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Guest Post: Researching a Story by Ken Brosky

Ken Brosky’s book, The Unauthorized Biography of Michele Bachmann and Other Stories, is a collection of stories about survival whether it is a white man lost in Darfur or an Iraq war veteran with one leg.  The collection has a certain wit about it and the writing is expected to make readers think about survival and all that it entails.

Today, Ken is going to regale us with his expertise on researching a story.  So please give him a warm welcome.

When I was compiling my short stories for my first collection, I noticed that a number of them were examples of what I call “writing outside your box.” I’ve never been a phone hacker. I’ve never visited the region of Darfur. I’m not an Iraq War veteran. But regardless, the stories involving these various scenarios have all received a warm reception from readers and critics alike.

“Writing outside your box” isn’t anything new, but nowadays in literary fiction there really aren’t that many writers daring themselves to step away from their own lives and try something alien and unfamiliar. The old saying “write what you know” probably stops writers short when it comes to this. But there’s not a hypocrisy here, provided writers take the time to research the topic they’re going to incorporate into a story.

For example, my award-winning short story “I Can’t Just Turn it Off,” features an Iraq War Veteran who returns after losing a leg in an I.E.D. explosion. The story was originally published in Gargoyle Magazine and contains a fair bit of fiction given that I’ve never been to Iraq. So how did I put it together?

First, I talked to a veteran. His stories and experiences jump-started the writing process and sent my imagination into overdrive. After I’d established what I wanted out of the overall story, I began researching. I looked up I.E.D. details. I watched and read interviews with veterans. I research PTSD. I was also inspired by a very touching warts-and-all first-person account of a soldier who realized just how much the war had changed him and was disgusted by it.

All of this made for a better story, even though 99 percent of it wasn’t used in the final draft. The research became more of a guiding force, and it was all inspired by a single conversation with an Iraq War veteran.

I remember while in my MFA program, I’d accidentally convinced my workshop class that I’d worked in a video store. They were convinced, reading one of my short stories, that I had some experience renting out DVD’s and VHS tapes. I didn’t. What I’d done was fool them well enough that they were able to get lost in the story and accept the details I was providing them. I did it mainly through research: I spent time inside my favorite video store. I talked to the owner constantly. I wandered the aisles, picking up the smells and the sights. I even spied on the employees as they went out and restocked recently returned videos!

Here’s another example: “Gojira: King of the Monsters” by Jim Shepard is one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time. It re-energized my writing habits and challenged me to dig even deeper while researching for stories. “Gojira” is a fictional story about the man who designed the Godzilla costume for the original movie. The details are amazing, right down to the director’s frustrations and the methods used to destroy the mini-Tokyo set. Beyond that, it’s also a story about the bombing of Hiroshima, and how important that all-too-familiar monster really was to an entire society.

Research like this takes practice. It takes patience. But one of the best gifts a writer can provide to readers is the gift of escape, and taking readers to new and exciting places is a fantastic thing … provided the writer does some research first.

Thanks, Ken. Stay tuned for my review of this collection.

Comments

  1. I always think it’s interesting to learn how an author can write about something that they have never experienced. Great guest post.

  2. I think the key is that authors need to be willing to do research. Otherwise, they should stick to what they know. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the story collection.

  3. He obviously puts a lot of time into each story. That’s inspired me to work harder and step outside my own box.

  4. Hey all! Have any questions about researching or coming up with ideas? Ask me here in the comments and I’ll answer! I’ll be around all week.

    • Thanks Ken. I hope you get some great questions.

    • Hey, Ken, how do you feel about the dividing line between research and imagining? Some writers seem to need to research every item they write about outside their area, but some do a mix of that and just making stuff up and still manage to be convincing. Do you do a mix?

  5. Good question, David my good friend! I personally like to use research mainly to make sure I can create a convincing scene. Right now I’m working on a story about cork trees, but of course here in wonderful Wisconsin there are no cork trees. So what do I do? I check Youtube, of course! And guess what? Not only do they have videos of cork trees, they have videos of people harvesting cork!

    It turned out to be perfect for my story.

  6. aspirin says:

    hi! how long does it take you to write a story? i am halfway through ‘on the tenth day i kept it down’ so perhaps you could answer with regard that. i’m interested in the writing process and how people go about it. thanks for your time.