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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Workshop Wednesday - Do Your Homework

I love to find Dobie stuff - you don't run across much of it. They're, sadly, not the most popular of breeds. Part of it's the Hollywood stigma. Part of it, well part of it is the fact that when you begin looking at pups, there's a consistent message put out by breeders, rescues, kennel clubs and fan sites: Dobermans are not suitable for the casual, part-time dog owner. They're serious dogs, who need to be taken seriously by their owners. Do Your Homework. The first time around, with Riddick, I was familiar with the breed, knew and loved them, and was ready for the commitment. But I didn't do as much research as I should have. I lucked up with him, but this time around, I'm doing my homework like a good little student. I've learned there's a big difference between American and European Dobermans. Riddick was American; my new little guy is going to be European. More on that later. The long and short of it is: A serious commitment requires serious consideration and research.

I think writing a novel's a pretty serious commitment. It takes months to write. Bleeds us dry. And takes a happy reader hours to read. Research isn't always enjoyable (depends on what you're researching) but it's an important part of the writing process.

For instance, I read a novel by a popular, well-known traditionally published author and I came across a reference to the Trojan War. Unfortunately, the author thought the Trojans had built the Trojan Horse. I might have thought it a slip of the tongue - surely she meant to type "Greeks" and this was a typo. But the reference went on for a full paragraph, and by the end, it was obvious the author had no idea what went on with the Greeks and Trojans. Did this ruin the book? No. But it was a mistake that didn't have to happen.

Another for instance: I once read a novel in which a four-horse trailer was being towed by a sports car. Never mind the lack of towing capacity, the weight of the loaded trailer alone would be no match for the tiny car, and would push the thing through a red light into traffic.

You know you've read a novel in which someone rode a horse at a dead gallop for an hour. The only thing "dead" about that situation would be the horse. Think True Grit. *shudders*

Research is important. Research gives you credibility. When it comes to specialty knowledge, it's impossible to know everything - God knows I'm not ever going to become an MC old lady just so I can have firsthand experience to write about - but there is a wealth of knowledge out there in libraries, computers, and books. Use it to make your writing the best it can possibly be.

My research guidelines:

- Start early. If an idea catches my fancy, I dive into the research, and sometimes, the research steers me toward the story, rather than researching the gaps in an existing story I want to fill in.
- Use a variety of sources. No two sources agree completely, but some ideas will persist across-the-board. Having a broad understanding of the material can help you decide which way you want to spin the facts.
- Don't discount fiction. When writing a supernatural story, most of what you have to go on will be fiction. I always say anyone writing about vampires needs to read Dracula. Which leads to...
- Look for lasting resources, from reputable contributors, rather than pop culture. The more timeless your ideas, the more lasting the work will be.
- Create a glossary of terms for yourself.
- When in doubt, look it up.

Applying it all:

- Avoid fact-dumping on the audience. Deliver specialized information in doses, in an organic, natural way, so that it is a part of the story, and not a textbook excerpt. Readers would rather Google a word than feel like they're in school being taught.
- Show the meaning of a word. When possible, let the scene define the word. The less you have to pause and define something, the better.

For me, research is less about representing true life with one-hundred percent accuracy, and more about giving your stories and spins a solid platform from which to leap. The more knowledge you gain, the more freedom you have to bend that knowledge to your will. (That sounds diabolical!) It is, after all, fiction, and as authors, we have a chance to leave our own indelible stamps on our personal mythologies. You feed the audience just enough raw fact, and they'll buy into the fiction you slip in between.

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