When at a loss for something new to write about on the art of writing, the ever-encouraging K.S. Brooks suggested to me that I should discuss the art of research for writers. She’s impressed by the fact I’m, apparently, the last person on earth who still goes to a library to do research (lest you think I’m the only one who patronizes the library, I will point out there are many individuals at my local branch – mostly homeless people trying to stay out of the cold or kids with laptops who like the free wifi).
Anyway, I’m not sure how much I have to say about techniques of research when it comes to writing, particularly for those interested in writing fiction. But what I can speak to is how my penchant for thorough research – primarily for my non-fiction writing but also to get certain facts straight in fiction as well – comes from a background in journalism. I think it was the author Tom Wolfe who noted that the best thing any aspiring novelist could do for his craft would be to spend a few years working as a journalist. Wolfe’s belief was that the world, when examined up close through the eyes of a professional observer, held a plethora of interesting stories, individuals and small details which could serve you the rest of your life in creating “fiction” that would ring true. While I’m not recommending anyone become a journalist (unless you’re prepared to make sub-minimum wage) I do think many of the skills one picks up as a reporter of non-fiction events can be transferred over to the realm of fiction writing.
Learning to do research, in the library or on the internet, is just one tool the journalist/non-fiction writer has to be familiar with and something that truly can save you from making some embarrassing factual errors in your fiction. But beyond research, reporters learn to interview, to talk to people and ask questions and get all sorts of interesting tidbits of information out of them. Perhaps most useful is when you get to write a lengthy profile piece on a cooperative subject. It affords you the opportunity to get close to someone, to ask the kind of personal questions and find out the little details of their life which even close friends might not be aware of. Getting to know someone this intimately without spending years with them is a rare experience and something that allows you to observe an individual’s character close up in an objective manner. The discoveries you make about them may serve you well one day when you’re looking to flesh out a similar character, to give them quirks or a back story that will make them believable figures.
Working as a journalist also allows you to explore a lot of different situations, occupations and events that you might not ever normally come in contact with. Over the years, I’ve done stories on everything from police department salary structures to underwater construction work and you never know which little bit of specialized knowledge or strange story that you hear can make it into a work of fiction. And when you’re covering these odd stories, again you’re out observing, talking with people, looking at things not with a normal observer’s eye but with an eye on how you can write about it. That may be the main thing you can get from taking a journalist’s view of the world: to look at every situation and constantly be thinking how you can tell it as a story.
Moreover, just the fact you’re being forced to write regularly, whether you want to or not, can be a useful thing for an aspiring writer and working as a journalist – when you can find the work – certainly makes you do that. Nothing brings on inspiration better than a fast approaching deadline and an editor threatening to fire you. As someone who always wanted to be a writer but was filled with a nasty streak of laziness that had me writing only when I felt like it, working as an everyday journalist certainly forced me to write far more often than I ever would have on my own. At this point, adding up the fiction and non-fiction I’ve composed over the years, I can’t even count how many pages I’ve written but it’s probably well into the tens of thousands. Practice may not make perfect but it certainly helps.
So while you may not become a journalist yourself, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn some useful tricks of the trade by thinking and acting like one on occasion. Just ask Wolfe or Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway or any of the other countless novelists who got their start as mere ink-stained wretches reporting true stories before they ever penned any imaginary ones.