Posted On May 3, 2013 by Print This Post

Lesann Berry presents: Embrace the Pain of Research

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.

SONY DSCA 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.

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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.

 

AlternateEndingslowres

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.

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RU’s weapons expert, Adam Firestone, returns on Monday, May 6th.

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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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21 Responses to “Lesann Berry presents: Embrace the Pain of Research”

  1. This is a great article on research. And I love that your enthusiasm gives me hope and inspiration for doing research myself. Great comparison of research and grammar – yes!

    At this point, a lot of my research is about dialogue and character interaction. With each other, with their environment. In fiction, I want readers to get a sense of the environment of the story – visual, auditory, smell; sometimes taste; and feel or tactile senses as appropriate.

    A sense of place. That is important, too. For that, I will drive to the place or someplace which is similar if I can’t get to The Place. I had a story which had some pivotal moments in a coastal town and I needed to go there. I took pictures along the way, because the drive to the place was present in a few scenes. I drove the streets of the small town, where I rarely go and I certainly never ventured into the neighborhoods before that.

    Thank you!

    Posted by dot | May 3, 2013, 3:43 am
    • Thanks for leaving such kind comments, Dot.

      I agree that visiting the locations we write about is important – although sometimes too impractical to actually do. That’s one of the reasons improvisation is so helpful. I find sensory information is so much easier to tuck into the story and characterization when I’ve experienced the real thing.

      I’m glad you enjoyed visiting this morning!

      Posted by Lesann | May 3, 2013, 9:29 am
  2. Your analogy of research as a recipe is perfect! How can we possibly achieve the proper and delicious end result without it? Thanks for your fine article, written with your usual panache that delivers your message clearly and emphatically!

    Posted by Patricia Sands | May 3, 2013, 5:56 am
    • Thanks for dropping by this morning, Patricia!

      Aren’t analogies fun? When you connect with the right one the ideas or concepts suddenly make sense when they didn’t before.

      The end result is what it’s all about, right? Everyone finds the process which works for them, but if we share our methods, sometimes we discover new techniques for our arsenal. ‘Cause everyone needs an arsenal.

      And, I like the “emphatic” part. That comes from being a teacher and driving home the same point a thousand times. After a while it feels like if you just say it with more authority, they listen better. :)

      Posted by Lesann | May 3, 2013, 9:34 am
  3. Hi Lesann,

    A web research history for disposing of a body would be a good one to erase. In a romantic suspense or mystery, I like when the writer uses sound. Not seeing what made the sound and the guesses as to what it could be add to the tension.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | May 3, 2013, 6:45 am
    • Right you are, Mary Jo!

      I’m sure we aren’t the only two writers who have wondered what would happen if the search history on our computers were reviewed. I wrote a post about poisons a while back – which are pretty much at everyone’s fingerprints in yard and kitchen – and wondered if it raised any flags.

      The use of sensory details is fabulous for building tension and stretching out scenes. I like it when writers include subtle reminders of the environment that raise our hackles or remind me of other things. I read so many ghost stories as a kid that my first reaction to any bump in the night is a thrill of anticipation.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Posted by Lesann | May 3, 2013, 9:39 am
  4. Afternoon Lesanne!!

    I don’t mind research BUT I admit to first of all getting distracted – I just want to know what the water temperature is in the Cayman Islands in September – and next thing you know, the day is gone and I not only know that you CAN swim in the Cayman Islands in September, but what kind of fish there are, what fruits are still on the trees and maybe I should find time for a vacation! =)

    Second, how do you find experts? I once had a scene involving rock climbing, so asked in a rock climbing forum some questions about gear – after all these people go out and DO it right? And I got mocked….oh, did I get mocked…lol…..won’t do that again….so what is a good way to find an expert without humiliating yoruself? =)

    thanks for posting with us today!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 3, 2013, 2:45 pm
    • Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Carrie!

      All that distraction is part of the glory of research. I’ve had similar experiences. The internet has compounded the challenges because there is such a dearth of information available now – in multiple formats! The great thing is all those bits and pieces of information whirl around in your head and somehow land on the page. Your character takes a vacation to the Cayman Islands…thus, you must also! Now you have foods and plants to populate the setting. See? Research is a grand plan revolving around travel and food and shopping.

      Ah, experts. This one can be tough because it depends on what sort of access you have to experts. I like to take the direct approach (which is not always advisable). First, the internet offers bounty, as does social media, but then you can get tangled up with people who misrepresent, are not helpful, or like to tease us so we look silly when we’re done. I’ve been known to call the FBI, the DEA, and the National Guard for answers to questions. They’re always helpful. Most agencies have public liason personnel or they have helpful archives stored on official websites filled with information. Other resources I would consider: organizations built around specific interests, college & university clubs (teeming with helpful young people who are always eager to assist (seriously!), fraternal orders, etc. that seek to educate others about their goals, and personal interviews. E-mail is your friend. I’m utterly astounded at the people who will respond to a polite e-mail, especially if you’re patient.

      And of course, if someone says no, you smile and nod. I add them to my list of people to off in future books, but that’s just me. :)

      Posted by Lesann | May 3, 2013, 3:19 pm
  5. Hi Leslie!

    I’m definitely a research geek. At times, I have to force myself to keep writing through a chapter that needs further research because I can easily spend hours on fact finding missions. One fact verification usually leads to another unknown fact and then another one and suddenly, I’ve got a new idea for a story.

    I’ve never heaved a 100 lb sack of corn from a rooftop, but I’ve watched Youtube vids on Krav Maga and attempted to reenact them with my husband with hilarious results.

