On Research

Writing is make-believe, plucking characters and settings from your head and dropping them onto the paper like Rorschach blots, hoping the reader will see a coherent image. But if you want to write something convincing, your story has to be rooted in reality. And if it’s a reality you know nothing about, there’s only one thing to do about it—research.

Oh, hey. I’ve got this, you say. Pull up Wikipedia, copy and paste, and voila.

Not. So. Fast.

The internet is a wonderful thing and it makes research easy, but according to Merriam Webster, the definition of research is: careful study that is done to find and report new knowledge about something.

Careful study.

That implies a little more than copy and paste, doesn’t it?

This isn’t to say that you can’t use the net, but you have to be willing to dig deeper than the first link you find, to pick through the mounds of information and find the good stuff, the right stuff.

(Did you know that the first seven astronauts did their survival training in the Nevada desert? Before I wrote this post, I didn’t. Thanks to some research, I now know that those seven astronauts were left for four days with a spacecraft mockup, a parachute, and a survival scenario. Pretty cool, eh? And yes, I got that information from the net; however, I’m pretty confident I can trust www.nasa.gov.)

If you want to write a story about a cellist and you know nothing more than the music the instrument makes is so beautiful it makes you cry, you better do research because you can bet that at least one person who might read that story will know more and will spot your errors a mile away. That isn’t to say you need to root everything in truth. Maybe your cello is a space cello with magical wormhole properties. In that case, you have a little more leeway, but still, you can research how instruments are played in space and wormhole theory. At least I hope you would.

But research isn’t just to make that one reader smile and nod and say yes, this author got it right. If you’re writing a story about a cello, why wouldn’t you do research? Why wouldn’t you want to know the lowest note a cello can play? (Two octaves below middle C.) Why wouldn’t you want to know that when Yo-Yo Ma plays, his instruments of choice are a 1733 Montagnana cello from Venice and a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius? Even if you’re not a fan of the cello, you have to admit that a musician using a 300-year old instrument is pretty damn interesting.

You might spend days researching, slipping from one rabbit hole to another, picking up bits and pieces of information along the way. And maybe you won’t use those things in your story. Maybe you won’t even finish your story.

That isn’t the point.

Better to do the research and not need it than leave your story full of holes you should’ve filled. You owe it to yourself; you owe it to your readers; you owe it to your story.

What Drives Your Fiction?

“The rest of it – and perhaps the best of it – is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

Stephen King, On Writing


What’s the primary vehicle behind your words?

A sports car, all angry growls and bright headlights screaming in the night?

A sleek roadster, all curves and purrs cruising languid on a Sunday afternoon?

A cozy sedan with air bags, a sunroof, and the best safety ratings in the country?

A tired old junker, barely holding itself together, let alone its own on the road?

There’s a certain headspace writers slip into when creating words and worlds, but there’s another space, a deeper one, that guides the path of those words–the emotional space. Let’s call it the hurt engine.

Some people thrive creatively when their hurt engine is fueled with anger, others work best with a stream of sorrow or happiness, and some can write no matter what emotions are flowing in the real.

Of the five novels I’ve written in as many years, the earliest two were penned when my hurt engine lived up to the name and was, in truth, running on overdrive. The words flowed and the stories poured out, like the perfect mix of gasoline and air through a carburetor. I wrote the first draft of the first novel in forty days and two weeks later started the second. Thirty days later, that first draft was done, too.

Unfortunately, both novels needed heavy-duty edits/rewrites because while the words were driven by hurt, they were twisted by it too. Had I perhaps edited the first novel before penning the second, I might have realized what I’d done wrong. Live and learn, right?

Imagine my surprise when I started the next novel and the words didn’t have the same flow. It didn’t take long to figure out why. My hurt engine was running on a different fuel. I won’t lie, I missed the rush. Instead of zipping along at 95, I was stuck on 50. But I finished the novel nonetheless. The story is cleaner, but I’m a pantser, not a plotter, so my first drafts always have a bit of rust on their edges. My motto is “first draft is for story, second draft is for pretty.”

Sometimes the hurt engine doesn’t affect productivity, but it changes the flavor of the prose. I can tell what was fueling my hurt engine in my fiction by the word choices I make, by the staccato rhythm or the lyrical quality of the sentences.

I’ve since learned that I can trick the hurt engine when needed. I’ve written a story that required a certain taste of sorrow, and even though I wasn’t feeling sad at that moment, I pulled the necessary fuel from a memory and poured that into the story instead.

I’ve also learned how to set things on literary cruise control by swallowing the emotional fuel. The hurt engine becomes a quiet place of numbness. And yes, I can tell what stories I’ve written in that place, too.

Last year I wrote the most deeply personal short story I’ve ever written. I had to dig deep into a place I don’t like for the fuel, but the story is probably my strongest work ever. It sold quickly and well, but no, I’m not going to tell you which story it is.

