the story? Or is it just a fascinating nugget of information you happen to be really interested in?
When in doubt, recuse yourself and put the decision in the hands of your betas (notice that’s plural). If the majority vote in favor of the scene, keep it in good conscience, but honestly, if any of them vote against it, go over that scene with an absolutely brutal editing eye. If your betas skim through a scene, so will your other readers.
But I might be getting ahead of myself now, so let’s just end the lecture here. Tune in next Wednesday, for Lesson 5, The Writer’s Work Ethic!