I once asked a friend for her best tip on researching. She said, “Find someone who likes doing it and give them money.” That’s not always possible, and sometimes it takes the fun out of putting a story together, although her answer did get a chuckle out of me.
Why is research important? The answer is simple. Your credibility as an author is at stake. People read books, listen to a presentation or watch a television show and walk away believing what they’ve read, seen or heard. As a writer, you’re supposed to be an expert, right? Readers depend on you to know what you’re talking about, and that doesn’t just apply to non-fiction. Many people believe fiction, too.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories about viewers walking up to a soap opera star and slapping her because they believed what they’d watched her do in her role as a bad girl. Fiction is exactly that – fiction. So, no slapping! However, there’s generally a thread of truth somewhere in your story unless it’s total fantasy.
Let’s make up a fictional town. We’ll call it Big Buck City which is located in Northern Nevada and lies somewhere near Reno or Carson City. Here’s the information you gave in your book:
Palm trees line the streets
The terrain is flat, barren desert
It almost never snows and the temperatures are mild
You refer to Reno (or Las Vegas) as the state capitol
You mention that casinos don’t allow smoking anymore
There’s a house of ill repute on every corner
What’s wrong with this picture? Everything. Palm trees don’t grow well in a cold climate. Northern Nevada is mountainous, and it can be very cold with fairly frequent snow. By the way, Carson City is the state capitol. Casinos may not allow smoking in their restaurants, but most casinos allow smoking in the gaming areas. At the very least, most of them have smoking sections. If you write about casinos, you’d better know about casinos. A house of ill repute on every corner? While there are such places, you won’t find them on every corner.
If you created this description in your story, you’ve just lost the readers who live in Northern Nevada. They realize you’re not familiar with their favorite place – home. When a couple from Podunk, Ohio, visits Reno, they’re not going to find anything they were expecting. You let the tourist down, too. In general, you’ve let your entire audience down.
Don’t make up facts as you go along unless one of your characters is a pathological liar, or someone’s trying to lie their way out of a fix.
Another hint? Don’t rely on one source for accuracy. The Internet is so convenient, but what you find isn’t always correct. Check out more than one site, and there are great sources at the library, too. Talk to “old timers” and locals. Talk to experts. If your protagonist discusses the weather in Colorado, you’d better know what the weather I like in Colorado.
Have any of you worked on your family genealogy? You’ve probably found names, dates, locations and stories, along with other information. Maybe you researched Great-Uncle Fred and discovered he had a fifth child the family never talked about. Hmm. This could be interesting. Why wasn’t the fifth child discussed? Did Number Five rob a bank? Run away from home when he was sixteen to become an actor? Commit a murder? (Okay, don’t forget, I am a mystery writer.)
I discovered quite by accident that I enjoy researching. It’s like solving a mystery. You follow leads to come to informed conclusions. A number of my books contain cold cases. I had to find out what things were really like during the time periods I wrote about.
Organize your information and keep a record of where and when you found it. You might need to refer back to the same source.
Do you enjoy research, and if not, how do you keep your facts straight? What are some of your favorite sources to find pertinent information for your books?
Until next week, try researching something you’ve always wondered about but you’ve never taken the time to check it out. You might be surprised at what you find.
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