How Much Research is Enough?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

My research tells me it’s Mother’s Day. So: Happy Mother’s Day! As Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up.”

But before the internet, it was rather easy for a writer to “fake it” when it came to research. That’s because a) there wasn’t an easy way for a reader to find, instantly, whether a detail was correct or not; and b) there wasn’t any social media or customer reviews for blowback. Thus, an author could get away with a bit of sloppiness—if that’s the kind of writer he wanted to be.

I have a friend who is an accomplished historical fiction writer. He worked his tail off on a series that came out in the early 90s. His research was impeccable. While his series sold okay, another historical fiction writer was enjoying much greater success with his series which (to put it mildly) was rather deficient in the research arena. Indeed, I read one of the books in preparation for my own historical series. This author’s book took place in 1904, but after a couple of chapters I had to put it down, because he had a thriving silent movie industry happening in Hollywood.

One problem: Hollywood did not become a popular movie location until around 1910, and certainly wasn’t hopping until the teens.

These days, you couldn’t get away with such a mistake. But would you want to?

Some significant fakery occurs in the classic film, Casablanca. One of the screenwriters, Julius Epstein, once admitted:

There never were Letters of Transit. Germans never wore uniforms in Casablanca, that was part of the Vichy agreement. But we didn’t know what was going on in Casablanca. We didn’t even know where Casablanca was!

But Letters of Transit sounds real. Which is, of course, the key to fakery!

In the 1960s Lawrence Block wrote a paperback series about a world-roaming secret agent named Tanner. When he got the galleys for one of the books he saw an odd term in the text: tobbo shop. What? He checked his own manuscript and saw that he had written tobacco shop. The typesetter had made a mistake. But Block sat back and mused that tobbo shop had a realistic ring to it and besides, how many readers would have been to Bangkok? (I believe he even got some letters from readers who had been there, and did remember those “quaint tobbo shops.”)

Harlan Coben issues a warning about research:

“I think it’s actually a negative for writers sometimes when they’re writing contemporary novels to know too much. First of all, doing research is more fun than writing, so you start getting into the research and you forget to tell your story. And, second, which is on a very parallel track … sometimes you learn all kinds of cute factoids you think are so interesting that you include them in the book, but you weigh the story down. I try not to do that.”

One method I’ve used when writing hot (and not wanting to stop) and I get to a spot where I know I’ll need research, I’ll put in a placeholder (***) and keep writing. I’ll make my best guess about how the scene should go, then do any additions or corrections later.

On the other hand, when writing historical fiction, which demands detail precision, I have to do a lot of research up front. For my series about a young woman lawyer in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, I spent many, many hours in the downtown L.A. library, poring over microfilm of the newspapers of the day. I have two huge binders full of this research, and I’m really proud of the results. But man, it’s hard work (am I right, Clare?)

But it’s worth it. When the first book came out almost twenty years ago it sold great and got uniformly positive reviews, several mentioning the historical accuracy. I did, however, get a physical letter (remember those?) from the curator of a telephone museum! He said he enjoyed the book, but there was one little detail about my lead, Kit Shannon, using a wall telephone, that I got wrong. The one guy in the United States who would have noticed this happened to read my book!

Naturally, it was not plausible to dump all the books in the warehouse to change that teeny, tiny thing. And who else was going to notice? But it rankled me, nonetheless.

When I got the rights back to the series, that was the only thing I wanted to change. All those years later I was still mad about it! Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the letter from the museum guy. I decided to try to find him online. Instead I found another museum and emailed somebody there, explaining the detail. In return, I got a nice email back telling me there was a model of telephone that operated exactly like I had it. It would have been used only by very wealthy people.

Which is how it was in my book. Kit lives with her wealthy great aunt in the posh section of town known as Angeleno Heights.

I’d been right all along! How about them apples? (Yes, I’ve been wrong before. It was in October of 1993. I thought the Phillies would win the World Series.)

Today, there are areas in your fiction that you’d better get right or you’ll hear about it, boy howdy. Perhaps the biggest of these is weapons. If you have your hero cocking the hammer of his Glock, expect a flood of abuse letting you know that a Glock has no hammer. (And if Gilstrap reads your book, duck, because he’ll be throwing it at you.) If you have your hero shoving another clip into his Beretta, you’ll have an irate horde telling you to shove … never mind, just note that a clip is not a magazine.

