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Add Depth to Your Fiction. Research!

September 6, 2010

Add Depth to Your Fiction. Research!
(or Commandeer. We’re Going to Commandeer That Ship. Nautical Term.)

Ah, research. It can be many things: annoying, tedious, exhilarating, spit-take inducing, the cause of arguments… There is no end to that list, but, in my opinion, research is consistent in one respect. It is always necessary in the world of fiction.

When it comes to non-fiction, you usually stick to writing what you know, or at least researching a topic thoroughly before putting together some sort of sound argument or prose on the subject. Fiction, however, is wrought with concepts that are either foreign to us or that we conceive out of what would seem to be thin air. It’s simply the nature of the beast.

‘Why, then, should I research at all?’ I hear you asking through cyberspace. ‘Can’t I just claim that whatever I write is correct in my fictional world?’

Yes. You can make that claim. The problem arises when people don’t buy it. Readers have to be able to suspend their disbelief, and research is your best defense as a writer, a preventative measure to ensure you don’t make a fool of yourself.

When I think about research in general, three main areas come to mind: setting, customs, and basic physiology. Let’s take a look at each of these and get a couple examples. Just as a fair warning, I’m about to get long-winded. 😀

I. Setting (location and time period)

One of the first things to consider when writing fiction is your story’s location. It isn’t uncommon for writers to set their fictional works at least partially in their hometowns (e.g. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series in St. Louis, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire in New Orleans, and even Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, in which the climax takes place in Phoenix). Is there anything wrong with this? Not at all! It’s easier to write a story set someplace familiar. You just have to be careful to get general directions right in narrative if your fictional characters are going from one real place to another. The last thing you want is some reader to point out to you that your character should have taken the highway north instead of south to get downtown.

Many times, however, we writers decide it would be more compelling to set a story in places we have never been before. Even more so than before, research becomes essential. Characters interact with their surroundings, and if you set your story in a real place, be sure you know what that real place is like.

As an example in my own fiction, we’ll take a look at Rachmaninoff. While the majority of the story takes place in Novi Sad, Serbia, the characters visit different places all around the world. Each site they visit required research by either S.L. Armstrong (my co-author) or myself. In fact, the longer the scene, the more time we spent researching it!

When Aric, one of the main characters, insists on seeing the Eiffel Tower, we include details of the attraction that neither S.L. nor I knew off the tops of our heads. In this case, the details were easy to iron out. A quick Google search and visit to the official website gave us the hours of operation, basic layout of the tower, what attractions could be found on each level, etc. Google maps provided me with the surroundings the characters would be able to see from the top of the tower. I even watched videos on YouTube of people riding the glass-walled elevators up the tower to get a better perspective and feel for the speed of the ascent. By learning about the location, we were able to add depth to the narrative. The goal was always to help the reader immerse themselves in the location and what that location evoked in the characters.

When it comes to time period, there are so many different options that my mind boggles, but research is always important. If your story takes place in eighteenth century Germany, make sure you know the history of the area. Was your specific spot considered Prussia, Pomerania, Saxony? (If anyone knew those different areas from memory, more power to you. I had to research just to make the example! ^_-)

It’s all about the details, and even if some of the details you learn through research never make it onto the page, the deeper your understanding of the time and place, the more realistic it will likely appear to the reader.

If you’re working entirely in your own fictional world, you have unlimited potential in your hands. Researching various fields of interest can add more depth to your fictional world and draw a reader in. Think about the lay of the land, social structure, climate, vegetation, elements that would or would not lead to the development of a belief system or religion.

Quick Tip: When at a loss on a given subject, seek expert advice where you can! Sometimes it’s easier to interview someone knowledgeable than it would be to scour the Internet for scraps of what you’re looking for. At one point, I went to the Astrophysics and Geo-science departments at my university to ask for help on the basics of solar system formation and map building. I learned more in a single hour of consultation than I would have spending an entire day on the Internet.

II. Customs

Once you have your setting ironed out, it’s time to take a closer look at customs.

When in Rome…

That’s right. If your characters are Roman, they should act like Romans (i.e. ‘do as the Romans do’). If your characters are Icelandic, they should have Icelandic customs. If your characters are German, well… you get the idea.

Take a look at your characters and their compatibility to their setting’s local customs. If they grew up there, they should most likely be at ease with the basic local customs. If the characters are visiting, do they feel instantly at home or like a fish out of water? Show the readers why by adding details you’ve researched. It will add richness to the character and probably help you build their backstory. Two birds with one stone!

An example from my fiction could be the character Hadi from The Keeper. He is pulled from the fashion industry of Milan to a remote estate in Sétif, Algeria. The pace of life there is so different that he struggles to adjust. No one there that he encounters cares one bit about his designer clothing, and he has to adjust quickly to the climate and Dhakir’s mysterious aversion to modern amenities such as air-conditioning. It throws him off balance, makes him feel uncomfortable and isolated, and forces him to question why he is willing to put himself through it all.

Essentially, Hadi interacts with, and is influenced by, his surroundings. He’s completely incompatible with his surroundings, and it shows. In this case, research led to an understanding of customs that helped establish internal conflict.

III. Physiology (the science of the functioning of living systems)

This is one thing that pulls me out of a story every single time it’s neglected. If you’re writing about humans that don’t push the boundaries of modern science, make sure they’re physically capable of the acts you describe. This ranges over a broad spectrum of details, but I’ll give a couple quick examples.

If your character is involved in a specific sport (e.g. 100m Butterfly racer in Swimming), he or she should have a body in line with that sport (broad shoulders, developed pectorals, tapered torso, strong thighs, etc). If they don’t, then there should be a reason or a consequence. Make the character realistic.

When writing sex scenes, keep in mind the limitations of the human body. Research the position and, if the position chosen would be challenging for most, give a little reason behind a character’s flexibility.

If you are employing some concept that defies human physiology, such as male pregnancy, you had better do your research and provide a compelling argument for its existence and how it works. An audience can only suspend its disbelief so far. The excuse of ‘It’s magic!’ doesn’t explain away the physiological improbability of ass-babies. In order to make it plausible, you have to world-build and give the reader a good reason to believe you! (Disclaimer: While I’m clearly not partial to male pregnancy that isn’t well thought out and explained, it’s just one example that came to mind. If you’re doing something like making a sentient alien race that receives nutrition from sunlight like plants do, research photosynthesis and apply the science in a new and interesting way.)

To conclude my long blog post, I’ll just say there are thousands upon thousands of stories out there, and the best way to make yours stand out in a positive way is to utilize research and tell a creative story that readers will find engaging and believable. All in all, if you do a bit of research on your setting, make sure your characters jive with their surroundings, and stay true to the physiological boundaries you put in place for whatever race you’re writing, you’ll do rather well! Just remember that research is about adding depth to your characters and world. You don’t have to get so bogged down that you dive into purple prose, but little tidbits to enhance the reader’s view into your characters’ lives can really help satisfy your paying customers!

Do you have examples of fiction (erotic or not) where you felt a little research could have vastly improved your reading experience? What mistakes make you tilt your head and frown at a book? You don’t have to name names, but feel free to share your wisdom!

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