Writers Can Do Research, You Know

You may remember last year when I finally got around to seeing Whiplash, the highly praised 2014 film about a young drummer and his abusive mentor, and that I didn’t much care for it. Based on that, when I saw a headline over at the AV Club about a “jazz musician who is not a fan of Whiplash” I smirked and decided to check it out. It actually led to a misconceptions about the nature of writing fiction that I wanted to highlight.

The review itself, which you can watch here, really isn’t as negative as the headline. In fact, the jazzer in question, Adam Neely, winds up by calling Whiplash “great,” so he doesn’t exactly take a dump on it. What he does is point out some things about modern jazz education that the movie gets wrong and laments that because Whiplash is about the only pop culture portrayal of that setting it’s likely to be what people think of it. I get it – I can similarly pick nits from just about any lawyer movie.

But before getting to that, Neely goes through a lot of stuff the movie gets right, highlighting a lot of inside details that ring true. He credits this to writer/director Damian Chazelle’s having been in a similar jazz ensemble in high school and goes so far as to say “these sorts of things could only come from playing in a jazz band.”

That’s where the writer in me started shaking his head.

It’s indisputable that Chazelle drew on his own experiences when writing Whiplash – he’s said so in interviews. However, the idea that only someone who had been through those experiences could write such a story fundamentally misunderstands what writers do. It’s a common mistake and one I blame on the one piece of advice about writing that just about everybody has heard – “write what you know.”

It’s not the worst advice, particularly for new writers. Learning the actual craft of writing fiction is easier when the story you’re telling is one you’re familiar with and takes place in the world you know. Having said that, it’s not an iron-clad piece of advice. After all, if all writers stuck to writing what they knew we’d have a lot fewer books and the genre of speculative fiction would shrink to near meaninglessness.

So writers spend a lot of time writing about what they don’t know. How? Research!

Research

In much the same way that an actor who’s going to play a police officer, say, will learn about what police officers do and how they do it, a writer who wanted to write about cops could do the same thing. There’s an entire section of one of the writer forums I hang out on dedicated to research and people looking for answers to questions from people who have actual expertise in that area.

That’s even true when you’re writing fantasy. As I’ve said before, one of the great things about fantasy is that you can make up anything you want, but it’s still important to have some realism about the world you’re creating. In The Water Road I had a character take an arrow to the leg. Since it wasn’t meant to be a fatal wound, I needed to know how to get it out. I did some research, found out that it’s more complicated than I thought and that the kind of arrow used could say something about the character that loosed it in the first place. Reality informed my fantasy.

So kudos to Chazelle for getting those details right, but he’s not the only one who could have done so. Any good writer would have done their research before writing a story set in a particular world. It’s part of what we do.

Research2

I do have to say one thing about Neely’s overall impression of Whiplash. It’s interesting that he points out one of the flaws in the film I did – that nobody seems to really enjoy the music they’re abusing themselves to make – but that for him, the musician, it didn’t harm the movie. For me it did, which just goes to show that even when two people agree on what’s wrong with a movie (or book or song or . . .), it means different things to them. Such is art.

Why We’ll Never Win the War

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently – or perhaps on jury duty – you’re no doubt aware that infamous drug lord Joaquin Guzman (aka El Chapo) was convicted of charges in a New York federal court that will likely leave him in prison for the rest of his life. The US Attorney had a big press conference afterward in which he hinted that maybe this time, they’ll finally make some headway in the War on (Other People’s) Drugs.

That is, of course, horseshit. I’ve long said that the War is really a war on the human desire to escape our shitty world and no amount of law enforcement is really going to change that. Writing at The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe sums this up more succinctly than I’ve ever seen before:

But there is a deeper sense in which the rhetoric we use when we talk about the border and the war on drugs is misguided and always has been. The real engine for the cross-border trade in marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl is not the clever salesmanship of Mexican crooks—it’s the rampant demand of American addicts and recreational users. This is a point that seldom impinges on our national dialogue about the border with Mexico: the drug trade is dynamic. What makes it unstoppable is not weak border protections or wily Mexicans but the insatiable American appetite for drugs. Where there is money and demand, trade will flourish, borders be damned. Years ago, I interviewed a former D.E.A. official who told me about a high-tech fence that was put up along the border in Arizona. ‘They erect this fence,’ he said, ‘only to go out there a few days later and discover that these guys have a catapult, and they’re flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side.’

Under, over, through: as long as there is an American demand for drugs, drugs will find their way into America.

I’m in the middle of a book about another long, pointless, costly war – World War I. One recurring theme of A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 is that once the Western Front settled down into a stalemate, generals kept throwing offensives at the other side in spite of all the evidence that the only result was to get lots of men killed. It’s as if no one was capable of backing away and saying, “this isn’t working, we need to try something different.” The War on (Other People’s) Drugs is the same. It’s failed and it’s been failing for decades. When are we going to realize that one more offensive, one more big prosecution, isn’t going to change anything.

we-would-like-to-congratulate-drugs-for-winning-the-war-5436383

At Long Last

Over the weekend I reached a milestone on Gods of the Empire.

Gods

That’s right – I finally have a complete, full, and edited draft of this book! It’s now time to print out a hard copy (I do my own editing electronically) and let my beta reader have a crack at it. It felt really good to put the finishing touches on it, since this is the first book in a “new” universe I’ve finished since The Water Road back in October of 2015.

So what’s next for this project? Obviously, my beta reader gets to bleed all over it with that there red pen, so I’ll have to see what’s left after that. Probably another edit from me, then it’s off to figure out how to let loose this book upon the world. I might shop it around a bit or go directly to the DIY route like I’ve done in the past.

As for me? I’m taking the week off from worrying about words and world building and all that jazz.

a-week-off

After that, I’m not quite sure. I don’t want to dive right into the next book in this trilogy, Widows of the Empire, but I may plot it out and leave the actual writing for later this year. I’ve also got some stand-alone novel ideas I might work up, as well as the sequel to Moore Hollow. Finally, I’ve got some short story ideas kicking around that I might focus on.

Regardless, Gods of the Empire is well on its way to being finished!

Where the Magic Happens

Sometimes it’s interesting to see where creative types do their work, to get a feel for the environment that leads to their creativity. In the spirit of creative transparency, and the fact that it’s a new year and all, I thought I’d share mine.

This is where I work:

rcbcourthouse

Ha! That’s actually where I work, but it’s not really what I’m on about (my office is on the back side, anyway). Here’s where I get my creative juices flowing:

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If you’re thinking “that’s a lot of musical equipment for a writer’s room” you’re not wrong. It just so happens that the PC on the right is what I use both to do most of my writing and where I weave bits of music together to make a final product (like this).

Here’s another, more atmospheric pic, with everything turned on:

Studio3

For the gear curious out there – on the left there’s a Korg M50 (bottom, with a Kaosilator on the far end) and a Roland Gaia (top), then in the middle there’s a Nord Rack 2X and Alesis Micron, which controls the Nord (bottom), and a Novation Bass Station II and Moog Minitaur with Behringer controller (top). Everything runs into the Zoom R16 mixer/recorder in between.

The words, by contrast, go straight from my brain to the PC, via the keyboard, although I occasionally knock out some words in other locales. Who knew you could write so much on your phone?

I suppose that’s the real lesson – where does the magic happen? Everywhere.