If you’re not accurate about a place, you’ll hear from people who live there. This is partly why I base most of my books in my hometown of Los Angeles. I grew up here. I know it. That it also happens to be the greatest crime-noir city is a bonus.

But sometimes I want to venture forth. In some instances, to save me from a cumbersome research trip, I simply make up a town and slap it down somewhere. If people want to take the time to look it up and find out it doesn’t exist, they’ll know I made it up and accept it. Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton set their series in Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Santa Barbara that allowed them plenty of leeway to make up locations within. No one’s complaining.

So I’ll throw it open. What’s your philosophy on research? Do you follow rabbit trails that can be an excuse to not write? Do you like to do as much….or as little… as possible? Do you, when the spirit moves, “fake it”? 

***

 

Reminder: My latest stand-alone thriller, LAST CALL, is still available at the launch price of 99¢. Because I want you to have it. Enjoy!

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52 thoughts on “How Much Research is Enough?

  1. (“about a young woman lawyer in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles”) 🙂

    I like the bit about the telephone. After all that research, you deserved to be right.

    More generally, given our preoccupation with the latest iPhone and the latest in driverless cars, it’s good to be reminded that there was phenomenal technological (and other) change occurring at the turn of the previous century as well. As you reported, just a half-dozen years makes a difference in Hollywood and, I’m guessing, in the entertainment environment on Main Street. And there are just 11 or so years between Kitty Hawk (1903) and the Red Baron and his “colleagues” having at it in WWI.

    I’ve got a story on the back burner set in SW Texas, 1885 or so. Just figuring out where one could get to by train in any given year in the 1880s is tricky.

    And the same problem applies in reverse for the 1980s. Until the mid-’80s a train ran from Solon to Chagrin Falls. By the time I moved here, the train no longer ran to Solon from Cleveland.

    • Eric, any time period is interesting when you uncover details. Sometimes I’ll go online to the L.A. library site and search old newspapers from, say, the 1940s, and look at the ads, the prices, the way things were sold. I’m fascinated.

    • Eric,
      Transportation–definitely another historical research snag. I’ve always wanted to write a comprehensive set of volumes on 19th century transportation in America.

  2. When I was working on my Civil War book, I wrote a scene where my blockade running heroine slips past the Yankee navy right before the Battle of Mobile Bay. She is spotted by her childhood friend, who was standing watch at Fort Morgan.

    When I sent that scene to my research partner friend, he sent me a diary excerpt from a soldier at Ft. Morgan noting the blockade runner Alice slipped past the Yankee navy at the exact time I had my heroine’s boat, the Alicia, slip past.

    We had several things work out that way. It got a little spooky.

    • That’s the kind of serendipity we love, Cynthia. When I wrote the WWI portion of my novel Glimpses of Paradise, I depended almost entirely on first person accounts, in memoirs and from newspapers.

  3. My dad had a passion to write about the pirates of the American Gulf Coast, specifically William Augustus Bowles. and did massive amounts of research in the university and college libraries in Maryland, Alabama, and Florida.

    Perhaps it his obsession (or OCD with getting it right to the nth degree), or a “fear” of not writing up to the idea, but after Pop passed, we found boxes of notebooks with notes and web-page print outs and photo copies of pages from old research books, and shelves of books on everything from 18th and 19th weaponry to sailing vessels to life with the Seminole.

    There were loose structural outlines, transition ideas between chapters, and a marker board full of lines and post-it notes… but alas, no book of his own.

    Just an outline of Bowles’ world-traveling insurrection-leading, both-sides-of-the-law,prison-escaping (Spain, the Philippines,before ending up in Cuba – I believe… but here I go down the rabbit hole of having ALL the facts myself), life had at least three _Captain and Commander_ type novels in it…

    Any way, it took the better part of three days to sort, with Mom telling stories of doing needlepoint while Dad dug… I gleaned the best (to my mind), along with the illegible handwriting we all knew and squinted at, and currently my “boys in the basement” are mulling over an appropriate – if different, of course – telling of the tale.

