by Guest Blogger Serita Stevens
“We’re going to meet at Gino’s East on Wabash and Dearborn,” one character says to another.
What is wrong with that statement? If someone knows what you are saying is blatantly false the reader will close the book and probably never read your work again. Everyone makes mistakes but most research is easily done and correctable.
Anyone living in Chicago or having been to the Windy City will know the famous Pizzeria Gino’s East; they also know that it is not located on Wabash and Dearborn. In fact, there is no way it can – even if Gino’s had expanded. People familiar with Chicago know that Walbash and Dearborn run the same direction. They never meet. So already you have lost that reader and how many others will she tell that you do not know what you are talking about and therefore your story is crap.
Obviously we are going to encounter problems and lack of knowledge as we write especially when we talk about areas that we are not familiar with and have not done research on. Phyllis Whitney – a well known romantic suspense writer – once said that she will have her heroine be a visitor or newcomer to an area so that if she flubs a bit, it can be chalked off to her innocence. And then, of course, you give the person she is with a chance to explain things about the history - lovely research that you are dying to let people know about…and yet…you do have to be careful with this because we do not want to end up lecturing and having too much exposition.
While a visit to the place we are setting our story is always helpful so that you yourself can see the sights and sounds, and get a feel for the environment but it is not totally necessary. (Though if you have the money to go and you are sure the story is going to sell, the cost of the trip can later be deducted from your taxes as research – when you sell. Some accountants will even take if off the year that you make the trip if they feel the IRS will not question your writing as a hobby. )
Setting one story in 17th century Paris, which is much different than the Paris today, I still found that I wanted to walk to distance between this street and that. Even if the streets do not exist and the landmarks are difference, the sense of the land and space is still there. You will also want to get old maps that show you where streets where and many of those can be found in specialty stores – or if you are visiting the area, antique shops.
Nothing can take the place of really experience something first hand but other than visiting, reading books, watching videos about the area, and talking to people who have been or lived there are viable alternatives. Besides being sure about map coordinates and landmarks, you also want to make sure you have the proper slang for the area or the profession you are writing about.
If you are doing a historical you must be prepared to learn about clothing, food, customs, transportation, swear words, local oddities, and other world events. You must realize that women did not have freedom that we do now. Reading old diaries and first person accounts are good for this. You must be prepared to immerse yourself in the world.
The same code for research goes if you are writing a police procedural and do not have the experience. You ask someone who has done it to read it over for you; you ask an expert. Most professional people are more than happy to assist a writer with a story and in fact, many of them will say they wanted to write too but never could. They are flattered to be asked.
The other area that I seek when I am researching something new is to go to the children’s section of the library. Often their books are the simplistic and yet you get a sense of what you need and then you can progress to the more advanced books.
Medical questions are also something that writers often get wrong. Not only with how something is treated or where it is found but how it is discovered. In fact, that is what prompted me to write the book “Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons” which Writer’s Digest books printed in 1990 and has recently reprinted with some modifications as The Book of Poisons.
Serita Stevens is the co-author (with Ann Bannon) of Howdunit: The Book of Poisons: A Guide for Writers. She is the award winning author of 32 books and numerous scripts. Her book, The Forensic Nurse – nurses helping police solve crime – will soon be a TV show on CTV in Canada. Some of her material can be read on www.seritastevens.org