Concocting Fiction from Fact: Using Research to Tell Better Stories

a mad scientist hard at workWe’ve all heard the “write what you know” mantra. To be honest, that has never resonated with me. I prefer to write what I want to know about.

This leaves things wide open in terms of storytelling, but it also creates an additional responsibility for the writer, because it requires us to do the R word.

No, not riverdancing. I’m talking about research.

Some writers I know absolutely dread the idea of research. Perhaps for them the word conjures up images of cobweb-draped bookshelves in the back of some musty library, or of conducting tedious interviews with less-than-willing subject matter experts, from whom extracting information is a task of periodontic difficulty. Or maybe they’re daunted by the overwhelming where the hell do I start? sensation that staring at a blank Google page can evoke.

Or there’s simply the chance that they consider research to be an obstacle that stands between them and where the real action is: in the writing, dammit.

To them I say: patience, Grasshopper. Today I’m going to explore how easy research can be, and how it can not only provide your fiction a more believable and authentic foundation; it can actually inspire your storytelling.

Around the world with the click of a mouse

One of the coolest things about living in the Internet age (in addition to all the funny cat photos and Kanye West’s deeply profound Twitter posts) is how incredibly easy it is to find and access information. I really have to tip my hat to all the writers who managed to get published pre-AOL. They actually had to leave their homes to go find out stuff – oh, the horror! In comparison, we’ve got it awfully easy.

True, even now it would probably be ideal to travel to Paris to get a truly authentic sense of its je ne sais quoi. But for those without the time, money or passport, the Internet has made it possible to find information – and, more powerfully, to connect with people – from all parts of the globe, all from the comfort of our own home or local coffeeshop. That’s the kind of research I’m going to focus on today: the incredibly powerful resources that are available to us online.

Beyond Google: asking the hive mind for help

Obviously search engines like Google are a first stop for any online researcher. But there are other less obvious resources that can often take you on a much deeper dive down whatever rabbit hole you’re exploring. A favorite of mine is the online discussion forum.

We’ve all heard the “write what you know” mantra. I prefer to write what I want to know about.

A confession: I’ve been an online forum junkie since the late 90’s. I’ve spent innumerable hours (seriously, we’re talking insane amounts) on forums for topics ranging from technical writing to drumming, from fiction to ukuleles. I’ve found forums are a great place to do research, giving you the ability to pose a question to a group of people deeply interested in the same topic. And from what I’ve seen, there’s a discussion forum for just about any topic.

For example, I recently discovered a large and densely populated forum devoted entirely to shaving with old-fashioned safety razors. There are many members with thousands of posts attributed to them, all just talking about razors and shaving. It’s like an entire society, with some clear alpha males (and females), and its own acronym-filled dialect in which they all seem conversant. Many of them post daily about their latest shave with lush – hell, nearly pornographic – detail, often including photos of the razor, brush and soap they used.

And that’s just old-school shaving. Like I said, there are forums for pretty much everything. In comparing notes with other forum-frequenting writers, I’ve learned there are forums for people into video games, people in loveless marriages, people who build homemade hovercrafts, people who are into “domestic discipline” (every bit as creepy as it sounds), people who hate Gwyneth Paltrow (apparently that’s a thing), “furries” who enjoy dressing up as stuffed animals, and – I kid you not – this forum about chewing ice.

Beyond the comedic value/eeewww factor of some of these forums, they can be an amazing resource for your storytelling. For example, I recently published a novel under a pen name, about a mafia goon who became a famous TV weatherman. It was a fun premise, and I had a blast writing it. That is, until I started hitting areas where I needed to write about meteorology, and realized I knew absolutely nothing about the weather. Fortunately, I was able to find a forum of amateur meteorology buffs that was great for reality-checking some of the weather-related plot points in my book.

They even pitched in to help me devise a crucial weather scenario for one scene where I needed a weather event that would be both powerful but plausible, in a spirited discussion peppered with suggestions from many different forum members. If you’ve seen the hilarious movie Galaxy Quest, where the captain radios down to Earth to some Trekkie-type nerds for help, it was that sort of thing – an utterly delightful experience, and my book was much the better for their assistance and expertise.

