“Write what you know.”
That’s one of the first bits of advice most new writers hear. But unless you’re an adrenaline addict, that adage makes for a very boring story. Not many breakout novels revolve around a sink full of dirty dishes, youth soccer games, and PTA meetings.
So we must do research. And if you really want to slip on your characters’ shoes, you’ll want to try hands on research. Writing unique characters means stepping outside our comfort zones and attempting things we would never do in real life.
I’m a hermit by nature, so signing up for RWA was an adventure in itself. But since I’ve joined my local chapter, I’ve visited a firing range and shot a gun for the first time.
Channeling Rick Castle, several chapter sisters have gone on ride-alongs with local police officers. Others visited a strip club and interviewed a pole dancer. A staple of our annual retreat is the nightly ‘research workshop ’ where members test fancy drinks so they can write bar scenes with authority.
And then there was that Reno trip to research casinos…but they told me not to talk about that…
Nothing inspires writers more than exploring the location of a new book. Writing a novel without visiting the setting is like submitting a love scene without first testing the choreography with a live subject.
At CBC-RWA, when someone says ‘Gee, I’d like to set this novel in St. Louis, but I’ve never been there,’ she’s greeted with chants of “Road trip! Road Trip!” Our historical romance critique group plans trips to England and Scotland two years in advance.
Sometimes, it’s impossible to act out research, especially if you write thrillers. Debating the best way to poison a man while dining in a fine restaurant will you some odd looks from the surrounding tables.
Once, I sat with some writers in a hotel lobby, discussing a fictive terrorist plot to bring down a national landmark. After explaining in great detail how the antagonist would wreak maximum destruction, I noticed an anxious man nearby eavesdropping. Speaking louder, I immediately began tossing about writer’s words: characters, scene, etc. to make it perfectly clear that this was fiction we were plotting. I suppose I should be glad that he did not notify the authorities. But the terrified look on his face stayed with me and convinced me not to write the book even though I'd spent hours developing that story. I guess that was researching my audience, hands on.
So how about you? What’s the weirdest thing you have even done to research a novel? Has your hands on research ever got you into trouble? I would love to hear your stories.