I once had a friend imply that writing genre fiction was somehow easier and more enjoyable because I get to come home from work, sit down in a chair, and (this is a direct quote) “make shit up.”
She didn’t mean it as an insult, and I didn’t take it as one. Really, she was talking about her own struggles to write a memoir, which I totally get. She’s already agented based on a blog she kept (which has since been taken down), and she’s a good writer.
But sometimes I think about that line. Is that what people think? That I come home, flop into an easy chair, and make up a story?
Yes and no.
The paranormal elements, yes, I make them up. When I wrote Elemental, I researched how the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water worked into different cultures. And I’m using the term “research” loosely here. I read some articles on Wikipedia, I read some articles on witchcraft, stuff like that. Stones play a role in the plot, and I looked for stones that were known for the specific qualities I gave them. (i.e., garnet for confidence, or citrine for courage.)
But that’s about it.
The paranormal stuff is the easy part. So yes, making shit up is fun and honestly, one of the best parts of writing. But though the paranormal stuff is HUGE in the book, it’s such a minor part of the writing process.
Just like in any kind of story, I needed to keep character motivation at the forefront of my mind. I need to keep character at the forefront of my mind. The plot needs to keep moving. I write every scene with a goal of maintaining conflict on every page. Conflict adds tension, and tension keeps the pages turning. I read my friend’s edit letter, and the editor had a fantastic insight: every scene should add a minor turn to the plot. If it doesn’t, it’s unnecessary.
Last night I was really struggling with this scene in my sequel. Gabriel, who is kind of a badass sports punk who gets into it with everyone, was arguing with Layne, a total brainiac who’s having some issues at home. She breaks down crying in the middle of their fight, and I kept revising this one little scene for two hours. He was tender. He was gentle. He was understanding.
Seriously, I was ready to pull my hair out.
Then I remembered that Gabriel is none of those things. He’s confused because she’s upset, and when he gets confused, he gets mad. Here’s how it turned out:
Layne cried for like a full minute before realizing her face was pressed against Gabriel Merrick’s sweatshirt.Which was quite nicely pressed against his chest.This. Was. Awful.She jerked back with an indrawn breath. “I’m sorry.”He didn’t let go, so she kept her eyes fixed on the drawstring of his hoodie. He probably had a dozen remarks just waiting to let fly, and she so didn’t need to see the derision in his face.But he spoke, and his voice was low. “Don’t be sorry. I get it.”She looked up, then, because she couldn’t reconcile the voice with the guy. It wasn’t quite gentle—she didn’t think a boy like him could be gentle—but it was something … else.His eyes were intent, dark blue in the shade of the path. This close, she could tell he hadn’t shaved yet this morning, and with the way his hands encircled her wrists and held her practically pressed up against him—well, it was just way too frigging much. Hormone overload. She was either going to kiss him or start crying again, and both options sucked.Well, one option sucked.And that’s the one that seemed to be taking over. Layne jerked her hands out of his and started walking, swiping at her eyes. “Forget it.”“Whoa.” He caught her arm.God, his eyes were searching her face. She felt her eyes welling up again.“Let me go,” she said. “I need to catch my horse. If my dad finds him in the barn and I’m not there…”“Bullshit.”Now she pulled against his grip. “It’s true. Just—”“Why do you keep running from me?”She gritted her teeth. “I am not running from you. I need to—”“Jesus Christ, would you calm down a second?”
That’s 300 words. It took me about two hours to write them. Sounds easy and enjoyable, right?
Especially when I had a revelation last night and I think I’m going to end up deleting them all.
But it’s not just character and story and plot. I can’t make up everything. The story takes place in our universe, so some things need to be accurate.
I read a book a few months ago, where a boy and his brother went on a road trip. They had to travel through Baltimore, and there’s a scene where they duck into a convenience store to buy beer.
That took me right out of the story, because in Maryland, you can’t buy beer at a convenience store. You can only buy beer at a liquor store (yes, really), and in many counties, you can’t even buy alcohol on Sunday.
That’s minor, yes. But it’s one of those details that’s so easy to get right.
I’m doing more research for this story than I ever have. I was talking about it (read: whining about it) to my husband this morning, and he said, “Gee, it’s kind of like a job, huh?”
Honestly, he’s lucky I don’t make him sleep on the couch.
But here’s what I want to get right:
House fires: I spent two hours interviewing the local fire chief, because I needed to know exactly what it’s like in a house fire. What it sounds like, what the dangers are (did you know that most of those “McMansions” are generally built out of nothing more than toothpicks, and they go up like a match? Or that one of the biggest risks for a firefighter is falling through a floor?), what things the public don’t think about. These are things you can’t make up. And while I spent two hours interviewing him, that doesn’t include the amount of time I spent on YouTube watching fire and rescue videos, or the pre-research I did so I could ask him intelligent questions. (I blogged about my trip to the firehouse, and you can read about it here.)
Police procedure: One of my characters is going to get arrested and charged with something pretty serious. Since they’re teenagers, I need to know how police handle those kinds of situations. Would he be thrown in the holding cell with adults? Would he have access to a lawyer? Who makes the decision whether to charge him as an adult or a minor? What does the inside of a police station look like? I have an officer lined up to talk to me, I just want to make sure I have my ducks in a row so, again, I don’t look like an idiot. Again, these are details that need to be right.
Deaf kids, ordinary school: So far, this is the most challenging. I have a minor character who’s deaf, and he wants to play basketball. He goes to a mainstream school, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the pros and cons of parents who make the decision to send their deaf kids to a normal school. I don’t know anything about basketball, so I’m trying to find out if his playing on a regular team would even be possible. (If anyone knows anyone who knows anything about working with deaf kids, especially playing sports, I would love to talk to them.) This is something I definitely need to get right.
Yes, all this research is fun, and interesting. Really, going to the firehouse was fascinating.
But it’s still hard work. Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s not.
What about you guys? What kinds of research have you done for your novels?