Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Research May Be Key

Before I get started with my main topic for this blog, I wanted to share some good news. Over the summer, I transcribed my grandmother's cookbook with nearly 200 recipes from 1916 through 1960. It's called The Rowley Cookbook, and it's now available, just in time for the holiday season from It was a true labor of love and I'm very glad to have it published for all my family, friends, and anyone who enjoys good, home cooking.

It is interesting to talk to other authors, particularly about the research they do for their novels. I may have said this before, but I have noticed that those authors who do the most background work are often the ones who also "make it big". And this is true even for those authors who write complete fantasies like Harry Potter.

Fantasy writers spend months, if not years, developing their worlds and working out all the rules and inner workings of their universe. The more richly complex and yet consistent that setting is, the higher the quality of the story. And yet often, while the author spends a considerable amount of time working out that background, it may be only briefly visible to the reader.

Research is like that. You do a great deal—perhaps months of research—just to have one small reference ring true.

So a lot of writers decide to skim through the research, or perhaps decide it is simply not that important. For example, there are a great many writers who will write a historical and their research is simply reading other historical novels. They often say that modern readers find too much accuracy to be off-putting and that it produces a stilted, unreadable novel.

What they don't realize is that the research must be done to produce a setting for the characters that strikes the reader as true to life. You can't, for example, have a reader believe that your Regency heroine whips a revolver out of her petticoat and squeezes off five or six shots (depending upon the revolver). Revolvers weren't in common use until the middle of the 19th century, around the time of the Civil War, although early models were available slightly before that. And there were oddities such as the pepper box earlier. However, the point is that it would be anachronistic to include a revolver in a Regency story.

And the inclusion or rather, exclusion, of anachronistic details so your book is accurate will not make a stilted, unreadable manuscript. Writers should not confuse the use of detailed accurate settings with the belief that accuracy equates to a boring story. What makes a stilted, boring story is stilted, boring dialogue, poor plotting, and cardboard characters.

This holds as true for contemporary as it does for historical books. The stories that end up hitting the best seller lists are those which are well grounded in a realistic setting. I believe this is why so many folks give (and get) the advice to "write what you know". That is, in essence, short hand for saying, do your research. If you are writing what you know, then one presumes you don't need to do as much research, since you've already, in essence, done it. You know it.

But it would be equally wise to say, "write whatever you wish as long as it's well-researched." And if it's fantasy, then plan out the rules to your universe to keep it consistent. That is the "research" for fantasy worlds.

Well, I'm repeating myself now so I'll stop. I really wrote this because I'm shortly planning on expanding my website with information I've collected in doing research for my latest work in progress, Deadliest Rose. Some of it is downright gross, because for some inexplicable reason, I've become absorbed in medical developments and techniques of the early 19th century. But I find it fascinating and hope sometime soon to include some of my research on my website ( If nothing else, it will help m keep track of information I may need in later novels.

That's all for this evening. Hope you are having a wonderful holiday season!

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