By John Gilstrap
Google is nice and convenient and all, but I miss the multi-volume encyclopedias of my youth. I used to take a volume down and read it like a book–okay, it was a book, but work with me here. So many fascinating facts to learn, people to meet and places to visit, all from the comfort of the living room.
But that was different than what’s required to research a book. When you’re telling a story that is outside the real world of what you already know, you’ve got to find the way to inject the verisimilitude necessary to make the story resonate for the reader.
HEADS UP: At the end of this post, I’m going to ask the members of my TKZ family to help out. I know we have folks here who write about topics that are completely alien to me. In the comments, please share the sources and websites that help you with the details of the worlds you create.
Consider faking it–making stuff up.
Research and writing are two different tasks, though for research junkies they can feel very much the same. In reality, especially if you’re on a deadline, unnecessary research is an advanced form of procrastination. As you approach the opening to the rabbit hole, ask yourself this question: Does this part need to be real?
Many of my books are set in and around the areas where I grew up, in the suburbs of Washington, DC–Fairfax County, Virginia, to be exact. Given the nature of the stories, though, where local politicians are corrupt and incompetent, I decided to create Braddock County, Virginia, which, if you know the area and pay close attention, you’ll recognize to be parts of not only Fairfax County, but also of Prince William and Fauquier Counties.
Think of the burden I’ve lifted from my shoulders. If I wrote about the Fairfax County Police (as opposed to the Braddock County Police), I’d need to know their command structure, the weaponry they use, their shift schedules and the details of their uniforms. The Braddock County cops wear whatever I tell them to put on.
Remember, that you’re writing fiction. By definition, it’s okay to make stuff up if it doesn’t ruin the story.
Wikipedia and YouTube
Your novel is not a doctoral dissertation. The sources you use to write your fiction don’t need to stand up to academic scrutiny. Keep it as simple as possible. For the subject matter I write about–weaponry, military tactics, machinery operation, etc.–Wikipedia and YouTube do for me everything that needs to be done. Almost.
Develop your stable of experts
Nearly everyone is an expert at something. As a Type A extrovert, when I meet someone, I chat them up and get to know what they do. If their life’s work is in an area relevant to what I write, we exchange business cards. When I’m back to my desk, I send them a brief email telling them how much I enjoyed our conversation and promising/warning that I will be giving them a call if I ever need assistance in research. No one has ever said no. Not ever.
My virtual Rolodex is filled with the names and contact information for people I’ll probably never speak to again, but they’re there if I need them.
It’s hard to replace real exposure
“Hey, Loo, just got a call from EOC. They’re detailing the wagon and crew to Twenty-Seven.”
Translation: “Excuse me, Lieutenant. Just got a call from the Emergency Operations Center and their sending the pumper and its crew to Fire Station Twenty-Seven.”
Every group, like every geographic region, develops a patois that is unique to them. The only way I know of to actually learn those speech patterns and traditions is to immerse yourself in that world. How do you do that?
You make a phone call and ask. Whether it’s the police station, the local hospital or an Air Force base, there’s someone on staff whose job it is to give you a tour and answer your questions. While you’re there, you trade business cards with as many subject matter experts as you can find.
Write around what you don’t know
Jonathan Grave has access to vast amounts of intelligence data that is collected by his right-hand-gal, Venice Alexander. Venice is a master computer hacker, with cyber skills that rival any expert in the world. Like Jonathan, I don’t understand how she does what she does, but she’s able to take an order from her boss and return vast amounts of information. And she does it all off the page, presumably between the chapter breaks.
I’m not a technology guy. As such, I know that the deeper I research the topic and present my research on the page, the greater chance that I’m going to get a very important something wrong. So, I write around the holes in my knowledge.
Okay, your turn
It’s a big world out there, and we’re all chasing different research rabbits down different holes. Please share your tricks and sources and websites for the topics near and dear to you. Consider them to be virtual business cards to help other writers find the information they’re looking for.
I use Britannica for general research. Wankerpedia has deliberate holes in their entries in certain subjects, and I use them very little. For example, all record of the Virginia colony’s experiment with Communism has been stricken from that entry.
When writing my WWII thriller, I relied on memoirs of certain people close to Hitler–secretaries, drivers, bodyguards, friends, and appointees, all to be taken with a bag of salt. I also found several websites with reliable information, including jewishvirtuallibrary.org, jewishmag.com. Allied memoirs and histories are a mixed bag; some are totally unreliable, with obvious bias.
I called my ex-OSS vet friend, David Kenney, for information on General Donovan, the OSS, and cryptography.
