by Lillian Csernica on July 6, 2016
I am at work on a new short story. In order to build the plot, know the characters properly, and create a climax that is both satisfying and plausible, I have had to learn about these subjects:
What a hammer drill is and does
What machinery CalTrans uses to resurface the freeways
How strong a welder’s mask really is
The auction price of three small gold coins from medieval Norway
Why the California Highway Patrol doesn’t handle a crime scene the way the Sheriff’s Dept. or the local police would.
Who owned the land grant that encompasses a large portion of Los Angeles County back when Charles V of Spain was handing those out.
Sure, research is part of a writer’s daily life. Sure, I’m already drawing on a lot of knowledge I already have when it comes to the fantasy elements in the story. No surprises there, right?
It’s one thing to have a good idea. It’s quite another to convince your readers it will work.
The deeper I’ve gone into this story, the more I’ve needed to learn. All the details matter, even the peripheral details that could be taken for granted. My two main characters have to join forces to accomplish something almost impossible in a very tight time frame against staggering odds. One knows enough about power tools and where to get them. The other knows enough about the Bad Guys and how to fight them.
The most exciting part about this story is what each of the main characters must learn about the other character and about himself. Is each of them willing to risk everything? How much does each of them stand to lose? And if they succeed, what do they do next, knowing what they now know?
That laundry list of research subjects has taken me to areas of science, history, law enforcement, and construction that are all new to me. I had to look all of that information up because I need it all to build the goals and obstacles for each character, my heroes and my Bad Guys. In discovering so much about the contexts in which my characters function, I’ve developed new insights into their motivations, loyalties, prejudices, etc.
This might sound really obvious, but it isn’t. There’s no thrill like the thrill of sudden inspiration, realization, understanding. Pieces of related information link up and present themselves as an idea or a solution or a complication.
Let your writing take you to places where you’ve never been. Don’t try to steer. Just go where your characters have come from, then take them and your readers somewhere none of you ever expected to go!