Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thursday's Thoughts: Getting a Clue About Research

Before and during the process of writing a book, an author will inevitably find themselves scouring books and websites for information that would never cross their mind if not for their occupation.
I grew up in a tiny town in Southern Oklahoma, and I know a few things about cattle. I can tell you the difference between a bull and a steer, a cow and a heifer, and I’ve tagged or branded my share of calves. I even do a pretty mean cattle call. I’ve spent summers driving a truck while the defensive linemen of our hometown football team threw bales of hay into the bed, and I probably spent more time at the rodeo grounds than I did the mall.
However, I know absolutely dick about the business end of being a cattle rancher. Therein lies the reason that you’ll find a link to Cowboy College in my favorites tab of my browser. If you browsed through my sent mail and recent calls, you’d also see half a dozen requests for information from people who know a hell of a lot more than me when it comes to the annual cost per head of cattle.
Imagination is a wonderful thing, and when I’m in the driver’s seat of a story, I can take it anywhere I want to go. However, even if I’m writing some fantastical paranormal world with wackadoodle rules, there are still certain behaviors that have to be followed. If my werewolf and fire fairy are traveling from Caspar to Denver at a rate of 70 mph in a jalopy with 3 bald tires, what is the average number of apples they can eat if the sky was purple?
Yeah, I suck at math. That’s not the point, though. If I don’t know something that needs to go into a book, I’m going to have to research it to find my answers.

Where to Look
The first place I turn to is obviously Google. I’m already at my computer, and the internet is such a convenient little invention. However, Google isn’t my only source of information.
Ø  MapQuest: Plotting the amount of time it would take to walk or drive from Point A to Point B
Ø How long would a flight from New York City to Tokyo take? How many layovers would I have? Approximately how long are these layovers? How much does the ticket cost? Which airlines can I fly to get me there?
Ø  Blogs: Believe it or not, blogs can be an invaluable source of information. When I need to know how to trim an angry Yorkie’s toenails, a pet groomer’s personal blog is more helpful than all the standard “how-to” articles.
Ø  Manufacturer Websites: What is the max speed on the speedometer of a 2010 Chevy Camaro? What is the total amount of Memory on a Toshiba Satellite Pro?
 These may not seem very important, but it’s the small details that add a sense of familiarity and make your story believable. However, we all know what happens with too much of a good thing.

How Much Is Too Much?
Ø  If you are researching Japanese folklore about water demons, and you think you might need to add a glossary to the beginning or end of your book, you went too far.
Ø  About 70% of the research you do isn’t going to make it into your book. Why? Very simple. Did you know any of that stuff before you researched it? No? Yeah, neither do readers.
Ø  Insert just enough facts to lend credibility to your story but not so much readers are scratching their heads because every other words looks like Akkorokamui.
Ø  I’m sure all the information you found on the Salem Witch trials took hours and hours of work, but honestly, no one cares. I get it. You worked damn hard and scoured every site you could find to get all the details of the time period.
Ø  Diving into a longwinded diatribe about the history of the trials, the most famous cases, and the questionable fashion sense of the accused isn’t important to your story, and all you’re going to do is bore your readers to tears.

Why You Should Sometimes Fudge the Details
Ø  Imagine you want to write about your couple going to a Mexican restaurant. Now, imagine you decide that this is a good time for the date to go very badly. The service is horrible. Your hero found a fly in his fajitas, and the manager is a bigoted tool.
Ø  It’s always easiest to write about places we know and frequent. However, it’s probably not a good idea to slam a real restaurant and accuse the manager (who you’ve probably never met) of being a total douchebag.
Ø  By changing the name of the restaurant to a fictional one, and possibly the location, you can still use those familiar details without potentially causing ill feelings.

In Summary
Ø  Include enough information to add believable elements and credibility to your story.
Ø  Don’t oversaturate your book with so many details that the plotline gets lost in words that sound made up to the general reader.
Ø  Double and triple check your facts using multiple references. Don’t rely on Wikipedia to tell you everything you need to know.
Ø  Try to avoid defamation of real people, place, or organizations.

v  On the Web
Ø  Google
Ø  Orbitz
Ø  MapQuest – Or any other online map service, such as Google Maps
Ø  Wikipedia – Always cross reference your information.
Ø  Blogs – Often times, you can find links to recommended reading material.
Ø  Local Government Website – You can often find a section about local attractions and businesses.

v  In Print
Ø  Reference books (B&N has a fairly limited section on paranormal subjects, but what they do have is pretty good.)
Ø  Local Library
Ø  Travel Guides
Ø  Tourism Information Pamphlets

v  Other
Ø  Visit the location yourself if at all possible and take lots of pictures and notes.
Ø  Ask someone who is knowledge about the subject.

Above all, remember there is no one way to do things. You can tell me that 2 + 2 = 7, but the trick is convincing me that it’s true. 


Laurie Peterson said...

I have left instruction for hubby do delete my browser history because of my research habits. And I'm sure someplace there is a governmental agency and agent shaking their head at what I search for and find.

cathy h said...

I love this insight into your writing!!! I do like the fact that even though its fiction the details are true. I have been known to quote facts, and some one wants to know how I knew that. The looks I get when they know what kind of books it came from is kinda of funny. especially when I am right..
Have an Awesome day.. :)

Cathy Romanczuk said...

Thank you for taking the time to do this research. I read a lot and I appreciate when I can read and say, oh yeah, I have been there or done that. On the other hand, I am willing to suspend belief to enjoy a book just as long as I know that I am doing so.