I moved Kehlsteinhaus (the Eagle’s Nest) from Obersalzberg to Bludenz, Austria, and used that for Hitler and Jung’s meeting place. It’s within easy driving distance of Zurich, and Bludenz is reminiscent of Bluten, to bleed, in German. A location on Jung’s escape route was Schattenburg, containing the German word for Shadow, a part of the Unconscious mind. There was also a radio dead spot around Bludenz; very handy.
You create dead spots, and my characters use batteries that never die. 🙂
Thanks for mentioning the good old encyclopedia, Brother Gilstrap.For some subjects, my grandfather’s Encyclopedia Britannica set (he was one of their top salesmen) still rules.
There is a real skill to writing around what you don’t know. Screenwriters used to call this “skating fast on thin ice.” I have fun with it.
My practice has been, when I need to write details of something I’m not sure of, to do some quick research, make my best guess, then run the scene by an expert.
YouTube is great for local color.
There’s a lot of chatter about AI now. But beware. Some of the stuff it comes back with is flat wrong.
Remember those acetate overlays for the human body? Those were fascinating.
I have an OED (w. microscope) and two editions of Britannica.
I posted the following in ChatGPT: Do you have any available articles discussing the use of language to describe colors in early Byzantine texts?
Wow! It gave me a list of titles complete with authors and publications AND synopses of the articles. They all sounded great!
Turns out, they’re all imaginary. The titles were supposedly authored by real experts in the Byz field and in real publications, names I recognized, but the articles/titles do not exist.
Someone should write them because they sure would make me happy.
Then I thought – I’ll try the Bing AI – it’s supposed to be connected to the internet.
It gave me one article, sounded good, provided a JSTOR link – that took me to a different article. I searched JSTOR directly with the supposed article name – no such thing.
I knew this was a thing. I just didn’t expect ALL of it to be fake. I guess that’s because my interests are obscure. AI has to save face and make stuff up, “hallucinating”. So much for AI saving me research time. Back to Academia.edu for me.
I tested ChatGPT by enquiring about myself. They got the fact that I’m an author correct, but nothing else is even close–including where I got my degrees and where I live. I’d have given them a bye if they’d said I lived in Virginia, but they had me in Maryland.
I did the same. ChatGPT had never heard of me. (Harumph!!!) Nothing. And yet, if I Google myself, I pop up because I have four old WordPress sites and other affiliations that come up. With an unusual name, I’m pretty easy to find. But not yet on Chat. (I think I’m OK with that. LOL!)
It’s a little appreciated fact that our supercomputers are an extrapolation of the old Roman counting tables. Every seller at every marketplace had in front of him/her a six-column table that sped up the arithmetic for transactions. Here’s what they looked like:
| D | C | L | X | V | I |
Soon, our AI-equipped supercomputers will have a voice of their own! Pay no attention to the sum of those characters.
I have a retired homicide detective who’s my go-to for cop stuff. Fortunately for me, he enjoys thinking like a cop again. There’s also a great resource called crimescenewriters2. It’s an io group, populated by experienced people in law enforcement, medical, and legal professions who are always happy to help.
Like you, I try to avoid “real” places because things have to be right. The hardest book for me was the one I wrote set in my home town of Orlando (because I was tired of bugging my sister-in-law for details about Oregon where my Pine Hills series is set). For my covert ops series, I blatantly make stuff up. Their intel department works much like your Venice. They have all the ‘toys.’
I asked a former CIA guy (self-proclaimed spook) if something was possible, and he said, “Don’t worry about it. If they don’t have it now, they will in six months.”
I do strive for plausibility in my books, if not total accuracy. The hardest part is knowing what you don’t know … like the time I gave a Toyota Highlander a manual transmission. A sharp eyed critique partner caught that before publication. Right now, I realized my current wip is set in Mid-October, so having a character planting shrubs in the yard wasn’t going to cut it.
Terry, you can plant in the fall–best time for trees and spring bulbs. https://www.bhg.com/gardening/yard/garden-care/what-to-plant-in-the-fall/
Spring bulbs? As in flowering plants? Not up here. I live at 9100 feet; my characters are more like 6000, but pretty flower gardens aren’t the norm. I did look up the specific plant I wanted to use, and it said spring.
I love research as much as writing but it takes a lot of time. I definitely need to learn the art of writing a work-around. And writing a historical mystery series brings up the question of real place verses a made-up one. In the first book, I wanted to use a historic hotel in my real Arizona town. But then I got to thinking–what if 2 books down the road I want a character to die there? So I decided to give up using a real hotel.
If someone needs to locate historic info on Arizona, visit the Arizona Memory Project at https://azmemory.azlibrary.gov/ They have digital newspaper archives (which help give a feel of the time period), city directories (which people also use for genealogy research), map collections, etc.
If anyone has done early 1900’s research on state of law enforcement/forensics (circa WWI era) I hope you can share some links.
