There was a time, not so long ago, I thought I could write a commercial fiction novel without researching. I was going to rely exclusively on creativity, and my less than stellar memory, to get me through. When NaNoWriMo came along in November, I jumped in with both feet. No outline, no plot, just a laptop, and a dream.
As the month progressed I thought, “Hey this is easy.” Okay, I never thought it was easy and I did feel some guilt that the kids went for a month without a bath. Just kidding. Seriously, it was only two weeks at most. So here’s what I brought to the table: no research, buckets of creativity, lack of reliable recall, no outline, and no plot. Yup. What a hot mess of creative conceit I was. I managed 45,000 strung together words. Dramatic, awe inspiring, earth shattering literary genius. Yeah. Maybe not. Try, flat as a pancake, and as boring as a seminar in advanced astrophysics. (Bazinga! Forgive me, my adorable geeky husband!) But that was then, this is now.
Since that time I’ve had the privilege of attending The Ontario Writer’s Conference, where I soaked up validation from every living soul I spoke to. “Is it okay to call myself a writer? I’m only a freelancer, not a novelist…” I sucked back information like writer’s suck back lattes. And I learned. I ended up in a workshop called, Best Evidence: Digging Up the Facts, facilitated by the amazing Susanna Kearsley. She moved deftly between the art of researching for autobiographies, and researching for historical fiction. Here’s what I learned from her and applied to my commercial fiction, procedural fire-investigation mystery – her ideas, as applied to my novel.
1. If at all possible go to the location your novel is set in. See the architecture, eat the food, talk to the people. if you can’t get there research like crazy. Score phone interviews with people. Look at photos, watch videos. Get a ‘feel’ for the place that’s accurate. Don’t base your novel on some hazy memory of a travel show you watched on TV ten years ago.
2. This is the time to get over being shy.After all, if you do publish your book, unless you’re rich, ain’t nobody but you and your mama going to be publicizing it! Set up interviews, and talk to real live people. If your book is about 12 year old girls, then talk to 12 year old girls. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you remember what it was like to be 12. You had access to the Grolier Encyclopedia set, in the faux maple bookcase, in your living room. These girls have access to Google. Bit of a difference. (Newsflash: If you’re writing for Y/A and you don’t know what awesome sauce means, you have some research ahead of you.)
3. Try to record your interviews with people so you can accurately capture their vernacular in your dialogue. If not, with permission, write down as much as possible. And thank them for their time with a note, or an email. (Thank you Captain Young for introducing me to the jargon, and
expletive laden colourful vernacular of firefighters.) Don’t promise everyone the novel will be dedicated to them, because sooner or later the thing might actually get published, then you’re screwed up the creek.
4. If you’re writing historical stuff you know the drill. Research it to death. Find the true source. Use librarians, town clerks, priests, ministers, and rabbis. Anyone who keeps records. Buy them coffee, buy them lunch, friend them on Facebook. Do what you have to do to get your hands on accurate information.
So I followed this advice, and my characters expanded. My story took shape, to the point I can fall into the world of my own book. (I wish the author would stop blogging and finish it!) A sure sign I’m headed in the right direction.
We’ve come this far, let’s be frank, my novel is beyond awesome sauce, and I can’t wait for you to read it.
In medias res,