    To be honest – if not long winded – I find myself similarly stymied at times digging into the history of 1930’s/40’s Miami and South Florida on my own WIP… so I like your (***) suggestion to keep “hot”… (looks better and is easier to find than “blah-blah-blah…”)

    • George, my grandfather was like your dad with regard to the Civil War. Tons of research, and eventually he wrote something and self-published it (back in the day when you really had to be committed to doing that!) I don’t think he sold more than a few copies, but he took tremendous pride in his work, and that seems like reason enough.

  4. As you said, research is the fun part. I use made up locales based on real places which allows me to improvise. But I also research the “not real” stuff to see what other people made up so that I either don’t replicate their ideas or use things people already believe. But don’t get me started on vampires. There is only one Dracula!

  5. Great cover. I love it.

    My pet peeve is a poorly researched novel. I’ve been known to boycott authors If the research is blatantly poor or non-existent. Ugh. Last night I was watching a popular NETFLIX series. When I got to the last 2 episodes for season 1, the writing & research fell apart. Police procedure in a crime story is basic stuff to get wrong. Apparently, none of the cops in this town knew about testing for GSR, gunshot residue, to determine who fired a weapon. For crime fiction mystery lovers, that’s really bad when the whole plot twists on that bad research. I stopped watching it, even though I was almost to the end.

    I have a general rule. If the details are important, I try to have 3 resources to verify it. I like having backup in case one resource is an expert opinion, rather than fact. I generally use the internet as my first & easiest reference. Then I try a good research book as my second,option. And if it’s really important, like police procedure, I line up an expert to review sections of my book.

    Good post, Jim. Happy mother’s day.

    • Your three resources rule is great, Jordan. That’s why the details in your books are so dead on.

      Ironically, some of the very “wrong” things done in cops shows and books are repeated so often they become settled. Like pristine crime labs with sparkling equipment…and my favorite, every cop giving Miranda as he slaps on the cuffs. Real cops know you never do that…they want the guy to spout on the way to the station. And even there, until it’s interrogation, Miranda not necessary.

      But if you have an arrest in your book that does it the right way, you’re liable to get emails saying, “Hey, you didn’t have your cop give a Miranda warning when Joe is arrested. I normally love your books, but missed details like that drive me nuts.” ACK!

      • YES!! I found that very true. If poorly researched TV shows wash, rinse & repeat often enough with bad procedure (done for drama purposes only), readers accept it as fact. Sometimes you have to walk a line. Like when you can’t realistically obtain lab results instantly or even overnight. You HAVE TO make the delay reasonable & use it to your advantage in a plot. Don’t compromise. Make it work for you.

    • There was a faith-based movie that was sort of popular a few years back, can’t for the life of me remember the name. We started to watch it. Then we changed to something else, because, get this:

      The writers had Abraham walk into a camp to speak with the leader of said camp. Noah. Right. Abraham and Noah were contemporaries.

      To borrow JSB’s word…ACK!

      • I remember seeing an old movie on TV about Stanley finding Livingston. In the scene, Livingston is teaching the Africans to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” when Stanley finds him. Something bothered me about that and I did some research.

        Livingston “disappeared” into the jungle in 1866, Stanley found him in 1871. Arthur Sullivan wrote the music for “Onward” in 1871.

        So maybe the Lord delivered the music to Livingston in a dream?

  6. Such timing. I’m currently writing a book based on my trip to the British Isles, and (of course) the notes and pictures I took aren’t the right ones for the way the story is playing out, so I’m spending a lot of time looking stuff up.
    My first series was set in a made-up town in Oregon, and I figured my sister-in-law was getting tired of my questions, like “What street trees are blooming in May?” so for the next book, I moved a character to Orlando where I lived, figuring I could look out my window for answers. But because I set it in Orlando, I had to use the real Sheriff’s Office and everything like uniforms, vehicles, weapons, and the building details themselves needed to be right.
    I did enjoy researching a Thai restaurant my characters went to. Which, as is par for the course for me, went out of business right before the book was published.
    I like the rest of Coben’s disclaimers in his books. “This is fiction. I get to make stuff up.” (not sure he used the word ‘stuff’, though.)

