When I conduct research, my goal isn’t just facts, figures, and information. I also want to get enough realism so I don’t get slammed by readers who say, “Girl, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” What I seek is experiential research.
I don’t do this with every story, but some of them just talk to me and call out for more than internet searches, a trip to the library, and a SME interview.
In True Devotion, my character Marti is an artist. She does lettering arts and she paints. My characters tend to have occupations that I have some curiosity about. That way, if I take a class—or as in the case of True Devotion—I purchase some paints and a canvas and some brushes, I’ll be stepping into my character’s life as well as expanding my own.
I wrote an historical novel that takes place during slavery. I spent a week in Williamsburg, VA and took a plantation tour. In my book, Ever Wonderful, my character owns a ranch. I spent the weekend at a working ranch, got dirty, and had a ball!
I can often tell when I’m reading a book whether the author has given the MC (main character) an occupation or hobby he/she knows nothing about. If I have a character who is a cop, for me, watching a whole season of Cops would not do it. I’d have to go on at least one community ride along.
Like I said, I don’t do this kind of immersion for every story. There are some stories where this kind of thing might not be feasible. In those cases, I sometimes ask myself why I’m writing the story then—if I can’t authenticate it.
I’ve been working on and off a short story in which the main character draws portraits. At some point, I will take up graphite and canvas and ask my friends to let me draw them. Now, am I an artist? No, at least not in that way. When I’m finished with the portraits, I’ll post pictures of the drawings here for your amusement. They will probably look like the scribbles of a four-year-old. But I will have direct knowledge of how that pencil feels in my hand. The conversation that takes place as I draw. Whether I want the person to just shut up so I can get the mouth right. And a compendium of thoughts that are going through my mind as I’m drawing—probably about light and shadow and the way people’s imperfections have a way of showing up on their faces.
I was in a workshop once and the suggestion came up to dress up like your character . . . then go about your day. I haven’t done that one yet, but knowing me . . . I will.
What do you do to get into your characters, who they are, and what they do?