Or better entitled: why my internet search history could get me arrested.
I thought I’d start this blogging journey—from fanfic to original fic—with the one thing that is tripping me up the most: research. And if you are still with me at the end of this, I have a request.
I didn’t start writing stories with a declaration that I would become A Writer. I simply wrote what I like to read as a means of escaping from reality—and, possibly, to offer that escape to others who also liked to read what I liked to read. Ideas are never a problem. They come unbidden—triggered by a line of narration or dialog in a movie or book, a lyric in a song, a fleeting thought as I wait for the microwave to beep. Sometimes they come with imagined scenes attached, sometimes with simple “what if” possibilities.
What happens next is the hard part: anchoring the idea into a possibility.
I started writing fanfiction in 2006. Prior to that, I had never heard of it before—and for those of you who may be reading this thinking, “yeah, right there with you,” let me break it down. Fanfiction stories are written by fans of something—a movie, book, or TV show, for example—using established characters and building beyond that quantifiable universe. Extending a scene, writing a brand new adventure using those known characters, exploring emotions, reactions, and possibilities that aren’t always captured to a fan’s satisfaction.
The quality and content of fanfiction is as broad and diverse as there are people in the world. It’s global, free, and writers embark on the storytelling journey accepting they essentially own nothing they post on the various websites. There are canon stories—collectively agreed-upon truth established by the original authors/creators—and there are ‘alternate universe’ stories—where fanfic authors take characters/worlds and adjust the dial to fit various storytelling purposes.
When I discovered fanfiction back in 2006, I knew none of this. I learned pretty quickly, though, that this world was both fascinating and surprising. There were ‘genres’ I gravitated toward and those I actively avoided. Spend any amount of time in that world and you’ll see what I mean. The best part about it, though, was discovering how I wanted to tell stories—learning my style, honing my skill, and receiving immediate feedback via reviews.
My first ‘fandom’ was Supernatural. I’ve written 72 fanfiction stories and 47 of those were for Supernatural—varying in length from 10k word “one shots” (as in one chapter only) to 280k word novels. And I’m not even close to some of the more prolific writers in that fandom.
From a storytelling/idea perspective, there was no shortage of possibilities with Supernatural. You had two brothers driving around the country in their dad’s ‘67 Chevy Impala, classic rock the back-beat of their narrative, fighting monsters while dealing with familial angst. I had plenty “write what you know” to pull from when it came to the familial angst. As far as the monsters were concerned? That’s where I was first introduced to researching for a story. The show had set a precedence that what you thought you might know about ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and the like may only be mostly true. They embraced the definition of lore—a body of traditions and knowledge on a subject, typically passed from person to person by word of mouth—and then put their own spin on it.
As Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
When writing stories about a banshee, ghost, or wendigo, I learned to base the lore in something familiar and then…make adjustments. I discovered—based on the responses of readers through reviews—that as long as the creatures were grounded in some sort of plausibility within our known universe, and as long as the characters the readers were familiar with reacted to the creatures I used and/or created in a manner keeping with their behavior on the show (because some of them—like the giant, bat-like cave demon in my story The Cave—were completely fabricated), almost anything was acceptable.
Researching for Supernatural was less work, more…exploration. But after spending several years with these characters, in this world, I decided it was time for me to branch out a bit.
And that’s when the prospect of research got interesting.
My storytelling choices followed my ‘muse’—or, more accurately, shows I was interested in or saw potential for more. I spent some time in France in the 1630s, writing stories based on the BBC’s The Musketeers. The similar theme of brotherhood that drew me to Supernatural in the first place was still there, but I realized quickly that I would have to change quite a few things about how I captured a scene, described emotions, expressions, and reasoning. I had to rethink everything from clothing, to language, to mannerisms, to location. I’ve been to Paris, but Paris in the 17th century was incredibly different from anything we have today. Obviously.
While the fanfiction audience is a rather forgiving lot, I had no intention of being a lazy writer. If I were going to write about Louis XIII’s guard, it would be as though I were sitting on a rooftop in Paris watching the whole story unfold. Or as close to that as I could get. I wore out Google, looking up the history of the city—everything from what the police force and governing bodies were called, to food served in the taverns, to what sort of clothing different people of different social stations wore. I looked up common phrases and traditions. I realized I couldn’t use descriptions like, “He stared at the man with laser focus,” because ‘laser’ was a futuristic word.