    • Terry, when it comes to real locations, we do have tools that are pretty amazing. Google Maps and street view can give us a realistic chase scene. For uniforms and such, Google images. And for sight and sound details, YouTube is often helpful. And sites like Trip Advisor.

      • And that’s where I’ve been spending too much time! And menus. Back when I was writing my Orlando-based book, today’s resources weren’t as prevalent. I picked up the phone and asked a cop friend what color the carpets were. 🙂

  7. Research is key, IMO. I’ve put down more than one book for blatant inaccuracies. If the writer doesn’t care enough to research, why should I use my precious reading time to read his/her work? It’s time-consuming to get the details right, I get it, but it’s also fun. I’m writing historical true crime. If my research isn’t spot-on, you can bet I’ll hear about it.

  8. Great post, Jim

    I do most of the research that I know I’ll need during the brainstorming and before I start writing. When I’ve started writing, and find something that needs researched, I’ll insert an asterisk and make a note in the notes column on the right (Scrivener). It’s then easy to use the “find” feature to go through all the spots that need more research. If there’s something that I will need to go visit or talk to someone about, I’ll hand write a note on my “to do” list.

    Since I write fantasy, I get to make up a ton of “facts.” And I’ve set my stories in the community where I grew up and live. That makes it much easier. If any location is not a public facility, I rename it.

    And finally–Please forgive me for the kidding–you’ve given me the perfect opportunity to ask you a question about research. I enjoyed Last Call very much. I just wondered if you had a disclaimer for how much research you did (or didn’t) do. Just saying.

    • Ha ha, Steve! There are some things the discreet author chooses to conceal.

      Glad you mentioned Scrivener. I love how you can be reading on the net and highlight something, and can send that directly to a research file or clipping in Scrivener. Later, when writing a scene, you can do a side-by-side view of your text and the research.

  9. I wrote a whole science fiction novel based on NASA’s research on portals opening between our magnetic field and the sun’s. And boy, was that some dry reading. They sent a bunch of probes up and then just … reported the facts, not bothering with any kind of layspeak. I had to look up definitions of everything. And in the end, I had to go with the Rule of Cool more than the actual science. Because the actual science is very inconclusive. Sitting on the book for now because I need a science-y person to look it over for me.

  10. I love research. (I was also one of those odd high school seniors who loved history, and in 1972, there was a lot! Ha!)

    When it comes to weapons, all I have to do is glance right, out of my office doorway, and ask Alexa…no, I mean Alan-my husband-who knows models, numbers, ammo, grips, sights, manufacturers, yada yada yada. I’m also familiar with weapons, but mostly how to point and shoot, and hit what I’m aiming at.

    It’s funny, JSB, because I’m in the process of looking over my current WIP prior to sending it back to my editor, and ‘boy, howdy’, did I find a blooper! In the beginning I called Tom’s sidearm a pistol. When it actually had to be used, toward the end, it’d morphed into a .44 magnum-a revolver-which is what it is. I didn’t have to ask Alan about that. I knew. My face flaming, I fixed that one post-haste.

    The most fun research on this project so far, was for the walk-on-then-dropped-dead cinnamon bear, the victim of the aforementioned weapon. I’d never heard of a cinnamon bear prior to this project. I didn’t want the bear to be a grizzly, because they don’t range to my setting. I remember spending several hours on the internet reading up on them and looking at pictures. I also talked to a taxidermy friend of Alan’s, who brought me up to speed on likely scenarios where the rather shy beasts would be likely to become annoyed at the two-footed species.

    And when all was said and done, I knew a whole lot about cinnamon bears, but in the story, he enters stage left, thumps to stage center, and then is dropped by three well-placed rounds.

    But it was sure fun… 🙂

  11. I enjoy the research, because learning is fun, but it can be a distraction. I believe the hardest part is restraining myself from dumping too much research into a story.

    • That is definitely the big challenge, Jeffrey. The skillful weaving of essential detail is crucial. Readers are interested in such, but not if it comes off like a text book.

  12. Hi Jim,

    Ah, research! I have a degree in history, and love research, but have also seen how writers can be trapped into endlessly researching a topic. So far, my published novels have either been urban fantasies set in locations I know, or a crime space opera set in an invented universe. In the case of the space opera, I could play fast and loose with physics.