The key to getting people to help you

In addition to seeking help from online forums while writing that book, I also wrote to most of the major TV weather anchors in Florida. To my amazement, they ALL wrote back, happy to answer questions. And the head of the Key West branch of the National Weather Service (the focal point for monitoring hurricanes that threaten the US) exchanged a ton of anecdotes with me, and offered me a tour – and a beer – the next time I’m down there.

So how did I pull all that off? Well, much as I’d like to attribute it to my boyish charm and stunning good looks, I doubt that was it. From my experience, the two most helpful things are to A) tell them it’s for a book (which tends to get people intrigued), and B) put a box around the request. By that I mean: let them know this won’t take up too much time. When I reached out to all those Florida TV meteorologists, I wrote to them to first ask permission to send them five questions about their jobs. That way they knew what they were in for. And I gave them an “out,” letting them know that if they were too busy or would prefer not to respond, I’d totally understand.

It really comes down to showing them respect. By putting a box around the request, you’re showing your respect for their time and expertise. Whether it’s a finite number of questions, or a request for a ten-minute phone call to be scheduled at their convenience, you’ll probably get a good response by showing such professionalism and consideration.

Research 101: Be nice. Show respect for their knowledge and time. Ask permission to ask questions, making it clear it will be a small and finite task. Ask smart questions. Then thank them profusely.

And do your homework first, so that you can ask well-targeted questions. Don’t simply send them an open-ended request, like “tell me about what you do.” I know writers who’ve asked experts for brain-dumps like that, and invariably they got ignored. Don’t make them work too hard – remember, they don’t owe you anything.

Research as inspiration

I’ve described some situations where research helped me strengthen my story. But in some cases, it has even helped me create my story.

For example, when I started writing my mafia weatherman book, I knew I wanted to open with a scene that showed him as a kid in the late 70’s. So I did some surfing around to see what music was popular then, and learned that the song “YMCA” was a big hit. That gave me the idea of him singing “YMCA” at the top of his lungs, to the consternation of his father, a macho mafia goon who doesn’t feel comfortable hearing his kid innocently singing a double-entendre song by the Village People. Bingo – I had my opening.

I knew I wanted him involved in some cataclysmic weather event, and I was curious as to whether they had tornadoes in the New York area. I did some research and found that there was a freak tornado in Connecticut that killed several people and destroyed a big airplane museum. Perfect – I wove that into the story, making the kid’s dad an airplane buff. He is taking his family for a vacation trip to this air museum near Hartford, when the kid freaks out, sensing the tornado. It made for a powerful opening scene, and couldn’t be faulted for realism, because the storm actually happened. That last point was important to me – I’d given the protagonist an unrealistic gift for predicting the weather, but I wanted the actual weather events to ring true.

Later in the book, the father’s love for airplanes and frustrated dreams of being a pilot help him better relate to his grownup son’s dreams of doing something that would take him out of his pre-ordained mafia lifestyle. Hey, look at that: accidental foreshadowing and symmetrical character arcs, the kind of stuff that could lend the impression that I actually know what I’m doing as an author. But you and I know that it all fell together because of a random news nugget I found while Googling. Yeah, I love me some Internet research.

How about you?

What methods of research have fueled your own writing? How has research enriched your storytelling? And be honest: has your research ever led you to people or communities who surprised (or terrified) you with their particular interests, expertise and/or passions? Please chime in (or ‘fess up, if applicable) – I’m eager to hear about your experiences. And as always, thanks for reading!

 

Image licensed from iStockphoto.com

 

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. says

    Keith, I live in Connecticut and I remember that tornado. What a great
    way to start your story. You make an important point here. There is nothing that beats talking to a subject matter experts and if you are respectful of their time and ask the right questions many are flattered and happy to share their knowledge. I never thought about online discussion groups. That’s a great tip. Thanks!

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  2. says

    I’ve found all kinds of people who are very generous with their time – if I ask nicely – from someone at the Trinity College in Dublin who answered my question about class rings, to a microbrewer in NH who said it was okay to mention their Franconia Notch beer – and asked to be notified when the book comes out.

