Research Matters: The Devil is Always in the Details
Research can be a double-edged sword. It can elevate writing to an entirely new level, but can also be a place we hide, procrastination masked as ‘work.’ Recently, I posted on the dangers of premature editing and gave tips to help keep us moving forward on that first draft until it is FINISHED.
A common place we might stall is when we reach a point we need to fact-check or research. To maintain momentum, my suggestion is to write a note and keep writing. For instance, I might be writing a story set in the jungle. It is tempting to halt, open a browser tab then spend the next three weeks researching jungles.
Problem is, the goal is to finish a novel, not to become an expert in rain forests.
Thus, what I recommend is to write the scene anyway, and, in another color or bold or all caps, type something like ADD IN COOL STUFF ABOUT JUNGLE HERE. Then? Sally forth.
Research is vital for great stories (so long as we contain it).
Research Genre Expectations
Choosing a genre is critical for success. Many emerging writers believe genre is too constricting, that it will make a work ‘formulaic,’ but nothing could be further from the truth. First, genres often have a lot of crossover.
As an example, my new novel The Devil’s Dance has ranked very well in mystery, mystery-thriller, thriller, suspense, mystery-suspense, women sleuth, pulp and even…financial.
Why ‘financial?’ My best guess is it is because a massive financial crime of Enron proportions kicks off my story. The murders that later ensue serve the BIG goal, which is motivated by money.
Genre is critical in that it helps fans find and discover our work. Readers can’t fall in love with a novel they can’t locate. Also, readers pick a certain genre for reasons. When we know these reasons, our stories can serve the consumer what she craves.
Mystery readers want a puzzle. The puzzle needs to find the sweet spot between ‘So Easy a Six-Year-Old Could Solve This’ and ‘There’s No Way Anyone Could Solve This.’ They want twists, turns, and to be surprised and even fooled.
With romance, readers want a Happily Ever After (or at least a Happily For Now). If the couple doesn’t come together at the end, this is not a romance. It’s a different genre, likely a women’s fiction.
Every genre has boundaries (here is a post to help). Knowing our boundaries helps us push them in new ways, but we can’t break rules until we know them first.
The best way to research the genre we want to write is to READ that genre. As many books as possible.
This dovetails into my last point about genre. When writing any story, it is essential to always keep the audience in mind. If we want to sell books and write for a living, then stories are for the readers, not for us. We can feel free to write for ourselves, but that is writing as a hobby.
Sort of like my crochet.
I love crocheting, but don’t expect any of my blankets or scarves to be for sale on Etsy. My crafting is for relaxation, not for making my living (…thank God).
When I do edits, one of the most common problems is the writer who fails to consider his/her audience. This oversight plagues virtually every genre.
If you desire to write a Regency romance, it is imperative to read A LOT of Regency and to know that time period inside and out. Social conventions, their world, how they spoke, what they valued, etc.
This holds for any form of historical fiction. These audiences are passionate about history, and very knowledgable, too. If we do our research and make sure the details are correct, fans will love us. If we don’t?
Readers will burn our novel at the…steak.
😀 *evil laugh* *all the writers scream in pain*
With mystery, thriller, crime, etc. we must appreciate that readers who buy those books watch a lot of crime shows. This audience likely has an addiction to Discovery ID, Dateline, and documentaries about forensics and all things criminal justice.
Thus, we need to understand jurisdiction, procedure, and have characters using the proper nomenclature. Know who handles what and how they talk as they work the scene.
In the U.S. at least, if dispatch notifies a beat cop about a possible DB (dead body), there is a process. Once that officer confirms there IS a body, this officer then has a limited role in what happens next (call in homicide, notify the Crime Scene Unit, cordon off area to preserve the scene and make sure evidence isn’t trampled through).
The officer will NOT do the footwork a detective does, like interviewing POIs (Persons of Interest).
We need to know this, or readers will holler FOUL.
This is similar to researching the audience, but with a very slight difference. For instance, if we write Middle Grade, we are selling to parents, teachers, librarians, etc. Here’s where it gets dicey. When writing for young people, we need to THINK like young people of TODAY.
I’ve edited many MG pieces and it’s from the vantage point of a middle-aged (or older) writer. Middle Grade stories are to entertain 8-12 year-olds, not relive our youth. We must appreciate children of the 21st century are tech-savvy and most don’t possess the same freedoms we did as kids.
Thus, the notion of a ten-year-old having a paper route, where she/he wakes at dawn to throw papers unsupervised is anachronistic. First, the parents would likely get a visit from Child Protective Services and secondly, newspapers are pretty much a relic.
Last Halloween, a store had all these spooky telephones on display with the laughing skulls and dancing bats. Spawn (my then seven-year-old son) had NO IDEA what these ‘telephones’ were.
At first, I was floored, then realized something crucial. My son has grown up in a world of cell phones and has never used a land line.
