04 January, 2011

Dana's Dojo: The Authorly Art of Watching TV

Today in the Dojo: Making your cable television watching qualify as work.

All television is educational television.  The question is:  what is it teaching?  
-Nicholas Johnson

Has anyone here ever seen an article in a writer's magazine about using TV as a research tool?  If so, send me the reference, because I haven't seen it.  I've seen them talk about libraries, books, professionals, the Internet, and a billion other things, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone mention television as a valid research resource.  Which is silly, because it's one of the best tools out there - if you know how to milk it.

It's all in your approach.  If you're just sitting down in front of the boob tube drooling on your Cheese Doodles, you're not going to be able to claim the cable bill as a business expense.  However, cable offers far more than sitcoms, unrealistic reality shows, and third-rate crime dramas. 

So here's how to turn your viewing from passive time-wasting to active research/writing time.


Lights.  Camera.  Action.  Oh, yeah.

Let's face it: books are words.  No matter how well they're written, no matter how illustrated, they're still just static words and images.  And that isn't good for the writer who's trying to get a full sensory experience from their research. 

The Internet is useful, and with video proliferating getting even more so, but still needs supplementing.  We will not even discuss the stupidity of search engines at this point. 

As for the other research options, seeking out a professional for everything you need can be difficult and daunting, and active research in the field can be costly.  Not to mention dangerous, depending on what you're researching.

If you're already subscribing to cable, you might as well make those bucks work for you.  It brings professionals into our homes to tell us useful things without a consulting fee.  It takes you around the world for cheap.  And you can find a program on nearly anything you'd care to know about.

But there's more to it than that, something else books can't provide: Television grabs us directly by two of our five senses: sight and hearing.  It's the closest most of us may come to the direct experience of walking through the fortress at Golconda and hearing the sound of clapping hands refracting off of faceted ceilings.  It can take us places we could never afford to go with a richness of visual and auditory detail that no book and precious few websites can match.  In turn, we can translate that experience back into prose, and make the world our characters move through the richer for it.

Television viewing can give you broad, shallow exposure to a variety of new things and ideas that you can use as inpiration.  It can also give you an idea of where you should concentrate your in-depth research energies.  It can do a lot, if you let it.


Writer's block?  Too tired to do anything of any use to anyone?  Have to do the ironing, coupon cutting, scrapbooking, toenail clipping, or other household tasks that mean you can't write because your hands are otherwise occupied?  Turn on the TV and open your mind.

What I'm advocating is not watching reruns of That 70s Show, but programs you ordinarily wouldn't watch in a billion zillion years.  This is where my habit of having the TV on in the background, tuned to something like the Travel Channel or National Geographic or what have you, has served me well.  I'll pop on one of those channels while I'm cooking, cleaning house, ironing clothes, or typing emails, and I've gotten some amazing insights from a few hours' worth of unusual programming.

You never know what your brain might be able to make from a medley of documentaries on muscle cars, ghosts and taboos.  When you're stuck in a rut, having someone take you around to some of the more unusual places in the world can get you back on the road.  Learning about new places, new people, and nifty new things can provide just the breakthrough you need to solve a sticky problem that's stalled your story.  At the very least, you'll have learned enough about random stuff to keep any cocktail party conversation going.


What do you need to know?  Television will teach you about anything ancient and modern, natural and man-made, civilized and otherwise.  Just check your local listings for the right program.

Say you're writing a courtroom drama, but you can't take time off work to follow a court case.  No problem.  Watch a trial on teevee.  You'll see how the defense and prosecution present cases, get to watch the judge's eye twitching, see and hear how the spectators react... If you've done your homework and know the rules of evidence and other such courtroom specifics, then you'll be able to follow along as those things are put into action, and then be able to translate that action into prose.  A quick follow-up visit to a local courthouse will provide you with the smells and tactile impressions that TV can't provide.

Need to know what Greece looks like?  What it's like to travel around in Asia?  Take the boob tube.  And the nice thing about travelling with the television rather than the guidebooks is that a lot of programs will show you around the less touristy places.  It's also instructive to see things moving and interacting rather than getting all your impressions from static pictures.

Speaking of travel, don't limit yourself to the Travel Channel.  If you need to go to Greece, watch a science program on it.  Small town America?  Find out if City Confidential on A & E has done a show on it.  Sure it's a crime drama, but they spend the first part of the show giving you an in-depth tour of the town, including some of its history and what it's really like to live there.  These programs aren't going to limit you to the hot tourist spots.  They'll show you the not-so-pretty places, too.

TV can show you how things are made, what a job is like, how to make haute cuisine, and so many other things.  There's a channel for everything - and this is all on basic cable.  Watching shows on whatever you're researching will most certainly help bring that research to life. 

One of the most valuable things you'll take away is an infinite variety of people.  Quality television programs can really give you insight into how people different from your inner circle live, think and act.  Listen to the accents, the ideas, the beliefs, and you'll suddenly have a library of useful stuff for creating characters who aren't just infinite versions of you.


So we've determined that the boob tube isn't such a boob after all.  But it's not going to do you any good if you're just drooling in your chair.

A writer needs to do things no regular viewer does.  Normal viewers do not sit there and take notes, nor keep a library of programs to refer back to.  You must.  Otherwise, you will have nothing to show the tax man when you're saying, "See - this is work!"

Here's how I've made it work:

1.  Watch with a writer's attitude.  This means looking for the subtle stuff - gestures, nuances in tone, turns of phrase, modes of dress, and all other things that make people unique for characters.  For all else, notice the fine details.  The texture of stone, the play of light and shadow, the refraction of sound, everything.  View television with an artist's mind.  You should be thinking how you'd get this across in prose, at least part of the time.

2.  Take notes.  I'm not kidding.  Some of you can probably get away with mental notes, but if you've got a memory like mine, that's like writing on a nice flat bit of sand in a wind tunnel.  I keep a notebook by my chair for those times when the computer isn't in my lap; otherwise, I use the notepad function on my laptop.  I don't take many notes, but enough to prompt this poor sieve of a memory of mine to retain the bits that really strike me as essential.

3.  Record.  I have a nice tidy library of programs recorded on the DVR.  Those come in handy when I need a refresher course in ninja warfare, the history of comics, competing theories of the Apocalypse, and a billion other things.  If you come across a program that's particularly useful to you, bung it onto a DVD.  The beauty of cable is that they repeat things about a zillion times, so you're bound to catch it on rerun at some point.  If you're one of those lucky buggers with a DVR, you've got it made.  Just tell the machine what you want.  And make sure you label things clearly....

4.  Follow up.  You can't rely on a one-hour documentary to tell you everything you need to know about everything.  Television is another tool, not the be-all and end-all of your researches.  It works best in conjunction with the traditional sources: books, articles, Internet, experts, shoe leather, and whatever else is vital to the research process that I've managed to leave out.  Besides, teevee's notorious for getting things wrong.  Don't trust and absolutely verify.  Think of television as either a starting point or a support tool, and you'll be fine.

5.  Websites.  Most of the channels have their own websites, and they run special features on their programs.  Those features often include a plethora of information that didn't make it in to the programs.  They'll provide you with a ton of research sources, all vetted by the professionals and there for the taking.  Take advantage.  After all, you (might have) sat through the bloody commercials that paid for the things - they owe you!

There you are.  All the info you need to make your hours of television viewing look like good, hard work.  And on top of that, you got the house clean, your toenails clipped, and created a scrapbook your inlaws will weep over - all while getting another piece of your job as a writer done.

Not bad for a few hours' viewing.

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