Sunday, March 11, 2018

Research--How Much Should you Use?

Terry Shames here:

The question this week is how you decide how much of your background research you put into your books. I write a series set in Texas and my basic research was done when I was a child. The town of Jarrett Creek is based on the town where my grandparents lived when I was growing up. The smell, sights, sounds, even the taste are part of my cell structure. That part of Texas can be bone-dry one minute, so that the smell of dust permeates everything, and then it can be drenched with rain for days on end, bringing with it the scent of swampland—earthy and rich. A railroad track runs through town, as does a main state highway, bisecting the town and lending reality to the term “the other side of the tracks.” But in this case, both sides are “the other side.” When I was growing up the Santa Fe railroad came through town. A train whistle and the sound of the great wheels churning down the tracks throws me into the memory of how that sound made me restless and lonesome all at the same time. I dreamed of being the first female hobo, hopping the train for parts unknown. As for the taste, the land around Somerville is full of clay and the water tastes of iron. You can’t find that kind of research on the internet. This series full yembraces the concept “write what you know.” I know this town.


But I do have research to do. Early on, since I was going to be writing about a police chief, I needed to know the details of police departments in small towns in Texas—the personnel, the buildings, the jurisdictions, their uniforms, their vehicles. And I needed to know about guns. That’s a particularly fraught subject, because gun-lovers are alert to anything you get wrong, and gun-haters don’t want to hear about it. Combining the two made it easy—be specific, but don’t dwell on it. I read thrillers in which every single detail of a protagonist’s weapon(s) is given in detail. I suppose some thriller readers care, but I don’t. I want to say to the writer, “Good for you! You did your research, and it shows. Too much.”

But there are other things I include in books that I don’t know so much about. A chief of police in a small town in Texas encounters all kinds of mayhem that I have to know something about. Here’s my secret: I don’t do advance research. I write scenes the way I think they would actually happen—and then I look up the reality. I have read too many books where it was obvious that the writer had done a lot of research and either was determined not to have it go to waste or didn’t know when they gone too far in writing it, so that it became cumbersome to read. When I write it the way I “think” it should be, I concentrate on what my protagonist is experiencing.

Here’s an example: In An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, a prequel set in the early 1980s, Samuel is a newly minted chief of police. He goes to Austin to view an autopsy of burn victims. I thought I ought to read a little something about how that would be done. It turned out not to be necessary. I went on-line and immediately saw a photo of a burn victim on an autopsy table. That’s all I needed. My imagination did the rest—the sight, the sound, the smell—all through Samuel Craddock’s eyes as a young man determined to get through the autopsy without disgracing himself. After the book was published someone asked me how I got the autopsy so accurate. My husband is a retired physician and I asked him if he noticed anything amiss in the autopsy scene. He looked at me in amazement and said it never occurred to him that I had never attended an autopsy—especially of a burn victim. It seemed totally authentic to him. Anybody who watches crime on TV has seen little bits of autopsies, but I focused on the things that someone would focus on who had never attended one.

Sometimes, I do waste writing time when I don’t research in advance. After I wrote the autopsy chapter, I went back to make sure the details of the place it was done were accurate—and discovered that the current building where autopsies are done in Austin is not the one where they were done in the 1980’s. I had to rewrite those descriptions. Another glitch was discovered by my copyeditor (bless her!). I had included the name of an economy motel chain, and she discovered that that motel chain did not have a presence in Texas until the late 1980’s.


Not only is accuracy important to me for my own satisfaction, but people will write you about things you get wrong—or that they think you get wrong. One man wrote to tell me that alfalfa is not actually grown in Texas. I know darned good and well that it is. But who am I to argue with a Texan? I told him that I must have been mistaken and that my daddy called any field of fodder “alfalfa.” Another man wrote to tell me that police chiefs are not appointed by sheriffs in Texas. Thank goodness I had actually done my research early on, and found that in some small towns that is exactly the way it’s done.

I guess my bottom line answer to the question is, I do only the research I need to do, and I only put in what needs to be there.


Paul D. Marks said...

Terry, ain't it the truth that "people will write you about things you get wrong—or that they think you get wrong." And sometimes you can't win an argument with them even if you're right. And sometimes, at least I've done this, you write something that works for dramatic purposes even though you know it's not the way it is in real life. Poetic license. But then I always worry that people will think I'm an idiot...

RM Greenaway said...

Curses to that motel chain for closing. I hate it when something from your memory has all changed up and won't fit with your timeline.

Also like Paul I'll take poetic licence - and then worry about it. I add a disclaimer to the back saying I've taking some liberties with the geography, and hope it doesn't bother anyone too much.

I also like your bottom line - only use what you need.

Cathy Ace said...

Great insights here, Terry, into challenges and potential pitfalls with research. Eyedroppers, not buckets...worth remembering :-)

Terry said...

Paul, I think it goes with the territory that we worry that people will think we're idiots.

"Only use what you need." Kind of snarky when you think about it. But I like Cathy's comment--use an eyedropper, not a bucket.

Dana King said...

A topic near and dear to my heart. I grew up in the towns that became the Penns River of my series and have knowledge of them in me to the cellular level, much as Terri describes here. I'm also the sort who does more of less continuous "background research," i.e. reading things not specifically related to any book but what will provide necessary background. (Connie Fletcher's interview series with cops, cop biographies, etc.) Then I research the specifics I need for the book at hand. After that I try not to mention any of it, except maybe as throw-away lines of narrative or dialog. To me, the trick to balancing how much research into a book is to see how much of it you can get between the lines through tome, voice, and attitude. I feel the less I have to overtly describe my research with the reader still getting what I was going for, the better I've done.

Patty said...

I know a lot about police procedure because I worked with the LAPD as a volunteer and Specialist Reserve Officer for 15 years, including 5 years in the detective squad room as a burglary investigator. I probably write too much about procedure because I find the information fascinating and think the reader will, too. But what do I know?

Also, all authors try hard to get things right, even though some readers question some details. When I spoke to a book club about PACIFIC HOMICIDE, a man told me a body could never get through the sewer system all the way to a treatment plant. I watched the smirk disappear from his face when I informed him that the book was based on a real cold case and I'd seen the crime scene photos in the Murder Book.

James Ziskin said...

Great piece, Terry!