#4: Research Part I
Welcome back to Creating Comics! If you were here last week, you'll remember I wrote about the value of "The Great Idea." In that article, I talked about how ideas in and of themselves are a dime a dozen, but ideas followed by diligent work and excellent execution could be worth billions. Today's topic deals with one of the first steps a writer must take when developing that core spark of an idea for a story into a fully realized tale worth telling. That step is research. This week, in Part I, I'll discuss the whys and hows of conducting research for your comic scripts. Next week, Part II will discuss the development and execution of a research plan, colored with examples from the extensive research I've had to do to write Interrogation Control Element, a political thriller.
Okay, you're singing in the shower one morning and all of a sudden, it comes to you, a stroke of genius idea for a comic book. "Gossip girl meets Night of the Living Dead. Brilliant! And I'll call it...I'll call it...OMG, Zombies! Oh. My. God. I'm on to something here..." Silly as it sounds, this is how a lot of great ideas come about. A line from a song, a story told by a friend, a bit of conversation picked up on the subway, and yes, singing in the shower. When this great idea comes to you, as I said last week, the most important thing you can do is WRITE IT DOWN. Get it out of your head and into the world. There's a reason that idea, however crazy or lame it might seem to other people, is in your head. So, take out a piece of loose-leaf or open a Google doc and brain dump everything you've got on OMG, Zombies! while you're still captivated by its brilliance.
Sooner or later (most likely sooner) you're going to stop writing. Your excitement and enthusiasm for the idea is only going to get you so far. You're going to empty your brain of all the ideas you have for the story, and come to that scary moment where you've got nothing left, and what you have written down certainly isn't enough for a story. Your brain is like a sponge and you've squeezed out all you've got. To move forward, it's time to fill that brain-sponge back up with story juice, and one of the best ways to do that is research.
Noted screenwriter and scholar in the craft of writing Syd Field wrote the following of research: "Research gives you ideas, a sense of people, situations, and locale. It allows you to gain a degree of confidence so you are always on top of your subjects, operating from choice, not necessity or ignorance." At this point in the writing process, this is exactly what you're looking for. Rolling with the OMG, Zombies! idea, let's say you have decided it's a story that takes place in a present day private high school for elite Manhattanites. If you went to an elite private NYC high school, the only research you might have to do is to dig up your old high school year books. But if you didn't, if that is a foreign world you've never experienced, you're going to need to do more. To do your story justice and make sure it rises above the multitudes of mediocre-to-just-plain-awful zombie stories out there, you're going to want to learn as much as you can about that world. This requires some work on your part.
While the connotations of research suggest something less than fun (and having worked for several years as a researcher for a large social services non-profit I tend to agree), in this case it shouldn't be like pulling teeth. You're about to spend some time learning more about a subject you're extremely captivated by...otherwise, you wouldn't recognize it as a great idea and be compelled to write about it in the first place!
But let's say you're resisting. "But I know exactly what's going to happen in my story! I've seen every Zombie movie ever made, bought The Walking Dead in floppies, trades AND hardcovers, and own every season of Gossip Girl on DVD. I can write this now!" you're saying. (Well, hell, if all those things are true, maybe you are ready.) But the fact is, nearly all writing for public consumption requires research. It's that simple. And it doesn't matter how intimate with the subject matter you are. Hell, if you were writing an autobiography, you'd still need to do research. Sure, you could write a good chunk of a book about you with just the stuff in your brain. But eventually, you'd need more if you wanted it to be at all accurate and interesting. You'd interview your parents about what you were like as a kid, go through your old yearbooks, or early performance reviews at work, watch old videos, look at pictures from your past...that all counts as research.
But most of us won't be writing stories starring ourselves, because frankly, most of our lives just aren't that exciting. (Don't believe me? Read through a week's worth of your Twitter posts or Facebook status updates. Sound like they would make for a compelling story people would pay to read? Didn't think so. And just think, those were the most interesting things happening to you that week. Sad, but true.) I heard that some movie studios won't even read scripts from amateurs that feature a writer as the main protagonist. The thought there is that this writer is simply writing himself and was too lazy to do the research to flesh out a protagonist with a cool job. No, most of us will be writing stories featuring characters far more interesting than ourselves. To develop those characters and their worlds accurately, you need to research.
Of course, you could just avoid the whole research part. Lord knows I've done stories without doing any. Some of them were even pretty okay. If pretty okay is what you're striving for, by all means, just start writing. For me however, the days of just hopping into a story with a loose collection of ideas, are over. I'm investing too much time, effort, (and yes, money) into my projects to do them that disservice.
What does a story that hasn't been researched look like? Generally, it'll take place in a generic world that seems vaguely familiar to two or three settings from popular movies or books you've read. The characters will seem shallow and inconsistent, and as a reader, you just won't care about them, no matter how cool the situations they find themselves in. And not doing your research makes it hard on the writer, too. You might get off to a blazing start, but somewhere in the middle, find yourself stuck in a poorly conceived plot point. Chances that you'll abandon the project are very high. This all could have been avoided if you'd have done the work up front. Say it with me now kids. "Research!"
