by Sandy Vaile
One of the fastest ways to alienate readers is to get your facts wrong, which can feel like an overwhelming responsibility when writing a story. But how far would you go to bring authenticity and interesting elements into your story?
I’m going to demonstrate how research can benefit all stories, and then we’ll peek over the shoulders of a few authors to discover the lengths they’ve gone to, in the name of fiction research.
If you’re writing anything longer than a short story, you are bound to need to do some research.
For historical times or stories based on real events, it’s easy to see how understanding those times will add credibility to what you write, but the benefits aren’t as obvious if you’re creating make-believe worlds and situations.
The truth is, we can’t possibly know everything about everything. Each of us is limited by what we’ve experienced or have intimate knowledge about, which may result in missed opportunities to add authentic details to our story.
You might think if you’re writing a fantasy story or fictitious place, that you just make the whole lot up, but consider these situations:
Some authors absolutely love surfing the internet and/or library to learn everything there is to know about a subject, while others prefer a minimalistic approach. Writers are inherently curious, so it’s no wonder we sometimes have a tendency to disappear down the rabbit hole of research. The danger is, never being heard from again!
“Research feeds the natural curiosity of an author. Use it to add authenticity to topics and places, and fill your pages with specific, vivid details that deepen the reader’s experience, instead of generalizations.”Sandy Vaile
Many authors expend a great deal of effort uncovering interesting gems to add that “special something” to their stories but the truth is that the really good stuff is buried deep. These days, anyone can Google a subject and come up with a list of common facts. To get to the hidden gems, you need to keep digging after most authors have given up.
An author needs to investigate obscure and forgotten aspects of a subject. Track mere traces of interest and root out the cause and effect. Go the extra mile and you will be astounded where those fascinating facts will lead, like previously unimaged details, subplots and descriptive layers.
For example, while researching the bathing habits of the 1400s, a friend stumbled across a newspaper article about a gentleman who drowned in his bathtub, with wet footprints that were too small to be his at the scene. By following this research trail, she discovered hearsay about a female serial murderer whose modus operandi was drowning. Now there’s a great story waiting to be told.
How else can you unearth those information gems?
Well, you might not be as lucky as Tara Moss and get to ride along with FBI agents and police officers, but you might be surprised at how willing people are to be interviewed about a subject they’re an expert in. Seriously, all you have to do is ask.
I gleaned a wealth of knowledge interviewing a coroner, detective, and firefighter. All because I asked and was respectful of their time, knowledge, and privacy.
Don’t limit yourself to experts either. Laypeople with special skills or interests can be a wealth of knowledge. Put your feelers out with friends and acquaintances, asking if they know anyone with information about a particular topic. People love to help.
I know lots of authors who have travelled to the locations in their books so they can experience the sounds, scents and textures you simply can’t understand from photos. If you can’t make it to a location, you could walk along the streets using Google Maps or read travel blogs.
If you’re writing about the past, visit the archives or historical society and look for personal accounts of events.
Many authors build a library of information that is relevant to their genre. For example, details about what existed at a point in time, cultural customs, police procedures, or body language. Every time you read an interesting article or come across a curiosity-inspiring news report, make a note of the details for a rainy day.
Remember those heavy paper things that smell a bit musty? Visit a library and rediscover them, because there’s a book on every topic you can think of. Don’t stop there, delve into science and scholarly journals too.
If there is a minuscule interest in it, there is probably a group of people somewhere in the world talking about it. Search the internet, local councils and community centres for clubs and interest groups.
I like to be hands-on whenever possible (read – any excuse for an adventure).
One time I flew a jet plane in a flight simulator. Under the guidance of a genuine pilot, I took off and landed the plane from several airports around the world, rolled it midair, stalled and re-started it. I even performed an emergency landing on the Tamar River near Launceston — and didn’t lose a single passenger! 😊
One of the most fun adventures was a day at a local gun club. A writing group approached a local gun club to organize a hosted day, during which I shot thirteen different guns. It was frightening and exhilarating, but there’s one thing for sure, there is no way I could have understood what it felt, sounded or smelt like to shoot, without doing it myself.
That sort of insider knowledge enables me to add authentic layers to my stories and (hopefully) anyone who knows a lot about guns will appreciate the accuracy.
When it comes to writing, I am more aware when selecting the type of gun, the differences in bullets, the volume of the report, how they feel in your hand, how to load them, the gunpowder smell after they’ve been fired and the kickback. Oh, the recoil!
All of this information will enable me to take the guns in my books from props to realistic features.
Carla read a newspaper article about a local woman who worked as a professional organizer and said she often became an accidental counsellor for her clients because going through people’s possessions can also mean dealing with a tonne of emotional baggage.
This sparked the idea for a mystery series, which took hold and wouldn’t let go. I mean, what other job would let you see into the deepest, darkest corners of another person’s closet, under their bed or behind closed doors?
Before she started writing, Carla interviewed a few professional organizers to find out about the nitty-gritty of the job.
undertook a time-consuming language study for her latest release, All That’s Left Unsaid. Now that’s dedication! She wanted to capture the cadence of the language so that her Italian characters sounded authentic and didn’t slip into cliché accents or overused Italian phrases. What Rowena discovered was so much more than verb drills.
