Being a Better Writer: Research and Ramifications

Welcome, readers! Before we begin with today’s post, an obligatory plug, if you will. If you somehow missed it, Shadow of an Empire‘s cover has been revealed in all its glory! You can check it out here! And yes, that does have to do with the slight redesign of the site and its colors. Shadow of an Empire is releasing June 1st, and will be available for pre-order later this week!

Excited? Good! I know I am.

So, that out of the way, let’s talk about today’s topic: Research and the ramifications that come with it. Because, as with most things in the writing world … it’s not quite so simple when you get down to it.

Now, I’ll be clear up front: This is a request topic. Actually, it’s a pretty common request topic. Which, as often as I hammer the point home of “always do the research” doesn’t exactly surprise me. I’ve made a point of it time and time again in my posts here on the site and elsewhere around the web—and even in person! If you want to be an author, and write a story about anything … Do. The. Research. Learn about that thing. And learn well.

Naturally, this second bit is the crux of the topic today. At least at the outset. Because while it’s one thing to say “do the research,” for some it’s a bit like telling someone to build a boat. I say “do the research” and there are a cluster of authors new and old who respond with the concerned question of “Okay, how?” And yes, I say old as well as new because there are plenty of authors out there I’ve read that clearly have no idea how to do even the most basic research.

And … look, I wanted to do a bit here on basic research, but after writing it out and then deleting it and rewriting it once more, three times, I think I’ll sum it up by saying if you don’t know how to do the most basic research, by which I mean “Type something into Google and read about it” writing may not be the career for you. Basic research is something like picking up a library book or acknowledging that perhaps you don’t know as  much about a topic as you think you do. And while that’s a can of worms for adults … it’s a can of worms not really worth discussing here. Basic research is something most of us learned in grade school. And not higher grades either, but like … fifth grade. Or third.

So yeah, I’m assuming you know a little bit about using Google and at least finding wikipedia. I want to go a step past that. Basic research is … well, basic. Type subject into search bar and hit enter, then look at results. And yes, I’m including the necessary humility here to acknowledge that you need more knowledge on a topic.

What I want to talk about is more involved. More in-depth. Real research: How to do it, sources to look for, critical thought, and then application.

Now, disclaimer: You won’t need to do this all the time. For starters, once you’ve really researched something, and the knowledge is rooted in your mind, it can tend to stick. Second, sometimes you really don’t need more than a quick Google and a Wikipedia read for some aspect of your story, because what you researched is something that’s only a minor element of your story, a one-off moment that the basic kind of research is going to satisfy.

But what about something that’s a core element of you story? For example, Sweets hacking and computer skills in Colony? I know computers, but I’m not a hacker by any reasonable definition. I couldn’t just do a quick wiki-search, read a few pages that were designed to summarize what hacking was to the outside world, and call it good. Because as nice and handy as something like Wikipedia is, it’s a summary. Like explaining that a car generally has four tires, a transmission, and an engine that makes it go. It’s not wrong … but it is very simplified, and using that explanation as “technical speak” for a character attempting to work on a four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle is going to break down quickly.

In other words, if something is a core element of your story, a summary won’t cut it. You need specifics. You need details. You need more advanced knowledge.

Thankfully, you can still use Google for this step, though cracking open a book or two on the subject couldn’t hurt if you wanted to go to a library. But here’s the difference: Instead of making generalized searches … you’re going to start looking up specific knowledge.

For example, when I sat down to write Sweets’ character, I did go through a few basic pages on hacking. Wikipedia, etc. But after I did that to get some of the basic concepts down, I started doing new searches, this time for things like “Beginners guides to hacking” and “basic hacking advice.” I got results that were things like step-by-step guides to getting computers to talk to one another. hacking tips and tricks, pages by hackers about common misconceptions concerning hacking, etc.

I read all of them. Several of them I bookmarked so that I could come back to them later. I learned some of the expressions, some of the lingo. I learned a few different techniques.

I didn’t stop there, either. I read personal accounts by hackers about experiences getting into and out of different systems. I found blogs written by white hats that described their job. If I’d known any hackers personally, I would have talked to them. Had I come across a question I couldn’t find an answer to (I didn’t, hackers, as it turns out, can do some very meticulous write-ups), I would have done more research, and barring that research panning out, actually reached out to one of them via e-mail and asked.

