So I was reading a mystery by a well-known Philadelphia-based best-selling author whose name I won’t mention here.
The scene was tense; a main character was sculling on a churning river when her boat flipped and sank to the bottom, leaving the character flailing in water, struggling to survive.
Readers were supposed to be gripped, snagged by suspense, unable to put the book down.
But that’s exactly what I did: I put the book down. Never read another word of it--or of any other work by that author. Why? Because the predicament was impossible: sculling boats don’t sink. Sculling boats have air pockets closed tight with hatches, precisely to keep them afloat if they flip.
I know that because I scull. If I weren’t a rower, I might have bought into the drama. But because I am, I didn’t. And, for me, the author who created it lost all credibility.
That experience showed me the importance of doing careful research to make sure I don’t lose readers by making similar mistakes. Not that I haven’t made my share--I was roundly chastised by several readers for mistaking cormorants for loons (in The River Killings), and in a recent blog, I mistakenly called a famous author Lee Childs (instead of Child).
I’m sure there are plenty more. But, as a writer, I believe that, if I want readers to spend time reading my work, I should spend time making sure it’s believable.
Of course, there are exceptions. Writers of fantasy can, I suppose, make up worlds where nothing is as we know it, and details, as we know them, don’t matter.
And then there’s J. Fenimore Cooper. Cooper was renowned for his implausible situations. In Cooper’s world, riverboats could sail down waterways that were narrower than the width of their hulls. A fired cannonball could roll (instead of landing on the ground with a heavy thud), and, while rolling, could carve out a path so clear that lost characters could follow it back to the fort. Nobody minded these impossible events; in fact, readers seemed to expect and relish them.
But for those of us who are neither fantasy writers nor J. Fenimore Cooper: If our details don’t hold up, the book, like the one I mentioned at the top, might get put down. Readers might lose interest in the story and—worse—respect for the author.
So here’s what I’ve learned: Before writing a book, I list topics I need to learn about, and then, I learn about them. I print out articles, interview authorities, visit locations, taste foods, sip drinks—do whatever it takes to gather the information needed to make the world of the book accurate, consistent, vivid and credible.
In the process, I learn fascinating, often unanticipated facts. And, with each book I’ve written, I’ve tried to pass that knowledge along to readers. For example, doing research for BEHIND THE WALLS, I learned about relic smuggling, silent movies, honor killings, and pre-Columbian art, symbolism, culture and beliefs—topics I’d known little to nothing about prior. I also learned about shape-shifters, people so enlightened that they can supposedly appear as bats, deer, jaguars or owls. And this nugget of information led to a new character who changed—and improved the entire plot.
We writers are often advised, “Write what you know.” But the fact is that our stories often rely on material far beyond what we know, and that’s when research saves us. Done well, research allows us to move beyond “writing what we know” while remaining confident that we know what we write.
MERRY JONES is the author of the Harper Jennings thrillers (BEHIND THE WALLS, SUMMER SESSION), and the Zoe Hayes mysteries (THE NANNY MURDERS, THE RIVER KILLINGS, THE DEADLY NEIGHBORS, THE BORROWED AND BLUE MURDERS). She has also written humor (including I LOVE HIM, BUT…) and non-fiction (including BIRTHMOTHERS: Women Who’ve Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their Stories.) Jones is a member of the Philadelphia Liars Club, Mystery Writers of America and The Authors Guild. Visit her at MerryJones.com
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