Fiction writers are sleight of hand masters. We create stories about people who do not really exist doing things that never happened in places that may or may not be real, all the while painting word pictures in readers’ heads. Sometimes with our eyes closed.
One question that comes up frequently when interacting with readers is some variation of “How do you do your research?” Depending on the audience, I have a lengthy, nuanced response that deals with building an extensive contacts list of people who not only know stuff, but will return my phone calls. That’s all true, but in reality, I don’t turn to the experts all that often.
For the most part, I cheat. I make stuff up. I can’t count the number of scenes that have played out inside the suburban house I grew up in. My wife grew up in a creepier house than I did, so that one has been featured many times, too. In Total Mayhem, Gail Bonneville and Venice Alexander break into the fictional Northern Neck Academy, which looks very, very much like the swanky private school where I worked during my college summers as a counselor at a day camp for overprivileged rich kids.
By knowing in my head what a place looks like–because I’ve been there and can report from memory to the page–making the settings real for the reader is a matter of reporting what I see in the pictures in my memory banks.
My research for Six Minutes to Freedom took me to the jungles and barrios of Panama, so every time a jungle appears in a book, those are the jungles I see. I have been in the West Wing of the White House exactly one time and even managed a peek at the Oval Office, so I know the feel of the place. (NOTE: Besides the Oval itself, the West Wing looks nothing like the version shown in the television show bearing its name.)
Google Earth is a gift to writers.
My book Final Target features a lengthy escape sequence where Jonathan Grave needs to get his team and a busload of orphans to an exfiltration point on the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula while pursued by cartel bad guys. In part because the cartel bad guys are very real and quite active in those parts, I had no desire and zero intention to visit the place.
So, I cheated. Google Earth offers a “street view” function that allowed me to “drive” Jonathan’s route to the exfil point. I don’t dwell on specific structures, but I did mention landmarks at different intersections, and I was able to see where and how the nature of the vegetation changes. I even pinpointed the big house where the final shootout happened.
Everything is research.
Back when I still had my Big Boy Job, my duties took me to Ottawa, where I fell in love with the city. (Actually, I’ve fallen in love with a lot of places in Canada.) In High Treason, bad guys spirit Jonathan’s precious cargo across the border into Canada, and I needed a location for the final conflict. I remembered from my visit that islands in the middle of the Ottawa River, very near the government buildings. Those would suit my purposes perfectly. But those islands don’t have the kind of structures I needed.
So, I cheated. I remembered from an earlier vacation trip to Ireland that we visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and that would be perfect. I changed its name and planted it on that island in the Ottawa River. Then I blew a lot of it up. I did get a few letters from readers who felt it necessary to tell me that there is, in fact, no prison on those islands, but not as many as I had feared.
It’s okay not to be real.
Writers are inherently inquisitive people, I think, and our passion to do research too often takes us down rabbit holes where countless hours are wasted. I work to deadlines, so I often don’t have that luxury. I have to remind myself that fiction is merely the impression of reality. I don’t have to be able to do all of the things that my characters can do. All I have to do is convince the reader that the characters are able to do the stuff they do.
It’s all a part of going on the great pretend.
How about you, TKZ family? Any research shortcuts you want to share?