01 February, 2011

Dana's Dojo: The Joye of Research

Today in the Dojo: How does one make research more fun?

I do a great deal of research - particularly in the apartments of tall blondes.
-Raymond Chandler

Research gets a bad rap.  Writers make it sound like work.  They seldom see it as an excuse for a Fun Day Out.

There seems to be a perception that work involves pain.  If we're not suffering, we're not working.  If it doesn't cost us time, money and sweat, it's not work.  If we do it with other people, it's not work.  Say the word "research", and most writers will envision endless hours spent hunched over dusty tomes in a dimly-lit library somewhere, eyes crossed from fine print, fingers bleeding from over a dozen papercuts, and neck as stiff as if we'd been in a twenty-car pileup on the freeway.  And if we're doing research, that means that we're in solitary confinement, with only brief human contact with librarians and other such folk who will only make us read more books with tiny print.

It doesn't have to be that way.

In fact, it shouldn't.

Oh, research will entail a lot of reading.  It will also include those horrible slogs through thousands of only vaguely useful search results on Google.  But it doesn't have to end that way.  And in this age of multi-tasking, we can make research pull double-duty for us.

As I so often do, I'm going to use my own experiences as an example.  You'll learn how I went from research-as-chore to research-as-opportunity-for-fun, and hopefully get inspired to go out and play - um, research - in ways you never considered before.

Before you can get started, you've gotta look at the potential.  Can your research get you out of the house?  Surely.  Even for SF authors such as myself.  Granted, I can't travel to strange new worlds, but there are plenty of things in this world that will do.  I'm fortunate in that I lived in Arizona and now Washington, which are both close to many different types of geology.  I don't have to travel far to find parallels to whatever part of the universe I'm writing about.  But wherever you are in the world, you can find places that will evoke the place you're writing about.  You will find folks who do the sorts of things you're writing about.  And you don't have to spend a lot of money to get to them.

So, let's start exploring.

1.  Make Your Day Job Work for You

Work has provided me with more than a paycheck.  It's put me cheek-by-jowl with people who know things I need to know.  Somehow, that makes it easier to get through the day, and makes it a hell of a lot more interesting.

When I worked for a pittance of a wage at B. Dalton Booksellers, I got more than a deep discount on books.  I got Valerie.  She's a weaver.

At the time, I was needing to know about weaving.  I needed to know all about how different fibers are made into thread and then cloth.  I could have read a book about it, but there are few topics more boring than weaving to read about.  Valerie and I got into a conversation about it during a slow time at work, and the next thing I knew, I was invited to a lecture she was giving at the local SCA meeting.  (That's Society for Creative Anachronism, for those of you not familiar with people who like to pretend they live in a bygone era.)

So there I was, watching men in homemade armor beating each other silly with swords as a sort of prelude to a lively and informative lecture on weaving, complete with slides and samples.  Didn't cost me a penny aside from the gas, and it was a fun night full of fascinating folk to boot.

Your coworkers are a goldmine with rich seams.  I've used mine to learn things I needed to know about computers, photography, other countries, languages, and a myriad of other things.  If they don't know what you need to know, chances are they have family or friends who do, and they'll be thrilled to give you an introduction.  Which brings us to

2.  Get Out and Meet New People

We writers may not be a socially graceful lot, but we have to get over our shrinking violethood if we're going to get anything done.  We need to Put Ourselves Forward.  And really, it's easy.

It's easy because most people's favorite topic is themselves, and they love to brush up againt fame, even if you're not famous.

Folks don't know that the vast majority of writers are a sad lot of scribbling hacks who aren't earning a dime.  You say you're writing a book, and most people will view you as an instant celebrity.  You say you need their help, and they go nova with excitement.  I've met very few people who aren't willing to break their backs helping you.

So let your coworker or friend introduce you to a perfect stranger who has some information for you.  Need to know what being a doctor is like?  Ask your family doc, or get an introduction to the specialist of your choice. 

I've found the internet to be best for me, here.  I can put my best foot forward in writing.  So I find a likely website and hit that "Contact Us" button.  Or I get into the forums and ask a question.  Most of my friends online were once perfect strangers who answered a question for me, after all.

But face-to-face is good, too.  I remember when I was trying to come up with a scientific explanation for reincarnation, and getting nowhere with all of my reading.  My friend Adara listened to me pour out my woes, and said, "My friend Josh is a physicist.  He could probably help you."

Well, of course, I was young and shy then.  Couldn't possibly take up his time, silly of me, oh, god, would you introduce us?  You know the patter.  Next thing I knew, she'd brought this nice young man to my house, and we sat on the porch while he listened to my dilemma and then worked through it with me.  That was the day I stopped feeling guilty over asking perfect strangers to do my research with me.  He was excited by my questions, loved answering them, and thanked me for the opportunity afterward.  He'd gotten as much out of it as I had. 

I reiterate: people love to talk about themselves.  More specifically, they love to talk about the things they love.  Believe me, you won't stay strangers for long once you've gotten them talking about their passions.  And you might just end up with good new friends, which is something every writer needs.

