by Gayle Bartos-Pool
Shakespeare didn’t have access to the Internet to look up Who’s Who? Back when he wrote about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, or the hundreds of other historical characters who populate his plays. There were a few books available that would give him some background information and the schools in the Stratford area where he grew up had a curriculum that taught a lot about the Greeks, Romans, and what History was known at the time. What else would they be teaching? Nuclear fission? Some “scholars” (I use quotation marks because I question their credentials.) have tried to say The Bard didn’t actually write all his work because he wasn’t “formally educated” and how dare a mere peasant do such a good job? Well, it looks like he did and did it beautifully.
My point is, writers need to research their work just like Shakespeare must have done at least enough to capture an era or a practice or an historical character who might appear in their story. And then there are locations that the writer might never have actually visited like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars or police procedures like Along Came a Spider by James Patterson unless they were a cop or knew a cop themselves or knew how to break into a house unless they were a burglar or knew one or… You get my drift.
So what does a writer today do? Research. There is a ton of it already done out there whether you go to the library or use the Internet or talk to people who do some of this stuff for a living or who have experienced something about which you are writing. Dick Francis gave his characters great jobs before the mystery interfered with their daily lives. Everything from jockeys to photographers to wine merchants. By the time the mystery was solved the reader knew some interesting things about all kinds of occupations. And it was always just enough. He never weighed down his prose with a seminar on “existential basket weaving.” Of course there is Joseph Wambaugh who served fourteen years with the Los Angeles Police Department and who then went on to write over a dozen terrific novels about the police.
Let me give you a “for instance” of learning something from a great source. When I was first writing the Johnny Casino books I wanted him to have a rather dubious background. I wanted his father to be in the Mob back in New Jersey. Johnny would grow up in that atmosphere. He would actually work for the Mob until he realized this wasn’t who he was (In more ways than one as it turned out.) He wanted something else out of life.
This was all well and good. Johnny would change his name, eventually move to California, and become a private detective after nearly screwing up there, but then he realized: that other life wasn’t him. But I had a problem… or two. I didn’t know if that character arc was feasible. Once in the Mob, always in the Mob. Isn’t that the case? “The only way outta da Mob is in a pine box.” (I made up that quote, but you get my point.) Then I went to a gun store to, well, buy a gun, and I met the owner: Chris Biller. If this wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what was.
Chris had been an L.A. cop for many years. When he retired he opened Greta’s Guns in Simi Valley, California. Chris had been a good cop. He didn’t much care for those guys in the ranks who got chummy with celebrities and who forgot they were still wearing the badge. He had some good stories. But he had one more story that made all the difference in his life (and Johnny’s and mine as well.) His father had been in the Greek Mafia. Chris grew up much like my Johnny Casino character, not that Chris was a hood, but he knew he wasn’t Mafia material. He wanted a different life and he got one. Just seeing the type of man Chris was let me know Johnny would be that type of a guy, too. See what a little research and chance meetings can do.
Something else Chris mentioned was a book I should read about the Mafia called Five Families by Selwyn Raab (copyright 2005). I read the chapters up until the point Johnny would no longer be in the Mob and it gave me great insights into that life. The book and Mr. Biller created a background for both Johnny and his father.
Research, no matter if it’s through books, TV shows, movies, personal contact or even jobs the writer might have had to enhance their stories, makes “the read” feel real. After all, we are creating a world within our pages. As for me, I used my dad’s time in the Air Force and the spy planes he dealt with to play a part in my spy trilogy. Then there was my stint as a private detective that helped with my three detective series. But most of all, it was the many, many people I spoke to about the jobs they did and the things they know that enhanced my stories. After all… we can’t know everything. And Research broadens our horizons and helps us create those new worlds.
The other problem writers have when researching their subject matter is knowing when to stop writing about what you learned. Too much is just that – Too Much. Don’t bore your reader with so many details you distract from the story. As I tell the students in my writing classes, always ask yourself: Does it advance the story? Does it enhance the story? Is it redundant? Write on!