Good Afternoon. Gigi the parti poodle here. Today my novelist has decided to write about the importance of research. Even if the book you are penning is fiction it is important to understand the subject you are writing about as best as you possibly can so you can tell a more convincing tale. I myself have been looking up information on ducks. We saw a mother duck and her ten ducklings cross in front of us not long ago and since I had not seen many ducks before I thought I would take the time to learn about them. So while I’m doing that, here is my novelist.
The worst advice I was ever given as a writer was “don’t write what you know”. The second worst advice was “make something up”. The third was “you can write a good book in a month”. None of these are true in fact they are quite misguiding.
There was an quite an uproar when Anthony Bourdain wrote Kitchen Confidential, a non-fiction autobiographical book about the world of restaurants. And it was a world he knew very well. I worked in restaurants for six years on and off and if you believe there is not drug use, alcoholism and sex going on in every single restaurant out there you are an idiot.
I have never been a drinker so when I worked at this one establishment where they would hand me a couple of old poker chips at the end of a shift, each one for a free drink in the bar, I always gave them away to a cook or another waitress who would have also been given a couple of chips. They never turned the extra chips down. I remember walking in one morning to find a cook and a waitress had huffed all the gas out of the only case of whipping cream. I remember one cook carried around a portable illegal pharmacy with him. I remember a waitress walking in with a black eye because her boyfriend beat the crap out of her. I remember one cook suddenly bolting out the back door to avoid jail. I had one chef who tried to get me to stand up against a wall so he could throw knives at me. At a fast food restaurant I worked with a guy who sold drugs through the drive thru window. And I saw all sorts of restaurant workers hook up. Point is you need to intimately know the subject you are writing about or you will not know the truth about it.
There is a world of difference between the movie Outsourced and Mike Judge’s Office Space and Silicon Valley. One insightful hint to how badly researched Outsourced is, is the writers do not make it a technical call center. That way they don’t have to rely on actual computer knowledge to write the script. This indicates they knew nothing or extraordinarily little about computer science. Instead they set the story in a call center where people call up and buy useless garbage. I do not know if it was laziness on the part of the writers or plain stupidity but because of inane scenes like moving the computers to the roof the film comes off as painfully amateur.
Office Space by contrast was a huge favorite in the computer world when the film first came out. This was because the characters in the movie were accurately drawn and experienced the same myriad of frustrating situations computer techs did. Silicon Valley also does a solid job of weaving savvy technology and the stupidity of management together. I worked on different technical helpdesks for five years. I also had to earn an MCSE and an A+ certification for my jobs. I was surrounded by these guys all the time and they are exactly like the characters in both of Mike Judge’s efforts. Not to mention Mike Judge has a degree in physics. So, yeah, at some point or another he has been around guys like this.
Another great show about help desk and deskside techs is the British television series The IT Crowd. Brilliantly created and penned by Graham Linehan this hilarious show does a phenomenal job depicting a couple of brilliant but socially inept techs and the abysmal situations they tolerate while working for a crackpot corporation. Just as in Office Space and Silicon Valley computer techs Roy and Moss are accurately depicted as is Jen their manager who often must act as a buffer between the two eggheads and the bizarre lunatics who run the company.
Now then, what do you do if you want to write a book where you are fascinated with a subject you know nothing about. Well, you get to work researching. You read a lot of books on the subject. You watch documentaries on the subject. You read research papers on the subject written by legitimate professors. You interview people who are knowledgeable in that field and work in the field. And you do it because you want to write a great book.
I have another book I am going to publish after I finish releasing my book series and it required months research. There were times I would be writing along and came to a point where I had to stop for a couple of weeks just to study one small element of the story in depth. So, when someone tells you it is possible to crank out a book in a month, sure you could do that. And it will probably be a disappointment to both you and your readers. But if you want to write a quality piece of work you have to put in the time to build the best most accurate story you possibly can.
That is why I keep repeating you need to write what you love. Because if you are going to be spending a lot of time immersing yourself in a story you better be willing to immerse yourself in twice as much research. The book series I am releasing this summer required me watching hours and hours and hours of footage to get the feel of the characters and the world they inhabit. It is only after knowing your subject well that you can write a solid book.
While you are waiting for my next post you can check out my book Chicane on Amazon.
If you are interested in taking ScreenwritingU’s free class on profound movies and television this Friday you can click here.
STREAM OF THE WEEK: HOUSE OF GAMES-Amazon Prime & THE SPANISH PRISONER-Showtime
David Mamet is a smart writer who puts a great deal of thinking into his plays and film scripts. This week I thought I would feature two of his films which focus on con artists made ten years apart: House of Games from 1987 and The Spanish Prisoner from 1997.
House of Games stars Lindsey Crouse as a psychiatrist and published author who leads a strait-laced life. She has a young patient named Billy Hahn who confides in her he owes twenty-five thousand to a charismatic bookie named Mike played by Joe Mantegna. Billy also tells her he is going to kill himself before Mike does for not paying his debt. The psychiatrist whose name is Margret, goes to a seedy bar called House of Games and confronts Mike who is in the middle of a poker game. Mike tells Margret Billy only owes him eight hundred dollars and makes a deal with her: if she pretends to be his girlfriend and lets him know if one of the guys at the table plays with his gold ring while he steps out for a moment. Thus, begins the clever path of twists and turns through this excellent crime thriller shot in Seattle, Washington.
The Spanish Prisoner stars Campbell Scott as Joe Ross an engineer who has developed a sophisticated and lucrative formula for a company run by a man named Mr. Klein played by Ben Gazzara. The formula is written in a large red book on uncopiable paper and stored in a safe for which only both men have a key. The movie starts out on the island of St. Estèphe where the engineer and other members of his company including new company secretary Susan played by Rebecca Pidgeon are taking a retreat. There Joe meets a wealthy man named Jimmy Dell played by Steve Martin. Dell asks Joe to do him a favor when he gets back to New York: give his sister a package. Shot primarily in New York, City the movie keeps the audience wonderfully paranoid as Joe attempts to protect his complex formula while he struggles to figure out who he can trust and who he cannot.
SMART MOVIES FOR SMART KIDS: CHARLOTTE’S WEB (1973)-Amazon Prime
E.B. White’s heartbreaking classic Charlotte’s Web is beautifully brought to life in this animated gem from 1973. Lending to the magic are the voices of Debbie Reynolds as Charlotte, Henry Gibson as Wilber, Paul Lynd as Templeton, Pamelyn Ferdin as Fern, Danny Bonaduce as Avery and Agnes Moorhead as The Goose. A gentler looking film than most 3-D films the movie captures the wonderful story of a friendship between a would-be doomed pig and the selfless spider who saves him.