Research and Restructuring

Working out the details for a new story can be a time-consuming pain in the butt. That’s what makes the Internet so great: there’s a wealth of information out there to help you decide where your story should take place, what kind of weapon your antagonist should carry, or what is the perfect name for your main character’s best friend. During National Novel Writing Month time that information is compressed into a neat little bundle in the form of the “Reference Desk” forum on the NaNoWriMo website. On the Reference Desk, NaNo participants from all over the world help each other answer the tough questions, and give assistance and opinions based on their own personal experiences.

I haven’t made great use of the Reference Desk in the past because most of my NaNo novels took place in made-up worlds where I could write whatever I damn-well pleased to make my story make sense. This year, however, my novel idea takes place in the real world, and requires my main character to travel the world a bit. So off to the Reference Desk I went, to ask for help. What I was looking for was assistance in choosing a main location for my story. I wanted a place that was a little off the map, somewhere were things like cell phones and massive amounts of entertainment are more scarce, but also somewhere where the residents celebrate Halloween, or a similar creepy-stuff-abounds kind of holiday.

What I quickly determined from the replies I received was that there aren’t many places these days where my requirements make a lot of sense. A few people pointed out, for example, that even in less civilized areas, cell phones are abound, and that some of the least likely places actually have higher cellphone-per-capita numbers because they never caught up on land-line installations and instead skipped right to cell. As I continued to read through the replies from people more knowledgeable than me, scene ideas and plot holes ran through my mind, and I began to realize that there probably is no good location that will suit all my needs for this particular story. I had a moment of frustrated indignation just thinking about it.

And then I realized something. I realized that I’m a writer, dammit, and writers improvise. The world might not always conform to meet our needs, but we have the power to change the world.

All of a sudden I had a plethora of additional ideas fluttering through my mind. My story wouldn’t take place in the present, no…but in the near future, yes. And there would be a disaster of some kind – nothing that would completely destroy the planet, but would lessen the planet’s population and destroy many forms of present-time technology. It all began to come together. I could see how this would work, how it would enhance the story, and even how it would flesh out the background of the main character. The fellow writers who responded to my post couldn’t give me exactly what I’d been looking for, but they helped me realize that I can give myself exactly what I’m looking for, if I’m just willing to be a little more creative.

The take-away from this post is two-fold:

1. The writer community is huge and helpful. The Reference Desk at the NaNoWriMo website is not always active in the non-NaNo season, but you can always find fellow writers in places like the #MyWANA Twitter feed, critique sites like Critique Circle, and the multitude of writer blogs (like this one!). Point being, there is always assistance out there if you need it.

2. Writers are adaptable, and improvisation is often the mother of some of the best ideas. If the details of your story aren’t working out, reconsider them. What would need to happen in order to make the details work out? What do you have to do in order to make that thing happen? Now do it!

Writing has a lot of facets other than the literal sitting down and writing. Tons of research is (unfortunately) one of them, and adapting your story ideas as a result of that research is (unfortunately) another one. But neither has to be as horrible as they sound. Join the writer communities popping up everywhere, and the whole system will feel that much simpler.

Not to mention, significantly less lonely.

Are you a part of any writer communities? Why or why not? Have you ever recruited the help of others in working some of the details of your story? Did it help? Have you ever completely changed a story based on researched information? Please share!

“Oh, THAT Bookmarked Site? Uh…I Can Explain That…Really!”

I’ve often heard it said that you’re not a real writer until you’ve landed yourself on a government security watch list, and I’m starting to understand the reasoning behind that statement.

nsakittyRealism is an important aspect of any good novel, even if the subject matter in general is not particularly realistic. For example, I’m currently editing and revising my zombie apocalypse novel. To enjoy the subject matter you have to be able to suspend disbelief and have a bit of an open mind, but for specific details – things that you would actually see in real life – realism is key to keep your readers from pitching unholy fits. Imagine, for example, if I wrote a scene involving a character taking shots at zombies with a rifle and I completely screw up the way a rifle works. Any of my readers who have ever actually handled a rifle in real life are going to find themselves drawn away from the story, eyebrows twitching in annoyance, because it’s obvious that I wrote that scene awash in a sea of ignorance. It might not seem like much to anyone who (like me) knows nothing about guns, but if you screw up enough of those little details you’re going to have quite the angry reader mob beating down your door, ready, willing, and able to tell you exactly why your writing stinks.

Knowing that, we writers have an excellent tool on hand to ensure that these unrealistic scenes are kept to a minimum: the Internet. We live in a golden age where the information we need is never more than a few clicks away. There are webpages devoted to everything, and even if we can’t find the specific subject we require, there are forums, chat-rooms, Twitter, Facebook, and any number of other social sites where we can ask for help. The Internet is a writer’s goldmine.

So what does all this have to do with the first sentence of this post? Well, occasionally, when writers are researching details for their novel via the Internet, things get a little…unsettling.

As mentioned, I’m currently editing and revising my zombie apocalypse novel, and for that task I’ve taken to the World Wide Web to nail down a few important details. Imagine if you will, for a moment, if someone were to take a look at my browser history right now and came across the following searches:

“techniques used to tell how long a body has been dead”
“how much blood would there be if someone’s arm was ripped off”
“how to splint a broken leg with no medical gear”
“how to make a Molotov cocktail”
“how to butcher a cow”
“how long until a body begins to decompose”

Starting to see the problem?

There’s a certain level of insanity involved in being a writer, and I think that this is where half of it comes from. In order to make our novels realistic we have to research things that are otherwise creepy and/or upsetting. On the “Reference Desk” forums of the NaNoWriMo website (where writers help each other track down the info they need) I have seen some of the weirdest questions you can imagine, ranging from “what the hell do you need to know that for?” weird to “okay, give me your address because I’m calling the cops” weird.

So remember this the next time you’re reading one of your favorite books: we writers willingly make ourselves look like justifiable psychos in order to make that story the best that it can be.

You’re welcome.

As a reader, have you ever come across any small, incorrect details that ruined a book for you? As a writer, have you ever been accused of ruining a story with small, incorrect details? Have you ever found yourself searching ridiculous, scary, or downright disturbing things in order to make a story better? Please share!