Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Research as a Lifestyle

by Robison Wells

As previously mentioned, I’m speaking this week at the annual LDStorymakers Writers Conference. Given the nature of my writing ability, you’ll be surprised to find out that one of my duties will be sitting in on small critique groups for heretofore unpublished authors. I’ll surely mislead them in one way or another, and then when they get rejected by numerous publishers and fail to land a lucrative contract, they’ll come after me. That’s because I’ll be teaching classes on “Tell, Don’t Show” and “How to Write a Bestselling Novel in Ten Minutes a Week!”

Actually, no. I’ll be giving a small presentation on how to write effective dialogue, and then I’ll spend an hour on the topic of research.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’d rather spend an hour learning about comma splices and semicolons than listen to a lecture on research. Well, too bad, fatboy, because the grammar class is the day before mine—-you can attend both! Sucks to be you.

But let me tell you something, and I’m not making this up: research is really neat. And my focus—blending fact with fiction—-is loads of fun. For example, how many pictures of Hooters logos are you going to see at the grammar class? Answer: zippo. At the research class? One.

My class will be split into two major sections, the first of which is entitled Color and Culture. The thesis, to quote Ray Bradbury, is “The most improbable tales can be made real if your reader, through his senses, feels that he stands at the center of events.” And he’ll never feel that he stands at the center of events if you do all of your research on Wikipedia (or a history textbook, or some similar reference manual). Today I’m not going to go any further into what that section will discuss, because I want you to attend the class and find out. Also, there’s a rather extensive supply of visual aides that do not lend themselves easily to this blog.

The second section of the class, however, will be based on the following idea, also thieved from Ray Bradbury: “I am not one thing… My Muse has grown out of the mulch of good, bad, and indifferent.” That could be explained more clearly by Stephen King: “Can I be blunt? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Longtime readers may remember my three rules of writing: 1. Write; 2. Learn how to write; 3. Learn something else. It’s that third rule that is the crux of research. But here is what Bradbury and King and I are really driving at: you cannot sit down to write a novel, come up with a great story, and then pull out the encyclopedia to color your writing. Not hardly. Instead, you must be always reading to fuel your muse: fiction, non-fiction, newspapers—-Bradbury adds in there comics and essays and poetry.

To illustrate all of this, let me tell you how I wrote one of my novels: When I was working on Wake Me When It’s Over, I did so for two main reasons. First, I was getting ready to graduate from the university and I had a degree that was fairly worthless in the real world. Sure, it was fascinating schoolwork—-the degree was Political Science with an International Relations emphasis. My senior research was on the efficacy of modern terrorism. It was less than two years after 9/11, and at that point the world of terrorism was shrouded in much more mystery than it is today. (I recently pulled out my senior thesis, and realized that it is completely obsolete—-less than four years after I wrote it!)

Anyway, I had all of this knowledge crammed into my head and I was desperately looking for an outlet. So, I decided to write a book about terrorists. But not just any terrorists. No, bombings had been done to death (insensitive pun intended) and I wanted something new and different. So I chose economic terrorism.

The second major reason for Wake Me was that I was in my final semester, and I was stuck taking a statistics class that I’d put off my entire college career. So every morning I’d go to stats, sit somewhere in the middle of a large auditorium, and write scenes about a guy in a stats class. Every day, I imagined, he’d arrive early so he could watch a gorgeous blonde classmate enter the room:
“All that I cared about was the event that took place at approximately 7:17am every morning. In fact, after three weeks of statistics lessons, I had been able to determine that it took place, on average seventeen minutes and sixteen seconds after seven o’clock, with a standard deviation of 1.84 minutes. Moreover, I was able to conclude at a 99% confidence interval, that it would occur between 7:16 and five seconds, and 7:18 and fifty-one seconds.

“Stats had real-world applications after all.”
So now I had a story about an infatuated romance in a stats class, and economic terrorism. What next? Well, I was watching a Discovery Channel documentary about counterfeiting, and they made the following statement: the reason that the US government pumps so much money into anti-counterfeiting techniques is not so that the crooks won’t use fake bills to buy stereos. It’s actually so that the general public won’t see a lot of fakes and lose confidence in the dollar—-our money is only worth what we believe it’s worth, and if we decide it’s not worth anything (because so many counterfeits turn up) then we’re all suddenly bankrupt.

Aha! My economic terrorists suddenly had a plan!

Years before, while taking a history class on the US Constitution, I’d bought (and never read) a textbook called Novus Ordo Seclorum. One day, while procrastinating my writing, I pulled it off the shelf to find out what it meant (this was before Dan Brown made the phrase famous). Well, long story short, it’s Latin taken from the Great Seal of the United States, and it translates to: “A New Order of The Ages”. Well, if you were a terrorist group trying to bankrupt the US via counterfeiting so that everyone would be forced to live in economic equality, could you possibly think of a better name for your organization?

So there was the framework of the story, and none of it was researched specifically for a book. Instead, it came from two classes, a documentary, and a history book I just happened to thumb through.

