Saturday, February 04, 2012

Write What You.....'re Interested In. And Do Your Research

There's an old saying that, when writing a story, you should "write what you know". The reason is that it gives your work authenticity and won't just be making things up out of thin air. Your work will have a compelling reality to it because it's based on things you're familiar with.

The problem with this conventional wisdom is that it can be limiting. You may not be all that interested in the topics you're already familiar with. So I would change this familiar bit of advice to "write what you're interested in".

Great films and stories always feel authentic and "real" on some level. If your world doesn't feel like a "real" world, then the story feels false and you can't get an audience to connect with the characters and worry about them, feel something for them and fret about how their story will turn out, which is where all the compelling emotion in a film comes from. Even when creating a fantasy world that doesn't exist, it's very important to first understand as much as you can about the world we live in and apply it to the world you create. Because your readers are familiar with the actual world we live in - it's all any of us really know - we use our everyday experiences in the real world as a barometer to judge how real a fantasy world feels. For example, if you have dragons in your story, read up on birds and bats, and dinosaurs that were able to fly, as well as large animals like elephants and whales (and whatever other topics you can think of), and you will find tons of great details that will allow you to make your dragons specific to your story - dragons that are like ones that no one else has ever created. People love that kind of thing and it will make your story memorable, specific and unique. It'll make your fantasy world feel real. And it will make your story come to life and make it compelling in a way it can never be if you're just making things up out of thin air.

So, if you're working on a project of your own, it's very important - and these days, easier than ever - to do your research.

We're living in an amazing age for doing research. The internet has placed an amazingly vast resource at everyone's fingertips. And the fact that there are so many television channels now, like the Discovery channel and the History channel, etc. means that documentaries about a wide variety of topics are being produced like never before.

And when I say the internet, it's not just things like wikipedia that I have found helpful...I constantly use sites like abebooks and alibris to find used and out-of-print books that are not only great help but also available at extremely affordable prices.

For example, here's a photo of just some of the books I've been using for research on my own personal project.

Many of these I was able to get from alibris for a dollar or so. Also, not pictured are the dozen or so books I read on my kindle for research.

I've also found Google Maps to be a great resource. The story I'm working on takes place in a place I've never been. It would be great to visit there but it's not feasible right now. So Google Maps street view is a great option.

I'm old enough that it still blows my mind to be able to type in any place in the world and be able to "walk the streets" by using Google street view (I'm sure there are vast swatches of land to be done yet by Google maps, but so far everything I've needed I've been able to find).

I've you've never tried Google Maps street view, check it out sometime. I know everyone probably knows how to use it already, but just in case you don't know how to do it, here's a quick tutorial:

Go to and type in any address in the search bar( for example, I typed "2100 Riverside Dr., Burbank", the address where I work).

Now, when the search results come up, click the option that says "view in Google Maps" (should always be the first result).

When the map opens up, it'll look something like this:

Here's a closer look at the upper left hand corner. Check out the little orange man I made a red arrow to indicate him). You can grab him with the cursor and drop him anywhere on the map. And if you've searched for a specific address, there'll be an orange "pin" on the map to show you where that specific address is, so you can drop your man there.

That'll go to street view, where you are seeing what the little man would see, if he were standing at that point. Here's a view I see at the end of my commute every day (this is Keystone Drive, Burbank).

Now, when you're in street view, you can use the circle icon at the upper left to rotate. If you click any of the four arrows around the circle, you can look up, down, left or right. And if you hover your cursor over the street, you'll see white arrows that allow you to go down the street or up the street to see what's around you. Here's the last bit of my commute every morning :

So Burbank's a place I know really well and I could research easily, if my story took place there. But it doesn't. So I've used Google maps - not only to check out how the location where my story takes place looks - but also to research details such as how the garbage cans look there, what kinds of trees and plants grow there, how wide the roads are, what kinds of materials the houses are built from, etc. Google maps has allowed me to spend hours immersing myself in the world where my characters have spent their (fictional) lives, and without being able to visit there, I don't know how else I would've figured this stuff out.

I could have just made it up, but for anyone that lives there or has ever visited there, they'd know it was false. And I honestly think it would feel false to every reader - there's no replacement for the authenticity of actually knowing all this stuff.

The hard part about research is knowing how to use the information once you've gotten it. After all, a story isn't a documentary. It's still a work of fiction. In the example of researching dragons I mentioned earlier, unless your idea is just about documenting how dragons might actually work, you probably will never actually articulate everything you've learned about how dragons might actually work within your story. Ideally, your research has provided you with some ideas of how to make your dragons look like they might actually be able to exist and really work, as well as maybe some story ideas about what happens when dragons get sick, what conditions they might be able to breathe fire under, what weaknesses they might have that may allow a hero to defeat them, etc. You want to use your research to make your world feel more authentic and real. Research is supposed to give you more story ideas and open up new possibilities that you've never thought about. What you don't want is to feel overwhelmed and overburdened by the research. Doing research may show you that one or more of your ideas actually won't work, which can be discouraging, but the encouraging part is that it should open up many new alternatives to explore instead.

Also, there will always be a moment where your research contradicts what you're trying to do with the story, and you'll have to make a decision as to whether you're going to re-think your story or just ignore that part of the research. There's no story in the world that is 100% truthful and real to life. After all, like I said, a story isn't a documentary. At some point it departs from reality and enters the world of fiction.

I like to think of it as an 80/20 rule. In general, if your story is about 80% accurate I think you can fudge the other 20% (just a rule of thumb - every story is different).

