I read a post this morning by Annette Dashofy called “Write what you want to know.” That title struck a chord with me so much that I knew the point she was going to make and why before I even read the post.
I often tell students in my writing classes that they need to be curious. Writers can’t rely on painting a word picture all of the time. They need to beyond that and look at why things are the way they are.
When I was a reporter, I found that a lot of reporters didn’t like to deal with numbers. They were wordsmiths, after all. So they would listen to a budget presentation, for instance, and simply parrot back the points that the budget officer would make without bothering to look at the raw data and see why the final numbers came out that way.
Years ago, I was reporting on a dispute between the sheriff’s office and the county commissioners. The commissioners were complaining that the sheriff’s office kept blowing their budget numbers with too much overtime and the sheriff’s office kept telling the commissioners that grants were paying the overtime. Neither side was giving an inch and nothing was getting solved.
So I looked at the sheriff’s department’s budget and I read through the grants that were being used to pay for the overtime. Then I looked through the county budget office’s numbers for the sheriff’s department. It turned out that yes, the grants paid for the overtime, but not all of the overtime. Taxes and benefits still had to be paid for by the county. So the sheriff’s office was reporting everything as being paid for by the grant and the county was only recording the net amount to the grant.
It was something that wouldn’t have been discovered if I hadn’t wanted to get to the bottom of the dispute.
Certainly having the command of language to create a beautiful scene is a talent, but to move characters through that scene realistically and to have them interact with the world around them in a believable way requires something more.
It requires research.
I can’t think of a book that you might write that wouldn’t require research of some sort. Even an autobiography would require at least cursory research to verify dates.
I would even say that most stories and articles require research. At the very least, you would want to check and see if you’re writing something that has been done before.
Good research goes further than that, though. Understanding character motivations, how things work, and the history behind things requires work.
I’m working on a biography of a WWII Marine right now called, Clay Soldiers. I’ve been lucky enough to spend hours with the subject interviewing him, but I have also had to research a number of topics, including Guadalcanal; Tarawa; the S.S. Bloemfontein; Auckland, New Zealand; the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg; the last living Civil War veteran; atomic bomb testing; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Orrville, Ohio; sculpting; the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots; and Walt Disney to name a few. Not every topic has required the same level of research, but they all needed more information than the person I was interviewing could provide.
So how do you know what to research?
If you are writing and find yourself wondering about something that’s your subconscious telling you that you need more information. Perhaps there’s a gap in your logic or your lack of understanding about how something works is showing when you write about it. Trust that instinct and find out more.
I have never been disappointed when I did research. I found out enough to write knowledgeably about the subject. I didn’t always include everything I found out, but having that knowledge allowed my writing to sound authentic.
Often, I would find out something I hadn’t known that when I included it, made me sound a lot more knowledgeable than I am. I might also find out new storylines to pursue.
Your writing has to engage readers and make them curious enough to want to read on, but if it doesn’t engage you as the writer and make you curious enough to ask questions and want to find answers, then you need to go back and rework your story.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s the writer’s best friend.