One of the things I’ve noticed in editing is that the biggest stumbling block many writers have is research. Particularly with pieces that are not about the modern era. The old adage of “write what you know” is actually a good idea, but in the context of writing about something you can expand “what you know” quite considerably.
I am currently working on a series of books that are going to be part corporate espionage, part fantasy, and part supernatural murder stories. When I started, I didn’t know very much about the world of crime and punishment but I bought some books about that (I’ll list some of them at the bottom of this entry) that have been amazingly helpful in many ways.
The places I’ve noticed most writers tend to have trouble in accuracy with (in my experience) are:
1) Injuries and Medicine
Most people that write aren’t ER surgeons. And that’s just fine! However, if you’re going to be writing about injuries that your characters sustain, it’s always best to know what the effects of the wounds are and the mortality of them. Personally, whenever I’m writing about an injury or a disease, my first stop is Google. Punch in the wound or sickness that your character has unwittingly contracted and you’ll swiftly get a long list of medical websites that detail the effects, as well as sometimes side effects.
Barring that, I also bought a book entitled “Body Trauma” on Amazon. It was written by David W. Page, MD, FACS and it’s a fantastic resource for writers. It gives information not only on injuries and complications but also the processes of treatment that happen in an ER or hospital. It’s not a large book but it is very dense and is a fantastic reference.
However, if you don’t want to pay the $10 on Amazon, webmd.com is a perfectly viable alternative. I mention this because I have gotten many submissions and read others that have such glaring issues as someone with a torn aorta living, without treatment, for over 30 minutes without medical treatment before the ambulance was even called. Most victims that have such a drastic injury don’t make it to the ER (and by most, I mean 90%). The writer had this character awake and talking the entire time when he would have almost immediately been unconscious due to shock and on top of all of that, he lived just fine after the adventure.
Those kind of errors will make anyone that knows anything about medicine grind their teeth, and it immediately removes the credibility of the writer. One of the most important parts of writing is keeping a story believable and this stretches the boundaries of “believable” until they look like taffy.
2. Police Procedure
While most of us have caught an episode of CSI: Miami on occasion, or even watch NCIS with the rabid devotion of a fangirl (I’m guilty), or even sometimes sneak in a few episodes of Castle… most people don’t know much about the criminal justice system. This is a double edged sword. While it’s a good thing that people don’t know all the details (which makes a writer’s job easier), we still have the burden of being more reliable than the writers of CSI. Many writers omit steps and procedures that are very important in a police investigation, or the operation of crime scene investigation.
While naturally one doesn’t need to include the exhaustive steps involved in an investigation, writers should at least be passingly familiar with the process so that they can choose what to simplify, omit, or modify to suit their stories. While it’s not necessary for us to put every minute detail in (readers would get bored, because let’s face it… it’s boring), we should know what goes on so that we can write about it intelligently.
3. Historical Settings
Many times, I have read books that are historical fiction (or fantasy) that appear to have been written by people that have never opened a history book. While many people make the argument “It’s fiction!”, and that’s true, fiction should retain elements of the real world and as a result ought to be believable. Now, granted, I have a B.A. in history, so I am one of the worst critics of this kind of thing. However, with that in mind, if you are going to be writing a novel series set in (or set in a world that is similar to) Medieval Europe, you should have at least a passing familiarity with the setting. That means understanding the class structure, the influence of the Church (the Catholic Church) on the mindset and world (even if yours isn’t particularly religious), and the historical events that were taking place around the time you are writing in.
Much like the police investigation, you don’t need to add all of these details, however knowing them gives you deeper insight into the setting and will allow you to create a more believable and acceptable world for your characters to interact in. Also, it will create a more logical place for your characters because if you have a knight that is ronin (yes, I specifically used an entirely inapplicable status for Western knights) then you have a big problem.
While none of us really liked taking Geography in school, if you’re going to be writing about real places it is a very good idea to take a look at a map. For the series I am writing (it’s about Boston), I have a 3×4 foot map of the city on my wall covered in black marker and pushpins. You don’t have to go through lengths like that with every bit of setting, however it is advisable that you at least know where, geographically, the locations are and basic information about them. If you are writing about Boston, for example, and it’s winter and you don’t have it be icy and cold, chances are you’re making a mistake.
Google Maps has been of great assistance to me, personally. I often use the street view to stroll around streets of cities that I would never want to walk, myself. It’s a very good way to get a look at the specific location you’re commenting on and while it is no substitute for going there in person, it definitely is somewhat safer.
Book of Poisons, Serita Stevens (RN, BSN, MA, LNC), and Anne Bannon, Writer’s Digest Books
Police Procedure & Investigation, Lee Lofland, Writer’s Digest Books
Forensics, D.P. Lyle, M.D., Writer’s Digest Books
Scene of the Crime, Anne Wingate, Ph.D., Writer’s Digest Books
Modus Operandi, Mauro V. Corvasce, Joseph R. Paglino, Writer’s Digest Books
Body Trauma, David. W. Page, MD, FACS, Behler Publications
- Wonderful blog post on the evils of vanity publishers – more connecting with the slimy underbelly of publishing (dorothyanneb.com)