Of Research and Knowing Things

November brings winter’s rust, and as the last of the sunshine-filled evenings dwindles down to cold repose, so too does manic turn toward depressive and posts become more infrequent. This blog is going to have less activity going forward. I spent most of this past year writing and rewriting a script and after polishing my latest draft decided to take two months off in jack-ass mode. Typically this involves 4chan or some other distraction but the blog is so much like a goddamn Sims game that I couldn’t leave it alone. Aside from the random crap I’ve posted on here I did the writing dance where you take on a number of creative false-starts; I have five or so stories I started writing that I quickly lost interest in after the tenth page. But after this last ‘go’ I think I may have found a keeper. Or at the very least a vague sense of visuals that I can’t shake from my head — and a premise that I’m damn sure nobody has thought of in the ultra-minimal, ultra-cheap, “Paranormal Activity” realm. So expect to see less of me. If you don’t, please feel free to smack me upside the head and remind me to get back to work.

And knowing is half the battle!

The portion of writing I think is the most fun, and call me a geek for saying this, is the research phase. I love it. And this latest endeavor is going to be research-intensive to get it right so I’m checking all my links and bookmarks to make sure I have everything at my disposal. I’ve worked for a number of years in a research capacity, both in journalism but also in my square job doing data mining and investigative services. I pride myself in finding it if it exists out there.

I’ve posted about this before, but there really is no limit to what you can find with the level of information available online. And while it scares most people to think about how much of our information is readily available to the public, I find it comforting that it exists in such abundance. What prevented you from snooping on your neighbor fifty years ago were physical boundaries, i.e. walls, doors, safety deposit boxes, etc. What we’ve done in placing so much information online, I’ve found, is replace these physical hurdles with digital ones whose complications are compounded by time, accuracy, and volume. Fifty years ago I may have had to dig through my neighbor’s trash to find his bank statements, but today I would need to dig through multiple trash bins, each existing as some fragmented snapshot of him in some arbitrary point in time. Multiply his information by the 300 million Americans whose information might be readily available and now you’re searching for a needle in a haystack. To put this into a more personal perspective, I’ve been searching for a long-lost relative for over three years now and after dozens of phone calls and registry searches have found so many names and phone numbers and leads that the difficulty is in narrowing those down to a manageable group to follow up on. If 1984 were real Big Brother would need half the country working in a data center to be watching you, if he could even find you or know it was you he was watching.

The Holy Grail for public information is The Black Book. Here you can find any number of valuable resources, both in public records and in national registries. Writing a script about a death row inmate? Check the archive of last meals requested prior to execution in the state of Texas. Wondering about the proper abbreviation or an acronym? There’s an archive of that as well. Con artists? Hundreds of files on scams, hustles, pyramid schemes, etc. There’s even an ongoing list of active cults in the United States, complete with news aggregates regarding their leaders.

If you’re looking for visual references, check out Getty Images. Not only do they have millions of searchable photos, including thousands of photo journalist pictures, but they now offer public domain video as well as pay-per-use video. And there’s some weird random stuff on there, by the way, so dig in. Archive.org offers a multitude of audio and visual catalogs as well. Along with their “wayback machine” which keeps a record of web pages throughout the years. Want to see what CNN.com looked like in March of 1998? Just enter the url.

If you can afford the subscription or have access to a university server, LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters offer databases of information that are quite possibly without end. I know the tendency these days is to search Wikipedia which is a useful tool, but it does have large limitations. Namely, the content provided by users tends to be pulled from other ambiguous internet resources. While that may be fine for researching subject matter from the last 10 years, it does provide issues when looking for anything pre-internet that hasn’t been uploaded or linked. Often I’ll find information provided on a Wiki article that references material found on a YouTube video. While not misinformation by any means, I do find these instances where what sparse bits of content made it onto the web are now suddenly comprehensive when they may be incomplete or out of context.

And I would watch Obama’s Data.gov site in the coming year as this looks like it may become a powerhouse of information — essentially everything the government has ever documented (minus National Security matters) is being uploaded to this site. Think of the millions of pork projects over the years, from pilot psychological evaluations to why prisoners try to escape prison, and it’s all going to be readily available for companies like Google to index and organize.

Lastly, I preach the value of podcasts constantly as a means of character research. Writing a character who works with disabled children? Chances are there’s a podcast. Need to know how a survivalist actually lives and how he talks? There’s a podcast for that as well. I like podcasts because they give you a better sense of people’s general demeanor. The American Veteran does a series in which veterans recall their own war stories both before, during, and after combat. The attention given to little things, the details given to mannerisms and things spoken in off-handed remarks, that is priceless story gold right there. And there are thousands of podcasts out there like this of people relaying their lives candidly.

I read a script not too long ago in which the writer chose to set his story in World War II. As impractical as this was, and for as much of the script just didn’t work, the guy’s research was stellar. The real point of intrigue was just knowing half of this stuff actually existed or took place. I found myself mesmerized by how this research came through in the dialogue and in the story. It was like being given eyes to see something in a way I had never seen it before, with flesh and blood as opposed to the same highlight reel we’ve seen over and over again of troops landing on Normandy and couples kissing in Times Square. At the very least, research this stuff so as not be ignorant. Nothing irks me more than a writer who knows dick about the material he’s chosen. Or worse, gets his information via composite from other movies he’s seen.

“Detectives? I know they argue a lot, right? And one has always gotta go call his wife or something?”

Speaking of research, anybody get a chance to check out Mr. Scoggins’ new endeavor? Holy shit, man. That thing looks awesome. Now to convince wifey I absolutely must have a subscription…


2 thoughts on “Of Research and Knowing Things

  1. Blogging does have this way of eating at your time, doesn’t it? I’ve been thinking I might have to scale back as well, given that since I started blogging the amount of time I’ve devoted to my screenplay and other “serious” writing pursuits has dropped a fair amount.

    Researching can be fantastic fun can’t it? If you hit on a topic you’re fascinated by for it’s own sake, it’s a blast. And reading/watching something that provides meticulously-researched insight into a little-known subject is incredibly rewarding, if the story is good enough to bring those details to life.

    I have something of a pet obsession with socio-cultural history and I’m a sucker for pretty much any historical/period film that really nails the nuances of a particular society at a particular time and place. And yes, I like Jane Austen. Though not always when adapted to film.

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