Friday, September 21, 2007

Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 1

By Lonnie Cruse

Over the next several weeks Sharon will be posting about critiquing/self-editing so I decided to post my workshop on research. Hope you enjoy the series.

Why research my writing? It’s just fiction, after all.

We’ve probably all eaten mashed potatoes at some point in our lives, so we know that:

A. If they are salted, we can’t see it.
B. If they are salted too much or too little, we can taste it.

Research to an author’s book should be like salt to mashed potatoes, not too much and not too little. The words should taste just right.

Readers love nothing better than catching writers in errors. Doing our homework is important. Readers will stop reading our books if they think we don’t care enough to get the facts straight, facts like which way a one way street runs when using an actual location, what building is located where on which street, what year this or that world-shaking event happened if we plan on using that information, and so on.

Am I saying we writers can never change things around to suit our story? No. Actually I moved buildings around in downtown Metropolis, Illinois when I wrote my first book, MURDER IN METROPOLIS, but I put a disclaimer in the front stating that “No facades were damaged during the moves.” We can make changes to actual locations, etc, so long as we somehow let the reader know we’ve made them, not mistaken them.

In my second book, MURDER BEYOND METROPOLIS, I portrayed the Brookport, Illinois Police Department as they actually were a few years ago when I first researched them, located on the second floor of a very small, very ancient building that today still houses city hall. The Brookport Police Department now resides in a brand new facility with all the bells and whistles, but I liked the setting of the old building so I used it and put a disclaimer in the front of the book so residents of Brookport would know I’d done my homework. It’s all in the details.

If you think you hate doing research, let me assure you it can be fun. I’m not going to advise you to hide in the back of some dark, dank library amidst the dusty tomes, digging for knowledge. In this class you will learn how to get out of your writing office (even if that’s just your laptop on the kitchen table) and go in search of interesting information. You’ll be gathering tidbits from newspapers, television, the Internet, real life experts, and the ordinary, everyday people around you. And I may be able to get you involved in a high-speed car chase or two, if we’re lucky.

Truth to tell, research is something we writers do every single day of our lives, whether we realize it or not. We file interesting facts away in our office, or in our brains, to use later in a story. We might have to go back and re-research it at some point (no gagging or spitting, please, keyboards are moisture sensitive) but it WILL be worth it.

A word of caution, we CAN get so caught up in researching that we neglect to write. Or worse, we’ve spent all that time learning about a subject, so we’re going to teach every single bit of it to our readers, whether or not they want to learn it. In which case we’ll either insult their intelligence because they’ve already learned a lot of the information on their own, or bore them to death and possibly get ourselves arrested for manslaughter. Use your research, don’t let it use you.

Properly researching our story can bring it alive in terms of setting, character, facts, time frame, and probably a million other ways. And our research will also suggest subplots, new twists, and brand new stories to write. Which is where the handy dandy research folder comes in.

SUGGESTION: If you don’t already have one started, get a file folder and label it RESEARCH. Place any important research information you already have into that folder. You might want to use one of those expandable folders, closed at both ends, so research items don’t fall out.

EXAMPLE: When writing my first book, I decided to take a research trip downtown for a closer look at the courthouse, since the body in my story was going to be found there. After the book was published at least two people told me they went downtown to verify whether it was physically possible to place a body where I’d placed mine. It is. (Wiping sweat from brow.)

I hope you enjoy this series. If you have any questions, please free to contact me.


Joyce said...

I like it when I have to research a place other than where I live. You not only get to do your research, you get a little vacation at the same time!

Sandra Parshall said...

I always have to "research" the places that I think I know well. When you've seen a place a million times, you don't really absorb the details unless you're consciously paying attention.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Hi Joyce, thanks for stopping by.

Sandy, ditto for me, I think I know familiar places, then I take another look and realize I didn't "absorb."