I enjoyed writing about research last week and thought I’d carry it a step farther this week. I once asked a friend for her best tip on researching. She said, “Find someone who likes it and give them money.” Yeah, right.
Why is research so very important? It’s simple. Your credibility as an author is at stake. If you don’t research, you may end up embarrassing yourself or actually hurting someone else.
People read a book, listen to a presentation or watch a TV show and many walk away believing what they’ve read, seen or heard. They depend on you to know what you’re talking about, and you’re the expert, right? If you’re simply offering an opinion, or you “think” something is correct, then be sure to let it be known that it is only an opinion or a thought.
Fiction is exactly that – fiction. However, there’s often a thread of truth somewhere in your story.
Let’s say you’ve created a fictional town, a small place called Poker Run City, in Northern Nevada, as the setting for your story. You’ve set this fictional city somewhere near Reno or Carson City. Remember, Northern Nevada and Southern Nevada are like two different worlds. These are some of the facts you’ve included in your book:
Palm trees line the streets of Poker Run City (Maybe in Las Vegas, but not in Northern Nevada because it can be quite cold and snowy)
The terrain is flat, barren desert (It’s high desert and there are plenty of mountains)
It almost never snows and the temperatures are mild (I’m laughing at this because it snows frequently and the day we moved to Arizona it was 17 degrees in our little town up north.)
Reno (or Las Vegas) is mentioned in your story as the State Capitol (Carson City is the State Capitol.)
You mention the many, many casinos located in Poker Run City (Probably not more than a couple, since it’s a small town, and if you write about the casinos you’d better know the ins and outs of casinos.)
What’s wrong with the above picture? Everything. If you created this description in your story, you’ve just lost the readers who live in Northern Nevada. They’ve figured out you’re not familiar with their favorite place – home. They’ve lost interest in your story. When a couple from Podunk, Montana, visits Reno or Carson City, they’re going to be very disappointed because they’re not going to find what they were expecting, thanks to your book. You let the tourists down, too.
Don’t try to “fake people out”. They’ll see right through you; if not now, then eventually.
Know your facts. Don’t make them up as you go along, unless you have a character who’s a pathological liar, or who’s trying to get out of a fix. If your protagonist discusses the weather in Colorado, you’d better know what the weather is like in Colorado.
When you make a presentation to a group, make sure you know what you’re talking about and that you’re able to back it up. As I mentioned last week, don’t rely on one single source for your information.
I discovered that I actually enjoy researching. In many ways it’s like solving a mystery when you find information that’s new to you. Sometimes you have to follow the clues to reach that fountain of knowledge you’re seeking.
Some tried and true sources for research include, but aren’t limited to:
Newspapers (including old ones)
Interviews (These can be interesting and lead you to unexpected places, and maybe a different storyline.)
City, County, State and Federal sources (Be prepared to be patient.)
Of course, the Internet (Be careful there.)
Don’t give up if the information you’re seeking is elusive. There’s more than one source. Do whatever it takes. Old-fashioned maybe, but write a letter. It might actually gain more attention than an email. Make a phone call. With luck and persistence, you might reach a human being instead of a recording.
What other sources can you think of to use for research? Have you ever found your information in the last place you looked?
Until next time, start interviewing people and pay attention to each detail they share with you. Elderly relatives are a great place to learn about what things were like “in the old days”.
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