Take "Raiders of the Lost Ark", for example. There's a lot of fictional things in the movie, but all the inspiration for the story and a lot of the details are grounded in reality. The work Indiana Jones does as an archaeologist is definitely based in reality - in the beginning we see him exploring a temple in a South American temple. There are temples in South America, obviously, and a lot of the details of how the temple looks and  works are probably based in reality. It's the extra details - like Jones's comrades betraying him, the bad guys who are on his trail, and the details of his narrow escape, as well as the layer Jones brings to it with his personality and character, that lift it beyond documentary and into an amazing work of fiction. But the realistic details give it a grounded sense that makes it feel real and make us sit on the edge of our seat as we watch his narrow escapes. If the temple felt like a phony, made up place, none of this would work.

Other details of the story are also definitely grounded in reality: there was an Ark of the Covenant, rumored to have mythical powers; it was believed by many to be hidden somewhere in the Middle East; Hitler did have an interest in the occult and was looking for items like that during the second world war, etc.

Chances are there's never been an archaeologist who was exactly like Indiana Jones or did things the way he did....but the realistic framework of the story and locales enable the audience to buy the more fantastic elements of the story.

There are a few pitfalls that I see people fall into when they're in the research phase. The biggest problem with research is that it can be hard to know when to stop researching and actually get to work. There's always more research to do than can realistically be done, and some people just stay in "research mode" forever. This can be tempting because writing is terribly hard work involving constant decisions and wrestling with all the difficult things that writing a story involves. Research can be more fun because it isn't usually as hard as writing is - you're just taking in information (and hopefully interesting information at that). Hopefully you'll find a spot where you can start working and still keep doing research at the same time. For me, the way to balance this is to always be thinking about your story while you're doing the research - force yourself to jot down story and character ideas at the same time you're taking notes for your research. Make sure there's cross-pollination between the two.

The other problem I see is that people do their research, and then set it aside and start working on their story, and the two processes don't affect each other - the research doesn't make any impact on the story. If the research works properly, it should spark a ton of story ideas and make you see your characters in a new light. If you find that the research isn't having an affect on your story, I'd say sit back and take another look at the area you're researching...maybe you're on the wrong path and you should try looking at the subject from another angle, or research a different area.

Or maybe your story just isn't right and needs to be shifted in a way that relates to the research. Maybe your characters and story just aren't the right ones for the world you're interested in.

Or maybe you just have to keep plugging away on the path you're on and the connections will become clear later.

I know this might all seem frustratingly vague, but everyone (and every project) works differently, and always remember that every project explores its share of dead ends and goes in circles for a time. If you keep pushing, you'll find a way forward, and at the same time - trust me - nobody ever feels like their story is 100% solid and figured out (unless they're fooling themselves). Writing a story is a constant process of questioning what you've done, backtracking, re-thinking and re-writing. That's the only way to make it better! And what seem like a dead end today may come back and inform the story at a later point.

The other problem with research is that - let's face it - to us artists, doing all this research is counter-intuitive. For me personally, I started my own personal project as a way to get myself to draw in my free time because I don't really draw at work anymore. But as I got more and more into my story I had to do more and more research....when what I really wanted to do was start drawing! But at the same time I knew all that drawing would be meaningless without the research to make it feel authentic.

So that's why my advice to not necessarily to write about what you know, but what you're interested in. That way, doing the research will interest you and it won't turn into a boring chore that you have to wade through. As we all know, writing a story is incredibly hard and can be tedious at the best of times. Most stories get abandoned at some point, so give yourself the best chance you can to succeed and stick with it by picking a world to research that you'll stay interested in for the long haul.

Of course, there's always the other way to do it: the approach Steve Purcell took, in "Sam and Max: Freelance Police".


Allen Capoferri said...

Wonderful take on the subject. Well done!

Rodney Baker said...

A subject of great interest. Thanks for exploring it!

Ishtar said...

That topic was incredibly usefull for me!

I'm also planning to draw a story and I was thinking about a fantasy one with settings based on David Attenborough documentals, but every time I start doing reserch I start looping constantely and always end up throwing the whole story away!

Your articles are truly inspiring, keep it up!

Leigh Fieldhouse said...

Is your graphic novel set in Medieval England? If so Mark, I'm looking forward to reading it.

I'm currently researching World War 1 for a short online comic series I'm creating. I started with a fixed story in my mind that I wanted to tell, but due to research I have found a much better character and story to tell.

So I can agree on research providing you with new story ideas.

I'm using Raiders as a framework for the kind of world my tale takes place in, as I don't want it to be a straight out historical story. I'll keep the 80/20 rule in mind

Tim Ridley said...

I found this article incredibly insightful, thank you!

mark kennedy said...

Thanks for the great comments! Glad you enjoyed the post.

Leigh - yes, it is about that...with a smidgen of time travel thrown in. Hope you'll enjoy it!

Ashton said...

After looking at your reading list for researching your graphic novel, I can't wait to see the final product.

Winona Janega said...

I've just discovered your blog, and I felt like leaving a comment on this particular post! Over the past couple of weeks I've fell victim to using Google Maps street view on a near daily basis, just dropping that little man anywhere and everywhere where street view is available. I'm constantly adding to my collection of screenshots that I can later use as reference if I so desire; it really is a great research tool for artists! Although knowing when to stop researching and actually getting to work, as you mentioned, is a hurdle I definitely should practice getting over faster!