When editors say “Write what you know,” they don’t necessarily mean you’re the cop who writes murder mysteries or the doc who writes medical thrillers…it means know what you’re writing about. After all, not every writer has a job that coincides with the topic/plots of their books.

A friend of mine is a child psychologist who writes romance. Another bud makes her living selling garage doors…and I defy you to wrap an interesting book around that…so she writes fantasy. Heck, I’m an editor who wrote medical fiction. So what do we have in common? RESEARCH.

I’ve read many manuscripts where it’s obvious the writer did little to no research, and this is the primary killer for anyone who doesn’t write what they know because they are  gonna get busted by someone who knows more. Ouch.

I”m not talking about emotions because we can all tap into what it feels like to be dumped, or getting that new job, or falling in love. I’m talking about a main character who’s a surgeon. If you’re an editor (cough cough), then you better do some serious tap dancing in order to write that character and the story in a manner than convinces readers you are unimpeachable.

Never Underestimate Your Readers

It’s never wise to undervalue your readers. If you keep in mind that there is always someone who knows more than you, then you’ll find yourself writing to that person – which you should do.

An example of this would be the manuscript I read many years ago. One of the main characters had MS. I know didely about MS, so I handed off to my editor, who has MS, and she proceeded to rip it to shreds. I asked the author how much research she had done on MS. Come to find out, she’d done ZERO research. This is a noob mistake and, of course, the manuscript was kicked to the curb.

Make One Mistake at Your Own Peril

A friend of mine was lamenting a book who blundered over a Catholic ceremony, saying the author got it complete wrong. “It’s like she Googled it and accepted it as fact, and all she had to do is ASK A CATHOLIC.” Ouch. And because of that glaring mistake, my friend mistrusted every other point in the book.

Another example is the time I read a woman’s story about the Amazon. The main character went for a romantic moonlight swim with a hunk of man meat. As luck would have it, I’ve been to the Amazon and told her there is NO WAY you’d be doing anything other than running from the millions of bloodsucker mosquitoes that fill the air from dusk to dawn. The air is so thick with them that you can easily breathe them in. And the swim? Not a good idea, given the piranha that swim around. Commence collective “ew” here.

This was an advance reading at a writer’s conference, so I could alert her to the inconsistency. Had this been a query, she would have shot her credibility with me because it’s such a glaring misstep. If an author neglects to take the time to know every element of her setting, then what other shortcuts has she taken? Now I have to suspect every scene and wonder if she got that right as well.

The sad part of this scenario is that these blunders were simply a sidebar to a particular scene. It’s sloppy. Don’t let that be you.

Honor Yourself

The biggest gift you can give yourself as a writer is to honor yourself first and foremost and remember that your name is on the cover, which means that all inconsistencies will fall on your shoulders. Do you want to be remembered for sloshing a scene (and having it splayed out in reviews), or rocking a book? Respect your efforts.

Give Yourself Time

Writing a book takes time. Doing research takes even more time because you have to over-research in order to know what to keep and what to toss. I researched for a year because I know squat all about surgery. I relied on three different surgeons and thousands of hours of research…then running my chapters past those surgeons for clarity. The return benefit was that I had many docs ask what kind of medicine I practice. BoOm.

Whether you have a scene or an entire foundation that is outside your purview, give yourself the time to make sure you’re bullet-proof. There is nothing worse than having your words stamped in stone and discovering that you royally blew something. There are no take backs, so do your research!

3 Responses to Research

  1. Pelotard says:

    Ah. Good. I have sometimes been worried. Especially when writing short SF stories.

  2. NinjaFingers says:

    And do NOT think you can get away with it just because you write SF/fantasy.

    You still have to get the stuff that IS grounded in reality right. In fact, you have to be even more careful, because your target audience are the worst nitpickers around. I know…I do it myself. (For example, there are two kinds of fantasy writers – ones who ride and love horses and know everything and ones who haven’t even sat on one and get it all wrong. Never anything in between, from what I’ve seen).

  3. tbrosz says:

    Oh, Lord. Research.

    It’s also possible to go too far in the other direction. I’m obsessed with accuracy, and love looking things up, so it’s real easy to kill an afternoon on this sort of thing.

    My current YA book involves the Romanian language, lots of astronomy and almanac information, geography, climate in a particular area, what wildlife lives where, how long it takes to drive a car from point A to point B and what you’ll see along the way, how fast a horse-drawn wagon goes and what the harness looks like, train schedules and routes in Nevada, and if you were ten times stronger than you were, how would the physics really work? Hint: not at all like Superman or Steve Austin.

    Thank God for the Internet. I think. Remember, all this assumes I don’t get distracted by something else I find out along the way and go off on some completely useless web trek.

    Sooner or later I come up for air and realize that I actually do have to put words on the page, too!

    P.S. Here’s a useful tip: Google Earth has a marvelous feature called “street view.” If you have something in your story going on in, say, Pittsburgh, you can pop over there in virtual form and “walk” down the street, gathering description and the sense of the place as you go.

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