Saturday, December 15, 2012

Let's Talk Research

Research can be a writer's greatest tool, but can also be the harshest monster to tame. I've seen lots of authors make mistakes with research. Some writers research too much and pile facts into their manuscript in awkward info dumps. Some writers don't research enough and make crucial mistakes in credibility. Some writers do both. Here are some tips to help you avoid these traps. 

Collecting Research

1. Do not rely solely on the Internet. This might come as a shock to you, but not everything you read on the Internet is true. Yes, it's a fabulous source and allows you to have information at your fingertips but any idiot with a keyboard and Internet access can type information into various websites that then becomes part of the digital "public record," with no verification necessary. 

2. Go to the library. Ask the staff at the Reference Desk for help. They can direct you to books, periodicals, digital material, etc. that will help you find the facts. Intimidated? Start in the children's department! You can find a lot of information, written in very basic language and often with illustrations. The simpler you keep your research, the less likely you will be to overload your reader when you insert the info into your story.

3. Do not "cut and paste." Avoid the possibility of plagiarism. Write notes in ink, in your own private form of shorthand, in a notebook or steno pad. 

4. Locate an expert. Over the years, I've contacted vineyard owners, winter sports rehab experts, 911 operators, private pilots, chocolate experts, doctors and nurses, glassblowers, ghosthunters, car mechanics, time management specialists, Jane Austen experts, costumers, and dozens of other people who have knowledge I need for a story I've written. I have never had anyone tell me, "Buzz off, I don't want to talk to you." Most people are flattered and excited to share their knowledge with you. It's almost like a brush with celebrity. You can find experts by using online search engines, contact info from books, local colleges, craft fairs, and programs offered by your school or library. 

5. Remember the Rule of Three. Use at least three different styles of research (i.e. website, book, expert). When using books and/or the Internet, verify info through at least three different sources.

Inserting Research Into Your Story

1. Only include the information that is pertinent to your scene. The biggest mistake most writers make is putting in too much data. Just because your hero works for the CIA doesn't mean we need to know the CIA was founded in 1947. You only need to know this info if you planned to have your CIA agent start working for the organization in 1879. If your agent is employed after 1947, you're good, and the reader doesn't need to know at all.

2. Avoid the "As you know, Bob..." scenario. Writers often rely on dialogue between characters to provide backstory and information to the reader. It's a great tool. I use it a lot. But you have to dance a fine line. Your characters cannot discuss something they both know as fact as if one of them doesn't. This is called "As you know, Bob..." because the dialogue will go something like this: "Since Jake is having a heart attack, we should give him an aspirin. As you know, Bob, aspirin is a reliable way to slow down the formation of platelets, which create blood clots, and a blood clot could be causing Jake's heart attack..." Does anyone really say this while their friend is having a heart attack? Of course not! What will they say? Probably something like, "Call 911! Does anyone have aspirin?" That's it. That's all you need (which correlates with Rule #1 in this segment.)

3. RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. Tease your reader. Drop in subtle hints without going into gobs of detail. If you’re unsure if you need particular information in a scene, try reading the scene without the passages detailing that information. Did you lose anything in the translation? Was the scene hindered in any way by its absence? If the answer to these two questions is “no,” take the information out. Save it for another time, if you need to use it at all. 

This is where a reliable editor is crucial. (S)he should pick up and question those areas you might have overlooked, or let you know when you’re banging info into your reader’s head.

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