Research tripping

by Alexandra Sokoloff

As anyone who interacts with me on Facebook knows, I got a little tense this election week.  Not that that’s unusual.  And I doubt I was the only one here who wasn’t getting much work done in the last few days.  At the same time, I can’t really afford to take time off, given the deadlines I’ve got going on, even if most of them are self-imposed.

But the Universe lined itself up for me,as it so often does. Actually, some people would say it ALWAYS does, even if that’s not the way it looks on the surface. But that’s another blog!

I just finished a second draft of my new book, BLOOD MOON, and I don’t know about you all, but I find it REALLY REALLY hard to take the advice I am always giving other writers: to take time off in between drafts of a manuscript. Even when I know it’s the best possible thing I can do for the next draft. But the next logical step in my process required research, in fact, a research trip to San Francisco.  I know, I know, rough life. So on Tuesday I just got in the car and drove up, meaning  I got to watch election returns in downtown Oakland (massively fun and obviously a huge party…)

And now I’m running around the city to locations I’m using in the book.

Now, I lived in the Bay Area for years, it’s not lke I don’t  know what I’m writing about. But there is nothing like revisiting a city, neighborhood, park, street, whatever, while you are in the headspace of your characters, looking specifically for those details that will color in your book.  And that’s really how I think of it – coloring in. I have the outlines of the story, but now I have to add those layers of light and shadow, color and sound and smell. And the feeling of being in a place.

I did a great panel at Bouchercon this year and the fabulous moderator, Daniel Palmer, who knows my acting background, asked if I used acting techniques to develop character. And of course I do. I don’t think about doing it, its just something I’ve done for so long that I couldn’t imagine not doing it. A lot of conveying emotion on stage is about creating that emotion inside of you, first, and then layering on the physical manifestations of that emotion so that the audience feels it, too.

So all this walking around in the actual physical world of my story is what really helps me to get the sensual reality of that world and whatever the characters are experiencing onto the page. I need to FEEL it.  I can do research online and read books, and craft an approximation of an experience from that research and my own  memoreies of experience, but it’s a lot harder for me than being there in person. In fact I have been doing so much walking that I can barely move at night, but it’s the only way I really know how to do this. Driving it won’t cut it.

But I’m a really physical person. Kinetic learner, psychologists call it. And the kind of writing I like to do and read is a lot about creating a sensory experience.  I realize that not everyone is like this, because there are books out there that do very little to create a sensory experience., and people buy them anyway, so someone  must be getting something out of them. But that kind of book rarely does anything for me. I want all six senses n ny books – especially that sixth sense of SENSING – the unseen stuff, the things that make your skin tingle.  Synchronicities. A smell that takes you back to your childhood.  Walking into the exact scene that you have been thinking about, and realizing the epiphany that your character will have there.

So for today I’m wondering – are you guys aware of what experiences you most want to read or create in a book, the way I find sensory experience (including the visual) my prime pleasure in reading?  What is that draw for you, and  what do you do in terms of reearch and craft to create that? Does acting technique play a part?

Or in reading, which authors/books are great examples of the experience you most want in a book?

(Sorry for the typos and short post today – I’m working on my iPad, which is not an optimum blogging experience!)

– Alex

9 thoughts on “Research tripping

  1. Sarah W

    First of all, I'm torn between asking you not to overextend yourself and begging you to get the next draft of BLOOD MOON done as quickly as possible, please.

    It's easy to drop myself into your POV characters, to sympathize with their motivations (even if I think they're making a mistake), so however you're doing what you're doing is working for me!

    What fascinates me is the interaction between characters, through dialogue, reactions, assumptions (right or wrong), or simple awareness: the strange awareness between your agent and his unsub, for example, or the complicated love between Zoe's Charlie and Sean (or her father, which is a different can of worms), Hayden Glass's changing views of Cora in Steve's BEAT, Gar's guilt-bonded Handy and Holden (or the often exasperated affection Joe Loudermilk has for his family), or any interaction between any two characters David has ever written.

    I'm not sure how well it's working, but I often learn a character by having another one describe them, or by making that character monologue about something (I now know which ones voted for which presidential candidate and why), or talk/argue with each other (again, politics was useful).

