Sherman Alexie's recent Writer's Digest blog entry has been getting a lot of love on facebook this week. My personal favorite from his list is #5, but I am here to talk about item #4 -- that dreaded eight-letter word, research.
I teach college English composition, and many of my students are loath to use any resource besides google; to visit the library, to open a book, to take a note, to thoughtfully examine both sides of the issue, and certainly to develop more than the most cursory familiarity with a proposed topic before beginning to write about it.
We all live in an age where research has become exponentially easier than it has ever been. When I began working as a writers' assistant at Days of Our Lives, our office was Internet-free. If I needed information about crime, I called the Burbank PD; if I needed to know about brain surgery, I actually bothered a neurosurgeon at USC. My bookshelf remains stocked with resources such as the writers' friendly guide to poisons and committing the perfect murder. However, I have not used these in a very long time, as now the information is literally at my fingertips.
Nowadays it is so easy to take a shortcut -- to avoid talking to real-live person when it is truly necessary to talk to a real-live person. Through the years, I have learned that research is not my forte or really my interest. I have also gotten used to approaching it from a soap-writer angle -- yes, it is incredibly unlikely, but is there a one-in-a-billion chance that it could happen? Great, we'll do it!
I pretty much only write contemporary fiction (partly due to my incorporating-research aversion), but I haven't been able to avoid the exercise entirely. Lately I've made use of the virtual Walters Art Gallery, codebreaking websites, and Google Maps. In the past, I've ridden roller coasters at Hershey Park and taken ice skating lessons to put myself in Nancy Drew's shoes. My favorite type of research, though, comes from reading fiction (back to Alexie's item #4) and seeing how other writers have approached similar material or particular writing challenges.
From what I understand, it is fairly common for writers to get mired in the research phase of a story, to use the library or the Internet as an escape from the harder work of filling a blank page with words. I am perhaps that unique soul who suffers from perhaps an oxymoronic-sounding problem: I can avoid with the best of them, yet I still seem never to do quite enough (or quite the right) research.
In short, I definitely think Alexie has a point. And I am eager to see what the historical fiction, sci-fi, and non-fiction writers among us have to say on this subject as the week goes on.
Also... Don't forget to enter our Guest Teaching Author Book Giveaway to win an autographed copy of Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move by Eileen Meyer.
Have a great week, and happy writing! --Jeanne Marie