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Research, Research, Research

by Theodora O’Brien, Developmental copy editor, Manuscript evaluations-critiques

Any novel is only as good as its real facts. Readers pick up novels prepared to suspend their disbelief right up to the point they are expected to swallow such errors in reality as E=MC4 in science fiction, or that the Texas Rangers could get from Waco to Copperas Cove in two hours on horseback in 1870, or that the CIA is licensed to work in the USA in spy thrillers.

johnny-automatic-look-it-up-300pxTake the comment about the Texas Rangers. You might have assumed that as true because I’m writing about research, right? I checked four places: First: that the Texas Rangers were stationed in Waco; yes. Second: How far horses could travel on an average day: 15-25 miles, but by pushing them hard and if they were not heavily loaded, they could go farther. Third: How far is Copperas Cove from Waco?: 71+ miles, so no, the Rangers couldn’t get there in two hours. Check, check, check. But the fourth check?: Copperas Cove wasn’t a city until 1879, so why would they be going there? Somebody would have known that; count on it.

I did that searching on Google, which in today’s world is the easiest information tool you have, but there are other ways to check your facts.

Interview experts. People love to talk about what they know and do. It isn’t difficult to get them to chat about how they do their jobs, or give you answers on some detail you’re stuck on. Maybe your novel is set in Wyoming and you need to ruin a romantic evening; you decide it should be because of a carelessly placed hand in a fire ant hill. You live in Louisiana where these pests are abundant, so you know a lot about them. But wait. It wouldn’t hurt to put in a call to the pest control experts in your area and ask if the critters live in Wyoming—they don’t.

Write what you’ve experienced, if you can. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve edited a book in which the protagonist has the “wind knocked out of him” and he continues to exchange swing for swing with the bad guy, or goes right on to leap tall buildings in single bounds. I have had the wind knocked out of me; I guarantee your hero will not continue a fight or leap tall buildings. He will sit down like a gaffed fish, feeling empty, wondering how to get air back in lungs he’d never given two thoughts to before in his whole life.

Many actors have to learn how to shoot a gun, or swim, or dance, or sing, or dig a pit, or swordfight, or climb a mountain, whatever, to fill a role. You might want to give some thought to doing what you want to put your characters through. I call that hands-on research.

Use your five senses. Chances are you don’t live in and have never visited Mogadishu, Somalia, but you want to describe its temperature, how it smells, what the common foods taste like, etc. There are plenty of movies that take place in Mogadishu, or center around cities like Mogadishu, to give you an idea of its crowds, and living conditions and sounds; you can check Google for the temperatures and seasonal weather, but for taste and smell, visit a Middle Eastern restaurant near you. There will be one, as there will be a restaurant for almost all countries, if you live in any sizable city. If you don’t, order some cookbooks from Amazon.

If you can, visit the city or country you’re writing about. It is the best way, but most of us can’t just go off and visit foreign countries or even other states whenever we like. So get maps, ask friends, go to blogs, find those experts on the subject, but make sure you study the place until you feel very comfortable with your story’s city. I once had an author who chose to drive his protagonist through downtown Denver. I lived in Denver for forty years and I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, “Oh, that sounded like it would be right.” Don’t do that.

I have found that authors have the most difficulty factoring in the enormous differences in words, phrases, clothing, and common cultural differences between the time period they are writing about and when they are writing, when writing historical novels, especially if the story takes place in the U.S.

Take the ubiquitous word “okay,” for example. It shows up in novels set in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, during the Gold Rush, on cattle drives, and in WWI and WWII. It’s used as often in all those periods as it is today. The word wasn’t invented until 1839, wasn’t used in a popular, slang sense until 1898, and then didn’t get going in the culture like wildfire until 1980. Phrases we use in everyday life often aren’t more than a decade or two old and come from TV sitcoms, or movies, or politics. And yet, there they are, showing up in some character’s mouth in 1787 or 1887; heck, maybe 307.

(Seguing to all historical fiction: Another word to consider not using is “joke.” It’s only about 350 years old, which makes it ludicrous coming from a Roman Centurion’s mouth, for instance.)

Clothing was (for most) made of cotton, wool, silk, leather, and fur before synthetic fibers/materials were developed in 1910. Women bought the fabrics and made the family clothing; ready-made clothes came along with the invention of the sewing machine in the 1830s-1850s. The rich had their clothes made and “fashion” moved at a snail’s pace because we didn’t have instant information as we do today. Both men and women wore hats until after 1950.

I may be preaching to some of the choir with the above three paragraphs, but I know I’m not preaching to all of it.

Put yourself “in the moment.” Visit history museums. (The odds are you won’t be allowed to, but if you can, sit in the chairs, feel the cloth, touch the work tool. . . .) Watch old movies of your time period; Hollywood was more true to historical facts early in its history than it is today. Read novels, periodicals, magazines, or newspapers of the time to get a feel for the conversational style and what words, phrases, and slang were popular. Study the politics and major cultural issues of your period, even if they aren’t central to your story, because it’s all good background.

Research, research, research; if you don’t, it shows, no matter what novel you’re writing.


Theodora O’Brien

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