I have something of a love/hate relationship with the word “research”. On one hand, it can be quite thrilling to pull on the thread of a question into discovery and knowledge. On the other, it can be tedious, frustrating, and downright difficult. Research is a necessary part of writing, though, no matter what you’re writing about. We could go down the road of ethics and research, but I’ll save that for another time. Just suffice it to say, I am not a fan of cherry-picking.
It’s a running joke with some of my writer friends and me to compare the often hilarious and random things we’ve Googled in the name of research. In the age of data mining and internet surveillance, I’m just glad I have written proof of why I look up the things I do…like…data mining and internet surveillance.
Sometimes it’s in the process of pulling the thread that ignites inspiration. An answer to one question leads you to another you weren’t aware of before. And sometimes there isn’t answer readily available. That’s most frustrating when you feel like it’s because you’re not asking the right question. Then there’s the balance of what is worth pulling at, and what’s only serving as a distraction so don’t actually have to write.
I’m working on a project in the realm of post-apocalyptic and I wanted to know how long the power grid would work without someone running it. I don’t know how that process works. Not a bit. How much is automated, how much requires that someone push a button, how often does that button needs to be pushed? I know I could run after the answers, but ultimately, for my story, I just needed an endpoint for the power. Texas has crazy weather, an entire tornado season. Residents are quite used to various power outages. The quiet heroes that rush out to handle repairs after a storm would get their belated appreciation if they were suddenly not around to fix things up again. Problem solved, research rabbit hole averted.
Other things are important enough to get nitty gritty with. For the same story, I’ve looked at how to siphon gas, and learned that most modern cars are incredibly tricky to collect from. But I understand the mechanics of how it would need to be done. I also know the most efficient way to butcher a chicken, if you’re green to animal husbandry and still want a degree of separation from what you’re doing. Yes, it’s still gross.
It’s important to know these things in detail because it lends authenticity to the story. One could argue that most readers wouldn’t know the difference, but I don’t think that gives your readers enough credit. I couldn’t explain half of the things Mark Watney pulls off in The Martian, but it was perfectly clear to me that the author, Andy Weir, knew what he was talking about. Without the research, his novel would easily have fallen flat. Shortcuts and loopholes are not the way to gain the trust of your audience.
What I’m getting at, is while research might not be the most glamorous part of creating, it’s still an irremovable part of good writing. The senses come alive when the details are true. The inner turmoil of battling your domesticity, years of buying fully clean and butchered meats from a refrigerated cooler at an air-conditioned grocery store, to feed your starving belly, to confront the death required for life — well, it doesn’t become real to the reader or the writer until you can smell the animal, hear it’s cry, feel the strain of muscle as a life is swiftly ended. It’s not always pretty, in fact, it rarely is. Life is messy, and good research aids in capturing the raw realness of it.
The magic happens when you can turn the facts and figures into movements and emotions. When you know how to butcher that chicken, but also how the character lives through it. You know the words she whispers over and over to talk herself into it. You know if she cried during the act, if she waited until she was poised to take her first bite of the bounty, or if she displaced the act entirely and never shed a tear.
Even the most apt writers of emotion and conflict have nothing to react to without the details of circumstance. The children of research and the fodder for creation, it’s all in the details.
I’ll end today by saying that I’ve no clue if any of this is interesting to you. It fascinates me. I could talk about all the tiny little bits of writing all the livelong day. So much of what I share here isn’t profound or even far beyond common sense, but I guess, if nothing else, it’s my perspective. It’s what makes me tick. It is a catalog of all the things I found engaging enough to comment on. So there.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find out how a generator runs and what can go wrong with one.