Back from the dead! Deadbeat has been on a hiatus as I finished up some pesky business matters for Lilith. It’s been admittedly tough to balance the work on the film and to be chipping away at new projects.
Over the break I realized that I needed to do some heavy research into a few subjects before I proceeded any further with my writing. As my Paul Pope project deals with both psychic phenomena and police procedurals, I needed to really delve into these subjects to lend an air of authenticity to the happenings.What’s going on in that head? Art by Paul Pope.
A lot of writers often get confused by the notion of research, labeling it as an academic pursuit and demoting it to a quick search-and-browse on Wikipedia. Now I won’t lie, Wikipedia has been a blessing for many writers but it is, in the end, an unverified source, and we need to do more thorough research.
But hey, you may ask, I’m writing a YA novel about teen werewolves and vampires, what kind of research would I possibly need for that? I know too many writers who simply write off the cuff, inserting their own experiences in the place of research. This would be fine if you were a World War II vet penning your personal experiences when you stormed the beach in Normandy, but even then it helps to verify all of your historical accounts.
Research is, in actuality, building up the world of your novel / screenplay in your head so that it always rings truthfully. You may say that there is no truth in a fictitious story about a teen vampire and werewolf, but what research does, and what Stephanie Meyer lacks, is a veracity to her fiction.
By veracity I mean a solid internal logic. If she wants to bend the rules and make vampires sparkle, then there better be a solid, tangible reason for it. Only then will we be able to take that leap of faith and accept it as a normal part of that fictitious world. According to Meyer, vampires in Twilight sparkle because:
"Their bodies have hardened, frozen into a kind of living stone. Each little cell in their skin has become a separate facet that reflects the light. These facets have a prism-like quality–they throw rainbows as they glitter."
Oh brother. This opens up a can of worms. Why have the bodies hardened? Is ‘living stone’ even possible? How does that work? She needs to do more research if she wants to make this phenomena possible and believable.
The best works of literature work because they have a palpable, explainable internal logic. Rules may be created for that logic, but it has to work. And in order to make sure it all works, research has to be conducted. Meyer needs to come up with a biological explanation for living stone, and while she doesn’t have to put a biological essay in her book, she needs to be able to explain it convincingly in the face of the norm, which is that vampires aren’t supposed to go out in the sun period. The fact that she hasn’t given it a palpable logic renders the idea as comical, and we end up with a goofy, laughable idea of sparkly vampires.
If penning a vampire novel, start your research by reading the bible of the genre, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. All the rules of the genre are laid out in that book, clean and simple. And it’s a great read. Next, graduate to Anne Rice. Get the foundations of the genre and register the Laws of Vampirism in your research ledger. Now compare these rules to the guidelines you have set forth in your own work. Make sure all your bases are covered, and if they are not, come up with a set of logical explanations to your phenomena that a reader can relate to. You won’t have to put this into your writing, but when you write, you will subconsciously register these phenomena as true, and not spontaneous inexplicable miracles.
Research is for your benefit, to bring you closer to your material and to relate to it on an intellectual and intimate level. And research can extend beyond simple book searches. If you are writing about a road trip across South Dakota, if you have the time and inclination, then drive across South Dakota. Take photos, jot in a journal what you see, document people you meet, record sounds of the environment, and develop in your head what South Dakota means to you. When you return home, research about the things you’ve seen and experienced. Find out what kind of trees are in the photos, and find out what kind of birds live in those trees. Study the weather and climate. Let South Dakota become a very real place in your head, a natural extension of yourself, and then write about it as you would write about yourself. You will find that the descriptions will be vivid, exploding with truth and conviction, because you’ve lived it and seen it.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota.
You will also find that research gives you the seeds for new ideas, as it will provide you cornerstones of truth to build upon. It’s a danger to write about things we have little to no experience in. We needn’t be directly experienced with the subject matter - J.K. Rowling has no experience with wizards, but she was a teacher and she has children, and that was plenty to provide the roots for her fantasy fable. The locales and people in her stories are all based on people and places she’s been to in her life, which is why there is a distinct familiarity and connection between the material and the experiences of the reader.
When we write, or more so when we create art, we have one singular goal, which is to find the truth in our work. This may seem odd to apply to a work of complete fiction, but there are basic emotions and events that connect to the deeper parts of our souls, and it is up to the writer to find that connection and make sure it rings true. Research, in its myriad of forms, is the best way to do that. It may entail months of reading books in the library or may even be a few hours observing the behaviours of your cat, but it is essential to make your writing believable to the reader. The beauty of good writing is in its details, written simply, but with a considerate eye. Writing is, at its core, the recording of observation, and our observations are nothing more than research.