The Value of Good Research

by JT

Hi ‘Rati bretheren,

Bunny Rabbits! (It’s the first of the month, quick, say it aloud! There, I just gave you luck.)

I hope you’ll bear with me today – I’m touring for THE IMMORTALS, which released on Tuesday. Yay! I’ll do my best to get to comments once I land in a single spot for more than 5 minutes. In the meantime, I’m posting an article I did for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers on research. It fit so well as a follow up to Zoë’s great post yesterday…

I’m curious to know two things from you today – what’s the craziest thing you ever did to research a scene? And what authors do you think do the best job with their research? I’m partial to Daniel Silva, myself…

xoxo, JT

Growing up west of Larkspur, Colorado, nestled deep into the Pike National Forest, I developed a fascination with all things moss. Moss, and lichen, and striations in the red rocks, and smoky quartz. I’d come home from my daily forays into the woods with multitudes of samples tucked into my pockets, and invariably the first thing out of my mouth when I happened upon my mom or dad was, “What’s this?”

My parents, being smart sorts themselves, always answered the same way: “Look it up.”

Daily discoveries of new moss, lichen, rocks, bark and dinosaur tracks led to evenings in front of the fire with the Encyclopedia Britannica (the green and gold on white version) learning all that I could about paleontology, and meteorology, and biology. I adored learning. My parents speculated that I might be a scientist when I grew up, bought me a microscope and a rock tumbler, all the accoutrements upstanding young girls need.

What I was preparing myself for, of course, was not a life in a laboratory, but a life playing with words. I was readying myself to be a writer.

Insatiable curiosity is what drives most of us to the page. I’ve always preached one thing about writing: don’t write what you know, write what you want to know about. Write what turns your crank, what excites you. That way, research won’t feel like work.

That’s how I ended up writing thrillers. I’m fascinated by psychology and love the idea that it can be applied to determine the motivations behind a crime. But when I set out, the only thing I knew about being a cop, or a profiler, was what I saw on TV. And that’s so far from accurate most times it’s laughable. I learned quickly that writing thrillers can be many things: fun, challenging, an education. But there’s one thing you must, must do – get your facts right.

We all make mistakes. That’s the nature of being human. I know that sometimes when I’m doing research, I suffer a bit of forest for the trees syndrome, and thank goodness I have great copyeditors to ferret out those little problems. And sometimes, mistakes make it all the way into the printed books, and then I have to bit my lip and turn red when the emails come in.

But you as a writer are fully in control of your research destiny. You make the choices. Do you write a police procedural? The choice there is simple – you either do the research or you don’t. Do you write a historical? Again, an easy choice, do you rely on primary source material or do you make it up, hoping the history books had it right?

There are many choices when you’re writing a novel – genre, setting, characters, plot. And each of these choices helps you decide the level and relative accuracy you need.

Genre is paramount – are you writing science fiction? Chances are you’re going to create a world that’s alien to what we experience on a daily basis, so you’re in the clear. Romance? You’re going to strain credulity and coincidence a tad in order to have a happily ever after, so you’re probably pretty good there. Spy thrillers give you quite a bit of leeway, actually, because so much of agency work is Classified that chances are the reader isn’t going to be familiar with the internal machinations, and you have the freedom to push the envelope. Historicals and procedurals, though, that’s where you must get your facts right.

Setting is a biggie too – are you going to pick a real place or create a fictional town? I chose Nashville, Tennessee as my setting for a number of reasons, and I spend a lot of time making sure that roads are open, the views are correct, the timing is right on. I go out and drive the scenes to see exactly what my characters see. Then again, my setting is a character in the novels, which means I need to be pretty close to exact with my depictions. I’ve only fudged once, with a bar name, just because I didn’t want to get sued when they found out it was a base of operations for a couple of serial killers.

Your characters will drive your research as well. Is your heroine a librarian? She’s not going to know the difference between a revolver and a pistol, (unless she’s from the South, and then she’d probably be carrying a Remington shotgun anyway…) Is your hero a cop? Right away you know that your duty as a writer is to research police procedure, lingo, everything that will come into play in his daily world.

Plot is the fourth consideration when it comes to research. What’s important to think about is how the story will change your hero or heroine, and if your villain uses something tangible to create that alteration.

Stephen King, in his brilliant book ON WRITING, says you have to know all the rules so you know when to break them. This is applicable to research as well. Learn all you can about the subject, so you know what you can leave out. None of us want to read a story that’s been obviously researched, with minutiae irrelevant to the pace thrown in to show the author’s done their homework.

So how do you do research? Since I’m a thriller writer with a focus on police procedurals, I’ll lay out my general course of action. I write two books a year, and the pattern usually follows this formula – 1 month of research, 4 months of writing, 1 month of editing. That doesn’t leave me a lot of leeway time wise, so I have to make the most of that month of research. When I first started, I knew nothing at all about the police, so I called my local homicide office, told them what I was about, and they invited me down for a ride-along. Granted, I lucked out that the person who answered the phone was interested in writing himself, but if I hadn’t made that initial call…

Now, several books in, that relationship is so solid that I can call or email with a detail and he’ll be able to help. Cultivating relationships is vital to good research.

