I-Spy: How to...Research

Join the authors and friends of Not Your Usual Suspects for an occasional series of posts about their world of reading, writing and publishing.

Short and sweet; hopefully both informative and entertaining - join us at I-Spy to find out the how's and why's of what we do.


TODAY'S POST: I-Spy How to ... Research with Toni Anderson
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No matter how diligent you are, the likelihood is, you WILL make mistakes. I’ve made errors that make me want to kick myself. My advice is this—let it go and move on. More advice—don’t advertise your mistakes unless you can fix them :) (why give someone ammunition with which to shoot you?). 

Most of the information below is pretty simple. I find the best advice often is :). As my stories often involve crime/murder/death the emphasis is on more law-enforcement based resources, however, the underlying principles remain the same whatever the genre.

So, how do you research a novel? First, decide what you need to know.
There’s always a lot to think about when writing a book: setting—including flora and fauna, culture, jobs/occupations, life experience, medical conditions (psychological and physical) and often in RS/Mystery stories, some sort of police or military procedure to grapple with that involves everything from weapons to law.

Figure out what details you need to know. Don’t go off on too many tangents or you’ll never get started on your novel.

There are so many resources available today that weren’t available when I finished my first novel, Her Sanctuary. Back then (not that long ago) the FBI hadn’t admitted to having a section dedicated to art fraud. So I made it up. Nowadays they have a fantastic website (FBI), so be sure to Google <insert search engine of your choice> the obvious. Most of the big organizations have great websites, FBI, CIA, even GCHQ :)

This leads me to the primary method of research in today’s technological world. The Internet.
After Google, Wikipedia is the next obvious step. My advice is don’t assume all the information here is gospel. Check the facts. What I find most useful about Wikipedia is the External Links citation section, and also finding alternative search terms (i.e. when researching the SAS, I was reminded by Wikipedia to also search ‘The Regiment’ which is another nickname for the British Special Air Service). 

For settings I spend a lot of time looking at images and watching videos on Youtube. I’m lucky, I’ve traveled a lot and, when possible, I use personal experience in my writing. But my last story was set in the Wakhan Corridor and, no matter how much I might want to, there’s no way I can leave my kids while I trek around Afghanistan on a yak. But YouTube has allowed me to visit this fascinating spit of land. 

I also borrow travel guides from the public library—my favourites are The Lonely Planet Guides. And I read autobiographies/essays set in places where I want to set my stories. Once, I remember dripping sweat in the heat of a Queensland summer and shivering as Rick Bass took me on a haunting journey through the wilderness of Montana.
And, for a literal look at the place you want to set your story, try GoogleEarth and get a 360° view. 

Blogs.
Blogs might have gone a little out of fashion, but if you want details about a particular way of life they are worth spending time reading through. I found blogs especially helpful when writing a character who has type-1 diabetes (Cameran Young in EDGE OF SURVIVAL). People talk about everything from their deepest fears to their most mundane routines. Every detail is important when creating realistic 3-D characters. A lot of front-line soldiers blog. Another fascinating blog I found when writing my snow leopard biologist heroine was this.  I found it an invaluable insight into the biologists’ daily routines and common frustrations. 

Books (More books. I love books). 
I also scour the local library search engine and Amazon (Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk because they list different books). If I find a suitable book I add it to my wishlist and go back and search for it in the library. I do the same with DVDs. Some of my wishlist books have been there for years—they are so expensive I just can’t justify getting them, but every time I see them I remember a story idea. Kids books can be really useful too. I have way too many books, but it will never be enough.

Writers groups.
In terms of delving for facts on anything from death to taxes, writers groups are an invaluable resource. I’m a member of Romance Writers of America (RWA) mainly because I wanted to join their Kiss of Death Chapter (KOD). RWA and KOD give me access to several writing loops where I can ask my questions. I also belong to Crimescenewriters which is a similar resource but free and with more law-enforcement personnel involved. Through these organizations and loops I’ve attended some phenomenal field-trips. Prior to RWA’s yearly national conference, KOD always arrange a tour. I’ve visited a Sheriff’s Department in Reno, the State Department, the US Postal Inspection Service, and other writers visited the Pentagon, Quantico and the Coastguard. Through Crimescenewriters I heard about the Writers’ Police Academy run by Lee Loftland. It’s offered down in North Carolina and offers a packed schedule of hands on experience for wannabe crime writers. This year the keynote speaker is Lee Child, when I went it was Jeffery Deaver :)

Experts.
If you can’t get to a workshop then see if you can find experts in the field you are interested in who will talk to you. I have friends in the secret echelons of the Ministry of Defence and, despite all the dirt I have on them, they won’t tell me a damn thing. I’ve actually found people who I don’t know personally to be more helpful than friends or relatives (I’m not sure what that says about me but what I’m hoping to encourage is the confidence to reach out). I did have a rather hilarious incident recently when I’d contacted a RCMP officer who wrote a newsletter. I then managed to get the email address of the media relations person. I received two replies pretty much on the same day. The former said, “We can’t tell you that sort of information. We don’t want the bad guys getting hold of it and, you’re writing fiction, so you can make it up.” I chuckled so hard I also gave myself a hernia. The second reply had all the details I needed for my story and he was happy with follow-up questions too. So, where possible, reach out to the media relations people from whatever organization you’re interested in. They will help you.

