Thursday, July 16, 2009

How Much Research Do You Do? by Christine Duncan

I recently went on Goodreads looking for something to read when I was attracted by a discussion in the mystery group about writers cutting corners in their research. I couldn't help responding since I don't know any writers who do that. The writers I know spend too much time researching--getting caught up in details such as what kind of boot fasteners women used during the Civil War. Then these same writers try to stuff it all into their manuscript when they finally sit down to write the thing. Meaning--they get tired of their critique groups getting on their cases because they haven't brought in anything for weeks so they finally write something which reads like a Sears catalogue from the 1860s! Then the critique group gets on their cases AGAIN for data dumping and tells them they don't want to read a 400 word description on women's boot fasteners in the Civil War in the middle of the scene. (Yes, it did happen. I was there and I even told the writer in question that the rules of our critique prohibited arguing when she was being critiqued. Otherwise known as the shut up, sit down and take it critique method. And yes it is compatible with the sandwich critique method which we can discuss another time.) Anyway, whatever else it is, this is hardly an example on cutting corners on research.

The woman I responded to in the mystery group was offended and told me that the discussion was not meant as a forum for writers to defend themselves. So I kept quiet until asked a question by another discussion member. Another writer brought up the fact that some of her research was cut from the book by her editor (who was probably someone from my critique group still ranting about data dumps.)

Obviously there is a fine line where we writers need to include enough facts to supply verisimilitude but not so much to bore the reader right out of the book. So many of us probably end up limiting what we put in. And I've heard of writers being corrected on facts by their readers. One woman, who I won't name, told of being flooded by emails pointing out that she had her chase scene going the wrong way down an obviously famous, one-way street in a very big city. The writer was actually a native of the city and knew the street well. But when she was writing the scene, she got turned around somehow and no one else ever caught the error...until it was in print.

Now I don't consider that to be cutting corners on research. The writer was relying on her memory and really didn't even think about researching the fact. If you had asked her about research for the book, she probably would have been able to list tons of sources. But she thought she KNEW that street. That stuff happens and it's not the same as, say, having the novel's forensic investigator pull fingerprints off of a cotton t-shirt (which I understand from my research, is pretty unlikely. But you know, after this discussion, I'm afraid to say that without checking that research again so don't rely on me here.)

So do you cut corners on research? Have you read books where you suspected that the writer did? Obviously I can't go anywhere with this, but I want to know.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Fortunately, cozy mysteries don't require a lot of forensic or other research--unless you've set the series in the past, in which case the research is tremendous.

I think it's extremely distracting, as a reader, to find inaccuracies. But too much information is also bad (I'm not in forensics class.)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Mark Troy said...

Errors in city streets and guns tend to draw the most ire from readers. Most people are proud of where they live and knowledgeable about the area. Gun owners have usually given a lot of thought to their choices of weapons and are often passionate about the issues involved in owning and using guns. So I always double check those facts.

A lot of research can be done on the internet now, but sometimes it's good just to get to your location. I just returned from San Francisco where I discovered, accidently, that an important clue in my current WIP is wrong. I could have found the information on the internet, but I wasn't looking for it and missed it.

Christine Duncan said...

Hi Mark!
Exactly, if you think you already know something, you won't look for it. Sometimes that kind of stuff has to hit you on the head. But for the rest of it, I still maintain, writers research maybe a bit too much. I may make an error about guns--I'm not an expert in any sense--but I went to a citizen's police academy and did some shooting and asked tons of questions of the cops there and then checked out the gun stuff again with an FBI expert on gun spatter (thank you sisters in crime for your networking stuff) before I used one in my writing. Any errors I make won't be their fault--but I tried hard enough so I don't really feel it will be mine either. (Unless you count the fact that it will be a question I didn't know enough to ask!)

Anonymous said...

Great point. A 360 review, as I'm familiar with, places the person in the center of a circle and they cannot say a word while the others sitting around them let loose, hopefully with a healthy balance of constructive criticism.

Regarding research, its easy to tell if a writer has done their due dilligence or simply tried to get a book to market. I researched my book for two years after taking a voluntary layoff.

So take advantage of time wisely I tell aspiring authors, and do as much research as possible. It will show in the final product.

Stephen Tremp