A few years ago, I got tricked on a message board.
Someone posted a question attributed to Edgar Allen Poe asking whether writers need to know their topic. I weighed in that, yes, writers need to do their research or readers will not buy into their stories.
Later, it was pointed out that Poe was out to prove that, no, you don’t need to have intimate experience of something to write about it and promptly described how it would feel to die from hanging – obviously something he hadn’t experienced first-hand.
I didn’t have a reply to that then, but I do now:
The bulls**t parlor game of redefining what "know" means aside, writers better do their research or they’ll be hearing from their readers – if the readers stay around long enough to point out the writer’s failures.
I understand it’s entirely possible to glean information from what I call "popular osmosis." Theoretically, you could write a science fiction story in the Star Trek universe, or a fantasy story in a world derived from Lord of the Rings, and not be a working physicist or anthropologist.
But imagination only gets you so far. Try writing the story of a doomed man walking from one place to another on a deadly-cold night in the Alaska territories. If you haven’t read "To Build a Fire" in a while – or at all – I suggest you get to it. Jack London didn’t freeze to death, but it’s obvious that story couldn’t simply be imagined. London either had to be in Alaska or talked extensively with someone who had.
Good writers do research, and they do it in two ways:
Jack London is one example of someone who took what they learned from their personal experiences and used that in their writing. Hugo Pratt, creator of Corto Maltese is another. He lived in Africa, South America, London, Italy and Switzerland and peppered his stories with images witnessed first-hand.
Recognize that the culture you live in isn’t the only one out there. If there’s something you’re interested in, go and experience it. Like Manga? Travel to Japan. Live in the suburbs? Move to the city for a while. I guarantee your stories will instantly have more depth than they would have if you’d stayed home.
This isn’t just about settings or details, but speaks to human interactions and relationships. The key here is nuance – learning about how different people live and interact is just not something that can be taught or imagined, it’s a life-long pursuit. How many webcomics are set in high school or college? Understand that those are limited societies that may not give you access to the wider range of human experience. There’s a HUGE world out there beyond school.
Not that an extremely talented 16-year-old can’t write a sophisticated story about relationships. Or that someone can’t create a hilarious comic about college life. Hell, William Gibson wrote the science fiction/computer thriller classic "Neuromancer" on a typewriter. At that point, he knew zip about computers, and thought they were powered by crystals.
Feel that lucky, punk? Chances are, you’re not. That shouldn’t stop you from trying of course, but it also shouldn’t stop you from learning if or when you fail.
The writers that fail in this respect are the ones that indulge in stock characters and cliched situations. If what makes your comic set in high school different from the rest is the fact that your main character has orange hair, why should anyone stick around to see what happens?
There’s just no substitute for exploring. I’ve spent years tooling around Chicago, in many different neighborhoods and cultures. I am far from knowing it all but I do have a better knowledge of the city than many. If I don’t know something about Chicago, I’m confident I can find out with minimal effort.
Which brings us to…
Sometimes it’s not enough (or even unworkable!) to use personal experiences to shape a story. Especially if your main character is a serial killer.
That’s when you’ve got to go looking.
For instance, some writers create detailed histories for every one of their characters. I don’t go that far, but I do like to have at least a vague idea of their backgrounds. After all a person’s history shapes their present.
Are they fastidious? A slob? Is your main character an auto mechanic? You don’t necessarily have to know your way around an engine but have you at least watched someone fixing a car? For hours? How did your character become a mechanic – what’s his/her history? What kind of social circle would they be in? What’s their education level, financial situation – how do they live?
It’s a matter of knowing your audience and having the level of detail necessary to maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
And that may not be easy. Remember how I said earlier: "you could write a science fiction story in the Star Trek universe, or fantasy story in a world derived from Lord of the Rings, and not be a working physicist or anthropologist"?
I lied. Sorry.
For a small clue of what you’re in for if you try Science Fiction, here’s an excellent thread discussing technical issues arising in Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary.
Genres demand certain things out of a writer because loyal readers have attained a high level of ‘collective sophistication.’
For mysteries, one thing is an understanding of police and the reach of burocracy. At some point the sophisticated mystery reader is going to ask "why didn’t they call the police"? You can’t avoid it, so you better learn how to weave your tale with them.
So now you’ve traveled the world for 12 years and have the entire run of an encyclopedia spread out before you. That rhythmic thumping is the sound of my head banging against the wall.
You don’t need to overdo this.
It’s not necessary to travel widely to be a writer, but it wouldn’t hurt to get out more. And research may just involve some time surfing the internet or a quick visit to the library.
The effort comes in knowing what questions may arise in a story and where to get them answered. And it’s fun to travel beyond your immediate social sphere to meet people with different experiences.
And that’s an important point: is this really work? All you’re looking to do is have enough information – "know" enough about your subject – to avoid the moment that jolts a reader out of the spell you’re trying to weave. "Know" enough – not necessarily intimately – but enough to be believable and to maintain the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
In order to pull off his parlor trick, Poe had to know that the rope goes around a doomed person’s neck. But is your audience sophisticated enough to know the difference between a hanging done right that snaps the neck bringing a quick death and one done wrong?
- sitting on the floor with a sore neck but being very much alive and having to face the prospect of finding a stronger rope that won’t break and doing it all over again;
- suffering an agonizing death of slow suffocation due to having a strong enough rope but dropping from too low a height to snap the neck instantly or;
- my favorite, dropping from too great a height, with the result of tearing the head completely from the body – decapitation!
The above was learned via a single Google search that took moments. Quick and simple research.
At the very least, be just as sophisticated as the readers you’re trying to reach. But if you want to rise above the legions of fan fiction creators and do original work rather than derivative, you’ve got to do your homework – either by living it or learning it.
Or be hanged.
Tim Borderick is 40 years old, isn’t interested in your bittersweet high school memories and likely did far more interesting things in college than you did. He advises you to grow up and write something good. Here are three authors who did: Dashiell Hammett, Ursula Le Guin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Pick up one of their books and go read them in a part of town you’ve never visited before.