RESEARCH! Good old fashioned studying is there to help you with your woes. In our information age, education and knowledge have never been easier to find and access. Or maybe you're the old fashioned sort who likes going to museums and libraries to study: Also a valid method. You fill up notepads, diaries and Word docs with all sorts of tidbits to help you create a world and characters you can draw from.
But then comes the question: how much is too much?
When does research becoming delaying and excusing not writing? At what point does your story become a documentary or worse, an essay? On the one hand, William Goldman spent several years researching the Old West to write Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid; by contrast, David Henry Hwang, who wrote the acclaimed Broadway hit M. Butterfly, said he only researched what he absolutely needed and then got on with writing.
This is a question that's been, I imagine, especially on the minds of those who wish to write period pieces and stories with a lot of technical jargon, such as medical dramas, spy thrillers and anything involving scientists. Here's the thing: like most writing questions, it's not so much a matter of right or wrong, as everyone's method is different. Rather, it's a question of priority. What is your story really about, and what does it require?
Consider the following trifecta when pondering this question:
- AUTHENTICITY: How 'real' are you trying to make your story? Are you going for a complete tell-all recreation of events, or just enough to give you a credible platform from which you can tell the story that really interests you? How heightened or fantastical will it be? Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Carribbean are both period pieces with well-realized worlds that are researched, but they're not concerned overtly with historic fidelity or recreation: they just give the story a world to play with.
- ACCESSIBILITY: At what point does this information become irrelevant for the reader/audience and, worse, could create a roadblock? Is there a simpler way to say or name something so a reader doesn't have to break off and go find an encyclopedia (or Wiki it)? Deadwood is a classic example: its unmistakable roostersucking dialogue was anachronistic, but it was done because actual curses of the time would seem silly to a modern ear and thus, lose a lot of their vulgar impact and harm the drama.
- NECESSITY: Following from the first two, relating to setting and clarity of information, do you need this specific thing to make your story work? Does your character arc or theme hinge on this detail? Do you need to mention the extact brand of shoe polish Winston Churchill used in order to write about his nature in office? Do you need to name a specific make of Rolls-Royce, if it somehow serves to inform that character, or just put up the date and say it's a Rolls? Remember, the more details you put in, the bulkier your action lines and, by extension, screenplay will be, which will have a knock-on effect on pacing.
But okay, that's what to do during the research: what about a starting point, since the internet can be a giant ocean to explore? Next time, I'll tell you about your new best friend(s).