If we want to write Middle Grade, then we need to take into account the world of our young readers.
This is not to say our child protagonist won’t come into contact with a pay phone, a land-line, a camera with film, a typewriter, or a newspaper. They can encounter these items, but their attitude toward commonplace fixtures of our youth, would be a source of mystery and confusion for the modern child. They’d have little or even no concept that phones were not ALWAYS the go-to way to take pictures.
It would be akin to me, a child of the 80s, encountering a telegraph machine.
It is OKAY to ASK
These days we have unprecedented access to information. As mentioned earlier, one excellent way to research is to read A LOT of works in our genre. Tess Gerritsen was once a physician. Michael Connelly was an L.A. crime reporter. John Grisham was a lawyer. Their novels are excellent resources for learning.
Additionally, there are many professionals out there who are ready and willing to help writers with the details. If you’re writing a thriller and the character uses a gun, learn about guns. Ask someone in the know.
I once threw a book across the room because the writer’s protagonist ‘put the safety’ on her revolver. I’m from a military family, and married to a man who was a competitive shooter for the Air Force. I’m that annoying person who counts shots fired in movies (which is why I detest most action movies).
Wow, I want a magic magazine that never runs out of ammo.
I’ve also studied martial arts since I was a kid. I was testing for a brown belt in traditional Jiu Jitsu when life got in the way and I stopped. Later, I changed to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (ground-fighting) and am an upper belt with over two years training.
Why does this matter?
First, I know what women can and cannot do in a fight. Secondly, I also know that being in a fight SUCKS (which is why I avoid them). Punching someone HURTS. Being punched hurts, too. This makes me REALLY picky about fight scenes.
I grow weary of delicate females throwing punches like Mike Tyson and never having to ice down a hand that would swell the size of a small melon (likely due to broken bones). Badass heroines who kick and punch and take down men twice their size…and never break a nail?
Uh huh. Sure.
Just to train I had to tape finger joints to prevent dislocations.
Again, if we are unsure about something? ASK. Social media is wonderful for locating an expert. Ages ago, I was editing a military thriller. The author had her hero pulling another soldier out of a Humvee that was ablaze.
Problem was, there was no way this would’ve been possible.
At the time her story was set, the uniforms had WAY too much synthetic fiber, and her hero would have lit up like a human torch. In fact, the uniforms were so flammable, the U.S. military finally had to reissue all new uniforms because the old ones were a hazard.
How did I know this? I vaguely recalled this uniform change with Hubby (since I had to wash them). To be certain, I went to military friends on Facebook then Hubby to confirm this detail.
I stopped and ASKED. There is no shame in not knowing something. Seriously.
Military people read military books and maybe this detail was silly, but it very well could have been a deal-breaker.
Why risk it if a question can save the grief?
Research Adds Depth and Dimension
On one hand, the devil is in the details. Readers will judge us on accuracy. On the other hand, when we do our research and get the details right, readers will LOVE us for it. We shouldn’t feel pressure to hose readers with factoids. Remember, readers want to enjoy a story, not something that reads like an encyclopedia.
Yet, if we immerse ourselves in the facts, we’ll have a treasure trove of details to select from. The right detail in the right place can transform the mediocre to the magnificent.
Additionally, research helps our characters come to life. Who we are (profession) colors our world, what we notice or don’t.
Put a CIA operative in a restaurant, and the agent would notice points of ingress and egress. A chef would notice the wilted watercress, the shoddy plating, and the tiny chip in the water glass. An architect might note the design of the room, structural flaws, or possibly admire the wainscoting and use of natural light.
Profession, age, socioeconomic status, education level, gender, etc. all factor into character and what that character would notice or pass over completely. What would they prioritize? A teenager would prioritize wifi access over the cost of the hotel room (parents).
Y’all get the gist.
A major way we can hook readers into our story is with the worlds we create. Part of showing, not telling involves using setting as more than a backdrop. If our character is in prison, then what kind of prison is it?
What kind of farm? Which city? What part of the country?
What are smells, sounds, routines, textures? A supermax prison will be vastly different from a county lockup, just as a family-owned bed and breakfast won’t share much in common with a major hotel chain. The five senses of a character are woven into setting (or at least should be).
In the end, details add layers and dimension to characters, and help bring them to life. The better our research, the more nuance we have on hand to add depth to our stories.
If you need outside eyes to see if you’re using your detail for max effect, I have a couple slots left in my Write Stuff Special (detailed content edit 20 pages for $55).
What Are Your Thoughts?
Does this help you see research in a new way? Do you go nuts when a writer or Hollywood botches a detail that should be something simple? Do you fall in love with writers who’ve taken time to do the hard homework? I know I do.
What detail bumbles make you cray-cray? My mom is a nurse so we have to hide any medical shows. Hubby? No military movies. Me? Action movies give me hives.
I love hearing from you!
And am not above bribery!
What do you WIN? For the month of April, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
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