Thursday, October 14, 2010

Do Your Research

First-hand research is always best. Sometimes it’s not an option and a writer has to depend on books, Internet searches and second-hand accounts. You’ve got a character zipping off to Mexico City, but you’ve never been there and can’t go do research. So you turn to secondary sources. Luckily, writers can find out lots of information from other places and they can go to chat rooms and ask questions of people who live in Mexico City or other places they need to know about.

Some places never seem to change, making it easy to get by without a lot of searching for info. Like Central Texas. Hot. Little rain. The trees are always green. We only have two seasons: flip flops and shorts … or flip flops and a long-sleeve t-shirt. January or July – it’s all the same.

Wrong. That’s a myth perpetuated by Texans like me.

Today is beautiful. Granted, most days in Central Texas are, but we do have rain. We do occasionally have to wear coats. Some people even wear close-toed shoes – I’m not often one of them. This morning as the sun came up it was cool, not cold. The sky is now a soft blue with white puffy clouds splattered here and there. It’s mid-October. Trees are beginning to lose leaves. Granted, not all the trees, but there are a few trees even here that turn brilliant colors and lose their leaves. Out my kitchen window I can see the roof of a house in the valley, the only house in sight. By winter, I’ll be able to see more of the house, the front of it, the porch, the smoke curling from its chimney. We may not be able to often legitimately use our fireplaces, but we do have a few opportunities without having to turn down the a/c.

Don’t rely on what you think you know about a place. If you can’t find out first-hand, then try to talk to people who live in that setting. And not just one person. Talk to several. One time while working on a book I needed to know if a bus could drive into Central Park and load passengers. I tried to find out through research and couldn’t get an answer. I turned to the Internet and put the question out in a chat room of other authors. Got my answer. Got several answers. Different answers. Sometimes you have to go with the majority or the answer that comes from the most reliable or knowledgeable source. Unless you hire an editor who specializes in getting the details right, your editor may not be fact-checking. So, if you’re not willing to pay someone to do the research, do it yourself. You can’t just shrug your shoulders and flip a coin. If you’re wrong, your readers will catch it.

It’s much better if you catch it before it goes to print. How do you do research? Have you ever read something in a book and felt frustrated because you knew the author got it wrong? What are your favorite resources?
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Helen Ginger is an author, blogger, freelance editor and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its eleventh year of publication. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn.


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33 comments :

  1. Yes, I do research, in geophysics >:)))

    To be serious: As a hobby writer, I don't have the time to research properly. But the internet is a fantastic source of all kinds of information >:x

    Cold As Heaven

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  2. I enjoyed the research part of writing my novel. First hand wasn't possible (South Vietnam) but I have been to Guatemala and El Salvador, both with similar weather. For the bulk of my research I relied on the library, reading everything I could get my hands on. I then went with the majority. I also watched old movies and talked to people who had been there and experienced what my protagonist was going through. And of course, there's always the interenet.

    If I realize an author has it wrong (from a simple missed typo
    to a setting) my opinion of the novel is diminished. And while it might be an editor's fault, a reader sees it as solely the author's.

    I like your description of the house in the valley. Now that is SHOWING. Thank you for the excellent example.

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  3. One of the neat things I've found on the Internet is photos. When I worked as an acquisitions editor, I evaluated a story that was set in China. The opening scene nagged at me (I know very little about that part of the world), so I needed to "see" the area. Voila! It sat in living color before me on my monitor. The writer was wrong!

    Personally, I set my stories near my residence. That makes my research a lot easier. However, a historical fiction author whose books I publish went to Ireland on vacation to verify some of the information in her first book. One of the photos she took graces its cover.

    Bottom line: if we want to be viewed as serious writers and have ALL our readers suspend disbelief, we need to research our stories' locales. And it's an excellent idea to seek out several sources to confirm accuracy. Great post, Helen!

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  4. Just as I'm digging deeper into research for The Swamp Whisperer! Thanks! And I just this morning found a professor who is an expert on the Ishak-Atakapa nation!
    Sylvia Dickey Smith

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  5. Yes, I have read a book where the author got a fact wrong. It put me off the rest of the book. Granted this was a non-fiction, so accuracy was more important to me than when I read fiction.

