Writing: When to wing it and when to research it

Hello, again!  I’ve been buried in interviews for my other blog.  It’s nice to get back here and chat about my first writing passion.

In recent posts, I’ve commented on the importance of research in writing a story.  The little details, whether we realize it or not, do matter.  As a recent example, I was reading a chapter of a story and found myself incredibly irked by a plot point involving murder by sabotaged elevator.  You see, having worked in a corporate office tower in the security department, I knew very well that the way things were being described was completely implausible.  Granted, it’s not the easiest thing to research, but it threw me right off with an otherwise great story.  I contacted the author and shared my expertise, and she was grateful for the insight and has made adjustments to the future story.

This is what our community should do, after all:  aid each other in growth and improvement.  That goes for authors and book reviewers alike.

That said, if we researched every single thing in a book, the creative fun of the piece might dissipate.  I know I experienced that when writing Collide.  I became so irate with certain aspects of American law, I wanted to just forget the story.  I lost my emotional connection to the piece, and without that, I simply cannot write a quality product.

Solution:  either write what you know, or learn how to make calculated shortcuts.

Let’s take my own book, Change of Season, as an example.  Having decided to set the book in a high school setting, I opted to set the story in Toronto and the surrounding area.  I grew up in the area and know the school system and curriculum.  I’m aware of certain courses (Writer’s Craft) being permitted substitutions for standard English courses, and was able to employ that, along with my knowledge of arts-focused high schools here.

However, I needed a boarding school setting.  Having never been to boarding school, I did a lot of research:  I looked up the schools in Canada and some in the US, examined campus maps and school policies, and recalled the experiences of a friend in boarding school.  I wanted a sense of realism, and couldn’t guess my way through it on a viewing of Lost and Delirious (a fantastic Canadian film starring Piper Perabo, Jessica Pare and Mischa Barton, which I namechecked out of love in the novel).

I took liberties with the structure of the arts programming at Casteel Preparatory Academy.  I drew on the reported experiences of friends and family in such programs at the post-secondary level, stripping them down for high school.  Autumn’s writing class and her various prompts were pulled from thin air or derived from past prompts I’ve seen online.  It was “close enough”, and frankly, all classroom scenes were meant to connect characters more than anything.  Without that first day in Math, we don’t have Veronica and Autumn bonding; without the engagement in Creative Writing, Autumn doesn’t speak to Evan, nor does she connect with her mentor, Professor St. James.  I know at least a few people who’ve come away feeling that the various classes are realistic enough, which goes to show that you can find a shortcut when researching.

I’ve studied Psychology and Social Work, so Autumn’s inner turmoil was drawn from what I know.  As a former veterinary tech, the animal scenes were easily composed.  Music?  My life, if you ask anyone who knows me.  I wrote what I knew.  The only research I did was confirming release dates on music to ensure no anachronisms.

I won’t delve further out of a desire to avoid spoilers, but this is a brief example of how one writer approached the research aspect of writing, and made choices on where to spend the time and where not to.  You know your characters, genre and material better than I.

Ultimately, try to always think of your reader and ask:  if this person was an expert in this area, would he or she be annoyed if I got this completely wrong?  My general rule of thumb is to research anything with a set protocol or series of rules, and to flex the boundaries of more abstract areas.  In other words:  research the concrete things like science, law and geography; feel free to slack a bit with the imaginary all-inclusive resort where your characters have gone to unexpectedly die or the hybrid strain of werewolves you’ve invented.

Or, when in doubt, follow Professor St. James’ advice to Autumn:  “Write what you know, and write when you need to let go.”


Published by A.C. Dillon

A.C. Dillon is an insomnia-driven Canadian author, who enjoys parlaying personal sleeplessness into keeping readers from their own slumber. When not sending a laptop into steaming fits of overworked rage, A.C. can be found listening to an obsessive music collection or watching Empire Records for the 338th time.

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