“When you create stories, you become gods of tiny, intricate dimensions.” –Metatron, Supernatural
Will somebody please tell my characters I’m the god—er, goddess, whatever—of their tiny, intricate dimension? I don’t think they got the memo.
All joking aside, I do understand that when push comes to shove, I’m in control of the world I create. It may require me to step away from the project for a while, reaffirm my goal for the story, rediscover my characters, but I’m ultimately in charge. I can make characters whatever I want. They can be male, female, sane, crazy, soldiers, attorneys, candlestick makers, anything. Well, maybe in theory.
The problem is, I don’t know the first thing about being a soldier, an attorney, or a candlestick maker. In fact, I don’t know the first thing about most things in the world. My knowledge base of first-hand experience is limited. The only thing I know that most people probably don’t is how it feels to get kicked in the face by a horse. Therefore, writing characters who have done and seen things I haven’t done or seen can be problematic. Exhibit A: drugs.
Embarrassing story time! In the first draft of a short story I wrote for class, I wrote something about a character “snorting crack.” Yeah.
That wasn’t the first time Carly’s lack of drug knowledge was an issue. In my failed NaNo project, one of the first people to die was a drug dealer. My friends and I joked about Googling “street names for heroin” and how I was probably put on a federal watch list (something something NSA something something irony), but even though I got my answers, it didn’t make the scene any more convincing.
There are some things you just can’t Google, but there are some things you may not be able to experience first-hand either. For instance, how do fabulously wealthy people live? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that, and I can’t very well contact someone who lives in the Hamptons and say, “Hey, mind if I hang out with your family for a bit? Just, you know, observe how you interact with each other, what your children are like, maybe take that Aston Martin out for a spin? It’s research for my book.”
Now, if you’ve never done drugs and you’re not fabulously wealthy, my best guesstimate of how drug dealers and rich people act may not seem noticeably out of place to you. However, the guesses will be brutally obvious to someone out there. It could be the deciding factor in whether someone finishes the book or tosses it aside, whether they recommend it to a friend or give it a two-star review. Exhibit B: horses.
I’ve been riding horses since I was four years old. I’ve had just about every kind of trainer out there. I’ve ridden a wide variety of horses. I can clean a stall more efficiently and automatically than I can vacuum a room. Absolutely nothing can pull me out of a story faster than an inaccurate portrayal of horses, and oh boy, are they everywhere. Do not ask me to watch a “horse movie” because, from The Horse Whisperer to Hidalgo, Hollywood does it all wrong. Horses may not be central to video games, but nothing reminds me the game is all fake better than seeing reins connected to browbands. Thankfully, most people who write horse books actually know what they’re talking about, but once in a while you get someone who just wants to throw a riding scene in there and positively butchers it. The point is, the little details you don’t think are important could leave a mighty big impression.
So, if you’re writing something with horses in it, feel free to ask me questions! Since most of you probably aren’t, that’s a useless offer but it stands nonetheless. However, what to do about those things you can’t Google? What if you can’t take lessons? I think the answer is to get interviews.
So here are my questions for all of you writing gods and goddesses. Have you done interviews as research? How do you get them? How do you get attorneys and doctors to take time out of their day to talk to you? How do you ask addicts or victims of crimes questions that could be painful to them? I have yet to do any interviews as part of my research, so I’m curious as to how more experienced people manage it and how well it works.
One more question. Have you used TV shows or movies as “research” and gotten away with it? Obviously I’m not talking about borrowing the physics (or lack thereof) in the The Fast and the Furious, but what about Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of a person with autism in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Charlize Theron as a serial killer in Monster? Does Hollywood do anything right?