While biking this weekend to a funeral home, of all places, I caught myself on a thought that perhaps I'm nuts. Perhaps I should do research for my book like all normal writers do - by Googling, going to a library, reading articles and books on the subject and such. But no, I HAVE to go and see, as if I'm scouting out a movie location (I did write, direct and produce a movie in the past, but that's a whole another story.) So I thought, wait, why do I do that? Why do I go through the trouble of physically going places, submerging myself underwater, stuffing myself in enclosed spaces, running through wilderness in torn jeans, and even dangling upside down? Because. Because it gives me invaluable insight that no Internet research can give. Here is why:
Elements you won't think about. A good book always balances on the description of five senses: Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch. I've got a sticky note on the wall in front of my writing desk to remember. But no matter how meticulously you follow this doctrine, you will leave out elements simply because you didn't even know about their existence. For example, I was writing an escape scene where my character runs through a back-alley. I've mentioned the stink, and the slimy ground, and the dark shadows, the echoing footsteps. I even mentioned the sour taste of air. The next day I went to scout the location. Guess what, it turns out that any back alley is full of pipes. Yes, water pipes or whatever, and they produce this gurgling water noise and steam. Have I not gone, I wold have missed it. Another example - I ran through the woods, not along trails, but deep in the thick of it, and I got covered in spider webs from head to toe. Have I not done it, I wouldn't have even thought there ARE spider webs.
Turn of events you wouldn't imagine. Back to the funeral home. I have a scene where a body is carried into a funeral home for a final goodbye, and some interesting stuff unfolds there. What I didn't know, however, was the fact that bodies can be cremated or chilled ONSITE (yeah, brrrr...) and that funeral homes own properties, namely, cemeteries. You might argue that this is easy stuff and anyone knows that. Except every one of us has had some experiences that are unique and every one of us has missed some experiences that are common to other people. I haven't been to a funeral in US, not once, so I had no idea about the ceremony. I'm sure whatever it is you're writing about, there is something that you are, pardon my language, pulling out of your ass because you've never done it. And that's fine, as long as you manage to make it sound authentic. Sometimes it's only a few sentences, yet they can make a huge difference for the whole story.
Characters you didn't think exist. This is my favorite part. Since my book is about sirens and all things fishy, I went to Seattle's Pike Place market to chit-chat with the fishermen there about catching fish, selling it, things like that. The people I have met were so colorful, I wanted to write several more books based simply on the characters and their speech. It was priceless. Yes, I meet new people every day (that is, when I decide to get out of my writing cave), but I wouldn't necessarily go out of my way to meet people with whom I'd have nothing in common. Researching my book forced me to talk to fishermen, and the result was so rich, I got hooked on the idea and now do this all the time. Talking to a Funeral Home director took close to half an hour, and I swear I will write him into a book at some point, somewhere, too good to let go.
Energy you didn't think you have. If you're like me, a hermit who doesn't go out much while writing, GETTING OUT GIVES YOU NEW ENERGY! Yeah, I know parties in general are boring, but if you go out with a clear goal of doing research for your book, suddenly a party can be fun for 6 hours straight. I lived through my Thanksgiving dinner like that - it was pure research, hence I was in on the secret while everybody else wasn't, and I was having a blast! I know it like sounds elementary-school humor, yet it's true. I can walk around an empty parking lot with a gleeful smile on my face and to nervous glances of passersby because in my head it's not a parking lot, it's a magical place, and they don't know it! I imagine Stephen King did the same when he conjured up The Dark Tower series, remember the scene with the rose in the vacant lot? Well, if you read it, you'll know what I mean. The perk is, upon returning home, your energy doubles, and that's a great thing.
It's fun. Again, for the first time in my life I'm doing something for fun. Writing is pure fun to me and I've been denying myself this activity for 20+ years, because what respectable citizen would waste her time on fun?!? I believed I needed to hold a job like everyone else, and I was miserable. Writing is so much fun, and researching for writing is the best fun ever. It's akin to creating a living breathing magical world in your head while nobody has a clue. If that's not fun, than I don't know what is.
There. I think those are my major points about the benefits of researching your book IN REAL LIFE. What do you think? Agree? Disagree?