Posts Tagged ‘research’


When I met James Renner, I was a little starstruck and to be honest, I still am. After talking a bit and getting to know him, I was pleased to learn that he is kind, easy to talk to, and fun to be around. When I told him the idea I had for my blog and asked if he’d be interested in being a part of it, he said he’d love to do an interview for me. It made my day!

In 2005, James directed a short film based on Stephen King’s story, All That You Love Will Be Carried Away, starring Joe Bob Briggs and Harvey Pekar. His first book, a nonfiction account of the disappearance of Amy Mihaljevic called, Amy: My Search For Her Killer, was published in 2006. This was followed by Serial Killers Apprentice, a collection of true stories of Cleveland’s most intriguing unsolved crimes. He is also the author of the fictional novel, The Man From Primrose Lane, and the release of The Great Forgetting is tentatively set for 2013. He is an investigative reporter, a film producer, a novelist, and he was even named one of the cities most interesting people in the December 2004 issue of Cleveland Magazine. But most of all, he’s cool enough to take the time to answer my questions and just be an all around great guy. It isn’t every day you meet and befriend someone like James Renner… and I’m pleased our paths have crossed.

For more information on James, check him out at: http://jamesrenner.com/

James Renner

Q: How long does it take you to write a book?

A: Generally, it takes me about 9 months to write the first draft of a new novel. Then I set it aside for a few weeks and work on something else, like a script or short story, then I come back to it with fresh eyes for editing. I’ll do an edit. Then I work on another edit with my agent, Julie Barer. Then yet another edit with my editor.

Q: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

A: I’m surprised at how hard it is to actually get your book in bookstores, even if you’re with a large publisher. It depends a lot on early reviews and also how excited your rep is when they pitch the book to booksellers.

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

A: Texas Hold’em

Q: What is the best thing anyone has ever told you about your writing?

A:  My agent, when she said she liked it so much she wanted to represent me.

Q: How do you choose the names of your fictional characters?

A:  Names have different feels to them, based on who you know with that name and simply how it sounds to the ear. Some names just fit with the character you’re trying to create. Sometimes it takes a while to find the name that feels right.

Q: How is writing fiction different from writing non-fiction?

A: It’s really not that different. There’s a lot of research involved in each, especially if you want your novel to feel true.

Q: How do you do research for your books?

A:  I generally have a nugget of an idea that I think about and develop over the course of a couple years. I have about five or six ideas I’m building right now. Then I spend some spare time researching the interests of the central character. If they live in an old home, I research the words they would use to describe the decor; I speak to people who have the same job as the character, in order to learn slang and terminology. Stuff like that.

Q: Do you prefer writing or film producing? And why?

A: I prefer writing, because it’s easier. It’s crazy hard to get a good book published. But it’s next to impossible to make a good film.

Q: What are the main problems you’ve faced in finishing a book?

A:  Planting my ass in the chair to start the day.

Q: What motivated you to write The Man from Primrose Lane?

A:  When I was 11, a cute girl from down the road was abducted and murdered. As a journalist, I’ve been trying to find her killer for many years. The Man from Primrose Lane grew out of a dream I had of a world in which somebody saved the girl. I began to wonder how that might have altered both her life and my own.

Q: What is your relationship with your agent like?

A: She keeps me grounded. Or tries to. She looks after me and my stories.

Q: You just returned from your “Crazy Stupid Fast 2012 Book Tour”. What was that like?

A: It was the smartest and dumbest thing I’ve ever done. It was great to meet so many bookstore owners and book sellers. But I didn’t give myself much time to enjoy any of the cities I passed through. I was only in New Orleans for two hours. And I had to skip the last couple stores in Ohio because I got a flat on the way home.

Q: How many cities did you visit?

A: I visited 40 book stores in 7 days.

Q: What do you think your greatest strength as a writer is?

A:  Finishing.

Q: What about your greatest weakness?

A: Starting again.

Q: In what ways do you identify personally with David Neff, your main character in The Man From Primrose Lane?

A: Like David Neff, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to my exposure to horrific crimes in the course of my work in journalism. We both fell in love with strong women who helped us fight our demons, real and imaginary.

