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.”


Meet A Character: Marianna ‘Miraj’ Winterside

We’re counting down towards release of Change of Season.  While you patiently await the book, I’ll be posting a few character profiles for you to take in and absorb.  Check back regularly for new teasers.

If you missed the profile on Veronica, be sure to flip back for it!  Up next, one of the sassiest characters I’ve created…

Name:  Marianna ‘Miraj’ Winterside
Age:  18
Birthplace:  Toronto, Ontario
Current Location: Working in Mississauga, Ontario
School:  Drop-out
Visual Casting:  Ellen Page with a chin-length asymmetrical haircut

Miraj, as she prefers to be called, met Autumn by chance, their paths crossing as each ditched her respective classes for the day and wandered downtown.  Miraj came to Autumn’s aid when two men harassed her, sending them fleeing with her vicious words and stern gaze.

Miraj is Autumn’s protector, an unofficial bodyguard who strives to pull Autumn from her shell and remind her of what it is to be free, to have fun and never worry about the consequences.  Having grown up in a difficult home situation, Miraj moves out and leaves the city, finding work in a diner.  She is a confidante and akin to Jiminy Cricket, pushing Autumn towards a path that will help her heal and encouraging her when she’s at her lowest.  A proponent of brutal honesty, she seldom sugarcoats anything, but she loves deeply beneath the abrasive tone and aloofness.

What’s On Her iPod?
Getaway – Age Of Electric
It Doesn’t Matter – Alison Krauss & Union Station
Army Of Me – Bjork
I Am The Mob – Catatonia
Passenger – Deftones ft Maynard James Keenan
Delilah – The Dresden Dolls
Run Baby Run – Garbage
Gutless – Hole
Faint – Linkin Park
Disposable Teens – Marilyn Manson
Only – Nine Inch Nails
Big Exit – PJ Harvey
Cherry Bomb – The Runaways

Choice Quote:  “Look at me, babe:  I travel light.  I left home with a backpack.  As much as they’ve put me through, I don’t let it hang on me.  Life is mine to live and enjoy.  You’re spinning in circles, Red.  It’s time to cut a few ties – which means actually going up to those ropes, saying, ‘Hey, what’s up?  Fuck you very much’ and cutting them.  That’s her job, you know?  She’s the scissors.”

Meet A Character: Veronica St. Clair

Hello, lovelies!  I’ll be posting a few character profiles for you to take in and absorb as Change Of Season‘s release date approaches.  I’ll be posting a few, so check back regularly.

Up first, one of my favourite characters to write in this tale.

Name:  Veronica Laurel St. Clair
Age:  17
Birthplace:  Mississauga, Ontario
Years At Casteel Preparatory Academy: 5
Specialty Major:  Drama
Visual Casting:  A busty Amanda Seyfried

Veronica is the popular girl in school who has no sense of superiority in that role.  Beloved as an actress in school productions and blessed with a wry humour, she’s secretly shy and doubts herself, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart.  She sees herself as politically aware, and very accepting of others. She is fiercely protective of her loved ones.  She enjoys a party, but only within the security of a circle of trusted friends.

Spotting Autumn on her first day on campus, Veronica quickly makes it her mission to get to know the reclusive redhead, and take her under her wing.  She sees a kindred spirit in Autumn, and she is very persistent when it comes to goals.

What’s On Her iPod?
Before You – Chantal Kreviazuk
Julia – Emm Gryner
Extraordinary Machine – Fiona Apple
Shake It Out – Florence + The Machine
Howl – Florence + The Machine
We Are Young – Fun.
Not The Drinking – Lauren Pritchard
Swim – Madonna
Umbrella – Mandy Moore
Perfect – Maren Ord
Fearless Love – Melissa Etheridge
Float On – Modest Mouse
Fuckin’ Perfect – P!nk
Fidelity – Regina Spektor
If I Fall – Tara Maclean
Bells For Her – Tori Amos

… and the soundtracks of every Broadway musical ever, of course.

Choice Quote:  “Sorry, it’s reflex.  I inhale oxygen, exhale sarcasm and song.”