Research, in the most far-removed application of the word, is something every writer must be familiar with, at least to some degree. Of course, in this day and age, that means being well acquainted with the Google search bar. I am quite certain that, in the event of a stranger stumbling upon the browsing history of a writer, they would quickly flee the premises, screaming. Bizarre knowledge demands attention mid-narration, and a writer must pursue this strain to whatever end they require. So doubtless, a writer is also a researcher.
None of us has, despite our honest effort or desire, found out everything there is to know about the world. A shame. If only I could be so intimately aware of the table manners of English Royalty; the history of rural Japan; the origin of the Death-Metal genre of music; the name of that part of the telephone that clicks when you hang up the receiver; as well as everything else that could ever possibly be relevant to a story, then the need for research would escape me. Alas, this can never be the case.
As writers, we attempt to write comprehensibly, and believably, about everything under the sun. A lofty goal. Being that we are haplessly incapable of knowing infinite amounts of knowledge, we must learn what we can, about what we need, when the information becomes pertinent.
It is never obvious at first, what unique snippets of seemingly useless fact, will be essential to a writer to communicate to their readers. I cannot recount the number of times that I have begun a journey through blase narration, only to find it taking an unexpected turn. Out of nowhere, I find myself intently bound on uncovering an answer for which I did not anticipate there being a question. In the most extreme cases, I admit that I have plunged my economical investigation (read, free research) into things that would make any self-respecting employee of the Edmonton Police Service a tad bit suspicious. I promise officer, I was only writing a murder mystery!
To add insult to injury, we can never pre-prepare ourselves for the information we do not yet know we will need. I have never fired a gun, made a homemade pie crust, listened to the voices over a police scanner, taken sleeping medication, or, to my chagrin, driven in another city. While it may seem these things are not essential to a short story about a Harvard Alumnus (purely an example), our narrations can barrel high speed towards an off-ramp, taking us to a destination that wasn’t on our roadmap. Suddenly, the graduate is an unsuccessful one that never found a job in his field of Forensic Anthropology. He joined the police force instead. He gets involved in an investigation that goes far beyond what he wished to uncover; popping sleeping pills and making homemade pie crust is the way he copes with the strain of this new case. Unexpectedly, we are now caught in the conundrum of how to depict actions we’ve never done, through the scope of a character that is more familiar with them than we are. For you see, characters, real or imagined, are capable of being people outside of the experience of their authors, and thank goodness, or that murder mystery would take an unfortunate spin in a very different direction.
And so, we must research.
There is a misnomer about writing that as authors, we are boxed within the confines of what we already know if we wish to be successful. Nathan Englander, Stephen King, and certainly numerous others, have spoken to this inaccuracy. It is not about writing what you are already intelligently competent in (for what, as writers, are we truly intelligently competent in, except perhaps stringing meaningless symbols together? At that, every author will tell you there are moments and words for which that capacity completely escapes us). No. These writers tell us that it is about writing what you know to be true, and what you know you can express. Writing about the emotions that you know all too well because you are both uniquely human, as well as unbearably tethered to the mortal coil. Write about that. Research the rest.