Recently I was invited to submit to a new market, and even given a prompt with which to work, but none of my initial attempts were panning out. Then, random perusing of the Internet gave me this interesting bit of trivia – there is a clock tower in Ireland, in Cork, which has four faces, and each face tells a different time. This inspired the thought: “What if, rather than three of those faces being wrong, all four are right?” Breakthrough!
Wait, and somebody even wrote a poem about this clock? Get outta here! The story practically wrote itself! Seriously, I’m not sure why I showed up that day.
Research can take a number of different forms, each of which serve different purposes, and all of which are invaluable to honing the craft of writing. Here’s a few:
Reading other stories in the genre is research, as you need to see how it’s been done, learn the conventions of the genre, pick up tips, etc. Don’t put blinders on to what’s going on in your chosen field.
Names are important, so don’t just randomly grab a name from a phone book. Make sure characters have period-appropriate names, and be aware of ethnic implications (of surnames in particular). Look out for historical or pop culture significance that might color a reader’s view of a character. There are plenty of resources to check (my personal favorite is Behindthename.com). Don’t overlook the meanings of names, there’s rich material there for inspiration. I’ve jump-started stories based purely on some interesting meaning of a randomly-generated name.
History matters. It seems silly, but there it is. Even if you’re radically changing the history of a place, it’s important to know what really happened, how the people lived, how they thought. Not just the bare facts of how many people lived in what city, but what their philosophy was, what the issues of the day were, and so forth. What’s the difference between a 20th century hero and a 16th century brigand? How did people talk in the 1200s? Or even last year? A single bit of slang can transport the reader to an entirely different decade.
Technical vocabulary can make or break a story for some readers. Tom Clancy has legions of followers who read his work simply because he can, step by step and with all the right technical terms, describe how a nuclear reactor on board a Russian submarine can melt down. Does the gun in your narrator’s hand use shells or bullets? Was the city hit by a meteor or a meteorite? Is this cop a detective or a constable? Does this patient need blood or plasma? Some portion of the audience, maybe even most of the audience, won’t know the difference, but some will and they’ll nitpick themselves out of enjoying the story. Then they’ll post about it somewhere online.
Research is important to creating realistic and believable people and settings, and just as important in flash fiction as in a novel. Be as familiar with the subject matter as possible, because for your flash piece it needs to be summed up in a sentence, or a few words of dialogue. You won’t have the luxury of a whole chapter to explore the ideas.
Most of all, let research inspire your stories. There’s so much available in the real world that’s interesting, it would be a shame not to take advantage of the free ideas. Research is not a chore. And it gives you a good excuse to check out a lot of cool books.
Alexander Burns lives in Fort Worth, Texas. He writes because he doesn’t have a basement in which to build robots or time machines. His work has appeared at Every Day Fiction, A Thousand Faces, 10Flash, and forthcoming from The Future Fire.