    I agree with Coben’s admonition to be careful about research in modern stories. The first novel in my Empowered series was set in Portland, and I put in a fair amount of location detail. One of my beta readers is a life-longer Portlander, and thought the detail detracted from the story. He was right, and I dialed it back.

    I’ve wanted to write a library mystery for a long time, and that project is now officially on my writer’s back burner, getting warmed up. I’ll do some research, but having worked thirty two years for public libraries, it will be as much a question of remembering details and anecdotes as it will be research, save for the researching of police work and criminology 🙂

    • Interesting about the objection you got. I love using local color, but blended with the action.

      When you write your library mystery please murder the librarian who talks with normal volume. When did that become acceptable in libraries?

      • An excellent suggestion and a great motive for a murder.

        When I started way back in 1987, it had already gone by the wayside as a policy, though some patrons would still request the quiet. My guess–technology and how we operated.

        When I started, we had a very busy set of staff phones at the public desk, to check for books as well as handle other “circulation business” for patrons calling from home. Later, when we added computers, public printers, and allowed cell phones, it only became louder. Toward the end though, I began to see (hear 🙂 a return to a quieter library.

  13. I love, love, love historical research. And the outcome of that for me is an example that no one who wants to publish books and make money should follow. LOL!!!!! Even if I didn’t write I would do historical research. In fact, I’m trying to figure out how to bring into reality a research database where I can plug in research data as I go & be able to pull it up on a whim whenever I need it for whatever I’m writing (for example, if I’m writing a book set in July 1917, it’d be cool to look up and see what events were happening around that time. Or find the details of the Bisbee Deportation, that sort of thing). Unfortunately for me, no matter how much I love research, I don’t retain details well in my brain–obviously since there are so many! Yes, I know there’s that thing Google, but sometimes historical searches can become maddening. I want it stored and organized in a way that makes it easy for me to find it.

    No matter how careful you are about doing research, an error can always slip in. Then there’s the negative flip-side. If you don’t use those placeholders you describe where you make a note to come back to a certain section of your story and fill in this missing information, you’ll never get the blasted manuscript done. And if you’re a perfectionist you’ll be thinking “I just need to research one more thing…”

    And you can also fall into the trap of being too in love with your research, making your story clunky with your “hey reader, see what cool stuff I know?” attitude that bleeds onto the page.

    While as writers we mainly worry about someone calling us on a historical detail we didn’t get right, I think it’s wise to remember that there ARE going to be some readers who, within reason, aren’t going to care if some detail isn’t just right & can forgive reasonable ommissions or errors.

    One of my current worries, whether a fair one or not, is “creative” non-fiction. I always worry just exactly WHAT aspects they are being creative with. That each witness to an event or place has their own angle has long been a problem (we are all biased in some way), but you have to diligently screen for such problems.

    Frankly, I don’t think I would enjoy writing without research. Writing is about having adventures. And since adventure is doing things that aren’t part of my daily life (please, God) it requires knowing the unknown, or that which I don’t know well. So I require research like I require oxygen.

  14. P.S.–regarding “One problem: Hollywood did not become a popular movie location until around 1910, and certainly wasn’t hopping until the teens.”

    Thanks for this. The silent film tidbit of info comes in handy for some something I’m researching!

    • Ha! Well there you go, BK. Another reason to be reading TKZ!

      Good luck with the research. One reason I set my historical series in early 1900s Los Angeles was that I saw that period and locale unused in historical fiction, yet it it endlessly fascinating, e.g., moving from “Old West” to urban, from horses to autos, from small city to big city, etc.

  15. I teach writing students about what I call the dollar of trust. Each reader gives you a dollar of trust. Every time you break that trust with anything from a grammar error to a glaringly wrong craft error to a real-world fact error, they take away some of that dollar. When there’s no more money left, they toss your book and never buy another one. The problem is that you don’t know what will irk that reader enough to toss money back at you. One minor error can cost you that dollar so it’s stupid to say, “Readers don’t care if I do this.” Some do so get everything as right as you can. Plus, an error pulls the reader out of your book’s world which is another bad problem.

