Thursday, September 13, 2012

So... Why Pulp: The Value Of Research






Okay, so that’s a pretty straightforward title, and I can already hear the groans. What’s she nattering on about now? Everyone knows that research is one of those necessary evils of writing—especially if you’re doing a period piece or working with unfamiliar concepts or cultures. In New Pulp, research covers a lot of ground because not only do we work with endless combinations of speculative ideas, but sometimes beloved or forgotten characters are revisited and we often pay homage to styles or archetypes that have gone before. Since we’re now creating stories for an audience which has become decidedly more diverse as well as knowledgeable and worldly, you want to understand what you’re writing about at least as thoroughly as the average reader.

I suppose you can be a good writer without doing a lot of research, because there is a certain element of creative license involved in all fiction. If and when you decide to stretch yourself and work outside your comfort zone, it gets harder to write with conviction and panache if you don’t know enough about a topic to really pull it off. Whether you’re guiding a gumshoe detective trying to solve the murder of a friend through prohibition era gangland, diving in a Spitfire being pursued by Messerschmitts manned by Aryan cyborgs, or riding hell-bent for leather into Texas Hill Country looking for the Mestizo man with the scarred neck who gunned down yer pa; you’ve got to know who and what you’re talking about. Or at least know enough to sound like you do. Get that instrument panel layout backwards or the wrong caliber pistol for the era, and someone who picked up the story because it looked like a good nostalgic read is bound to notice. Mess with the stats or personality of a beloved iconic character and there will be a virtual lynch mob pursuing you to the ends of the earth and beyond. Pulp fans know what they like, and in this more ‘enlightened’ day and age, they really will sound off about it. At least a modicum of background research is in order before you lay out a story so that you keep them happily coming back for more.

In some ways it’s never been easier to be a writer. For instance, if you’re reading this on a screen, you likely have a PC, laptop, or some other electronic device with internet capability at your disposal. The World Wide Web has revolutionized popular culture in general, and writing in particular, by making streaming information a daily fact of life. In all honesty though, the majority of that information is not useful, as the internet has become a bully platform for soapbox ideologies and wild theorizing on a grand scale. Still it is a rich and varied pool of resources for a writer to select from. Where, in the past you had to make a special trip to the library, haunt the local university, chase up resident experts, or pore over newspaper archives; now most of those more in-depth details are at your fingertips. You can do some or even all of your research all at home, in your grungy clothes, unshaven or having a bad hair day, in the middle of the night, and when you have the flu. Isn’t that wonderful?

Yeah it is, as long as you are getting good information. But how do you know what you’re reading is valid?

Cross check it. No, you can’t just say, “Well… I saw this on Wikipedia so it has to be true.” Personally I love that site, and use it for a lot of baseline fact finding so that I can get an overview of whatever it is I’m currently trying to wrap my brain around; but it is volunteer written, and results vary from subject to subject. My searching goes far deeper than that as I wade through pages of Google results, trying to verify something that is backed up by what appears to be expert opinion and solid fact. If during the course of a research session, I locate similar material documented over and over, I can be reasonably sure it’s a safe to include. Even if there are some little-known facts that contradict many of the bigger picture details; if most people seem to agree with what is laid out for me, I’ll likely go with it. I’m writing for ‘most people’ anyway, not just to pander to the small percentage of experts that might have esoteric knowledge not easily attainable to the rest of us.

Besides Wikipedia, the most useful sites for both general overview and specific knowledge are those which archive information; such as libraries, various media outlets, organizations devoted to the preservation of historical data, and some government pages. When I first got online back in the late 1990s, there was a plethora of open sites just waiting to be browsed and pillaged by us eager writerly types. These days, bandwidth issues, the proliferation of plagiarism/reposting without citation, and the up-ticking cost of web space has made it less lucrative to allow anyone and everyone in. It is getting harder to get into many of those very densely informative sites without an account and password, and some are starting to charge for articles. Good hunting nonetheless!

Commercial sites (those that are selling something) should be perused with a deep sense of skepticism, unless what you’re researching is the history or appearance of XYZ product. That doesn’t mean they don’t have useful info, just that you need to realize what is they are 100% geared toward marketing whatever is for sale. So you are by default going to get skewed results. These are best used as a way to get ideas to do some more in-depth digging later.

Beware of blogs. I know how they work, because I have one, and they are fountains of ‘Look At Me!’ showmanship. Don’t get me wrong, I love blogs and I read a lot of them. I just don’t pull much information off them for writing without doing some extra research to make sure what I’m getting is factual and accurate and not just unsubstantiated opinion. Blogs are mainly free sites where anyone can set up an account. Other than those geared toward a particular subject area, which can actually be quite helpful, you are going to get more random observation and UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis) than cold, hard facts. Sure, I browse blogs for writing inspiration, but most times I am looking at pictures. Someone’s vacation or genealogy photos might just answer a question that’s been plaguing me.

