Writer Research: How Real Do I Have to Be?


Authors always ask this question because research is time consuming, and they’re itching to get writing. I can sympathize. It took me a year to write my novel, and it was because I researched the medical and metaphysical world ’til the cows came home. I went the extra mile because I wanted my writing to be beyond reproach. I was rewarded by lots of people in the medical community asking what kind of medicine I practiced. BoOya! I bless those docs who kept me on the straight and narrow.

Because of that endorsement, readers trusted me. And that’s what you want for your book. If you half-ass something because “Well, it’s a minor thing, and no one will notice,” then think again. Someone will ALWAYS notice. Keeping a reader engaged is about trust. If you blow something, or make something up, then readers will feel bitten. Bite them too much, and you’ll lose them. It could something as minor as how a Catholic ceremony is performed, or as major as an MS patient’s ability to move around.

I remember reading an author’s first pages at a writer’s conference – a romance. She had her couple taking a long romantic walk by the Amazon, where they eventually got down to some serious horizontal calisthenics. Big problem, though. I just happened to spend 17 bug-filled days in the Amazon, and I can assure you that the only thing you’re doing on a hot Amazon night is showering in a Deet bath and zipping your tent. Romance is the furthest thing from your mind.

The idea was lovely, but completely unrealistic, and as a reader, I would have tossed her book across the room. You simply cannot take short cuts with your readers. It’s unfair to them because they invested in your book. You owe it to them and yourself to be unimpeachable…even if it’s a minor scene. To do anything else is admitting that you’re lazy, and when I see blunders like this in submissions, I reject them.

Not researching every element of your book is a noob blunder, and when I see it, I always think, “Well, if they blew this important element of writing, then what else do they not understand?” Editors avoid working with noobs.

So if you’re tempted to short cut your way out of writing a medical procedure, what kind of weapon Army Rangers use, or what your characters are doing in a certain setting, always remember that your readers be watchin’ you, so keep it real!

8 Responses to Writer Research: How Real Do I Have to Be?

  1. I’m amazed the Amazon scene would even need research. I would be thinking hot, muggy, and buggy right off the bat. I don’t tend to be so technical in my (fantasy/SF/supernatural) stories, but when I want to get the tone of the story right, or I actually need some details, Google’s right there. No need to wonder, just look for it.

  2. MishaBurnett says:

    As a locksmith and former repo man, I can tell you that very few books (and movies) make scenes where characters defeat physical security realistic.

    I understand that nobody wants to give away information about how to break into a house, but if you’re writing about a bank heist and your characters need to open a safe, having a basic understanding of how safes work would be nice.

    I love heist stories, but there are so few that I can actually read all the way through without the occasional eyeroll. Donald Westlake is one of the few crime writers that I can wholeheartedly recommend for getting his technical details right.

  3. The internet is great for obtaining great buckets of research. It’s where I got the bulk of mine for my novel. However, I needed to incorporate that research into my characters, so I needed to talk to surgeons in order to get the nitty gritty stuff right. There is nothing like picking a professional’s brain.

    Also, we writers actually have to over-research in order to know what to keep in and what to toss out. I see lots of cases where I didn’t feel the writer dug deeply enough, so while it may have been technically correct, it lacked depth. That comes from knowing your subject inside and out.

  4. Beautifully said! My biggest pet peeve is lying to readers! Just not cool to tell them something that is not possible. Most especially in young people’s fiction, unless it is fantasy – Don’t lie or even stretch the possible.

  5. ericjbaker says:

    A lot of times it’s the little details. I’m willing to accept that spaceships somehow have internal gravity in a sci-fi story or that a person’s entire genetic structure can be rearranged when they turn into a werewolf. Fantasy license, I guess.

    However, I’ve was stopped dead when reading a book in which a character was described as listening to a piano concerto by Bach. There is no such thing. Bach wrote on a harpsichord.

    I still recall an episode of M*A*S*H* in which a character made a Godzilla joke. The Korean War, during which the show takes place, ended in 1953. Godzilla came out in 1956 and certainly would not of been a pop-culture reference until well into the 1960s.

  6. I’ll never forget the day I abandoned Patricia Cornwell. Her detective was going to interview a farrier who was shoeing a horse. She described the horse as large, “at least 14 hands.”

    A hand is 4 inches, measured to the withers (top of the shoulder). Anything under 14.2 is considered a PONY.

    Even the big kids need to do their homework.

  7. John Allan says:

    By real, I think you mean believable. And therein lies the rub. You are writing fiction; it is not intended to be true, but it does need to seem as if it COULD happen. John Grisham regularly reinforces that what he has written is fiction, and that, for much of it, he has done as little research as possible – legal expertise notwithstanding. But his stories still work. On the other hand, some aspects of Jeffrey Archer’s ‘A Prisoner of Birth’ weren’t entirely believable.

    The worst offenders, though, are those authors who ignore or distort facts, particularly historical ones. Such as one established writer who implied that the British lost the battle of Rorke’s Drift . . . His publishers never did reply to my emailed question.

  8. John, to my way of thinking, fiction still has to adhere to reality. To do otherwise is insanely lazy, and I don’t care who the writer is. There is no one named Kim Donovan or Erik Behler who are surgeons at St. Vincent’s de Croix Hospital in Washington D.C. – placed exactly where Georgetown University Hospital stands – because I made them up. However, when Kim has to crack open a chest and milk the heart, I had to have every detail right, or I’d have been laughed out of my own zip code. Fiction doesn’t mean you give in to complete flights of fancy. Suspension of disbelief simply doesn’t stretch that far.

    As for Grisham, well…he’s Grisham, which, as far as his editors are concerned, provides him with a free pass to do pretty much whatever he wants. Personally, I’ve never busted him on anything, so I can’t attest to the veracity of the claims that he does little research. It’s possible he simply doesn’t write about things that require research.

    But as Gayle pointed out, 14.2 hands is a weency little horse, and had Patricia Cornwell done her research, she wouldn’t have made such a ridiculous blunder. And yes, it’s ridiculous because it’s such an easy thing to verify – and she half-assed it. It’s probable that she was depending on her publisher’s fact checkers, and they missed it, but that doesn’t excuse sloppy writing.

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