Thursday, November 04, 2010

Research can power up a story

Since I'm ankle deep in a new book and participating in National November Writers Month, NaNoWriMo, which I affectionately call, NaNaMoMo, I'll blog about writing.

It's dang hard. Can I just say that? It's true. First drafts are like pulling teeth without Novocain for an entire month. A tooth a day. You have to work up the courage to do it.

Working with the spark of an idea is fun.
Even hammering out the synopsis. Then comes the writing. Invariably, I never do enough research, so I'm back and forth between the story and the internet, searching.

The tediousness of it is wearying.

Take last night. I wanted to know specifically where my 1912 heroine lived in Philadelphia. I knew it was along the Main Line, but where?

I Google Mapped the city. I used the little yellow man to see the streets. I read the history of Philly and the Main Line.

But did those same streets and train stations exist in 1912? How far out on the Main Line would a wealthy family live? In the early 1900s, the community was young.

Question, questions, questions. Without answers. I was getting frustrated, and decided to NaNaMoMo right through the scene without the info I needed. After all that's what this writing month is about, but it wasn't working. I couldn't see the scene in my mind, nor feel it.

Back to Google and I finally hit gold with the West Philadelphia Historical Society. They had maps. From 1911.

Detailed maps. I could tell which houses were stone or brick. Which ones had porches. Where the green houses were located. Hospitals, churches and schools. The park I'd been reading about finally made scene.

It was fantastic. Now I had the image in my mind of what kind of neighborhood my character would live in, and how she would run across her neighbors lawn to get to her own back door.

Research slows you down, but there's nothing like it to power up the story. Once you know how something works, or how a city was designed, the name of a street or neighborhood, pieces begin to fall into place and the story can flow.

When I was writing Dining with Joy, a chef said something to me during our phone interview. "Even the most experience chef can freeze up in a cooking competition."

That off the cuff remarked added a nuance that layered a scene to make a good scene even better. Had I not taken the opportunity to talk to the chef, I'd have never sliced out that very subtle idea.

I have to see a scene. I can't write it if I don't know where she lives and how it impacts her life.

Funny, I don't necessarily care what she's wearing or how she looks. But I need to see her world.

How about you? How do you research. How does it impact your story? How do you manage research while writing?

1 comment:

Lori Benton said...

Hi Rachel. I try to research as much as possible before writing (mostly late 18th century frontier), but I know there will be unanticipated subjects that pop up on the day that I'll have to pause to research. I agree, it slows things down, but I'm the same way about not being able to write confidently if I'm uncertain about my characters' world, either how it looks, or how it works (socially, politically, culturally). It's a heck of a lot to keep straight in one's head--along with the story and characters--iddn't it? :)