Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.
– Rod Serling
If you think writing fiction eliminates any research, think again. Especially if you are writing mystery and science fiction. Do you want your police procedure to be incorrect, especially in connection with a crime scene?
According to police, that is a biggie with many authors (TV series are especially bad). Just watch some of the shows. Even a “lay person” can pick out some of the no-nos at a crime scene.
An older version of my short story “For the Love of Wills” from my mystery short collection Beyond the Tripping Point had glaring police procedural errors. I didn’t know that. Then I heard Toronto Police Constable Brent Pilkey, author of the Rage series of police procedural novels http://www.brentpilkey.com/ talk last June on a couple of panels at the Bloody Words Mystery Writers Conference. One of those panels also featured a Chicago PI turned author. Their topic covered where fiction (mainly TV) gets the crime scene investigation wrong. I thought “oh, oh,” about the “Wills” story and with Brent’s permission, emailed him the first part of the story – just enough so he could see what the heck I was doing. He emailed back with the correct procedure and some suggestions – he was very polite and helpful. He also helped me clarify some skidmark issues in another story “Road Raging” in the same short story collection.
So, he became my police consultant, got acknowledged in my book as well as a complimentary book copy and also has helped me with police procedure for my prequel novel, which is set in the summer of 1998. Some of the procedure and set-up was different then. The one that really grabbed me was how wire-taps were done using reel-to-reel tapes that had to be turned on as the ransom call came in.
That one I should have had an inkling of because of my days as a journalist using reel-to-reel tapes, albeit the smaller cassette versions.
Then there is science fiction. Here, you want to make sure what you are writing about is actually still science fiction and not science fact – even if you take a science fact and spin it out beyond into fiction. A master novelist in that area is the award-winning Rob Sawyer http://www.sfwriter.com/. Once you have established that you are writing science fiction, you will probably need to do research on how the details would pan out. Even though it is fiction, it has to make sense. The late Isaac Asimov http://www.asimovonline.com/asimov_home_page.html was also a master at that with his Foundation novel series.
You can do research in several ways:
- Interview/work with an expert in the area.
- Do research on the Internet – Google is a big help (but be careful – check the credentials of the website or blog poster). If you get a good one, you might want to email them for more information.
- Read newspaper and magazine articles; also books on the subject. (For my prequel novel, I read a book on serial killers; I didn’t want to rely 100 per cent on Criminal Minds. Also with the novel set in 1998 I didn’t want to mention serial killers and FBI etc. procedure that is post 1998). These three sources can also provide experts for you to contact to obtain further information.
- If you are writing historical fiction, or like me, even something 15 years before now, you will need to do a lot more research about what the social economic conditions were at that time. Plus little details – my favourite (although not for my novel) – was canned food available at specific times in history. You would be surprised how far back tinned food goes. You certainly wouldn’t want to have the Countess of Whatever flying around in a plane in 1789, although maybe a hot air balloon as the first one was supposedly invented in 1783 – unless you are writing science fiction.
- Time travel can also be tricky as you are bringing a character or character(s) into a past or future time. Besides the obvious of the time-traveller’s reaction to the “primitive” or “futuristic” conditions, you must get the right information into each time period. Diana Gabaldon http://www.dianagabaldon.com/with her Outlander novel series is an expert at doing this and keeping the reader interested in the story.
- And that’s my last point. Don’t bore or bog down your fiction with research. Weave in the research with the story and characters and skip the expository, the character explaining, or worse the author as narrator explaining. It can turn away your reader or at least cause him or her to skip paragraphs, even pages. You know the old adage – it is easier to learn when you are having fun or being entertained.
How do you do research for your fiction?
For my upcoming events with Beyond the Tripping Point, go to my BTTP page on my website – http://www.samcraw.com/Articles/BeyondtheTrippingPoint.html
And clicking on the book logo at the beginning of this post links directly to my entry on amazon.com. Book is available in print and e-copy.
Sharon A. Crawford