Knee-Deep In The Bowels Of Research

So yeah, I swore up and down that I was going to keep all my NaNoWriMo-ing to myself because I didn’t think anyone really gave two shits about my progress or the process. Also, I was probably a little hormonal when I wrote that.

I am not a novelist. Yet. I’m not much of a writer, either, but I am trying my hardest to remedy that. I write every day. Every. Damn. Day. Some most of that stuff never sees the light of said Day, but it still got written and that’s the point. Crap or not, at least I wrote something.

I went into this year’s NaNoWriMo pretty much exactly the same way I did last year – with no idea what in the hell I was going to write. I had the vaguest idea for a couple of story arcs. I had two characters whose names have changed a few times and who (as of this writing) have no last names. These things combined really don’t amount to 50,000 words.

And so, while I had gotten off to a start, I’ve had to spend quite a few hours just thinking. Brainstorming on digital paper the What-Do-These-Characters-Want, the Whos, the Hows, and the What-Fors. Followed by writing out the answers to all of those Questions with a capital “Q.” I’m happy to report that I’ve got the story deeply outlined, I know my story arcs, my characters and their motivations, their back-stories and personalities… I’ve made some real progress, finally.

What I have learned from my experience so far is this: research, while a royal pain in the ass sometimes, is one of the most important things you will do. “They” say that, to be a good writer, one should write what they know. Well, when the story you want to tell goes beyond that which you know, what then?

Hours of research, that’s what.

I wrote a description for a forest glade. Sounds pretty simple. Trees. Grass. It’s a fucking forest, right? How hard can that be to describe?

When it came down to writing the minutia of the setting, I realized something. I don’t know shit about plants. Or gardening in general. I know green leafy stuff grows out of the dirt when the weather is warm, and for the most part, it goes away when the weather gets cold. Beyond that, I got nothing.

Based on the month I had to write the description for and the image that I saw in my head for the scene itself, I had to hunt down plants that fell into the following categories:

• propagate and spread on their own in the wild
• bloom white flowers in April
• can live in full to partial shade
• can tolerate wet soil, you know, because it’s a shady forest
• can grow in a nondescript area that falls somewhere between zones 4-8

I also needed one plant type that worked as a hearty ground cover that would fill the glade and eventually flower (although not necessarily in April). And, I kind of wanted to have this setting glow in the moonlight later on, so I would also need things that flowered at night during the summer months. Preferably white or pale-colored flowers.

And so I researched the shit out of plants. Came up with alyssum and sweet woodruff, creeping jenny, woodland phlox, lily of the valley and four o’clocks.

Why? Why go to all that trouble for what ended up being four sentences of content (so far)?

Because all it takes is for one reader with a background in gardening to punch holes into the continuity of my story. And while the flowers, in the grand scheme of things, don’t mean jack shit to the story itself, getting them wrong holds the potential for pulling *that* reader out of the story. Because they would know it was bullshit.

Because I didn’t do enough research to make the description of the scene believable.

Now, this certainly won’t be true for those writers who are building complete worlds from the ground up, where artistic license fully takes over and they’re creating every single thing from scratch, brand new and never seen before. They get to decide what kind of flowers grow, and when, and how, and what they look like.

But for those of us whose stories operate, at least somewhat, within the confines of the real world, that research is absolutely necessary.

Think of it like this: how many times have you heard about people pointing out obvious mistakes in movie scenes? “Watch, she’s got the gun in her right hand, but when the camera flips back over to her, it’s in her holster! And then when it pans away and comes back to her two seconds later, it’s back in her hand! HAHAHAHAHAAAA! I can’t believe they didn’t catch that, it was sooooooo obvious!!”

There is even a website dedicated to those mistakes.

And books, they are not immune to that sort of scrutiny.

I’m not making excuses for falling behind in my word count. Honestly, I’m pretty damned proud about reaching the 13,000 word mark. But, I’ve come to the decision that I want those words to be right. I’m all for writing off the cuff – I have done that on and off this month and I do plan to catch up (hopefully) – but I find it very difficult, and at times impossible, to write a scene when it includes writing about something I don’t know well enough to describe.

Did you know that a merlon is the solid upright section of a battlement? You know, those dookies that go across the top of a castle or fortress? And did you know that the space between merlons is called a crenel? A series of merlons and crenels is called a crenellation, did you know that?

No?

Neither did I, until I did some lengthy research on medieval architecture this afternoon.

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