Research. That pesky stuff that usually goes on before you write a novel or story. How do you do it? How much of it do you need to do? When do you know that you have enough information?
As I was pondering what to write for this Monday’s piece, my wife suggested I write about how I research. Okay. I was on a panel talking about research just a couple of weeks ago. This shouldn’t be so hard.
But it is. Research is an elusive, individual thing. How you do it will depend a great deal on what it is you need to learn. How much should you do? Enough to tell your story. When do you have enough information? When you don’t find yourself staring at the screen realizing you don’t know some little fact.
Basically, there are four ways I research.
1) Internet – Google is your god and you will pray to him often. But he is a trickster god and you must be wary. In other words, as my favorite college professor once advised me, the Internet is a wide pool of information, but sometimes it isn’t very deep. Use it as your starting point, and do research on those providing the information you find online.
2) Books – The library is the temple of your goddess and you will visit her often. She will provide you with much information, but she can be a fickle goddess and require that you say your prayers according to her prescribed dogma. Her priests and priestesses are there to help you, though, and with their aid your prayers will be answered. Usually well-researched and fact-checked, the books in the library are an excellent resource that is too often overlooked in the Internet age. And remember, there’s more to the library than the stacks of books you see when you walk in. Newspaper archives are invaluable.
3) Public Records – Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, there is a treasure trove of government documents available for the asking. City, county, state and federal records are great places to find when, where and to whom things happened.
4) Personal Interviews – My favorite because your subject can answer your questions without making you do a new search. And, in most cases, people love to talk about themselves and what they do. I left the personal interview for last because you should do the other three first and use what you find to form intelligent questions that won’t waste the time of your source.
Kim asked me specifically about research I did for the Brazilian setting of parts of Amara’s Prayer. Well honey, I was flying to Brazil every day for a while when you thought I was going to work … Or maybe not. It was actually a combination of methods 1, 2 & 4. Probably the best was No. 4. I knew someone who knew someone who’d actually been a missionary in the Amazon for quite a while, so I got to ask the missionary a lot of questions via e-mail interviews. I also did a lot of Internet research, mostly for pictures of the rainforest, and read two books about the Indian tribes, plus several articles about the Brazilian government.
And less than one-fourth of the story even takes place in Brazil. Most of it is in Oklahoma City. But if you’re going to write about the Amazon, you have to know about buttress roots and the animals that live in the forest. If you’re writing about cities along the river you have to know how the react to flood season, etc.
Networking is kind of a hybrid of all the above. Through a guy I worked with I was able to find out about things like “Sonee” televisions sold on the black market in South America, about how dangerous it is to travel in certain places. Through the HWA I found another horror writer who also is a theologian and we discussed … well, theological issues that are important to the book. I also found someone in the HWA who could tell me first-hand what it was like to ride in the bowels of a cargo ship.
Despite all that – and I haven’t even touched the research I did on goddess worship – I still found myself stopped dead more than once, realizing there was some bit of knowledge I needed, so back I’d go to research some more.
The important thing to remember is that you can’t skimp on the research. If something is factual, you have to know the facts. Maybe you’ll bend them a little, but you have to know you’re doing it.
A few years ago I read a romance novel by a friend of mine who is a very well known author in the genre with over 40 books to her name, and those are translated into almost that many languages. But in this particular book, set in my hometown of Enid, she had her characters going to the zoo and then to a Red Lobster restaurant. Enid had a zoo at one time, but it closed at least 15 years before the city had a Red Lobster. It’s a tiny thing, but knowing that took me right out of the story.
The whole reason Kim asked for this topic is because she recently read the latest novel from another friend and she found a conversation between the main character and a pharmacist to be unbelievable. She’s worked in pharmacies for most of 20 years, so she’d know.
You’ve probably read a book you felt wasn’t properly researched. How did you feel when you found the error?
Be fastidious when you write. Check your facts. If you’re not sure about something, no matter how unimportant it may be to the overall story, check it out. If you don’t, you’ll someday find yourself being asked about it by a fan who’s been waiting to yell, “Gotcha!”