    If you need something, someone out there already has it.

    Don’t forget to 1) acknowledge help, and 2) assume all responsibility for using and/or misunderstanding information provided. It’s the polite thing to do.

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    • says

      Alicia, you raise two VERY important points that I neglected to mention. In your completed book, you should definitely formally acknowledge those who helped you in your research. And you should also take responsibility for the accuracy of your finished product.

      In the novel I discussed above, I thanked each contributing expert by name, as well as the meteorology forum whose members were so helpful, and then I closed with this disclaimer:

      “I am indebted to them all, and want to give them credit for everything I got right. And for anything I got wrong – either unintentionally or to enhance the story – I happily take the blame.”

      Thanks for bringing up these crucial aspects of respectful research!

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      • says

        My pleasure. Other people’s time and expertise is a huge gift.

        And sometimes you have to know something well before you, as author, can take liberties with it – that HAS to be on your authority as a writer of FICTION.

        Sometimes you just have to make the call that there is enough wiggle room in something to propose an interesting application or twist – but your sources should not be blamed: at some point research runs into imagination.

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  3. says

    Yes, I agree. Research is so..oo much easier with the internet. Just today, I couldn’t remember some detail about the markets in Ladakh in the Himalayas, where I have visited 3 times. I am now basing a romantic novel there. I suddenly found U tubes of the markets on Google and could see all the detail I needed, which then sparked more of my memory. Amazing.
    I actually do like to write about what I know because it actually then leads me to the unknown. Some people work the other way around, I guess.
    Thanks and also for the suggestion of ‘I’ll ask 5 questions’ etc.

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  4. says

    This is the most entertaining and helpful article on research I’ve ever read Keith! As a former scientist, I know how exciting it can be to talk about your favorite topic with someone who is truly interested, and so I don’t balk at contacting folks for my own research. The internet is great. I could find and make the necessary contacts without having to haul my toddlers at a univ. library. Some of my experts were gracious as to come to my home for an interview. I’d serve tea and cake.

    Writing and research has often been a family affair. My most enjoyable research trip was camping at Mt. St. Helens with my family.

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  5. says

    Keith-

    Terrific post. The internet has indeed made research a breeze, and experts do love to share. All good for novelists.

    As an agent, here’s what I’ve noticed, though: Novelists are really good at researching places, professions, history and curiosities. They are not so good at researching human psychology.

    You know how in action movies the heroes get battered and beaten but their bruises (if they have them at all) fade after one scene? There is a similar effect in novels. Characters go through hell, and often have back story wounds, but the effect on them is simplistic. They either mope in unrelieved misery (“haunted” by their “demons”) or seem unchanged by story events. Both are stereotypes. Real human beings are more nuanced–and more interesting.

    What does it feel like to get shot? How does that affect one long term? How do pilots look at the world differently than others? What about scientists? Ranchers? Accountants? I’ve met those professions many times in manuscripts but to this day cannot say I’ve truly seen the world through their different lenses.

    The categories of Young Adult and New Adult fiction are packed with authentic young voices, almost always first person. Future social scientists seeking to understand the ironic detachment of our age need only read its most popular fiction. Like, whatever. But admit all the snap, snark, irony and alienation I have yet to meet a young character who walks for a cancer cure, sees a future in debate club, or has learned life lessons playing football. YA and NA voices capture our age sure enough, but only part of it. They have become their own stereotypes.

    It is irksome, to be sure, to read a nautical scene written by someone who has obviously never been sailing. Equally off-putting, though, are novels in which the effects of trauma on human beings are either simplistic or ignored.

    There are experts all around us: experts in human experience. The aunt who once was in prison, the grandfather who outlived three wives, the neighbor who witnessed 9/11 up close. Why not interview them to glean the authentic details that make life itself real on the page? There is research and then there is emotional research.

    Novelists take heart: you needn’t necessary get out of your pajamas to emotional research, either, some of that can be found on the web too. Thank goodness. Let’s keep it easy, right? (Wait, was that ironically detached?)

    Anyway, thanks for bringing this topic, Keith.