The only stone in my tire is anger. I can’t write when I’m angry. At all. Sure, I can fire off an expletive-filled email, no problem, but fiction? Impossible. Fortunately, my anger burns bright and hot and then fades. I might still be angry, but the rage fuel tank is empty. And then I get back to work.

So what about you? What fuels your hurt engine? Do you escape your emotions when you write or do you let the emotions paint your words? Do you get blocked when you’re not in the thick of your preferred emotional space?

Try changing your fuel and let’s go for a drive.


Lines in the Genre Sand

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are playmates in the genre sandbox, but there are clear lines that divide and define the genres, right? Spaceships=Science fiction. Magic=Fantasy. Ghosts=Horror.

How would you define Ray Bradbury? Was he a science fiction writer? A horror writer? Many of his stories blur the genre lines. There Will Come Soft Rains is the story of an automated house going about its usual tasks of cooking and cleaning. After a time, it becomes clear that humankind has been destroyed by nuclear war. At face value, it’s science fiction. Except for the burned-out images of the family on the side of the house; except for the dog that returns to the house to die; except for the house itself unable to prevent its own destruction when fire breaks out.

The story has always felt like horror to me. Science fiction flavored horror, sure. Much like the movie Alien which is basically a haunted house story, with a xenomorph and a ship instead of a ghost and rotting rafters.

I think writers often limit themselves genre-wise. They define themselves (or are defined) with a genre label and then write only things that will fit within that box. Maybe you’ve written ten science fiction stories and call yourself a science fiction writer, but what happens when you have a great idea about a magician? Are you going to decide not to write it because it isn’t science fiction? If you choose that path, I ask why?

Sometimes exploring another genre will open you up to new storytelling methods or new ways to twist the familiar into something else. And you don’t have to follow clear cut genre definitions; the Genre Police will not come and slap on the cuffs if you add a pinch of magic to your horror or a bit of horror in your science fiction.

If you feel your career will be best served by keeping your published work in the same genre, you are still not bound by a set of invisible rules when it comes to writing. Sometimes you just need to write for yourself. Warm up the word machine with tidbits of an epic fantasy or science fiction or horror. Indulge in a literary vignette.

If Stephen King had decided to write only horror, there would be no The Shawshank Redemption, no The Body (filmed as Stand by Me). If Justin Cronin had decided to remain a literary writer, there would be no The Passage. Same with Colson Whitehead and Zone One.

Write the stories that are in you. Let other people decide the genre.


A final caveat: My debut novel, Ink, was released last year from Samhain Horror, but if you ask me if I’m a horror writer, I’ll probably answer, “I’m not sure.” Most of what I write is dark, but is it all horror? I’m content to let others decide.

Writing When You’re Broken

There would be a post here, but life got in the way.

Seriously, though, life sometimes does get in the way. Vacations, family responsibilities, illnesses, day jobs. But what about the days when you have several hours free and you sit at the computer, staring at the screen, willing the words to come?

What about when you get in the way?

I’m not talking about the distractions of social media. Everyone knows they can shut off their net connection if they have no willpower otherwise, right? I’m also not talking about writer’s block, at least not in the way you think.

What if the illness is a big one? What if the day job is suddenly gone, along with the paycheck and the health insurance? What if your partner or spouse just packed his or her bags and took a permanent vacation away from you?

How do you find the mental will to write when your brain is slowly crumbling from the stress and chaos?

The first choice is the easy one. Don’t write. Step away from the computer completely or limit your use to Twitter and Facebook. Maybe you have that luxury. Maybe writing is just a hobby.

But what if you have a deadline waiting and not writing is not an option? What if the bats in your belfry are not just lingering but swarming in a chaos of ammonia and fluttering wings?

Use your stress.

Yes, gather up those bats and channel them into your writing. Feed your words with anger, with sorrow, with hurt. Do terrible things to characters, give them the life you wish you had at the moment, or give them the life you fear most. Write dialogue that says all the things you wish you could.

Your writing may very well end up with a different, stronger, resonance. You may be able to see things from a different point of view. Strong emotions don’t have to work against you. They can be the incendiary fuel for your phoenix of words instead of immolation.

But maybe you can’t. Maybe what you feel is too big, too much. So escape from your stress. Disappear into your fiction. Use it as the buffer from the chaos. Maybe things outside the word cave are terrible but inside, you are the master. If you wallow too much in your chaos, you’ll end up spinning your wheels on a stationary bike to nowhere.

View your writing as a toy. Ever notice that kids like to play even when they’re sick? Sure, you say, they’re kids. They have that endless energy. Maybe so, but maybe those towers made out of blocks help them not pay so much attention to their illness. Use your words in the same way. Build your own tower. Slay a dragon. Banish a ghost. Break a heart.

Words can cut, they can wound, but they can also help you heal. Even when you’re not aware they’re doing so.