Being hands on helps too. In my 2nd book, there’s a large section set in Long Island City and Manhattan in New York. I sent out questions online to all my listserves, but I wasn’t getting what I needed – how it smelled, and what my character would hear, and the exact shade of the gray skies at dusk…  so I booked a research trip. Fully tax deductible, and it made those sections of the book come alive.  I’ve done that with Italy and Scotland too – see, we’re writers, no reason why we can’t make it fun, right?

Online research is vital as well – no matter what I do in person, I always back things up, double-source them online, to make sure everything is spot on. The beautiful thing about Google is its variety – the Google Earth function lets you go anywhere and see anything, and they’re adding in audio now, so the only thing missing is smell. Pretty cool.

There are ways not to do research, too. Asking a friend, and not double-checking their answer. Seeing something on TV, or reading it in a book, and not questioning the source. That’s mighty dangerous.  I know there was a spate of “cordite” smells after a gun fired in books and television – but that’s not what happens in real life. In the movies, when someone is shot, they go careening backwards into walls – in real life, they drop. Hearts don’t stop immediately; it takes a few minutes for people to die. Medical examiners can’t tell cause of death by looking at a body. You can’t cock a hammer on a Glock. These are the little details that people get wrong all the time, and it drives readers mad.

So take your time, be patient, and ask around until you’ve confirmed the answer from two or three places at least. And then check again. Create a world that invites your readers to settle in and be amazed, and do it well enough that they will suspend disbelief and follow you anywhere. If you get it right, they’ll do just that.

12 thoughts on “The Value of Good Research

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I love doing the research. The weirdest stuff? Hmm, not sure – it's all fun. I took careful notes of exactly how I felt after surgery and how the blood fell when I attempted to remove one of my fingers with a chopsaw, but that was unintentional research – it was just a case of never wasting an experience.

    I loved going and watching body armour being test-fired – I still have the stopped rounds from that, including the 12-bore solid slug that went straight through the vest and hit the back wall of the clay box… And I spent a day crawling all over the engine room of a cross-channel ferry, finding out how to sabotage it.

    I was watching something recently where the good guy stuck his Glock in the bad guy's face and somebody in audio-sweetening had added in the sound of the gun being cocked. WTF? And people STILL put safety-catches on Glocks that you can 'flick off'

    But I tend to find more people make car mistakes than gun mistakes, which is just plain silly.

    Great post, BTW.

  2. Debbie

    As I'm not pub'd, there was one detail in my MS that I finally had to overlook after threee hours of searching the net in tandum with a friend and making calls. Should I ever actually get an opportunity to see the book in print I will find out for sure what the overlap for Cats, Phantom, and Les Mis was in TO in the early 1990's. I really would have liked to put a particular car in the book too because the infinity symbol makes a few appearances but it would have been difficult to mention without calling attention to something irrelevant. Maybe I'll get pub'd one day and somebody will ask! 🙂

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    But JT won't be at Bouchercon … how can that be?? It's perfect timing for you and promoting your new book which sounds super cool. I finally get there and favorite people will be missing. Boo.

  4. Lorena

    I needed to know what it was like to climb a "rock" wall (at a climbing gym). Weird? No. Afraid of heights? Yes.

    But I did it.

    I've also gone ghost hunting; although that was out of curiosity, not for research, it's come in handy.

  5. Allison Davis

    I loved Barbara Hambley's research for her Benjamin January books about 19th century New Orleans (Free Man of Color, Fever Season, etc.)…they are really special. How she was able to get inside the head of a black free man during slavery times in a Southern Town….and then turn the books into murder mysteries, very fun. Also David Fulmer Valentine St. Cyr books about New Orleans during Storyville times (turn of the last Century)…great research each of them, without overwelming the stories. (Yes, there's a theme there.)

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Craziest thing I did for research? Well, maybe not so crazy on the surface but it made me feel pretty mental: spending a week in the hotel that is part of the hospital complex that I based THE PRICE on, and walking around the hospital all hours of the day and night. It didn't take me long to feel I was living in the alternate reality I was hoping to create in the book.

    Have a FABULOUS tour and PK is right – it's NOT right you're not going to be at BCon.

  7. Kagey

    Not crazy, but perhaps a little odd– I like to collect names, so I hang onto playbills and other similar items that have lots of names on them. For older people's names, I like to save church bulletins, because they often have lists of people to pray for, which usually includes the elderly.

  8. Marie-Reine

    JT, great post, and love your comments on research and travel. And The Immortals really looks exciting!

  9. Cathie Dunn

    Great post about research, J.T.

    I love researching, especially if you have the chance to go places and explore on site. I had the pleasure of touring Normandy, Gloucestershire and the Scottish Highlands for my novels and, in combination with historical research, this gave me a stronger insight into the settings. I write historicals, so the landscapes have often changed but you still get a feel for a place.

    You often find small self-printed guidebooks written by locals just for their own historical societies – so you get access to information not widely available. Small treasures!

    Good luck with your book tour. 🙂

Comments are closed.