Of course, from there I moved on to specific research: a lot of reading about counterfeiting techniques, etc. But my point is this: for a writer, research needs to be a lifestyle. You need to be reading and processing all the time. I didn’t turn on that counterfeiting documentary because I thought it would help with this particular writing project-—I turned it on because it sounded interesting. 99.9% of the things I read won’t specifically end up in novel, but, as Bradbury said: “My Muse has grown out of the mulch of good, bad, and indifferent.”

To end, let me simply add this list. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it’s everything I could think of off the top of my head. These are things I read, watched, or studied-—all without any specific plans to use them in my writing—-that led directly to important aspects of my books: a documentary about Stalingrad; a history class on ancient civilizations; The Hunt For Red October; Tolkein; Weapons of World War Two (an encyclopedia); an anthropology class on the Southwest; In Search of the Old Ones (travel essays); Roads to Center Place (academic text); Google Earth; a survival training course; Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites; Baptists at our Barbeque; old seminary worksheets; stats class; PoliSci classes (National Security, International Security, America at War, The Creation of the Constitution); General Conference talks; a public lecture with Sen. John McCain; a public lecture with Edward Said; magazines (Time, Newsweek, and National Geographic); the documentary on counterfeiting; books (The Political Language of Islam; A Case for Nuclear Proliferation; Overstating the Arab State); various Boy Scout merit badges; a documentary on England’s midlands; a documentary on architect I.M.Pei.

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Stephen King again “It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true.”


At 3/20/2007 12:52 PM, Anonymous Jennie said...

Rob, as usual, you hit the nail on the head. As a former librarian I hate to admit that I'm not crazy about formal research, but I too believe reading is the key to good writing. The broader a person's reading tastes are the more he/she has to bring to his/her writing. I've often said that being a "jack of all trades" is a big plus for writers and librarians.

At 3/20/2007 2:58 PM, Blogger Darvell Hunt said...

I, for one, plan to be in your dialogue session at the conference bootcamp, with a sample of my own dialogue. Should be fun!


At 3/20/2007 4:29 PM, Anonymous Crystal Liechty said...

You're brilliant, Jeff. I love the way your twisted little mind works.

At 3/20/2007 4:48 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

And Darvell, come to the research class. Just skip Jeff's lame How To Get Published thing. Seriously, it's just more of Jeff, and haven't we already had enough?

At 3/20/2007 5:18 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

I noticed you didn't mention the part where Master King says that he researches, "As little as possible."

Come to my class Darvel. Unless you need a nap.

(All right. I admit it. Rob's class sounds like it could be a little bit interesting.)

At 3/20/2007 7:28 PM, Blogger Jon said...

So, Rob, why haven't you used your vast knowledge of counterfeiting to make yourself gloriously rich? (You know, as part of your "research.")

At 3/21/2007 12:44 AM, Blogger Darvell Hunt said...

Wow, what a weird love triangle. Two awesome writers fighting over my attention. Gosh, I'd feel honored, but this is just too weird.

I know! When an author has two publishing houses who want his or her book, they usually start a bidding war. Who wants to start?


At 3/21/2007 3:13 AM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

Very good points, Rob. And it never ceases to amaze me how research materials seem to fall in my lap when I do need them, sort of like your documentary. It's like we send our needs out into the cosmos and they are met.

At 3/21/2007 9:09 AM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Darvell, my offer is this: if you go to Jeff's class he'll give you a big wet sloppy kiss. I think your decision is clear.

Jon, who said I didn't make myself fabulously wealthy? I do, after all, live in a fancy suburban apartment and drive a Korean car. Where do you think I got that kind of cash?

At 3/21/2007 6:07 PM, Blogger Darvell Hunt said...

>Darvell, my offer is this: if you go to Jeff's class he'll give you
>a big wet sloppy kiss. I think your decision is clear.

Wow, sounds scary.

I think I'll wait to see what Jeff offers for your class before deciding.


At 3/21/2007 11:47 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

'kay do you really want to sit in an enclosed room with a guy who's been sick since before Britney shaved her head? Nuff said.

At 3/22/2007 9:40 AM, Blogger robisonwells said...

Sick of your bad attitude, punk.

At 3/22/2007 4:38 PM, Blogger Darvell Hunt said...

Um, I'll pay a dollar to see Jeff and Robison duke it out behind the Provo Library tomorrow. Anyone else want in?

Whoever wins gets my class attendance.

I'd also pay a dollar to see the stubble growing through Britney's new tattoo. Ich. Disgusting, but, oh, so alluring.


At 3/25/2007 2:45 PM, Blogger Darvell Hunt said...

Great writing conference, eh?

I hope I made a reasonable compromise. I went to Jeff's class, but attended three of Robison's bootcamp critique sessions. Fair enough?

(I didn't get sick from Robison and Jeff didn't smooch me.)

The classes and the bootcamp critique sessions were all excellent. And no fights or bald-headed divas.



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