Sketching and Research
It’s much, much easier for me to form a story when I already know who the basic cast of characters are. Even a preliminary one-sheet helps out tremendously. When I sit down to write a story, sometimes I start with images (literally a sketch of a particular moment), a potential log line or “what if” situation, or once in a blue moon I’ll start with a plot idea and go from there. Sometimes I’ll just start writing the first chapter. However, I find it’s always best when I begin with the end and work my way backward; figuring out how things ended up that way. In my experience, stories are always stronger and more impactful when they’re derived backward. It’s just like retracing your steps when you lose something.
So I’ve created this world and cast of characters, including story moments and a general idea of what might happen. Now comes the arduous task of filling the world with real research. I try to be as extensive as possible. I’ll look at images for locations, or actually go there if I can. Wikipedia and Google help my wallet out tremendously. I find inspiration. I often look to other artwork, music, or movies and novels (but I am very selective and try to turn a blind eye to anything too similar). I’ll research history, places, objects and even characters similar to my own. It’s always great to base your characters off people you know, or famous people. Write what you know! Whatever the story might possibly include: Research, Research, Research.
As the writer, I’ll know volumes more about the story than the reader would ever gather from reading it and I’m sure I won’t use all of it. In fact, I shouldn’t. Often times a writer will start a story way too early. One should start the story as late as possible! It’s part of the craft, discovering where your story really starts and where the audience needs to come in. I mean, there’s back story and then there’s back story. But doing all that R&D will inform every decision, every blink, every line of dialogue in the book.
An extreme example is J.R.R. Tolkien. He spent decades of his life building the entire world of Middle-Earth, from its creation to the bitter end, before he actually wrote out the first draft of The Fellowship of the Ring. The Hobbit was published in 1937, but it wasn’t until 1954 (nearly twenty years later) that he had completed the backstory and written up the final drafts. The man created entire languages, races, ancient locations and mythologies… even other stories that happened in distant lands, long before the events in The Lord of the Rings. It might not take me as long as Tolkien, but the principle is the same. Research! Build the world and know the characters within it. It’s important to look around you in the real world; to discover. One can only write what they know, and if all their time is spent behind closed doors or just in their head, many dead ends will be hit. By extensively researching, one will discover things about their characters and story they could have otherwise never imagined. As Tolkien put it in LOTR:
“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
By the way, the research doesn’t stop here. A good number of steps in my process are ongoing all the way till the end.