Research

Once you have figured out your original idea, before you race off and start your story, the next step is to do research. I try to keep my mind open when I'm doing research for all sorts of possibilities for my story. In fact, before you start writing the first word of your novel, I think you should go through the creative process outlined in the rest of the chapters in this section and make sure you know what you want to do before you trap yourself.

There are two types of research: primary and secondary. Both are important. Primary research is related to specifics of the story you are going to tell. Secondary goes on all the time and should be second nature to a writer (pun intended). You should be observing things about you all the time. You should also be well read. Many times your ideas come out of research in the first place.

I had a demolition's man on my Special Forces team and whenever we went anywhere he was always looking at things around him and figuring out how he would blow them up. Every dam we passed, power line, bridge, etc. he was estimating how many charges and where he would place them. As a writer you should be always thinking like that— how you would write things you see, describe people you observe.

Several times in this book I say that the number one thing a writer must do is write. I would say the number two thing is read. Read for information and read for style. Read for format. Every book you read, you should be taking it apart as I describe in the next chapter.

You should also watch as many films as possible. Although the medium is different, the dramatic concept is basically the same.

In many cases, research helps you construct the story after you have your initial idea. Research is not just looking outward for information, it is also looking inward. You have to develop your storyline, your locales, and your characters. Also question why people are acting the way they are. What do they think their motivation is and what is really their motivation?

You can never have enough information. Even while writing I look for more information about the topic I am writing about. All my books have started from the original idea and then the story developed out of the research I did on that idea and related areas.

One question people ask is how factual their stories should be? Where is the line between realistically portraying something and making things up? That's a difficult question to answer. My science fiction books are only science fiction in that I give a different explanation for things that actually exist. It is a fact that there are large statues on Easter Island. The fiction in my book Area 51 comes in when I give my own explanation for why those statues were made.

If you are writing a mystery you can't be too far off base with your police procedural information. I think many people are lulled by the inaccuracies portrayed in movies. Books have to be more accurate for several reasons; one is that the average reader is more on the ball than the average movie goer; second, you can slide something by in a couple of seconds of film but remember the reader can linger over and reread a paragraph again and again. A reader can also turn back from page 320 to check page 45 where you mentioned the same thing and compare the two.

In chapter 2 I mentioned many of the things you use for research. Another place that is growing in popularity is the Internet. I don't have too much experience on the "net" but I have found it to be useful in gathering information.

Another strength of the Internet is networking. There is every possible organization out there with a web site. There are numerous writers' organizations and writers' resources groups. I even taught a writing class on the Internet. While the pay was excellent, I haven't done it again because it's the only time I've taught that I felt the students didn't get their money's worth. I found it very difficult to coordinate with students, to look at material sent as part of e-mails or attachments, have meaningful dialogue, etc. I'm sure there are some good Internet writing courses, but it just didn't work for me.

The Internet is a useful way to get in contact with other writers and even agents and editors. I maintain a web site of my own through which people can e-mail me.

Be warned though: you should spend the majority of the time on your computer writing, not surfing.

If you look in the front of many books, you will find a list of acknowledgments where the author thanks those who helped with the book. For a mystery this might include a police department, the forensics department, the coroner, etc. etc. This is primary research and can be very useful.

One problem I have found though in talking to experts about their particular field is they are usually more concerned with "getting it right" than telling a story. As a novelist, telling a story is your priority. You have to listen carefully to the expert and shift through the mounds of information they are shoveling your way and pick the nuggets of gold that you can use to make your story sparkle.

My recommendation if you have to write about something you are unfamiliar with, is to "cheat". Find another fiction book that writes about the same subject and see how that author did it.

In fact, that's one of the reasons you need to read a lot and watch a lot of film—to add to your toolkit of techniques and information. Every now and then I read or see something that really strikes me as being different and I file it away in my mind. You have to do the same thing when researching material for your book.

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