Q: In 2004, Stephen King gave you the rights to adapt his short story, All That You Love Will Be Carried Away, which you directed. What was that like?

A:  I think I was the tenth person to get permission from King to adapt one of his stories as a student film, for $1. Frank Darabont was the first, so I was in good company. The whole experience was the most fun I’ve ever had working on a project. And to see it get accepted to the Montreal World Film Festival was totally rad.

Q: As a writer, what do you think is your greatest accomplishment?

A:  Simply getting published.

Q: What are you working on now?

A:  I’m working on two books. A big, meaty thriller about paranoia. And a shorter novel that is a kind of throwback to the classic horror stories I grew up on.

Q: Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite and why?

A:  The Man from Primrose Lane is still my favorite at the moment. I really had fun coming up with the strange structure and rules the novel has to follow.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A:  Read as much as you can about how other people got published before you start sending queries to agents.

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     Plowing through my collaborative novel with my mentor/writing partner Kim, I’ve recently come across some interesting issues.  I’m writing about a guy who lures beautiful women into his home, murders them, and then stores them in a mine he calls, “The Gallery” in some far off canyon.  The problem is that, as far as the death scenes go, I have no idea what I’m talking about.  I did a google search of all things death related and of course, found only meager pieces of valuable information buried deep in the trenches of nonsense, morbidity for its own sake, and things I couldn’t even be sure were true.  I should have expressed my uncertainties on this topic to Kim earlier on.  As it turns out, one of her good friends of about twenty years just so happens to be a mortician. (On a disturbing side note, he is also a professional masseuse, but that, hilarious as it is, is neither here nor there.)  When I told Kim about my uncertainties, she recommended we meet with this guy.  I, of course, was all over it.

     Because of scheduling conflicts, we were unable to meet with the man in person, so instead, we set a time, called him, put him on speaker phone and took very scrupulous notes.  What first struck me about this guy was his incredible sense of humor and lighthearted approach to the subjects of death and dying.  I suppose that on some level, I bought into the cliché that in order to be a mortician, one needed to possess that introverted, far away, brooding disposition, complete no doubt, with an eerie glazed over look in the eyes.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This guy was completely normal (well, except that he’s a mortician/massage therapist anyway).  The point is, I felt comfortable with him immediately and had no hesitation to ask him even the most hideous questions concerning the macabre topic of death.

          He left the conversation wide open to us, answering whatever questions we had, no matter how intimate, about the dying process, rigor mortis, decomposition, and even, for story purposes,  what effects a snug plastic wrap job would have on a body.  I was repeatedly stunned by his easy way of describing to us the goriest details of this sensitive topic.  Many people are not comfortable with those details, and so for their sake, I will forego them and simply say that yesterday, I learned more in under an hour than I have in just about any classroom I’ve occupied in the past.

     I’m glad we asked.  As it turns out, there were a couple erroneous pitfalls that blew holes in the story which really needed to be fixed.  Consequently, I will need to tweak the murderous methods of my main character to match reality, but I’m glad I found out now rather than later. 

     I blogged not too long ago on writing research and the fascinating places it takes you, but my experience yesterday, I must say, trumps even the kink parties and church hopping.  The reason I say this is because the things this man told me went far beyond necessary informational material for me.  It’s death, after all.  It’s personal, and I was D, all of the above! (startled, mortified, relieved and baffled) by the things I learned.  And this is just one facet of writing that I love.  Granted, I had terrible dreams last night and was plagued throughout the day by images of things I’d never before conceived of, but that is, in all its terrible glory, the beauty of writing.  The mortician, or as I called him, “The Stiff Stacker,” turned out to be an invaluable resource, one that, given the general direction my writing tends to go, I will undoubtedly utilize in the future.  Kim and I are setting another date with him, in person this time, do further discuss the horrible truths of this topic.  I figure as long as he doesn’t look like John Wayne Gacy, I will be okay.

   And by the way, before I got off the phone with him, I did say to him, “I have a personal question for you.  Tell me… do you see the morbid humor in the fact that you are both a mortician and a masseuse?”  He was quiet for just a moment and then, “Yes,” he said, “as a matter of fact… I do.”


