I think we’ve all read a book or watched a film and been immersed in a story that had fascinating characters and a plot that takes you on a rollercoaster ride, but you still felt strangely empty once you reached the end. Perhaps that was because the world inhabited by the characters felt flat and slightly unreal. The details were missing.
Personally, I’m a huge believer in research. I read, watch and absorb as much as I can when writing a story. I talk to people who may have had similar experiences to those my characters are about to endure and I travel the world to experience the locations.
The internet is a vast research tool and I use it extensively – but there are many other avenues you should take, because the Internet is just the tip of the research iceberg. Whatever you read on several pages of Wikipedia may give you a basic understanding of the subject but there are probably many books on the same topic, each hundreds of pages long, that give you a deeper insight. They present you the details that could bring your story to life.
I have stood on the edge of an active volcano in the name of research. You can pretty much imagine what it was like – and I could use those obvious details in my story but it wouldn’t challenge your imagination. Things like the smell, the effect it had on me physically, the taste the gases left in my mouth and the soundscape around me all add up to a more detailed picture. These details often stick in a reader’s mind.
Naturally, if your story is about the 15-year-old king of a fantasy epic, then it is difficult to research that and you could write pretty much anything you like. But, again, it’s the details that matter. If you invent things, make them stick in the reader’s imagination. Look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books – a flat word on the back of four giant elephants, carried through space on the back of a giant turtle is very memorable. Oddly, what makes those stories work is not only the wild concepts that imprint on your imagination but the familiarity of it all. The Discworld has its quirks but we can all relate to it. The characters in the books may be wizards or trolls but they all have relatable details that draw us closer to a character or story.
If your story is set in the real world, try to visit the locations. I recently enjoyed reading an adventure thriller. The story took me in unexpected places that I desperately wanted to experience for myself and I turned the pages eager to know how things would resolve. Then the story led the characters to the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, a place I had recently been to – but apparently the author had not. I spent the rest of the chapter thinking – no, that’s wrong. That’s not at all what it’s like. How did that happen there?
I was yanked out of the story with such force that the rest of the book felt very lackluster and it made me suddenly question what other falsehoods the author had thrown at me. The author had broken a bond of trust. This detail would have passed over most readers, but for me it ruined a perfectly good book. Perhaps a chapter I enjoyed would have had another reader thrown off track – all because of a tiny bit of poor research.
For me, poor research is akin to insulting your readers. Never treat your audience as fools, especially because most of the time there are readers already a step ahead of you…
Andy Briggs’s author website: www.andybriggs.co.uk
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