When you’re writing fiction, the temptation to just “make it all up” becomes very tempting at times. The problem is that there is no way you can know everything on a subject or know all of the little details that matter.
Your readers are not dumb, and you should never assume that. The old saying of “people are conservative about the things that matter most to them” applies, and you don’t know if you’ll run into a reader who might know more about your niche subject than you do. And this covers a wide variety of subjects, such as-
- Having your detective and the police conduct an investigation and interrogation that would look great in a movie or on TV and is all dramatic. But their “investigation” will make the District Attorney cry or scream in anger because they’ve done everything possible to make his job impossible to press charges against the suspect.
The suspect might be guilty as sin and there’s plenty of proof. But, because of what the police did, there’s no way he could bring it to court and not have it laughed out at arraignment.
- Setting your story in Georgian England, say 1730 AD, and your male protagonist takes your female guest to his greenhouse, where he’s raising orchids…
…except that orchids didn’t really show up in England until about the later part of the 1700s and more like the early 1800s. Our protagonist’s children might see them in about forty, fifty years but not the protagonist.
- You’re on a spaceship, and you’re going to toss someone who is very bad out of the airlock. There’s even a window in the airlock so that you can watch them be blown out and explode when all the air in the body escapes…
…and boy, you’re going to be disappointed when he just kind of hangs in the airlock, choking to death and dying of asphyxiation when the air runs out. He’s not even blown properly out! And, assuming that he was properly blown out into space, you’ve just thrown a body’s worth of water, nitrogen, carbon, chlorine, and a half dozen other critical chemicals into space. Where all of those materials are critical to your life support needs and are rather difficult to replace.
And let’s not even mention that the ejected, freeze-dried body is now a hazard to all space-going traffic…
Even if your reader doesn’t know all the details of how Tulip Mania took over the Netherlands or why you need to prevent static electricity grounding when your helicopter lifts something off the ground…there’s a lot of little random bits of knowledge running around people’s heads. And, if you don’t respect that, the person reading the story is going to start losing respect for you. When that lack of respect reaches a certain point, they’re going to throw your book across the room (or delete it off their phone or tablet) and not buy any more books you write. And probably not tell their friends to buy your stories as well.
But, by respecting the knowledge, and showing that you know enough about the background and stories behind your story…you reader is going to respect that. At the very least, they’ll respect the amount of effort you put into getting the details right. And gaining your reader’s respect is the first step to having them enjoy this story and the ones that come after.
How do you find out about all these things that you need to know before you start writing your story? That most dreaded word of school children having to write a paper at the very last minute-research.
Fortunately, doing research with access to the Internet is much easier than it used to be. And there’s five simple tips and suggestions on how to start doing research for your fictional story.
Start With A Funnel And Work Your Way Down
The best way to start with your research on a subject is to think of it as a funnel. You want to cast your inquiry wide on the subject you’re researching, narrow down as you find details, and always take notes.
For example, let’s start with police procedures, because you’re going to be writing a detective novel. That sounds simple, right?
But…police procedures change on a very wide basis. Is your story set in, say, Chicago? Start looking for police procedures in Chicago. Who investigates what kind of crime? What department? Even something as simple as a murder investigation can be investigated by Homicide, Robbery/Homicide, Major Crimes, or any number of names in a department. Does your crime start out in one department, and does it change to another if the nature of the case changes?
Take your story out of Chicago and stick it in a small town somewhere. A small town might have one officer that does five or six other jobs, because there aren’t that many murders in the small town. Or they have to call in the County Sheriff or the State Police (and what are those called in that area?) to handle the investigation. Even how departments talk on the radio can be different with a little distance, as one department might use 10 codes without variation, while another might have specific codes just for that department.
Let’s not even talk about the era! DNA testing on a regular basis started in about 1986 and didn’t become more prevalent until the 1990’s. Just running fingerprints alone in the 1970s would take a few days and require a human being to gather the prints and do the comparisons. And the burden of proof and how that proof was obtained can easily change over just a decade. In 1965, you could arrest someone and just say, “You’re under arrest,” and in 1966, you had to give the full Miranda Warning to a suspect.
But this is where you cast your funnel opening wide and narrow things down. Your story is set in the early-to-mid-2010’s, so many people have cell phones, but the smartphone is becoming more common with the advent of 3G and 4G networks. This means you might have digital photos, but video is going to be rare. Most forensic technology is going to be available, but not used commonly (as the CSI Effect has started to reach its peak around this time with CSI, CSI:Miami, and CSI:NY being on the air).
People are going to have better feelings about police and the authorities, as 9/11 is still in popular memory and cops and firefighters are heroes. This will also be the middle of the Obama Administration, the MCU has begun it’s rise to prominence (Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk came out in 2008, Iron Man 2 in 2010, Thor and Captain America:The First Avenger in 2011) and Marvel superheroes outside of Spider Man and Blade are going to be in people’s memory.
And, with the understanding of the era, you can do call-backs. For example-has the department changed how it is organized only recently and people are still making sense of the new rules? Somebody could inadvertently walk in with a piece of information you could need.
You now have a whole lot of context and places to ask questions about how things are handled, and what things are done. They might remember somebody as looking like that “nice blonde boy with the long hair in that comic book movie” and drilling down from those kinds of details. A smartphone like an Apple iPhone could be a sign that the person is very well-off, since data costs along with the phone costs are so high.
From here, you now have all these little details that you can add to your story, organically, and help improve reader immersion. And, you have more things to research, add to your notes, and discover before you start writing.
