Any writer knows doing research is critical. Different kinds of papers and essays require different kinds of research. Even some of my blog posts require a bit of research–at the very least I like to add additional links to the ends of some of my posts so my readers can look to other opinions and other resources.
This is where the old axiom “write what you know” comes in. Not to get out of having to do research, but because as you are learning craft–character arcs, plot, finding your voice and wrestling with syntax, grammar and punctuation–it’s easier to focus on learning those things without the added burden of researching and incorporating what you find into the story, too, not to mention doing it in a believable way.
Writing a police procedural without any law enforcement exposure would be difficult, I imagine, without immersing yourself in research. The same with writing about doctors, lawyers and any other professional occupation with which you may have little to no knowledge or education.
The last thing you want your readers to say is “That’s not right” or “It doesn’t happen like that” or worse yet, someone who actually does the occupation you’re writing about saying, “That’s not true at all.”
Some professionals who have gone into writing are Tess Gerritsen and John Grisham, a doctor and lawyer respectively.
Wikipedia has this to say about Tess: “In 1996, Gerritsen wrote Harvest, her first medical thriller. The plot was inspired by a conversation with a retired homicide detective who had recently traveled in Russia. He told her young orphans were vanishing from Moscow streets, and police believed the kidnapped children were being shipped abroad as organ donors. Harvest was Gerritsen’s first hardcover novel, and it marked her debut on the New York Times bestseller list at number thirteen. Following Harvest, Gerritsen wrote three more bestselling medical thrillers: Life Support, Bloodstream, and Gravity.”
Wikipedia has this to say about John: “John Ray Grisham Jr. is an American novelist, attorney, politician, and activist, best known for his popular legal thrillers.”
As you can see, it was easy for them to segue into the types of books they started writing because their backgrounds supported the subject matter.
Some research is pretty hardcore–think Richard Castle shadowing Kate Beckett in Castle. The chances of a a police department, in New York City, nonetheless, allowing a civilian to shadow a homicide detective seems pretty slim–even if you are a bestselling author who is friends with the mayor. But lots of police departments host ride-a-longs as part of community outreach, and that could be a small in for and of you who wants to write about being a cop. This is what I get when I Google police ride along for my area.
The internet makes research easy–Google Maps can show you pictures of anything in the world. It’s how I wrote parts of Wherever He Goes, when Kat and Aiden were on their road trip. They traveled through states I have never been to before. I even made up the casino they visited in Las Vegas because I have never been to Las Vegas and I couldn’t accurately describe a casino there. I spent hours pouring over photos and descriptions of various parts of the United States to get their settings just right. It was only after they eventually moved into familiar territory that I relaxed.
Settings are hard because not only are you dealing with the actual land formations, you have to think about temperature, climate, and bugs. Kat finds a scorpion in her hotel room. I had to research that, too, because I assure you, I have never seen a scorpion anywhere but behind glass at our zoo. And I plan to keep it that way.
When I wrote Don’t Run Away, Dane owned his own store. I’ve been in a running shoe store many times, but I’ve never run my own business. So I had to talk with someone who had. And yeah, real-life store owners run a tight ship financially–so I wrote Dane broke–but he was doing what he loved.
I’m well aware I’m lucky. Writing a romance ensures I can focus on the romance of the story and not have to get bogged down with details of a character’s occupation.
I like to think I know enough about life in general that if I decide to write a heroine who works at a bakery (or who owns her own) she’s up at 2 am and baking by 3 so she has pastries to sell by the time her store opens at 7. There’s no way she’s going in to work at 9–not unless she has help. And she very well could. Just be sure she can afford to pay her employees.
I’ve written my heroes into occupations I know nothing about, and I’ve done the minimal amount of research required to be able to say, this is what they do, and that’s about it. When I wrote about Aiden screwing up a big case as an Assistant District Attorney, I modeled his case after the OJ Simpson trial. I watched a lot of footage from that trial and read a lot of articles. His story in the book wasn’t about him losing the case, or why, it was about him being able to move past the fact that he did, and what that meant for his career and the rest of his life.
In Romance, their tragic backstories, personal demons, and falling in love take up the most space on the page.
But I’m fully aware that if I ever wanted to stretch my wings as an author (and I know I will want to at some point) or delve into another genre like Women’s Fiction, I’ll need more than just a romance to carry the plot, and that will probably require more research than I’m used to doing.
I read an interview with Jennifer Egan about Manhattan Beach, and boy, did the woman research. You can read about her process here.
What’s funny though, is when I speak to other writers, they say the more research they do, the richer their story becomes because they have more facts and details at their disposal.
I truly believe this. But as an indie, the pressure to crank out books is stifling, and it’s hard to give up writing time for research no matter how useful it will end up being.
I’m reading A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult, and the amount of research and the number of people so spoke with . . . it’s crazy. Not to mention the hours of shadowing she did. It was more than nailing down the details–she was recording thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about the topics she was writing about that she also gained from the research. She has a bibliography in the back of her book two pages (front and back) long, and an acknowledgement section the same length.
This is another reason why I like romance–I love the idea of falling in love, being in love with love. I’ve had my heart broken. No research required to know how it feels when you fell someone you love them, but you don’t hear it back.
It’s nothing short of devastating.
I wonder if this is why some indies start out writing fantasy. Everything comes from the imagination. The government, the currency. Magic, laws. The world-building is incredible. Everything from the ground up. This can be liberating–but it can also scare the crap out of you. To create a world from nothing . . . You still may need to research when you write fantasy–how do you saddle a horse, or do your characters ride bareback? What are the parts of a ship? What are parts of a castle called? When I was writing my fantasy, I had to research those things . . . but the magic, the laws, the kingdom, those were all mine.
Starting with what you know can definitely help keep momentum going if you are a first-time writer. If you do end up exploring an area you aren’t familiar with, ask for help if you can find someone who is familiar with your subject material. At least they can point you in the right direction, or tell you if you are missing the mark.
Where do you go for research?
Let me know your favorite books and websites!
Here are a couple of mine:
If you want to know about any job occupation, did you know the Department of Labor has a list of job descriptions for everything? Take a look here.
Google Maps/Images has can show you everything you need to know about a setting.
YouTube. You can find almost anything on YouTube. Right now for Jared and Leah, I’m “learning” how to fly a little plane.
The How-To Books for Dummies. Immerse yourself in a occupation, and it can carry you for a long time. Like, if you’re writing a series about a lawyer. A little research could help you write many books in a series.
Thanks for reading!
photo of Tess taken from https://rizzoliandisles.fandom.com/wiki/Tess_Gerritsen and the photo of John was taken from https://www.penguin.com.au/authors/john-grisham
photo of Castle and Beckett taken from http://www.wallpapercraft.com
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