Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Research: How Much is Enough?
© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved

Several years ago, while I sat in a college writing class, the professor instructed us to “write what you know.” What student/writer hasn’t heard those dreaded words? I remember thinking if that were the case, I would never write.

I have what most would consider a normal life; married, raised two great children, went to college, have hobbies, and have been gainfully employed all my adult life. But this could be anyone’s life. If I stuck to the “rule,” I’d have nothing to write about -- nothing anyone would want to read, that is. However, I do have a passion for a good suspenseful mystery, the page-turner that yanks you to the edge of your seat, grabs you by the throat, and leaves you breathlessly begging for more. “Write what you know.” The words popped into my head again as I typed the opening paragraph of SILENCED CRY.

The reality is, most fiction writers I know have never been involved in the type of situations they force their characters into (murder, theft, espionage, smuggling, kidnappings, imprisonment, etc.). So where does a writer start? Research. Simply put, he or she owes it to his or her readers to create a story that is absolutely believable.

The question is how much research is needed? The answer: As much as it takes to make the story plausible. The problem is that research is a twosided sword. Not enough and the story will lack the essential truths needed to make it real. Too much and the story will sag with excess information.

A while back I read a book that held me until the last three chapters. After that, the bottom fell out of the plot when the suspended disbelief disintegrated into a convenient ending. The story wasn’t a police procedural, but a police investigation was implied. Yet critical evidence at the scene was overlooked which indicated to me the author had not thoroughly researched crime scene procedurals. Not that an entire chapter should have been dedicated to the investigation performed at the scene, but the oversight was glaring. A crucial piece of evidence that any crime scene investigator would have immediately bagged from a murder scene was never mentioned by the police. The omission felt like a ploy to fool the reader into thinking the guilty was innocent. It worked, but the tactic backfired because it also left this reader knowing the author hadn’t done his homework and rushed the ending. The real crime was that he told the reader who was guilty without giving the reader an opportunity to see the evidence mound and draw his or her own conclusions. Isn’t that what mysteries are all about? A gradual build up of suspense, peppered with clues and followed by a WOW ending?

This is an example where a bit more research, the addition of a few words could have changed the complexity of the entire novel and would have made me love the book.

Research doesn’t mean the writer must force every bit of information he or she discovers into the story. That’s what is commonly referred to as “information dump.” Only a portion of the research, that which gives a scene meaning, should be used. This means that an author may read pages of text from several sources to ensure the accuracy of a single sentence to give the work a flavor of authenticity -- make it believable.


s.w. vaughn said...

Excellent advice. 'Write what you know' can be a damaging axiom to follow for many writers.

I believe there is an appropriate Stephen King quote related to this subject, but it slips my mind at the moment. Perhaps it was, 'Always direct evil clowns with sharp teeth to your bastard of a neighbor'...?

No, that may not be the right quote.

Marta Stephens said...

"Write what you know" rates up there with "Show don't tell." Both have tripped most writers at one point or another.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Right on, Marta. You are my hero in this regard. Sam does things by the book (no pun intended! LOL) and would be admired by the toughest real life cops. Way to go!

Marta Stephens said...

Thanks Aaron.

One of my most treasured reviews was written by a police detective. In it she wrote:

"...Her descriptive crime scenes come to life with such reality I found it hard to believe I was reading fiction. Definitely a must read for police mystery enthusiasts."

When a professional in the field thinks the writing is accurate, it's pure gold.

All reviews of SILENCE CRY are available on my website,

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

That's the acid test, and you passed with flying colors!

Erin Aislinn said...

I can only imagine the amount of 'procedural' detail you mystery authors have to figure out. I don't think I could ever do that.

'Write What You Know' is usually the best advice for a beginning author, whose narrative may get lost in the search for unfamiliar detail. When you set a story in the city you know well, that will show on the page. When you give the character a profession you know, it will be easier to write and even more easier to read.

I've had my first taste of research in college, when I had to find back-up references for my arguments. I learned the best approach is to write the first draft, figure out what it is I want to say, then look for details to back it up. I find the same process applies to fiction writing. I can waste hours and hours on research, which might not even address the needs of the story.

Besides, when I know what I'm looking for, it always seems to magically cross my path.

Marta Stephens said...

Hi Erin! Thanks so much for stopping by.

"I can waste hours and hours on research, which might not even address the needs of the story."

Yup, that's the twosided sword. I think we have to develop a sense for when enough is enough.

Kim Smith said...

Hi Erin! Sometimes procedures can be fudged, especially in cozies where all the murder stuff happens off-screen.

Thanks for stopping in!

Dana King said...

I don't remember the exact quote, but it was Stephen King who I thought had the best take on "write what you know." He said you know a lot of things that can be used, even if you're not a cop/serial killer/astronaut/cowboy. Are you a butcher? Make a character a butcher. Are you from Madison, WI? Use that. Everything friends and family members have ever said or done is potential fodder. Write what you know applies in the micro level, not just the macro.

Fully agree with your advice on research. The topic should be well known, to provide assuredness in the writing. After that, research as much as you need, but no more. It's fiction.

I just found out about this blog on Crimespace. I'm going for the feed.

Marta Stephens said...

Hi Dana. Glad you found us!!

I've put several books down when the author emerged on the pages (or rather his/her knowledge) instead of the character. That's when research is used to extreme and in doing so, the writer risks boring the reader to death. You're right, it's fiction – make believe, and the reason we research is to give our writing the sense of reality. We want to engage the reader on an emotional level from beginning to end.

Hope you'll stop by again. We have a great lineup of guest writers coming up!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

I think Kim's take on cozies vs. crime mysteries is very valid. Although I don't classify LeGarde Mysteries as cozies (more "literary mystery") - they certainly lean more toward that genre than true crime, which is why I've been less diligent in my own police research. Instead, I put efforts into researching musical history, for example, to weave a shocking link into Gus's heritage, like you'll find in Mazurka when it comes out this summer. I love doing that kind of research! Well, I guess it's 'cause I love French Impressionist music and art so much, too. ;o) Okay, enough hints, I don't wanna blow it for future readers. LOL!

Dana - loved your take on writing what you know. That's how my books emerged - with the backdrop of my childhood and current life, gardens, grandkids, family feasts, animals, etc. But the villains had to be made up, and thank GOD I didn't "know" them. ;o)

Marta Stephens said...

Yes, Aaron, the scope of the research depends entirely on the subject matter and genre. Even within the same genre, each story will require varied degrees of research depending on the subject matter.

Another thing to consider is the knowledge we acquire along the way. When I was drafting the first in the Harper series, SILENCED CRY, I conducted an enormous amount of research into police procedures, weapons, street slang, the geography of Massachusetts and it’s laws (the story takes place in a fictitious city in MA), etc. Those things are now my base of knowledge. The research I conducted while writing the second book, THE BLACK PEARL, took off in a completely different direction.

The important thing to remember is that whether an author writes sci-fi, fantasy, horror, romance, cozies, or thrillers, at some point there will be an element of the story that needs further study to make it believable.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Excellent point, and a GREAT topic! Thanks, Marta. We'll look forward to your next piece, as always.