Writer Research: How Real Do I Have to Be?

May 9, 2013


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!

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