And, as the characters were, essentially, soldiers, I learned about weapons. The difference between a rapier and a sword. How a main gauche was held and where they’d keep it on their body. What an arquebus was, and how it was loaded and fired. How heavy a schinova (the sword preferred by the character Porthos) was and whether it was more common to have a wheel-lock pistol or a dagger on your person if you were of a certain social station.
As I am forever getting my characters into dangerous situations, I also had to learn 17th century medical practices. After all, I couldn’t simply mend a wound with an IV and antibiotics. And surgery was just as likely to kill someone as would sending them into battle. I learned which herbs promoted healing, how to mix and apply a poultice, that honey was great at sealing a wound, and how stitches weren’t always the solution we imagine them to be.
I found my writing got tighter, more purposeful. I moved on to other shows, learning the lay of the land—sometimes literally, as with Daredevil and the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, New York—and I discovered other methods of researching that made my ideas make sense. Most recently, I wrote several fanfiction stories for the reboot of MacGyver.
And this is where I got a little worried that should the government every really spy on our computers, my search history could call my intentions into question. ;)
That said, Google only got me so far with some of the more inventive improvisations common to this particular show. I had to actually learn some science, people. Like, with books. I was never good at science in school, and here I was learning about chemical compounds and bomb disposal techniques like Trepanation. O_o
The MacGyver ( “Mac” ) character in the reboot is an Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Tech in the Army, and if I wanted to be true to that character, I realized I had to have at least some background of what that meant—what training went into this, what tools/equipment might be common, what vernacular an EoD Tech would find familiar. I will admit that in some instances, I wrote around this knowledge—shifting viewpoint to another character who had no idea what Mac was doing and simply describing what it looked like he was doing, because I couldn’t really understand it myself.
Lastly, I talked to people. Reviewers who’d followed my writing for some time and enjoyed my fanfiction stories enough to volunteer their time helping me with some accuracy. I exchanged emails with readers who were Army and Navy vets; they helped me fold in plausible lingo into my dialog and account for gear commonly worn by U.S. soldiers and sailors in Afghanistan in the 2011-2013 time frame. They also helped me expound upon the setting—I’ve never been to Afghanistan, and while Wikipedia and travel websites offer ideas, and reading The Kite Runner gave me some feeling for the culture and location, nothing replaces actual experience of the sand and the sounds and the sights and smells and heat and cold.
With all my internet research and book reading, I found that talking with people has been the most effective way of funneling some realism into an imagined situation.
Going from an established network of readers and like-minded fans to creating a world no one has ever seen in a TV show, movie, or book, and making it real enough readers will be able to visualize it…is somewhat daunting. I want readers to hear the local accents, feel the air on their skin, smell the scents from the fish market or exhaust from the cars, see the apartments, the homes, the photos on the walls, the way the sunset tags the leaves on a lone tree in a back yard before disappearing behind the rooftops of the neighboring houses….
Kill Creek Road is set in Boston and focuses on four main characters with several supporting characters. There are multiple timelines — primarily 1945-1952, 1970, and 1998 — which means historical accuracy will be important. And that I can get from research and reading, true enough. The characters are two policemen—one who was in Vietnam in 1970—an ER nurse, and a…well, the last one is a bit complicated. Let’s just say my 47 Supernatural stories will come in handy with this one.
I’ve decided the best way to get past this first hurdle is to start reaching out to people I know—cops, nurses, former or current military personnel—to see how willing they might be to talk with me about what’s real, what’s Hollywood, what a day-in-the-life is like, what gaffes to avoid, what assumptions not to make, how to think about the world through their eyes. I’m going to reach out to friends—made through the world of fanfiction—who live in Boston to get a sense of the setting, the local customs and traditions, the feel of the place.
I’ll of course still be researching—Google isn’t getting out of this that easily—and spending time at the Lawrence Public Library, but if you’re reading this, and you fit any of those categories above (cop, nurse, soldier, Bostonian) and you’d be willing to answer questions, let me know. And, if anyone reading this has successfully accomplished this researching task to bring an original story to life and has some pointers? I’m all ears. Or, well…eyes.
You have my thanks in advance, and my promise to take care of your time.
Next up… “Music is the only thing that makes sense anymore... play it loud enough and it keeps the demons at bay.”