When we were students most of us hated doing research for essays and either avoided taking classes requiring essays, or we found some obscure text that we hoped the professor hadn’t read, from which to “pilfer” ideas and occasionally entire passages.
Nowadays, as a published novelist, research can be half the fun! I currently have a character who is going to become a private investigator and so I’ve been researching that field. I’ve discovered that most PIs actually specialize in one area of investigation or another. For example, investigating insurance fraud, or marital infidelity, or corporate spying. This also led me to check out surveillance methods, which led me to create another character for another series, which may be light-hearted mysteries involving a former crime boss stuck in the suburbs.
This second character is going to specialize in counter-surveillance and other skills in the unsavoury world of crime and spying, so I’m learning lock picking, sweeping for electronic bugs (I bought a bug detector!), using hidden cameras and microphones, and GPS tracking.
Research doesn’t always go the way we plan, though. Back in the mid-90s I was writing a sci-fi novel set three hundred years in the future when sex work would be legal and respected. In order to give my character, Jazmine, an authentic voice, I travelled to Nevada to interview a sex worker in a legal brothel. Why? It’s simple: a prostitute working the city streets lives in fear… fear of johns, fear of pimps, fear of drugs, fear of disease, fear of police… A sex worker at a licensed brothel on the other hand has security, health care, cleanliness standards, and a degree of peace of mind that the illegal sex worker never has.
So, what happened in Nevada? Well… I got kicked out of the brothel. Apparently, the one thing you can’t get at Mabel’s House of Prostitution is information. I was upfront about being a writer, but as soon as I said why I was there, my money was no good and the exit door opened.
Sometimes I pick stories based on something I already have a working knowledge of (birding, photography, athletic competitions, driving a bus) and sometimes I go in cold and discover the coolest stuff. Lately, I have learned about vertical forests, bats, environmental impact on fragile ecosystems, architecture, firearms, maps, lava tube caves on Mars, competitions to design habitats for Mars, and Faeries.
Young writers are often told “Write what you know” (like the bus driver writing about a retired bus driver who solves crimes), but those of us who have been doing this for a while say “write what you can research”. Maybe start with what you know, but expand on it. Read, interview, watch documentaries, and meet people living the lives you want your characters to have. This last one is vital if your story includes characters whose shoes you have not walked in, including characters of different races, religions, gender identities, sexual preferences, political ideologies, ages, or nationalities.
Don’t be a twenty-five-year-old who writes about an average senior’s home full of fifty-year-olds with walkers and adult diapers. Meet some sixty-five-year-olds who are running marathons, playing tennis every day (my 93-year-old aunt played tennis on her birthday!), or sailing to the cape for the weekend. Research the shit out of it. Have fun, but also be respectful of those lifestyles you write about but don’t share.
If you are a reader but not a writer, give us writers shit when we get lazy and don’t do our homework. Don’t be a picky freak about details like who invented the game of chess (there are multiple theories and no conclusive proofs), but do be picky about a shooter flicking the safety off on a revolver, or a champion bowling a perfect 400-game (300 is the perfect score in 10-pin). Of course, you should be polite and maybe contact the writer quietly through their contact page on their website to discuss their error, rather than screaming “THEY’RE A FRAUD!” all over social media. Be helpful, don’t be a dick.
That’s it, that’s all.
Ciao for now.