You’ve come to that horrible moment in your writing journey when, just as you’re leaving the harbor, a dark and ominous cloud front rolls across the sky. Rain starts to fall, big cold plops of realization that you are totally unequipped for this story, that no matter how much you think you know about coal fracking off the top of your head, you have nowhere near the expertise you need, and that Wikipedia is going to exhaust its usefulness pretty quickly (if even reliable, at that).
It’s a common moment for all writers. But for journalist-turned-novelist Andrew Welsh-Huggins, it’s a moment he knows how to navigate, thanks to his years of experience doing research. In this week’s blog, learn from a professional fact-finder, so that the next time you come to an “I-have-no-idea” moment, you have the skills to help you sail straight through. And for me, the 10-minute rule he cited on research and writing long are pure diamonds.
Fact Into Fiction
By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
“How much research do you do for your books?”
It’s one of the questions I’m asked most often at signings and talks, even more than the tried-and-true, “Where do you get your ideas?”
My usual response—“A lot”—should come as no surprise. By day, I’m a full-time reporter with The Associated Press, and my first two books were nonfiction on the death penalty and domestic terrorism, respectively. Both involved hundreds of hours of reporting, from poring over documents to conducting numerous interviews.
Despite all that, I’m the one sometimes surprised by my own answer. As a novelist, I figured, things would be different, a welcome break from my job as a fact-gathering journalist. You just make stuff up, right?
For starters, I found myself relying on my work experience more than I expected, whether setting scenes in courthouses or coffee shops, or loosely modeling characters after cops, lawyers, and politicians I’ve interviewed over the years. One of the subplots in my first mystery, Fourth Down And Out, involved a health-care financing company run like a Ponzi scheme. Incorporating that storyline was easy, based on weeks I’d spent covering the real-life $1.9 billon fraud case of suburban Columbus-based National Century Financial Enterprises.
Experiential writing only gets you so far, however, as I learned when it came time to write the book’s climactic scene, in which my hero, disgraced ex-Ohio State-quarterback-turned-private eye Andy Hayes, enters Ohio Stadium for the first time in twenty years to confront an old nemesis. Sure, I’d been in the famed stadium plenty of times, both as a reporter and as a civilian watching a game. But I quickly realized that neither casual knowledge nor Internet trolling was going to cut it. Trust me: when writing about the fanaticism of Buckeye fans, you don’t want to screw things up.
So I put my reporter’s hat back on and arranged a stadium tour. Thanks to that hour-long expedition, I timed Andy’s walk to a specific gate entrance, took pictures of the views he would see inside, and most importantly, counted the number of steps he’d have to climb to reach a particular luxury suite.
In a 2014 interview with The Daily Beast, Michael Connelly discussed researching his Mickey Haller books, “until I feel that the books feel of authority and have some realism to them.” When I left the stadium that day, I felt a similar sense of authority. Readers partial to the scarlet-and-gray might not appreciate my portrayal of rabid OSU supporters, but they can’t argue with that scene’s layout.
The reporting load was even heavier in my second book, Slow Burn, in which I combined a ripped-from-the-headlines arson fire near campus with another subplot, this time involving hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a drilling process used to free previously off-limits supplies of natural gas from deep underground.
I’d written a bit about the controversial extraction method as a reporter, since eastern Ohio, home to the Utica Shale formation, is a fracking hot bed. But I hardly knew enough even to be dangerous. Soon, I was trading emails with a retired state geologist who taught me everything I needed to know and more about permeability, magnetic resonance, and piggyback logs. My happy challenge became integrating all those facts into the story without interrupting the novel’s pace.
In mystery writing as in journalism, the one thing research shouldn’t do is slow down the creative process. “Make one quick effort to get the answer,” wrote Stuart Kaminsky, whose many novels include the Sarasota-based Lew Fonesca series. “If you can’t find it in ten minutes, keep writing and go back for the answer when you finish your manuscript.” I often write longer articles while I’m still reporting them, finding it easier to fill in gaps as I go than start from that awful blank page. Similarly, I plow through my mysteries’ first “vomit drafts” regardless of the facts. It’s good to be right; it’s also good to have something completed and in hand to be right about.
My life as a hybrid journalist-novelist shows no sign of abating. Despite years spent in and around the Ohio Statehouse, I turned to the building’s able historians, my notebook and pen at the ready, when writing Capitol Punishment, the third volume of Andy Hayes’s adventures, coming in spring 2016. After ten years in print journalism and another seventeen with a wire service, it’s the only approach to writing, fiction or otherwise, that I know how to do.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins, a legal affairs reporter for The Associated Press, is the author of the Andy Hayes mystery series, set in Columbus and featuring an ex-Ohio State quarterback turned private eye, including Slow Burn and Fourth Down And Out; and the nonfiction books No Winners Here Tonight: Race, Politics and Geography in One of the Country’s Busiest Death Penalty States and Hatred at Home: Al-Qaida on Trial in the American Midwest. He enjoys running, reading, watching movies, spending time with family, and trying to remember why having a dog, two cats, and two parakeets seemed like a good idea at the time. He can be reached at https://andrewwelshhuggins.wordpress.com/
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