    I feel your pain about the telephone. An agent sent me a rejection letter which was a long screed about an error in the opening scene about an exploding boat in GUARDIAN ANGEL. My facts were WRONG! My facts were RIGHT, and my brother had a boat explode on him for that reason, minus the bomb. The good news is I escaped an idiot for an agent, and I sold my book on my own.

    • Good analogy, that “dollar of trust.” A little error could cost you a nickel, but a big one the whole dollar. Maybe if you make a big deposit of entertainment value you can buy a little more trust. Sort of like a pawn shop.

  16. I guessed I’m blessed in that I love research but the story calls me home before I can get lost in it.

    Thanks for the clip vs. magazine tip, which was strangely relevant to a pistol-range scene I just wrote, involving Beretta Model 70 pistols, no less. The scene is too placid, so I’ll stir it up a little with the terminology argument. No minds will be changed but some smartass will end it by announcing that the correct name is “caricatore,” so everyone can shut the hell up. (I just now looked up an actual Beretta manual on the Internet.)

    At the moment I’m writing YA novels set when I was the same age as my young protagonists (the Seventies). This gives me a lot of things for free, especially gestalt and attitude.

    But I still need to do surprising amounts of research. While some stuff is easy to find on the Internet, such as the Top 40 hits and TV movie schedules for every week ever, I find myself turning to eBay for things like Sears catalogs and teen magazines, since using one that’s off by even a single season would be ridiculous.

  17. Another timely post that hits the spot.

    The research for my Sumerian historical series was a labor of love–coincident with your lifetime error about the 1993 Phillies, Jim. Total of 36 books, magazines and academic papers all in print. I wrote the book 20 years later using those materials, some of which are not to be found on the [gasp] internet anymore.

    Moving forward to my post-WWII story about a widowed expatriate American trophy wife, set in 1947 America, I’ve been bowled over by what a watershed year that was. Incredibly, every time I turn a new “leaf” of background research, 1947 is staring me in the face. I don’t know how Harry Truman got through it alive and sane (maybe the alive part). This “harmonic convergence” of world-shaking events is a treasure trove of factoids, but I’m forcing myself to put my lady into the subject scene and move on, careful of the mine fields.

    One advantage of my advanced age is having spent 1952-54 on the road with my musician parents and my sister, towing our 23-foot trailer home. Eleven western states, seven schools in my seventh-grade year, four in eighth grade. My protag is on the road only five years earlier–not that much change. I even found on Google Street Maps the very motel in Glendale, NV, (pop. 2) where we stopped in 120-degree heat for a two-hour air-cooled nap. It’s still there! With the original sign!

    Yes, the research is fun, but the writing is funner. It’s a struggle to balance, but well worth the effort of discovery. Thanks for the trip.

    • Interesting about 1947, Dan. I’m currently writing a hardboiled series for my Patreon members, about a Hollywood studio troubleshooter set in the late 40s. Just finished one set in 1947! That was also a watershed year for film noir…it really took off as its own genre, so I have my hero and his girl going to see Out of the Past at the Pantages, where it was playing….and where a murder happens!

  18. In the process of a couple of historical fiction projects. Two set in medieval periods in Europe and Asia during the Mongol periods and during the period of King Richard and Ivanhoe. Another is set in ancient Sumeria around the time of the Tower of Babel, and the final is set in the period before the flood between the death of Adam and the world-destroying flood.
    Talk about research! I am giving myself a few years to get these arranged and onto paper, but am hoping to come out with fully immersive stories that transport the readers back in time and space, at least for a little while.

    • Thanks for the reminder, Debbie. I love those old resources. I used to go to the library and look through physical back issues of Time and Newsweek and Life. Then discovered that vandals would slice out famous covers! May they get boils.

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  20. Hi Mr. Bell,
    I am writing a historical fiction novel set in 1958. My favorite part is doing the research.
    Last week I was writing a scene with two men on a trawler getting ready to set sail. One was the captain and the other a passenger with a piece of banana left in his beard. I know nothing about boats, but wondered what food is a bad omen on a boat.So,I googled it.
    BANANAS!!!!!!!!!!!

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