Writing research is a key element of preparation for any new project. You can start writing off the top of your head, but the juices will flow a lot better if you get all of the basics in a file before you start. Quick stops to open a word document to recall where your hero went to college are a lot less problematic than having to stop to research colleges in the middle of a conversation that was previously flowing smoothly, or having to correct inconsistencies in your manuscript after.
Research can be fun. Marketers make it fun on purpose. They design ads to get you excited to buy a car or tour a foreclosed house. The secret is that when you’re shopping for your characters, the sky is the limit and you can transfer the temptation to click buy to your fictional character. Here are five things that I love to research.
What you wear says a lot about your personality. Clothing is expressive. If it isn’t expressive, that also says something about you. Does your girl wear baggy sweats because she thinks she’s ugly? Does your guy dress like he’s been alive (or dead) for a hundred and fifty years. What the hell do you actually call that long wool coat with the big lapels?
Clothing sites are great resources for naming clothing and for putting together a concrete mental picture of a style. Sometimes I google particular designers when I know that the CEO would have the cool, clean style of Hugo Boss or that the victorian vampire would buy a coat from London Fog. My favorite site to look at, when I don’t have a distinct Google Search term in my head, is Overstock.com.
Why this particular site? Overstock.com has a wide variety of clothes and household items. Best of all, it has the clothing displayed on neutral mannequins and headless models (cropped… if they were really headless, I would be worried). Without a smiling model chosen to give me a specific self-image, I’m free to imagine the outfit on my character.
You could cast celebrities, but I find that it’s even more fun to sift through archives of amateur model talent to find faces for my characters. Modelmayhem.com has a great archive of searchable faces. Clicking Browse pulls up an advanced search where you can narrow results by age, gender, hair, eyes, height, measurements, etc. Just beware that people who leave out information on their profiles will not come up in specific searches. If you’re looking for a fat woman, you’re more likely going to find her by searching her other traits than to find the perfect face who will disclose her weight on the internet.
A lot of writers create playlists for their characters. I cheat and use Pandora. I can think of two or three songs or artists that fit their taste, plug them in, and let Pandora create a station for me. I could spend three hours making the perfect playlist from my iTunes collection. But face it, unless my characters are musically similar to me, the lists won’t be very good. Pandora saves time and finds new music outside of your experience.
Places can be tricky. You may imagine that sleek contemporary high-rise, but if your reader as ever been to Cheyenne, they’re going to know you didn’t research it properly. Find inspiration for describing settings. You can use sites like Realtor.com to browse listings. See photos of what kinds of architecture is available in a given setting. Get a solid floor plan in your head so that by the time your murderer is chasing your heroine through her house, you don’t accidentally connect the kitchen to the living-room where previously there was a hall between.
This goes for landmarks, too. Make sure that you research restaurants, amusement parks, and tourist traps before writing them. Even if you want to use a generic restaurant or hint of a similarity to a real spot, a little research will help your creation seem genuine. It will stop you from raising a red flag to someone who has actually been there.
I am not a car person. You ask me what kind of car cut me off and I will tell you “the blue one!” But I do have taste in cars– preferences– and I like to look at them on the internet. Sites like autotrader are handy for when you have no idea what you’re looking for. You can get more specific if you have an idea. Searching for British Cars will find some cool old cars and searching for green cars will find the cutest car ever.
When in doubt: Google. Have fun shopping for your characters. It may seem like a frivolous exercise, but it will make your writing much more vivid and concrete.