Bad news if you think research is for term papers: fiction writers don’t get off. Getting facts straight is essential for every story setting, from colonial America to a modern police department.
Fortunately, there’s more to research than sneezing your way through library stacks:
1. First, know what you need. What don’t you know about the real-life version of your setting or character? Besides technical matters, consider background details: What do firefighters talk about during down time? When did the Beatles release that song? Make a list of things to check, especially anything that affects the plot.
2. Hands-on experience is the best research. If your protagonist will go to Chicago, go there yourself. If he’s famous for cheese soufflé, bake some soufflés. Don’t try to store everything in your head; take copious notes. Read a few issues of National Geographic to see how experienced writers weave in the details.
3. “The horse’s mouth” is second best. If you can’t work in your protagonist’s career or visit your story’s location, talk to people who have. For technical questions, interview experts—preferably using a tape recorder. Don’t leave your notebook at home, however. Jot down nonverbal details: your interviewee’s dress and gestures; the smells that fill the atmosphere; the sources of background noises.
If you don’t know any experts, colleges and universities are good places to look. Or ask a librarian for Web addresses of reputable “find an expert” sites.
4. Primary sources come next. For settings more than sixty years past, living witnesses may not be available. The records they left—the “primary sources”—are the next best thing. Don’t stop with “published” material; read diaries and letters. Ask local librarians about “archives”—even if the public library has nothing, it can direct you to museums and historical societies.
Primary sources do reflect the biases and misconceptions of their cultures, and your most admirable characters will be products of their time. So study your sources carefully to pick up the “feel” for each whole person; recognize what keeps the likable ones from sounding arrogant or ignorant. This will help you create lifelike story characters.
5. Reference books, such as encyclopedias, should be left for double-checking such basics as dates and locations—such books are generally weak on fine details. They can save you from letting someone sing a song a year before it was released. However—and this is a very big however—
6. Double- and triple-check everything. You probably know that many Web sites are more interested in “proving” biases than in getting facts straight. But a conscientious writer maintains healthy skepticism toward any source; even reference books make mistakes. Check information against three or four experts on the topic. In case of discrepancies, don’t go with the majority—go to the sources your sources used (any reputable expert will note where she got her information). If there’s still room for doubt, review the sources used by those sources.
Yes, this is a nuisance. Yes, a thousand people may believe the false version. Yes, top writers occasionally get away with brutalizing the facts (as in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” where the solution hinges on blatant scientific error). But you’re not a top writer (or why bother reading this?), and can’t afford to make a fool of yourself in front of readers. Not if you want anyone to buy your next story.