Research as inspiration

by, Alex Yuschik

Sometimes, revisions just suck. I say this with love, because the revising process is one of my favorite parts of writing, but also as someone who understands the agony of redoing a scene ten times and still having it wrong. So how do you get out of a revisions slump? One way is by doing research.

Wait a second, research? This sounds like the exact opposite of fun. This sounds like what you do when you’re terrified that your CPs will flay you for not knowing which hand your viola player protagonist uses to hold their bow. Not so.

Creativity is fueled in part by restriction. Research can help you to narrow down what your characters can do in a situation, and then it’s up to your stellar creative powers get them out. Researching different aspects of your story also helps ensure your readers get a cool experience– ever been interested in what really goes on in cracking a bank safe or want to go to a New Orleans Mardi Gras? Readers want to be absorbed. By doing research, you can make the details more authentic and show people who read your work a glimpse into a world they’ve never seen.

A good place to start is location, especially if your manuscript is a contemporary.  A lot of subs I read can be set anywhere. And while It’s natural to want your reader to be able to slip into your setting as easily as Anytown, USA, sometimes it’s the mundane things about a setting that make it real. In Pittsburgh, we have stupid in-jokes about how toilets invariably show up in basements and how it rains all the time. In Cincinnati, there’s a ton of pig-themed merchandise and the tornado warning sirens get tested on the first Friday of the month. In Clemson, SC, if you go out on the highway on a Saturday morning during the fall, it will be absolutely deserted because of college football games (related: traffic around stadiums will be terrible).

If you’re writing fantasy or scifi, then it might feel like research is less important. You have a lot more creative license, but sometimes with freedom comes the intimidation of the blank page. If you get stuck, maybe try mashing up real-world settings to inspire yourself. What about making Petra and its palaces of carved rock into a high-tech satellite? Royal shuttle or elite party station? Your choice.

Settings aren’t the only way that you can use research to get yourself out of a block. Sometimes your characters have uncommon abilities– find out more about them! Everything has its limits, whether its an athlete’s stamina or skills for their position on a team, how long it takes to grow eyebrows back after they’ve been burnt off, or the amount of abuse a notebook can take on a jungle exploration.

Maybe your character can’t break into the safe in ten seconds– maybe he needs half an hour. Maybe another character has to distract the guards while he/she cracks it, and that’s a whole different scene. Knowing more about what your characters do helps improve the way that you present actions and it makes your story more believable. It’s frustrating as a reader to have a talent or interest that a character has and read about them doing it poorly or missing something basic.

Even if you personally aren’t proficient at something that your characters are (or live where your story is set), the internet is a great resource– you can watch videos of people playing instruments and observe their poses, you can read posts about what it’s like to climb out of windows, and you can ask people you know, or read on the internet, how it feels to drive stick. Google Maps is great for taking a walk around a neighborhood you’ve never been and checking out the local flora and the conditions of the roads, and your library is a great resource for more specific information as well. Talk to people, find people you know who are expert in things that you aren’t but want to include, and slowly your world will come to life.

So yeah, revisions are rough and research is more work. But sometimes it’s the restrictions you place on yourself that allow you to be your most creative and stand out. Give it a shot, and see where it takes you. And if you do find something cool in your research travels, let me know in the comments!

Alex Yuschik can be found on twitter @alexyuschik.

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