Use Wikipedia (But Don’t Trust It Exclusively)
For many people-including writers-Wikipedia has been one of the best things to happen on the Internet. If you quickly need to find out some information on a subject-from corsets to coral reefs-you can punch the name into Wikipedia and get some basic information on any number of subjects. And Wikipedia is very useful for that kind of research.
But Wikipedia is a wiki by definition, which means that it’s possible for people to edit articles at just about any time as long as they’re allowed into the system. There have been a number of scandals involving wiki edits for a number of causes. And since the system is dependent upon the direct integrity of the people creating posts, there has been a number of incidents of bias showing up.
The best way to use Wikipedia is like a yeast starter for beer-it is definitely where you start from. It can provide you with an overview of your subject, it can provide links that can lead you to other websites, it can provide you with longer descriptions you can use to punch into Google Search and find out what’s out there.
Just remember to take what you read there with a grain of salt.
Checking Out Websites For Information
Websites are very helpful for information. If you need to figure out how to get your main character from Forbidden Planet in New York to Sushi Nakazawa? Google Maps (and it’s less than 20 minutes if you catch the right combination of the L and 1 trains). What is that fancy armor thing that every Space Marine has huge ones of? That’s a pauldron (and it’s shaped that way on the miniatures and in all the art because the original artist liked huge pauldrons). Why is the British Army called the British Army and England’s navy is the Royal Navy? Because the Army was raised in a different manner than the Royal Navy and involves a different series of steps.
Google has probably done more to quickly do research and find things out. Need to find a scholarly article on a subject? Use Google Scholar and find the references you need. Google Books offers thousands of out-of-print books for you to look at and review. And, by searching on Google, you can then go to websites that have the information that you need.
One word of warning-you want to watch for bias. Not only are we talking about websites and posts that are slanted maliciously, but also people that have just taken information from any source they can find and were not very critical about it. A good example is the history of corsetry. One of the biggest issues and…myths?…about corsetry is how Victorian-era corsets in general were bad for women and were on the same moral scale as Chinese foot binding. I knew a lot of people that did costuming and professional corset making, and there was none of these issues in their creations and they would laugh about these stories.
…the horror stories were actually a mixture of facts and myths. The first and biggest one was that most of the corset myths came from poorly fitted and poorly worn corsets, both of which made things worse. Since most corsets in the era were ordered by catalog and by mail, you sometimes got very badly fitted corsets that were not cheap and people struggled to wear them after spending all that money. Then you had people that clearly were tightening them too far-and makers that would corsets that could be tightened too much, because obviously people wanted them.
Finally, you had the Victorian dress reformers, who would exaggerate any bad stories, exaggerate any issues, and all as a part to “rationalize” female fashion. Victorian dress reformers were a part of the wave of Victorian-era feminists and suffragette movements in the United States and the United Kingdom, and both tended to have a lot of overlapping membership.
And this overlapping membership means that you can find some of the strangest connections if you’re willing to look long enough. This means you have more material for your stories, because connections between people and groups means you have more possible details to share.
Show Your Local Library Some Love
Libraries are very important for somebody doing research, even if you only have a small library to work with. Often libraries not only have books on the subjects, but periodicals and more “long form” research materials, which can be very useful for getting more details on the subject you’re writing about. Many main libraries will have older newspapers and periodicals on microfilm and in storage, which can help you to get a sense of the era you’re writing for.
If your local library doesn’t have the books-either in the library itself or at another branch-ask about Interlibrary Loans and if you can find the books at another library or location. Just remember to return the books on time!
Is there a college or university near you? Their library might have the information that you need, as many college libraries have larger and wider collections than most public libraries. They may also have specialized libraries in the subjects that you’re studying or specific periodicals.
Unless you’re a student, you probably can’t check out books, but you could browse and make photocopies of the reading material there. Check with the front desk before you come in and remember that most college libraries use the Library of Congress classification system, not the Dewey Decimal system.
Finding Books On Amazon
Amazon.com has probably done more to help people to find out-of-print and rare books that most bookstores will not understand when you want to buy a copy. One of the favorite books that I read when I was younger-read until I destroyed my Dad’s paperback copies-was The Umpire Strikes Back. Written by Ron Luciano, he talked about his time as a Major League Baseball umpire in the ‘70s and ‘80s. A lot of great stories and the “behind the scenes” history that was always more interesting than a dry recital of facts and figures.
Not a single bookstore around me carried it-after all, it was a paperback book from the 1980’s that had probably never been republished since the 1980’s.
I can get it on Kindle instantly or order a new paperback copy at any time I want.
And that’s not the only thing I can find on Amazon. Small press publications on niche subjects such as World War I alternate history, comic books that are out of print, and a unique take on the cozy mystery-there’s a lot of options out there for you to look at and review.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be critical of what you find-especially in older books that might not have known what people would have discovered later. But even these older books can provide an insight into the world that the authors lived in, little bits of historical data that can give your writing and your world a more “lived in” feel to it.
For the fiction writer, there’s a lot of places and ways that you can do research. And all of this research will lead to better stories, because you can spend more time writing the story. You can have the facts to hand on where your characters are going, what they might do when they get there, what they might be wearing, and what they could be eating or drinking.
You might use very few of these details but having them handy could mean that you can plug them in to fill a hole. Or inspire other ideas for your stories. And this kind of research can be a pleasure in itself, as you often discover things that you never knew. It’s like hunting for history-and discovering things long hidden that you can share with other people.
All of this just helps to make your stories stronger and makes it harder for that book to hit that wall in frustration.