There are a few common reasons most of us become writers: 1) We are not normal. Let it go. The Normal Ship sailed long ago while we were bartering for a cheaper price on a t-shirt and souvenir shot glass 2) We hopefully like to read and probably need a 12 Step Program for our book habit 3) We are Masters of “Things Few Know and Fewer Care About” 4) We are
pathological liars born storytellers.
This aside, just because we are born to write doesn’t mean we’re any good, especially in the beginning. I use this analogy. We could see some gal at a club who can really dance. She has great moves. This doesn’t mean she’s automatically qualified to tour with Katy Perry. Training (lots of it) and practice (more of it) and discipline (whoa, crap, even MORE of that) is required to go pro.
Today I want to talk about a key aspect of what can make most fiction better, and what can even tank a decent story—research (or lack thereof). As they say, “The devil is in the details.”
I’ll illustrate with some of my personal bugaboos:
My husband is on a military shooting team. We shoot more than most people. A lot of fiction might involve use of guns, so here’s some basic advice.
Just so you guys know, a “clip” goes in your hair and a “magazine” goes in your handgun or modern rifles (an M-1 takes a clip, but it’s from the earlier part of the 20th century). I recently read a book where even a gun expert in the story kept referring to “loading a clip” into a Glock and I wanted to scream. Additionally, the heroine “felt the metal” while gripping a Glock, which is interesting because a Glock is largely polymer (especially the grip), so that’s a hell of a trick. If she’s feeling metal? She has a jacked up grip.
***And for the record *shock face* there ARE more handguns in the world than Glocks (and better ones, but this is my opinion).***
There is NO SAFETY on a revolver. I once
threw a book across the room put down a book because the author had her protagonist “putting the safety” on a revolver.
Hollywood can get away with magic guns that never run out of ammo. Writers? Guns run out of ammo. To this day I have a habit of counting rounds when watching movies or reading books.
“Bulletproof” vests, depending on the type, can take being shot by most handguns. YouTube has some cool videos. Some vests are slash-resistant, but unless a vest has ceramic or metal plates? Useless against a blade. A knife will penetrate. Vests are also vulnerable from the sides where there’s no protection (unless one is wearing a vest that offers side protection).
When someone is shot while wearing a bulletproof vest? It will hurt. A lot. The impact can bruise, break ribs and, if the bullet hits just right, could possibly stop a heart (especially if the person being shot has any kind of a heart murmur or arrhythmia). Yes, the vest stops the projectile, but there is still a shock wave that will be felt and partially absorbed by the body.
Gunfire, especially at close range, will impair or damage hearing. If your character or shoots a gun with no hearing protection or has a gun fired close to them, they could have a ruptured ear drum and deafness. At the least, they will hear ringing for a while (tinnitus lasting days weeks or even permanently). Voices will be muffled or distorted.
The “caliber” of a bullet is based upon the inner diameter of the barrel and the size of the projectile the weapon can fire. For more, go HERE. Handguns and rifles have limitations in regards to caliber because, if we get too big? We no longer have a gun or rifle, we now have artillery.
Years ago, in a writing group, a member was writing a futuristic thriller where he “made up” his own caliber handgun. There was no explaining to him he had a cannon and not a pistol.
I bring these up because many books—thrillers, suspense, etc.—have scenes involving guns. Regular people who don’t know these details might just breeze by, but people who DO know better will become agitated if we get these details wrong, but highly impressed when we get them right ;).
Enough about guns, because this could go on a while. Don’t get me started on silencers. But, to be fair, even I am not a gun expert. I am, however, married to one, so I ask him when I’m unsure.
Let’s talk about some more benefits of solid research.
Research can add depth, texture and authenticity because it demonstrates we did our homework. Now, I know some things have to be fictionalized. If we were exactly precisely correct about every last detail, a book could be 10,000 pages long and put us all to sleep (I.e. working a crime scene). But it is important to separate what we’ve seen in movies and check out facts that could be urban legend.
Even small details that are correct are enough to impress regular readers and satisfy those who might be experts. Getting some small but important things correct often permits the reader to more easily suspend disbelief in other areas.
One of the reasons I recommend profiling books and psychology books is that all humans have a distinctive personality profile. They will act according to that profile and need to be consistent or, when deviating, there needs to be a logical reason WHY. Also, the arc needs to make sense. Understanding a bit of psychology makes the writing richer, because we can then pair a protagonist with allies guaranteed to 1) agitate her 2) force him to change and grow.
When it comes to the antagonist, the personality profile is key to locating his Achilles heel. Every strength comes with a weakness. When it comes to the hero/heroine that weakness should be strengthened by personal growth or buttressed by allies.
Since all roads lead to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, I’ll give an example. Sauron is power-hungry and prideful. He wants to rule them all. What is his weakness? Pride. He never bothered giving the Hobbits a ring, probably because he didn’t think them worthy of controlling…yet Hobbits are who eventually destroy him, since their innocence is what makes them more resistant to the sway of the Ring of Power’s psychic manipulation.
On the other hand, the Hobbits’ strength is their innocence and naivety, but, without allies like Aragorn, they’d have died a third of the way through the first movie frying bacon on a mountain while being chased by evil dead kings. Allies and antagonists help shape the Hobbits’ character arcs organically. By the time they make it to Mount Doom, they still have enough innocence left to finish the journey and defeat Sauron, but are war-hardened and more equipped to venture into a seriously bad neighborhood.
Knowledge is power. The more we research, the more cool directions our story can go. Research is like a toolbox. Do we want to build a “house” with only a hammer and a screwdriver, or do we want everything from a nail-gun to a table-saw? Research can help us make those unpredictable plot turns and twists that thrill readers.
Research is necessary. In the Digital Age, there are some cool and innovative ways of doing this effectively and efficiently, which is why I am teaching how to do this in my World Building class at WANACon (Early Bird Pricing almost over, so sign up HERE).
Research can cause some problems, but that’s a topic for another time. What are your thoughts? Are you flypaper for “useless” trivia? Do you love research? Does it intimidate you? Have you read books or watched movies that made you want to scream because the creator abused suspension of disbelief? What are some of your favorite ways to research? Do you research to get a story idea or once you start?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of January, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
I hope you guys will check out my latest book Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World and get prepared for 2014!!!!