Everything Is Research
Writers, have you ever asked yourself what constitutes research for your work? I don’t just mean using Google to find the way that they made soap in the 1500’s. I mean, story research and character development. Where do you do your research for things like what a certain place looks like, how do people behave and how do things smell? The details that breathe life into your stories have to come from somewhere, right?
Well, simply put, they do. They come from everything around you in your daily life, on your vacations, in the interactions you have with people, even on the food you eat. Literally everything you do is research, if you’re a writer. Every meal, song, location, person, scenic view and scent. It’s all part of your own experience and you can draw on that for your writing.
It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to describe something you know nothing about with any kind of accuracy. If you were reading a book about golf, who would you think would know more? A former PGA player or a guy who picked up a copy of golf digest once? That doesn’t mean you have to be a complete expert on a subject to write about it accurately. Quite the contrary, really. But having some first-hand experience certainly qualifies you to write what you know.
Writing what you know comes across far more genuine than anything you just Googled. Now, don’t get me wrong, Google is a wonderful tool. I have looked up lots of information for books with Google, but you can’t get every detail from a search engine. Sure, it can tell you the make and model of any particular vehicle, but can it really tell you how it feels to drive it? The smell of the interior? How about the way the engine rumbles in a corner? The tactile sensation of the steering wheel in your hands? No, it can’t answer those questions, but your experience can. It’s the same for literally anything you can experience.
You can look up pictures of roller coasters from all over the world, but it will never replace the feeling of exhilaration as you drop down the first big hill that runs into the twist and loop. The feeling of the blood rushing to your feet on the outside loop. The feel of the air as it rushes past you in a high torque turn. Pictures and Wikipedia entries will never replace the actual feeling.
Everything you do, say, experience, smell, taste, hear and feel is research. As a writer, you draw on all of your senses and experiences to build an image that you describe in words. You use those words to convey your imagery to your reader and, if you do it right, give them a very close approximation of what that feels like. That’s the essence of what a writer does. You share your vision and bring it to life for your readers.
Likewise, the reader will bring their own experiences and memories to the book, as well. So, if you’re describing something that they’ve experienced as well, then BANG, they’re right back there in that experience. You’ve just related on a deeper level. They project their own experience onto your description and they’ve become far more emotionally invested in your story…because it relates to them, personally. You connected through a common experience through your words.
Now, the opposite is true, as well. If you describe something you only Googled, then anyone who has actually experienced it will know the difference. The little cues won’t be there. The palpable, visceral details that separate a real experience from one only read about. That tends to have the opposite effect. They don’t feel connected to the writing and now you’ve lost your suspension of disbelief. You missed a chance at a connection.
That’s why I always say, the best advice is to write what you know. I know it sounds cliché but it’s true. Readers will see right through you. When you’ve lost credibility, then you’ve lost everything as a writer. It doesn’t matter what the story is, the suspension of disbelief is built on those little details. Readers will forgive a lot of things, but being obviously wrong isn’t one of them.
The little details we write are the foundation for everything in the story. Without those little details, the foundation crumbles. Little things like knowing what the cigar really smells like will have much larger ramifications than you think. Those little details are the key elements that link your writing to your reader. By making those connections, your readers will follow your story into the stars and keep on believing. Make those connections and get those details right. Your entire story might just depend on it.
Now, I won’t say it’s impossible to build a good story without knowing personally every detail. Some things will be writer’s choice and dramatic license. Some things must happen a certain way, for the plot to work. Its little details that will carry those big leaps of the imagination. The little things are like flavors and they make all the difference to a story. All the difference in the world.
Now, I don’t know if you are a person who drinks alcohol, but I liken a story to a good glass of Scotch. There are layers of flavors, hints on the tongue and aftertastes that are exquisite. A good Scotch can have layer upon layer of flavor and you taste something different, each time. That’s what I want my stories to be like. I want the reader to read it and feel something, then want to read it again to see what else they can feel. I want them to connect on a deeply real and personal level.
Even with the fiction, you ask?
Especially, the fiction.
Writing is a journey, folks. We take it together, writer and reader. Let’s enjoy every step of the way.
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