Research: All Good Writers Do It

This last weekend Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby premiered in American theaters.  I haven’t had a chance to get to the theater to see it, but I will probably do that soon.  School is winding down and soon I will have the summer to write, do editing projects, and spend time with my family doing “summer stuff”.

In an article in The Telegraph, the co-writer of the screenplay for Gatsby, Craig Pierce, details his history with Luhrmann and how he and the director went about writing the screen play for the film.  Many years ago there was a small screen adaptation of Fitzgerald’s famous novel that I have used in my classroom to illustrate certain scenes and have students determine how close they were to the novel.  I believe that the current 2013 offering will probably be closer than ever to the novel because Pierce and Luhrmann did very careful research into the novel, the “Jazz Age” and Fitzgerald’s notes.  The article goes into explicit detail about how they researched for the writing of the screenplay.

Research is extremely important in writing anything substantial.  Even if you are writing a completely fictitious story set in a completely fictitious place, it is important to make sure that things seem real enough for a reader so that they do not run away screaming from illogical and sometimes otherworldly nonsense that our stories can become.  Here are some tips:

1.  Interview Experts – Do you live near a college?  If you do, then most professors will have office hours and you don’t have to pay them to get their expert opinion about something (most times a cup of coffee will do).  If you tell them that you are doing research for a book, they usually oblige if you give them credit in the dedication.  I have consulted experts for understanding about Middle Eastern politics, the effects of a superbug, world economics, algae blooms, global warming, and a number of other things.  I asked an Army Ranger Captain what would be the protocol for running out of fuel on a battlefield. I asked a police officer what would happen if the city he patrolled suddenly lost all power with no hope of restoration.  If you don’t ask, you will never know, and it always helps to use that information well so that your books will take on a more realistic feel.

2.  Bad Science – One thing that irks scientists is reading a science fiction novel and finding bad science.  If you are writing about something pertaining to – say – quantum physics (as loosely discussed in my current WIP) it would help to get information and discuss scenarios with a quantum physicist in order to at least make your science seem plausible.  You don’t have to use all the jargon, but it helps to give your story that much more of a boost scientifically if you write science fiction.  It’s like James Kirk climbing in rank from an Ensign to a Captain in one movie.  Ya canna change the laws o’ physics!

3.  Hit the Books – I never really use the local town library for anything other than finding a quiet place to write.  If I’m going to do research about a WIP, I go to my local university library.  The University of Oklahoma library for example has over 3 million books available and also will give me a guest log-in so that I can use their databases and card catalogue.  I can’t check out any books, but I can use their handy dandy USB scanner and take PDF pictures of pages of material that I can use later.  They have maps, charts, history, and literally millions of tools that any good writer would love to use.

One note about researching is that I will usually have a germ of a story when I set about researching or at least an outline.  I cannot say how many times I have been researching and the things I discover produce even more ideas and plot points to add to the novel.  Researching is probably one of the most important steps to any novel.

So get to the library or local university and get cracking!

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

3 thoughts on “Research: All Good Writers Do It

  1. There’s nothing worse than finding lack of fact checking after 30 seconds of searching on google. Like discovering that Philly uses an ME office and someone lists a coroner in her book. I hate when people can’t even bother to google something, let alone consult a professional.

  2. Great post. Research is so important. Incorrect information kicks a reader out of the story sometimes enough that they can’t enjoy the book and even leave bad reviews.

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