Tag Archives: Research

Walking Inside Your Story

One of the mental problems I’ve been working on this week is what would a stairwell look like if it was flipped upside-down and would you still be able to use it to get between floors. The answer of course varies a bit by design but generally it should work for narrative purposes, though there are some obvious difficulties.

Earlier, in Chapter Two of The Sky Below I had to think about what it would be like to walk through a ceiling with tiles. In my office there’s a decent four or five feet above what I consider the ceiling, and if the room were flipped I’d be running into a lot of the frame or crawling below it.

Several scenes in Surreality take place in real life locations. Part of figuring out how to write the scene involved walking through those spaces, examining viewing angles, timing runs, that sort of thing. While a lot of the spaces in our stories are places we invent wholesale, it can be a refreshing exercise to write something with real world restrictions.

The benefit is that you can actually do some of the things your character will be doing. If several officers are tasked with staging at different levels in a large open area, you can get a sense of what they can see, what objects are in their way, and how quickly they can respond to threats. You can see opportunities for cover, and possible escape routes for your perpetrator. And if you do it right, people who read your work and know the real place will feel like they are really there.

With my upside-down earth a lot of this is visualization, but it starts from the same real world place. Some of the locations in my story I’ve been able to get interior layouts and have actually flipped them to get a sense of how surfaces change. I’d love to make a field trip to Cleveland at some point, but fortunately there are some well documented pictures from a variety of blogs that have been very helpful.

Research can help to inspire new ideas and creative energy that might have been spent creating complex layouts can now be spent on creative solutions to the problems posed by a well-known location. You might occasionally get a few weird looks, and you might not be able to get everywhere you’d like to go, but anything that can add to realism can only benefit story. Specific details drive the readers ability to visualize where they are and what is happening.

Of course if I was really good I would just stand on my head and write. Only trouble is I’d have to convince everyone else to stand on their head as well.

Hmmmm.

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Researching when Writing

You’re never entirely sure what you need to know to write a book.

Even a well defined project like a non-fiction research project will have avenues that arise based on your initial research. Things will strike you that you hadn’t thought about when you first started the project. And this is a really good thing. Writing projects aren’t just about sharing what’s inside you, it’s about learning more about the world around you. Even the things about which you consider yourself an expert have whole areas yet to be exposed.

But sometimes this can get in the way of writing a good chapter.

Writing and researching are two really different sets of skills, or at the very least two different mindsets. Writing likes to flow, to keep going from one word to the next, without stops for an hour to figure out a single word or the correct way to describe something. You can always go back in revision right?

Take the latest section of Surreality revision, which is back in full swing. I went downtown last summer to do some site research, both to map out several of the more critical locales and action sequences, but also to get a good sense of place, and of course tons of pictures. You’d think that with a picture of the thing I’m describing in front of me I’d be all set. But as it turns out I don’t have a knowledge of how to describe different architectural styles coded into my brain automatically.

My method sometimes is just to plow through on what I do know. To muddle out a description that sometimes involves made up words, obfuscation, and educated guessing. This is fine for keeping the story moving when writing. The description is important, but I’ve always been a more plot oriented writer so it’s not something I dwell on except when the details are important to the story.

But this approach can be a bear in revision, particularly when my editor (the Little Red-Haired Girl) comes upon a mangle of sentences in the middle of a scene. Fortunately, we’ve learned that it’s best to edit together, with the book up in Google Docs, so I can give instant feedback on what the hell I was trying to say, and she can ding me for my lack of research.

While the end product is a lot better, it would probably remove a lot of initial frustration if I just wrote [insert description of staircase here] and moved on. Maybe put down a note to do that research later. That way the flow of my draft writing would not be interrupted, and I could come back on a different day to take a deep dive of that particular paragraph.

Because I do like picking apart a single sentence or a string of a couple and making it the best I possibly can. For someone who writes a ridiculous amount of words, I can admire what an economy of them can do, especially if you know the right word.

Funnily or not this is not a problem I have as much with non-fiction work. I think this is because the the focus of a non-fiction project is fairly specific to one topic, and as deep a dive of that topic as possible. Plus, a lot of the research is done up front, with the writing process only happening once you’ve got a pretty good sense of the research. Fiction is one of those animals where you can be plodding along and suddenly bump into a topic you never realized you needed to know something about.

What’s the weirdest thing (or the thing that took you the most time for maybe only a sentence or two of payoff) you’ve had to research for a story?

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