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    • says

      Nautical scenes aside, the best writers sometimes make mistakes. Believe it or not, Tom Wolfe in the hard cover edition of his novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, wrote a scene in which he referred to a college basketball player who got hot shooting the ball in the third quarter. Anyone who follows college basketball knows they play two 20-minute halfs. I don’t know if that was corrected in later editions.

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  6. says

    I hear you about the Internet, Keith. You really can find anything. But for me, research means going to a place, breathing the air, listening to people talk. My husband thinks I use my writing as an excuse to vagabond around the UK. He may be on to something. But my books have Irish mythology at their core, and I discovered by being there that the stories from so long ago still live in the people today. There are little ‘tells’ that I never would have discovered if I hadn’t stayed in a certain B&B or talked to a certain shopkeeper. Nothing is forgotten. I use the Web for physical details and the mechanics of things. But for me, sitting in a pub in the Burren with a history professor from Dublin is the way for me to understand the heart of the stories that have captured my heart. That said, I’m glad we have options. Thank you for a wonderful post!

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  7. says

    Most of my work has not required in-depth research. However, my current WIP features a nineteenth-century shipwreck, which, although the story is told from the POV of a novice in such matters, I do want to portray with a certain level of accuracy. I’m delighted with your hint about the forums – I’m sure I can find one on this topic. I may have to abandon this project for the moment, though. Suddenly I’m inspired to write a novel about an old-school shaving aficionado ;)

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  8. says

    Thanks so much, Keith, for telling us about forums. Of course I know there’s such a thing as a “forum”, but I never really knew what they were all about. They sound uber-appealing with regard to research and I’m going to use them from now on. Wow!
    Thank you.

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  9. says

    Keith–
    Thanks for this useful post. Like you, I am skeptical of those who admonish writers to focus on what they know. Gore Vidal dismissed it, too. In contrarian Vidal fashion, he urged people to write about what they don’t know–that way, they would be forced to learn something new. Another problem with writing about what you know is seen in novels that lack editorial discretion. The writer knows everything possible about, say, electrical wiring. Pride of ownership of this info leads him to write overlong passages that put his expertise on display, while putting the reader to sleep.

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  10. says

    I found lots of great stuff in this post, and I especially appreciated Donald Maas’ comments above. For me, the research process was mostly easy. my novel takes place in a mission hospital in rural Nepal. the medical parts were easy – they were things I lived through and did, myself. I did need to research the battle that took place in the town, fortunately there were accounts on the internet, and I could ask Nepali friends of mine to place this into context.

    quite a bit of the plot revolves around a wartime atrocity that took place, and this is where Mr Maas has hit it on the head. any book is going to be about the way that people work with the hand they are dealt. After the atrocity, everyone involved is driven by PTSD to a greater or lesser extent. and the book is about how you support each other when that be the case.

    it might help to tell you about a looooong rabbit hole I went down along the way. The women in the book need to endure the pervasive patriarchical South Asian culture, and I was going to have one of them get raped. (it’s a problem.) two things happened.

    first, I found it difficult to write a rape scene. It is not something I fantasize about, I have met a few brutalized victims in the hospital, and I myself recoil in horror at the idea. What’s more, my beta readers totally hated having it there. I couldn’t find a way to touch on this primal fear.

    second, the focus was really going to be on recovery after sexual assault, so I bought some books on the topic and studied them so that I could make sure the description of clinical counseling was accurate.

    Ultimately, I decided to chop that whole sub-plot out of the book. save it for a sequel, ha ha ha. but in the meantime, it gave me some ideas as to how to handle the profound fear afcter having witnessed, and been party to, an atrocity.

    I think that if you portray something violent, you have a duty to your readers to present the aftermath as realistically as possible.

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  11. says

    For the past four years I have been researching a novel set in 1917-25. The internet is amazing, amazing, amazing.

    Some of my best information has come from contemporary newspapers. Reference librarians in distant places have been wonderfully helpful by sending me old newspaper articles not available anywhere else but their microfilm collections. Don’t discount libraries; they’re in the full swing of the internet revolution. Librarians can also recommend excellent books for background. I would never have found some of the details I need without them.

