The Banes and Boons of Research

February 11, 2008 at 8:59 am | Posted in character, Jessica, research, writing | Leave a comment

When Bria posed this week’s topic I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to address it. How do you research story ideas? They just live in your head, don’t they?

As I started to think about what I wanted to write, two opposing ideas began to emerge, each reflective of the two parts that dominate my professional life.

In my academic life, the academic side of my brain loves to do research. Absolutely loves it. When I was in college, the only computers on campus were refrigerator-sized mainframes. The card catalog actually still had cards in it, the Reader’s Guide helped you find the journals you needed (if you could handle the indexes that got you to that point), and microfiche was the latest and greatest technology. In hindsight, I can’t fathom how I ever found any scholarly resources to complete my college research projects. And it hasn’t been that long ago.

Fast-forward to today’s academic library and the world has been transformed. Online library catalogs, electronic databases, and Internet searching make academic research the kind of adventure it should be – endless possibilities found in link after cyber link. My problem on the academic side is that I find SO much research, the actual volume of reading, evaluating and synthesizing of sources makes the writing of it nearly impossible. When does the fact-finding part of the mission actually stop?

As opposed to my fiction writing, where the ideas live so vividly in my imagination and the characters actively beg for their stories to be told . . . so I just write what’s already living in my head. I tend to feel my way through writing my books and have not had to conduct much factual research thus far.

However, all that’s about to change. I get tons of story ideas in reading trade papers, magazines, news articles, or talking to colleagues. And through my colleagues I have started to hatch two new book ideas that I want to develop further. Both of them delve into things I know nothing about. I can address one of those issues by taking a few books out of my library . . . for starters. Who knows what will happen and where it will lead when a concept in one of those books links to another then another and another . . .

The second idea is going to really stretch my comfort zone and push me into launching an undercover operation as something I’ve never been – a bride. Scary stuff, if you ask me. The research for this one has already taken me to one bridal expo and what I’ve learned is that I (a) need to better channel my inner-award-winning-actress (who has, thus far, only existed in my head), (b) need a better cover story and (c) need to set up fake contact information. Wedding planning is intense and the vultures are thirsty, as I am starting to learn. It was a good thing to attend for one other important reason – my day at the bridal expo had a real machine gun affect on my plot. Having the experience let me see that my plot has more holes than Swiss cheese.

As a posted a few weeks ago, Bria, Meg, and I are part of the planning committee for a conference. It has been a great adventure and I have learned a great deal both professionally and personally. One outcome that has surprised me a bit – I’ve learned that my former boundaries have become a bit blurred. In the past, where I may have hesitated asking someone I don’t know if they’d be willing to pitch in and help out, I now have few qualms wading in with the ask. In order to get the job done, I’ve learned to beg, borrow, and steal – well, not literally, but in a metaphoric sense. Those boundaries begin to fade when the fine line between success and failure starts losing its obvious demarcation.

And as I look to the writing projects I am tacking this year, I kinda’ feel the same way. In order to get the authentic information needed to write these stories, I need to challenge my comfort zone and kick the research up a notch to cross those previously well-established lines. Even if that means having to attend the annual bridezilla gown event at Filene’s Basement . . . a day of wild and shameless mania I once swore I would never attempt. I’m too fragile.

What are some of the things you’ve done in the name of story research? Please share – and keep writing!

-Jessica

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