Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On Research

"Write what you know."

This is a traditional bit of wisdom thrown at every new writer. If only it were that simple. Now I did get away with it a little when I wrote Fantasticon because I was writing about the con-going experience as I saw it. When I needed a back drop for a scene, or I needed something to happen in and around the main plot I had my experiences and those of my friends to use. Need to Allison to be distracted? How about a group photo shoot? Need a random walk on character? What fandom haven't I used yet?

But it's not always that easy. Quite often you write yourself into a spot and then you realize that you have no idea what so ever how to keep going without looking like you're making it all up.

Now I'm not an expert on many things. But the things I do know I like to see done at least with a nod to being correct when they appear in media. I don't expect them to get overly detailed in their analysis of, say, a bullet's trajectory, but I do get antsy when they screw up Terminal Velocity (that is the speed at which something stops accelerating during free fall, or basically it's maximum speed) with Acceleration due to gravity (that is the rate at which something speeds up while falling).

And I know my friends are like that too. I've seen military folks get flustered when sleeves aren't rolled right. I've seen lawyers pan TV shows because they got case history wrong. I've had colleagues in education give up on a series because of wild errors in plot lines that show little to no understanding of how a school actually operates.

I'm not even going to start on what some people think of House.

And what I like most about my research is actually going to experts and asking them questions. Nothing is more fun then asking someone to talk about something they're passionate about.

Sometime ago my wife and I wrote and oversaw a Dungeons and Dragons game based in a world of our design. As we were laying out the map of the world we came across a point where we needed a river to fork. The river was going to have strategic importance and thus factored heavily into the history of the world and the conflicts between the nations. But, to my knowledge, rivers did not fork. They converge, and they may have a delta region, but they don't, usually, split down two paths.

So I got online, looked up the geology department for University of Michigan and I gave a call. It took about ten minutes but I eventually had a professor with some expertise on the line. I explained that I was particular about specifics, that I was working on a piece of fiction (which led soon to me explaining that it was for a DnD game) and I just wanted to get my facts right.

And he was happy to talk to me, I believe from his tone, for about 20 minutes on the subject, and I got good information about possible shifts in plate tectonics and erosion that both could contribute to a tributary becoming an offshoot.

When I've needed to get some police procedures right, I've sat down with a cop. For the opening chapter of Mind the Thorns, I called a funeral home. Now that was a curious conversation because, to my surprise, funeral directors do not know what it's like to have been in a coffin. I assumed, for the longest time, that it was probably part of some hazing ritual.

At the time of this writing, I'm working on a short story that could be, concievably, called a piece of Walking Dead fan fiction. It's a bit dicey as it's a zombie story, but there are no characters from WD in it. In fact it's not even in the same area as WD and it's going to explore something totally different than anything I've seen on the show. But one of my weaknesses as a writer is that I know very little about guns. I know quite a bit about zombies, especially when I get to decide what variety of zombie I'm going to use. But the guns? Not so much.

So while out running errands I came across a gun store. And I was quite sure I could get what I needed in ten minutes or less as I always had. So notebook in hand I went in, approached a clerk, and gave my spiel.

I explained that I was a writer, and that I just wanted to get accurate when I described the guns that my hero had, on hand, during the zombie apocalypse. I explained that I just wanted to have enough of the details right so that I could work them into the story and if someone who actually knew guns read it they wouldn't flip out. He nodded. And I asked, "So if he's a casual shooter, maybe has gone hunting a few times with his dad, what is he likely to have grabbed on his way out to the wilderness."

"I dunno," came the response. "Whatever the writer thinks he should."

And thus my streak of finding great interviews ended. I got some good ideas, most of which I had before I walked in, sadly. We did talk about the merits of 12 guage shot guns, both for blowing zombies apart as well as ease of ammunition access. A customer suggested a 9mm pistol as a common handgun for a house these days. It wasn't a bad talk, once the other clerk got involved but it wasn't highly useful. I wanted to ask about the ease of turning an AR15 into full auto, but was concerned that such a question might both raise red flag and also not get me anything useful for the story.

I still believe that over all, interviews are the way to go. You get that personal side of things, you can be direct, and you can get clarification if you don't understand something. I did walk into the GI supply store two doors down and talk to the owner there about guns, suppressors and options for the zombie uprising. He had some good suggestions and I feel like I got my intel for the story.

Now I just need to write the thing...

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