Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Exactly How Important is Research?

You write fiction, right? So you have a certain creative license, right?

Ahem. . . .

Maybe the question should be: Exactly how important is respect for your readers?

I have a friend who I'll call Gun Guy. He's something of an expert having spent most of his adult life in law enforcement, hunting, private investigation, hunting, managing security operations for a large corporation, hunting, refining his skills at the shooting range, and oh yeah . . . hunting.

Gun Guy loves a good read. An otherwise decent detective novel gets used for target practice if the author messes up the weaponry. Sloppy and inaccurate details take him out of the story, and every writer knows that's one of the worst things you can do.

Do I blame Gun Guy for his passion? Not one iota. He's the perfect example of a reader I want to please. I both respect and fear his opinions.

Woe to the suspense novelist who doesn't do their research--even when 90% of what you learn never makes it into your manuscript.

The story I'm slaving over now involves a lot of medical issues. Medical? My background is mortgage banking and Mary Kay. I probably don't have a lot of medical knowledge in my internal database. Rather than make it all up, I've gone and found experts to help.

As a suspense novelist, you aren't looking for the perfect scenario. A perfect medical scene translates to b-o-r-i-n-g within the pages of a novel. Instead, you're looking for a plausible one. You don't want any reader--EVER--to toss your book against the wall (or shoot it full of holes) because you haven't respected them enough to investigate the facts.

Which brings me to the internet. What in the world did writers do before Google and other search engines? That said, I can't emphasize enough the importance of having a flesh and blood person off whose fabulous head you can bounce your newly acquired information.

In the end, you're right. Suspense novelists write fiction. Novels are supposed to entertain. But that doesn't mean we don't owe it to Gun Guys everywhere--and to the story--to make an attempt to get our background information accurate.

It's all better with friends.


  1. Great article, Peg. And boy, I can relate! Though it may not be in a good way. I work in a college library, so research is a part of every day. But when I put on my writing hat, it is a challenge to get the words down on paper because I am so easily distracted by research. I do want my story to be authentic, to ring true for the reader. And be full of rich, right-on detail.

    With my first novel, a cozy mystery titled A VASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY, I actually linked up with an archaeologist to create an entire history for my surviving Gold Rush town setting. I didn't really need it so much, but felt I needed to know it! Even to answer a future question.

    I love what you said about respecting your reader. You are so right. That has to be a key element to birthing a successful book. It takes time, but the end result is worth it.

    Thanks for another interesting article.


  2. Cathy, LOL! Research can grab me and wrap me up in such a comfortable cocoon I forget I'm supposed to be writing.

    Susan Lohrer taught me the bracket concept: blah blah blah [what kind of gun?] blah blah blah. Of course, sometimes I have to do a bit of re-writing because my research takes me in a different direction, but this keeps me "on task."

    By the way, Cathy, I love the titles for your books. Very clever. Continued success to you!


  3. Thanks, Peg. I'm much too into "puns." :-)

    I like your bracket system. Clever. Lately, when I come to a place where I don't know something, I make a series of dashes and then highlight it with yellow, so it doesn't get lost in the text. Ooooo, it's hard for a perfectionist to allow a big yellow blob on the page. Yikes!

    Gotta do it, though.

    Looking forward to more from your blog. Kinda fun to read it from the beginning....


  4. Cathy, you are after my heart. Yellow highlighter. {sigh} I'm reading WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL now . . . using a yellow highlighter. What can I say . . . it went better with the cover than pink. Thinking about doing a series on Suspense Novelist around this book. Gotta read it first, though.

    What do you think?

  5. Peg, thank you for naming my if-you-don't-have-the-detail-keep-writing-anyway system. The Bracket System sounds way more official :)

    Susan Lohrer

  6. Sometimes I'm able to learn from example. Who knew? And you are the Editor-Woman.

  7. Peg:

    Do you believe it? In my writer's group, we are working through the WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL workbook! Were we separated at birth or what? :-) And yes...yellow highlighter rules!


  8. Amen about research. As a computer and network nerd, I know that when someone gets things dead wrong in computers or networking, throwing the book against the wall leaps readily to mind.

    One thing I've found is that experts, when told, "I'm writing a novel, and ..." are frequently more than happy to answer questions. In my first novel, Looking Glass, I wound up calling the Denver ADA office, and while the fellow I talked to said he'd never had that happen before, he talked to me at some length while i made sure the medical problems whcih put my main character in a wheelchair made sense and were believable. The very last thing I wanted was someone who is IN a wheelchair to read my book and throw it against the wall because I got it wrong.

  9. I like that Patty. Respect your reader enough to make the story plausable. Something that could happen given the right circumstances.