I don't know how old you are, but I'm sure most of us, even those well past school age, remember this phrase, or, at least, something very close to it. And yes, even when writing fan fiction, a certain level of homework needs to be done. This can range from seeing three episodes of the fandom for which you've chosen to write to doing extensive research. In this day and age, with the help of the Internet, there is little excuse for not doing your homework. Remember: Google is your friend!
What constitutes homework?
As I mentioned earlier, just watching the show you love so much and want to contribute to is a must. No one is going to want to read an "Alias" fic of mine since I have no clue about the show, the characters, where they live, or what they do. I don't know what makes each of them tick. Obviously, you cannot write something about which you know nothing. In my case, I limit myself to "JAG," and now "The Guardian" fanfic.
For some, just watching a few episodes can be enough. For others, even though you've watched every episode since the show began, it is not enough. After nine years (as in the case of "The X-Files") the little details and tidbits of information you have learned over the years may have slipped through the cracks of your aging memory.
Let's say you know something happened to one of the characters, but for the life of you, you can't remember which episode it happened in or the outcome of the situation, and of course, you don't have the time or the inclination to sit for hours and hours rewatching tapes--if you even have any. What do you do? This is probably the easiest and laziest way...ask your list friends. You learn little more than the answer to your question, but if you're really in a jam then this is the way to go. Just about every show on TV has a Yahoo Group/Email List. Pose your question to the list and you're bound to get 10-20 answers. (The two most popular "JAG" lists have in excess of 1200 members each!) Someone is bound to able to answer fairly simple canon questions.
On the other hand, there is a plethora of information out there on Wweb sites, both official and the unofficial fan created websites. In fact, the fan sites will probably contain way more information than you ever thought TPTB ever intended to reveal. At the Mac on JAG ** site, a site dedicated to the show's female lead, there is a page that has the trial records, season by season, for Harm and Mac: whether they won or lost against each other, were co-counsel, or won or lost against another attorney. If you spend any amount of time reading through some of the better sites in each fandom, you can learn a lot of miscellaneous information that might be useful in your stories.
Celli suggests that writers should look for specific resource sites for the fandom in which they want to write. In the "Alias" fandom, Credit Dauphine ** has a list of resource links and information, including the CIA's official homepage. The Elements of Phyle ** is just one of many "The X-Files" resources available. To find a resource for your specific fandom, use a few key words in your favorite search engine, such as the name of the show and the word "resource" and see what happens. If all else fails, check with your list friends again. Someone has a favorite site they visit for references. Jen suggests collecting business cards from members of various boring (medical, legal, etc...) and interesting (race car driver, fighter pilot, ring master, etc...) professions. They might be willing to answer a few questions for you at some later date and help you add some authenticity to your masterpeice.
If you read other items such as magazines and non-fiction books in your research, keep a list of the titles and where you got them (if you checked them out of a library or borrowed them from a friend). That way, if you need to re-consult them for a refresher course, or specific information, you'll know how to find them again.
Have you ever heard the old adage "write what you know?" This is a really helpful phrase to remember. If you're a doctor or a nurse, I'll bet you could write a really wonderful "ER" fic--as long as you love the show and know the characters. Same goes if you're a lawyer--You could write some really interesting "Ally McBeal" or "Law and Order" fic. A great example of this is the four part A Question Unanswered series written by Aerogirl. Aerogirl is an aerospace engineer and she is able to write a great story with a character she created who just happens to be...(you guessed it)...an aerospace engineer! The stories are great and believable because she knows what she's talking about!
It's the little things that count...As I said, I write mostly "JAG," so let's talk about that. If you've ever watched "JAG," you know that, occasionally, throughout each episode, a time stamp in digital green letters blips across the bottom left corner of the screen. This time stamp gives us some basic information: time and location of the immediately following scene. Any location that "JAG" uses on a regular basis has its own specific description. If you are going to use these time stamps in your fic, them use them accurately. For example, if we are going to see a scene taking place in JAG Ops, the time stamp will always be written as follows (with the exception of the actual time):
Falls Church, Virginia
Please note that 'Headquarters' and 'Virginia' are never abbreviated on "JAG." They should never be abbreviated in your fic, either. If you don't know what the official time stamp looks like for Harm or Mac's apartment, once again, consult your list friends. As for the actual Zulu time, if you don't know how to convert local time to Zulu time off the top of your head, consult your favorite search engine...or use this great Time Zone Map. When I write, I usually add the local time in parentheses after the correct Zulu time.
If you have your characters in different location and want to use the time stamp to let your readers know, do your homework. I recently beta-read a "JAG" fic and the author had Harm picking up a friend at the airport. This author is not American and so was not familiar with the major airports surrounding Washington, D.C. Is that a good excuse? No. A simple insertion of a few key phrases such as 'airport' and 'Washington D.C.' into Google will result in listings for three of the major airports in the D.C. area. Pick one and be done with it already!
Another important aspect of doing your homework is knowing your particular fandom's terms and understanding what they mean and using them correctly. "Star Trek" is a great example of a fandom with all kinds of techno-babble terms, but Trekkies will know the difference between a phaser and tri-corder, and you'd better, too, or you'll be in danger of earning yourself a few heated pieces of feedback along with the correct definitions of each item.
Your readers will know if you've taken the time to do your homework and it can mean the difference between gaining or losing a reader.
** The Web site is no longer available.
Jen F. has been writing fan fic for eight+ years now, with over two dozen fics to her credit. Fandoms now include "JAG," "The Guardian," "Sports Night," "The West Wing," "Star Trek" (the 2009 film), and one "Space: Above and Beyond" fic. Her "JAG" fic can be found at The JAG Archive, and her complete library can be found at FanFiction.net.
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