Things I Know (Because I Learned Them the Hard Way) about Research

Research is fractal.  The more you do of it, the more you know you have to do.

Research is essential.  Unless you’re drawing all of your fiction from your own lived experience, you’re going to have to look things up, try things out, go to places in person to see.  And even if you are drawing all of your fiction from your own lived experience, you’ll still need to double-check and make certain that your memories and recorded reality match up.  (The near past is possibly the trickiest of all eras to write in.  Just keeping track of things like when cell phones went from being expensive, bulky, and rare to being cheap, small, and ubiquitous can be a writer’s nightmare.)

Research is impossible.  No matter how thoroughly you research your material, there’s always going to be something that you miss, because the world is very large and you are only one writer trying to finish your book some time before the heat death of the universe.  And no matter how small the thing is that you get wrong, some of the people who read your book are going to care very deeply about it, and at least one of them will write you an angry letter, or flame you in their blog, or give you a bad review on Amazon.  Pretty much the only thing you can do about it is resign yourself to the inevitable, and be gracious when it comes around.

That being said, there are a couple of things you want to try exceedingly hard to get right, because the people who care about them are even more passionate than the other people who will find errors in your stuff.  One of those things is guns, and the other is horses.  Horse people and gun people (who are usually two different sets) are on beyond passionate about their subjects — “fanatical” might be a good word.  Your best bet, if you find yourself committed to a project that’s going to involve a lot of guns or horses or both, is to get yourself a gun expert or a horse expert, as needed, and consult with them frequently during writing and revision.  The good thing about horse people and gun people is that they like to talk about their passion, and are usually happy to play instructor.  (Don’t forget to thank them profusely in your acknowledgements.  That way other horse and gun people will know that at least you tried.  The same goes for any other people who may have been sources of professional expertise.)

And finally, research is distracting.  At some point, no matter how fascinating the trail of breadcrumbs you’ve followed in search of some telling detail, you have to put the books back on the bookshelf and write.,

It Used to be Easy

Plunging a room full of freelance writers into gloom and melancholy, that is.

All you had to do, most days, was whisper the phrase, “health insurance,” and you had them.

Now, thanks to President Obama, the Democrats in Congress, and the Supreme Court, that particular source of dark thoughts in the dead of night is, if not gone, at least mightily shrunken.

If you want to terrorize a room full of freelancers, you’ll have to stick to bringing up the IRS instead.

Down (48K) Memory Lane

If I had to name the one thing that made it possible for me to be a published writer, as opposed to just another scribbler with a stack of notebooks in a desk drawer, I would have to say it was the personal computer/printer/word processing software combination.  Because in order to become published, you first have to submit stuff to publishers, and if you’re going to submit stuff to publishers you have to put it into a format that publishers will read, which back in those days meant a typed manuscript.
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We are What We (Have) Read

Maybe somewhere out there is a writer who wasn’t also a voracious reader from the very earliest basic-reader days (show of hands here:  how many of you got scolded in first or second grade for “reading ahead” in reading group?), but most of us start out as bookworms and stay that way.  Proto-writers have the mental digestive systems of goats, or maybe sharks — if it comes our way, we’ll read it — but  we seem to find some books especially tasty and nourishing.

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, for example.  I know I’m not the only female writer out there who imprinted on Jo March at an early age.  I loved Jo for her temper and for her unwillingness to be humble and “make nice”, and I seethed with rage on her behalf when those qualities lost her the chance to go to Europe with Aunt March.  If I’d lived in a house with a finished attic, I would have gotten myself a thinking cap like Jo’s and worn it when I went upstairs to write.  (Alas, we lived in Florida, and later in Texas, and all that we ever had in our attics was a fan to cool the house.)  I read Little Women multiple times, and then I went on to read all the sequels.

I didn’t just identify with Jo, I wanted to be her when I grew up.

For a young writer, there are far worse role models:  Jo doesn’t just think about writing, she actually writes, and writes a lot, starting out by emulating other writers and moving on to find her own subjects; she shows her work to outside readers, and takes their advice when she finds it good; she submits her material for publication; she doesn’t let rejection stop her for long; and when she achieves success she handles it with grace and good will.

Jo March doesn’t just survive; Jo wins.

(Do young male writers have their own equivalent of Jo March?  I feel sorry for them if they don’t.)

Chicken and Egg

Q: Which is more important, character or plot?
A: Yes.

Or, to put it a bit less obliquely, you can’t really separate the two. Plot, after all, is characters doing things, and one of the ways characters are defined is by what they do and how they do it. I don’t have a grand unified theory of character, but I do have some thoughts on the subject — as what writer does not? — and like most writers who have thoughts, I’m happy to share them.
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