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Blogs From Exile

Research and Writing: It’s not just the facts after all

I’ve been writing in various genres for some time now, but only recently came to appreciate the link between research and inspiration. Yes, I know; it was probably always there, but I hadn’t really given it much thought until just a few years ago.

Like so many former students, somewhere I got the impression that research merely put me in a position to start working on an idea, instead of helping me generate the idea itself. As a result, I had a definite ‘research’ phase, followed by a ‘brainstorming’ phase, and then the actual ‘writing’ phase. To me, research provided the backup for my non-fiction arguments and the framework for my fiction writing—and that was it.

Just a few years ago I began work on a mystery novel which became my first published book. I wrote that novel as an entry in the St. Martin’s Press “Malice Domestic” competition, and so I already had a few bare-bones requirements stipulated by the competition sponsors. Chief among these was the specification that my sleuth had to be an amateur, which pointed out a real deficiency in my knowledge base. Despite having read almost every book in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series and having watched just about every detective show ever put on TV, I knew next to nothing about the investigations business—amateur or otherwise. So I went and got the most basic primers on the subject and read them, believing that I’d jot down the concrete facts, shut the books, and then start my brainstorming.

Luckily I was wrong. The books I’d selected quickly took me in hand by explaining the things that private investigators do and, more importantly, the things they don’t do. They listed the requirements for being licensed as an investigator (which, depending on the state granting the license, can be extensive) and then described some of the many other skills the job can sometimes require (such as mining data from the Internet and videotaping in the dark). Along with this, my reading revealed that the investigations industry contains many people who aren’t licensed PIs: These secondary actors conduct background checks, create scripts for videotaped evidence presentations, gather pertinent court documents, and perform many other important duties.

Instead of being relegated to my notes, much of this new information helped me create my main character, fact-checker Frank Cole. His supporting role in the investigations business still qualified him as an amateur, and his work as a fact- and background-checker even suggested that he could have come from the computer world. This thought nudged me toward making him a software developer who had fallen on hard times (the book was written in 2004, well before our current economic situation) who then relocated to the small town of Exile, Florida. Not long after that, Murder in Exile took rough shape as an outline—thanks in large part to my new appreciation for the role of research in generating ideas.

My most recent project involves a high-end murder mystery theater troupe, and once again I knew next to nothing about the main topic, which was the theater world. Knowing this, I began my study of this new environment with the most basic books on how to stage amateur theatricals. This time, however, the effect of the research wasn’t restricted to the novel I planned to write. Not surprisingly, given the topic, it began to improve both my writing and my storytelling.

For example, I became modestly familiar with the physical properties of the stage and the ways in which actors direct the audience’s attention toward or away from events happening right in front of them. Although there are too many of these techniques to mention, I was now exposed to the idea of punctuating important spoken lines with some kind of action, or drawing attention to a character by contrasting his or her wardrobe with the nearest costumes and the stage’s background. Working these techniques into my new book, my dialogue passages soon began packing more punch than they had before—and they became much livelier too.

Reading up on how actors prepare for a role, I saw a link between the creation of characters in a novel and their development on the stage. For example, some actors will create a biographical sketch of the role they are playing in much the same way that authors build a character’s back story. This in-depth analysis of a role is highly beneficial, as it can help actors to detect those moments in the script where they are being asked to act or react in a way that doesn’t match their character’s personality. Authors can take advantage of this technique as well, to ensure that they don’t make this mistake—writing something that takes one of their creations ‘out of character’, so to speak.

Having touched on the basics of stage management and character preparation, I then read the memoirs of several Broadway directors and was pleasantly struck by the similarity between directors and authors (many of those directors would disagree with me here). In both cases, the director or the writer provides a vision for how the story is to unfold, interprets the tale, and then selects various ways to tell it. The director is of course working with live people trained in their art, and so there is often a great deal of collaboration in theater. Strangely enough, I’ve encountered a similar relationship with some of my characters—people who exist only on the page who, nonetheless, still argue with me about how I’m portraying them. And like the directors conferring with—and sometimes deferring to—their actors, more often than not I’ll eventually listen to the stubborn character I’ve created who just won’t do what I ask. It’s amazing how many times these non-existent people are right.

It’s been an interesting journey, going from student-trying-to-finish-his-paper-on-time to someone who appreciates the inspiration and direction that can come from basic research. At the very least it’s taught me to slow down enough to notice when some new piece of information holds a potentially useful suggestion for my story—and to understand that there is no such thing as the ‘research’ phase of writing a book. There is only an ongoing effort to learn more about the topic, which may not even end when the project is completed.
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