Freitag, 29. April 2016

How I do research

I've been asking indecent, confusing, or simply creepy questions since I was a small child, butting into a phone conversation my mother had about my brother. She said "He's changed extremely," and I, being something around nine years old and having heard of "extreme right" and "extreme left" political views, couldn't contain myself and asked her which extreme my brother was changing to.
It is this kind of inappropriate questioning that has led me to the best research opportunities since then.
I don't do story-related research that much because it's draining. Opportunistic research is more my kind of thing. This means, I write down every word or description I don't yet understand, go online and find out what it's all about. Sometimes I stumble over some interesting fact or a piece of research that inspires me, sometimes I end up on youtube and ultimately spend hours watching cat videos, but more often than not, I actually do learn something that sticks in my head until at one point I can use it. A few examples:
  • Triploid chromosomes - Did you know that plants with triploid chromosomes are especially resistant to damage from UV-radiation? If you ever want to live on Mars, triploid plants are the way to go about it.
  • Spetsnaz - Russian Special Forces. Their training is bat-shit crazy stuff.
  • Bushido - An orally passed down, Japanese moral code that is often misinterpreted and glorified, but ultimately gave me an interesting insight into loyalty to family or monarchy to the point of self-mutilation.

Why do research at all?

When you start your literary career with reading best sellers and highly praised novels, like I did, you often get the impression that to be an author, you have to be creative to the point of reinventing the wheel on a molecular level. How do those big authors get their ideas? How the bloody hell did they come up with this much great stuff, and how can you yourself ever reach such heights? The gap between you as a young, inexperienced, blossoming writer and those old dogs seems almost impossible to bridge.
Then, like me, you take a look at the works of other budding author novices, and you start to get a feel for what writing actually is. Most of those stories are horrible, if compared to professional work, but some do actually fascinate in that 'raw diamond' kind of way.
I have read about, phew, 500 and more stories written for nobody in particular. If you read that many short stories and novels, you start to really understand a few not so popular facts about creativity-- namely that it spews the same shit over and over. There are no real 'totally new' ideas. If you thought of it, somebody else has already written ten pages of potential crap about it and tried to make it work. Which it didn't. Don't feel bad about finding your 'totally creative, new idea' already worked over like a 10-dollar-hooker in someone else's story. There are more than nine billion people on this planet, there ought to be at least someone who already thought the same thought.
Point is, just because someone else had the same thought as you had, that doesn't mean they were any good at processing it. Just look at '50 shades of grey', I mean, can you even imagine how god-damn-many BDSM romance stories I've read that were way, waaaaay better than that crap? Having written it doesn't mean it was done in a way that made it interesting to the broad mass of people. Either the time wasn't right, or the story was too long-winded, or too badly written, or any of a thousand other reasons why it wasn't received well, but that doesn't matter. What matters is the fact that you can write something that has already been written, but better, with enough subtle differences to make it work and look 'new' to the broad mass of people. Your own spin on a topic already broached.
Much more important is the way you write it. Make it realistic. Make it informed. Be sure you can write about it in an informed, non-psychopathic way. Answer all those questions people like me would ask themselves when reading. Don't go down the well-trodden Hollywood road where the same stupid shit is recycled over and over (and with loads of mistakes in it), because you want interested readers. You want to show them that you didn't flip a coin to pick the genre you're writing about, because that'll look like a cheap effort to make money. Of course, we authors want to be able to live from what we're writing, who wouldn't? A surgeon should love his work just as much as an author, but he'll get paid either way, so we should be, too. Especially since we always love our work.
Love your work, research. Find out what that part of society is all about, find out what your protagonist might struggle with, get a feel for their surroundings, what they might live with, what they might face. 

An Example:
If you want to use a hacker in your story, puh-lease don't forget how many hours, days, stupefying amounts of dreary coding it takes to hack anything at all. They do have two or more screens and fancy keyboards and all the thingemagogs, some of them do listen to music, but coding isn't something you can do in a crowd with loads of people making noise, partying or crawling all over you. By all that is holy, please don't, don't ever make a hacker a hip kid with a hacker's club and loads of cool gadgets and sexy girlfriends/boyfriends. Hackers are often socially awkward, rather quiet, and have little interest for gatherings, but they did start to drift into the sports world as of late. I know a lot of rock climbing and bouldering hackers, stuff they can concentrate on and do alone or in small groups to balance out those hours and hours of sitting around and waiting for their tools to finish their work.
Don't take your own computer skills as a basis. There actually is a big difference between iOS and Windows, Linux and Unix when it comes to coding. Coding on a MacBook (or to hack MacBooks) is vastly different from going after Windows users, and most hackers I know have an unhealthy relationship with Linux. I'm talking objectophilia here, people.
Think about what kind of targets your hacker might specialize in. Is it big businesses? Then go with Windows or Linux for his hacking ware. Does he do cyber terrorism? Then he probably will add Unix to the mix, or even specialize in it. Most big, important systems (power plants in particular, but also rocket silos) still use Unix, because damn, that shit is ancient and incredibly hard to hack. Does he specialize in information and 'reaching the common folk'? Then he probably will use iOS, because smartphones.
Don't make your hacker into a "hacks everything" kind of guy. A medical doctor who specializes in all fields probably sucks in all of them, same principle can be used for hackers.

Eh, what now?

Soo, research. Do it to fill your tool-belt with useful stuff. Research to get a better picture of the world, to get a feeling for the topic you want to write about, to make scenes more realistic, to capture your audience with little bits and pieces they might recognize. That idea that you had and someone else already used? Still yours. You can still do it, you can still make it work, and research is your way in. To use the hacker example, if you want to write about a hacker being hunted by the FBI-- you can probably count off at least three books or movies that would fit that description--, use a different modus operandi (m.o.). There are so many little known reasons for the FBI to be after a hacker, you could write another ten stories just with that set-up, and still have a totally new story each time. But you'll first have to research it, and I mean really get into that stuff, ankles-deep and all.
And no, watching TV-series does not count as research! As I mentioned, Hollywood does get some of the facts right, but more often than not, they don't bother with that much research and just fill in the blanks. If you see something you consider using, please just grab the key words and google it yourself until you can be absolutely sure you understand it right.
That's the key to writing something awesome, right there. You're welcome.

Something fun for you to google as a parting gift: Try to find out why TV-series with policemen pointing guns leaves real policemen in almost physical pain.

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