How to research?
So, hopefully, I've swayed you to the merits of research. But what now? Where do you go from here? Maybe high school or college was a long time ago, and it's been a while since you've done any research. Here are tips to get you started.
1. Start with yourself.
Before you go whole-hog into this research project, first take a mental inventory of the resources you already have that you can apply to your great idea. After all, this great idea probably was inspired in some part by the things you've read, places you've been, or people you've known. Spend a little time doing a self-assessment of anything in your life that might be applicable. Writing a fantasy story? Pull out the fantasy books on your shelves, and movies from your DVD collection. Writing a police drama? Flip through your address book and see if you know any cops. Imagining a big scene taking place in China? Time to dust off that photo album of your trip to Beijing. Trust me, no matter the story, it's in your head for a reason. Spend a little time figuring out why, and gather those materials around you that will help develop it further.
For OMG, Zombies! maybe it's time to re-watch 28 Days Later and your Romero collection of DVDs. Give that ex-girlfriend of yours from college who went to the snooty Upper West Side prep school a call and get her to tell you about some of the shenanigans she and her Coach bag-clad friends got into. Think about your own high school experiences, and decide which teacher would have made the best zombie. It's a perfect place to start.
2. The library is your friend.
I'm sure many of you never stepped foot in the library while in college. To suggest heading there of your own free will might seem a sacrilege. But the library is a tremendous resource. I'd recommend hitting it prior to doing internet research even, because there's a power to walking out with a stack of books that clicking links and saving pages just doesn't have. Now, I fully realize that, for whatever reason, there are many of you who will adamantly resist taking this step. You do it all on the computer these days. You watch your TV shows, download your music and movies, keep in touch with your friends, hell, you haven't made an actual new friend in years but you've added plenty on MySpace. So, why the hell wouldn't you do all your research on the net, too? If this is you, then humor me. What I want you to do is find your locale library's website. Search their catalog online and pump in those same keywords you'd use on "The Google." Flag any books or DVDs that look like they could be interesting. If you happen to have a library card, you can put in a request for all of those book. This is what I do. I find all the books I want to check out online, put in a request, and a few days later, I get an email telling me they're ready to pick up at the front desk. I'm in and out of the library in a minute with all the books I need. Now I'm free to head back to my computer, and skim them, (while watching YouTube videos and chatting on Facebook, of course.)
3.) Yes, the internet is your friend, too.
We live in an incredible age. Today, it is far more valuable to be someone who can find the answers than someone who knows the answers. The internet is the reason for that. Don't get me wrong, you COULD do all your research for most of the stories you want to tell entirely on the net. I just don't think it's the most efficient way. It bears repeating, there's a power to having a stack of books on your desk about a subject you've committed to studying. It's a visual reminder that says, "Hey, you should be reading," that your computer will never provide. The books also are more thoroughly researched and probably better organized and indexed than the World Wide Web.
But the Web IS awesome. Hell, in most cases, half your research could be done exclusively on Wikipedia, which is, despite it's many drawbacks, the most comprehensive and most accurate encyclopedia on the planet. Most newspapers have extensive online catalogs of their articles. You can Google anything. But I'd encourage you to go even deeper, as the web can give you access to communities you'd never have entry to in real life. For example, (and I'm not saying I do this because I don't particularly want Chris Hansen and Dateline NBC showing up at my door any time soon), if you're having trouble getting the voices down of how teenagers speak and the words them kids are using these days, you COULD easily go online to chat rooms or discussion boards where these teens "hang out" and observe. (You may need to ask your niece or nephew to help translate.) For my comic Super Seed, one of the stories I've been working on involves surrogate mothers. So, I spent some time lurking on freely open to the public message boards that serve as support groups for surrogate and intended mothers. It's all out there for you, free for the taking. So do your story a favor and take it!
Alright, I'm going to stop with three research tips. There are plenty of others things you could do, but I want to talk honestly about MY writing process, not necessarily the ideal one. I should read one or more newspapers cover to cover every day, but I don't. I should identify strangers with a strong knowledge of the subject matter I'm interested in and bug them for interviews for my stories, but I haven't. Still, I guarantee you, if you spend 2-3 weeks doing these three things, taking a mental inventory of resources you already have, hitting your library to make this project official, and working the web, you'll be flush with material to soak up that will help that great idea grow. And OMG, Zombies! or whatever story you're working on, will be much better for it.
That's all for now. By next week, I want you to procure a shiny new library card if one is not already in your wallet.
Next: Research Part II
Tyler James is the writer and artist of Over, a romantic comedy online graphic novel updating every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. His comic Super Seed, the story of the world's first super powered fertility clinic, was featured at Zuda Comics. Tyler is currently working on a number of other projects that will debut soon, and teaches a series of workshops on creating comics for adults and children. He works as a game designer and content producer for a game company, and currently resides in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
Contact Tyler directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, keep up with him at his blog, or follow him on Twitter.
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