Author: Sandy Vaile
Previously published on the Writers In The Storm blog, August 2022.
One of the fastest ways to alienate readers is to get your facts wrong, which can feel like an overwhelming responsibility when writing a story. But how far would you go to bring authenticity and interesting elements into your story?
Do You Need to Research for all Fiction Stories?
If you’re writing anything longer than a short story, you are bound to need to do some research.
I’m going to demonstrate how research can benefit all stories, and then we’ll peek over the shoulders of a few authors to discover the lengths they’ve gone to, in the name of fiction research.
For historical times or stories based on real events, it’s easy to see how understanding those times will add credibility to what you write, but the benefits aren’t as obvious if you’re creating make-believe worlds and situations.
The truth is, we can’t possibly know everything about everything. Each of us is limited by what we’ve experienced or have intimate knowledge about, which may result in missed opportunities to add authentic details to our story.
The right research can strengthen a story by:
You might think if you’re writing a fantasy story or fictitious place, that you just make the whole lot up, but consider these situations:
The Bottomless Pit of Investigation
Some authors absolutely love surfing the internet and/or library to learn everything there is to know about a subject, while others prefer a minimalistic approach. Writers are inherently curious, so it’s no wonder we sometimes have a tendency to disappear down the rabbit hole of research. The danger is, never being heard from again!
Out of the Box Research
Many authors expend a great deal of effort uncovering interesting gems to add that “special something” to their stories but the truth is that the really good stuff is buried deep. These days, anyone can Google a subject and come up with a list of common facts. To get to the hidden gems, you need to keep digging after most authors have given up.
An author needs to investigate obscure and forgotten aspects of a subject. Track mere traces of interest and root out the cause and effect. Go the extra mile and you will be astounded where those fascinating facts will lead, like previously unimaged details, subplots and descriptive layers.
For example, while researching the bathing habits of the 1400s, a friend stumbled across a newspaper article about a gentleman who drowned in his bathtub, with wet footprints that were too small to be his at the scene. By following this research trail, she discovered hearsay about a female serial murderer whose modus operandi was drowning. Now there’s a great story waiting to be told.
How else can you unearth those information gems?
What have other authors done in the search for research gold?
Examples from Real Authors
I like to be hands-on whenever possible (read – any excuse for an adventure).
One time I flew a jet plane in a flight simulator. Under the guidance of a genuine pilot, I took off and landed the plane from several airports around the world, rolled it mid-air, stalled and re-started it. I even performed an emergency landing on the Tamar River near Launceston — and didn’t lose a single passenger! 😊
One of the most fun adventures was a day at a local gun club. A writing group approached a local gun club to organise a hosted day, during which I shot thirteen different guns. It was frightening and exhilarating, but there’s one thing for sure, there is no way I could have understood what it felt, sounded or smelt like to shoot, without doing it myself. That sort of insider knowledge enables me to add authentic layers to my stories and (hopefully) anyone who knows a lot about guns will appreciate the accuracy.
When it comes to writing, I am more aware when selecting the type of gun, the differences in bullets, the volume of the report, how they feel in your hand, how to load them, the gunpowder smell after they’ve been fired and the kick back. Oh, the recoil!
All of this information will enable me to take the guns in my books from props to realistic features.
Carla read a newspaper article about a local women who worked as a professional organiser and said she often became an accidental counsellor for her clients because going through people’s possessions can also mean dealing with a tonne of emotional baggage.
This sparked the idea for a mystery series, which took hold and wouldn’t let go. I mean, what other job would let you see into the deepest, darkest corners of another person’s closet, under their bed or behind closed doors?
Before she started writing, Carla interviewed a few professional organisers to find out about the nitty-gritty of the job.
Rowena undertook a time-consuming language study for her latest release ‘All That’s Left Unsaid’. Now that’s dedication! She wanted to capture the cadence of the language so that her Italian characters sounded authentic and didn’t slip into cliché accents or overused Italian phrases.
What Rowena discovered was so much more than verb drills. Her teacher explained the language through examples of Italian culture: “I learned that cappuccino is only consumed at breakfast, that when meeting it is customary to shake hands over the phrase ‘piacere’, and that when first names are exchanged a native Italian will say ‘now we speak to each other as friends’—a sign to use the less formal ‘tu’ forms of verbs when speaking. I also learned it takes more than a year of weekly lessons to master the language!”
Writer of erotic romance novels, Lillian once interviewed a real-life male stripper, Justin Whitfield. Thankfully, the interview was conducted via email, which avoided any blush factor. It gave her the courage to ask all sorts of probing questions.
The answers to many questions were surprising, like the reasons he started stripping, his usually shy demeanour and how they get those skimpy undies. All of this off-the-cuff information spawned multiple books.
I sure hope you see not only the benefits of going deep when conducting research, but the potential fun adventures and unique storylines you have the potential to uncover. Are you ready to jump right into research and bring authenticity and interesting elements into your story?
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