Get Your Hands Dirty: Research for Writers

get your hands dirtyThey say to write what you know. It sounds so easy. Know something? Great. Use it in your writing. But what if what you know about is the astonishing variety of resonant structures cicadas use to be so ear-splittingly annoying every summer, and you dream of writing a chew-your-nails-to-the-quick thriller with murder and mayhem? Death by noisy insect is hardly a compelling plot device.

You have a brilliant idea for a story with characters vibrant enough to leap from the screen of your word-processor and give you a good kicking. You’ve plotted a set-piece climax so gripping you are already selling the movie rights in your mind. But you also have no idea what to call that slidey-thing the good guy pumps on his mean-looking handgun before grinding out a one-liner and shooting somebody who probably deserves it.

What can you do?

One option is to play the “hey, it’s fiction” get-out-of-jail-free card. You’ve made everything else up, so why not those pesky details? But here’s the thing — one man’s pesky details are another man’s bread and butter. Sure, as writers we can just make things up. But we risk alienating anybody who actually knows the stuff we’re writing about, which in turn leads to withering reviews and ridicule online.

“That doesn’t mean I have to get into a shootout for the sake of research. But it does mean that I took myself off to a pistol range to discover what it feels like to fire a gun.”

Another option is to kneel at the alter of Google, followed by quiet contemplation in the temple of Wikipedia. But they only go so far, and that’s about as far as anybody gets. Spend five minutes online and you’ll learn that the slidey-thing on the barrel of a semi-automatic pistol is, in fact, called a slide. Now you can pepper your prose with the correct terminology. But what you’ve got is exactly the same slices of description used by everybody else, or at least everybody with internet access.

There is a third option, and this is the option I try to take. Wherever possible, I go for hands-on experience. That doesn’t mean I have to get into a shootout for the sake of research. But it does mean that I took myself off to a pistol range to discover what it feels like to fire a gun.

Within ten minutes on the range I realised the benefit of actually attempting what my characters have to go through. For one thing, any time you’ve read a scene where a gun goes off in an enclosed space followed by some witty dialogue, you should know that the author probably hasn’t heard a gunshot up close. Even wearing the ear protection mandated at a pistol range, a 9mm handgun will make your ears ring. Sure, you might spit out a pithy phrase after pulling the trigger, but nobody’s going to hear it.

“The spent shell casings are ejected on this side, and those suckers are scorching hot. Especially if they land inside your shirt collar.”

The next thing I noticed was the recoil. Are you thinking of writing a thriller where a plucky heroine is thrown into extraordinary circumstances and has to defend herself with a pilfered revolver? Chances are she’ll hit herself in the forehead the first time she tries to use it. Anything larger than a thirty-eight? Forget it. Even with two hands those things buck like a petulant pony. It takes practice and a degree of upper-body strength to squeeze off a shot with any accuracy.

Throwing details like these into your work will add a touch of grit, but you can delve a little deeper. For instance, if you hold a semi-automatic pistol too high on the grip with your supporting hand, the movement of the slide as the gun fires can pinch or even slice the webbing between your thumb and forefinger. (For the record, it hurts. And bleeds a surprising amount.) For an unexpected twist you might decide to have your protagonist standing a little to the left of somebody who is firing a semi-automatic pistol. The spent shell casings are ejected on this side, and those suckers are scorching hot. Especially if they land inside your shirt collar. (Go on. Ask me how I know.)

You can use the same approach to ground other areas of your manuscript. Does your character need to break into a locked room? That trick they show on TV where the hero slides a credit card between the door and jamb occasionally works, but I’d recommend practicing with an expired gift card rather than your Visa card. Try it. You’ll see what I mean.

Or go one step further. You can buy lock picks on the Internet, along with practice locks with the pins or tumblers visible through a little window. Not only will you learn that a convenient bobby pin can make a passable ball pick, but also that it will be totally useless without a tension wrench to apply torque to the lock’s barrel. And you’ll get an appreciation for the hours and hours of practice needed to pick even a simple lock. (Just be careful about carrying these tools around with you if you aren’t a locksmith, and only practice on your own locks. The police tend to frown on people strolling around holding the tools of larceny.)

“Get your hands dirty. Or blistered. Or bloodied. Get a feel in the flesh for what you capture in words.”

A while ago I spent some time climbing on an indoor climbing wall to choreograph a scene for a story I’m working on. Not only did I come away from the experience with an improved knowledge of just how challenging an activity it is, the blisters on my lily-white typist’s hands showed exactly where a real climber would have callouses.

And that’s the key when it comes to research. If you can’t write what you know, then get to know what you plan to write about. Get your hands dirty. Or blistered. Or bloodied. Get a feel in the flesh for what you capture in words. But resist the temptation to draft a treatise on the minutiae of bump keys or centre-pin firing mechanisms. Instead, look for telling details that add a sparkle of realism to your scenes. Do it not only to elevate your writing, but also out of respect for your readers.

(A version of this article first appeared in the November edition of Victorian Writer, 2014. For reasons that will become clear in my next post I have waited until now to reproduce it here.)