Google Earth. Great for how an area looks from the air (distant and close) and good for details of a specific neighborhood. I’ve used it for general and specific setting references in exotic locations all over the globe. If my protagonist is in the jungle and crossing a stream, the stream exists. If about to cross an urban street to enter a building, he can describe the façade of the building.
I’ve planned entire escape routes using Google Earth. But more times than not, I still change the names of the cities and towns.
Yup, city, town and street names are all my own. I do that a lot with stories based in Mexico and have a ball with it. Well, and one town (so far) set in the French Riviera, a minuscule airport that exists there also (and the café across the street from it), and a special place in Morocco.
For that particular story I had to research (all of five minutes) which particular small but posh aircraft with the range to carry the people and their equipment the distance they had to fly to succeed at their mission. That was in one of my Blackwell Ops novels, either 3 (Marie Arceneaux) or 4 (Melanie Sloan) I think. Might also have been 5 (Georgette Tilden). Great fun.
I’ve had to use Google Earth for many of my locations since they are out of bounds for the modern casual traveler. I was amazed to find that you can see car tracks in the deserts of Syria. Strange times we live in.
I’ve used it a few times for virtual vacations too. 🙂
This is subject is near and dear to my history major and retired librarian heart. Like you, John, I mourn the passing of reference books. My library cozy mystery series is set in the 1980s. I started at the library in 1987, just two years after my heroine Meg begins her career at the fictional Fir Grove library. Even though I lived the 1980s as a twenty something, and worked in libraries back then, I needed to research both, but, as you note with a light hand.
Fashions—I found both kids books on fashions of the 1980s and the Sears Catalog for the mid 1980s. Hairstyles-websites are useful, but you have to be careful of modern terminology being applied. For instance, what we call a “mullet” was called a “bi-level” in the 1980s, the modern term was coined in the 1990s. For crimes, police procedure and criminal behavior I lucked out—the old Writer’s Digest Howdunit series was published in the early 1990s. There is also a large Facebook group of former police and writers where you can ask questions about procedure. Several helped with wellness checks in the 1980s. A big shout out to libraries—newspaper and magazine databases can provide both historical and current information.
All that said, I agree with you about keeping it basic. I am writing cozy mysteries, and I needed to be careful about not ladling in too much library jargon.
My novel TIME TO RUN is set in the late 1990s, as is SOFT TARGETS, a prequel to the Grave series. Near term history is more frightening to research than long ago times because of technology. Was it the era of the Star Tack flip phone, or was the Razor all the rage? Who were the heart throbs of the era? Things like that change from year to year, and I get in trouble because I lived in those times, and I think I remember more than I really do.
Totally missed that prequel, John! Downloaded just now…
Thanks for bringing all these tips together, John. Here’s one I mentioned to you when you were researching insulin.
PDR.net is a site with detailed information on Rx meds. It contains the information in the drug “bible” that docs use, and is available for the general public to use.
Great tip, Steve! Many was the time I helped a library patron use the massive PDR tome. A website is so convenient for we writers 🙂
And you were very helpful!
Good post, John. I’m also a Google/YouTube kinda guy, but I love diving into the stacks of my local university libraries. Some real research finds in there.
And I have a different take on AI/ChatGPT: I’m finding it valuable for generating ideas and avenues to explore. For example, I asked it what elastic material would still exist in a post-apocalyptic world after a devastating asteroid strike. After it generated the usual suspects (within seconds), I said: “Please dig deeper. Xxxxx” And it actually replied: “I apologize for the incomplete response,” and then went into much more detail, all of which was quickly followed up on with Google/YouTube. So AI can be useful.
I also miss the encyclopedias of my youth, John. Looking up something in one of those volumes would take me on a tour of other subjects just by flipping the pages. As far as I can tell, I can’t flip pages on Google.
All of the towns and universities in my books are fictional. I see a huge advantage in not having to ensure every detail is correct.
If I can’t find something I’m looking for online, I’ll seek out an expert. I’ve consulted with the local police and fire departments on procedures. (I learned a few surprising things there.) Also, I have friends who know infinitely more about firearms than I do, and they correct my mistakes in the early drafts. Good friends who are physicians give me guidance on all things medical (Thank you, Steve Hooley!)
The fictional place is a life saver. I have just finished Elaine Viets’ “Dead of Night” set in Chateau County, MO a fictional county similar to parts of St. Louis County. It is fun trying to figure out the real places that go with the fictional ones.
Google Maps is a good source as well. It can prevent you from having a car crash at Maple and 5th street when they never meet.
Disclosure time. I have provided Elaine with the answers to various computer questions for her books. Over the years I have answered some of her other questions as well. “Dead of Night” includes a story from my oldest child’s college. They really do have a professor buried on campus. Students really do enter a raffle to sleep in the tomb.
