Research: Getting The Details Right

Ever picked up a book and enjoyed the storyline right up until that moment when the author gets something wrong? It’s a writer’s job to get the details right. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, one small detail out of place or incorrect can ruin the story or your credibility.

Research  – how and where do you do your research?(Warning: Copyright activists may be angered)

library stacksPublic Libraries

We love public libraries – especially for genre and historical research. When you’re thinking of marketing or writing in a new genre, do yourself a huge favor and go pick up a number of books published in that genre, written in that time period, about that topic. See how other writers are describing things, weaving details in, etc. If you’re fortunate enough to live near a university take advantage of their library. If you’re alumni you can often borrow for free, but even if you’re not, an afternoon in the stacks with a photocopier card can work miracles.

The Wonders of Google

Google Earth let me, from my living room, walk down the streets of Providence, RI for a mss I was working on. I’ve studied the topography of Southern Ukraine. If you’re writing about a place you can’t visit yourself, or have never been to, definitely check out this tool.

Google Books is awesome! They have so many out-of-print and history books cataloged – I’m still amazed by this tool. Always check Google Books before paying ridiculous amounts of money for older or hard-to-find books from Amazon.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Google Translator reading websites in Russian (don’t ask). Sometimes the best references are from the source country. Don’t let a language barrier stump you. Super cool tool.

Blocked from reading a really relevant journal article because you don’t have a subscription? Put the name of the article in quotation marks and Google the title of the article. Usually, it’s been published somewhere else online for free.

Online sources

A word of caution researching online: anyone anywhere can post anything online as though they’re an expert. Always double-check your sources. A general rule I use is to see that same information posted in 3 unique places (not just others copying verbatim the information I’m looking at). The exception to this rule is when I’m looking at government websites (usually signified with a .gov at the end of the url) or a university website (.edu at the end of the url) and credible non-profits (.org often). Even Wikipedia, which I know gets used a lot for research, is only as reliable as the people posting there. If there isn’t original sources listed as references, be cautious.

In-Person Interviews

There are some things you just can’t learn off the Internet or from a book. Interviews give you insider information that people outside of that profession wouldn’t know.

For instance, I have a manuscript in a drawer, and if I have anything to say about it will never see the light of day, but the main character was a firefighter (yeah – it was a romance). So, I went to the local fire hall and had the ‘longest tour in history.’ I spent a whole morning chatting with firemen. They let me feel their hands (don’t laugh – the feel of a man’s hands are an important detail in romance), they let me try on their suits, they told me stories. It was awesome. They were ecstatic to have an audience so interested in what they do. They invited me back, and the second time they were prepared with videos on their laptops. They told me how to set plausible fires. Great stuff. Lots of professionals are more than happy to let you into their world.

Email

Most professionals and experts are more than happy to answer your questions. But don’t waste their time, do your homework first. Don’t ask them questions you can easily enough find the answers to online. Save the questions you can’t find answers to, and ‘what-if’ scenarios for these people.

Facebook

Facebook is a really great tool for finding sources. I’ve often posted that I need to interview someone who’s done this or is an expert in that – and through six-degrees of separation my Facebook friends always come through. Also, when I do an interview part of my due diligence as a freelancer is to Google the person. I creep their Facebook page to see if what they’ve told me jives with their profile information.

Sweat The Small Stuff

The little cultural nuances and details make a story come alive. For instance, as a Canadian, I can tell right off if the writer talking about being in winter has ever experienced winter (or at least, not done their research). There’s an appreciation for winter born out of living in temperatures so cold the seats in your car have no cushion, the outer fabric of your winter parka crackles, and your hair turns brittle with frost a minute after you leave the house.

Getting these little details wrong will jerk your reader out of the story. Think of all your senses and find someone who’s experienced it to give you those rich details if possible. If you’re writing a historical, talk to the local historical society or reenactment group. There’s nothing like sweating all day at an interpretive site in period clothes (made of wool) to give you a bit of historical empathy.

What about you? Has a writer’s lack of research jerked you from a good story? What lengths have you gone to in the name of research?

Lisa

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

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14 comments on “Research: Getting The Details Right

  1. Great article! I have to tell you, since discovering your site lasst week i’ve been devouring all the past articles, you guys have a terrific site with very knowledgeable and on-topic articles. I’ve been sending folks crom CritiqueCircle.com to some of them when I’m critiquing.

    Anyway, Yep, I’ve been jerked out of stories that didn’t get details right and it annoys me. There’s a NYT bestselling romance author whose works I love but every single time I read one, she’s got at least one historical detail wrong. One time she had a hero say he didn’t want to visit the conservatory in the mansion he was in because he had a tin ear! My biggest pet peeve is when the heroine in some village in the Regency knows that Jane Austen is the author of the book she’s reading. I wrote a blog post about it this past week and how important it is to do research, especially if you know an area well. Be Humble: Fact Check, Or Why I Thought I Knew This Fact About Jane Austen.

