Becoming a Writing Research Powerhouse

Becoming a Writing Research Powerhouse

Research is important for creating richly detailed and authentic feeling characters and stories—aka, verisimilitude. And if you're writing a historical or biographical screenplay, research is absolutely vital.

Any screenwriter can become a research powerhouse. You just need a few basic skills and resources, and a little practice using them.

You don't need to take library science and archival studies classes or to work in a library in order to gain superior research skills (although I found those experiences surprisingly fun!), but you do need to do it well.

Otherwise, it's a waste of time.

To make this all more relatable, I'm going to describe the processes I used for one of my own scripts as examples throughout this article. The first really solid spec feature I ever wrote was a western about a stagecoach driver that was set in the 1860s, so I knew from the jump that it would be a research-heavy undertaking.

How did I begin?

First things first...

Go in with an open mind.

If you only try to find facts to support your hopes or assumptions, you’ll miss discovering things that could inspire you or help you write an even better story.

In research, you find and analyze different possible answers to a question, and then choose one or come up with a new one based upon information gathered. In other words, research involves asking a question, identifying the best sources of information, and developing an answer based on factual evidence, critical evaluation, and analysis.

Relax! It's not as intimidating as it sounds. A good place to start is knowing that ...

Libraries are awesome. Use them!

Here's a quick crash-course on using libraries for research:

• Libraries use universal cataloging systems such as the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress system. It's helpful to either memorize or keep on hand a copy of each when you visit the library, if only because researching by browsing is fun and can allow you to stumble across really cool and unexpected information.

• Libraries provide access to searchable reference databases of everything from newspapers to scholarly journals (note: if possible, read the full text of sources paraphrased, quoted or otherwise cited in these documents to check their accuracy against the sources—and beware of predatory journals).

• Bibliographies or cited sources in books and research papers can lead you to increasingly reliable and detailed sources.

• The reference desk is where you'll find professionally trained librarians who teach research skills to people and help them to find resources—or free. You can also ask the reference librarian to acquire books, databases, and other material to support your research.

• Many search engines at libraries use Boolean operators to perform keyword searches. For example, if you wanted to read about the life of Jiddu Krishnamurti, you might type “[Jiddu AND Krishnamurti] AND [biography OR history OR story].”

So, let's say you find a bunch of potential sources of information. Now what? Which ones should you use?

Before I get into that, you should ...

Know your research jargon.

Primary Source: Original information such as an interview that you conducted yourself or some other first-person testimony, a scientist's findings based on experimentation, or original documents (birth certificates, transcripts, diaries, personal letters, etc.).

Secondary Source: A source that explains or analyzes primary information, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, reviews, biographies and other second-person testimony, and data compilations.

Authority: Aspects like whether or not the source matches the author's institutional affiliation, educational background, past writings, or experience can help determine reliability. If the author is associated with a reputable institution or organization, and if that institution's goals don't create bias in the subject about which the author wrote, the author is more likely to be a reliable authority.

Publication date: Information about science, current events, history, or politics might require reading sources dating from hundreds of years ago or from only a few days ago, depending on the topic and whether new discoveries were made recently.

Sometimes the best primary source is yourself, so ...

Try to gain firsthand knowledge.

For my western, I started with knowledge I could acquire firsthand by visiting old west towns and parts of the Sierra Nevada to get a feel for the physical spaces, practicing quick-draws with replicas of guns from the era (which is how I found out that the weight a gun could make all the difference in a gunfight), and other such activities.

If possible, it's also a great idea to ...

Talk to people.

If elements in your script represent a location, mindset, or experience you're not completely familiar with, it can sometimes be best to have someone with first-hand experience co-write, consult on, or read the relevant parts of your script to give notes. Since I could neither find an old west stagecoach driver, nor indeed anyone over 150 years old, I knew talking to denizens of that time and place was not an option.

Some information I was able to find as oral histories, maps and photos of the locations, autobiographies, and letters that people had written to each other. Other information I could only find from secondary sources, and sometimes only after an incredible amount of searching, like when I went to find out how doctors treated different kinds of knife and bullet injuries in the 1860s and how long recovery took.

As important as finding a good source is, you should always ...

Use multiple sources of information.

Even if the first one you find is authentic, scholarly, and/or authoritative, any source you find might be incomplete and/or partially inaccurate. So, what can you do about it? Corroborate statements in one source by comparing them to statements in other sources.

For example, when I wanted to include a real person as a character, it was useful to read about that person's own point of view, the perspectives of people who knew that person, and the views of scholarly historical analyses on that person's life.

Why? If you're writing something that's purely based upon any one person's experiences and memories, including your own, some parts might be incomplete or inaccurate. When you interview several people and who have perspectives that completely disagree with each other, and I promise you will, it can help to seek out a kind of tie-breaker source who's an authority on the subject, so that their knowledge can help you decide which way to go with the details of your story and characters.

For me, in one case, this was a university professor who had been researching and teaching about the specific subject for many years. Cold-emailing is a fine way to reach out to such a source. Don't overthink this interaction. Just be respectful, polite, direct, and concise.

OK, let's say you've gotten all of your facts as straight as possible. What now?

See what else is out there.

At some point, even if it's after you finish a full draft, you should familiarize yourself with existing works of fiction (movies, shows, books, etc.) that have things in common with your script.

This is important for several reasons. Firstly, because your initial draft might be too similar to a well-known property. Secondly, because when you go to pitch or even write a logline for your script you'll need to be able to name a couple of popular films/shows that you can use as tonal or story comparisons (viz. “Think Jumanji meets All the President's Men.”). Thirdly, because it will help you avoid accidentally overusing cliches.

Oh, and one BIG thing that even the best of us often forget ...

Always archive your research.

Download articles, copy book pages, and for goodness' sake record interviews. I still sometimes forget when it comes to this, but if you can train yourself to develop these habits, it’ll save you a lot of anguish later on. Plus, you’ll be well prepared to weigh the value of notes from people who are desperate to poke holes in your script, using some random misnomer or urban legend from social media.

You could even think of it not as frustrating, willful ignorance that sucks time and enjoyment from your life, but as an opportunity to dazzle such people with your impromptu TED Talk on the abundant volumes of minutiae you spent hours absorbing in order to type the one or two words with which they took issue, and take pleasure in watching as their eyes slowly roll back into their head with a growing expression of inundation and primal yearning for surcease.

But seriously, though, archive your research.

One more thing ...

Finally, I know how difficult this is, but realize that no matter how much research you do, or how thoroughly you do it, you’ll still get something wrong. You might not even find out about whatever it is for years, but it’s there. And that’s OK.

Forgive yourself and move on.

Many working writers believe that writing something inaccurate, or even nonsensical, is fine as long as it elicits the expected emotional response from the intended audience. I disagree with this belief, but I will also say that if you try to be an absolute perfectionist, you’ll never even finish a first draft.

So, yes, accuracy and authenticity are important, but stay mindful about balancing your priorities, too.

*Feature Image by Vali-111 (Adobe)

Writing kids animation by day (TeamTO, Nickelodeon) and genre live-action by night, Hilary Van Hoose is also journalist and 2021 RespectAbility Lab Fellow with an MFA in Film & TV Production from USC.
More posts by Hilary Van Hoose.
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