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)
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.
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.
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.
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 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?