    Is this an acting technique? I suppose all writers use directing techniques?

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sarah, those are two really great character-building exercises you described right there. Having another character describe the character you're developing is really good!

    I would think that all writers use directing techniques but I have no idea, honestly! I was a director so I have no idea how people who weren't would learn directing technique. Maybe people can tackle that question today, because I'd really like to know!

  3. JJ

    As an editor, I tell my writers they must do with their scene POV characters the same thing that directors on a set do with actors. They MUST sit back before they write a scene and think about where that character is in space and time. What has come before. How the character feels. What history and what intent is the character bringing to the scene. Who's going to oppose them and why. In other words, crawl into the characters' skin, feel and understand what they're feeling, and write the scene from that perspective. As a writer, if you can't go that deeply in, then your characters will come off as shallow or wooden. They won't react as real people, and the reader will know it. If a writer becomes the 'director' before he or she sits down to write, the scene will play itself out in front of him as he 'just puts down the words.'

    And that's the most analytical I can be so early in the morning. Fascinating post and reply so far. I'm interested, too, in what others will have to say.

  4. Richard Maguire

    "Kinetic learning, psychologists call it."

    I loved your post a couple of weeks back about the Weymouth mansion, but I was too late to comment. Having read THE UNSEEN I feel as though I've actually been inside that spooky house. The atmosphere you created was chilling. It certainly made my skin tingle.

    Frequently, I re-read the early Hemingway, especially "A Farewell to Arms" and "The Sun Also Rises", for atmosphere that leaps off the page. And I also love the work of the late Elmer Kelton, particulary the three novels featuring Rusty Shannon. You start reading, and within a few pages he works this trick of making you see the life he's describing in 19th Century Texas.

    What I love about your writing is how visual it is. I'm sure it's because you started out as a screenwriter. You don't waste time in getting to the point of a scene.

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JJ thank you, that is a GREAT description of how a writer "directs" her characters. And then, of course, you have to PLAY them, too.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Richard, thank you. Can you imagine writing that book without having lived in the mansion, though? I could never have made it that real. And the visual for me started when I was in theater. I found it fascinating how production design could make or break a play. We're visual creatures, above all, so it mkes sense.

    I don't know Kelton, will have to investigate!

  7. Lisa Alber

    Hi Alex,

    It's funny, I don't write paranormals, but I do love all things moody and atmospheric (which is one reason why I enjoy your novels). Nevertheless, I love injecting the sixth sense into my novels, at least a little. I love that you called that out, by the way–when I read that I thought, Yes, that's what I do without thinking about it. Great to know that about myself and to have a concrete way of thinking about it. Thanks!

    Yes, the sixth sense. Strikes me that setting as character is part of the sixth sense. Your creepy mansion, my creepy old medieval church in the novel I hope to get out there (sigh…).

    THE LAKE OF DEAD LANGUAGES by Carol Goodman is a good one for the sixth sense. Very moody with local rituals and lore playing a part in the plot. It takes place at a private all-girls school located in the middle of nowhere–gotta love the creepy all-girls school!

    It's hard for me to think in terms of directing my characters. I feel like I conjure them before I start writing–through character analyses etcetera–and then once I know them well enough, they exert their own wills. But I do get the method-acting technique of getting into our characters' heads. That's so important, as JJ mentioned.

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Did someone say creep medieval church? I'm there!

    Lisa, you're right, of course, characters do just show up. But still, there's some back and forth about inhabiting them, usuallly, even so.

  9. KDJames

    Another fascinating discussion, Alex. Thanks! Sorry I have nothing to add. I'm doing NaNo (1st time for me) and trying to make up for time lost during the election coverage. Brain is feeling sort of mushy right now.

    But I did want to draw attention to this over here, where there are so many writers, and "fans" of Lee Child. It's a recent video interview of him described as: "Author Lee Chid is in conversation onstage at the City Opera House with New York Times bestselling author and host Doug Stanton.."

    It's almost 2 hours long and is mostly Child talking. Really interesting and very funny at times.

    Back to writing.

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