Welcome to my world! Today our topic is research – how it makes your story “feel real” and how it can even give you plot bunnies!
When I was a young writer, I wrote about what I knew, which wasn’t much. My mom used to chide me and say, “If you really want to write something good, you need to do research.”
I drew myself up and squawked indignantly. “I don’t need to do research. I’m writing about my life!”
Of course, when you’re in your twenties and haven’t exactly done anything special yet, you run out of material pretty fast that way…
It’s funny. Until I became an erotica writer, I didn’t really do research at all. I read one book on the music business before I wrote A Serious Person back in my “Orland Outland” days, but that’s about all I can ever recall doing.
My research addiction started when I began the Sam and Derek series. Stories about military dudes were really hot at the time, and so were stories about “reluctance/submission.” I.E., someone who ends up in a sexual situation they aren’t so sure about, but they end up liking it. Which really lends itself to stories about guys whose sexuality is denied, or at least in flux at the time of the story.
So I thought it would be fun to do a story about Sam, a Special Forces guy who agrees to be manhunted – the prize is $10,000 if he wins and evades Derek for a weekend, but the penalty if he loses is…he surrenders his ass to Derek, who insists he’s not gay but loves to make straight guys submit… (Yeah right, and of course it takes four stories for Derek to come around to accepting his own sexuality.)
But then I realized I’d written myself into a corner. If this dude was really Special Forces, he’d have a specific skill set, right? He’d be using his training to get out of the situations, to evade capture, to resist if he was captured. I’d embarrass myself if I just “made some shit up.” So I thought, well, I’d better go look and see what these guys really do…
Next thing you know, I was knee deep in material. I read a bunch of books, including Chosen Soldier, Inside Delta Force, and most importantly the U.S. Army’s SERE Manual, FM21-76, used in Special Forces training in Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.
I’d presumed I’d be hemmed in by “the facts,” limited in what I could do by what I discovered. But just the opposite occurred – the SERE Manual gave me all kinds of ideas for Sam’s plan to evade Derek, and a typo in the official manual even gave me an opportunity for Sam to shine in class!
I was hooked then. Not long afterwards, I had an idea for a novel that became Given the Circumstances. This was around the time that Ryan Braun was implicated in a performance-enhancing drug scandal, and it either ruined or at least damaged his friendship with NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers. I saw this and suddenly had this Beavis and Butthead moment… “Heh. Heheh. What if they were gay lovers. Heheheh.”
Which is the kind of crazy halfass idea that can somehow suddenly plant itself in your brain and refuse to leave. What if they were? Which led to me thinking, what’s it like, the pressure to perform, to resist the shortcuts of PEDs, what’s it like to deal with the media, what’s it really like to be in college athletics at a supersized university, all on top of having to deal with being gay in a homophobic environment? (This was over two years ago, mind you, and there’d been no Michael Sam yet, no college players coming out.)
Next thing you knew, I was reading Three and Out about the Michigan football program, mining the web for the NCAA regulations in effect in 2008 about Division transfers and “countable athletically related activities” and “snacks vs. meals,” looking up who was nominated for a Heisman back then (and, with great satisfaction, deleting Tim Tebow from history and replacing him with my Roger Ehrens), what teams were doing really well, who where the stars, what kind of plays were popular in college football at this time, what about this, that, the other…
And the research helped direct my plot. I learned about the “sitting out” year, which was meant to discourage big schools from poaching stars from little schools, by making a transfer student “sit out” a year, attending the big school for a year before they could play for the big team. And I realized that was the perfect plot twist for Brian, my naturally talented but sometimes lazy and corner-cutting baseball player. What better pressure to put on him, than making him sit out, forced to keep it together when it could feel like it “didn’t matter” what you did off the field, if you couldn’t get on the field for the real games? That’s my favorite thing now about research – the “plot bunnies” it gives me along the way.
And of course when a story “feels real,” you’re sucking the reader into your world. I boned up on Old New York and the Civil War for Werewolves of Brooklyn, and the response has been great. People have said they really felt they were in those slums, that theater. I learned about the craft of butchering, and about the current preservation struggles in Brooklyn. It’s a novel about werewolves, which is essentially unrealistic, but what I learned about actual wolves in Yellowstone gave me the ravens, and their symbiotic relationship with my werewolves.
The key to a great unrealistic novel, whether it’s werewolves, or a romance between a football player and a baseball player, or a Special Forces guy literally “betting his ass,” is what the rules of fiction call “willing suspension of disbelief.”
If you want readers to suspend disbelief in an unlikely scenario, you have to make them believe in everything around it. If you want to write a novel about someone who wins hundreds of millions of dollars in a lottery, as I did in The Worst Best Luck, read up on real lottery winners, how it affected them, how they were treated in the press, who came out of the woodwork after the money, what their tax situation is...
If you can make all the little things realistic…you can make people believe the one big thing that’s unrealistic. And that’s where reading a novel really becomes a magic experience.
QUESTION: What’s your favorite research subject – a period in history, a person, a branch of literature or science?
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