Writing: The Why's, How's and
Where's of Research
by Lisa Hood
When I decided to write a murder mystery, with my main characters as the investigators, I had a few problems to overcome:
1) I have never been murdered
I'm sure, as a writer, you have heard the cliché, "Write what you know." So herein lies my dilemma. Obviously not all murder mysteries have been written by authors with first hand knowledge. Of course we know there are cops (John Douglas), robbers (Donald Goines), lawyers (John Grisham) and medical examiners (Patricia Cornwell) who use their personal experiences to create factual fiction. The rest of use though, must rely on thorough research.
2) I have never committed a murder
3) I have never investigated a murder
4) I have never known anyone who has been murdered, committed a murder nor investigated a murder
Why Conduct Research?
After all, it is fiction, right? Well yes and no. If you are writing Fantasy or Sci Fi, you have a bit more latitude, but even so, research could prove beneficial. For example, you may discover a new invention or scientific theory which you can build upon. You may learn of a certain insect or animal with ritualistic behavior that you can incorporate into one of your creatures.
For the rest of us though, research is non negotiable. If you have based any part of your story in the "real world" in a real place, developed characters with real personality traits or real occupations, then someone, somewhere will know the facts. They will recognize your ignorance in a heartbeat and likely lose respect for you as an author.
For me, there is nothing better than losing myself in a good book, so when I run across a blatant error or oversight, it snaps me back into the real world. Then I forget about the story itself and start critiquing all that came before or will come after.
Not only will your research build your audience's confidence, it will build your own. As you learn more, you can apply that knowledge. You may learn that something doesn't work the way you thought it did. You're surprised. Suppose your character stumbles upon this bit of information too? Now they can be surprised. Or maybe they can be the expert, who explains away the misconception to your audience. It could be something small, or something so significant it changes the course of your story.
Research allows you to make informed decisions. I've also found it helps me get past writing blocks or awkward transitions. I've included: crime statistics, historical references and details on personality traits (one of my characters suffers from depression so I've added a lot of information on mental health and treatments).
A Research Strategy
Once you've decided to conduct research for your story, you may be overwhelmed. The first thing you need to do is define your goal. Research is merely the act of searching for an answer. So what is your question? It's critical they are specific as possible. You can waste many hours surfing through endless web pages or reading articles and books, getting sidetracked and frustrated. It may help if you determine why you need this information and what you plan to do with it.
Next, you can determine what types of information will answer your question. For example, let's say your question is: "How do guns work?" this may not be specific enough depending on why you need this information and what you plan to do with it. With a specific question you know the type of information needed to answer your question. Sure you can delve into the history of gun making, waste a few hours or days, or you can use a web site like http://howstuffworks.com and find your answer in a minute.
We're spoiled today with so much information at our fingertips; sometimes we overlook the best resources for information, a public library. If you just want general information, you may want to look it up in an encyclopedia: more detailed information, such as statistics may be found in trade magazines, almanacs, or reports.
Sometimes the best resource is the Source itself. I think people like talking about themselves; what they do, their life experiences. Have you ever sat down with an older person and heard all their tales of the good old days? Sometimes it seems like they could talk forever if they had an audience. Be that audience. Ask questions. People can surprise you with their wealth of knowledge and experience.
Garbage in - Garbage Out
Not all information is good information. You may have done your part, decided to conduct research, asked specific questions and found the answer. Or so you think. Before you accept that information as fact, you need to consider the source.
- Is it Reliable? For example, did the information come for a non partial source? Are they trying to influence your thinking with propaganda, rather than non biased fact? Are they trying to sell you something? Keep in mind, any data can be skewed if the source has an agenda.
- Is it Qualified? Does the author of the information have credentials? Are they stating fact or opinion? It's ok if the source is stating an opinion, as long as they are identified and informed opinions, which may or may not be supported by data.
- Is it Relevant? How old is it? Life changes fast, and facts even faster. What was 100% true five years ago may be 100% untrue today. Has the data been taken out of context?
You can give your audience much more than just an entertaining story. You can give them knowledge. If you do thorough research and make informed decisions in your writing, you will develop trust and respect with your audience. Don't forget, research is a SEARCH. It is not always easy to find the information you're looking for; you may have to try several sources before you find your answer. Consider it a treasure hunt, with nuggets of knowledge more valuable than gold.
About the Author:
Lisa Hood is the author of "Shades of Betrayal" and "Shades of Revenge." She has been writing for over 10 years and is presently working on her third suspense novel, "Shades of Jealousy." She is also the Talent Liaison @ BOOKJOBBER.com. Other articles by Lisa Hood can be downloaded from http://www.bookjobber.com/articles.asp or mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Article reprinted from http://www.simplysearch4it.com Articles Directory"
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