I’m a research nerd.
I don’t love it as much as writing, but it’s a close second. It’s one of the reasons I choose such a wide range of settings and characters in my novels. I’ve written about soldiers in war zones, gamblers in Vegas, musicians on a festival circuit, doctors trying to save a life.
And while I didn’t visit a war zone as part of my research or start playing doctor on “patients”, I did learn how to play a pretty mean game of blackjack and am learning how to play the guitar.
There are some obvious reasons for doing your research as a novelist. Because even though you are writing fiction, readers still expect reality to be woven through the pages. If you want your reader to “believe” your story, then give them some stuff in your book that actually is true.
So if you’re writing about a vicious storm along the eastern seaboard on Sept. 7, 1976, it would be helpful if a storm did actually occur on that date. Or if you’re writing about a particular iconic skyscraper in New York City, such as the Empire State Building for example, make sure you get the number of floors right.
As author E.L. Doctorow once said, “Fiction doesn’t have to be real, it just has to seem real.”
Thanks to the internet, there are plentiful resources from which to draw your research (just make sure you choose credible ones). Use connections to people in the community to ask questions… a cop, a doctor, a lawyer, a pilot, for instance. Even if you don’t know them well, they’re usually happy to help. Find a way to make contact with people who have first-hand knowledge of what you’re interested in, because they can give you insight into a character or situation that a website can’t. They can arm you with the kind of knowledge that will make your character sound, look, act and feel like a real person.
In learning how to play blackjack and the guitar, I took my research a little bit to the extreme. I’ve talked to gamblers and musicians, and could have stopped there. But I wanted to know what it felt like to have a hundred dollars riding on a single hand of cards. How it felt to win, to lose, how the stress, anticipation, joy and disappointment felt when playing for real money at a table in Vegas.
Similarly, in learning the guitar, I wanted to feel what my musician characters feel when they pick up a guitar and play. I want to appreciate what it took for my character to become a good musician – the joy, the frustration (the repetition!), the peacefulness of a song well played.
So push yourself as an author when it comes to authenticating your characters and plot. You don’t have to go to war, or hang out in an operating room, or help arrest someone. But you might be able to go on a ride-along with a police officer, or ride a horse to see how it feels for your novel’s cowboy, or fire a gun at a range so you know exactly how much recoil your character can expect, and how it smells and feels to fire a weapon.
Become a research nerd, and your readers will thank you for it.
Tracey Richardson has had seven novels published by Bella Books. Her next novel, “The Song In My Heart” will be published in April 2015.
traceyrichardson.net and Twitter: @trich7117