Basics of writingStory Details

Research, research, research!

From Scott:

When it comes to opening a business, I’ve heard it said that the key to success is “location, location, location.” A similar axiom can be applied to writing a novel, but the catch phrase is “research, research, research.” Remember that every aspect of your work is put together in an attempt to immerse the readers into the world you have put so much effort into creating. Rick and I have written many blogs about the various mistakes writers make that will pull a reader out of the story, a detriment to their enjoyment of your book and possibly a damper on future sales. One sure fire way to pull a reader out of a story is with a lack of research.

Most people who read your work will not take the time to email you directly. Whether they liked the novel or not, most readers will do no more than leave you a review, good or bad. But when you get facts wrong on a topic that a reader takes to heart, you can expect to get some less-than-friendly fan mail. In addition to a negative review!

In this blog entry, I’m going to present you with several examples of a complete lack of research. Some of these come from books, some from movies, and some even come from real life. I present them here, not just to drive the point home about research, but also to point out the fact that just because something appears in a published novel doesn’t mean the writer researched it, and therefore you should not automatically assume the writer was correct.

Keep in mind that this mainly applies to novels that are set in the “real” world. If your novel is fantasy or science fiction, you may have a small amount of leeway on the way the laws of physics work because you are establishing your own set of rules. For instance, Einstein’s work showed us that no object can exceed the speed of light. However, faster-than-light travel is a common science fiction theme.

Likewise, we know magic isn’t real, but fantasy novels can play free with those rules. At the same time, certain tangible aspects of life shouldn’t be ignored. In one fantasy novel I read, the author mentioned that in a heavy fog, a fire will light up the whole sky for miles. It made me wonder if the writer had ever seen fog before. He made it sound as if the obscuring aspects of a bank of fog would actually make light brighter. Pulled me right out of the story.

Let’s look at some examples. The movie Twister had a scene where two of the characters took shelter from an approaching tornado by hiding beneath a bridge. This mirrored something that was done in real life, when a news crew and a family took shelter from a tornado beneath an interstate overpass near El Dorado, Kansas. In both the movie and the real life example, the tactic worked. However, the writers of the movie should have done some research into what happens to the winds of a tornado focused in the tight confines beneath a bridge. The tornadic winds in that confined space are magnified, creating a more dangerous situation under the “shelter” than if a person was lying in a ditch out in the open. I’ve heard this referred to as the “Venturi Effect,” although in its true state the Venturi Effect refers to liquids, not air/wind. If your character escapes a tornado by hiding beneath a bridge, expect to receive angry letters from meteorologists.

Electricity is another commonly misunderstood concept. To fully comprehend the ins and outs of electricity, you are best off spending hours in research. Tasers, stun guns powered by electricity, are so frequently misused in fiction that I find myself wanting to pull my hair out. I’ve read books where a Taser will knock someone out for hours. A little research would go a long way here.

A Taser can be used two different ways. If the cartridge at the front is removed, the Taser can be used as a “pain compliance device.” It won’t incapacitate, and it won’t cause injury… but it will hurt like hell when placed in direct contact with a person’s body. When the cartridge is in place, it fires two needle-like probes attached to the Taser by wires. The probes penetrate clothing and skin to become attached to the target. The Taser sends 50,000 volts of electricity along the wires and through the target’s body. The electricity disrupts neural signals and causes the muscles to “lock up.” If the target is standing, he’ll fall over. Either way, for the five seconds that the charge is active, the target is unable to move.

But here is where fiction writers get it wrong. If you touch the person being Tased, the only way you will get shocked is if you touch him between the probes. Electricity flows to the point of least resistance. If the probes are in his back, and you grab his arms, you won’t get shocked. And once the electricity stops flowing, the muscle disruption ends immediately. The target is back in the fight. Of course, due to the amount of pain involved, most people have the sense to not get up and keep fighting. But if they are dumb enough to try, they are able. I’ve seen both of these Taser aspects violated by best-selling authors. Please don’t join that crowd!

Playing with electricity in novels takes a lot of research to get it right. You need to understand the concepts of voltage, amperage, resistance, grounding, and capacitors. When you’re talking about electrocuting a character, remember that the amps, or “current,” is the critical factor, not the voltage. If you compare electricity to a river, think of voltage as the amount of water flowing past a point at any given time. But think of the amperage as the speed of the flow of water. Where the river is wide and deep, the water flows slowly, so the current is low. But if you make the waterway narrow and shallow (meaning you have increased the “resistance”), the current of the water increases. The same goes for electricity.

Another aspect of electricity and the possibility of electrocution is whether or not the target is electrically grounded. It can make the difference between death by electrocution, and not even feeling the effects of the electricity as it passes through your body.

Here is a simple and harmless (although not painless) experiment to demonstrate the concept. During the winter, with the dry air, static electricity is higher. Quite frequently, when you exit your car, you receive a nasty electrical shock when you try to close the door. So here is the experiment. After you’ve driven the car around and parked, open the door. Release the door and put a foot on the ground. Then grab the door… and get shocked. Next time you get out, reverse it. Get a firm grip on the metal of the door before your foot touches the ground. No shock! Electricity can be tricky, so research carefully.

