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Research

June 22, 2011

            Nobody can write something from a vacuum. There has to be some kind of source. True, a story can sprout solely from your imagination. There is nothing wrong with that. Fantasy is a good example. A memoir is another. However, even within those confines, the author must get the facts (whatever they might be) straight. In a fantasy, conducting a sword fight, for instance, may require a touch of realism. Slashing a sword against a monster is fine and dandy. What’s that going to do to the wrist of our hero? What about the weight of that sword? What kind of wound is it going to leave? Little things you as a writer may take for granted may stand out as a fatal flaw to the reader. Talking to someone who actually uses a sword would be a wise decision. What about your fantasy world? Are you deriving it from a well-established convention or is your world unique? By unique, I mean totally unique. It would have to be unlike anything else to avoid all research. Even then, it would be hard to avoid all laws of physics.

            In a memoir, despite copious notes you’ve written in a diary, you describe something, yet missed a detail. Do you need to call that hotel you stayed at and find out the name of that suite? Or, what day was it that they served crab? What year was it that the town you visited in 1975 had a major fire? The one where you saw the burned out city hall?

            Folks, when I write, I prefer to write what I know. It makes the research that much easier. I still have to look up details, but I don’t have to start from scratch. However, as I’ve stated before, I know where I want to start and where I want to end. Everything in the middle is a total surprise. Because of that, I sometimes write myself into situations where I have to make changes. That means my characters may originally travel to New Orleans but later, after a bit of digging, I discover they’re better off going to Morgan City. That’s why research is so important.

            For a seat-of-your-pants writer like me, research can change where the story takes me. When I get to a spot where the facts don’t pan out, I take a different path. I still end up in the same place in the end. Sometimes the path doesn’t change but maybe I can’t determine the fine details. In that case, I follow my friend James Rollins’ advice. He once told me that if you can’t find out the exact details or if they’re too complex, be vague. You obviously can’t try to pull one over on the reader, but you don’t have to be exactly dead on with descriptions or minutiae. Don’t get into so much detail that you get yourself into trouble. Make sure what you do describe is accurate.

            Research can be a lot of fun. It can also be frustrating, hazardous and expensive. The Internet is a great tool. I’ve accomplished a lot with a mouse and creative searching. On rare occasions, I’ve taken a short trip. Most of my on-location research has been from places I’ve already been. Like I said, I like to write what I know. I’m not the rich author that goes all out to take trips around the world just to glean some minor detail to throw into an adventure. Sorry, maybe one day, but I’m not on the New York Times best-seller list yet.

            I’ve written people, interviewed them in person and talked to them on the phone. For the most part, people enjoy being asked, especially if they know it’s for a book. Once in a while, they don’t. Know when to shut up and back off. This isn’t life or death. This isn’t the CIA. I’ve visited a few people and places and had to cut and run, all to get a detail I didn’t end up using. For the rest, as a courtesy, it’s nice to remember who you talk to and acknowledge them in the front or back of the book.

            If you’re writing non-fiction, the story is all about the research. No question. However, if you’re writing fiction, the story is the most important part. I read a lot of thrillers. In that genre, I’ve noticed a trend where there seems to be more importance put on the technical research and less on the story. The authors spend months researching and plotting out everything long before they ever sit down to write. Most of the time it works, but half the time, I feel like I’m getting a history lesson or I’m being lectured on politics or religion rather than getting a good story.

            Ultimately, it’s up to you to set a balance for how much effort you want to put into research versus story. Are you out to entertain your readers with a good story, educate your readers, or a little of both? It’s a balance you have to decide. I’m not one for needing to include an extensive bibliography at the end of a fictional adventure story, yet some authors either do, or should. How many of you would actually read a bibliography?

            Whatever you write, especially if it’s fiction, make sure it rings true for your genre. Do whatever research is necessary to make it real for your audience. If you do, it will not only make it real for them, but it will keep it real for you. If you don’t, the readers will surely pick up on it and they’ll let you know in the reviews. Check the one, two and three star reviews on Amazon. Discount all the ones that are there just to complain about Kindle this-or-that and look for the ones that say the author didn’t do their research. They stand out like a sore thumb.

            “The author is a good storyteller but should’ve done at least fundamental research. He would’ve learned that that the town of Lompoc is pronounced “Lawm-poke” and not “Lawm-pock.”

“If the author had actually visited Russia in the new millennium, she would know that the KGB is no longer called the KGB.”

            Nobody expects you to be perfect, but don’t embarrass yourself by making those big mistakes. Even the big-name authors slip up now and again with small stuff. There’s a reason they always have that “Any mistakes are solely the fault of the author.” disclaimer at the beginning of many books. They’re no dummies!

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