By the time this blog post goes up, I will be on a plane returning from a week in London and Paris. While I went on the trip to sight see and write, the friend I went with chose Paris because she was using the trip as research for her novel. She went to some of the places certain events in her novel took place to get a feel of the neighborhoods and how the residents lived. She also wanted to make sure she captured the “feel” of Paris, instead of relying on her memories from when she was a young girl. In our conversations, she expressed how much the trip helped her with different parts of her novel and allowed her to understand her characters even more. Seeing the places they lived and interacted with their city, brought new ideas about her characters and their relationships. She left with the knowledge that the feel of her novel will be enhanced due to her trip.
Now, I completely understand the privilege she and I have to be able to go on a trip of this nature to use for research and writing time. However, there are other ways to perform in-depth research in order to make sure you get your characters, their lives, their world right – especially when you are writing characters of color.
Every author, no matter what ethnicity, needs to do some research for their novels. Yes, your character’s voice may come to you, but if you only write from what you think you know, then you are getting it wrong. For example, I am currently working on a novel where my main character is a young African-American man. I’m a woman, therefore I have no experience what it’s like to be a young man, so I read a number of books, specifically memoirs, about what it is like growing up as a young Black man. My husband is also a sounding board because, well, he was once a young man. He is someone who has no problem telling me when I’m getting it wrong and every writer needs someone like that. Interviewing, getting to know people who are like your main character, and reading primary sources will help an author create a true rounded character who will feel real to the reader.
An author has to also think about the world the character lives in. I’ve traveled to different countries before, but this trip is the first time I truly took in my surroundings with a writer’s eyes. I expected London & Paris to be vastly different from life in Los Angeles, but simple things, such as particular facial expressions and physical gestures Parisians make when talking, caught me by surprise. It made me realize that with my own novel, which is set in Oklahoma, there is most likely small regional affectations that I do not know about. I realized then that I need to do more research about the world my character lives in. Using Google Earth to look up locations is a wonderful tool, but I need to do more. One idea, suggested by my traveling friend, is to use Instagram. Follow people who live in the areas you are writing to get a sense of the world they live in. Another source would be Periscope, that way you can hear and see the thoughts of the people who live in the area your characters do.
In the end, if you want to make sure you are doing everything you can to make your characters & their world come alive, you need to take the time to do your research. Do you have to do your research first and then write your novel? I’d say no. I’m doing research and writing at the same time, but I’m still in the first draft stage. All this research that I’m going to continue to do will show up when I begin to revise the novel. If you want to just write your novel to get your story out, by all means do so, but make sure you do the proper work, using all the research you’ve done, during the revision process. That is when your story will take shape, become a living breathing thing, and you want to make sure you get it right. Doing your due diligence with your research is the only way.