I often hear from people who want to write a book but don’t know how or where to begin. Or from people who have already written a book that’s ready for publication but don’t know how to get it published. I recently began a new blog series, Writing and Publishing Tips From Authors Around the World, to help writers.
The twenty-first contributor is U.K. author Juliet B. Madison and she’s here to talk about the importance of research when writing.
THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH- or how to blind one star trolls with indisputably factual fiction by Juliet B. Madison
One thing I think authors probably hate only second to promoting is research. Most fiction genres require a certain amount of research and even the most flawlessly researched book will be given a one star review by some troll who thinks a date or fact is not quite accurate, even if they enjoy the book they will still mark you down for that one mistake although, given the limited intellectual capacity of some trolls, they probably actually know very little about the topic in question.
In the area of historical fiction period research is vital to enable the author to give the readers a taste of the time about which they are writing. Reading other novels set in your preferred time period, as well as watching films and TV dramas connected to that period can be helpful.
Crime fiction, the genre I write in, also requires research. You need to get the forensic and procedural details correct because, once again, mistakes are a troll’s treasure. For example if you wrote a story set in the 1960s about a detective investigating a rape s/he would not be able to identify the assailant by his DNA because DNA was not known about then. Also if you were writing a story set in the 1980s the convicted murderer would not be hanged.
So how does a crime writer do his/her research?
You can read as many books and watch as many TV crime dramas as you want, and I consume a great deal of both, but you also need to place the crime in the context of the time period. The DI Frank Lyle Mystery Series is set in the 1980s and 1990s. This is why I have not yet touched on cyber crime and Islamic radicalisation because they do not belong to those times, whereas crime writers setting their books in the twenty-first century might well deal with these topics.
If at all possible contact your local police who might agree to help you with procedural matters. I contacted my local CID last year and finally got a response from the secretary of the local branch of NARPO (National Association of Retired Police Officers). I got in contact with an officer who was serving at the right time. Retired PC Alistair Melling has been extremely helpful in providing facts and dates related to the issues covered in the books. For example I was using the modern police caution (I think it’s called Miranda rights in the USA) and the one they used back then is ever so slightly different. I was able to make the necessary changes and I can now also credit Alistair for his help. Being able to acknowledge help from a professional person might stymie trolls a bit as they will realise that you, the author, did actually talk to someone who knew what they were talking about.
In my Nanowrimo 2014 winning novella Prescription for Murder I consulted a pharmacist about prescription drugs, which might possibly contraindicate one another. Prescription for Murder was part of the novellas collection A Winter Murderland so I acknowledged the pharmacist’s help in that.
It helps to network socially. By that I mean in real life as well as online. You might be writing a book about someone with a gambling addiction who robs a bank to pay off his debt to a nasty crime lord. I’m not suggesting you try and initiate yourself in the local GA group or find yourself a drug baron to talk to. Talk to people in shops and show an interest in what they’re doing. Watch and study people all the time and also draw on your own life experience. If you can inject a book and character’s life with a dose of been there done that then it makes it real. The subject of Type 1 Diabetes and the complications which may arise has found it’s way into more than one DI Lyle book and I am able to draw on thirty-five years of living with Diabetes to make it real. In Heir to Misfortune, my second book, the killer used his wife’s insulin to murder three men. I had to cast my mind back to 1990 and remember which quick acting Insulin was around at the time. The quick acting insulin I use today was not available then and even that could have screamed one star alert to a troll if I had named it. I didn’t actually give details of insulin type and the fatal dosage on purpose. I left that to the reader’s imagination. A GP is hardly likely to tell someone how many units of quick acting insulin constitute a fatal dose. Some things you have to approximate. It would probably have taken a lot more of the insulin Bob Kenyon used to kill someone then. The most popular quick acting insulin available now is Novorapid and I think it would have required much less.
What I’m advising is this, use the professional knowledge of people you know. Cyberspace is chockablock with information, but you need to use your discretion and not necessarily take sites thrown up by a Wikipedia or Google search at their word. If a certain medical condition has an impact on your characters then try to use the official sites where the information is likely to be up to date and correct. Most such sites have a contact us feature which you can use to get the answers you need and most also have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. I am lucky when it comes to forensics and getting the processing the crime scene details correct because I have a writer friend, Paul Trembling, who is a real life CSI. He has helped me a lot when it comes to the finer detail of how things are done, or how they were done when the book was set.
You can also use writer’s reference books. I have several related to crime fiction. Most of them are available as Kindle downloads or second hand paperbacks. There are ones about missing persons, criminal psychology, wounds and injuries, weapons & ballistics, death and forensic medicine and poisons. I thoroughly recommend the Howdunnit series.
Unfortunately a poorly written book can take off, we need not look beyond a certain so called erotic trilogy for that, but a poorly researched book will be shot down in flames. Trolls target anyone and anything, but are more likely to be drawn to books with several four and five star reviews so that their one star hatchet job really stands out.
Research can be a chore, but if you are genuinely interested in the subject then it might even be enjoyable. However DO NOT ignore the need for accuracy.
Lastly, here is a check list
1. Always get a flavour for the time period in which your book is set.
2. Consider what forensic knowledge was available then, remember what I said. Solving a rape by DNA in the 1960s or earlier is a real no-no, as is murderers getting hanged in the UK after 1965.
3. Use the professional expertise of people you know and credit them in the acknowledgements.
4. Draw on your personal life experience when and where possible.
5. Do not put yourself at risk while doing research.
6. Be discerning with Google and Wikipedia searches. It is best to find an officially recognised site related to the topic in question.
7. Use writer’s reference books if you can. I would not have gotten by without my copy of Cause of Death; a writers’ guide to death, murder and forensic medicine by Keith Wilson M.D, especially in the early days. I am now fairly confident at writing post-mortem scenes.
I hope that this article will help writers clear the fog which descends when research is required.
Juliet B. Madison is a single woman who lives in the UK. She has no children (by choice) and has had Type 1 Diabetes since 1979. She enjoys reading crime fiction, collecting autographed photos, spending time with friends and messing about on Facebook.
Juliet is the author/creator of the DI Frank Lyle Mystery series. To date she has completed five full length novels and 3 volumes of DI Frank Lyle stories, as well as the recently completed novella Old Sins Cast Long Shadows.
Special Note: ALL Di Lyle books are 99p/99 cents from today until May 5th
You can find her books on Amazon by following this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Juliet-B-Madison/e/B00DNODS90/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_9?qid=1430408620&sr=8-9