Her teacher explained the language through examples of Italian culture: “I learned that cappuccino is only consumed at breakfast, that when meeting it is customary to shake hands over the phrase piacere, and that when first names are exchanged a native Italian will say ‘now we speak to each other as friends’—a sign to use the less formal tu forms of verbs when speaking. I also learned it takes more than a year of weekly lessons to master the language!”
Writer of erotic romance novels, Lillian once interviewed a real-life male stripper, Justin Whitfield. Thankfully, the interview was conducted via email, which avoided any blush factor. It gave her the courage to ask all sorts of probing questions.
The answers to many questions were surprising, like the reasons he started stripping, his usually shy demeanor and how they get those skimpy undies. All of this off-the-cuff information spawned multiple books.
I sure hope you see not only the benefits of going deep when conducting research but the potential fun adventures and unique storylines you have the potential to uncover.
If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish, never submit, or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day. I’m offering Writers in the Storm readers a FREE masterclass, which reveals the real reasons few aspiring authors finish their novels (and how to avoid them).
Grab the Quit Procrastinating and Write a Publishable Novel masterclass here.
Are you ready to jump right into research and bring authenticity and interesting elements into your story? How deep do you go when you research? What is the most intriguing fact you've discovered? Please share it with us in the comments!
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Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. She writes romantic suspense for Simon & Schuster US and coaches fiction authors to write novels they are proud to share (and which get noticed by agents and publishers).
In her spare time, Sandy composes procedures for high-risk industrial processes, judges writing competitions, runs The Fearless Novelist Facebook group, and offers developmental editing.
Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.
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It's great to be here on the WITS blog. I'd love to hear what sorts of research other authors have done.
Thanks, Sandy! We're delighted to have you here.
I've done ride alongs with LEOs, spent two weeks on a working cattle ranch for my Triple-D Ranch series, gone to a shooting range to fire a variety of weapons. The Writers Police Academy is a fantastic resource. I try to set my books in places I've been (or based on them). I don't go on these trips knowing that I'm writing a book, but so far, I've written a book set in the British Isles and another set on a Croatian cruise--both vacations I took. (Makes a nice tax writeoff, too.)
I hear so many great things about the Writers Police Academy, Terry. Everyone I've talked to who went through their programs absolutely loved it.
Wow, ride alongs sound like heaps of fun. You've done some really exciting research!
I'll have to investigate The Writers Police Academy is a fantastic resource. It sounds like a great resource.
Thanks for the tip.
I have done a road trip visiting locations I later adapted for my alternate history story. And like you, have been target shooting with various types of weapons. I attended my local civilian police academy which was fascinating. I love hands-on experiences that enrich my writing and look for ones related to my current projects but also look for experiences that simply broaden my experiences (and may end up in a future project.)
Hi again, Lynette
I haven’t heard of the ‘local civilian police academy’. Is it for adults? I know in Australia we have an academy for young people (cadets) who want to become police.
It’s wonderful to be able to walk where your characters do, so you can get use all of your senses to get a feel for a place. It really helps to be able to add small but authentic details to a scene.
I’m with you in loving adventures in the name of research. Any excuse to experience something new!
For the Setting Thesaurus books, Becca and I visited as many locations as possible to get the sensory details right in our lists. I tried on firefighter gear, I was "arrested," and visited a ton of sketchy locations that in hindsight were maybe a bit dangerous, but it paid off. 🙂
It totally paid off, Angela! And what did Mr. Ackerman have to say about all your sketchy locations?
Trying on firefighting gear sounds fun, Angela. I’ll bet it was really heavy and hot in there!
I’d never thought of visiting places for your non-fiction thesauruses, but it makes sense. I guess that’s part of what ‘write what you know’ means; being able to draw on sensations, thought processes and experiences you’ve had.
I helped build the website for Tactical Anatomy - and learned so much about lethal force and weapons. I've also gone shooting with my brother. But at one point, I was struggling with a character's motivation and a friend who was carrying at the time showed me the sorts of subtle noises and motivations that a trained professional can produce with a weapon! It made that scene come to life!
You are so right, Lisa! I grew up with a retired military parent so some of my earliest memories are the rifle range and the skeet shooting range. Nothing like the sound of the "Pull!" on the skeet range - every noise there is very distinct.
Howdy from Australia, Lisa
Oh yes, the Tactical Anatomy site is a wealth of knowledge. What an interesting project to work on.
I like how you’ve picked up on the subtleties of handling a gun, like noises. Those sorts of things add layers to your story that really bring it to life. Nice.
I research something until the fiction feels real - because I'm going to sneak in a few - very few - improbable bits in a mainstream trilogy that will end up at about a half-million words.
I want the story to have happened.
The amount of research necessary to insert a story into the real-world record can be staggering - every point of contact between the story and the reality has to connect smoothly.
Hard to explain, but I always know when I've done enough - and stored enough to back up my brain (which will then be moving to the next complicated research bit). It's not really pleasurable, but it IS necessary. I won't write that many books in my lifetime: they need to be right.
I love this line, Alicia! --> "I research something until the fiction feels real."
It’s great to meet you, Alicia.
It seems like research is a part of your story development process. I can understand immersing yourself in a subject until you can feel and understand it at a deep level.
Although putting research into a story is a bit like using the iceberg principle (only small amounts), having done the research still affects the way you write everything and I believe that comes across in the story. I agree, it’s difficult to explain, but makes a huge difference to your writing.
Ha ha! No, it’s not always fun, but there is never a dull moment.
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