I love researching background material for a story. I know some people view it as a necessary evil; still others handwave around it and hope no one will call them out on their lack of factual details. I’m one of those people who really gets into a subject, wanting to know more about it, taking the research well beyond what is necessary to the story.
But there’s a fine line to walk between learning enough about the Battle of Britain in order to lend authenticity to a particular story and getting lost for hours on Wikipedia. And sometimes the obsession with getting the facts exactly right can get in the way of the story telling itself.
I’ve seen writers never progress off the second page of their story because they spent the last four hours trying to fact-check a minor bit of background detail—something not essential to the story at all, but because it was so important to the writer to get the facts straight, they never finished the story. I have to say, if you can’t find the information quickly and easily, it’s time to ask yourself just how important is it that you verify this fact in the first place? If you can’t find the answer, will the answer matter to anyone else?
I’ve also seen writers suck the life out of their own stories with a pedantic need for verisimilitude. There is such a thing as artistic license, and as long as we don’t use that as an excuse for shoddy research and bending the facts to fit our story needs, sometimes it’s better to go with convention than the actual truth. Take for example, the “murder board” as it is depicted in the average cop drama. I have it on good authority (a former homicide detective, teaching a writing course on murder stories) that the murder board—that white dry erase board where the detectives post pictures of the victims and suspects, draw time lines, and write up important facts—doesn’t exist.
Yep, you heard me. Doesn’t exist. At least, not in the form that we know it.
There are murder books, a case file where all the pertinent information concerning the crime is kept for working access, including crime scene photos, autopsy reports, and witness statements. No doubt with the ability to scan important documents and the push for more and more organizations to go paperless, the murder book will eventually be replaced by other means of record keeping. But that ubiquitous white board that makes its appearance in almost every episode of your favorite weekly police procedural television show is a fabrication.
Why use it then? Because it allows the show’s writers to share important information with the audience in a manner that isn’t information dumping. It puts names to faces and posts them in front of us. It provides a framework around which characters can ask each other questions—again, for the audience’s benefit, sometimes even having a eureka moment when they piece together the final bits of the puzzle. Not to mention creating a focus for dramatic shots of the lead actor staring morosely at the board in a half-lit room, cradling a cup of coffee.
So should we as writers, knowing that this is a convention for story-telling through television and movies, eliminate the murder board? There is one very compelling argument for continuing to use them in our stories. They are used so widely on television and in the movies that the audience expects them. To not use them feels like you haven’t done your homework. That you didn’t research your topic thoroughly enough. Ironic, isn’t it?
Because I love research, if I’m not careful, I’ll spend weeks reading and watching videos in order to get the right background for the story I want to write. If I’m not on a deadline, well, no big deal, I can wallow in my background details to my heart’s content. But I have to watch out and make sure I don’t use ‘research’ as an excuse to avoid the harder task of writing. So I’ve developed some personal guidelines which you may find useful.
1. Resist stopping every five minutes to look something up on Google. If you’re working on a first draft and you know you need to fact-check something, mark it with an asterisk and come back to it. If it is a minor background detail like what sort of weapon your hero would carry or what year penicillin came into widespread use, you don’t need to let it interrupt the flow of your writing. I know, I know! You think it will only take you a second to look it up, but seconds can turn into an incredible time sink when you are in first draft mode and your brain eagerly latches on to any reason not to finish that paragraph you’ve been working on. Focus on the story first and research second. You can do it! Resistance is not futile.
2. Determine how important the background research is to the story and allot the correct amount of time to it. If you are writing a WW2 story that takes place 24 hours before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you’d best have all your facts straight. Getting that wrong, either with anachronisms, or factual errors, or simply not having good feel for the mindset of the average person of the time—all these things will be woefully obvious if you don’t research the material thoroughly. A good rule of thumb: the more important the background is to the story, the more time you should spend on it. Your character dreams that he’s a rodeo clown and wakes up because a bull slams into his barrel? Yeah, you can probably get everything you need to know through a quick search on Google. You’re writing a story in which the main character suffers a spinal cord injury that completely changes his life? You’d better know what you’re talking about. You’ve chosen a condition that will affect every single aspect of your character’s life now. If you aren’t intimately familiar with your subject, it will show.
3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. The more realistic your setting, the more factual you should be, but if you’ve built a world where magic and the mundane co-exist, you probably don’t have to spend hours determining if your character can or cannot have access to aspirin unless the whole story hinges on this fact. And even then, there’s a place for some handwaving in such a world because you’ve already bent the laws of science and nature by having magic be possible.
4. You’re there to write first and foremost. When you get big and famous, maybe you can pay someone to fact check for you, but for now, you’re doing everything yourself. If you spend too much time on the non-essentials, you’re wasting valuable writing time. Mark it, come back to it in the editing phase. And remember, most people aren’t going to care what kind of shoes your character is wearing unless your story is set in a time before shoes were invented.
Bottom line: do your homework, but be smart about it. It is secondary to the story, not the story itself.
My latest story, Lightning in a Bottle, is part of the Olympic-themed M/M anthology from MLR Press, Going for Gold. I wrote about my own sport, eventing, which meant short of a few facts to check, I didn’t have to do a ton of research. Now I’m looking at writing a sequel, which means I have to learn a whole lot more about competing at the Olympic level—something I will never do myself. Which means, gosh darn, I have to do some additional research. I’ve already bought the eventing DVDs from the Games, and a book on training for the sport from my favorite eventing coach, and…
What’s the subject that you enjoyed researching the most and how did you end up using that information? Inquiring minds want to know!