    I’ve also found experts of small things through their web sites. Some folks have been wonderful, some promised info but never came through, many never responded, dead air. My chances of getting information this way run about 50-50 at best. I can ask, very sweetly, but cannot demand. I have not found “I’m writing a book” to leverage much cooperation. (Perhaps, these days, everyone’s writing a book.)

    My least helpful resource? Internet forums. At best I get “dunno” to my very polite and limited questions. Clearly, mileage varies.

    Of course, it’s what you as a writer *do* with all this information that counts.

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  12. says

    Cool article.

    I’m a fan of both “write what you know” and “go beyond what you know.” So I really liked this one.

    I think the relationships and emotions of stories are the most important part, and those are the things that can be infused into almost any setting/ scenario.

    I’ve done a lot of research the old fashioned way: books!

    But when possible, I love being somewhere new and absorbing whatever I can from that environment, then putting it into a story – the awe of standing outside a towering castle wall in Spain; the vibrant greens of terraced rice farms in Nepal; the thrill of walking till my feet hurt on the cobbled roads of Rome.

    I definitely need to make better use of online communities, though, and this article will help.

    Thanks!

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  13. says

    I once got a tour of our county’s fancy new forensics lab because the Sheriff was running for Governor and I happened to be involved with our local GOP club (I’ve since learned that politics eats your life and leaves little time for writing). However, I like your method better. I never realized all those odd forums existed. I’m an RVer and have worked in the industry, so I know about things like the Airstream forums and such (where everyone is an expert). I’ve also discovered that calling or writing police stations to talk to cops isn’t real effective (though my female writing pals seem to have no trouble). An ex-cop, on a forum or facebook however, loves to talk about his time on the force.

    Oddly, I’ve mentioned numerous times to my writerbuds that I was in the Navy, a Navy brat prior to that, have been around the world on said Navy ship, in the Persian Gulf, up close to Soviet warships and planes, and can tell you what the streets of Olongapo, Phillipines smell like (not good). Yet not one person has ever tapped all that info. We can darn near get all the info we need just by talking to this vast community of writers!

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  14. says

    My latest novel is set in Ireland on an archaeological dig site. I’m not an archaeologist. I found out what I could on the internet — youtube videos were incredibly helpful — then read a few articles and parts of books. I then made a list of all the questions I still had, much of them related more to the people aspect rather than the processes. In my research, I had fallen in love with an ongoing dig project in the general vicinity to where my book was based, so I emailed the person in charge of media, told him what I was doing, and asked if he had time to answer a few questions. He said he was “a bit of a writer” himself and would be happy to. Long story short, we maintained a net-friendship even after he’d answered all my research questions. If he weren’t happily married, I’d have sold all my worldly possessions and flown over to meet him in person. I’ve found that most people love to talk about themselves and want to be helpful.

    Sophia Ryan // She Likes It Irish

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  15. Poeticus says

    Research for me is a delight. I search down the road not taken, often taking long diversions along the way, “how way leads on to way” (Frost). The delightful idiosyncratric surprises that benefit writing authenticity — features that authenticate a narrative’s reality imitation. Facts are facts, necessarily subjective truths, though ones that tend to be stale and dry as burnt toast. The tidbits that I collect from the oddest corners tend to be “telling details” that authenticate strongly and clearly.

    An idiosyncracy example, one that’s not per se a quirk, an unspooled and crimped ticket roll tangled in other normal car trunk junk: the roadside emergency and maintenance supplies many trunks hold. The ways light, sound, texture, scent, taste : visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory; idiosyncracy description authenticates a reality imitation. The sharp tang of lightning scorched pine; the wall-eyed dog — one eye blue, the other brown, the ripe aromas of low tide, a lunar glade — gibbous moon rising or setting painting silven light on rippled waters; lush, manicured landscape surrounding a city towers’ skyline plaza, shiny-slick office windows blankly, darkly mirror empty stares, one stained with a shape resembling a bust. I could go on.