    As far as research goes, I rely heavily on books and internet, and if I can't be 120% sure I try to change the info so that it works and remains true. I'm very conscious of an urge in me to rely too heavily on second-hand info, which can be dangerous. This post reminded me that complacency in research isn't an option.
    Judy

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  6. I'm blessed because there's so much diversity where I live. My places are a mix of the areas I know.
    Also, i never hurts to have 10 universities within two hours of your home. There's always some professor or lecture and the libraries around.

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  7. Good points. Greg Rucka had a good related post recently at Mullholland Books http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/2010/10/11/sinking-the-titanic/

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  8. It'll turn me off a series. I was reading a fiber arts series a while back, and one of the characters started spinning with "battens" instead of "batts" and that was it for me! Buzzwords are really important to get right if you want to earn the respect of your reader.

    So Hel, I guess knit socks are not a good idea for you. ;) How about wrist warmers??

    Dani

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  9. I agree Cold As Heaven, the Internet is a wonderful tool for writers.

    Hi Yvonne, first hand research is best for the general over-all feel of a setting. It's also the most fun!

    You are totally right, Linda. Even minor glitches can off-put a reader. I might overlook something minor, but it the mistakes keep adding up, the author may lose me.

    Sylvia, I am not surprised. If there is anyone who could find an expert on the Ishak-Atakapa nation, it would be you!

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  10. Judy, that's an excellent option. If you don't know something and can't find out the answer, write around it.

    Good advice, Mary. I'm in an area overflowing with universities, too.

    Thanks for that link, Paul.

    Dani, I have never heard of wrist warmers. Did you make that up?

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  11. Google street view is a godsend. When it comes to specific professions for which it's necessary to get the vocabulary right, I turn to podcasts. You can find podcasts on any profession or hobby and most of the authors will answer your questions if you email them.

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  12. Research is one of my favorite things, and I use any excuse to do more. If I can't find what I need on the internet, I ask friends and writers if they know or know someone who knows about what I need. Often calls or emails to the writer of an article bring excellent results. I've spent hours researching something that took half a sentence, but the detail was important. At least it was to me.

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  13. I wanted to interview some Cassans about their area of space before I wrote my book, but none returned my emails.

    I did do research on fighter jets though.

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  14. Oi! The research is hard! I have to do it after the fact or it sends me on tangents and I try to incorporate all sorts of interesting details that in all honesty, just don't belong in the story (but they're right!)

    I am now fact checking and researching my Cozy--the contract is for a Gardening theme in Roanoke, VA. I have gardened very little in my life and have never been to Roanoke, but THAT was the book they wanted. It is easy to find what grows in a zone 7, but finding when each thing blooms? looking for which things are finicky? Which are expensive? matching the right plants to the details I want is HARD!

    I've done some 'google satellite' looking around, but there is no indicator of WHEN those are taken, so i am needing to extrapolate a little for season. And I have one Virginian writer friend who I plan to beg for a read to make sure nothing is so off that it will stand out.

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  15. Mark, podcasts are an excellent idea. You can find a podcast on just about anything. Seriously.

    Carol, I've done research where I got totally lost in it and spent too much time because I got interested in some side tangent that I came across.

    Alex, did you find someone to give you a ride in one? That would have been fun.

    Ah, Hart, you're getting to learn so much new stuff! If you belong to any online groups like Sisters In Crime or DorothyL, you can ask a question and someone may have the answer.

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  16. My novel Love of a Stonemason takes place in Switzerland, Italy, and Peru. When I started writing the book, I had already been to these places. Switzerland is my original home country and I had visited Italy and Peru. However, I realized how little we pay attention to details unless we need them for something in particular. I kind of remembered what things looked like, but I had forgotten a lot of important details, such as the way the noble chestnut trees look like in full bloom, etc. I had to go back to these places to get it right. Since I love to travel, that part of the research was the most enjoyable. The internet, books on the topic, and my friends were the other important sources for my research.

    I love your description of the view from your house.
    Christa

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  17. Christa, traveling to the settings is not only a good idea, it's so much fun. If I set mine in places I only visited and not lived, I would definitely try to go to those places to get not only the sights, but the smells and sounds.

