How important is research in your stories, and has an error ever made it into print?
By Paul D. Marks
How important is research:
They say "write what you know," but we can't know everything we write about. Hemingway may have experienced bullfights and African safaris, but we often write about things that either we haven't experienced directly or, if we're writing sci-fi, things that might not even exist yet. Or we might be writing about the past – a past we never personally experienced.
I'm not 100% sure, but I doubt George Lucas has ever left this planet, and if he ever has, I again doubt that he went to a place called Tatooine. Still, he managed to come up with Star Wars and created a whole universe around it. How did he do that without ever leaving Earth?
It gives our stories verisimilitude, a sense of time, place and character that rings true.
Even though I lived through the "Rodney King" riots I couldn't see everything, be everywhere, experience every experience, nor was I a cop or rioter. So in writing my novel White Heat I turned to newspapers, magazines and the net, and since people are still alive who were there in the thick of it, I talked to them too, cops, and others.
I have a new novel I'm shopping now, a World War II homefront mystery set in L.A., based on a character that's been in three published stories. But that era is before my time, before any personal memories of mine. Still, I think I captured it pretty well because of all the research I did. On the internet, via old magazines, articles, movies, music, and maps. Maps are a great research tool and can be used in a lot of ways. But I also turned to first person resources. People who were there. My family goes back in Los Angeles well before the war, so I talked to relatives and friends of theirs. Plus I do have memories from after the war when things hadn't changed all that much, unlike today, so I could draw on them too.
Has an error ever made it into print:
There's always errors that make it into print. Some are innocuous, like typos or an out of place comma, some are big and make you feel stupid, especially when they're things you know but just got away from you. And then someone reads it and points it out and you feel like an idiot and think they think you're an idiot and will share your idiocy with the world. Makes you want to duck and cover.
But sometimes you might make a calculated choice to put something in that isn't quite right because it works dramatically – poetic license. For example, I might fudge it with a song that came out a year after an event took place, but that just works so well for a scene. But then there's always that know-it-all who sat in the front of the class and knows that that song came out three days after the date of your scene. So sometimes you just have to throw a slapstick pie in their face and fudge things a little.
So research is extremely important to just about anything we write. But it does have one major drawback: it's just too much fun. Especially in the internet age when you can just bounce from hyperlink to hyperlink and spend all day researching instead of writing. In the ye olde olden days you had to go to libraries or have tons of research books, which are fine, but today it's so much easier. And it's not only educational and important for your story, but it's the best procrastination tool ever invented because you can pretend to be doing work while you're really just having fun.