Friday, October 26, 2007

Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 6

How can I get real-life experience in the areas I love to write?

Judy Clemens, author of TILL THE COWS COME HOME, said in my blog interview with her some time ago that she worked on a dairy farm to research her novel. Now that’s hands-on!

Remember I mentioned earlier that I might be getting you involved in a high speed chase or two? Well, no time like the present. Metropolis, Illinois is a small town that has a sheriff’s department and a police department, but neither offer a Citizen’s Police Academy or ride-alongs. The Paducah, Kentucky police department (across the river from Metropolis, IL) DOES offer them, but primarily for McCracken County residents. I attend church with two Paducah cops, so I wheedled, and one of them helped me get into the class. (Never underestimate the value of your contacts to your writing.)

As a mystery writer of procedurals, I was in hog heaven attending the Paducah Citizens Police Academy. Class at 6 PM every Thursday night for eleven weeks, with coffee and cookies. Who could ask for more? Among other things, we took shooting lessons at the firing range, watched the bomb squad blow up things, did fake traffic stops, and studied a made-up crime scene. We learned tons of information about drugs, and at the end, had a graduation ceremony with a lovely plaque. The alumni from the first class formed a group that helps the police department by participating in fake drug busts so officers get more training, among other things.

My point is, writing about subjects we love gives us the chance to research same and participate in some of those activities. Get our hands ON.

For science fiction writers, this may seem tricky, but there are planetariums all over the country where you can observe the universe. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to observe a shuttle launch. (Side trip on a vacation? Tax deductible? Works for me.) There are classes in various places for wannabe astronauts.

Romance writers, how about a visit to a bed and breakfast, or some other romantic local spot you’ve always wanted to try? Either as a guest or to see how the employees work? Or maybe your story takes place at a race track? There’s a NASCAR operation in a mall in St. Louis where you can practice driving.

Western writers? The old west is still alive and well in parts of Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. And there are plenty of places to learn to shoot antique firearms or ride horseback all across the country. When my class arrived at the shooting range in Paducah, we had to wait for an antique firearms club (dressed in costume) to finish their practice time.

Fantasy writers? See all of the above. Most likely the planetarium would be your best bet. Or joining a fantasy writer’s group on the Internet. A search will give you options.

Want to write about golf, bowling, baseball, or other sports? Great time to take lessons. Want to write about a new hobby or craft? Now’s your chance. Thinking about changing jobs (and have the wherewithal to do it?) Maybe the job your hero does is the job you’d love to try?

All the other research methods I’m giving you are great, but hands-on is the very best way I know to get a true feel for your character(s) your setting, and your story. Okay, maybe you already are a lawyer, writing a novel about lawyers. So you know the drill. Great. But ALL of your characters can’t be lawyers or the book is going to be a bit boring. You need some diversity. If you already know all you need to about your hero, pick another character to do hands-on research about.

And if you’re REALLY brave, give some thought to trying something you’re too chicken to do, but one of your characters isn’t. Sky diving, anyone?

SUGGESTION: Choose something you’d like to research hands-on, not just on the Internet or in the newspaper. I realize you may not be able to actually do it right now, but make the commitment. Call and get information, leave your name and contact information, have flyers sent to you, or make some other kind of preparation.

The best part of the Citizens’ Police Academy was the ride-along. I’m still telling stories about that one. Trust me, watching Cops on television doesn’t come close to riding beside a real cop as he shoots down a main thoroughfare at eighty plus in the middle of the night. Loved it!


Clea Simon said...

So true! And thank you. I confess one of the things I love about researching my Theda Krakow mysteries is that they make me haul my 46-year-old butt to rock clubs. "Who's that old lady over in the corner taking notes?" But how else would I know about the busted trumpet stuck up into the acoustic tile? (And how else would I know that when the music is good, it still makes me move?)

Lonnie Cruse said...

Bawhwhahahahah! Love it, Clea, thanks for stopping by!