Great post, John! And thanks, everyone, for adding to it. (I’m enjoying your Jonathan Grave series . . . can hardly put them down.)
The Braddock County cops wear whatever I tell them to put on. Oh, the fun of making stuff up. 🙂
In my two novels, the regional settings are where I grew up, but not the specific locales. It works.
I like Wikipedia for the basics of stuff I need to know. Particularly the history of stuff. I’m always fascinated by where stuff comes from, such as idiomatic phrases, like bury the hatchet. And history was my favorite subject in school. The other day I bought Tosca Lee’s newest novel, The Long March Home. It’s about the Bataan Death March. I’m doing a bit of research before I start reading because I know very little about the specifics about what happened.
There’s a show we stream sometimes that shows how random things are made, like aluminum foil and toothpicks. Fascinating.
So now I just need to come up with a story about foil and toothpicks . . .
Just ask ChatGPT to write you a story about aluminum and toothpicks!
Thanks for the kind words on the Grave series. 😀
Sometimes I enjoy searching for pictures. If I’m just trying to get ideas or have silly questions, I will perform a Google search, then select the image function. Looking at a visual will help get me going, which focuses my thoughts. Sometimes I can narrow my attention, or pinpoint questions I need answered, or even create scenes for my WIP. Like they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
In FINAL TARGET, Jonathan and his team find themselves saddled with the liberated residents of an orphanage. With that large a cast of characters, I searched for faces of Mexican children and I cast them as the different orphans. Each was quirky and different, and the pix helped be keep them sorted in my mind as I wrote the story.
Great topic, John.
My best tip: surround yourself with smart people. Someone usually knows someone who can refer you to the expert you need. People rarely say no and are almost always gracious about sharing their knowledge.
I always iInclude their names in the acknowledgement page and give them a signed copy to say thank you.
I love historical societies, esp. diaries and old newspapers from the era. Pay attention to the ads–they tell you when products/fashions/automobiles were available. Dale mentioned Sears catalogues, a huge wealth of info. Did you know, in the early1900s, you could buy a Sear kit to build a house? Or buy a refrigerator that ran on natural gas?
For a small subscription fee, Saturday Evening Post has archives of the magazine back to 1821.
I do write-arounds, esp. for tech info that most readers would skip over anyway and real experts would bust me if I misstated something. Then I run those passages by experts to be sure they’re plausible.
For my latest book, Deep Fake Double Down, I made up an entire county (Blue Rock, Montana) and a fictional private prison run by corrupt characters. In Flight to Forever I made up a mountain within the real Bob Marshall Wilderness. Readers ask me where is Foys Junction, a fictional ‘burb with a conveniently crooked police department b/c I don’t want to malign real departments.
You tapped me once for a motor vehicle accident scene, and I really enjoyed being part of that process. That got my professional brain working, then in turn, what I did for you helped a section in my WIP. Collaborations are gold.
And your radio interview for DEEP FAKE DOUBLE DOWN was fantastic. Here’s a link for those who want to watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SB46v763Ylk&ab_channel=WRNRTV
John, I really appreciated that opportunity! Some stuff we discussed six weeks ago has already been superseded or morphed into different forms.
Please say howdy to Rob and the Admiral. You guys make it look easy!
Ouch, John, that one hit home. So many times I go to just “look something up” either on the web or ::gasp:: in an actual book, and the next time I look up two hours have passed. I have a few people in different fields I ask questions of, and in return answer a few (I wore a badge and talked on a radio for a lot of years) but I’m all about making up locations so I’m in charge. I still have to deal with the reality of surrounding areas, but in my little world, it’s all mine.
BTW, just finished my latest Digger Grave read last night. Late. And I have to say that besides the cast of regulars I love, you manage to make me really like the secondary characters who get sucked into the story. And, a much more difficult task, make me sometimes hate secondary characters. I wanted somebody dead in the last one I read, and wanted to slap somebody silly in this one. I actually yelled at my poor Kindle. Now THAT’S good writing!!
Late to the dance as usual. I’ve just gotten a copy of “Creating Short Fiction” by Damon Knight and on the subject of research he says to find out what you need to know to write the story but no more.
He goes on, more often the one piece of information you need to write the story is missing from the literature and you then need to find a subject matter expert, but do the library research first so you can ask the right questions.
Knight’s craft book has been a real eye opener. Highly recommended, it’s on the top of my stack.
I thought I was the only one besides Craig Johnson who made up a fictional rural county as a backdrop or stage for my stories and characters, but I was wrong about that. I should get out more.
It’s kind of fun sticking stuff in as you need it to move the story along.
It is interesting when you independently come to the same place as the rest of your fellows have been doing right along.
It’s validating in a way but a caution to keep an open mind.