    For me it’s not the facts that authenticate, it’s the misapprehensions and subjective beliefs part of social and spiritual belief systems that resonate and ring true as idiosyncratic but believed authenticators.

    I’ve researched broad topics, too. A comprehensive, qualified, and quantified list of stream-of-consciousness methods, that direct reader address by narrator is less persuasive than the received reflections of viewpoint personas, especially, as above, idiosyncratic emotionally originated attitudes toward subjects and topics. That Realism’s core convention, and Realism’s influence on Modernism and Postmodernism, is reality imitation. That strong, omnisicent narrator commentary can be strongly appealing when the commentary suits audience moral value sensiblities and sentiments, more so as a narrator’s introspective interior life reality imitation than a flat out external life reality imitation. Sublime when the two lives meld.

    Research for me is not about reporting the research, but filling the old idea hopper with matter for processing, sorting, selecting, organizing into a persuasive meaning-making package. I was researching the physical parameters of an industrial machine for reality imitation purposes. How it worked, how operators operated it: colors, noises, textures, smells, tastes, touches and such with eye and ear, how to capture the machine’s essence in an economy of words painting a moving portrait. The research is for a narrative I struggled to find the unifying meaning spark of the whole. That machine research gave me that kernel, the elusive egg corn that grew into the mighty oak I sought. Unintended epiphany, though — I thrill when that happens.

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  16. says

    I’d like to put in a plug to ask your local librarian. I am a librarian, and I can tell you most reference librarians LIVE for a good, juicy reference question. We can also chase down a lot of sources that you cannot find in Google, and make sure what we give you is from a reliable source.

    As you might guess, given my day job, I love doing the research part of things. My only problem is not getting too bogged down in it.

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  17. says

    A resource of particular use to mystery and crime fiction writers is the Yahoo! group Crimescenewriters It’s a Yahoo! list, so you have to ask to join it, but any writer will be approved. The founders are retired law enforcement officers and forensics investigators, and other experts — including retired and active LEO, private investigators, and lawyers — also answer questions about investigation, law enforcement procedures, trial procedure, and much more.

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  18. says

    I’m with you Keith,

    and I use the web a lot . . . But when the protagonist in my first novel had to travel to a particular monastery in Tibet, I knew many readers might know more than me about the particulars. So I went. And to see the people and landscapes that shaped him psychologically (Hero’s Tale), I took his route as well. Because so much of the journey would have been false without the details, I bit the bullet, quit the job and did the planes, trains and rickshaws.

    And though I’ve done a ton a web research for the current book, I think I’ll be heading to Belarus and Poland. Sometimes being there can help a scene ring so true that the reader has to surrender. Immersing in place really helps me get under the skin of the writer/characters and of the story.

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  19. says

    I’ve never liked the whole “Write What You Know”-Creed. If we all did that, the world would be short a whole load of books. I like your take much better. Writing what I want to know about is a good place to start!

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  20. says

    I’m in the crowd that doesn’t like research. It’s not for any of the reasons you stated, but simply because I don’t enjoy doing it. It’s a little too much like homework, especially the way some writers treat it. I’ve seen writers fret about the 1% of the population who might know the fact, and it seems like overkill. Telling a good story always has to come first, and sometimes accuracy comes into conflict with that.

    I’m also a pantser — I don’t outline — and that presents additional challenges. I don’t know what the story is about until I write it, so it’s hard to know what to research in advance. The result is that I’ll do the wrong kind of research, then have to launch into more research. Because I don’t like it, I’m grabbing everything as quickly as possible, and I still end up with not enough of the right information. Like I said, it’s not fun for me to do.

    This time around for my cozy, I researched the setting in advance. I used a list I’d gotten from a book (most lists like this are really, really scary to someone who dislikes research). Then I both set a goal of and limited myself to 10 of something like 10 birds or 10 plants. That way, I couldn’t throw everything in but the kitchen sink to get the research over with, so it forced me to think about what I was picking and if I would use it. Another goal was to try to make it a little more enjoyable, or at least as much as it could be. I did two topics a day for about two weeks and gave myself credit for the word count of the research. I was still glad when I finished the last one and went onto start the story!

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