Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?

[October 2005] Let’s talk about research. I know it’s a dirty word referring to a time-consuming task that many writers abhor. As creators of works of fiction, we like to make things up. We aren’t slaves to the dictum “write what you know,” and if we don’t know exactly how something works, what difference does it make? After all, we are lying to readers from word one—why should we be concerned with getting every little detail right?

Stephen King has said that he does just enough research so he can lie convincingly, and in that adverb resides the core of the matter. Our readers know we’re making this stuff up. They’re shelling out their hard-earned cash fully aware that in return we are offering something made out of whole cloth. If they wanted facts and truths, they could read the newspaper (well, maybe) or a work of non-fiction (again, maybe!). They want to be swept away by our fantasies.

So they enter into a contract with us. They willingly suspend their disbelief. For the brief time their heads are filled with our words, they are in our hands. We can manipulate their emotions. We can conjure images that become as vivid in their minds as they were in ours when we set them down on paper. All they ask in return is that we play fair. If we say that World War II ended in 1948, then we better be writing alternate history. If we’re just too lazy to look up the facts, then the fine wires that suspend readers’ bridges of disbelief unravel and snap.

Recent case in point—within hours of the publication of The Colorado Kid, sharp-eyed readers were hammering Stephen King for putting a Starbucks in Colorado in 1980 when the first Seattle coffeehouse didn’t open until 1984. It’s a simple mistake, one I would never have caught in a million years, but it was enough to yank some readers out of the story. Had anyone thought to ask the question during the editing process, it would have been simply answered. In the internet era, this sort of information is at the fingertips of even the least computer savvy writers.

Though the internet can be a great time-waster, it’s also a terrific resource. If I’m in the middle of working on something and I need a specific piece of information—the biographical details of a historical figure, the exact location of a building, the name for the ceremonial dagger used in Wicca rituals—I’ll go online and look it up. The trick is in knowing when you have all you need and to avoid getting sidetracked.

Some writers prefer to plow past such details during the first draft, correcting them on revision. Not me. Interrupting the creative flow isn’t one of my fears. For me, research is an enjoyable part of the creative flow. It’s not crucial that I get everything exactly right in the first draft, but certain details help fuel my writing.

I recently wrote a story that deals with a group of hikers on an unspecified mountain trail. I got to a point where I had to decide whether the locale was going to be fictitious or based in reality. No one would have complained if I’d opted for the former. The exact location isn’t crucial to the story. However, the story came more alive for me after about ten minutes researching hiking trails where people could conceivably be away from civilization for a few days. For no particular reason other than it fit my scenario, I selected the Beartooth Mountains. A Google image search produced several photographs of the environs. I could imagine myself there. I could hear the babbling brooks, smell the particular kinds of vegetation in that area, hear the wildlife, and see the jagged, lunar mountaintops, all details I worked into the story to strengthen the threads suspending that bridge of disbelief.

As a reader, I get an extra level of satisfaction from a story if I encounter something recognizable. I enjoy novels set where I live. I say to myself, “I know that intersection. I’ve been to that donut shop. I’ve been stuck on that freeway.” Nothing annoys me more when the writer has phoned in the research. Dan Brown took a drubbing over his creative depiction of London and Paris in The da Vinci Code. Anyone who has walked around either city knows Brown likely didn’t spent much time there. It’s like movies where the protagonist drives past every famous site while en route from Point A to Point B, even if it means taking a highly improbable serpentine course through the city. Viewers familiar with the setting laugh. Plink! Another thread snaps.

I started writing this essay because of something I did on Saturday, thinking it would form the core of the piece instead of winding up almost an afterthought. That is telling in itself—it’s not important that all the fruits of your research end up in the story; instead, they add color while at the same time getting our minds thinking in new directions. I’m working on a story for a crime anthology, so I applied to go on a police ride-along in downtown Houston. For eight hours, I sat up front with a police officer as he went about his tour of duty, handling everything from moving violations to domestic situations to reports of prostitution. I was a sponge, soaking up details and atmosphere so that when the time comes to write my story I’ll have a greater familiarity with the setting. My view of a police officer’s routine was absurdly tainted by the TV show COPS (thus the title of today’s essay), when the reality is far more mundane and at the same time far richer and deeper. If I had written a story where the cop rushes from one interesting, exciting, nerve-wracking event to another, many readers wouldn’t have batted an eye, but those in the know would have laughed me off the page.

I don’t have a story yet—though Saturday got my mind percolating—but I wasn’t sure I would ever get a story unless I knew more about the daily life of an HPD officer. By no means am I an expert, but I think I know enough now to lie convincingly. It’s not about satisfying the nitpickers, for they will always find something to complain about. It’s about being true to the story and true to the reader, which is what it’s all about, after all.

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