Photo by Michael Brandl
There is a strong tendency among readers to want to stay in the story once they begin reading. Writers tend to want the readers to stay there as well. After all, if readers put a book down, there’s no guarantee they’ll ever return to reading it, enjoy it to the utmost, and leave a glowing five-star review.
Let’s consider for a moment things that might cause a reader to stop reading. There are things writers can’t do anything about—a hungry pet or child begging the reader’s attention comes to mind as does a spouse who urgently needs to know how to operate a computer or cell phone. Perhaps a police chase comes to an end in the reader’s yard and a shootout commences. But there are also distractions an author can easily avoid through research. Authors of historical fiction, for example, choosing to describe a library of 1869 in great detail might not want to mention Melvil Dewey’s classification system. Most readers might skim past the error without concern, but readers who know his system was first published in 1876, might head over to their favorite social network to start a boycott or petition.
Obviously, we’re trying to be funny here. Or maybe it wasn’t obvious. Either way, the point is that most authors research, even if only briefly and even if they’re writing fiction, to help make their stories enjoyable, interesting, and believable—and to avoid losing readers to glaring errors. Lying is tolerated quite well in fiction—errors not so much.
So we asked authors “What is something you needed to research because of your writing that you had never given much thought before?”
Margaret Skea – I had to research 16th century amputation techniques, the best instruments to use, how to stop the bleeding and about tying off blood vessels etc.
M. L. Farb – I researched animal senses for a shape-shifting character. This was my favorite fact: “Eagles have the ability to see colors more vividly than humans can. They can even see ultraviolet light and pick out more shades of one color. Their ability to even see the UV light allows them to see the bodily traces left by their prey. Mice’s and other small prey’s urine is visible to the eagles in the ultraviolet range, making them easy targets even a few hundred feet above the ground.”
Laurean Brooks – I had always wanted to write Westerns, but the idea of the extensive research involved held me back. I wanted the descriptions of everything from buckboards, dress, to ranch living, make the story authentic.
My first book was set in the Abilene, Texas-Buffalo Gap area. Browsing led me a library in Abilene. Calling got me connected to a man who worked in the basement. Dennis Miller was there to answer historical questions about Taylor County, Texas We corresponded for a couple of months. In that time I was given rich accounts of historical events in Taylor County Texas in 1883, plus a list of the businesses in Abilene and Buffalo Gap. Dennis Miller’s eagerness to help encouraged me. When my book was published, I wanted to thank him for the trouble he’d put into researching. But lo, and behold, Mr. Miller had retired, and the library would not give me his contact information. I’m now on my second Abilene setting, and wish I could ask Dennis Miller tons of question. Thank you, Mr. Dennis Miller, in case you happen to read this.
Scott R. Rezer – Are you kidding?! Every book I write, I end up researching the most diverse, amazing, and odd things—things I never thought I’d research! For my current WIP, The Haberdasher’s Wife (Spring 2020), in addition to learning a thing or two about womens’ fashion in 1800 Germany (I always wanted to know that!), I researched a house still standing in Überlingen, Germany once owned by the noble family of my main character who also happens to be my 6th great grandmother! I was amazed to actually find a few pictures of the house (now a clothing boutique) to recreate a realistic setting.
Irene Onorato – The main male character in More Than a Soldier was wounded in an RPG attack. As a result, he lost an eye and the hearing in one ear. I had to research all sorts of interesting things about ocular prosthesis (artificial or “glass” eyes) and single-sided hearing loss. Also, to fully understand my soldier, I had to study PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Admittedly, I did a lot of crying while researching and writing the story. I came away from the project with more understanding, pride, and gratitude for the men and women who serve in our armed forces. And here I go, getting teary-eyed all over again…
Jessica Marie Holt – I was surprised by the rabbit hole of unusual details that was the Victorian era. It started off innocently enough, with general questions like, what were the funeral and mourning customs? How did day-to-day life change after the war? What were the travel options? What was the culture like at the time? But then, because I love incorporating lots of authentic details, it quickly spiraled out of control, for four reasons: 1) The nineteenth century was an era of complex customs, formalities and social interactions, which were rigidly followed, and learning them was a challenge 2) It was a time of rapid change, and details differed from decade to decade, so I had to specifically research the 1870s 3) The Victorian culture in, say, uptight London, was very different than it was in laid-back rural North Carolina, which is where my books take place, so it was harder to find information that applied to my specific setting 4) Everything about Victorian fashion and home décor was ornate and highly detailed.
So, fast forward a little, and you have me banging my head on the computer screen as I try to figure out what year crepe myrtles were brought to North Carolina, what fabrics were in bustles, where people kept matches for their bedside lanterns so they didn’t fumble around for them in the dark (surprise! in special containers attached to the wall), whether water pumps were common in rural areas, and whether the trend of having an entire bird on one’s hat started before 1871 or after.
Fortunately, each book gets easier, as you learn enough to write comfortably about the era, and you don’t have to stop to research as much!
And don’t get me started on drafting procedures for the Civil War, or war injuries severe enough to get you sent home, but not so severe that they kill you! It’s a finer line than you think—they’d patch you up and keep you fighting if they could get any use out of you at all.
Jessica L. Elliott – A couple of things actually. In Holly and Mister Ivy, Holly is a dog who also is trained as a matchmaker. I wanted her to be red setter mix (because setters are gorgeous) with blue eyes. I then had to do some quick research to see if this was even genetically possible. Turns out with the right breeds, it could be.
Then for my most recent book, Of Bows and Cinnamon, the female lead Elena announced to me that she was a breast cancer survivor. While I’d already known that younger women can and do develop breast cancer, the research stage was heartbreaking as I learned just how high those mortality rates are. Doing that research made me cry more than once, but it also made Elena’s character richer as I understood more clearly her fears and reservations.
Arthur Daigle – I do a sort of reverse research for my books. I have bizarre reading and TV viewing habits, where I read strange history and biology books and watch lots of history and science shows. When I see something that interests me, I add it into one of my stories.
Charmain Zimmerman Brackett – I have one of those google histories that you hope no one ever reads. I spend a lot of time researching, not only for my novels, but for the newspaper articles I write in my day job. Some of my newspaper research is tons of fun. I write arts and entertainment stories. I spend a lot of time watching YouTube videos of performers who I will be interviewing. It’s great to get paid to watch comedians and singers. For my novels, the research has been grimmer at times. Some of my more gruesome searches have included – what’s involved in cleaning up the scene of a violent death; what happens when you are shot; what type of gunshot could you receive and still live—fun stuff like that. I never covered crime in my 30 years at the newspaper I write for so those subjects were things I never wanted to think about.