It’s stretching a metaphor to call writers fisherfolk, but in for a penny . . . If you can stick with me here, I’d say we cast our nets through research. What I like best about the research I do for my short stories and novels is that it gives me ideas, it lets me connect my story to reality, and readers respond because the story seems so “real” to them. Even if a bit of background work gives me only a single word, it will be the mot juste. Our net-casting—our research—happens at several levels—trolling for ideas, diving into the facts, and weighing the catch.
Trolling for Ideas – When readers ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” and a writer says “everywhere,” they mean that every news story, magazine article, museum exhibit, and anecdote goes into that great
filing cabinet wastebasket in the brain and comes out, maybe, someday, in some form or another. Very likely, it won’t be identical, it may not even be recognizable, but it will be “inspired by.”
An example: In my novel, Architect of Courage, the protagonist learns a heinous crime was not the fault of the person he blames, and a police detective wisely advises him to let it go. “This will be hard to wrap your mind around. It changes things,” the detective says, adding, “Time and again I see people who can’t give up their theories about who’s to blame for a crime. They hang on for dear life.” This idea came from reading an FBI agent’s blog about the British family of a young woman murdered in Perugia, Italy, a crime for which American Amanda Knox was wrongfully convicted. Despite numerous and lengthy legal proceedings and much evidence exonerating Knox, the dead woman’s parents steadfastly believed in her guilt. The psychology of this case, if not the factual situation, bore directly on my thriller.
Diving into the Facts – Writing page after page and chapter after chapter requires a different, much more focused type of research. Maps, reference books, photo research, the Internet—all keep the writer out of blooper territory. Are there one-way streets in Brussels? Which way do they run? How long does it take to get from the Hotel Sofitel to the American Embassy by cab? What does the hotel neighborhood look like? My architect protagonist is mostly in Manhattan, but he travels to Brussels and Tarifa, Spain, too. I was amused and flattered when a friend contacted me asking for Brussels travel tips. I’ve never been there. The setting just seemed so real to him. (Success!) The facts I uncovered, in turn, led to new ideas and situations that fostered the story’s development.
Weighing the Catch– So, the author has written “The End.” Is it? Probably not. Now that the story is down on paper and the dilemmas of the plot and characters are solved, what more is there to do? It’s time for the big picture. Beta readers help (think “audience research”). In Architect of Courage, I also needed a more specific review of the way police work. Yes, I watch tv, but on the off-chance its depictions of policing aren’t 100% accurate, I sought help. I spent an afternoon with a former NYPD detective and terrorism expert going over every paragraph and every line of dialog that involved law enforcement. “Would a detective say something like this?,” “Is this how it’s done?,” “Does this make sense to you?” Blooper-patrol again, though my questions weren’t just about what do cops do, I was hoping for—and received—insights into how they think.
Your Further Research:
I like Benjamin Sobieck’s The Writer’s Guide to Weapons. It provides “just enough” information.
Need a foreign word? Try the Word Reference website—lots of idioms associated with a word, and online forums with native speakers where you can ask questions. Especially helpful with slang. Many languages.