Another example. Jungle, which you guys haven’t read yet, has a lot of its story taking place aboard a military vessel. So, when I sat down and started doing research for that story, one of the things I wanted to get right was the chain of command and how a bridge on a military vessel operates.

Now, I could have just looked up the chain of command on a military naval vessel from one nation or another and called it good, making some reasonable assumptions. Except … I didn’t, because though I did find and read a military manual on chain of command and the like on a military vessel, it wasn’t as … informative as I’d hoped.

What I ended up finding via more Google-fu was a blog-chain by a former navy officer who had not only worked on the bridge of several US Navy vessels for years, he had written about his experiences with regards to how it worked and what many forms of entertainment got wrong. In other words, Jackpot. I read the whole thing several times, and bookmarked it so that I could come back to it multiple times as I worked my way through Jungle.

The thing is, this is just the tip of the iceberg, really, when it comes to research. Because there are so many different places to gain and acquire knowledge for something you’re working on. Personal blogs, research papers, studies … you can even go for hands-on information, going right to the source and asking people with jobs in a particular field or even sometimes going out and getting your own hands-on experience!

The last one does take a little daring (a concern I’ve heard before at cons), but you’d be surprised how people open when you lead with something like “So I’m an author, and I was wondering …?” People like to know that what they do is appreciated. I recall one story I heard at a con about an author who was researching for a post-apocalyptic book but kept coming across dead ends in one particular avenue of research regarding gas-station fuel pumps. Finally, one day while out gassing up his car, he watched as a fuel truck pulled up to the gas station to begin a fuel delivery, and he decided “Why not ask an expert?”

It worked. He remarked that this trucker was at first suspicious … right up until the words “I’m an author” passed his lips, at which point the trucker became a fount of information and gave him a step-by-step walkthrough of the fueling process, answered questions … and helped him with the information he’d been unable to find anywhere else.

Now, his point, which I’ll repeat here, was that a lot of people are genuinely enthused to know that someone cares about their job/career/life, etc, and are willing to answer questions … especially if they feel like you’re genuinely interested in return and trying to get it right.

Done this myself, too. My favorite was a call I placed to an out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere sheriffs department in Nevada to ask about jurisdictional differences. The sheriff on the other end of my call was surprised and a little confused for a moment, but was more than happy to explain to me the differences of jurisdiction they dealt with and how they intersected in Nevada between local police, sheriffs, and state troopers.

All of these are valid sources of knowledge for research! Personal experience, detailed guides … crud, even Youtube can be a great source of “how-to” videos that may give you the information you need.

However … there is a caveat I want to bring your attention to: One source may not be enough. In fact, the more sources you can find, the better. Because while one person’s experiences may tell one angle of something you’d like to write about, that’s still one angle.

In other words, it can be tempting to go with research sometimes that sounds good … but with some topics we may want to be wary and expand our sources a little just to make sure we’re giving a more complete picture. Crud, one of our sources could be wrong, or have their own opinions.

In other words, when we research, it pays off to spread our net wide and gather multiple sources, just in case some of our sources disagree or are out-of-date/flat out incorrect.

So: Research. Dig deep. Read how-to guides. Get details. Ask people. Maybe go for hands-on sources.

Now, the tile of this post is Research and Ramifications. We’ve talked about the first. Now, let’s talk about the second. And the very first thing I want to bring up is how you put your research into what you’re writing.

You want to know a secret? Sweets’ hacking scenes in Colony? I rewrote each of them at least twice, some of them three times. Why? Because here’s the thing about research once you have it. Yes, it’s useful, and yes, it can be used to make the story accurate … but how much of it will the reader understand or care about?

That was the challenge with writing out Sweets’ scenes in Colony. I’d done the research and could make his hacking fairly detailed. But in doing so, I knew I’d lose anyone that couldn’t keep up with that level of foreknowledge.

Which was what put me on the path of rewrites. The scenes need to be accurate, yes … but they also needed to be approachable. They needed to be written so that someone with experience in the field could nod along and say “this is accurate” while someone who had none could follow it and go “Okay, I see what this character is doing.” And, on top of all that, I had to take something that can be mind-numbingly dull at times and keep it fresh and interesting throughout.

