Writing and research go hand in hand because getting your facts right is as important as punctuation, pacing, and plot. Author Lesann Berry talks about fact finding basics and how research can enhance your story.
Great to have you back, Lesann!
In theory, research is the simple collection of information. Usually, we set out to acquire data with a specific goal in mind. We seek answers to satisfy our curiosity. I love research. So much so, I chose anthropology as my profession because conducting fieldwork (more research!) can be a regular part of the job. I took things a step farther, turning those esoteric topics into exploitable content for writing.
Because I LOVE research. *sigh*
A friend of mine enjoys using words that he doesn’t always understand. This leads to such amusing utterances as: “it’s deciduous out here in the noonday sun” and “look at the size of that guy’s proboscis.” Each time, I am reminded of the oft-quoted lines from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Thus is often the same with research.
Understanding the content in our writing is critical. Accuracy and consistency reduce the volume of laughter when we inadvertently slip a deciduous into the conversation. Memory fails, even with the details of our personal lives. No matter how carefully we write, sharp-eyed critics ferret out every error. Mistakes happen. Editors catch many of our goofs but they too, are not infallible. Nobody knows everything, right?
I once stuck a pipe in a character’s hand, pausing to wonder, what exactly is meerschaum? The answer produced a sneaky subplot.
A statement often heard from other writers is how little they enjoy research, “It’s so tedious and labor-intensive.” That puzzles me. Discovering the perfect sensory detail to transport a reader to eighteenth-century Calcutta enriches their experience. If you’re guilty of saying or thinking the same – you’ve been going about research the wrong way.
Remember the bit about “write what you know?” This is a sensible edict. Our ample personal experiences offer much to plumb. Specialized knowledge sits filed away in our minds, waiting to be woven into the fabric of a story. Obviously, it’s possible to write about subjects for which we lack personal experience. I assume those folks writing about murder, dragons, and apocalyptic events are relying on imaginative research.
Research is your friend. Some of you nod happily because you agree. The rest of you scowl, gnash your teeth, and mutter naughty words because if it was that easy, you’d be doing it, by gosh.
So, here’s the deal. Think about the process of research in the same way you follow a recipe. If you don’t cook, think about mixing a drink. If you don’t drink, think about making a basic set of instructions. If you’re still not on board, maybe you’re being difficult. Quit waffling. Commit. Research is hard work that can be fun.
Start with the basics. Write down your recipe. Mix your drink. List your instructions. Then move on to complications. Decide on a setting. Detail the attributes of your characters. Spell out the events in the plot. Next, figure out what you don’t comprehend. Last, wrap your brain cells around the problems which require answers.
Let’s repeat the trifecta of research:
1 – Make a plan.
2 – Identify what you don’t know.
3 – Experiment to find an answer.
The process can be that simple. Try things out. Hands-on effort often clarifies what doesn’t make sense. Characters respond in surprising ways when they demonstrate an understanding of the facts. For example, historical fiction often features clothing styles few modern people have worn. If you’ve never been strapped inside a corset with whalebone stays, this kind of underwear makes taking a deep breath difficult. Try dancing and you’ll discover why fainting couches were common. Trial-and-error may save you from falling prey to a pitfall which captured a colleague.
Suspense fiction is littered with characters who heave corpses into closets and out of car trunks. If it’s been a while since you tried picking up a human being, even the small ones are heavy. Bodies pose logistical challenges whether limp like noodles or stiff from rigor. Want to attempt moving a body but lack a corpse? Improvise. A visit to the local feed store for a 100-pound sack of cracked corn offers a reasonable facsimile. Chuck the bag over your shoulder and trot out to the car. Don’t forget to pull the keys out of your pocket and pop the trunk so you can dump her in the back like you’ve fantasized. No cheating. The muscle-bound cowboy can flash his pearly whites but he can’t lend a hand.
Once you get home, you’ve got to get the darn thing back out. This difficulty may explain why so many dead people are found in the trunks of abandoned cars. Once you’ve wrestled your faux victim from the trunk, haul her up upstairs so you can push her off the balcony. There’s barely time to blink before impact. Wow. The end-result is not the same with a real human but you get the gist.
Ewww, you say. Yes.
Okay, I realize this is Romance University. Not every example applies but romance novels feature a fair amount of blunt force trauma and the discharge of weapons in between the clinch scenes.
Research adds realism. Seek out experts. Most of what you learn may be reduced to a single phrase or become an element establishing atmosphere, but those refinements make a story sparkle. Authenticity lends potency to our voice.
After placing an antique Luger in my protagonist’s hand, I realized neither of us knew how it felt. During a visit to an antique gun show, I held one, shocked by the weight. Hollywood actors run around with rifles and handguns like they weigh nothing. Liars. One firearm does not feel like another. The way an accomplished shooter handles a gun is markedly different than the way a novice fumbles one around.
Quality research adds believability to character action. It provides concrete details for setting and atmosphere. It bridges the distance between the writer and the reader. Perseverance is required to achieve the right balance.
The logistical challenges encountered by the characters populating our fictional landscapes are bound by the quality of the research we undertake. Approximately seven percent of the average human body is comprised of blood. Dump a gallon of milk on your kitchen floor for a startling visual. Swing a five-foot longsword for two minutes and you’ll better appreciate the physical conditioning demanded of medieval soldiers. Bullets make a different thump-thump sound when they strike flesh than when slapping into wooden fence posts.
We want our readers to experience the same events as our characters, to get caught up in the emotional tumult of success and failure. Research shouldn’t be just cerebral. Get your hands dirty. Splash around in the swamp. Mimic physical actions. Evaluate emotional responses. Figure out how readers experience and respond to your work. Research makes everything better. I promise.
Tell us a success story. How many senses do your readers engage when they dive into your book? What details do you exploit to draw readers back for more? Share how you’ve used research to enrich your writing.
Alternate Endings features a dozen short stories of fantastic fiction. These are tales about people who grasp at the chance to fulfill their greatest desires. They suspect the road not taken doesn’t always end happily and know the path they’re on can lead to unexpected places. Choices change the course of lives. Each new day offers opportunities that propel them toward alternate endings.
RU’s weapons expert, Adam Firestone, returns on Monday, May 6th.
Bio: Lesann Berry writes about messed-up people but her work often features paranormal and romantic elements because life is boring without spooky stuff and warm bodies. Crossing genre lines, she pens mystery, historical intrigue, romantic suspense, and even a little horror. Connect with her via Twitter and Facebook, or visit her blog at www.lesannberry.com for more stuff and nonsense.
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- Donna MacMeans: The Value of Research
- Portraying Ethnic Characters with Dignity in Contemporary Romance – Vicki Essex
- Connecting with the Right Editor – Leslie Berry