As a former scientist I want to say don’t be afraid of science/medical journals. The Introduction and Discussion sections often contain easy-to-understand information and might just summarize exactly what you want to know. 

I’m way over my word count for this post. I’m going to leave you with one more piece of advice. When you’re writing, your book you should only include the tip of the iceberg in terms of the information you have gleaned. The depth of your knowledge will shine through in the veracity of your writing, not in a dull list of facts.
I hope this helps.
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Toni Anderson, Ph.D., is a former Marine Biologist and Research Scientist turned Romantic Suspense writer who now lives in the Canadian prairies with her husband and two children. Her stories are set in the stunning locations where she’s been lucky enough to live and work—the blustery east coast of Scotland, the remote isolated mining communities of Northern Labrador, the rugged landscapes of the U.S. and Australia. You can learn more on her website. LIKE her on facebook :)
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FUTURE POSTS will cover:
Kindlegraph / the art of research / writing male/male romance / rejection and writer's block / building suspense / writing love scenes / anti-piracy strategies / audio books / interviews with editors and agents / using Calibre.
We welcome everyone's constructive comments and suggestions!


Comments

Wendy Soliman said…
I willingly admit that I HATE doing research and try to write, as much as possible, about things I know. There doesn't get rid of the need for research altogether and I do try to get the things that I have to check absolutely right. Even so, errors creep in. Sigh.
JB Lynn said…
Great post!

Important point about the "dull list of facts".
Elise Warner said…
Loved the post, Toni. I enjoy research and it spurs ideas for future writings as well as whatever I may be working on. A group of numismatics helped me out twice.
Clare London said…
I can't describe how amazed I am that you make research sound *fun*! I'm c**p at it, most of which is laziness. Yet when I do look into something - like the wax sculpting I used in Blinded By Our Eyes - I end up fascinated.

And oh my goodness yes, the whole art of doing research well is not *looking* as if you have.

Great post!
Thanks for putting all the great ideas in one place. :) I especially appreciate the first paragraph...that sometimes things will be wrong, and I'll have to just get over it. (Though I do pride myself on being right all the time. LOL)
Cathy Perkins said…
Wonderful post Toni

I hadn't thought about using people's blog for the day to day frustrations, but that would be so helpful with characters such as your diabetic. (another research lover :) )

While I completely agree with the No Info Dump sentiment, and I think most people will give an author a little wiggle room on details, it absolutely drives me nuts when a book has a Lieutenant driving patrol.
Toni Anderson said…
Wendy and Clare--you hate research? LOL, I am stunned!
JB--thank goodness for the delete button :)
Elise--yes, sometimes the ideas just cascade. I love it when that happens.
Anne Marie, I do beat myself up and then I move on. It's hard, but no point fretting over anything you can't change. *sigh* :)
Cathy--blogs can offer amazing insights into people's lives. And I agree on the old Lt driving patrol, unless it was an episode of Undercover Boss :)
Phyllis Humphrey said…
Great post! You've covered every place I thought of and more. Thanks a million.
Marcelle Dubé said…
Great post, Toni! A primer for any fiction writer. I don't particularly enjoy research. My method now is to write the story and put big XXXs where I don't have the specific information I need. Then in the second draft, I stop at every XXX and find out what the answer is.

Needless to say, this can backfire, when you come across a piece of information in Draft 2 that changes everything...
Rita said…
Great post Toni!
I L-O-V-E research. The last tip is so important. You don’t need to educate me on how to build a gun just shoot the dang thing! Hours of brilliant research can translate to a couple of sentences on the page. And please when you need info go to the source or expert –don’t ask you great Aunt Tillie’s neighbor’s second cousin who read about it once.
Shirley Wells said…
I'm with Wendy and Clare - I hate research. I know I have to do it, but I hate that it gets in the way of my writing. There's a reason I set my books right on my doorstep, you know. ;)

I always think research is like underwear. It all has to be there and it has to fit perfectly - but it shouldn't be on show.
Jean Harrington said…
Toni, While I can't say I always enjoy research as much as you do, the truth is unless a writer knows everything about everything, it's imperative that she turn to an expert here and there to shore up the holes in her knowledge. Or to enrich what she already knows. There's amazing stuff under those rocks sometimes. Thanks for all the fresh insights into what is part of our writers' job. Cheers and best.

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