3.  Combine Research with Socializing

This is the best thing ever.  What can be better than having friends or family along while you do research?

Well, maybe to them it won't be so great, but that's why you have to carefully match research to temperments, and be prepared to compromise. 

I've done this many, many times.  Several years ago, for instance, I needed to visit Seattle.  I set a good number of my books and stories there, after all, so I needed to see it.  But I couldn't afford to go alone.  And I hadn't seen my best friend Garrett in years.  One night on the phone, the two things came together: instead of one of us coming to see the other, we'd meet in Seattle.  He had a friend living there he wanted to see, I needed to see the city, we needed each other - perfect solution.

What made it better was the fact that his sister worked for a hotel chain and was able to book us cheap rooms.  We had a blast.  He and I explored parts of the city that were of mutual interest together, and separated for those spots I needed to see that he was either not interested in (he is not big on hiking four miles through Discovery Park, and I can't say as I blame him) or was too tired to get dragged along to (like Mercer Island, although he did go with me later).  Research accomplished, saw my best friend, perfect!

Another friend of mine loves the Arboretum in Flagstaff, but never can persuade anyone else to go.  All he had to tell me was that it had a labyrinth.  At that time, I was working on a story centering around labyrinths.  We had an excursion out there that satisfied both needs - mine for a wander through a maze, his for sharing his love for a very beautiful place to photograph. 

The excursion that prompted me to write this article was the need to see a vineyard up close.  But who wants to drive several hundred miles and drink wine all alone?  Victoria, however, loves to do new and fun things.  Wasn't hard to persuade her to take the jaunt with me.  And we had a delightful afternoon of being wine snobs. 

Chances are, whatever you need to research, you'll be able to find a friend or family members who will enjoy researching it with you.  Just make sure you set their expectations at the outset.  Nothing's worse than letting them believe you're inviting them out for a social event and then burying your nose in your notebook while they feel snubbed.  And remember to get your nose up out of the notebook often enough to enjoy the time you're spending with them.

4.  Public Interest Is Also Your Interest

There are organizations, events and programs galore designed to enlighten the public regarding various and sundry things.  Take full advantage.  They're often free, extremely informative, and you get a chance to do something good while you're at it.

My prime example is police ride-alongs.  I've got characters in law enforcement, and I realized early on that I had no idea what their day was like.  Reading about it is not the same as living it.  However, I'm too scrawny and sedentary to be a cop.  What could I do short of joining the academy?  Have a ride-along.

Simplest thing in the world.  I picked up the phone, called the Prescott P.D., and before I knew it was tucked into the front seat of a police cruiser with a young female officer, responding to calls with her and even sitting in on the paperwork.  I spent several hours one evening with her, and it taught me much more than any number of the shows and books I'd sampled.

I came away with a new appreciation for the men and women in blue, and a realistic view of how life as a cop is lived.  And it was free.  All I had to do was sign a form saying that if I got myself killed, it wasn't their fault.  Nothing to it.  And they're careful of their riders - if they think there's a chance you could get hurt, they leave you in the car.  Good thing!  A writer must be alive to write.

So if you need to see the inner workings of something, call up the folks who do it and see if they'll let you tag along.  You'll have a great time and be able to write with greater authority.

You can use these programs to see the world for cheap, too, if you've got the time.  Think about volunteering for something.  If a group of folk are headed for Cambodia on a humanitarian mission, and you need to explore Cambodia for your book, what better way to afford it than to pitch in?  I've never explored this avenue myself, not so far, but it's quite possible you'll see my ugly mug on a website for some humanitarian cause someday getting myself dirty and having the time of my life while exploring a place I need to go.

5.  Life Lived Richly

Finally, and most importantly, research is an opportunity to enrich your life.  You never know what you might like until you've tried it.  You never know what your state has to offer until you've looked around to see if it has parallels close by to somewhere you need to go but can't afford.

I've mentioned loving Arizona because of its variety.  After all, this is a state where I can get lost in pristine forests in the morning and go shake hands with cacti in the afternoon.  Its geography closely mimics places found all over the world.  And what Arizona doesn't have is usually just a state or two away, within easy reach.

However, any state can offer you hidden treasures.  Never assume your state doesn't have something before you've looked.  Need a vineyard?  Who expects to find one in Arizona, for gods' sakes?  But we do - and so, it turns out, does Washington, Upstate New York, Ohio, and other places you'd never expect.  Need a rocket scientist?  Your state's probably got one for you.  Any kind of people, any kind of places, any kind of food, sights, sounds, smells, experiences...  Right there, and within your grasp.

What about new things?  We get pretty locked into our lives.  We do what we do and rarely try anything new.  Research gives us an excuse to do crazy things.  Most of my passions now come from things I got involved in only because I had to.  And my life is better for it.  I have listened to music I never would have tried, eaten foods I never would have touched, enjoyed people I would have snubbed, and learned things I didn't even know I wanted to learn. 

I have also discovered a love for this world that I never felt until I had to get to know it better.  And that is probably the most fun of all.

So get out there.  Go research something.  And don't worry if you're enjoying yourself too much for it to be work.  It counts no matter how much fun you're having.

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