For writers, research is NOT an option—even when writing fiction. Why not? Because it is the thing that puts reality into a story, that allows your readers to participate in the “suspension of disbelief” we, as authors, need for our stories to work.
I’ve mentioned before that old adage, “Write what you know.” What you need to remember is how you know what you know can vary with what you’re writing. Stories are quicker and easier to write if our characters work at a job we’ve had or live in a city where we’ve lived, but that doesn’t mean we can’t write about what we don’t know right this minute, as long as we do the research so we do know it before we write the story.
Albert Camus once wrote, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” I couldn’t agree more, but it’s critical to get the facts right within the lie so as to capture and keep the attention of our readers. It really is all about the details, because if you get the details wrong, you’ll lose your audience.
Case in Point
I once attempted to read a book that managed to keep my attention only until somewhere in Chapter 2, at which point the author proved herself to be as much of an airhead as her heroine was. It was a dark and stormy night, and said heroine was frightened by the thunder and lightning. She attempted to figure out how close the storm was by counting the seconds between—wait for it!—the thunder and the lightning. I kid you not! The character listened for the thunder clap then attempted to count the seconds until the lightning flashed. I used to think everyone knew that light travels much faster than sound, but . . .
A friend of mine used the same scenario in one of her books, and unfortunately she also got it wrong. She did have her character counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, but she had her character count two seconds between the flash and the boom and estimated the lightning was two miles away. The problem, of course, is that her calculation was wrong, and the lightning was really less than a half-mile away—which can make a big difference when your character is running across an open field in the middle of a thunderstorm.
How do I know? Well, besides counting the seconds between flashes and booms all my life, and knowing that approximately every five seconds is a mile between the lightning and me, for my story, I did the research! I did a quick Google search and found this: (1) the speed of light is 186,282 miles per second; (2) the speed of sound within our atmosphere is 1,125 feet per second; and (3) a mile is 5,280 feet. Doing the math, we learn sound travels one mile in 4.69 seconds, so if your character is counting, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi . . .” and the “boom” comes at about “five,” the lightning is about a mile away.
I used this in one of my own novels. My librarian and a bunch of kids are cut off from town by a horrific thunderstorm, and she sends two of the older boys out to her car to get the groceries she’d bought on her lunch break because flash flood warnings were up, and it didn’t look as though anyone was going home that night. I let my librarian and the geeky teen count the seconds together following a flash of lightning, so they knew they had a little time. I used this not only as a plot device—it was safe for the kids to run out to the car if they hurried—but also to develop my characters, because when the librarian and the geek together come up with the distance, the other kid—a not-so-studious athlete—asks, “How do you know that?” and my geek explains it in detail as they head out the door. I did not do this to brag about my own accurate research but rather to help establish the boys’ relationship with the librarian—she had a whole lot more in common with the geek than with the athlete—and with one another—the athlete gained a measure of respect for the geek via this encounter.
Why It Matters
Now, you might ask, “What difference does it really make if you don’t get it exactly right? After all, it’s just a story.” But it does matter, because if you get the details wrong, somebody—some reader—is going to notice, and a factual error can (1) pull a reader out of your story, and (2) damage your credibility as a writer.
With the ready availability of the Internet, we writers really don’t have any excuse for getting the facts wrong. Look it up. Get it right. Always confirm what you think you know. Even when I was working as a reference librarian, I never gave a fact to a patron that I hadn’t first looked up in a reliable source, so I could give the patron both the information and the source. Don’t disappoint your readers. Have the same respect for both them and your story.
Next week, we’ll start to look at some of the details that can help build a story’s reality—and some of my favorite research tools with which to find them.