Friday, January 16, 2015
Research: Before or After?
Some best-selling writers prefer to get the story down, with blanks left for things to research: the history of a part of town...types of trees and flowers,,,architectural styles of homes...etc. In an interview, a while back, Stephen King claimed that he filled in the blanks after completing the story. And in his Top 20 Rules for Writers he advises: 'If you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember (the) word back. That's where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.'
It's hard to argue with success. But, even so, other sorts of writers--especially historical novelists--may need to do the research first...and do a lot more of it. For them, the details are more than seasoning to sprinkle through the story...but close to the soul of the feast. Margaret Mitchell took time to learn when the bustle replaced the wide hoop skirt--in 1868. By her own account, she read the files of old newspapers from 1860 to 1878, plus hundreds of old magazines, diaries and letters, while consulting hundreds of books. Interestingly, she claims to have taken very few notes. She retained what she needed in a mind like a steel trap, allowing the facts to suffuse her with a rich feeling for the era.
We'd have had a far different book if she'd dreamily made it all up at her desk, then took time to fill in the blanks.
Does attention to detail like that matter in a mystery or popular novel?
Stephen Saylor's Roma Sub Roma mysteries, set in the time of Sulla, Cicero, Caesar and Cleopatra, feature a detective named Gordianus the Finder. The books are far less densely detailed than the Roman epics of Colleen McCullough, yet readers around the world revere them--not just for the mysteries and the breakneck packing...but for their sense of time and place, conveyed in the just-perfect details.
Inspired by Saylor's method...
Four months ago, when I moved to Seattle, I'd already decided to set most of the next Boss MacTavin mystery here. And in the past four months I've acquired a working sense of Seattle--specifically, the rougher parts that I wanted to make my real focus. So I might have just jumped in and started to write...But I did what I always do, beginning with a journal I proceeded to fill up with questions and notes.
I may end up using 10% of my research. Even so, I won't regard the 90% as a waste. I want the confidence level that comes with knowing 100%. I want the sense of power that comes with carefully selecting. So, here I am spending a couple of months researching things that cross my mind as the book in my head gathers more depth and shape. And every now and then some cool thing I learn will offer the plot line a dazzling new spin.
Back to school now to learn more about:
1) Alternative weapons.
2) Retail theft: by both shoplifters and staff.
3) 3rd and Pike, 'The Scourge of Seattle'.
4) Pioneer Squars
5) Tent cities for the homeless.
6) The ritzier parts of Seattle.
7) Drug use and alcoholism.
8) Racial make-up of Seattle.
9) Income diversity.
Viva, La Digging!