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RESEARCH REVISITED

February 19, 2020

In my now, long line of “revisited” articles, I once again harken back to 2011 and one of the originals. The chances are, if someone brings it up on a forum, I’ve already got an article to back it up. The other day, someone did just that on one of my Facebook forums and asked about research. Though I’ve covered this subject not only in 2011, but 2012, 2014 and 2019, in various forms, I thought it would be fun to go back to the original and give it a fresh update.
After posting over five hundred articles dealing with the subject of writing and publishing, things are bound to come full circle. Also, being a grandpa, I take full rights to be able to repeat things occasionally.
NOBODY WRITES IN A VACUUM
Nobody can write something in a vacuum. There has to be some kind of source. True, a story can sprout solely from your imagination. There’s nothing wrong with that. Fantasy is a good example. A memoir is another. However, even within those confines, there are times when one must get the facts 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 take for granted may stand out as a fatal flaw to the reader. 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 to avoid all research.
In a memoir, despite copious notes you may have taken in a diary, you may describe something, yet have missed a detail. Do you need to call the 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 city hall burned to the ground?
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
Unless I’m writing in my fantasy world, when I write, I prefer to write what I know. It makes the research that much easier. However, as I’ve stated before many times, 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 do some research. For example, that means my characters may 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. I mentioned in an earlier article that the little things really count. For instance, one writer had a character using a silencer on a revolver. Anyone with basic gun knowledge knows you can’t use a silencer on a revolver!
For a seat-of-your-pants writer like me, research is a result of where the story takes me. When I get to a spot where the research doesn’t pan out, I either change the story or I follow my friend James Rollin’s 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 be wrong, but you don’t have to be exactly dead on with descriptions or minutiae. Don’t get into so much detail you get yourself into trouble, just make sure what you describe is accurate.
RESEARCH CAN BE FUN!
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 interviewed people by writing them and talking 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 and that’s when you have to back away. Know when to shut up and back off. This isn’t life or death. This isn’t the CIA. I’ve asked and 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 at the 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. It seems that the authors spend months researching and plotting out everything long before they ever sit down to write. Most of the time it seems to work 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.
BALANCE
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’ll not only make it real for them, but it’ll keep it real for you. If you don’t, they’ll 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 story teller but should have done at least the most fundamental research. He should know 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.”
Don’t be embarrassed by making those big mistakes. Also, don’t forget that in almost every book, no matter how much research the author does, at the front you are likely to see a disclaimer where the author always says people and places are fictitious and that any mistakes are solely the fault of the author. CYA, of course!
Happy writing!

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