Like I said, that took rewrites, but I eventually reached a happy point where those familiar and unfamiliar both with what was going on could follow everything, and still be entertained by it (which I only knew because of the varied experience of my Alpha Readers).

Point being, you may not use a lot of the research you find, for the sole reason that you’re writing fiction, entertainment, and not a research paper. When working that research into your story, don’t do it in a manner that’s going to bore the audience … and don’t dump it on them either. Let it be part of the story, rather than a case of showing off how much you know about said subject.

See, the ramification of knowing a bunch of information for your story is knowing when and where to put it to good use. Maybe that use is in the little details that make the story accurate. Maybe they’re in a large plot point. But however you use them, they need to be organic to the story itself, relevant, and still presented in a way that your audience is going to keep reading. You can’t just drop an exposition bomb in the middle of a paragraph and call it good.

Now, there’s one other ramification I want to bring up with regards to research, and it’s a big one. Almost worthy of its own post, but I decided it fit here. You ready? There’s an important point you’re going to want to consider when doing research. Here it is.

Reality is unrealistic. And because of that, sometimes making something accurate can be … problematic.

Let’s look at a direct example: The film Battle L.A. The movie’s creators went through extreme length to make sure that the military aspects of the film, from organization structure to combat, were extremely accurate. To the degree that a friend of mine who is a marine watched and it loved the portrayal, calling it one of the best ones he’d seen. And being a marine, he knew.

Critics, however, hated the film, and panned it across the board. One of the common reasons seen cited in the reviews? That the creators had “no idea” how a “realistic” army command structure worked, and that the military and firefights didn’t feel real at all.

The problem is … the critics were wrong, but so conditioned by decades of misconceptions that they were convinced reality was unrealistic.

I encountered this myself. When doing research for Jungle, for the aforementioned naval command elements, I found that one of the most common things I’d taken for granted from film and literature was … well … wrong. Two phrases, to be specific, that are actually in the real world inverted. But Hollywood has run with the more “appealing” reality for so long … who’d know otherwise?

This can be a serious blow that really requires knowing your audience and how knowledgeable they are, as well as how realistic they prefer their entertainment. Some readers will be obstinate in their lack of knowledge, and may even put your book down when presented with information that they disagree with, feel uncomfortable with, or any combination of a number of reactions. Sometimes, depending on how you feel about accuracy, it may be worth just letting it be part of the story where you go with something that isn’t accurate, because the belief to the contrary is so strong, and the segment of the book so inconsequential that it’s not worth risking the one-star reviews, the unhappy letters, etc, for making something accurate.

And … that isn’t something I can teach. It’s something I can warn you about, but it’ll be something you experience and work with on you own. You are, however, going to have to be aware of it. No matter how much research you do, no matter how accurate things are … there are going to be people who will disagree. They may not have proof, they may not even have logic … but they’re not going to like the realism you present.

Again, this is something you’re going to have to deal with in your own way. It’s a ramification of doing the research that you’ll run afoul of “reality is unrealistic” the link there is TV Tropes on the subject, which collects a lot of examples of this exact issue, but be warned it’s a time-sink). And in making your book more accurate … you might make it appear less accurate to those who don’t know what they believe is actually a misconception.

Again, that’s a bridge you have to cross for yourself. It varies with audience, and with the kind of reputation you build for yourself. You want to write stories that take efforts to get key details right? It might turn some away … but it may also give you a good rep inside a group that does appreciate the attention to accuracy.

So, to recap. For starters, do the research, and get in-depth. Find guides, personal accounts, try talking to those who have hands-on experience … the works! There’s a ton of information out there on almost any conceivable topic. All you need to do is go find it!

Of course, you still have to figure out how to make use of it in your story. Which is a mixed bag. Some details are best left to one-off lines, while others are best utilized in background bits that are never stated, but simply affect the characters (for instance, something like the motions of a ship at sea). While research is great, you don’t want to make the mistake of overloading readers or losing them to details they don’t understand, either.

Lastly, you need to be aware that reality is, well, “unrealistic,” and that even if you make the most accurate story of all time, there will be those that argue that it isn’t “real enough” … even if you show them the research you’ve done. Knowing what kind of audience you’re writing for, and what kind of realism that audience expects, will flavor how much research you’re going to want to do.

Good luck, because you’re going to need it.

Now get writing.

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