I have similar caveats about social networking sites. I am a moderately enthusiastic fan of Facebook and I also have a presence on Google+ (I’m not fond of Twitter, too fiddly for me), but I mostly haunt them for news of friends, family, fans and peers, as well as to post my own status updates. You can make some very important contacts on those interactive sites, and that can lead to collaborations and access to resources you wouldn’t normally stumble across. Social networks, when things are going well, allow for free exchange of ideas and information across geographic and cultural borders. That’s wonderful stuff, and I applaud it; but I can tell you from experience that it’s far easier to simply become lost in the carnival atmosphere of the site and get little from it. If you’re spending the majority of your time reading celebrity tweets, telling the world your current status, and checking out backdrops on Facebook walls, you’re likely not getting much research or writing done. I tend to lurk only long enough to do a bunch of hit & run posts on the social networks—mainly in the mornings and evenings, leaving the bulk of my waking hours for writing and research. That is, unless I have a very valid reason to be there, like a chat with a fan, sharing an announcement by a publisher, or awaiting an update that will directly affect me. There are purely topical social networking pages (Facebook has tons of them), and if you’re savvy and patient enough to read through multiple posts, you can learn quite a lot from those who are knowledgeable in whatever the subject is. They can also be quite inspirational, and a great place to share what you know as well.

Bulletin Boards, or BBs as us old timers like to refer to them, are the antediluvian ancestors of social networking. The forums on BBs are where I cut my research teeth online, and believe it or not, there are still some out there. While their platform of posting in moderated sections has fallen by the wayside, those that have survived the explosion of social networking can be a storehouse of wonderfully informative material, and many have archives. I can think of several right off the bat that are devoted to hobbies such as gardening, health and nutrition, crafts, military families, genealogy, blacksmithing, edged weaponry, guns and ammo, various cultures/religions, and of course books and writing! What I liked about BBs was that while you had that camaraderie with like-minded individuals the social networks boast of, they were far more structured, so posts went much less off topic. It was far easier to find the information you needed without wading through fluff and flippant posts or rants. The online bulletin boards are disappearing at an alarming rate for the same reason that the free info sites are, and also because so many of us have migrated to the social networks to consolidate more of our online experience into a single place. If you find a good one, mark it and visit it often. Maybe even join the community. There’s no guarantee it will be there forever.

Search engines are hands down your best online resource facility. We all know Google is the undisputed emperor of their world, though it’s not the only one. When I was first online, we had a Prodigy account, and they went from hosting their own homepage to one with Excite in a sort of hybrid collaboration. When I started moderating BBs and answering questions in posts, I used every search engine at my disposal. I don’t know how many of them are left, but besides Excite I hunted in Yahoo, Dogpile, Ask Jeeves, Northern Light (long gone), Webcrawler, Infoseek, Lycos, Altavista, GoTo, LookSmart, Ask.com, HotBot, MetaCrawler and now and then AOL. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. Besides needing to answer questions, I’m just a curious person and have always loved browsing the ‘net for whatever had my attention at that moment. I use Google most of the time now, and my searches are split between information, images, and the occasional map.

I do a lot of picture browsing and I keep many in files. I also bookmark sites. It’s how I further visualize a setting, character, or idea. My personal files I can call up even when the internet is not cooperating or I need to revisit a concept and can’t find it again. That does happen, and far too often.

Those research bouts can eat up a lot of writing time but I find them absolutely vital to making a story come alive. When I write, I generally only have two or three internet ‘tabs’ open. One might be an online radio station playing the mood music du-jour, if I don’t have something going from one of my own playlists. The next is invariably a free dictionary/thesaurus site like Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, or Thesaurus.co. Those give me the words I need, so that I’m not repeating myself and the prose runs as smoothly as clean oil in a well-broken in engine. The last site is generally Google, which gets me all the info I want to know and a lot I had no idea I’d need. Oh, I would absolutely be able to write without those online ‘crutches’, because in the real world, they still have libraries and newspapers, but it’s a lot easier to get my work done if I don’t have to get into a car and go somewhere.

So whatever you decide to write, use all your modern day opportunities to research wisely and often. Your writing will only benefit from it, even if all you get is a few key lines in a paragraph that set the mood for the piece. Along the way you might even find some inspiration for another story. I will guarantee you will get a lot more out of your research opportunities than you ever expected—far more than just hanging out online chatting.

Now go write something!

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