Even though it’s a writing day, I know I’m not going to write a word of the book I’m working on. Instead, I’m going to read a sailing manual. And to be honest, if most of the writers out there devoted a little more of their writing time to reading, their work would be better for it.
Case in point: I’m currently reading Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project. It’s okayish. And one of the reasons it’s not amaze balls, in my opinion, is that Simsion didn’t spend enough time reading sailing manuals and the like. His narrator, Don, is super smart in an academic sense (an associate professor of genetics), incredibly hung up on details and a stickler for rules. He’s also a cyclist. So I was a little surprised when Don announced after a few beers that his ‘blood alcohol would be well below the legal limit’ for him to ride home. That particular scene is set in Melbourne, and it seemed strange and completely out of character that Don thought there was a legal BAC limit for bike riders in Victoria. There’s not. It’s illegal to be drunk while riding a bike, but the offence is actually ‘drunk in charge of a carriage’. Because it doesn’t fall under drink driving laws, you can’t be breath tested by police (or lose your license for that matter) so there’s no BAC limit—police have to make an assessment based on your behaviour. Admittedly, most bike riders are fuzzy about these laws, and I only know this because I recently interviewed Victoria Police and read the Summery Offences Act for an article I was writing. But someone with Don’s diligence would have known this, and so Simsion needed to as well.
Obviously this is a small, and fairly trivial example. But it made me start questioning other things. Don’s into sustainability in a big way (hence the bike), but critical of vegetarians. He’s proficient in aikido, but only ever trains by himself or with a punching bag. I’ve done some aikido classes, and this doesn’t really ring true either. I’m going to simplify here, but Aikido is about throwing your opponent off balance while maintaining yours. It’s possible to train alone, but it didn’t seem like the most efficient way to go about it. He also loves talking about his work as a geneticist, but when he’s testing DNA samples with token manic pixie dream girl, Rosie, he doesn’t give her any explanation of how the process works, and she’s surprisingly more interested in stealing beer from the lab fridge than learning anything about the process that will identify her father, which is the point of the testing.
These are still trivial points, but you see how they add up. Pretty soon the character just stops being real, and it’s hard to give two hoots what happens to him. And that’s how I came to be reading a sailing manual in my writing time. My protagonist loves sailing, and she’s very good at it. Significant chunks of the story take place on the water. I can’t write stuff like: ‘…and then I moved to the left side of the boat and pulled rope connected to the sail and turned us around.’ First, that’s a crap sentence, but more importantly, my character wouldn’t say that. If I want her to be real for the reader, I need to know how turning a boat actually works and use the right jargon. I also need to know this stuff to make the plot work. I have to understand how currents and weather conditions can affect her voyage. If I want a storm to capsize the boat, how does that work?
As a writer, you have to know anything your characters know that’s relevant to the story, and you need to know enough to create and manipulate their world. Which is probably why so many novels are thinly veiled autobiographies. Research can take a HU-GE amount of time, and I often find it frustrating because it means I’m not actually writing, but then I read something like The Rosie Project and remember why all those little details are important.