    BTW…I know what a meerschaum is thanks to your research and enlightening blog post!

    Thanks for being with us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 3, 2013, 4:00 pm
    • Thanks for having me visit today, Jennifer!

      Research is a sort of vortex. The unwary can get caught in the gravitational pull and sucked off into some parallel universe. Then you snap out of it and realize dinner isn’t made, the laundry never got done, and you’re late to pick up the kids. I love your story of Krav Maga! It makes a difference to actually try something, especially when you’ve never done it. The people who have will know exactly what you mean when you get it right, and wrinkle their nose if you get in wrong.

      Research is a seductive siren but sometimes you do have to switch off the lure and keep trudging through. I’m glad you remember the meerschaum post! Someday that story may yet see the light of day.

      Posted by Lesann | May 3, 2013, 9:12 pm
  6. I LOVE this, especially your note about meerschaum. In one of my stories, the heroine reacts badly to caffeine. She knows to avoid coffee, but then I remembered reading that chocolate has a lot of caffeine. That led to HOURS of research, because the answer was more complicated than I’d anticipated.

    I know nothing about firearms, but luckily I do know a firearms expert who blogs at RU regularly. My problem is a lack of knowledge about FBI and police procedures – real ones, not the way they are portrayed on TV. When working on one story, I spent so much time trolling the FBI website, I thought I might get red-flagged by the agency. I finally set that story aside. I don’t think you can just call the FBI and say, “Hey, I’m an unpublished writer and I’d like to pick the brains of an agent or two.” Same goes for the police and any other similar agency. Where do you go when you need a human source and don’t have personal contacts to draw on?

    Thanks for a fabulous post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 3, 2013, 5:45 pm
    • Thanks for adding to the discussion, Becke!

      I know what you mean about setting out to inform yourself of a few facts and suddenly you’re knee-deep in psychopharmacological articles about the impact of caffeine intake on sleep patterns. It’s sort of startling to figure out we ingest all kinds of wicked ingredients with our daily diet.

      If you’ve never read Lydia Kang’s Medical Monday blog posts – they’re wonderfully fun. As a physician and a writer, she combines her expertise to tantalize readers with useful mayhem.

      As far as FBI and police procedures – there are some excellent field and lab manuals that are used for training – most can be acquired through public channels, just look for public records under the freedom of information act. Of course, the really useful stuff probably is off-limits but they do need some insights kept to themselves. I guess. Also – for that personal contact – look for liason personnel who have the chore of answering our inquiries (and thousands of others). They typically like writers because we ask interesting questions.

      Thanks for visiting!

      Posted by Lesann | May 3, 2013, 9:20 pm
      • Thanks for the excellent suggestions, Lesann! I have a feeling Lydia’s blog could be dangerous as well as fun! I hadn’t thought of field manuals as a resource – what a great idea! Lots of good ideas – thank you so much!!

        Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 4, 2013, 12:15 am
        • You’re welcome!

          I thought of another source for investigative, CSI type of stuff – especially if you’re looking for the concrete details of actual processing etc. – look for introductory textbooks in criminalysis, criminal studies, and forensic evaluation in administration of justice. Just remember that technologies change fast and by the time a text is released, the field has already moved ahead. Good luck!

          Posted by Lesann | May 4, 2013, 9:41 am
  7. Great article.
    As someone who has the fun of research without the pain of writing about it, I found it very interesting to see how you incorporate it into your story. I’ve learned some amazing things doing research for authors, and sometimes it makes for interesting dinner conversations. Other times, not so much.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Franzeca | May 3, 2013, 8:50 pm
    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Franzeca!

      I’m glad you weighed in on the fun of research. There’s never enough time to learn all the interesting things I get sidetracked wanting to find out. It’s nice to know there are others who enjoy it too. Doing research for others and distilling it down to a consumable product is a real skill – kudos to you!

      Your comment about interesting dinner conversations reminded me of a time when I transcribed psychiatric reports – the same thing – some of them quite interesting, others not so much.

      Thanks for visiting with us!

      Posted by Lesann | May 3, 2013, 9:24 pm
  8. Lesann,

    Thanks so much for blogging with us again! And every time I see a sack of cracked corn, I’ll think of you.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | May 4, 2013, 1:03 am
    • Thanks for having me back to Romance University, Jennifer!

      It’s good to know I’ll be remembered, even if it’s as the cracked corn woman. Which might make a fun title for a caper…

      Posted by Lesann | May 4, 2013, 9:44 am
  9. Leslie,
    As I recall your dad has a collection of meerschaums. I tend to stumble onto or into my plots as I usually ignore signs that say “keep out”. From there, I have to research what would normally happen in that environment because nothing that happens to me is normal. I don’t recommend other people using my methodology as you can end up in jail or worse. Yes, there is a worse. Sometimes, it turns out really well and exciting!

    Posted by Tammy Setzer Denton | May 8, 2013, 5:53 pm
    • Ah, Evil Auntie has arrived…fashionably late. Welcome!

      Dad does have a meerschaum tucked away someplace. I remember finding it as a nosy kid. I agree that you have to use the best methodology for conducting research and if you’ve discovered your path – at least you know what pitfalls to watch out for. Limitations (self-imposed or otherwise) are good to know!

      Good research can be exciting. Just remember the family motto: we don’t go bail.

      Thanks for dropping by and visiting. I happen to know that you do wonderful research (in more than one language) so you’re just funning with us. Mostly. Right? Hmm.

      Posted by Lesann | May 9, 2013, 9:50 pm

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