Want to Write Well? Learn to Research

Photo Courtesy of Ed Yourdon via Creative Commons
[New York Public Library]As writers, we like to pride ourselves on our ability to turn a phrase. And after having written for a while, we find that we’ve developed our own style—our own voice. But the best writing in the world can be ruined if we haven’t researched a topic properly. The cold blade of Truth will cut through our words and leave a wreckage of pretty ideas that, though appealing, make the reader want to scream. There’s a wonderful moment in Woody Allen’s film ‘Sleeper’ where the Diane Keaton character has written a poem (heavily influenced by McKuen) about a butterfly’s metamorphosis. The only problem is, she gets it wrong, with the thing ending up as a caterpillar. Awkward …

Some time ago I read a book that was, for the most part, enjoyable. The plot was taut, the characters real. And I probably would have given the author an excellent review, until I came to the part where he described the protagonist attending Mass. Now, I am Catholic and I know what a Mass looks like when I see it. And his description landed pretty far from the truth—to the point where I would have thrown the book across the room had it not been downloaded to my Kindle. Just imagine your readers tossing your book aside in disgust when they come across something they know to be patently false. Yeah, awkward.

A bad piece of writing advice goes like this: “Write what you know.” Well, here’s what the author Joe Haldeman has to say about that:

Bad books on writing tell you to “write what you know,” a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.

The point is this—if you are a horror, fantasy or sci-fi writer, then obviously you cannot write what you know. You are creating worlds that don’t exist, for crying out loud. But that doesn’t obviate the need for some solid research. You need to describe places and things, and how stuff works. But here’s the beauty part—most of the time, all you need is a great Internet connection.

Learn to Become Self-sufficient
I am a member of several online groups catering to authors. And nothing gets me more wound up than someone posting a question like this: “If my character gets shot, how long will it take for him to bleed out?” I have three little words for you, Mr. Lazy-ass writer: Look it up! Here’s a better question: “I’ve been researching gunshot wounds, and there seems to be a discrepancy on how long it actually takes for a person to bleed out, depending on where they were shot. If my character takes a bullet in the abdomen, what do you think is a safe estimate to make my story believable?”

Now, that’s a great question. The author has taken the time to do the research herself, and she’s also told us what she learned. Finally, she’s made her question very specific. A gold star for you!

Wikipedia is Good But …
Look, I am as guilty of this as the next guy. I use Wikipedia prodigiously. The key is to not treat this well-known site like Encyclopædia Britannica. Typically, when I find something of interest in Wikipedia, I also check one or two other sites to see if they are saying the same thing. If so, then I’m pretty confident that what I’m reading is accurate.

Another great source of information—especially when you are writing about how things work—is YouTube. It’s utterly amazing the stuff people post there! Want to know how to assemble or disassemble a particular weapon? Need to know what the inside of a morgue looks like? More than likely, there’s a video that will show you. Related to that are television shows. Many of the better ones hire real-world consultants who advise the writer and director on how something actual works. I recently finished watching the brilliant new Amazon series ‘Bosch’ (based on the Michael Connelly books), and I have to believe these guys know what they are doing.

The other thing to check for accurate writing is online product catalogues. I am currently completing my horror-thriller trilogy, THE DEAD SERIES, and all of the books reference weapons, both large and small. There are gun shops in my immediate area, but they don’t necessarily carry RPGs and Browning M2 .50 caliber machine guns. Both YouTube and online gun catalogs have proven invaluable.

The Joy of Research
In my view, research should not be burdensome. I’m the kind of person who likes to learn new things. So, the fact that I have to stop the creative process momentarily and look something up doesn’t bother me. Now, I may not get everything right. I’m not a trained doctor, soldier or police officer. So I may find things that are technically accurate, but would never work in real life because those people just don’t do it that way. Think ‘Bosch.’ And if I get something wrong, I always appreciate a reader contacting me and telling me so I can fix it.

Writing is not just about creativity and a command of the language. It’s about discipline. And doing research is a very disciplined way to approach your craft. Oh, and here is a link to a post about gunshot wounds and bleeding. In case, you know, someone in your story just got shot.

3 Replies to “Want to Write Well? Learn to Research”

  1. No. Kidding. I have thrown books across the room for just such anachronisms or poorly researched or inaccurate scenes. I once found a picnic scene from the 14th century involving a picnic basket compete with fried chicken and potato salad. Yeah. Right. I sent the author a nasty letter.

    1. I hope you mentioned that what really did it for you was including the Little Debbie snack cakes for dessert.

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