The Craft: A Starter Guide to Researching World-of-Story

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You’ve got a great idea for a movie — in the biz, that’s called the “spark.”

But wait! Before you take that spark and start writing the script, before you choose a main character, before you even start story outlining, take the time to research your story’s dramatic environment — called “world-of-story” — that will provide the “air” your spark needs in order to burn, to leap right off the page, paint vivid pictures in your readers’ minds, and, once filmed, entertain millions of people the world over.

The Godfather/Paramount

The Godfather/Paramount

It doesn’t matter if your movie takes place in sleepy 1930s’ California suburbia, the sumptuous 14th-century Amazon, or post-apocalyptic Planet Verigruvia: researching your film’s setting will provide the necessary details, those nitty-gritty necessities and sparkling particularities, that breathe life into the narrative’s background, inform characters’ histories, and make your story truly pop with authenticity — no matter where, no matter when.

J.R.R. Tolkien and James Cameron didn’t let the fact that their worlds-of-story were entirely fictional stop them. They spent years researching and creating whole civilizations from scratch to ensure the Shire and Pandora felt just as real as our “true” reality.

Time and Place

First, you’re going to want to choose an era — a specific period of time when your story takes place. In terms of budget, modern day, of course, is easiest.  Certain executives at Paramount wanted Francis Ford Coppola to update and set The Godfather in the 1970s, but Coppola stuck to his guns and knew, inside and out, why his and author Mario Puzo’s story could only be set in the 1940’s, post-World War II. Can we imagine this masterpiece any other way?<

Next, you’ve got the immediate place environment(s) to consider. Say your spark is about a cop investigating a murder in the Big City. Well, New York City is very different than Los Angeles. Restaurants, politics, stores, culture, arts, schools, available technologies — like ingredients to a fine stew, these elements provide essential flavor to your film story.

Step 1 – Create an Idea Book

Your Idea Book — sometimes called a Notebook, sometimes called a Bible — begins as a pre-bound book of many hundred blank pages. You can find one at a chain bookstore. I recommend one that is leather-bound — one that looks cool, one that makes you happy to look at it, because you’re going to be looking at it a lot. After all, this is where you’ll be writing all the fruits of your research. You take it with you everywhere. It’s not for anyone’s eyes save your own. (Until excerpts make it onto the 20th anniversary edition extras.)

Step 2 – Watch Films With Similar or Parallel Worlds

If you’re writing a movie, it’s important to know what other movies are sort of like yours that have already been made, both good, and bad. Watch them all.  Learn from them all. Take notes on them in your Idea Book. See how these screenwriters structured their stories, to thrilling success or blasé failure. The Internet Movie Database is a vital resource for a writer researching his or her own film. You can search by keyword and find every single movie and TV show that’s ever been made that shares an element of your film’s world-of-story. Having made a list of exciting titles for your viewing study, you can then cruise over to Netflix or Amazon and start ordering or direct-downloading.

Step 3 – Scour the ‘Net

So you know how to use a specialized Internet search engine, but how about surfing blind? Hop onto Google or Bing and enter your search terms: find everything cool you can. Of course not everything on the Internet is true, but when you’re researching a world-of-story, sometimes the wild lies can be just as intriguing as the real stuff! All that matters is you get those neurons firing in your brain, and write things down in that Idea Book. Lists of names, lists of facts, lists of figures: it’s all gravy. <

Step 4 – Visit a Research Library

Get to know your local university library. You may not be able to check out books without a school ID, but most universities have a patron program to which you could subscribe. Otherwise, simply find a comfy seat and stack those books high for a lovely date with your Idea Book. Libraries have entire archives dedicated to books on specific topics. This is when knowing your era is important. Odds are, at least 10 academics have written an entire book about your (or similar, if fictitious) time and place. You’ll start to catch feelings and instincts reading about your world-of-story. Write these down.

A helpful trick I’ve discovered is to find out what entertainment was popular in the era. Ask, “What might my main character be reading or watching?” (What was everyone else reading or watching?) Then, you read or watch it. Abracadabra — you’re right there. What is popular in a time and place reveals the zeitgeist. The clues are innumerable.

A great thing about “scholarly” sources is the bibliography page: a list of everything that book’s author read and drew upon. Write these titles down, and hey — you’re already in the library — bop on over to those books that interest you. In various books’ bibliographies, the books that recur as sources will be the most authoritative. Go ahead and piggy-back on the years of research and work other storytellers have done before you: This is why bibliographies exist. <

Step 5 – Interviews

If possible, don’t be shy about conducting interviews with individuals you can track down who lived in that era or place you are researching. No, not everyone will want to talk to you — but surely somebody will. Who knows what these witnesses will tell you? What was left out of the history books? You then have precious nonfiction material accessible to no other writer on the planet. Awesome, huh? (Also, if someone is reluctant to tell you his story because he is working on a screenplay about the same time period or event, remember: No one can copyright a historic event. That’s how we got two Capote films within a year of each other. Just tell your story better than the other guy or you’ll be embarrassed.)

Step 6 – Looking Back

By this point, you’re heels over head in love with your world-of-story. Ruffle through how many scores, even hundreds of pages of notes you have taken in your Idea Book and take pride in your new, earned expertise. You are now intellectually equipped to dive into pre-writing your story. Something rather magical has happened as well. In all those hours of research, you have emotionally and experientially prepared yourself to tell that story. They say, “Write what you know.” Well, with the Internet, books, movies, TV, and possibly witnesses as your available resources, you are free to come to “know” anything  —  to learn about any time, any place, you could possibly choose.

P.S.Do you have other researching tips, strategies, or resources you might suggest to your fellow writers?  Please let us know below.

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6 thoughts on “The Craft: A Starter Guide to Researching World-of-Story

  1. Pingback: Writing and Directing Your First Feature: From Your Story to “Epic Fail” « Questions? Comments? Concerns???

  2. Jan Militello

    Great tips. Research via the Internet, books, movies, TV, primary sources and interviews is vital. And, a step countless aspiring writers fail to grasp.

    When setting a script in the past, I also find it useful to visit museums, antique stores, vintage clothing shops and historic preservation sites. To roam through a dwelling, perch on a seat, try on a garment, peer at your reflection in a mirror of the time period – all, and more, are experiences which enhance the ability to create the authentic world of your characters beyond what reading, watching and interviewing allow.

    Likewise, unless purely fantastical, I wouldn’t geographically set a story in an environment with which I am unfamiliar. I recommend walking where your characters walk, eating what is available to them, witness how their sun rises… and sets. Make their world your own. Then, share it with us.

  3. Kathy Rowe

    I don’t keep a notebook, per se, but I have it all kept in folders on my computer. When I’m building my world, I refer back to the information I’ve plucked from the internet and various other sources. And since I’m primarily a novelist, and do write several series of books, I keep my information in a special folder where it’s easy to reference from whatever book I’m working on at the time.

    Wikipedia is always one of my first places to start. Never know what you’ll find there.

    Cheers,
    Kathy

  4. Pingback: More Research for Screenwriters | writewhatyoudontknow

  5. Justin

    One of my favorite discoveries during research is to scour the ads in local papers of the era. Marketers throughout history have been plugged into the minds of customers and ads tell you so much about the popular taste of an age. For example, once when doing research on WW2 era life I came across an ad by a cracker company – a recipe for “Freedom Casserole” that used only non-rationed ingredients (including crackers, of course). That one detail said so much about the resourcefulness and celebration of shared sacrifice during that time.

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