Karen Lam, (Ghost Wars, Van Helsing, Evangeline), offers some fresh advice on the importance of doing real world research.
Do you think TV writers need to do research outside the writers’ room? If so, what type of research?
You can google stuff about serial killers, but I’ve spent months actually talking to FBI agents and inmates, doing first hand research interviewing people. I can tell you it’s not the same as looking something up on Psychology Today. You can’t make these people up! Real cops sound different than they do on tv. Victims of horrible crimes aren’t just dark and mopey. They act differently than on tv.
To me the more first-hand non-tv experience you have, the better. It’s important to go out and deal with real humans.
What influence has your documentary work had on your writing for film and television?
My documentary work balances my fiction writing because these people’s stories change me. They change how I view the world. It’s important that I’m not going in with an agenda. I’m not trying to direct them into saying anything. When I’m doing my documentary research, I just stay in the moment and trust that if it’s going to be important to my other projects it will percolate and stay with me.
When you go out there you have to understand that people are complex, and you may not get the answers you were expecting. The questions that you ask should be open ended and you have to be there to listen to them. I give people space. It’s a conversation, not a set of questions, and I never know where the conversation will go.
As writers I think it’s really important that your reality gets reflected with specificity. It’s the details that make it real. When we’re not using our own backgrounds or our own real-world research, characters can just seem like copies of copies of characters.
Our whole job is to be a vessel, and to give some sort of voice to what needs to be spoken. I say have as little ego as you can so you can have compassion for your characters and be open to what comes. Go talk with real people. Do primary research. Get yourself into a situation where you get access to real stories and real situations. Otherwise what are you doing but regurgitating?