The Trouble with Reality: Research Required

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Friends and family I haven’t seen for a while often ask the same question when we get together: “How’s the writing going?”

I love it — both that they think of me as a writer and that they care how my (thus far non-paying) career is progressing. But at the same time I feel like my answer is a let down: “The draft’s in the same shape it was in August. Haven’t touched it since then. Baby and all.” So I usually say instead, “It’s so close. Just needs another polishing draft and I can send it off to agents.” And I leave off the fact that that hasn’t changed since Baby #3 was born.

What exactly does a polishing draft mean? How close am I really? Well, every now and then when I find enough time to even open my writing files on my computer and dive back into them, I discover the overwhelming truth of it: there’s a lot to polish.

Now that we’re back from California, it’s dawning on me that I should have made some effort to do live research while we were there. Home for only five days, I’m smacking my forehead on the kitchen table (i.e. “desk”) for not — at the very least — visiting Hollywood Boulevard, where a major turning point happens in my novel. I haven’t been there since a high school choir trip, and I definitely wasn’t looking for the same details then.

Details are what a “polishing” draft boils down to for me.

When I first write a story, it’s a free-flow sort of experience, just letting my imagination pull ideas together without terribly many restrictions. For the road trip in my novel, I glanced at a map now and then to be sure they were headed in the right direction, but I didn’t bother with specifics.

That’s what I’m having to fix now. Even with the internet (and how did anyone research before that, holy cow?!), it’s tedious to find and fix what I need to know. I have Google Earth open in one window (so I can take street-level virtual tours), Google Maps in another (for the “big picture”), photo-search results and specific addresses tossed into a junk-drawer–like document, the manuscript in another window to see what I need to look up, etc, etc.  

It’s enough to make me want to write strict fantasy, where I can totally make everything up.

Except that — even in fantasy — I sincerely appreciate a well-researched novel. I’m thinking of how Juliet Marillier visited Transylvania to capture the setting right for Wildwood Dancing. And then I could be doing something much harder, like *gasp* historical fiction. I heard Sara Gruen spent three years traveling around researching the old circus trains to write Water for Elephants.

But for mildly fantastic contemporary fiction, here’s one example of how reality, once researched, can mess with my story.

In the Hollywood Boulevard scene, they park along the street, separate to find the celebrity stars they want to see, and then something happens at a particular star that sends them running to that spot. Well, now that I’ve actually looked into it, I’ve found out a few things, like that the stars my characters go to find are at opposite ends of the Walk of Fame, and that the star where the pivotal moment happens doesn’t have street parking next to it.

Minor details, in a way, but now that I’ve literally mapped out the scene, I can polish it by making it more real: judging when each character would make it from where they were to where they’re going, figuring out how they’ll get back to the car since the street parking is at least a few blocks away, adding descriptions of the shops around them to give readers a clearer mental image (now that I have a clearer image), and throwing in one or two relevant bits of trivia, like when one of my characters asks where Alfred Hitchcock’s star is, the character Googling the addresses can ask, “Which one? He’s got two: film and TV.”

Okay, actually, that doesn’t sound like so many changes. I can totally do this! A little research goes a long way! Don’t stop believin’! All of that!

That took one day of research to map out the scene. It’ll be at least another day to implement the changes. And only several dozen more scenes to go. (Other recent research questions: How does a torn wing affect a butterfly’s flight? What’s the layout of the parking lot at Wilson High School in Portland, OR? What style of house would my main character likely have in southwest Portland?)

At least it’s a start.

And if I’m being honest, researching is kind of fun. Especially thanks to Google Earth.

Even more fun will be to actually travel the route my characters take and add the fun sensory details of sounds and smells that Google Earth can’t give me, but I’ll save that for once the manuscript actually sells and my baby’s a little older.

What do you think of research? Tedious? Fun? Painful? How much do you notice or appreciate research that’s gone into a novel to make it feel more real?

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10 responses »

  1. A lot of my current WIP takes place in a tropical rain forest. There’s not a lot of tropical anything in Utah, but Hawaii on the other hand has the mother load. Yup, disappearing into the rain forest is on my immediate to do list. :)And yes, I plan to have fun doing it. 🙂

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  2. Love this! I think those details will add a lot to your scenes and the book as a whole – and I have agree that it does take awhile. I’m doing that right now for my own draft, and it’s Science fiction, and there is still so much consistency issues I have to work with.

    Let me know if you ever want to road trip your route!

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    • Thanks! Yes, I’m definitely planning to do it. Same season of the year would be best, so I’m hoping for next June if the timing works out. This June would be better except that the baby makes road tripping tough. Good luck with the sci-fi details!

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  3. I can help with any photo references you need in Portland! It’s only a ten minute drive from my apartment to Wilson High School. Email me anything you’re interested in and I’ll do my best for you, I like excuses to get out my camera. 🙂

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  4. Pingback: Blocking a Novel Like a Stage « All About the Words

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