Firearms are another greatly misunderstood concept in fiction. The more specific the writer gets with regard to the type, brand, and caliber of firearm, the more carefully the topic must be researched in order to avoid negative fan mail. This topic is especially volatile. People who love their guns will point out your errors in a heartbeat. So take your time, do the research, and make sure you get it right.

If you don’t own a gun, and have never fired a gun, take a few hours and go to a local gun range. Most armorers would love to show you some of the ins and outs of the various guns. You should also spend a little time at the range shooting a variety of weapons. Most ranges will let you rent their weapons for that very purpose. You need to understand the wide variety of weapons and how they work.

Pistols come in three main varieties. One extremely rare category, commonly called the “Derringer,” holds only one or two bullets. The weapon is breach-loaded, meaning that it is hinged in the middle. The gun is flexed open at the hinge point, the expended rounds are removed, and new rounds are added. It’s a very simple, easy to use gun, but has the severe drawback of a low volume of fire.

The revolver typically holds either six or eight bullets in a cylindrical object called, oddly enough, the cylinder. Each time the trigger is pulled, the cylinder rotates, and the hammer strikes the primer of the bullet in the next slot. Different brands of revolvers open in different ways, but the generic explanation is that the shooter pulls a release pin, which allows the cylinder to swing free of the body of the revolver. The expended rounds are removed, and live ones are inserted. Some shooters use “speed loaders,” which are designed for each specific revolver and hold the requisite number of bullets in a circular formation. The speed loader can be pressed into the exposed cylinder, loading all of the bullets at once.

The most popular pistol today, both in fiction and in the world of law enforcement, is the semiautomatic pistol. Unfortunately, it’s also the weapon with the most misused terminology. A “clip” is not the device that feeds bullets into the weapon. That device is called a “magazine.” A clip is a thin metal strip that holds a group of bullets together, in a line, in order to quickly load them into a magazine using a tool called a “speed loader.” This is a glaring example of how many people, even best-selling authors, think they know enough about a topic to write without researching first. I cringe every time I see the terms “clip” and “magazine” interchanged, and I’m not even a gun aficionado. You can imagine how serious gun enthusiasts would feel.

One last thing about firearms. Writers and movie producers alike tend to abuse the tool known as the suppressor. The common name for it, of course, is “silencer.” The silencer has become a cheap trick for lazy writing. Need a character to shoot someone but have no one else hear the shot? Throw in a silencer. Much like the switchblade knife, the suppressor became so maligned in books and movies that the general public developed an irrational fear of them, until the legislature made them illegal. The truth of the matter is that nothing will completely silence the report of a firearm. Even the mechanical workings of a suppressed pistol, without actually firing a round, are louder than what is portrayed in movies with a suppressor in place. There is still a significant noise when a suppressed weapon is fired. It just happens to be much quieter than if the suppressor isn’t used.

Here’s a prime example from our daily lives that shows we don’t know all that we think we know: music. We think we know the lyrics to our favorite songs, and most of us sing along (when we’re alone, anyway). However, if you take the time to look up the lyrics to those songs, you’ll find that in many cases you’ve been singing the wrong words—maybe for decades, if you’re a fan of the 80’s like me.

In fact, a quick Google search of most frequently misunderstood lyrics will turn up dozens of very popular songs, whose fans have mumbled their way to incorrect sing-a-longs for quite some time. As someone who intends to sing in a band at some point in the near future, it’s crucial that I look up the words to every song I intend to sing. Otherwise, some snippy fan will accost me during a break and accuse me (rightfully so) of butchering the lyrics to one of their favorite songs. Research!

One last example before we go, and this one involves one of my early works: Martyr’s Inferno. The main characters, Jim and Krista, needed to break through a computer network firewall of a business. In writing the book, I assumed that there would be a hacking tool out there just like the one I invented in my mind: they stuck a USB drive into a computer on the network, and they were able to bypass network security. No research done on the topic. I simply assumed that either it was true, or no one would know that it wasn’t true.

Flash forward to the present. I have moved from crime scene investigations to computer crimes. A few weeks ago, I received an introductory course on network intrusion cases. As it turns out, I got lucky. You really can get past a firewall with a hacking tool installed on a USB drive. It doesn’t normally happen the way it did in my book, but it can be done. I was lucky.

[RICK’S NOTE: We’ve talked our blog about the importance of wording and word placement and of things like misplaced modifiers and parallelism. Kellee Kranendonk pointed out a couple of weeks ago how placing “only” and “just” can change a sentence’s meaning. I will therefore assume that when Scott said he moved from crime scene investigations to computer crimes, he meant that he had gone to investigating computer crimes, not to committing computer crimes. I did not change his wording so I could demonstrate how easy it is to make these little slips. I’ve done it as well, and invariably someone catches me on it.]

Please, don’t count on luck to get you through. Sooner or later, your luck will run out. As you’ve seen from this very brief set of examples, a lot of what you think you know may very well be wrong. Unless you are absolutely certain of something, look it up. Googling a topic just takes a minute. Messing it up in your novel lasts forever.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.