Previously, I talked about researching and creating a play book (or, perhaps, a set of universal laws for the universe you create). Today, I’m going to mention a different form of research. Not everything you can do can come from a book. This is just the way it is. For example, let’s take the killer in my current work. She is so terribly afraid of getting caught that she can barely function. But, how do I show this to the reader? I mean, if I simply tell the reader she is, they won’t believe me. I don’t believe it when I’m told it in the books I read. I want to see it! So, here is where I go: Experience!
One of the best ways to research something unfamiliar is to experience it…within reason. I would never advocate doing something that is harmful or dangerous to yourself or others. That said, if there happens to be something you can safely (or, at least, relatively safely with full awareness of the risks and what you can do to mitigate the risks) you should definitely do it! So, say I’m writing about a character who is using some form of repeated projectile weapon. How do I describe that? I can watch videos or read books, but how does it feel? For that, I had the privilege of going through a Citizen’s Police Academy in the town I was living at the time, and part of that was going out to a shooting range with the police department’s firearms instructors and they had us shoot several weapons. Thanks to this class, I had the experience of firing one of the SWAT team’s M4 assault rifles, so I can tell you that the weapon vibrates in your hand like a hammer drill, jerking against my hands and it’s unsettling at first. (I can also say that my first three rounds on auto made the instructor cringe… He did say to shoot a little lower because it’ll climb, but I shot too low. Poor bad guy on the paper.)
Okay, so let’s take this a step further. I have an assault scene coming up, but I know how it feels from both ends! Why? The previously mentioned Citizens Police Academy had a class on their SWAT team, which included a scenario. In this scenario, the class was split into two teams. The first team performed a SWAT assault on a car, which was occupied by the second team. I happened to be in the second team. Well, the team assaulted the car and, even knowing and expecting it, I was terrified. My blood went ice when I saw the lights hit the parked car I was in, I was shaking and couldn’t focus on anything but the (unloaded) weapon pointed at me while instructions were shouted at me. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
Then it was our turn. We loaded into the gear, got in the truck, and started bantering with each other and the SWAT officers while driving around to go to the “scene.” When we got there, we lined up and I got the tap on my shoulder and we started the assault. I’ve never had an adrenaline rush like that outside of getting a bit too close for comfort to an EF1 or EF2 tornado. I was calm and focused but my heart was racing wildly. I was giving cold commands, shouting to get noticed but not with venom or hate (I was on the shield so kind of the one giving orders to the persons in the car). I performed everything down to the final detail, so that the officer who normally holds the shield appeared quite happy with my performance. But that’s something I’d never be able to describe in my work without having experienced it.
Other ways to experience things safely include indoor skydiving facilities, places with high quality flight simulators, and even organizations that do simulations for any number of scenarios in a carefully controlled environment. And, talking to people who have personally been there can give you an insight to add just that ounce more realism into your story. And that one more ounce can help your readers get just that much further into their suspension of disbelief. That last piece, that suspension of disbelief, needs to have enough “real” to be believable for your readers, after all.