Research, research, research

If you want your writing to have depth, the best place to start is with research. They say “Write what you know,” and that’s a fine thing, but there are likely to be areas of interest that you want to weave into your work about which you know little, or nothong. So you need to do your homework. It’s fine and dandy to want to write about some virus you want to unleash upon an unsuspecting population (on paper, of course), but unless you’ve gathered a PhD in microbiology, you’re going to need to do a bit of reading on the subject, first.

And do yourself a favor by digging deeper than Google. You might get a few informative hits, but there’s no substitute for reading source material. Visit a library, hit up the bookstore, pick up the phone and talk to experts in the field. Pull together all the information you can so that when you do start writing, it’s not just some sloppy idea that hits the page. Some authors out there don’t care what goes on the page. They just slap disjointed nonsense on the page and send it off to Create Space. Then they wonder why they only sell two copies and aren’t fielding film offers.

Same thing goes for location. There’s more to Florida than sun. There’s more to Maine than snow and Stephen King. There are nuances and local colloquialisms that will give your setting depth and reality if you seek them out. Simply saying that somebody soaked up some sun on the beach is well and good. But if you do a little bit of homework, you can throw in that your character took a break and went to get a gelato and Fabo’s, the best known cold sweets shop around. You can describe what a looker the counter guy is, and how much better it is in Fabo’s, now that the owner finally got the air fixed.  By adding details like these, you’re making the scene about much more than a scorching strip of sand. You’re giving it character and a touch of reality, something that people who live in that area can nod at. You’ve brought them into the story because they’ve had sweets at Fabo’s, too. They’ve winked at the counter stud, and they’ve been grateful for a break from the heat. Basically, they’ve lived in the world you visit in your book. Just like that, your story is more than words on a page.

Whether it’s books or film, all fiction depends upon a consumer’s ability to suspend reality and accept the world with which you present them. And with just a few words, you’ve made your story that much more believable. That much more real.

You’ll need to research your characters as well, who they are and what to call them. If, for example, you want to represent a fellow as being strong and independent, you might want to chose a moniker like, say, Johnny Reb. It’s true, the Johnny Rebs were, well, rebellious, fighting for what they thought was their god-given rights as southern men.

But there are a couple of things wrong with using a name like that.

First off, it’s unoriginal as all hell. It’s been used into the ground. Unless you really don’t care about the guy, you might want to come up with something a lot more inventive, creative, original. You’re a writer, right? Use that imagination to come up with something that suits him and sums up his unique personality.

Secondly, the north won the civil war. You might think that calling him Johnny Reb is a bold statement, but you might just be setting him up as a loser. Unless he is one.
Think about it.

After your book is written, your research still isn’t over. Don’t be so naive or so eager that you sign with the first publisher that shows you some interest. Don’t fall for some small press that promises you the moon but can’t deliver. Don’t fall in with a scam.

If any publisher shows interest in you, the most important thing that you can do for yourself and your work is to research them. Google is your best friend, in this case. Look ’em up. Are they legitimate? And make no mistake. A piece of paper on a DBA or tax ID don’t make a company legal. If the owner has a track record of swindling authors, especially with a string of companies that all folded, run the other way as fast as your literary little legs can carry you. If they couldn’t make any of those other companies work, what makes you think the latest one will? If the owner is known to scam, swindle and lie to other authors, what makes you think they won’t do the same thing to you?

No.

Have more respect for your work than to allow somebody like that near it. Have more respect for yourself.  There is a publisher out there for your work. You have to be patient and do the legwork. Write out your queries and cover letters, research (there’s that word again) the different publishing houses. There are a ton of them out there that aren’t scams. Find one of those.

Perhaps a better use of your time would be spent looking for an agent. If you find a decent agent, it’s their job to find you a publisher. And, within each literary house, there are usually agents that represent different genres, so research them, too.

In this digital age, there’s also the option of self-publishing. If you’re willing to be diligent about your own marketing and promotion, that might be a better option than signing with any small press. At least, sink or swim, you’re the only one keeping your royalties.

There are no shortcuts in writing. Not if you want to do it for a living and enjoy any measure of success. You can’t just slap some sloppy work in a word document, throw it out there and expect the world to come to you. It just doesn’t happen that way. Writing is real work. So, unless you’re willing to stick it out and do it right, don’t quit your day job. It’s not easy, the thought of putting in all this work around your already full schedule, but it’s necessary, if you really want it.

Remember this. Stephen King wrote his first book, Carrie, sitting in a cramped laundry room with his typewriter balanced on his knees, a little at a time after he got home from his day job, teaching. He and his wife lived in a trailer at the time. They barely got by. And look where he is now. He didn’t get that way by luck. He made the time. He did the work.

Unca Stevie’s sons learned that same work ethic, and they’re successful writers, too. Young Joe Hill saw his book “Horns” made into a movie starring Harry Potter himself, Dan Radcliffe. Not shabby at all. And he’s not riding daddy’s coattails, either. He doesn’t use his famous father’s last name, and he treats writing like a “real” job, too, setting aside a minimum of time every day to do it.

If you’re a “real” writer, you’ll do the same. You’ll make the time to do the writing work, and then you have to work even harder selling it to the right market. Make sure you’re signed on with a team that’s willing to work at least as hard as you do.

What will save you is the research you do, for the writing and for publishing it. What you learn for one book can be used toward your next, and with each effort you produce, you learn that much more. By doing so much research and accumulating this wealth of information, you aren’t just building an arsenal of knowledge. You’re building a career.

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One thought on “Research, research, research

  1. This is so important. I spent half a year researching and world building for my series before I even wrote the first chapter and it’s made a huge difference in the development of my story. I wanted to let you know I’ve been catching up on your blog posts and I applaud your dedication to keeping authors informed. I was almost the victim of a small publishing house who I came across online and thankfully got out before they published my book, but the things I went through along the way (not to mention the things that happened to other authors that were with them) were just awful. I am glad I know better now, and that there are people like you out there looking out for new authors in our community, best of luck with everything 🙂

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