Story Craft #21 Research!!

Mike GristStory Craft, Writing Leave a Comment

As a science fiction and fantasy author – which is all I ever wanted to be until recently – I never once thought about going out into the world to do primary research. Other sf/fantasy authors don’t talk about it. You don’t have George R.R. Martin explaining how he went to mental asylums and wrote letters to psychopaths in order to better write Ramsay Bolton. Tolkien’s research was entirely his own enormous invention.

That approach always appealed to me enormously. You just make it up. Yes, I would get inspiration from an interest in science, history and politics – but never specifically in order to write about that. I’d read Scientific American because I wanted to. I’m a broadly informed person. I draw on that.

However, now that I’m a thriller author, I’m seeing and hearing other thriller authors talk about primary research more. Primary means you go out and do the data collection yourself, somewhat like a journalist. Conduct interviews. Have experiences. Be in places. Eg:

  • Author of Livia Lone and John Rain, Barry Eisler, was in the CIA, does jiu jitsu, met with people involved in human trafficking and more.
  • Author of Rattle, Fiona Cummins, was in contact with numerous families who had children with the extreme bone condition the character in her story has.
  • A range of authors at the last First Monday Night Crime group I went to variously went to North Korea to research a dystopia, wrote letters to several serial killers to get in their heads (ugh), attended an autopsy, did police ride-alongs…
  • A member of my marketing group has been doing interviews with various London professionals, like chefs, DJs etc as research for her chick lit books.

I suppose coming out of science fiction and fantasy, I never considered doing primary research. I don’t consider myself to be a journalist. I don’t imagine that taking the substantial time and effort to do this research will have any demonstrable effect on my books themselves. Secondary research (reading books, surfing the Internet, watching documentaries) can cover far more than I can ever cover myself.

My go-to approach is to draw on my life experience (primary), and books/documentaries/Wikipedia (secondary), then fuse the two with imagination. Eg, if I need to write about:

  • Guns, I research the model online, then draw on my experience of firing guns.
  • Cults, I draw on TV shows, books, pop culture and history and combine with my own understanding of human nature.
  • Chicago, I draw on my direct experience of Louisville, Boston, New York, Indianapolis and other American cities, combined with Google Maps, Wikipedia and articles…
  • Human trafficking, I draw on documentaries, books and my own degree-level study of Pyschology.
  • Any abandoned place, I draw on my direct experience of visiting dozens of such places.
  • Fights, I draw on my karate days and fights as depicted in media.

These serve me very nicely. I’ve had a good, broad number of experiences to draw on.

So, what’s the conclusion?

I think primary research is something I might pursue when I become a full time author. Less to inform my books, and more as a position of authority to stand upon. It’s easy to see how having these primary experiences would afford authority. I can write magazine articles about what I’ve seen, ie – do journalism. It would lend authority to the books retroactively. Maybe I would tweak a few details.

Short of that, I’m very happy to rely on my experience, secondary research and imagination. I’m not the author who keeps a notebook and jots down lots of little details from the world around him. It’s fiction, after all. Who out there can tell me the mechanics about running a secret luxury compound inside the belly of a container ship? Who can tell me about the extreme ways a white supremacist organisation might train its people to become killers in the modern world?

Those things don’t exist. I’m making them up. I’m bringing my sf/fantasy imagination to the genre, combined with my experience, and that is my strength.

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