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  18. I wish I could do my research in person - but until that whole time travel thing gets worked on, I'm stuck in the present! Seriously, I do a great deal of research on the net and spend a fair amount of time on Google maps - that Street View option is wonderful. Yes, buildings may have changed but not hills and rivers. I also have done a fair bit of reading of literature written in the time I'm writing - it's great for vocabulary - and magazines are great too (pictures! bonus!). I've gone as far as looking up weather records of the week in which my story takes place.

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  19. I love performing due dilligence in research. That's half the fun of writing. I've never been to Boston but half the events in my book take place there. So research is vital if you want to market your book in the area the setting takes place. Never underestimate your audience. They're not stupid, although I have to wonder about some authors out there.

    Stephen Tremp

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  20. Elspeth and Stephen, y'all are right. If you can't go to the actual place then you have to turn to multiple sources to get it right. Research is so easier and cheaper than 20 years ago.

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  21. I really LIKE to make things up instead of research. :) But when I need to research, I try to either interview someone who knows more about the thing than I do (police officers for a procedure question, Memphis residents for a setting question, etc.) or else I go to the internet and get a LOT of sources to confirm the same thing. But it does take time.

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  22. I'm putzing around with a Roman Empire book (non fic).

    Since there no longer is a Roman Empire, all of my research is second hand. *sigh*

    Although, I'd love to talk someone into letting me putter around Greece, Italy, the north of Africa, even France and Spain. All in the name of "research".

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  23. MJenks, they'd probably be happy to let you putter around. It'd cost you, though. But it would also be fun.

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  24. Research is like digging for nuggets of gold - when I find what I'm looking for, I want to shout to the world, "I found it!!" It's good fun when it happens in a timely fashion.
    DL Larson

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  25. I do a lot of research for my fiction. Writing about law enforcement it is important to get facts right. I also love to scout locations for scenes. It seems like they are easier to write when I have seen a house or a street or a restaurant that I want to use as a setting.

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  26. Maryann, I like scouting locations, as well. You and I could do some traveling together.

    I agree Deb. It sorta sucks when you find out the information after you've given up and published.

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  27. The Internet is fantastic. I researched 90% of my young-reader book on crodiles online. After the book was out, I saw a notice about the death of Charlie, the oldest croc in captivity; I sent a condolence message to his "people" and received a very touching note back. I would have put it in the book, but too late.
    The new Google maps are great, too.

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  28. Research on the internet is wonderful. It sucks me in and I spend hours mesmerized by the screen. :)
    It helps with other things too, like how squished is a body when dropped from x amount of feet...

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  29. Oh yes. On the first page of a history, author had name of a place wrong and other cultural facts. This I knew as the topic she got wrong is my favorite. Could not trust a thing she said after that and so got rid of the offending object. Fiction is more forgivable - depending on what it is.

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  30. Kae, that would have been great to include, although sad that he died.

    Laura, have you ever read Stiff by Mary Roach. Warped as I am, I love that book. It's subtitle is: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I keep it on my resource shelf.

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  31. I like to set stories in places I've been and know well. But when it comes to history, my favorite resource is a museum.

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  32. Coming in a bit late, but another good resource for research is yahoogroups. For example, there is a Texas Homesteading group that could give information about seasons and gardening, and I expect there are yahoogroups (and other forums) for most states, if not countries. Participants would love to help a writer with research.

    Helen, I'm seeing a follow-up blog post with more hints, are you?

    Thank you everyone for your good suggestions!

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  33. Between the internet (not wikipedia), the library and my very own reference shelves I usually can find what I need. There is an old project of mine that required a bit of info about Paris that is not in the tourism books (nor, if you're a tourist, are you likely to know this info) so I just contacted an old friend of mine who was born and raised there. Worked well. :)

    My current project is more about world building and, subsequently, doesn't require too much research excepting philosophical notions and some understanding of early twentieth century Russian history. And, uh, did I mention I've got oodles of books on that subject already? Yeah... Sometimes being a book hoarder has its uses.

    Thanks for this post, Hel. Wonderful information and good tips.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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