Research, Who Needs It?
First, let me thank Joe for this opportunity. Thanks, man. I appreciate it.
Now, for those with short attention spans, here’s the answer: you do. If you want to be successful, you need to know how to verify information and do basic research, particularly if you are a writer. Authors like Tess Gerritsen and Aaron & Charlotte Elkins are a great examples of writers who really do their research and it shows in their extremely successful books. The depth of research enhances the storyline and makes the characters’ actions and milieu absolutely believable. They may change/exaggerate a few things for the purposes of plot, but generally, you get a feeling of veracity that is hard to beat.
For some of you, this may be good news because you love to do research. Unfortunately, you’re also in the group that can get so involved in research that you never actually write or finish your book. For others, you might be running to the bathroom to get rid of your breakfast because of your panic-inducing memories of school. You can’t imagine anything worse and don’t want to destroy your creativity by letting the facts get in the way of your writing.
Rejoice: there are ways to handle both over-research and under-research and still get your book (or any other project) done. Part of the method is to use J.I.T. which means “just in time,” a principle I learned when working on software for managing manufacturing.
But let me back up for a minute and give you a little more incentive to make a stab at research. As a relatively unknown writer, I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing the books that are successful for bestselling authors because frankly, who doesn’t want to have their next book be a bestseller? And the one thing that I’ve noticed across the board is the amount of research that the big name authors put into their books. Of course, I’m assuming that these authors are not simply experts after years of experience in the particular field(s) touched on in their books.
“But, I’m writing fiction!” you might say. “I don’t need to do a lot of research.” Unfortunately, there are virtually no scenarios where doing a bit of research would not help. For example, do any of your characters use weapons like guns? What do you know about guns? Have you ever actually loaded or fired one? If not, you might want to at least verify that your character using a Winchester Model 1873 carbine can have up to fifteen .44-40 center fire cartridges in the tube magazine. Such details can either immerse your reader into the story or throw them right out of it. Trust me, some of your readers are going to know about such things and will not hesitate to point them out in reviews.
Whether that convinces you to verify the details in your story or not, there are ways of managing your research to make it easier. It can generally be broken into a two-step process: basic and J.I.T.
Basic research is where the research-loving writers can get lost and never find their way back out. If you’re lucky (like me) you have a built-in sensor that begins to go off when you’ve “done enough” and need to get on with the task. If not, set yourself a limit: say two weeks. For folks who hate to research, setting a limit can help because come what may, you know you can get on with writing after that point.
What is basic research? That’s your world-building research. If you write mysteries with a great deal of forensic detail, you may focus on a question like: “What forensics does my detective use to solve this mystery?” You don’t need to learn the entire field, you just need to learn the timelines and procedures for that specific area of forensics. If it is bugs infesting a corpse left in a swamp in North Carolina, then your research might include the succession (timeline) and expected evidence of bugs present in that location.
You may also need to include at least an overview of the law enforcement timeline, i.e. who gets called in (sheriff? State Bureau of Investigation?) and what are their procedure entails in the case of murder? A call to your local law enforcement office can get you a contact for details and they are usually thrilled to help writers.
For historicals such as I write, you also need to know what is going on with Society at the time. How do people live? Dress? What do they eat? I’ve found that I can purchase old, tattered books and magazines as source material (for example, I bought a “Constable’s Handbook” from Abe Books for one of the eras I’ve written about and it helped me with both The Vital Principle and The Unwanted Heiress). And now, it’s even easier to get great source material with Google Books. You can download everything from old medical texts to magazines that are out of print and free if you are writing about historical eras at least 100 years in the past.
J.I.T. is what you use when you’re deep in your writing. In manufacturing, it costs money and storage space to have parts on hand, so many industries use software to track what they have, the rate of usage and to order what they need just in time to use it rather than storing/investing in large quantities months in advance.
That’s what you’re going to do as a writer. You’re going to get what you need, when you need it. The Internet is perfect for this. Use tightly focused queries (e.g. Winchester 1873) and don’t get sidetracked. You want to get back to writing within 10 minutes. But note: verify anything you look up with at least two sources (and make sure they don’t use the same wording which might indicate one site simply copied the info from the other site).
I started using J.I.T. when I found that “marking” a place where I needed to verify/find some fact didn’t work (at least for me). It was harder to force myself to look up the information after I had finished the book than at the time of writing. Not only that, but I found on more than one occasion that what I thought the answer would be was incorrect and it messed up the subsequent plot points, forcing me to rewrite more than I would have if I had just looked it up at the time.
It’s hard to include this type of information in your basic research, because you may not know before you start writing exactly what facts your story will require. You can think of “basic research” as the story’s ambiance and overall plot design, with J.I.T. research being the details.
So now, whenever I hit a point where I need information, e.g. how many cartridges does that Winchester’s magazine hold; or did they have Merlot wine in England in 1819, I use J.I.T. and look up that one fact and move on with the story. Then I can be assured that if other plot points rest upon that fact, the story won’t be derailed because of my ignorance (assuming I don’t decide to ignore inconvenient facts for some plot purpose).
That’s it. I hope this convinces you that research doesn’t have to be onerous or so all-consuming that you forget to write your book. You can do it. Really. You can.
And Now, Shameless Promo for The Unwanted Heiress, a Regency Historical
When Nathaniel, Duke of Peckham, meets Charlotte, he’s suspicious of her indifference. Too many women have sought—and failed—to catch him. However, Charlotte is more interested in dead pharaohs than English dukes.
Unfortunately, a debutante seeking to entrap Nathaniel gets murdered, and his reputation as a misogynist makes him a suspect. On impulse, Charlotte comes to his aid, not realizing that her actions may place her in danger, too.
Both are unaware that a highwayman interested in rich heiresses is following Charlotte, and that another debutante lies dead in Nathaniel’s carriage.
Some nights just don’t go as planned.
A Brief Bio
Amy Corwin is a member of Mystery Writers of America and a charter member of the Romance Writers of America. She has been writing since 2004 and recently left a career as an enterprise systems administrator to write full time. Her books include Regency historicals (The Unwanted Heiress), paranormal romances (A Fall of Silver), and mysteries (The Vital Principle and Whacked!). To be truthful, most of her books include a bit of murder and mayhem since she discovered that killing off at least one character is a highly effective way to force the survivors toe the plot line.
Join her and discover that every good mystery has a touch of romance.
Note: Net proceeds from The Vital Principle go to the Red Cross for the relief of the tornado victims. If you are interested in historical mysteries, I hope you will check it out (or give directly to the Red Cross).