The Wading is the Hardest Part

I knew this writer who would obsess over research.  He’d spend weeks, months even going over and over every little detail for every project.  Trying to find the meaning and the truth behind the story.  This was equal parts genuine interest and procrastination.  Sound familiar?  It’s just about every writer I know, including myself.

This act of wading (see? That title totally makes sense and isn’t just a bad pun) is one of the core skills of a writer.  If you can’t find the cut off point between getting ready to write and actually writing, you’re in trouble.

Part of the trick, I’ve found, is finding out just enough so that you can work with some confidence and let the rest fill itself in, without necessarily just wildly making shit up.  I thought for sake of explaining this, I’d talk about my research phase for Echoes.

As mentioned previously, Echoes started as a tiny inkling of an idea… one about… the secret word (damn that secret word.)  I did a lot of cursory research into the meaning of this word which led me (man this is repetitive) to a whole slew of medical research.

So let’s start there.  First things first, I spent a good day or two researching the conditions that my characters needed to have in order for the story to work.  Alzheimers and Schizophrenia seemed like the obvious solutions.  I did some fact checking and figured out that I was right.  I spoke with my father the Psychiatrist about both conditions just to get a sense of what’s fact and what’s fiction, which, thanks to the way movies have warped our understanding of the world is much harder than you’d expect.  From there he recommended a few books and a few articles.

I buy the books, I read them as thoroughly as a BFA Theater Major can read a medical text book, and then I move to the journal articles, which are personal statements from people afflicted with Schizophrenia.  These are ten to fifteen (sometimes more) page long confessions which ran in various medical journals over the past twenty years.  All of these are available either on the internet, or via the resources available at the Local Public Library (aided by my wonderful librarian wife, of course.)

After spending my free time reading about the most awful things that can happen to a person based on chemistry alone, I moved on to the next chunk.  Figuring out the killer.  I’d already gotten a heaping helping of info from the journal articles, but, what I needed was to find a totem for our killer, something that sets him apart and signifies his illness and his obsession.

Again, from the research I wound up with… damn, I wish the book was out already.

Okay, so let’s take all of that as done.  We’ve got two other big research bits to complete.  Character and Location.

Location… well… I cheat.  I’ve learned over the past ten years of writing for a living that it’s way easier to build what you know than it is to make everything up whole cloth.  So, look, I wanted our characters to be stuck in the suburban wastelands, why not make it the one I grew up in?  I know the streets, the route names, the houses, the hospitals, everything inside and out.  Plus, my hometown is the place they shot Dawn of the Dead, so, y’know, score!

Character… Everyone handles differently.  For me, I like to just build out situation.  With Brian, I wanted to capture a lot of the fears and anxieties of my own life, hence the pregnant wife.  Then for the sake of story, I knew he had to have a bad relationship with his father and that they both had to have schizophrenia.  From there, using all of that medical research, I built a sort of character profile.

This isn’t necessarily even something I wrote down or ever really expressed.  Some people find doing that helpful, but, I find that if I have a fully fleshed out character in my head, then I can usually just let the character go, and see what they do.

Writing is about building the maze to put your characters in.  If your plot is the walls (and hence the main obstacle), your research is the window dressing that helps to steer your characters in strange, exciting new directions.

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