by Sarah Beach
In 1990, I was hunting for my first job in the film & television industry, after spending about six years getting used to living in Los Angeles. I had social circles, a church home, and after four and a half years working at the County Law Library and then several months doing temp work, I finally got what seemed like a good prospect for an entry level job.
It was a blind ad in one of the trade papers, the Hollywood Reporter. “Wanted: researcher for quiz show. Send resume and cover letter to PO Box.” It gave the address. There was nothing more than that. I looked at that and thought, “Hey, I can do that!” After all, I had two degrees in English, which had included doing a lot of research on my own, for my own writing projects. And then there was over eight years of working in libraries, first at the University of Texas at Austin, and then the Law Library. Resume and cover letter were sent in, and then more temp work while waiting to hear anything back.
Then came the call: “This is Jeopardy! Can you come take the contestant test and a proofreading test on Saturday morning?” You bet I could! (Actually, I was very thankful it was on a Saturday. At that week, my temp job was full time weekdays and I would have been hard put to skip any work.) I showed up at the test location, and there were maybe 60 or so people sitting waiting. One guy looked around, fascinated, who said, “Are these all the people who answered the ad?” I don’t recall if I actually answered out loud, but I certainly thought, “No. These are just the people they called in based on the resumes and letters.” Once we filed into the testing location, it was explained to us that the producer was looking for people who were at least as smart as the show’s contestants.
Once the testing was done, we were let go, and then came another waiting period. By the time I got a call to come in for an interview, my temp job had been cut back to part time, so I was able to schedule my interview without losing any work time. I thought the interview went well, because certainly the prospect of working for the show had great appeal.
I like to think that my closing line of the interview helped cap it for me: I told the head writer that I was an info-junky, that I liked to collect fascinating information of all sorts.
A couple of weeks later, the last day of my temp job, in fact, I got a call from the producer. He told me the starting pay (precisely the minimum amount I had calculated I would need to meet my living expenses), and I said okay to that. He asked if I could start on Monday. And I said absolutely. So from doing temp work, I stepped straight into what is almost the only secure job on Hollywood, working for the quiz show Jeopardy! (and yes, the exclamation point is part of the title, which is trademarked).
The hallmark of Jeopardy! and what makes the audience trust it so much, is the level of attention paid to getting the facts correct. Everything, every little factoid in the clues is double sourced. In the office, the by-word was “There is no such thing as common knowledge.” Things like “Paris is the capital of France” were double sourced from two independent sources (usually something like an encyclopedia and an almanac). Only direct sources (quoting directly from a literary work, for instance) could be single sourced. So, a quote from Bartlett’s was not allowed to stand on its own, you had to find the original source (preferably) or another non-Bartlett’s quotation source.
On any particular day, as a researcher, I could be delving into five to seven different categories which could cover anything from Shakespeare movies to astrophysics to word play to the Crimean War. The object was to make sure the writers had read their original source correctly (they only had to cite the sources they used for their clues, the researchers had to find the second sources to verify the information). Then off we went to make sure everything passed muster. Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn’t.
So how does this affect someone as a writer, outside of those specifically formulated clues for the quiz show?
As I had said in my job interview, I am an info-junky. I like learning things, and many of those little side bits of information have found their way into my own fiction. A day reading about plasma energy ended up giving some background to a science fiction story I was working on. I learned little tid-bits about stamp collecting and coin collecting that could be used in mystery stories. Researching a popular legend about an English historical figure for a game category ended up inspiring a novel I am currently working on (now, several years after leaving the show). Any writer should spend some time just wandering through encyclopedias, or other collections of information. Staying stuck in your own interests can leave you much too predictable in your choices as a writer.
But another thing those years working on the show did for me was really hone my research skills. I learned how to focus in on the points I needed to learn, and how to find them. Instead of trying to do all the research upfront for a novel, do the basic stuff that you need (details of locations, basic attire, diet, and such) and then get on with telling your story. If you reach a point where you want to add something, then you can stop and do spot research for those particular elements.
For instance, that novel I mentioned I’m currently working on: it’s set in the spring, in the medieval period, in England. I wanted to have a scene where an orchard of trees was in bloom, with wildflowers rampant in the grass below. All of a sudden I went, “Oops, I know about the date I have this story going. Are the apple trees in bloom yet, or do they bloom later – or worse, earlier?” Research ahoy! Turns out, those trees would indeed be blooming just as I needed them. Elsewhere at one point, I was going to have my female main character prepare for a feast, and I was thinking she’d put on a velvet gown. But then I went, “Wait. When did velvet come to England? What was it made of? Would she have had velvet?” Turns out, not likely. Fine wool it is, then. Not rough stuff, but tightly spun, tightly woven, high quality wool, dyed black. “Oops, wait again. What cloth dyes were available?” More research required on medieval dyes in England.
While I worked on the show, I often told people it was a great job for a writer who was not yet making a living from their writing. I looked at more material than I would have if left to my own devices. And I have pretty broad, eclectic interests.
The other thing about working on the show that greatly influenced my writing was learning the importance of choosing the right word. Not just the most evocative one, but the most accurate. In a Jeopardy! clue, the wrong wording can throw the whole thing into inaccuracy. But also, word choice can influence the implications of what is being said. Do you mean this to be cast in a negative light, or in a positive one? How you choose to word something can make a great deal of difference about where your Reader’s mind goes. Do you mean to imply that your hero feels contempt toward the women he meets? If not, be careful about saying that he “smirks” at them, when all you really mean is that he is smiling. If you want him to be really vicious about it, then say he “sneers” at them.
Close is not good enough for storytelling. You are trying to weave a spell over your audience, ensnare them in the world of your tale, shutting out the “real world” for a time. Choosing the right word, with the right tone and connotation is important.
In conjunction with that, pay attention to the casual language you give your characters. It is very easy for our everyday idioms to creep into our writing when we are caught up in our first draft. We don’t always register when it happens. “Okay” is a prime example of this: it’s very modern and very American. “Plugging into” something belongs to the age of electricity and afterward. Not knowing the source of idioms is what gives us people writing things like “give free reign” to mean giving someone a wide open choice. Unfortunately, the proper phrase is “give free rein”, which literally mean to let the horse run where it would. To “reign” is to rule, and so “to give free reign” is actually a bit contradictory.
Eventually, the time came for me to get out of Jeopardy! and I moved on. It was a great job to have, and made a big difference for me as a writer.
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About the Author
Now residing in Las Vegas, I was born in Michigan and moved to Texas when 16. After getting my Masters degree in English, I moved to Hollywood, because of the high demand for Medievalists (NOT!). As a freelance writer and editor, I find that Nevada offers better conditions for the wallet. I love writing all sorts of things, and occasionally also create some artwork.
This article was posted for Sarah Beach by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)