Monday, February 15, 2010

To Research Or Not To Research, That Is The Question?

I think there is an element in the imagination that reality often tries to kill. Of course, they can coexist, but the imagination is often looking over its shoulder waiting for reality to strike. When I am writing fiction, I am constantly looking over my shoulder, because I will be the first to admit, that I don't do as much initial research as I should.

Although I do not ignore research altogether, that would be a major folly on my part, I have a one track mind. It's either the research or the writing. They compete for my attention. Two battling competitors, one winner, one loser, writing usually wins.

Or maybe it's my imagination that wins, but not for long, because I find myself using place holders where facts or descriptions should be. Even with my zaniest plots, I am reeled in by reality. Take for instance my PB manuscript "What's The Worst You Could Eat?" While writing about boogers was fun, reality came knocking in the form of critiques, and I finally had to question, "Would parents want their children to read a book about eating boogers in this swine flu paranoid society?" A little research could have helped me approach the story from a slightly different angle.

My blogmates have listed ways in which they research or don't research. Many of these techniques are shared by me, so I won't repeat them. But I do want to share what I find to be the most difficult thing for me to research, my setting.

I can vividly describe places that I've been, but when it comes to setting stories in unfamiliar places, I feel sort of lost. I can easily pull up pictures and descriptions of a place with a few taps on my keyboard, but reading about these places, leaves me wanting. If I am to describe a place, I like to have breathed the air and experienced the atmosphere, if you can image what I mean. I feel as if I'm painting a picture with a broken brush. I have to make do, but I can never completely capture the place I'm attempting to recreate.

I have had to change the setting of my vampire novel for this reason. My original setting was going to be in New Orleans, but I had to move it to the Midwest / Chicago since I felt my descriptions were lacking. Now I want to have a scene where one my characters jump off the Sears Tower or John Hancock. Don't worry she can fly, but first I have to find out if it's even possible for a human to breathe up that high? Is the observation deck outside? I don't remember. What's the security like? Okay, okay—I'll have to do some research. I haven't been to either the Sears Tower or Hancock building in a long time, but I figure a trip downtown is more convenient and cheaper than one to New Orleans.

Then it comes to my lack of research before writing this post. If I had researched the Sears Tower before writing this post, I would have remembered it is now called the Willis Tower. I think that's the new name, but don't quote me on that. If you don't know, please do your own research.


  1. I always write first also. I research when I get writer's block and can't move forward until I've sparked something.
    I could see why you initially wanted New Orleans to be the setting of your Vampire novel. It's a very mysterious and historical place. I've been there with friends and we got freaked out at a Voodoo museum. Setting it in Chicago could make it more comtemporary and edgy. Willis Tower (can't get used to that name) now has glass enclosed boxes where you can walk out and look between your feet all the way to the street. Pretty scary, but it's all enclosed, so you couldn't fly out. The Hancock has open balconies though.

  2. No offense to Willis, but I'm afraid it will always be known as the Sears tower.

    Too funny about the boogers and swine flu.

    And, I understand completely where you are coming from regarding needing to experience the location you are writing about. Hmmm...I've only been to Northern Ireland. Looks like a visit to the republic might be in the future...

  3. Yes, it's true about visiting your setting. Even if you're not going to incorporate all the details into your story, you can better "feel" it in your mind as you're writing. Kind of like when you write a whole background for a character and you never use all those details, but it helps you have a really clear picture of who that person is. I admire writers who set their stories in space or in the future when they have no way of really visiting the setting.