A couple weeks ago, I was stuck. I was working on my latest novel, a thriller, and I had a guy trapped in the trunk of his car and I wasn’t sure how to get him out.
Now, it seems like an easy enough thing, getting a guy out of a trunk, but this particular guy was bound and gagged and so cramped he could barely move.
But that wasn’t why I was having trouble. My problem was that I had him trapped in the trunk of a Toyota Corolla, but I don’t have a Corolla — especially a ten year old model — and I had absolutely no idea whether a ten year old Corolla has a trunk release.
So what did I do?
A couple of things. First, I got on the Internet and looked up as much about Toyota Corollas that I could find. I managed to put in a search term for trunk releases and ten-year old Toyotas and actually found a website that helped me.
The second thing I did was contact an author friend of mine who drives a Toyota and asked him to check out his trunk. Well, he went a step further and actually locked himself inside his own trunk and tried to get out. That’s above and beyond.
All of this for a simple task of helping a character escape from a trunk. After a bit of research, I was no longer stuck and continued buzzing along happily with the story.
But here’s the thing:
I’m not a big fan of research. When I’m ready to write, I’m ready to write and researching a subject is the last thing on my mind. So I tend to just sit down and start writing and worry about researching a factoid only when it’s absolutely necessary.
If I come across something I need help with, a simple flip of the screen to Google helps me find just about anything I need. I always make sure, however, that I go to more than one source for the information — sometimes several — just to make sure it’s accurate.
A filmmaker by the name of Jake Kasdan did a great little movie called Zero Effect about a wacky detective investigating a murder. During the course of his investigation, the detective — played by Bill Pullman — gives his partner (Ben Stiller) a tidbit of information about motel room mattresses that turns out to be fairly important to the plot.
Well, if you listen to the commentary track on the DVD, it turns out that Kasdan made it all up.
Now, I imagine there must be a mattress manufacturer or salesman out there would look at the movie and say, “that’s complete balony.” But does it really matter?
For most of us, Kasdan gets away with it and our suspension of disbelief remains intact.
The key to writing and research is to keep it plausible. If something sounds to the average reader as if it could be reasonably true, then I think you’re okay.
But you do have to be careful. There are certain subjects — like guns, for instance — that readers tend to be real sticklers about (which makes you wonder how many of these readers own guns…). There are also authors out there who meticulously research every minute detail of their books.
If you want to do that, fine. I’m not interested. My goal is to stay true to my characters and create a plausible world for them to inhabit.
There’s also the danger of over researching. If you have all those facts floating around in your head, you tend to want to show off your knowledge, and you forget that you’re telling a story. Facts are fun, but if they bog the story down, get rid of them. Throw them out.
So the bottom line here is that research is good, but it’s okay to make stuff up as well. After all, that’s why they call it fiction.