    One thing I forgot to mention in that article but was reminded when I read the above, is an illustration about not trusting online sources. I’ve seen on a number of blogs that tout that they post historical resources to help writers that say that tootbrushes were not around until 1857 and writers shouldn’t have their characters use them before then. Their basis for this fact is that they saw/read that the first toothbrush was patented in 1857. Well, true, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t around before that! That’s when some American was like, hmm, maybe I should patent this. There was a British family pumping out toothbrushes in the late 1700s and there are diary entries of folks in the Regency that mention using toothbrushes.

    • Good point! Thanks for sharing. Great illustration. To further prove your point about toothbrushes, I worked at a recreated historical site portraying the year 1815 – and they had toothbrushes in their company store.
      Lisa

  2. Great tips here. I am shy about approaching professionals. I think I am afraid they will be dismissive or rude…and I need to get over it.

    I write murder mystery, so there are always bits and pieces where I have to sort of know what a cop would do. I’ve taken scads of those cop classes online (in which a former law enforcement officer tells you all about being in law enforcement). These are great classes for beginners, but you still have to have a go-to for what-if scenarios.

    • Scifi and fantasy writers get a bit of a pass. As long as the details are consistent within the world they’ve created, they don’t necessarily need to have the science worked out behind transporters or inertial dampers. For the rest of us though, the details need to be right.

      Marcy 🙂

      • But even with the writers of Sci-Fi it has to be within the realm of possible. Remember the original Star Trek and their automatic doors? That was way out there at the time, now it’s an everyday reality at every Wal-Mart. They actually did a lot of research into cutting edge technology that they knew was possible but lacked the ability to make it available to consumers, etc. Also, with any kind of historical fantasy/revisionist history, many of those setting details need to be accurate. You take Transformers, even though you’re dealing with alien machines, all the laws of our world are still intact and the landscape, etc. That’s my two-cents.
        Lisa

  3. Your post couldn’t have come across my screen at a better time as I’m in a bit of a pickle and I’m drowning in the juice.

    1st. – My teen novel is loosely based on my niece who is (was) a missionary kid living at Faith Academy in Philippines. Can I use the name of the school or should I change the name to protect the innocent? And If I have to change the name can I still refer to the location?

    2nd – The other POV character is totally fictional who lives in a squatters village. There are so many squatter villages in that area. One in particular that intrigued me is called Smokey Mountain. Should I use the same name?

    3rd – I downloaded Google Earth and was able to get the street names and the exact distance from the Smokey Mountain squatters village to Faith Academy. So thank you for providing that information. But again, should I use the exact names of the roads that lead up to Faith because part of the journey is riding in a Jeepney that has problems getting to the school because of the typhoon?

    Thank you

    • Hmmm… tough call. I don’t think there would be any problem using the location, and being accurate with distances, topography, etc. for the location is essential. It would depend on your story whether I’d use the actual school name or not – whether there were any negative statements or connotations made. Probably, I’d err on the side of caution and change the school’s name and maybe the name of the nearby village – only because of the chance of libel or trademark issues, but keep everything else the same. Maybe Marcy will weigh in with her perspective. I’ve never written something with an exact setting like that, so I’m only guessing. I have set stories in real cities and used real street names, place names, landmarks, and created fictional locations (stores, clubs, restaurants, etc) that get mentioned a lot without worry.
      Lisa

  4. Oh, thank you Lisa. I was hoping that was the answer. There are no negative references to Faith, but because all of the characters are fictional except for my niece, someone is bound to be offended.

    As to the squatters village, I originally did fictionalize the name. So it sounds like I’m not drowning after all.

    Again thank you for directing to me goggle earth, it’s saved me a lot of research.

    Tracy

    P.S. That was a quick turnaround. Thanks again!!!

  5. Fab post! I’ve found that just by asking people about their work/lives/profession etc because you’re writing a book they really do open up. I novel I started a couple of years ago (though put on the back burner for a while) was set in a rural part of England and I needed to know about tractors. The scene was only short but I felt it was necessary to get the details right.

    So I headed to a local tractor dealership and made some enquiries. The salesman was only to happy to let me sit inside a giant tractor and talk me through all the mind boggling controls. Alas he wouldn’t let me take it for a test drive! However this turned out to be a boon as I was looking for a much older vehicle. I mentioned this in passing to a friend, who by chance knew an old fashioned farmer. Not only did he spend a few hours with me talking about tractors but he let me drive it around his field!

    The experience was invaluable as I could write from personal experience what it felt like to drive a beat up old tractor. And even though the scene in my novel was quite short I got the details just right and was very pleased with the result.

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