     There is a famous adage in the writing world that says, “write what you know.”  I hate that adage.  It suggests that we never move outside the confines of our current knowledge and that, in essence, we reiterate and recycle that knowledge for all our years.  It prompts a timid and all-too-cautious approach to writing that is the ultimate cause, in my opinion, of very boring material.  But I do see the point.  After all, if you don’t know anything about football, writing a story about a professional football player’s anxiety over the big game is not going to come off well.  It will be superficial and ultimately, unconvincing.  That’s why I think that whoever first made the statement, “write what you know”, really should have said, “know what you write.” 

     And that is where research comes in.

     Research for me is mostly a proactive practice.  Although sometimes you are limited and must do a lot of reading on a subject, I think it’s important that, as often as possible, you experience the things you are writing about.  For me, this has meant some very interesting and mind-expanding adventures.  Most recently, for the sake of an idea I have for an upcoming story, I have made great friends with the nicest little Jehovah Witness woman.  She’s got to be a hundred and twelve years old and she is probably the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen.  I invite her into my house and listen to her stories, all the while trying not to stare too intently at her eyebrows which, bless her ancient heart, she is no longer able to paint on straight.  We know each other on a first name basis now, and although we more often talk about her past than the Kingdom of the Lord, I fully enjoy her company and have come to consider her a great friend.

    For another project, I spent some time in a Catholic church.  I wasn’t raised Catholic and so I knew nothing about the religion except what I’d seen on television.  Attending mass, I was surprised by how aerobic being a Catholic is. Sit, stand, pray, repeat!  I left exhausted, understanding not only why their services only last about forty-five minutes, but also why they give you a cracker at the end.  Later, I had a friend of mine who is educated on the religion go with me to the cathedral and explain all the different meanings of the trinkets and shiny things therein.  It was fascinating!

     Probably the most compelling experience I’ve had in research was my exploration of the BDSM community.  I was writing something that needed my understanding of the dynamic between Masters and their human slaves.  I spent a year searching for the local kink subculture before, quite coincidentally, finally happening upon it.  I was informed of a local fetish website, which I joined and soon began making friends.  Eventually, I realized that kink was all around me.  They even have kink classes at the local university!  Soon, I was invited to an actual “play party”, which is where kinksters get together for a night of fulfilling their fetishes.  I connived some friends of mine to go with me as my human slaves.  I wore eyeliner and dressed my pets in next to nothing, put them on leashes on headed to the event with an odd mixture of trepidation and awe. Had I been more practiced, I suppose the four of us would have even gotten in and out of narrow doorways with a little more grace, but hey… I dare you to try toting two women and one man around on leashes in a cool, debonair manner!  For the most part though, we fit right in and I was able to meet some of the most fascinating people I ever have, some of whom I remain good friends with to this day.   I saw all kinds of things that fueled my imagination.  I was hesitant about participating much, with the exception of letting a trusted kinkster hit me with a bamboo stick, (yes, Martha, I did!), and I left with a deeper understanding of and respect for the community and it’s practices (as well as a big bruise on my ass).

     Perhaps hardest of all, is the research I have been doing for the project I am currently working on.  I’m writing about a narcissistic serial killer who was abused severely by his mother and later, his foster-father.   Since it’s in no ones interest for me to experience this stuff first hand, I have been doing a lot of reading on the minds of serial killers and the lives they lived.  It’s disturbing and  hellish and I am eager to be done with it.  I have learned things I’m not sure I ever wanted to know, but it’s important to me that I understand the characters I write. 

     So no, I don’t believe in only writing what you know, but I do believe in knowing what you write.   Research is a necessary part of writing, the great myth being, of course, that it involves hours of tedious reading about dull subjects.  In truth though, research is, in some ways, the best part about writing.  Something I have come to understand is that there’s a big difference between knowing a thing on an intellectual level, and truly understanding it.  I think that in order to write a convincing account of anything, a writer must possess full comprehension of his subject.  When you write something without that base understanding, readers know. 

     A lot of writers take the liberty of assuming a position of superiority.  After all, writing is a one way form of communication; you can not be interrupted and argued with mid-sentence.  But, what writers should realize is that, in truth, the reader has the power.  All he or she has to do is close the book.  And this knowledge is what prompts me to continue knowing what I write.