Why writers need to research the past AND the here and now

Runaways postcard PerthYou might be writing something set in the present day, in your home town or city, and feel you have no need of research. But today’s readers are drawn to stories with details and descriptions that feel authentic and that can be visualized – it’s part of the way our culture has become so much more visual. While I’ve written a number of historical novels now, and honed my research skills through trial and error, I’ve also come to realize that even my contemporary stories improve with realistic depictions of places and objects, as well as character experiences.

Over the years, I’ve watched professional ballet classes, had a horse riding lesson, been on an old wooden sailing ship, visited many museums and taken dozens of photographs, as well as travelled to places that have appeared in my stories. Just this week, I had an archery lesson to understand and depict how it feels to use a bow and arrow. All the YouTube videos in the world couldn’t do that for me! and for my verse novel, Runaways, I spent time in Perth and South Australia, taking photos and notes to use in the story.

The internet has made research so much easier, and funnily enough, Wikipedia is even now considered to be a worthwhile starting point! (Except if you are a uni student.) Although most good researchers know to check the references and sources at the bottom of any entry to verify its value.

There are plenty of specialized resources as well. For example, here’s an interview with an FBI agent about gangs and La Cosa Nostra in today’s world: http://www.thebigthrill.org/2012/12/special-to-the-big-thrill-interview-with-fbi-agent-michael-plichta-by-kimberly-howe/

When I was a teenager, I learned an awful lot of British history from reading Mary Renault, Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Catherine Gaskin. I also learned about shipping dynasties and Cornwall mining from Winston Graham. I started reading fantasy based on the Arthurian story when I discovered Mary Stewart, and who wasn’t introduced to dragons via Anne McCaffrey? Of course, my passion for crime writing started early too. I had a teacher at high school who offloaded her old books onto me (thanks forever, Kay) and my early reading included Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain and Raymond Chandler.

These days, we are often expected to read nonfiction if we want “reliable” information, yet I know many fiction writers who research their material just as deeply as nonfiction writers do. William Dietrich (and others) write amazing historical novels about Attilla the Hun.  I’ve  read a “shopping mall” crime novel by Barry Maitland – Silvermeadow. It told me a huge amount about modern shopping centres or malls, how and why they are constructed (leading to demise of the high street shops) and the theory behind them.

Silvermeadow is a fictional shopping centre that could be any huge centre near you. There is quite a bit of information about the Gruen transfer theory, and the following is from Wikipedia:

In shopping mall design, the Gruen transfer refers to the moment when consumers respond to “scripted disorientation” cues in the environment. It is named for Austrian architect Victor Gruen (who disavowed such manipulative techniques) and lately popularized by Douglas Rushkoff.
The consumer’s decision-making consciousness subsides and he or she is more likely to make an impulse purchase because of unconscious influences of lighting, ambient sound and music, spatial choices, visual detail, mirrored and polished surfaces, climate control, and the sequence and order of interior storefronts, etc.
The effect is marked by a slower walking pace and glazed eyes.

Being a crime novel, of course there is a murder and a body found in the rubbish compactor at the back of the centre, but the information in there about how huge shopping centres are designed to be like little cities, with everything planned to lull people into a sense of well-being so that they give in to impulse buying … well, it sure made me think twice about what I do when I go into one! This is the kind of thing that fiction does so well. By creating characters you care about, you also become interested in the information they discover along the way.

As writers, we have to avoid info dumps and shovelling in huge dollops of the factual material we slaved so hard to discover in order to make our stories “real”. But by giving the info through the character, having a character who needs to find out this stuff, it makes the job easier.

(If you found this article useful (it first appeared in my December 12 newsletter), you might like to subscribe and get both the monthly writers’ newsletter and a free ebook – go to the top right and sign up. All email addresses used only for my newsletters, never revealed!)

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