Research what you don’t know

There is nothing cooler than a well researched story. There is nothing more fraudulent and lazy than a poorly researched story. With that in mind, I want to address this question:

Why am I letting the research dictate the story? Do I have to back off reality and let the fiction flow, or is realism really that important to the general reader?

Obviously it depends on what needs to be researched. If we’re talking a street in Big Town USA, then who cares? Make it up; we’ll play along. But it’s a real buzzkill if the author blows ingredients for scones in the 1800s or the mating rituals of the bluebelly sapsucker. Readers will fillet an author if they get their facts wrong, and they lose all credibility.

I had an author whose main character had MS. I didn’t think anything about it, but my editor has MS and she went ballistic, saying there was no way an MS patient would behave in the manner the author had written. The author’s reply; “I didn’t bother researching MS.” Argh! Since this novel’s foundations were based on MS, the lack of research pretty much blew a hole in her entire story.

Research doesn’t just stop once you found out what you need to know. You need to “over-research” in order to know what’s important and what’s fluff.

An editor told me to never let the facts interfere with good fiction.

I see things like this and I’m forced to send the beagle out with her hit squad of unruly German Shepherds. Writers who take this advice literally risk having their readers skewer them. The first thing they’ll think is, “If they were wrong about this, then they’re probably wrong about that.” They lose faith in the writer.

As an example, I read a book that took place in the Amazon. The story had this big emotional love scene on the banks of the Amazon. I nearly fell over laughing because that would never happen. I spent 17 bug-filled days in the Peruvian Amazon (doing research for my second novel) and I can attest that the couple in question would have passed out from blood loss due to the ravenous millions of mosquitoes that come out when the sun goes down. This blatant disregard for researching her surroundings ruined the rest of the book for me.

Don’t go overboard
Now, this isn’t to say that readers will want your head on a platter if you have a scene in a made-up bar in Washington D.C. on a particular street. That is fictional license, and that isn’t what I’m talking about. Make up your bar, street, school, town, whatever. This is fine. However, if you have a Catholic ceremony, you better make darn sure you have it right or you may find yourself dodging lightening bolts.

Readers notice every little niggly detail. They don’t mind made-up things, but they do mind getting established facts wrong. Getting it wrong takes the reader right out of your story. They begin to look for other faults. That’s why Body Trauma: The Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries by Dr. David Page and our upcoming release The Writers Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers by Donna Ballman, J.D. are so important. They offer one stop shopping research for writers so they can avoid the common problems that often accompany stories that involve these elements.

Ah…voila!
Having gone through exhaustive research myself, I can verify that research oftentimes makes writing the story easier because you’re in possession of all the facts. You are now fully immersed in your story and confident that you have a good handle on your subject. You know you’re believable. It helps round out who your MCs are, how they react, how they think, how they work.

Don’t fear the time factor:
Research takes an inordinate amount of time. I spent an entire year researching and writing my novel, and my payback was a bevy of medical people asking what kind of medicine I practice. I also heard from readers who used my book as a resource for coping or inspiration, complete with bookmarked pages and highlighted passages. Had I blown one single detail, those readers would have tossed the book down and called me a fraud, even though this is a character-driven story. The long and short of it is this; if I expect my readers to follow my MCs into the abyss, I have to make sure all aspects of the little parts are bulletproof – no matter how long it took me to get it.

I’m positive that it took me longer to write my novel because I got so engrossed in my research. There were days I’d slip into my best pair of cranky pants over what I perceived as wasting many hours that could have been spent on writing. I quickly realized that even though most of the stuff I researched wouldn’t make it into the book, it might very well be used elsewhere – like the second in the series. The research was fascinating, and I felt like I was connecting to my MCs on a much deeper level. The long and short of it is that writers have a job to tell the best story they’re capable of telling. Research is normally a part of storytelling, so why would anyone want to shortcut such a vital piece of the puzzle?

8 Responses to Research what you don’t know

  1. Allen Parker says:

    One of the reasons I stopped reading a prominent local female writer was because she got the details wrong on almost every place she mentioned in our town. It irked me when one place was mistaken for another or the history was so convoluted that the town was not recognizable anymore.

  2. lynnpricewrites says:

    Since the author is a local, maybe she meant to fictionalize parts of your town, or used your town as a template for her story. No one but the locals are going to know the difference. Personally, this doesn’t bother me. It’s the bigger things like romantic moonlit walks along the Amazon River (bwahahahaha) that get my goat. It’s plain stupid and shows a lack of knowledge.

    If that author wants to make up a tributary that feeds into the Amazon, or invent a new village, that’s fine because it’s fiction. But don’t try to suggest that people can take a romantic stroll along the river without a hazmat suit.

  3. domynoe says:

    I’m working on a novel that has an autistic character, and another writer didn’t like how I was choosing to use the character in the story—she made a suggestion that would be basically make the main character cruel to an autistic teenager (it’s feasible to do whats he suggested, but it would be VERY wrong). When I pointed this out, she was admitted she was more concerned about what makes good fiction (without qualifying how this is a subjective determination) than with whether or not “what makes good fiction” goes against research/life experience (as in actual/factual knowledge kinds of things). If I had done what she suggested, anyone who even remotely associated with someone who has autism would be all over me, and, really? THAT doesn’t make good fiction. Research is an invaluable part of good fiction because someone will always point out where you got it wrong. If you’re going to go against research, you better show how and why that works, and even then you risk problems.

  4. kcball says:

    A writing coach once told me that research is like an iceberg. The reader should only ever see a small percentage of it.

  5. lynnpricewrites says:

    Exactamundo. And the research that does remain should be seamlessly inserted into story.

  6. michael says:

    I bought a book by a favorite author whose main character had MS. My wife has MS. The main character didn’t act at all like my wife, or anything close to a person with MS. I think the author confused the disease with muscular dystrophy.

    I never finished the book or bought another of hers.

    People get a little touchy about these things, believe me!

  7. Masha says:

    I know I’m late, but . . .

    It depends on what you make up about Big Town, USA. I once read a book that implied San Diego, CA, has only one library. It was about a military family and never specified where the guy was stationed. Or maybe it did. I gave up 1/4 of the way through and haven’t picked up any of the authors other books.

    The book was published about 5 years ago, so these aren’t things that couldn’t have been cleared up with a quick google search.

  8. lynnpricewrites says:

    San Diego? One library? Ahhh..hahahahaha! Sorry, but that poor author needs an enema.

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